Unable to wake the daemon’s victims, the party decided to secure them within a salt circle and continue their search for other survivors. After several hours and a scuffle with some rotting wolverines, they started hearing hoarse cries for help echoing through the woods. Quick as they ran to aid, Ishlin called a halt: something lurked in the brush, something guarding the cages in the trees from whence the calls came.
Four cougars, rotting, flesh falling off, waited to strike at anyone who would dare approach. Brennis, with typical aplomb, immediately brought the fight to them, charging in. Kyton attempted to fly above the monsters, but one leaped up a tree and pounced, dragging him back to the ground and mauling him. The party seemed in a bad way until one of the victims in the cages offered to help if only they would free him.
The newcomer proved strong and tough and, swinging a borrowed woodsman’s ax with ferocious strength, helped turn the tide; with his help, the party made quick work of the cougars and freed the other prisoners. One, unfortunately, was dead; the others were the man’s wife and daughter. He introduced himself as Gill Finch, the most recent missing farmer from Barley Row.
Gill was able to shed some light on what was going on. It seemed that a tall, smelly, scarred half-orc had been using the artificially-animate creatures to steal the townsfolk away in the middle of the night. His family had been abducted by all manner of creatures, large and small. They had been in those cages for days without food or water; sometimes the half-orc had come back and taken one of the prisoners away to the dext. Screams would follow, and the prisoner would not return.
The hour grew late, so the party decided a rest was in order. Brennis drew a large circle to protect them, and they slept, Gene, Ishlin and Brennis taking watch.
The morning arrived without apparent incident. Ishlin and Ioan woke to discover that they both felt awful, their minds clouded and their adrenaline pumping. Whatever was wrong with them, it was getting worse. Kyton was able to alleviate some of the worst of the suffering, but the trials of the preceding days had caused them all no insignificant distress. Worse, Gill, himself, was suddenly not feeling well either. While he had offered to accompany the party to the dext the night before, he had experienced a change of heart and asked to remain with his family.
Ishlin, acting on a hunch, surreptitiously tested him to see if he held the daemon, but Gill was able to cross the salt circle without difficulty. It was decided that he should go to find the other victims and get them to safety, if possible, while the party began the search for the half-orc.
They headed dextward, and a lucky break on Ishlin’s part got them a trail: a giant half-orcish footprint flanked by the prints of two huge wolves. Heartened, they moved onward, Simon’s Claw talking the whole time about how he “didn’t feel right.”
It wasn’t long before they found out why. Amidst a growing sense of foreboding, they came upon a strange object in a small clearing. Simon’s Claw fairly jumped out of Brennis’ hand at the sensation of evil pouring from the thing, a rough stone table covered with dried blood and … something else, something that stung like nettles when touched. Simon’s Claw identified this as essence of agony, and realized that that was what the half-orc was up to. He would torture his prisoners for days, bringing them to the edge of pain and death, and then bring them here, to this profane object, this Black Altar, and kill them painfully … and then extract that pain, in liquid form, to feed the daemon.
Repulsed, the party fanned out to check the area. It didn’t take long for them to come across a charnel pit, where the gnawed remains of two or three humanoids lay. All the while, Simon’s Claw was calling for the Black Altar’s destruction, a call to which the party acquiesced.
Unfortunately, the altar was not undefended: a pair of shadowy creatures emerged from it abruptly, their chill touch sucking the life out of the party. Fortunately, Brennis remembered the encounter at the Abbey and, acting on a hunch, doused the charnel pit with holy water. The shadowy creatures dissipated silently, and the Red Branch were able to apply themselves to the task of destroying the altar.
This grim task done, they continued to track the half-orc, whose trail now led treeward. They came across a small pack of not-dead boars, but were able to avoid them. Pressing on, they caught sight of the smoke of a camp-fire, half a mile away. More, the surrounding forest was eerily quiet. Not a single bird cawed, not a single insect buzzed, not a single rabbit made its way through the brush. It felt as though nothing lived in that patch of Diggswood anymore.
Kyton took to the air to investigate. They had found the half-orc’s lair all right, a rough cave in the foothills of the mountains of High Watch. But he was not alone: a pair of enormous dire wolves lay near the fire, still breathing, still alive.
Kyton had little time to investigate further, however; the half-orc caught sight of him and, raising a sinewy arm, called on the spirits of the trees to entangle the hapless bird-druid. Kyton dodged the grasping branches and made good his escape, winging back to his companions to tell them the news.
It was resolved to make their attack, though the light was fading. They pressed through the woods, attempting to sneak up on the shaman. Ishlin took aim at him and let fly an arrow …
... only to see it snatched out of the air. The shaman, it seemed, knew they were coming.
The battle was joined, as the huge dire wolves got up and charged, viciously attacking. The shaman called for a mist to rise in the middle of the clearing, obscuring him from the view of his attackers. This did not deter Brennis, who charged in … only to find himself paralyzed by the shaman’s dark magic.
And then, unexpectedly, the daemon chose to reveal itself. Gene’s eyes went black and he charged Kyton, stabbing the surprised druid. The rest of the party recoiled from this sudden betrayal, momentarily forgetting the other dangers and turning to subdue their former ally. Unfortunately, the daemon’s presence made Gene supernaturally tough and resilient; the fact that Ishlin wanted to keep him alive in order to fulfill Brother Didymus’ request further complicated things.
The wolves ran rampant, the shaman healing them and bolstering them, as the party continued to fight on many fronts. Thinking quickly, Ioan used a scroll to cast a magic circle against evil to contain Gene’s daemon-possessed body, neutralizing him and taking him out of the fight. Concentrating on a single wolf brought it down in relatively short order; it looked like the Red Branch was gaining the upper hand. Ioan used another scroll, this time to restore Ishlin’s health and strength; truly, it was looking like an easy triumph after all.
This impression was not to last. The shaman, rolling aside a pair of heavy stones at the entrance to his den, loosed a new threat: a swarm each of skeletal and still-rotting rats. It looked as though every rat in the forest had been slain to form the chattering, clacking, writing masses. Wasting no time, they moved to engulf the party, slowly creeping towards the magic circle to attempt to free the daemon.
Fortunately, Ioan had cast it some distance away from the cave, which bought the party time. Brennis discovered that he could stomp on the rats to crush them, and did so with relish; Ishlin finished off the swarm of bone rats with a shot from his holy bow. They did not fare quite so well against the corpse rats, however; they swarmed Ishlin and nauseated him. As a last ditch, Brennis reached deep within himself and drew forth his hidden ki to set his fists aflame; this was enough to destroy the corpse rats, some of whom fell mere inches from the circle of silver powder that kept Gene imprisoned.
During this time, the shaman had summoned another dire wolf, who raced to join the one remaining in combat. Under their combined attacks, Ishlin fell, badly injured. Finally, the shaman himself marched forward, bringing magical might to bear against the party. Brennis seized the opportunity and charged, striking a mighty blow which dropped the shaman just as the second great dire wolf fell. Ioan’s healing magic got Ishlin back on his feet.
Alas, it was not yet over. The shaman, in a last, desperate gasp of activity, played his hidden card. Calling on powerful dark magicks, he restored life to the two dead wolves. He collapsed in a pile as they shed their hair, their skin turning purple, their jaws stretching and their teeth growing.
Ishlin decided that the time had come to draw the sacred candle and light it. Sadly, one of the new horrors had other ideas. It rushed Ishlin, afflicting him with a paralyzing bite. Kyton, thinking quickly, released a flood of Primal power from the reserves of his being and attempted desperately to shape it into something to free Ishlin from his magical bindings. Fortunately, Kyton’s experimentation worked, and Ishlin was able to move again.
With that, he lit the candle. At once, it was consumed in a rush of holy power; a blinding burst of golden-white light filled the clearing. The two wolf-monsters burst into flame and crumbled into dust, utterly destroyed by the power of the Light. The daemon, likewise, was affected: under the blistering power of the candle, it burst out of Gene’s mouth, a snaking coil of black smoke.
Gene, once again in control of his own faculties, quickly left the circle, leaving the daemon to swirl there impotently, thrashing against the sides of its ersatz prison and crackling with electricity. The rest of the party turned their attention to the remaining dire wolf, quickly bringing it down.
At last, the fight was over. Though their injuries were severe, the party decided that they could not afford to lose any time. Simon’s Claw guided Brennis through the ritual of binding, and the daemon’s dark form was drawn into the clear crystal, which shrunk and darkened as the ritual completed. Finally, it appeared as a dark amethyst, with a swirling silvery mist inside.
Since the monastery was only a short distance away, the party opted to make the journey there before resting for the evening. Brother Didymus was pleased to see them, and thrilled that they had captured the daemon. Inspecting the prison, he assured them that it would be unable to free itself for some weeks.
After healing them of their injuries, Brother Didymus asked of them a final favor: since it was his task to guard the daemon, and since they had demonstrated themselves capable of dealing with it, would they not mind taking it to Lux? Though it could not be destroyed, perhaps it could be cleansed, if the full power of the Light were to be shone upon it. If the daemon could be cleansed, Brother Didymus’ task would be complete, and he would be free to leave this world and join his ancestors.
The party acquiesced, and then there was just one further order of business. Brother Didymus instructed Ishlin to go before the Dais of Samael and prepare himself, reflecting on the perfection of the Light and taking its attributes into himself.
Ishlin did so, and after a short while, Brother Didymus joined him. Asking him to kneel, Brother Didymus called forth the power of the Light. He drew what appeared to be a mantle made of light out of the air, and placed it around Ishlin’s shoulders, consecrating him as a paladin.
There was one final test to be passed, though, one final lesson to be learned. Brother Didymus explained that, though he now bore the Light, that every paladin knew that there remained darkness within them, a darkness that could never be truly defeated, only controlled. As he said this, a shadow started gathering in the sanctuary. As Brother Didymus pointed, the shadow solidified … into an exact double of Ishlin!
Brother Didymus explained that Ishlin could now fight the manifestation of his dark side, fight with it, overcome it and embrace it. The shadow-Ishlin loosed an arrow, which zipped unerringly towards Ishlin, trailing tendrils of shadow. Ishlin tried to return fire, but the arrow only passed ineffectively through is doppelganger.
As Ishlin charged his dark half, Brother Didymus again spoke, chiding: Ishlin could never destroy the lingering evil within him, only embrace it, accept it, and thereby master it. Understanding, Ishlin ceased his attack and literally embraced the manifestation, which dissipated.
Well done, said Brother Didymus, as he faded away. Well done, Ishlin Brightheart … paladin. The last word echoed throughout the sanctuary as Brother Didymus vanished.
The party decided to rest in the fire’s light that night, and woke up the next day feeling rejuvenated … though many of them still bore a strange malaise. Ioan proved none the worse for wear from his experiences with the rat swarm, but he and Ishlin both could feel the edges of the strange rage and insanity starting to cut back into their minds.
Still, they decided to start making their way back to River’s End. They stopped in Barley Row to let them know the problem had been taken care of. Burton was magnanimous but still curt; the Finch family was much more effusive in their praise, offering first their life savings (which the party generously declined, Ioan in fact slipping more money into the box) and then a pair of heirloom boots of elvenkind that had belonged to Gill’s grandfather, a ranger. This, the party graciously accepted, and then they left on their long trip back to River’s End.
They made it to the Count’s the following day. He thanked them for their efforts and awarded them a chest containing 25 bars of bullion, and also offered to arrange passage to Lux and a letter of introduction to the magistrates, if such was their desire.
Finally, as the day wore on, they made it back to the Brewhaus and Brenda, who tackle-hugged each of them as they walked in the door. Days of no word had worried her, and things had been afoot. First of all, Anchorite Linnaeus had been in asking them to stop by at their earliest convenience. Secondly, the Red Branch wanted their money, two thousand marks, which the party was now in a position to easily pay. Third, Lyssa, Ioan’s druidic lover, had been in and had left a note. Fourth, what did they want to do with that dragon’s egg? Because people had come in asking about it. What people? Well, just some men with a strange, trident-like tattoo on their neck.
Reflecting on this, Ioan left the scrollcase from the abbey with Brenda, and the party went to talk to the Anchorite. Upon catching sight of Ishlin, he immediately dropped to his knee. Paladins, it seems, are farther up the hierarchy than anchorites as far as the Church is concerned. His amazement only widened as he caught sight of Thorn of the White and Simon’s Claw. As they related their tales, he was by turns incredulous and worried. The tales of the abbey’s loss had been told in the big city, but the truth of the matter had never been certain. Likewise, this talk of walking corpses, or “necromancy,” as he called it, were disturbing. Those arts were supposed to have been long lost, and to see the daemon practicing them, let alone a living thing … very worrisome.
After listening to their tales for some time, the anchorite pledged his own service, and that of the church, to Ishlin, as befit his newfound station. Likewise, he offered to write a letter of introduction to the Arch-Praetor in Lux, and gave them some advice on getting by in the capital of the Solarian Remnant.
Finally, it was time to relax. Brennis headed off to the Smoke-Filled Room to kick back with Cutter Jack, and the rest of the party retired.
The following morning, as the members of the Red Branch were sitting at breakfast at the Brewhaus, the door burst open and several men, wearing black chain and colorful sashes, tromped in, accompanied by Constable Brondir, head of the Constabulary. Quickly and efficiently, these newcomers surrounded the Red Branch. Stepping forward, speaking formally, the apparent leader, a tall, balding man with a large, hooked nose, identified himself as Bassa Selim of the Dhal Dominion, and said:
“By the authority in me so vested, through the extradition treaties arranged through the Crown of Dominex, you are hereby placed under arrest.”
Red Branch Irregulars resumes September 2010
2500g (25 ingots) – 2000g (Red Branch fee to Brenda) = 500g
boots of elvenkind