The Citadel now firmly in the hands of the Kenebrans, the thoughts of the Fellowship of Unwilling Participants turned toward their missing comrade Bardos. Baru yet insisted his master was still alive, somewhere to the south and west.
When the templars left Citadel Drezen, they headed to the southwest.
According to the tiefling interrogatees, the templar headquarters was to the south and west.
South. And west.
Destiny seemed to be pointing it’s finger to the south and west, but there were things to take care of beforehand. Irabet Tirablade had already given Commander Windal orders – protect the supply lines. Already Geir was preparing his men. The 200 fresh crusaders were rebuilding the Citadel’s defenses, in case of counterattack. But it was a day of rest for the FUP, hot food and a bottle of wine. first of each in a while.
On Rova 25, Queen Galfrey’s emissary, Vallentin, arrived. Alone as usual, the aging elvish ranger seemed to simply appear, atop his lovely Qadiran horse. He greeted Irabet warmly, and asked for the opportunity too speak to everyone.
Around the immense conference table in Irabet’s suite were the collected administrative apparatus of the Citadel: Irabet herself, of course, and Anevia; Vallentin; the FUP; Geir Windal and his seniormost lieutenant; the captain of the citadel defense forces. All were curious to hear what message Vallentin had for the FUP.
“I bear a message from the Queen,” Vallentin said. “She can’t be here in person – she’s fighting on the southern front. But she sent this for you.”
He removed a scroll from a long, leather pouch:
‘To the Liberators of Drezen: Words cannot convey my gratitude for what you have done. I wish I could say that the worst is over, but as you must surely know the liberation of Drezen is but the first of many steps. You are poised to serve the Crusade in a way that no others among my forces can match. Use the Citadel as your base of operations, and explore the Wounded Lands to the south and west, seeking out anything else we can use against the Demonic hordes, and thwarting their efforts as you are able. Being on the front lines, you have likely already found some lines of investigation that could prove fruitful. My associate Vallentin is well versed on the region’s history and legends.
Word of your successes and Drezen’s liberation has already started to spread, and already I can see renewed hope in the faces of my soldiers. They fight with renewed hope. Our increased tenacity along the southern borders should keep the eye of Deskari turned away from you, affording you time to explore and engage in guerrilla operations behind enemy lines. Harry the enemy wherever you may find him; use tactics that are based on gathering intelligence, ambush, deception, sabotage, and espionage, undermining the Demonic through low-intensity confrontation. With your efforts, I am beginning to think that victory is something for which we can once again hope.
“Orders,” said Fflasheart. Across the table, the hint of a sneer crossed Gato’s face.
“What do you know of the templars, Vallentin?” asked Illendar. Bardos’ disappearance weighed heavily on the drow’s mind, and he was firmly of the opinion that the Baphometians either had Bardos, or knew where he was.
“I know a little,” Vallentin said. “The Templars of the Ivory Labyrinth joined the demonic forces of the Worldwound in 4660, soon after Deskari recruited the Templars’ lord, Baphomet, to the cause with promises of prime picks of Golarion to carve away and add to his Abyssal Realm once the war had been won. Experts in infiltration, the Templars were largely responsible for instigating the Kenabres witch burnings of 4665, but they had long before this become established in the region, working as mercenaries for Deskari’s generals or even as unaffiliated bounty hunters in the borderlands. “
Vellentin looked thoughtful. “In those early days, Templar efforts were orchestrated by none other than Baphomet’s own daughter, a half-fiend nephilim named Hepzamirah, but as the organization grew, she increasingly relied on assistance. Without question, her favorite and most loyal minion was a man named Xanthir Vang, an accomplished conjurer and influential member of another vile group, the Blackfire Adepts.”
“With Xanthir’s aid, and with the arcane support granted by Blackfire Adepts loyal to him, the fortunes of the Templars of the Ivory Labyrinth rose,” Vallentin continued. “By the time Deskari officially recruited the group and their unholy lord, Hepzamirah had already returned to the Abyss to serve her father in different ways, leaving Xanthir Vang in charge of the operation in the Worldwound. Xanthir was slain during the Third Crusade, during one of the few military operations carried out with aplomb and efficiency by the crusaders during that otherwise disastrous crusade. Xanthir (working with Areelu Vorlesh and Hepzamirah) was rumored to have been developing the method for refining Nahyndrian crystals to concentrate their potency.”
Guerrillas, then. The Marchlands of northern Sarkoris were rife with demons and their servants… but there were also some places where holdouts had staked their claim, people had persevered. A look at the regional maps that Irabet brought up from Kenebras showed some of these places, and Vallentin was able to add some intelligence to the names on the rough-hewn drawings.
Vallentin on Sesker’s Gully: “It’s a small ghost town sits on the northern bank of the Ahari riverbed. It was a crusader-founded town that was abandoned after the Second Crusade. Sesker’s Gully remains abandoned to this day.”
Regarding Delamere’s Tomb: “Before the Worldwound opened, a complex series of crypts and vaults sacred to a sub-cult of Erastil was hidden there. Today, a rift has destroyed much of the complex, leaving behind only a relatively small cavern through which flows a river of molten rock. The last keeper of that place was a Erastilian priest named Jesker Helton, who disappeared from contact several years ago. The building is a humble wooden chapel with a stone foundation, with perhaps two rooms, no more than that. ‘Delamere’ as the name of an old Sarkorian priestess of Erastil.”
Vallentin excused himself at this point, asking Irabet something quietly, and he left the room, only returning about 30 minutes later. “I’ve found it!” the old elf said triumphantly. In his hand was a small, weather-beaten book. “I had hoped there might be a copy here. This book is called The Stag King’s Bride. It’s an account of a priestess of Erastil, the Delamere we spoke of earlier, who taught that cities were among the greatest blights humanity had ever conceived, and that any settlement of more than 53 citizens was inherently evil. According to Delamere’s bizarre and nigh-incomprehensible teachings, the fifty-fourth person in any settlement has an unusually high chance to be a traitor to a family, based in part on the theory that a family of five lies at the center of six families of five— grandparents, cousins, and nieces and nephews. The fiftyfourth person, therefore, would be outside of the family, and thus a danger. Delamere’s teachings were controversial, of course, but in the smaller towns of northeastern Sarkoris they gained enough popularity that when she died, she was buried in a sizable tomb. Since that time, the families of those who follow her teachings were each assured a place in the large tomb as well. According to the final pages of the book…” (Vallentin showed them the passage), “… the tomb itself was located in a place of geothermal activity called the Weeping Hills, some 24 miles south of Drezen. And look here:”
Written on one of the endpages was the following: “Delamere has the right of it—Drezen is too big for its own good. A trip to her tomb to search for more of her teachings may be in order.”
“That could be Helton’s writing,” Vallentin observed. “He was known to have at least passed through Drezen, although how he managed to elude capture is beyond me.”
Vellentin on Wintersun: “Many Sarkorians fled their homeland when the Worldwound opened, abandoning their lands to save their lives. Marhevok Grunhuld-Wintersun is the descendant of Corag Grunhuld-Wintersun, a clanliege who initially made the choice to stay behind and resist the first wave of demons. This wave was eventually driven back by the First Crusade, and Corag’s family commended him for his bravery. When the Second Crusade failed to do the same against the larger, more organized attack, the Grunhuld-Wintersuns finally had to flee into Mendev.”
Vellentin leaned back, thumbing a measure of pipeweed into a long clay pipe and lighting it with a candle. “But when they did so, they brought with them an unwanted and unexpected presence. For in staying stubbornly behind at first, old Corag Grunhuld-Wintersun allowed the exposure of demonic energies to infect his family, and ever since, children born to the clan have suffered. In the least unfortunate circumstances, a babe might be born with a vestigial tail or a deformed foot, while in the worst what was born was a snapping, hissing demonic monstrosity distraught mothers were always quick to put down.”
Vallentin shook his head grimly. “Marhevok Grunhuld-Wintersun, Corag’s great-greatgrandson, did not escape his family’s curse, although when he was first born it seemed that he had. It wasn’t until he helped defend his family from a demonic attack that the sinister nature of his Abyssal influence manifested itself. Marhevok had followed in his parents footsteps, becoming a barbarian upon coming of age, and his barbaric rage and power saved his family from destruction at the hands of a pack of babaus. After being gravely injured in that fight, Marhevok thereafter found that whenever he entered a rage, his body twisted and deformed into that of a fiendish brute. The touch of a demon’s claw was all that was needed to unlock his inner demonic nature, and as his power grew, so did madness. His three brothers once tried to remove him from power; when he slaughtered them, the rest of his clan fell meekly into line. Marhevok soon realized Mendev was no longer a home for him, and led his frightened but cowed family west, back into the Worldwound, to reclaim their ancestral home. This was not so long ago – perhaps four months have passed since Marhevok re-entered the Marchlands.”
Vallentin had given the FUP much to think about.
Dawn slashed the sky on Rova 27, and Irabet’s scouts began coming in: the dwarves had arrived on the Drezeni plateau. By midmorning watchers could hear the low sussurus of their armored boots – 500 heavily armored dwarves out of the Iron Hills, on the northeastern edge of the Five Kings Mountains. By noon, a dust-cloud was clearly visible and, by mid-afternoon, General Harlakar was at the gates of Citadel Drezen.
It was a formidable host, the largest army that most of the crusaders in Drezen had ever seen in one place. And what’s more, it was an impressive army – half a thousand dwarven heavy infantry, helms flashing in the sun, all bearing axes, long poignards, and round metal shields. They had no beasts of burden, so the dwarves had tethered themselves to their wagons, in groups of six, bearing their own supplies with typical dwarven stoicism. They stood silent in the cooling afternoon, waiting to see the reception they’d receive.
Harlakar himself, along with several of his captains, crossed the Ahari Bridge and met Irabet, Anevia, Vallentin, Windal and a cadre of Drezen Defense Force (DDF). There was a long – almost too long – silence, then Harlakar said:
“Irabet. It is good to see that you are still alive.”
Irabet smiled. “Likewise, Harlakar. It’s been too long.”
Harlakar’s face creased in an enormous smile. “HA! C’mere you green-skinned beauty!” He crossed the several feet to her and engulfed her in a bonecracking embrace. Irabet at first looked shocked, but then smiled herself and returned the bearhug.
A cheer rang out among both the dwarves and the crusaders on the walls. Harlakar shook hands vigorously with Vallentin and Geir, then presented himself to the FUP. His captains clustered around him, and an air of formality returned.
“It is to you that I – we – owe a debt of gratitude,” Harlakar said. “This Citadel is of dwarven make, did you know that? This is a dwarven fortress… held by demons and tiefling for over 70 years. You…” the General’s gaze panned to take in the entire company. “You have brought it back to us, and for that favor, we are forever in your debt.”
Harlakar embraced Fflasheart, then Lothar. He hesitated for a moment, then shook hands with Illendar, albeit cautiously. Harlakar’s warmth returned when he took Fletcher’s hand, and he noisily kissed Farina’s hand twice.
“We should talk inside,” Harlakar said, his eyes narrowing.
“So,” Harlakar said, once everyone had repaired to the now-familiar conference room. “You lot have a gift for me, yes?”
“Yes,” said Fflasheart.
“Excellent! I have been looking forward to bringing that bastard Vhane to justice.”
The FUP looked sheepish. “What?” asked Harlakar “Bring him, so that I may look upon his traitorous face.”
“That may be a problem,” Fletcher said.
Harlakar raised one eyebrow.
“I.. uh, I may have… well,” said Fletcher.
“I killed him.” Fletcher said simply. “I didn’t mean to. Just happened.”
“I asked for ONE THING!” Harlakar bellowed.
“Sir,” said a dwarf that hadn’t spoken before. “If I may…” He whispered a few things in Harlakar’s ear. The General’s eyes eyebrows raised curiously, and then he waved off his captain and address the table.
“You lads don’t have the bastard’s armor, do you?”
And then it was Fflasheart’s turn to look sheepish, for he was, at the time, wearing it, spikes and all.
Fflasheart stripped of the armor, and the dwarves wrapped it around Vhane’s crushed body. It took hours, but eventually, Vhane’s corpse sat up, gasping for air. He was dragged roughly to his feet and hauled outside, where everyone, especially the dwarven infantry, could get a long, cold look at him. Once outside, dwarves jeered, threw rotten food, and spat at the traitorous Vhane. Vhane, for his part, said nothing, and eventually he found himself surrounded by dwarves, with Harlakar in front. The General waved and the dwarves fell silent.
“You, Staunton Vhane, are charged with murder, treachery, desertion, perfidy, espionage, heresy, blackguardery, being a colossal shit, and many other crimes too numerous to mention here. Your own journal serves as a confession and catalog of your deeds! How do you respond to these charges?”
Vhane was silent, glaring at the dwarves, defiant. ventually he spoke: “I deny nothing – I did it all! and I invoke the challenge.”
The crowd howled. “ACCEPTED!” crowed Harlakar. “Unchain and arm him!”
Someone handed Vhane a battleaxe and the fight began. It was a hard struggle; Vhane knew he was fighting for his life, such as it was, and Harlakar had the great weight of history and honor to resolve.
“Our justice system is very different from yours,” said one of Harlakar’s captains to the FUP. “My name is Ohm, and I have fought with the General for many years.” Ohm gestured at the battle taking place. “We do not care here about determining guilt or innocence – Vhane’s perfidy has well known and well documented, even without the benefit of his journal. This…” Ohm gestured again toward the single combat taking place. “This is about honor.”
The battle went back and forth, to cheers and howls, but finally Harlakar knocked the axe from Vhane’s hand and pummeled him to the floor. A second strike, to the chest, made it clear to all that Vhane was out of the fight.
Harlakar stood over him, looking into the face of the traitor. Vhane coughed out a great gout of blood from his broken chest, and smiled up at the General.
“I’ll see you.. coughcough… in the Abyss, Harlakar.”
“Perhaps, Vhane,” said Harlakar. “If I see you, I’ll kill you again.” And then he crushed Vhane’s skull.
The dwarves cheered like men possessed. It lasted for minutes. Vhane’s body, beaten and bloodied, was stripped and brought to a pre-dug pit, already filled with charcoal and garbage. A quart
et of dwarves dumped a couple of butts of naptha into the pit, and Vhane’s body was thrown unceremoniously in. Harlakar, sweating despite the cool evening air, with a bit of blood from his wounds, handed off his hammer and took a proffered bow; one of his captains (not Ohm) lit an arrow.
Harlakar shot the arrow into the pit, and it wooofed upward in flames . “Let it all burn,” Harlakar said at last. “Justice is served. LET US FEAST!”
Two days later, on the last day of Rova, a supply caravan from Kenebras arrived, mastered by none other than Horgus Gwerm, the rich Kenebran merchant who the FUP had safely escorted out of the cave system underneath Kenebras in those first days after the attack. Horgus had rebuilt his operations in the weeks that ha passed, reestablishing contacts with suppliers in Starfall and Caliphas, putting his treasury to work, gathering resources and support. By moving the fastest, Horgun had set himself up with Irabet and Queen Galfrey as the sole provider of goods to the newly liberated Drezen, with caravans arriving on a ten-day schedule. By the end of his first day in town, Horgus had secured a warehouse and offices only steps from the southern footing of the Ahari Bridge. Knowing his old friends were now the Liberators of Drezen, Horgus provided a splendid selection of meats, breads, cheeses and wines to the FUP for a reunion feast.
Along with some welcome food and drink, Horgus had also brought along another acquaintance: Quednys Orlun, Irabet’s advisor, who had stayed behind the initial foray to pack up his library and laboratories. He spent the 1-2 of Lamashan investigating Citadel Drezen, and the evening of the 2nd came to the FUP with a preliminary report on some items of note:
On the subject of Nyahydrian crystals: “The large crystals in Eustoryax room were not Nyahydrian crystals at all, although they were reminiscent of them – low quality but of similar make,” Orlun explained. “Nyahydrian crystals are smaller but carry much more magical power. These wre likely some sort of decoration, or a ruse, I don’t know which.”
“After examining the body of the chimera, I found evidence of concentrated Nyahydrian crystal,” Orlun continued. “Someone or something has been processing these crystals into some sort of serum that can augment demonic abilities. Very powerful, very dangerous stuff. I would guess that, at the concentration levels I was able to detect, eight out of ten creatures exposed to this would die from that exposure, even with healing magic applied more or less constantly during the process.”
“Could someone have been refining the crystals here?” asked Illendar.
“No, impossible,” Orlun shook his head. “Whoever is refining these crystals, they are not doing it here in Drezen. It would require a significant laboratory, plus supplies of the crystals to process. Neither of those things are in evidence here in Drezen. My opinion, barring any further discoveries, is that the refining of these crystals is taking place somewhere else.”
On the subject of the Corruption Forge: “It was difficult, but after applying some very specialized magics (and frankly, with the assistance of the environment generated by the Sword of Valor), I’ve gained some nominal control over the magical forge built by the demons in the citadel dungeon,” said Orlun, a small tinge of pride in his voice. “The corruption forge was used to transform holy magic items into unholy magic items that could then be utilized by the demonic forces, but with a bit of work, I think the forge can be exorcised and realigned so that it instead can ‘redeem’ evil magic items, which allows them to be used by crusaders.”
“I think I may have devised a method by which to redeem the corruption forge – the extensive notes about the creation and use of the forge from Staunton Vhane’s journal were quite helpful in this regard.”
Orlun went on to explain that, once work begins on redeeming the forge, its actual redemption is handled similarly to the construction of a magic item. At least one person involved in the redemption must have Craft Magic Arms and Armor, Wondrous Item, or Master Craftsman, and the process requires the casting of a hallow spell each day. At the end of a day, the redeemer attempts a DC 35 Spellcraft or Knowledge (religion) check—on a success, the corruption forge is redeemed and becomes a purity forge. On a failure, that day’s efforts are unrewarded, but the next attempt’s skill check gains a cumulative +1 bonus. Up to four others can aid another on the Spellcraft or Knowledge (religion) check. Once the forge is redeemed, it can be used to rework evil magic items into good magic items. An unholy weapon can be made into a holy weapon, for example, or a wand of unholy blight can be transformed into a wand of holy smite. However, some evil magic items, such as a nine lives stealer or a darkskull, don’t have an obvious good analogue. In such cases, the DM will choose an appropriate oppositional item for the magic item to be redeemed into. To redeem a magic item, the redeemer must work as if he were crafting the item from scratch, yet the forge supplies much of the magic and energy for the process. Ignore any spell or cost requirements for crafting the redeemed item, and the time required to complete the task is 1/4 the time it would normally take to craft the final item from scratch. At the end of the redemption process, the redeemer must succeed at a Spellcraft or Knowledge (religion) check (DC = 5 + the item’s caster level) to redeem the item—if the redeemer fails this check, the item is not redeemed; this can be attempted again, starting the process anew.