It was a bit of an anticlimax. Eustoriyax was a mere puddle of oily ichor on the floor; the Sword of Valor was in the hands of an Iomedean paladin; above, the ground rumbled with the reverberation of unknown battle, but below a strange and somewhat unsettling quiet settled over a group that had not known quiet for some time.
Farina and Otto came down from the wall, black crystal in hand. “Give it to me,” said Bardos. Farina tossed it over with a shrug, and Bardos secreted it in his pack.
“What next?” asked Fletcher. “We ought to get topside and check on how the Kenebrans are faring.” He gestured at Bardos’ web, covering the green slime pit. The web, organic material that it was, now hung slackly and dripped with slow but eagerly moving slime. “I don’t know that we need to get into another fight. And… we have a rat we need to pick up.”
Illendar nodded. “We need to get word to Geir and the army that we’re not dead,” he agreed.
“And we have to go back and get the body of the dwarf,” added Lothar with a grim smile.
Bardos, an odd sort of half-grim on his face, began backing away toward the northerly statue. He looked at Farina and Farina.
“Good luck to you,” said Bardos. Then he vanished.
There was a long collective moment of silence as everyone tried to wrap their heads around what had happened, then Farina gave voice to what everyone was thinking: “Fuck!”
“Something’s wrong,” Farina continued. “The blue glow that characterized Bardos’ eyes? It wasn’t there when he disappeared. And we just gave him the gem.”
Illendar’s own eyes widened. “I know Bardos better than anyone,” Illendar said quietly. “Bardos’ magic was very different from the kind of magic that my people use. That blue glow to his eyes? I have never know him without it.”
“That gem, that might have been the power source for the demon,” Farina added. “Giving him the gem may have been a mistake.”
Illendar whirled to face the people near the door. “How did the demon die?” he asked.
Fletcher was the first to speak. “He just sort of… fell over.”
“That demon had something to do with Bardos’ disappearing,” said Illendar, piecing the clues together. “Farina: does Otto smell anything in here? My recall is that Bardos can cast Invisibility, but he has not the magical skill to cast Teleport yet.”
Farina directed Otto with a short whistle, and the angular cat moved into the room, it’s muzzle testing the air and it’s breath chuffing out in short bursts. A few moments later, Otto turned to Farina and waggled his head a bit, as if trying to shake off an insect. “He senses nothing.” Farina said simply. Illendar’s Detect Magic revealed nothing of note, either. Fletcher examined the nearby ground for tracks – all still hoped for some clue as to where the errant mage had gotten off to. Farina joined Fletcher, and while the ground was mostly occluded by their own tracks, Bardos’ tracks were apparent. They went to the point where he’d spoken, and then stopped. No tracks left that spot.
“He’s gone. We thought the gem was connected to the demon,” Farina repeated. “Bardos asked for it right after the demon died. We thought nothing of it! But it looks like he had an ulterior motive.”
“Could it have been some sort of phylactery?” asked Fflasheart. “The gem, I mean.”
“I don’t think it was a phylactery – the creature, though indubitably demonic, did not give off any indication that it was a lich.”
“Or any other sort of undead,” agreed Lothar. “Phylacteries are only associated with extremely powerful undead. Farina – are you certain that Bardos is not still in this room?”
The elven woman reached down and ruffled the neck of her panther. “One hundred percent certain, yes.”
“Then we should make all haste to get out of this room, past the slime, attend to our other tasks, and then consider what ways we might get Bardos back. Plus, we have no idea what is happening on the surface, and we have urgent tasks there.” Lothar looked thoughtful. “Once we attain the surface, and have a moment of safety, I can send Siggy to fetch Bardos’ companion, Baru. Perhaps the little creature will have some insight as to where his master has gone.”
“And I will send Storm to Geir to let them know we have the banner,” said Illendar.
The journey back through the bowels of the Citadel was a refresher course in unpleasant memories. Back winding though the various rooms, blood still fresh on the floor, reminded everyone there of the hard-fought battles and vicious opposition they’d overcome to retrieve the banner. Now, the corridors echoed with silence, a silence both of the dead still lying on the stained floors and of the scores before them who’d suffered at the hands of the Worldwound’s demonic invaders.
Once back above ground, the bodies of the Vhanes remained undisturbed, and they bore the bodies out towards the main corridors of the Citadel. Beyond the security door, the sound of hushed voices gave them pause. But upon seeing the speakers, swords and bows lowered.
“You’re… you’re the invaders!” said one of the quartet of what were recognizable as deserters. “C’mon, let’s get out of here,” said one, perhaps the leader, to the rest.
“Stop for a moment,” said Illendar, the silky malevolence of his upbringing coming to the fore. “If you provide us with some information, you have my word that you’ll leave with your lives.”
“Tell them nothing – they’re the enemy!” said one of the tieflings. But the leader, a human with a florid mustache, shook his head.
“It doesn’t matter now,” he said finally. “What do you want to know?”
“What’s the status of the army outside?” said Illendar, capitalizing on the desperation of the deserters.
“I don’t know much, but they are beset,” Florid Mustache said. “The crusaders, who had been ensconced on paradise Hill, broke through our pickets and attacked the Citadel at dawn.”
“They did what?” said Fflasheart. “Those idiots were supposed to stay put.”
“A lot of the Templars have already left,” continued Florid Mustache. “Those Baphometian bastards! They didn’t know what the hell they were doing anyway. They left, and then something happened a couple hours ago, and all of the demons just took off. They all just teleported away. That’s when the crusaders attacked, once the demons were gone. It’s been a slaughter outside since then. There’s nothing left. There’s nothing left!”
Illendar frowned. “I’ve heard enough.” Florid Mustache nodded and led his band of deserters out the northward door.
South, however, led to the main entrance of the citadel, and the FUP began moving that way. The sounds of battle were louder that way, and if they planned to bring the still-untapped powers of Sword of Valor to bear. They encountered no one until they came to a set of double doors, beyond which they heard furtive whispers. Fflasheart kicked the door open and Storm slithered in, spotting five archers, behind a barricaded door, obviously scared and ready to explode.
The archers whirled, eyes wide, and they all began yelling at once. “Down on the ground!” Put your weapons down!” “Who are you??” “Back away now!” “Drop your weapons or we’ll shoot!” “Surrender!”
Fflasheart stepped calmly, Radiance in his hand, the Sword of Valor across his forearm and shoulder. “Staunton Vhane is dead. The castle has fallen.” He paused. “Throw down your weapons, and you’ll leave with your lives.”
The archers wavered, until one, the leader perhaps, bellowed: “Are you men considering this? Aponivicius will be back and when she does, your treachery will be punished! Who’s side are you on? I’ll kill all of them myself if I have to! You would capitulate to these… these invaders? You woul-”
An arrow point came thrusting out of the man’s open mouth, frozen comically for a few long moments before he fell forward with a thump.
“I hope you meant what you said,” the shooter said, laying down his bow and quiver. Fflasheart sheathed Radiance.
“You can pass behind us to the north,” Fflasheart said. “Others have passed that way. What of the defenders outside? What’s the best way out of the castle?”
“I don’t know that I’d want to go out of the castle,” the man said. “The dretches and the tiefs are getting butchered outside, by those bastards from Paradise Hill. Kenebrans!” He eyes Flasheart warily, his eyes moving behind him to take in the group as a whole. “I suppose you’re with them.”
“We are,” said Illendar. “Some of your fellow soldiers are ahead of you. Perhaps you should join them.”
The men nodded, and wove their way passed the group, all sense of arrogance gone from their eyes.
The sounds of battle were louder beyond the door that the archers were guarding, and at the far end the pale light of the Worldwound sun illuminated the first several feet of the hall. Cries of anger and screams of pain jostled for attention outside the empty doorway. But closer, the sounds of tieflings, speaking Abyssal, caught the group’s attention.
Gato’s ears perked up as he glided forward. He nudged Fflasheart, then pointed. “Behind those doors, both to left and to right. Probably firing balconies, obviously still manned.”
Gato, Farina and Storm headed to the left, while Fflasheart and Fletcher headed off to the right, all on cat’s feet. Up the small stairs, Gato was proved correct – on each side, a balcony containing a ballista and two crewman lay, blasting bolt after bolt into the unseen fighting below.
The FUP made short, ugly work of these men, and looked out upon the chaos below. In the bailey, small groups of crusaders formed wedges and plunged into clusters of tieflings, cutting them down like chaff. Smoke added a acidic tang to the air, and the screams of the dying rang counterpoint to the sounds of the crusader’s “‘oorah!” as they charged and slashed.
They watched from the battlements for a few minutes, and the Kenebrans comtinued to make short work of the remaining tieflings and loose dretches. Soon, the familar form of Geir Windal emerged from the dust and smoke, bloodied sword in one hand, helmet in the other. Sweat had pasted his hair to his neck, and he looked like he needed a long drink.
Come to think of it, Geir always looked like he needed a long drink. Ulfen crusaders nearly always did.
“Lord Fflasheart,” he said. “Lothar, Illendar, Miss Farina. Fletcher.” Geir nodded at each in turn. “I am glad to see you. I had nearly counted you casualties.”
“We could not wait any longer,” Geir said, anticipating Fflasheart’s next words. “I am prepared to debrief you on the activities of the crusaders.”
“Staunton Vhane is dead. The banner is recovered,” said Fflasheart. “The remaining defenders inside are in disarray. They are fleeing as we speak.”
And with that, the battle of Drezen was over.
The Sword of Valor, the historical banner of the Inheritor herself, has many powers, Fflashheart found.
He knew some from history, or at least thought he did, but it was only after Geir’s men had chased the last of the defenders from the citadel did Fflasheart have time to petition Iomedae and ask, as her servant, what powers the banner had.
A few hours later, a flag bearing Mendev’s sigil was once again over Citadel Drezen. Past that flag, strange under the sun, flew an owl. It had just caught some dinner, and was probably looking for a place to eat in peace, some observers thought. But it was not dinner that Siggy held in his mouth: it was Baru, Bardos’ rat and companion. Siggy landed on Lothar’s shoulder and deposited the unharmed (albeit excited) rodent into the Erastilian priest’s hands.
“Can you understand me, Baru? Is your master anywhere near here?”
“My master, I do sense him, but he is far away,” Baru squeaked. “Sensing the presence of my master is quite different from being able to communicate with him. I cannot communicate with him now, and I haven’t been able to do so for days. It’s difficult to explain, but I am still… in contact, with my master. He is alive, he is on this plane.”
“Which direction?” asked Lothar.
“To the south, and west,” said Baru. “I cannot tell the distance – it could be a mile, it could be a hundred.”
“We don’t know exactly what happened, but your master has changed, somehow,” Lothar explained to the creature. “We plan to go find him.”
“I would like to come with you!” said Baru.
Later, inside the Citadel, Fflasheart oversaw the installation of the Sword of Valor onto the wall of the main hall. Crusaders kneeled and prayed while others assisted placing the banner in its place of honor.
Once installed, the FUP gathered in front of it, Fflasheart foremost among them. He raised his face and hands to the banner, and spoke words of power:
“Iomedaeus! Custos evocant! Nos rogamus heredem! Iomedaeus!”
The banner glowed with a silver light, and moments later a creature stepped out from the banner to the floor. Fifteen feet tall, with striking green skin and two sets of feathers, it wore armor that seemed to sculpted from clear crystal and was, frankly, the most beautiful creature that Fflasheart had ever seen.
It smiled, radiating benevolence and warmth. “I have no name that your mouth could form. Call me Emissary,” it said with a voice like orchestral music and the sound of fireworks in the distance. “Servant of Iomedae, you have done a wondrous thing here. Iomedae knows your name, child, and know your deeds.”
“I have struggled mightily to preserve and free the banner, and you have succeeded where I have failed,” it continued. “I am in your debt. Ask the favors that I see etched on your mind – say them aloud, so that I may judge them and fulfill those that are worthy.”
“One of our fellows has gone missing, taken by a shadowdemon. We thought it vanquished, but it has taken him and we fear for him,” Fflasheart said.
“Your fear is justified,” Emissary said. “Your friend Bardos comes from a very different place than you. His birth and upbringing were strange and otherworldly. In many ways he belongs as much to the planes as I do. He is known to us, but his life is in danger. I cannot tell you where exactly he is, but I can tell you that he yet lives and *will* live for the foreseeable future. His soul will remain on this plane, for the future that I can see. The place where is is shielded from me – I cannot see in, nor could I see out – but he yet remains in the Worldwound, relatively close, within a score of leagues.”
“I can tell you one other thing – not about Bardos, but about the demon that took him,” continued Emissary. “Eustoriyax is his name, and he has been an unwilling denizen of this plane for many decades. His spirit no longer tarries on this plane. “
Fflasheart bowed low. “I beg of you another boon. Our friend, whom we rescued in an abandoned and defiled Iomedaen temple that we cleaned, has suffered an ailment of the mind.”
Emissary turned to look at Gato, then stepped away from the banner and cupped his head from behind. With the other, he drew out some sort of black ectoplasm from Gato’s head, drawing out a small swirling blackness shaped like Deskari, and crushing it in his hand. “It is resolved,” Emissary said.
“Thank you,” said Gato. He staggered slowly away, unsteady on his feet.
“I have one last boon to ask,” Fflasheart said.
The paladin gestured to Gato, who reached into his haversack and removed a bundle, wrapped in coarse cloth. “Don’t touch it,” he said to Fflasheart, who in turn handed it to Emissary.
“Ah, yes. This is a Nyahadrian crystal,” it said. “These are native to the Abyss – where did you find this?”
“In the body of a chimera,” Fflasheart said.
“I see,” Emissary said. “These crystals have a mutagenic property, typically the effect is mild but these… these have been distilled in some manner, to heighten the mutational effect. Creatures exposed to these, along with the appropriate spells, could gain mythic status. They might gain powers far beyond the limits of their normal abilities… or they might be destroyed in the process. This is very roughly distilled.”
Emissary crushed this as well, as Fflasheart and Gato looked on approvingly.
“What of this?” Behind them, Fletcher held up the spear they had taken from Staunton Vhane, which had protested so vociferously that it was not evil and only wanted to help.
“Yes – bring the chatty blade,” Fflasheart said.
Fletcher withdrew the glaive and handed it to Fflasheart, who stripped the wrappings from it. It’s voice screamed in Fflasheart’s mind.
“Put me back! Help meeee put me back, put me away, take me from the celestial’s eyessss!” It screamed incoherently, in fear and supplication.
“Your deceptions will not stand here,” said Emissary to teh glaive.
“No no no no no no no no no no…”
Emissary turned his gaze to Fflasheart. “Hand me the weapon.”
Fflasheart handed the glaive to Emissary, and the glaive screamed until it left the paladin’s hand. The planetar slowly, almost gently, snapped the stave, and dropped the two pieces onto the floor, where they seemed to burn with an invisible fire. Soon the glaive was nothing but a puddle of steaming liquid on the floor.
Fflasheart looked up at the creature: “Emissary, have you any wisdom to impart to me, Iomedae’s servant?”
“None,” it said. “You will follow the path that has been made for you. Nothing I can give you may alter it. Iomedae knows your name, child.”
“Iomedae knows all your names.” Emissary looked at everyone. “I would enjoy it if you would come back to me periodically to speak.”
And with that, Emissary stepped back, toward the banner, and he stood in front of it, its eyes fixed, with the silvery light of the banner seeking out and surrounding it.
The next day, watchers saw flying, reptilian creatures in the distance, but none transgressed the ten-mile no-fly-zone emanated by the Sword of Valor. Scouts returned with new of the Kenebran reinforcements, led by Irabet Tirablade,, coming up the Sellen River valley and relieving several garrisons along the way.
Tirablade and her forces arrived two days later, with 200 fighters and another 400 support staff, of all kinds. It was a reunion of sorts for the Kenebran crusaders, and many old comrades shared tales and ale. Irabet had come to work. however. One of her first orders of business was to award Geir Windal a battlefield commission, promoting him to commander of the First Kenebran Expeditionary Force, or KEF. Carpenters and masons began constructing the KEF’s barracks, right in the bailey of Citadel Drezen.
Irabet also announced that she had been named Warden of Drezen by Queen Galfrey, and would be staying on here at that post. Irabet’s wife, Anevia, had accompanied her and it was Anevia who oversaw the interrogation of the tiefling prisoners. Once they’d assured themselves that they wer not to be summarily executed, the tief’s talked:
There was some contention between the templars and the tieflings. The templars thought they were all that and were always talking about “strategems.” A bunch of jumped up spies, not soldiers, accd to the tiefs. Their HQ is relatively close, estimated less than a week’s ride, some say south, some say west.
A succubus who has abandoned her demonic roots and who may well know the location of the templar HQ. Her name was Arueshalae and she was a prisoner in the Citadel for weeks, as a heretic (although what constitutes heresy among the demons she’s not sure). She escaped and Staunton hired an annis hag cultist of Sifkesh to track her down as well, and that if this final attempt fails, he intends to seek out Arueshalae himself once “this matter with the so-called heroes of Kenabres is settled.” (Rova 8; it’s now Rova 28).
Staunton had some sort of “fail-safe” cooked up in case he was killed. He didn’t trust Aponivicius, but they don’t think it was the potion that his brother had made.
Aponivicius is down in the south commanding a fair amount of tiefs and templars on the Sarkora River northwest of Raliscrad. But she is well aware of Staunton’s failure