Having recruited Aquilos Nox, the adventurers regroup at the Common House to plan their next move. Determined to learn more about the creature that killed Ionas “Slim” Tils, Arlynn questions a rather rotund priest of Cayden Cailean. The half-drunk priest explains that the creature is known as a danse macabre and forms at the sites of terrible bloodshed, manifesting out of the psychic anguish. It is an embodiment of death itself and seeks to absorb the souls of other creatures—even other undead—into its eternal dance. The priest is impressed that they survived an encounter with it.
“Not all of us,” Arlynn says.
The priest warns that unless the bloodstained site it haunts is hallowed, the creature will return to unlife within a manner of days. This puts a wrinkle in the party’s plans, particularly since hallow takes 24 hours to cast. They decide to wait two days, with Zandu teleporting some of them over on the first day (after the first round of restoration spells are dispensed) and then bringing over the rest of the gang on the morning of the second day.
Kyra takes this opportunity to note that if she will be taking on Slim’s technical duties, she will need some upgraded equipment. Zandu says he’s been setting aside some money for that very purpose and provides her with 9,000gp, with the promise of more to come. The grateful halfling rushes off to make purchases, after briefly consulting with Remmy on one or two points.
After a restful night at the inn, Zandu takes Arlynn, Irabeth, Remmy, and Egan. The gnome druid sets to work laying the foundation’s for Slim’s tomb. Back in Kaer Maga, Laori briefly commandeers the Common House’s kitchens to do some baking. Nox lounges in the tavern, occasionally chatting with Kyra and listening to the local gossip.
On the second day, Zandu teleports the rest of the gang back to Scarwall bright and early in the morning. Before continuing on into the castle, the adventurers first hold a funeral ceremony for their departed companion.
After placing the rogue’s body in a sarcophagus, the adventurers rise to say their farewells. Nox slouches disinterestedly at the back of the group.
“Slim, you rugged bastard, you left us,” Egan says wistfully.
“From the moment he walked into the Sticky Mermaid, I knew he was trouble,” Arlynn says. “But he was a great contribution to the Crimson Blades—even though he killed Jolistina. He will be missed.”
When it comes time for Laori to speak, the elf maiden is just bawling and has to lean on the sarcophagus for support. Shadowcount Sial watches her with a sneer of disdain.
“Disgusting,” he says, as he and Asyra walk away from the ceremony.
“I taught him to shadow dance,” Laori says. “I told him ZK would protect him! I told it’d be all right! And then I couldn’t even help him when he needed it!”
Egan and Arlynn try to comfort her as best they can.
“We must take heart,” the paladin says, “for Slim has gone on to a better place.”
“But he’s not here with me,” Laori sobs. “Every friend I ever have always leaves me! They walk away, or they die or they grow old and then I’m all alone.”
She throws herself over the sarcophagus and clings to it like a life raft. “Waaah! Slim, why did you have to go?”
After Arlynn finally pries the elf loose from the stone casket and helps her away, Irabeth steps forward to say a few words.
“Were it not for Ionas Tils, I’d still be chained up like a dog underneath Ambassador Amprei’s mansion,” Irabeth says, giving Nox an icy look.
“And if it weren’t for him, I’d still have a sister,” Nox heckles.
“We did not always see eye to eye,” the half-orc continues, ignoring him, “but we stood side by side against the forces of evil. His life will be long-remembered and his loss leaves a hole that can never be filled. May he rest peacefully in the eternal reward he so rightfully earned.”
The junior paladin is followed by Kyra, who rolls over a big rock up to stand on top of.
“As the person here who’s known Slim the longest, aside from his mortal enemy over there, I’d like to say a few words,” the halfling says. She lays a hand atop the sarcophagus as she continues. “I’ve known a lot of big people in my time, but Slim was one of the few who truly had the heart of a halfling.”
Kyra backflips up on top of the stone tomb. “Always looking for trouble, he grabbed life by the horns and rode it like a zombie dragon. He was loyal to his friends, death to his enemies, and a royal pain to just about everybody.”
She hops back down beside the coffin and pats it gently. “I know he was carrying a lot of hurt around inside him and I hope he’s finally found the peace that eluded him in life. I’ll miss you, buddy. A lot.”
The final speaker is a teary-eyed but stoic-faced Remmy, clad in her Gray Maiden armor with Slim’s bloodstained black and red kapenia tied around her left arm.
“Ionas was my friend,” she says. “He believed in me when no one else would. He helped me through some . . . issues and was always there for me when I needed him.”
She turns her eye towards the sarcophagus as she continues. “He wasn’t born in Korvosa and he didn’t live there very long, but no truer son of our great city has ever trod the rich earth of Varisia. I will never forget him, or his sacrifice, and I’ll make sure no one else does, either.”
Turning back to the gathered adventurers, Remmy says “Slim was Varisian, of the Tils’rahanarz, and while none of his family is here to say farewell, Zellara and I felt it was right to send him off to his eternal rest the Varisian way.”
Zellara manifests beside Remmy and together the two of them perform a Varisian funerary dance in front of the stone coffin. The ghostly fortuneteller flows as if made of water, while Remmy shifts stiffly through the steps, hampered not merely by her armor but also lack of practice. As they dance, Zellara sings a traditional song.
“Climb to the palace, climb to a star.
Lie down to sleep for you know who you are.”
At the conclusion of the ceremony, Egan seals the tomb and then dispatches an animal messenger to seek out Slim’s cousin Vittora in Janderhoff and inform her of his passing.
The Thing in the Lake
Having laid their friend to rest, the Crimson Blades ready themselves to return to the castle in order to banish the danse macabre for good. Leery of attracting attention by flying overhead or marching back through the many darkened halls to the ballroom, Arlynn suggests instead that they sail across the lake on a swan boat.
After Ashla finds them a safe goat trail down the cliff face to the waterline, the senior paladin casts the feather token into the lake to summon forth the boat. Zandu doesn’t bother heading down with them, instead waiting for the boat to be summoned and then launching himself off the cliff to feather fall down onto the deck.
“Show off!” Kyra shouts at him as he drifts down. The halfling herself steps onto the boat gingerly and scrambles away from the sides to the center of the craft. She clings to Zandu’s leg with one hand, as if fearful that something would drag her into the lake.
Most of the adventurers pile onto the boat, while Egan wildshapes into a water elemental. The druid travels beneath the boat as it magically propels itself across the waters towards Scarwall. The sky is clear and a cool breeze undercuts the summer sun, but as ever silence hangs heavy in the air. They keep a close watch on the castle, wary of an attack from the skies. They spy some movement on the rooftops of the southern wing, causing Zandu to cast fly on Arlynn and Ashla.
So it is something of a surprise when a gargantuan tarn worm bursts out of the water in front of of the boat. Ashla flies out to fight it, but the creature snaps her up in its jaws and swallows her. Zandu hastes the party as Arlynn and Irabeth fly up to fight the worm. On the boat, Nox, Remmy, and Kyra let fly with arrows, while Laori calls down a flame strike on the creature. Water-Egan sloshes forward to pound it with two soaking fists.
Inside the beast’s gullet, Ashla spies a glowing gem lodged in in its flesh. Swirling within the gem, she realizes, is a trapped air elemental. After smashing the gem, she and the air elemental carve their way out of the creature’s flank and burst out above the water line. Water-Egan exploits this injury, his fists flowing in through the wound.
While Nox, Remmy, and Kyra continue to pelt the tarn worm with arrows, Zandu strides out to the front of the boat and throws his hands up to cast fear. The great worm recoils in terror, allowing Arlynn to press the attack. With four savage blows from her greatsword, she severs the monster’s head, which hits the water with a tremendous splash that drenches all involved.
Water-Egan takes this opportunity to flow through the creature’s innards, searching for any other treasures lodged within. He finds a few odd trinkets: a mosaic tile with a multicolored, glazed surface; a silver spoon with an M engraved on the handle; and a gemstone that looks like a lump of coal when examined by anyone else. Egan puzzles over this last find, but no one is able to provide much information beyond the fact that it must come from the elemental plane of earth.
With the tarn worm slain and Ashla fished out of the water, the adventurers continue sailing towards the spur of rock at the center of the lake on which Scarwall rests. From the air, Arlynn and Ashla spy what appears to be the submerged pillars of an ancient quay at the far western end of the complex, right near the ballroom.
After hauling the boat onto the pillars and disembarking, Ashla uncovers an ancient hidden path up the cliff to the castle, half crumbled from the passage of time. On their way up the winding trail, Arlynn discovers an ancient platinum coin bearing an unfamiliar face on one side and the same rampant eagle design as Ser Echolt Crommerand’s tower shield on the other.
Translating the inscription, Zandu explains that the coin was minted in the old Ustalavian County of Tamrivena during the 12th year of the reign of Count Andachi, 800 years ago. The sorcerer figures the coin could be worth twice as much to a collector.
After the path reaches the top of the cliff, it runs over to the side of the ballroom and stops dead. Ashla searches for a secret door until Kyra pushes her aside.
“Found it!” the halfling announces. After checking for traps, she gently pushes the door open. “After you, Miss Paladin.”
Arlynn steps into the chamber warily, which sits just as they left it, save the holes on the floor and the walls seem to have shrunk. Not spying an immediate threat, the Bekyar woman waves Irabeth and the clerics into the room to consult.
It is Laori who draws the best bead on the status of the danse macabre, warning that the creature’s presence is strengthening. The elf priestess says that it is be a close call whether Egan can complete the hallow ritual before the undead spirit is able to manifest again.
Zandu, however, expresses sublime confidence that Egan will see them through. The gnome druid gets out his incense censor and begins the arduous task of hallowing the blood-strained chamber. The rest of the adventurers gather in the center of the room, Scarwall’s grim sense of foreboding already sinking in.
“Anybody got a deck of cards?” Kyra asks.
Zandu magics some into being. “Not sure how long these will last, but they should work.”
“All right!” the halfling cheers. “Now, who’s up for some three dragon ante?”
“I’ve never been much for card games,” Arlynn says. She holds up a leather strap. “Who’s up for some sredna instead.”
“I’m in!” Irabeth volunteers enthusiastically.
“What the hell is sredna?” Nox asks.
“It’s a Shoanti game,” the half-orc explains. “A test of strength and endurance.”
The fighter watches the two paladins strap their heads together and crouch down on all fours to start the tug of war. Nox shakes his head and nods at Kyra. “Deal me in.”
After a half-hour struggle, Irabeth remains the party’s sredna champion, to her delight.
“Maybe we could pull one of those tables over here and play a game of knivesies,” Arlynn jokes, dusting herself off. “Without the gambling, of course.”
“Knivesies?” Laori perks up. “That sounds awesome! I know a knife game from Magnimar, but I keep missing!”
She lays her left hand splayed on the floor, whips out her sacrificial dagger, and in a flurry of steel drives the razor sharp point between each of her fingers. She frowns in consternation and holds up her unscathed hand. “See?”
“Perhaps cards aren’t such a bad idea after all,” Arlynn muses.
The hours pass and the games change from Three Dragon Ante to Towers to Egorian Hold ’Em. All the while, Egan continues o walk the room, swinging his censor and chanting in druidic. He is often shadowed by Ashla or Remmy, as both abstain from the merriment to maintain constant vigilance.
As afternoon becomes evening, Laori produces the project she was baking in Kaer Maga: special funerary cakes made of a deep rich chocolate, with grinning sugar skulls on top. The treats completely spoil their dinner, but no one complains.
“To Slim,” she says, raising a cake in a toast.
As evening turns to night, the adventurers debate whether they could risk sleeping within the castle. Their deliberations are interrupted by a shriek from the elf priestess. Laori is huddled on the floor, her hands clapped over her ears. She looks up at them with fear in her ebon eyes, her face pale as death.
“He’s back,” she says. “Tried to grab me with his chain again.”
“Mithrodar,” Arlynn grits.
“Why does he keep going after Laori?” Zandu demands. “Why not me—or Nox, somebody who’s never been here before?”
“Hey, pin that target to your own back, pal,” the mercenary says.
“The chain spirit has clearly found the weak link,” Sial sneers.
“Oh, fuck you, Sial!” Laori shouts back.
“There’s more going on here,” Zandu insists. “Arlynn? Irabeth? Any ideas.”
The two paladins share a look and then shrug in unison.
Arlynn urges the clerics to get some rest so that they can be fresh and restored the following morning. Sial and Laori lie down at opposite sides of the ballroom. While Asyra stands watch over her charge, Arlynn beds down near Laori so the elf would benefit from her aura.
“I’m not going to sleep in this haunted castle,” Zandu declares.
“Same here,” Nox agrees.
In the end, the rest of the party stays up all night either on watch or lounging around with a growing sense of unease. Even as Egan continues his rounds, a sense of menace seems to build up in the chamber. By the time Arlynn and the Kuthites wake in the following morning, the tension is palpable, as the room has cooled by several degrees despite the summer sunlight streaming through the rose-tinted skylight.
As the sun rises overhead, the shadows in the ballroom seem to lengthen. The adventurers gather around Egan in the center of the chamber, weapons ready, as the gnome’s chanting swells to a crescendo. When the druid utters the last phrase of the spell, a wave of green light flares out of him and sweeps across the room to sink into the stones. Caught in the flash, visible for only the barest moment, is the hooded reaper shape of the danse macabre, which vanishes under the pulse of light.
The ballroom seems to brighten immediately, the sense of menace completely banished. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief.
“Laori, why don’t you summon up a lunch for us,” Arlynn asks, rubbing her belly.
After casting restoration on herself to undo the damage of Mithrodar’s attack, the elf priestess conjures up another heroes’ feast, complete with man-sized shadow bunny attendants. The party digs in, feeling replenished, though the lack of sleep continues to weigh heavily on many of them.
Cold Steel, Burning Skull
Following their meal, the Crimson Blades march as a group up to the castle heights on the third floor. Given two sets of stairs going up, the adventurers choose to take the southernmost route first.
The creaking stairs lead into a long chamber has inward-slanting walls, like an attic. Many old barrels and boxes, broken and empty, are stacked at the base of the walls. The adventurers are not alone—a warrior in full plate, carrying battleaxe and shield, with a flaming skull for a head. With Ashla in the lead, the Crimson Blades charge forward.
The skeletal warrior retreats out one of the side doors in the alcove, stepping outside onto the balcony before any of the Crimson Blades can engage him. Nox pursues outside, careful to keep the warrior between him and the wall to avoid being bull rushed off the side. Remmy and Kyra follow a few paces behind, with the halfling taking cover in the shadows of the alcove. Arlynn joins the fighter out on the balcony, while Earth-Egan flows into the stone wall. The skeleton hacks at Nox with its axe, slicing through the mercenary’s armor to bloody him.
Inside, Ashla moves to join the impending melee, but is ambushed by a shadow. She fights back with her undead bane sword. Laori joins in with her spiked chain, which releases a burst of positive energy when it collides with the shade, while Zandu blasts it with magic missile from his position in the stairwell. Together, the three of them bring the shadow down in short order.
Out on the balcony, Nox, Arlynn and Remmy hem the skeletal warrior in and begin hammering him with blows. Earth-Egan takes a swing of his own, but the creature ducks its flaming head. The druid’s stony fist carries carries on over the wall’s edge, dragging the rest of Earth-Egan with it. He plunges down into the rocky ground below, landing with a sharp splat but largely unscathed.
On the rooftop, Kyra ducks out of the doorway to throw a dagger at the skeleton, but the blade glances off its gorget. The halfling mutters a curse and retreats back into the shadows. Nox, Arlynn, and Remmy renew their attack, beating through the warrior’s defenses. The skeleton responds by bull rushing Arlynn off the battlements, but as he drives the paladin backwards Nox cleaves his burning skull in two.
Arlynn and the skeleton tumble down to the ground below, with the paladin colliding with an enormous clank, followed by a second clank as the warrior’s remains land on top of her.
Inside, a second shadow emerges, lashing out at Zandu in the stairwell. Nox and Irabeth rush to his aid, while the cramped staircase makes it difficult for the rest of the party to assist. The shade sinks into the floor, lashing up at Nox and leeching the vitality from his limbs. Drained of strength, the mercenary clatters to the ground under the weight of his armor. Irabeth reached to help him, but thinks better of it and instead calls on her goddess to last the area with channel positive energy. Unfortunately, it is not enough to bring the spirit down.
Earth-Egan, having moved up the stonework back to the third floor, surges in to attack the creature as it lurks within the floor. The stair tiles beneath Nox rumble, while all the fighter can do it wait it out. Finally, Earth-Egan rises up from the floor, victorious.
The adventurers are soon joined by Arlynn, who spiderwalked up the side of the building with the skeleton’s gear stowed safely in her bag of holding. Laori restores Nox to health and the Crimson Blades regroup.
Determined to press on while they have daylight, the party has Earth-Egan to shape a path through the stone wall to the next section of the third floor.