Demise of the Runelord
It was over.
I held my weapon above me, feeling each gentle ping of blood that dripped from the crescent blade to land upon my silvery pauldron, watching as Zeyara’s ebon sword cut through the reeling form of Karzoug. Her weapon, like my own, had been enhanced in the mystical fires of the Runeforge, the ancient Thassalonian magics held within the wakizashi spitting bursts of raw pearl-hued energy of domination as it cut into the eons-old wizard. There was a moment of silence as our battered and broken nemesis fell in twain, that ancient body separating from chest to waist and dropping in an undignified heap before us.
The oscillating rainbow of light radiating from the mystical barrier beside us disappeared abruptly, and the thick roiling smoke that had been contained by his magical boundaries rushed in, obscuring the scene to my companions. I brought my slicer down, decapitating the corpse and jabbing the severed head with the tip of the curving black blade. My fire-borne heritage allowed me to see through the impenetrable haze, and after a quick survey of our remaining opponents I swept across the chamber on feathered wings, reaching down and stoppering the iron flask from which the smoke issued.
My Sisters, still somewhat wild-eyed from the battle, had noticed the smoke begin to dissipate and stared at the remnants of our foe. Rainbow’s sparkling eyes regarded the body with relief tinged with pity, Skalmold’s arms twitched and shoulders slumped, disappointedly fingering her massive, unstained hammer, eyes already searching for the next opponent that needed killing. Vega looked down with undisguised greed at the fallen corpse’s fancy accoutrements—her glowing blue gaze no doubt already contemplating the various enchantments that had suddenly become loot, unseen by Rakonia as the dwarf seemed to wilt as the powerful magics she had woven began to dissipate now that her oath had suddenly been completed. Nevertheless, her stumpy body turned to face the remaining non-Sisters within the demiplane—two blue-skinned giants crackling with electricity, lightning bolts held in their hands. Another pair even larger covered in amazing runes that had been etched into their skin, glowing and painful-looking. And the immensity of the sapphire-scaled dragon that hovered above us.
The Runelord of Greed had done his best to make our lives in Varissia miserable and short, but the ancient and arrogant wizard king of long-dead Thassalon had met his end at the hands of six women. It felt as if there was nothing left to fear, and our opponents seemed to feel this with a sudden, deadly clarity.
The two remaining Rune giants had stopped their futile advance, staring at the scene with looks of confusion before dawning understanding washed over their harsh, rune-etched features. I looked up at the immense, sapphire-scaled dragon that had come to rest on the walkway back to Karzoug’s throne, its massive bulk descending in a mighty snap of impossibly wide wings. It’s impressive horn wove side to side as the creature regarded the scene with first one eye, then another. Flexing my shoulders, I looked down on my companions surrounding the separate pieces of the Runelord, flying back and interposing myself, Zeyara and Skalmold level with my waist, Rakonia and Rainbow halfway up my thigh.
I imagine we made an impressive sight.
I didn’t want to kill the magnificent creature. We had destroyed so many. What I wanted, what Undreadagon had always been a pale substitute for—
The vast blue dragon, crackling arcs of lighting playing over a maw capable of swallowing any of my friends whole, folded its wings and stood, unmoving. Massive ophelian eyes shifted from the shattered corpse to my gathered companions before turning its gaze to me, flickering for just an instant to the head impaled upon my blade. I ran a mithral-gauntleted hand through my literally fiery mane, tracing the path of the jagged horns curling back from my forehead in what I hoped was a casual gesture. Heart beating, I twirled the Slicer of Domination, and raised an eyebrow. Long seconds ticked by.
I stared, my eyes narrowed and eyebrow arched as if to say We just dominated your dominator, freeing you from his submission, but to enjoy this newfound freedom you must prove your intentions. To me.
It seemed to pick up on what I was going for. “I will ssserve you,” the gargantuan monster hissed, bowing its head in submission. I approached, feeling every bit of my twelve feet of muscle, metal and divine power… and placed a hand upon the horn jutting from above its nasal slits, protective magics absorbing the errant arcs of lightning that engulfed my arm.
When a moment passed, and it did not attempt to bite my arm off with its foot-long fangs, I whispered, “I accept your allegiance.” I almost slipped eternal in there, but I thought that would have both been a bit too far and also a bastardly thing to try.
Despite our massive battle, the death of companions and the struggle to overcome this ancient and powerful wizard, despite the unambiguously successful resolution to our ultimate quest and the complete and total victory we had achieved over our enemies, my mind spun in a vortex of elation completely unrelated to any of it. I finally had a dragon. A dragon!
A living dragon, I amended with a smirk. I admired the creature’s terrifying appearance, the massive but sinuous bulk, the terrifying draconic visage, the cunning and defeated eyes. Undreadagon would be missed, but ultimately had been a mere parody of this great creature. I could already see myself atop its back, shrieking and laughing and dispensing death to armies…
There would come a time, possibly soon, where it would seek to challenge me. I would be ready—and would teach it such a lesson that, once it was resurrected, it would never forget.
Castiel, the eerily beautiful Planar Angel with a double pair of wings uncannily like my own, hovered above the scene. We had freed him, given him a chance at his revenge (at some risk to ourselves to appease his angelic fetish for retribution), and had gone on to defeat Karzoug. I think he was at a loss for what to do next, poor thing.
Rainbow got to work, summoning the life-giving energy she channeled through her undersized body, her familiar Donazata flittering nearby on celestial wings. Zeyara and Rakonia began relieving Karzoug’s corpse of any and all equipment—and dignity. Skalmold, eyeing the remaining opponents, rode her carpet down to the platform. Hovering above the lava beyond the stone walkways, Vega descended, examining the loot with eyes that radiated a powerful blue glow, contrasting oddly with Zeyara’s blank, milky green gaze.
I am pretty sure my own eyes were flaring red, and remained in my Final Form as I turned from the dragon and approach the remaining four giants.
As if awakening after a long nightmare, or perhaps merely the sudden realization of an incredible change in circumstance, the four giants watched with disbelief and trepidation as I approached, twice the size of my Sisters, my hair a dancing mane of fire, from which emerged a pair of glossy black horns that curved up and back in an elegant arc. I rested my fifteen foot long weapon over a mithral pauldron, gripping the pole from the bottom, the scimitar-like blade ending twelve feet above my shoulder, adamantine black yet glowing with a faint white radiance, Rune-etched in a manner similar to the pair of giants I approached, but still not quite reaching their shoulders.
The two armored storm giants hesitated before dropping their weapons, making things easier.
“Thralls of Karzoug.” I let that sink in. “That is what you were, not what you are.” I left the Thanks to us unsaid. “The Sisterhood of Steel has destroyed the Runelord of Greed, broken his body and broken the compulsion he used to enslave you. As slaves of the potent wizard, you have committed unspeakable crimes against your own people as well as Varisia’s population. Had we not stopped Karzoug from his nefarious plan, you would have helped usher in an apocalypse that would have seen the enslavement of all your kind—mirroring the ancient enslavement most of your people have recovered from and avoided repeating since the Thassalonian Empire fell.
“Giant-kind will continue to live free because of our actions, and depending upon your next decision, you may join them. Or, you may join us. Atone by aiding us in our fight against threats to both of our peoples. Karzoug was an exceptional opponent, but there are numerous other enemies to be dealt with, from tribes of goblins, ogres and barbarians, the savage orcs and the cruel Chilaxians. Nor was Karzoug the only Runelord. You were his slaves. Now purify your souls with action against our mutual enemies. Join us, and be part of the glory we have and will continue to achieve, rather than broken remnants of a fallen villain.”
I smacked the the Crucible of Blood with the end of the Slicer of Domination, creating an eerie ringing across the platforms. I continued. “One of your stone brethren had the courage to help the Sisterhood of Steel destroy this evil cauldron that served to enslave your kind, his sacrifice ensuring that it would never be used in such a way ever again. Follow us, and work towards the protection of your people, and help forge them into something strong enough to hold out against the next Runelord to awaken.”
The dominator blade in my hand pulsed with satisfaction as the giants knelt to us, to me, pledging their lives to our service. I glanced up over my shoulder, smirking up at Karzug’s stunned expression regarding the scene with unwavering dismay.
The treasure gathered, we rested and feasted, the giants requiring a Hero’s Feast all their own. The blue dragon—who in my head was already “my” blue dragon—Azureon, ate with us, forced to sit through a rather detailed list of challenges overcome and creatures overkilled, skepticism turning into a respectful fear as she realized how out of her depth she was.
Very satisfying to one’s ego, that.
It was during the meal that Vega revealed a startling find she’d made in Karzug’s journal—if the strange mechanical device in Xin Shalast not been destroyed, the very mountain itself would have awoken, a Great Old One in an aeon-old slumber who would have possibly destroyed the world, or at least a good portion of it. Additionally, Karzug’s plan was to open a portal to his ancient armies, somehow spanning the massive gap in time with his magic, and unleashing hundreds of dragons and tens of thousands of giant soldiers upon the world.
Hearing this, I felt highly ambivalent—on one hand, these Old Ones seemed like impossible opponents, so that was for the best. But the thought of the effect of a massive giant- and dragon-backed army would have upon the continent couldn’t help but peak my interest. A battle to end all battles, the greatest war the world had ever seen…
I’d eventually get my most heartfelt wish, but it wasn’t giants, it was… well, that’s another story for another time.
We exited the private demiplane of Karzoug by slicing his golden throne apart with a Runeforged blade, transitioning back into Xin Shalast. Incorporating what remaining giants there were into our service, we made a thorough sweep, destroying a fungal demon that had manifested a vast area of toxic blight along with some minor, lesser dangers. The unbound, or whatever they called themselves, were made aware of the change in their fortunes, and there was much celebration in their newfound freedom and our honor.
The local population was strongly encouraged to begin digging up the golden brick road for their new de-facto rulers, rebuilding the damaged city and generally trying to make a life for themselves. Leaving some of the giants behind to safeguard things against Leng spiders and other invaders from the coterminous nightmare realm, the Sisterhood of Steel prepared to exit the demiplane in utter and complete victory. Despite our fabulous wealth, it was with mixed emotions that we departed. Going our separate ways after so long was deeply unsettling, yet the quest that had bound us together in purpose was, at long last, complete.
With just a whiff of a similar menace emerging in the future.
We agreed to meet five years hence, in the Hagfish Tavern in Sandpoint, on the eve of their midsummer celebration festival we’d attended so long ago.
Zeyara seemed to simply disappear, never one given to emotional displays. Vega teleported away shortly thereafter, extradimensional pockets filled to bursting with ancient spellbooks and forgotten tomes, off to visit her planar vault of knowledge. Skalmold mounted her flying carpet and headed north, seeking out a Linnorm (located, at my suggestion, by the divination magics of Vega and Rainbow), aiming at claiming leadership over one of the realms of her homeland. Rakonia wandered off in search of a purpose and new animal companion, the reticent dwarf distracted by the newfound “beautiful” image Vega had reshaped her into through magical trickery. Little Rainbow left in search of goblin tribes to teach and civilize, no doubt in search of redemption for the callous murder of a helpless goblin infant left to starve to death in an empty fortress so long ago. Accompanied as always by the foot-high celestial fairy Donazata (except back when her rat Mr. Fuzzy Whiskers had been around), she disappeared into the wilderness with a spring in her step.
I wished them all the best. And by that point they knew what a wish from me was worth.
At least within thirty feet of me.
The name seemed to echo across the ethereal landscape, filled with shadow and haze. I called out again, my voice passing through planes to reach their destination.
An immense mind seemed to stir, to turn its attention toward me. You, it hissed, not in anger or fear but in the way one expects from snake-people given to hissing when they speak. It’s just the way it is.
After some minutes of conversation with the soul of our magnificent opponent, my offer was accepted and the pact was made.
Azureon’s cerulean eyes gleamed in the overcast, the vast burden of gold, jewels, art and equipment strapped to her back containing a small portion that had been promised to her—more than the blue dragon had managed to acquire on its own in recent centuries. I’d recognized her cunning during our recent discussions, and was determined that such a proud creature should not be cowed in my service, but eager and interested. The weakness for flattery helped, as did the healthy desire not to become my servant in a more permanent and undead manner.
I reclined within the Crucible of War… or was it Blood? I shrugged, figuring that since I’d been the one to name it, it hardly mattered. The reforged shards of the Black Cauldron of Rune Giant-Making, my mode of transportation, was stuffed comfortably with looted silk tapestries and intricately detailed rugs. Lashed to the carefully-cleaned exotic harness that had once fit around Undreadagon’s bulk, I watched as desolate countryside sped by below me, the mountains containing Xin Shalast left far behind. We followed the great rivers of the Storval Plateau, Azureon speeding us southwest to visit a few old stomping grounds.
Occasionally, I’d pick out a cloud of dust rising in the mid-distance. Curious, I’d have the blue dragon wheel about and investigate—invariably Shoanti savages, fleeing in terror. When Azureon inquired about having some fun with them, I wavered but choose to remain on course. I did allow her a parting shot, lightning breath carving a line of black glass in the desolate terrain, causing horses to buck and throw several riders. We had a good laugh at that, our first bonding moment.
Jorgenfist was our first stop. I was bemused as the stone giants began reacting with alarm and outrage at the sudden appearance of my forbidding new mount. After minimal bloodshed and generous healing granted by me, I was led to the stone giant leader. I informed him of recent events and our supreme victory over his ancestral oppressor. I also made it clear a group of his kind, of the storm and rune variety, would be teleporting into the area, and would be best used in the creation of a training regimen for the future soldiers that would be called upon. The stone-faced giants did not appear altogether pleased by these revelations, but they are not the most expressive of species. Several giant-sized weapons and suits of armor were gifted, sized for some of those who would be appearing soon.
Having learned from the previous visit atop my sinister ride, I had Azureon land well outside of the Black Arrow rangers’ fort, now home to many of the displaced and downtrodden folk of Turtleback Ferry. It appeared that the aged rangers had taken to their task in earnest and begun training a couple dozen likely candidates to rebuild their order, with over a year of experience under their belts. The fort had been improved, labor from the townsfolk expanding the wooden encampment into a decent-sized walled town. Dropping off a small portion of the treasure the blue dragon carried, I hinted that there would be a need for rangers familiar with central and western Varisia in the near future, and was assured that those they were training were intelligent enough to act as trainers for future recruits. I gave an estimate of time, and a number. They blanched, but grimly agreed.
We continued south, following the river to Ilsurian, Whistledown and all the way to Wartel, stopping outside each community and giving me the opportunity to scout them out. A noticeable figure even on my off days, I openly talked to people, even hosting several fabulous feasts fit for heroes where I’d invite the town notables, slowly and subtly learning what their communities needed, any threats they faced, and above all what they had to offer.
Nearly two hundred miles of Mushfens and river remained before I reached Magnimar, an eight day journey on foot, reeking with swamp-rot stench. I fell asleep next to Azureon, staring up at the stars, her massive neck and tail curved around the huge lumps of treasure.
I walked into Magnimar the following evening, smiling in anticipation.
Zeyara had went to work immediately after Vega teleported her into Magnimar. In the seven days it had taken me to fly down from Xin Shalast, she had worked her way into several criminal organizations within the city, learning the various power players and the businesses and areas were under their control.
After spending four days locked inside her personal dimension binge reading the various new tomes in her possession, Vega returned to the pre-arranged location, none other than our property—formerly belonging to a certain Aldern fellow we had cause to put down. Zeyara, the consummate professional in her field of expertise, provided the arcanist with a detailed itinerary, and the bodies of three important and feared criminals with minimal facial damage.
The criminal underworld exploded in a night of violence as seven of the top gangs waged a sudden all-out war, triggered by flagrant assassinations of important crime-lords at the hands of well-known enforcers of enemy factions and allied interests. Dozens of the city’s scum lost their lives in the bloodshed, may of them important lieutenants or second-in-commands of the organizations. A few simply disappeared, not to be seen or heard from again for days.
In between providing polymorphing disguises and relevant magical intelligence, Vega studied the terrain, determining the ideal location for the first of the Hellfire Plumes. Following the bloody night, she teleported back north, bringing our giant allies to Jorgenfist to begin their work.
My Triumphant Return to Magnimar
I debated riding Azureon into the city—what a sight it would have been! The screams, the confusion… but I realized that if everything was going according to plan, there would be screaming and confusion enough.
And indeed, while there was no screaming in the literal sense, I was met with uncertain glances full of nervousness, fear, or simple exhaustion. Riding within the Crucible of Blood, my armor gleamed in the red-gold light of a sun that had just touched the horizon. The Slicer of Domination glowed with a power all its own, and I saw many glances of awe and admiration at my weapon, filling me with vicarious pride and satisfaction.
My armor, my weapon, the flaming red hair, the horns… it wasn’t long before someone recognized me.
The crowd, uncertain at first, flanked me from both sides of the road, although they were careful not to get in the path of the massive levitating cauldron. I listened to their stories, then their pleas, and chuckled inwardly at the pussiance of my Sisters.
The Lord-Mayor Haldmeer Grobaras’ home was surrounded by an angry mob, torches and everything, demanding action. The city had endured two nights of factional warfare down in the Shore, spilling over from the criminals operating out of the Shadow—Magnimar’s most derelict district known as the Underbridge (due to it being directly under the remnants of the massive bridge called the Irespan). I decided to make an entrance, but rather than going all Final Form I simply rose up in my Crucible and hovered over the scene, drawing gasps and pointed fingers. I descended flashily, my kimono rippling with an impressive snap of otherworldly silk, the complex embroidered forms writhing within their patterns. The shouting had stopped, but I used my loud voice so everyone could hear.
“It’s okay now. Lucrezia is here.” I paused, but there was no spontaneous wild cheer. Resolved to rectify that in the future, I continued. “Citizens have been telling me about the problems since I passed through the gates. My Sisters and I have come to regard Magnimar as our home. We’ll get to the bottom of what’s causing this trouble—just like we did for the Sandpoint Devil.”
I was ushered into the opulent mansion by a half-dozen tired-looking guards, their chainmail and weaponry plain and rather pathetic-looking after what I’d become accustomed to. Say what you want about Karzoug, he did have a sense of style. One of the soldiers beckoned toward an ornately-gilded pair of doors made out of some kind of wood. I gave him a flat stare, running a hand down my red silk kimono, worn tabard-style over my gleaming armor. “The girl in the 67,000 gold kimono is going to open her own door? Come on!”
Lord-Mayor Haldmeer Grobaras was all too eager to hire on the Sisterhood of Steel once more, even at our current diminished capacity. I assured him that we would deal with the violence, so long as we were granted control over the local city guard to deal with the threat. In the meantime, I suggested that he might have big news to share with the city, something to take their minds off the recent troubles, a story of six heroines who took down the resurrected Runelord of Greed, tracing a path through all the troubles plaguing the area in recent memory, from the Ripsaw murders, the Sandpoint Devil, trouble with goblins and giants, the loss of Turtleback Ferry, and every ill and misfortune I could think of, and laying them all at the feat of the ancient and unholy wizard.
The Celebration of Crimson (K)night
The desperately thrown-together celebration occurred the following evening, giving me ample time to meet up with the various City Guard barracks and begin bending them to my will. Zeyara joined me, offering her expert advice and soon a meticulous plan had been solidified. As the great feast approached, Azureon joined us, polymorphed into an impressive, armor-clad brute courtesy of Vega, anticipating an eventful evening.
The unrest had continued throughout the previous night, as smaller and smaller organizations were drawn into the conflict, the underground civil war having become a series of naked power grabs as competitors sought to eliminate and absorb one another in a free-for-all. Zeyara ensured the flow of information continued, giving targets and locations to various gangs, whittling away the city’s underworld talent hour by hour.
Hundreds of city watch, ill-trained militia, or recently conscripted volunteers patrolled the edge of the Underbridge and the docks, in a visible attempt at containment. The best of these, equipped in the finest Magnimar’s more civic-minded merchants had to offer, provided protection for the celebration.
Rumors circulated, but things settled down once the Lord-Mayor addressed the Council of Ushers, recognizing the great accomplishments he had achieved through hiring the Sisterhood of Steel to confront and defeat an ancient Thassalonian wizard bent on enslaving the entire country.
After letting the Lord-Mayor take credit for our deeds, I addressed the crowd, the city’s high class, the rich, the decadent and enterprising alike. I spoke of the ancient evil discovered in Sandpoint, the Skinsaw murderer’s reign of terror, the defection of Nualia and her demonic allies that threatened the area. I spoke of Teraktinnius, the giant’s attack against Sandpoint, the slain red dragon and the heroic saviors of the allied town. The discovery of Aldern Foxglove’s unholy allegiance towards an abominable Mistress, of threats to the Lord-Mayor’s life thwarted by the actions of the Sisterhood of Steel. A tapestry of events aimed at the destabilization of the region.
Aided by illusionary recreations and subtle background noises created by Vega, the fight against Lamashtu’s unholy progeny on the lakeshore of Turtleback ferry came to life, the noble sacrifice and ultimate revenge of the Black Arrow rangers against the Ogrekin families and traitors within their own organization. They saw the take-down of a giant army as the Sisterhood retrieved an unholy artifact, learning of the Runelord of Greed’s intentions for the continent. Woven together, a sinister purpose became apparent to the listeners, interlinking attacks coming from the same direction.
Unholy monsters vanquished, ghostly fae and dwarves set free from eternal suffering, the fallen bodies of the giants and dragons we’d fought, and a few instances of them bowing down before us. And behind it all, the dread intellect of the ancient Thassalonian wizard, a wizard eager to work with Magnimar’s enemies—Cheliax.
The stories of ancient Thassalon’s cruel dictators, power-mad and notorious for dealing with otherworld entities, made it easy to tie the two together. And for all I knew, Karzoug would love to ally himself to another great and powerful nation. By the end of the story, the crowd was cheering in awe and wonder, carried away by the tale and absorbing the message.
We left after the feast. Vega and Zeyara had everything prepared, and flanked by the humanish bulk of Azureon, we headed to the first spot on the list. As the night progressed, a series of coordinated and impeccably-timed strikes shook the very foundations of the city, as cordons of city guard quarantined the entire Underbridge district, and the Sisterhood’s final three entered, dealing out the justice Magnimar so desperately needed. Zeyara and the polymorphed dragon enjoyed themselves immensely, dispatching targets in an ever-increasing tally, while the city guard cut down or captured those who attempted to flee. The local urchins were gathered up, along with other non-combatants, while criminals were manacled and marched off to the city’s jail at Zeyara’s approval.
That night came to be known as the Purge, and despite the violence the citizens of Magnimar seemed largely grateful for what had occurred—at least once quiet descended across the city the following evening. There were some complainers in the first few days, but as peace and tranquility enveloped the city, such nay-saying disappeared… thanks in part to Zeyara’s keen invisible ears.
The fetchling began scraping together the remnants of the city’s criminal networks, aided by key lieutenants poached from their previous employment. Although much reduced in number, the total monopoly Zeyara enjoyed more than made up the difference. As new opportunists arose from the ashes to build their own networks, Zeyara’s constantly-updated intelligence ensured that the Crimson Guard raided each before it could become established.
The city guard had been split, as many were corrupt toadies of the Lord-Mayor. Evidence of his ties to the gangs had been bubbling up in recent days, fouling an already tarnished reputation. Documents recovered from the various raids were enough to prove the link between him and several of the organizations—evidence Zeyara brought to the Council of Ushers’ attention, much to the glee of several noble families and numerous rival merchant interests.
After his execution, his former minions were assigned to a special “elite” unit, and sent to escort a number of destitute youths to Turtleback Ferry to be placed under the tutelage of the Black Arrow rangers, the corrupt guards eager at an assignment promising double pay.
The rest of the guards, plus any strapping new recruit I could find, became the new Crimson Guard—a name in part derived from action seen during the bloody night of the Purge, but mostly from the color of my hair. Or perhaps my eyes…? It was in the days following the Purge that arrests amongst the Council of Ushers began, men and women tied to the criminal gangs, mundane and magical evidence obtained by Zeyara and Vega implicating them in crimes against their city. As a score of the ex-Councilors were led away in chains, nobles and powerful merchants alike treated without dignity or pity, I offered to help lead the city and bolster its defenses against the upcoming troubles, elucidating the various reasons it made sense.
In a series of private meetings with important members of the Council, Zeyara spoke of the information we’d acquired regarding the general criminal unrest, which seemed to implicate a single source—Cheliax. Kovosan was in all likelihood trying to make a move on its rival sister-city, and as things stood Magnimar was woefully unprepared. (And despite this incriminating evidence that Zeyara’s sources had dug up on your dealings with these gangs, it was Lucrezia’s opinion that you could be trusted to make the right decisions going forward, so no charges will be pursued at this time…)
I exited the Usher’s Hall crowned Warlord of Magnimar, immediately moving in to the previous Lord-Mayor’s mansion and taking the rest of the day off.
“Lord-Mayor wasn’t good enough for you?” asked Zeyara, her blank eyes making it impossible to tell if she was rolling them.
Rise of the New Lords
Progressing into spring, both Zeyara and I did what we could to organize our respective powerbases. The Crimson Guard had swollen in numbers, and a professional army had begun the process of recruiting and training. Crime was way down, but Zeyara’s profits kept coming in. The fetchling would disappear for days on end, scouting out the next place we had our eyes on, aided as often as not by Vega when she could tear herself away from her reading.
Along with making a big deal about the outlaw of slavery (a foul Chelaxian practice!) and a few other reforms, Magnimar continued to repair and grow, with the addition of a dozen giants working on fixing the Irespan bridge in between tasks of shoring up the city wall and repairing buildings. Working my stone magic, several towers and walls were created or improved upon. The Warlord’s Keep, as my home was now known, had grown more impressive, imposing and impenetrable.
Arranging a trade delegation to the dwarven city of Janderhoff, far to the east in the Mindspin Mountains, I paid my respects to their High Council, expressing with gratitude on behalf of the dwarven companion who’d been part of the quest to destroy Karzoug. I assumed their long memories and grudge-keeping would ensure they’d know at least something of what had been going on, and was not disappointed. I didn’t brag about our victory, but saw them eyeing the glowing Runeblade of the Slicer of Domination leaning against the entryway where I’d left it. There was little to no reaction at my “report,” but as I was dismissed it was clear I’d made an impression. Throughout the bars and taverns, I told tales of our adventures, and the ugly but solid Rakonia Giantkiller and her heroic exploits, shield-smashing, taciturn and smelly, who’d quested across the continent in search of the giants who’d killed her family until she found them and slaughtered them. Rune giants, even! I saw the spark if interest kindle in the eyes of the listeners.
By the time I got back Vega had returned to Xin-Shalast, preparing her future base of operations and transporting things like the amazing telescope we’d acquired so long ago, desperate to travel out amongst the stars. At the agreed-upon time, she returned from her otherworldly preparations, and with magic and an ancient ruby head completed my long-awaited dream. A massive, magically-created and -reinforced stone tower jutted up from the even-more-massive Irespan bridge, a baleful crimson glow emanating from the top of the impressive structure as it looked out across hundreds of miles. Someone had called it the Eye of Lucrezia… I liked the name.
Thus far, there had been no cause to use it, but I was hoping to remedy that.
We began to approach nearby communities, building up the existing relationships and sending squadrons of Crimson Guard to deal with local dangers—adventures I would occasionally join in on. As the first of the Black Arrow ranger units arrived, an extensive scouting campaign was undertaken, aided by aerial reconnaissance provided by Azureon.
Ghlorofaex reported in frequently, using a different face each time he arrived in the city with his masterful illusions. I was impressed by his ancient wisdom, and placing him to watch over the giants of Jorgenfist, along with the Rune Giants, had hastened the formation of an impressive military force.
Magelord Roussanne’s Riddleport Revenge
It was late fall when Vega again returned to Magnimar, her studies complete—for the time being. The arcanist, a former slave, had never forgotten her earlier circumstances, nor the one responsible for her imprisonment in what felt like a whole different life. She was, in large part, the inspiration for revoking slavery in Magnimar, and a prime example of what the world would have been robbed of, had she remained in eternal captivity.
She was the entire inspiration for the attack on Riddleport.
I’d planned on assembling a force of some size, mostly to get them blooded with some actual fighting. Zeyara rightfully pointed out that the pirate scum and mercenary force that called the city home were dangerous opponents for green troops, and the time required to launch such an enterprise was disappointingly significant.
She was bored, the city too peaceful, the underworld too under her control. I understood, and with a flash of anticipation agreed to her idea. “It will be like old times,” mused Vega. Four months, and already our adventures were feeling like “old times”, no wonder I was starting to worry about growing soft.
And so, we left for the most notorious pirate haven in Varisia, accompanied by a polymorphed Azureon and the ever-enigmatic Ghlorofaex.
We teleported just down the coast of Riddleport. The immense Cyphergate arched over the harbor, the city itself hemmed in by enormous rocky bluffs stretching a sheer three hundred feet. Reaching taller even than the impressive cliffs, the cyclopean stone arch was impossible to ignore, covered in mysterious runes of a distinctly Thassilonian providence.
As I began to channel the weather into something suitably stormy, Vega sent her tiny dragon racing into the city, seeking out the various members of the Cyphermages she’d befriended or impressed in the past month.
Something like Stay out of the way, the Storm is coming, I imagined.
“Learn anything about the Cyphergate?” I asked. Vega nodded enthusiastically.
“It was one of Karzoug’s devices of power. I was able to track down a group of drow who had uncovered part of the gate’s purpose. From the interrogation, I was able to fit it all together, which my research has corroborated. It was used by him to peer forward through time—possibly what he used to predict Earthfall and avoid his destruction.”
“Too bad he couldn’t avoid this destruction,” Zeyara murmured, giving her rune-inscribed wakizashi a twirl.
Lightning crackled in the distance. A vast, looming cloud formation spun above us, a promise of sudden terrible weather. Stretching for miles, it had the immediate effect of recalling all of the nearby ships, previously anchored or sailing at their leisure, back into the harbor. The plan called for the capture of as many vessels as possible.
“Azureon, you know your part.” The imposing amazon face smiled in relish, and she began running toward the ocean, disappearing into invisibility, but not before the humanoid patter of feet on sand had transformed back into the earth-shaking thud of a full-sized dragon. The beat of her vast, unseen wings sent an impressive, show-offy spray of water across the waves.
Vega teleported the four of us who remained into the bowels of the city.
The gathering storm had turned midday into dusk, and in the near gloaming I saw the wretched city for the first time. Structures of various shapes and sizes littered the area, haphazardly sprawling into one another, leaning against their neighbors, with the occasional impressive manor or large, solid building standing out like wheat from chaff.
Vega rose up the instant we appeared in the alleyway, getting her bearings and pointing out the slave pens of her former owner. Her body crackled with dark energy, cascades being sent off in all directions as she divined the location of her target and wove the complex spells of protection, prediction and polymorphization. Accompanied by the large form of her familiar-turned-dragon Sivoth, she sped off toward her target, and the rest of us began the distraction/destruction phase of the plan.
“SLAVER SCUM! WE ARE HERE TO FREE THE SLAVES!” I roared with magically amplified force, drawing the attention of the shuffling mass of humanity in the street before us. Angry or puzzled glances were about all the attention we received before they turned back to the writhing mass of clouds to the west. Zeyara had disappeared, and Ghlorofaex raised an eyebrow in what could only be smug satisfaction. “CHELAXIAN-LOVING pirate scum—ah fuck it,” I broke off, concentrating and uttering a string of incomprehensible syllables.
“ROOOOAAAAAAAAAAAR!!!” roared the tyrannosaurus, and people everywhere were running and screaming, or desperately trying to draw their curved, scabbarded blades. I noticed a group of the armored mercenaries several blocks away, responding with impressive speed as they began hustling toward the twenty-five foot high monstrosity rampaging through the streets.
As the dinosaur lumbered off the main street and towards one of the slaver compounds, I urged the Crucible of Blood to follow, anticipating the local enforcers would react quickly. Watching from above, I saw dozens of men rushing from buildings in the area, often sharing some kind of uniform—a certain kind of hat, a color, a hairstyle. As they watched the roaring tyrannosaurus, they quickly formed up in small knots, spears and curved swords emerging like spines.
As a few of the groups slowly advanced, another suffered a seemingly hilarious misfortune, a dozen men falling down like (Golarion version of dominoes). It was only moments later, when they did not begin pick themselves up, that it became apparent that the group was dead, slashed through throats and stomaches, spurting blood and glistening of exposed bone. I could see everything clearly with my truesight, alone able to appreciate the deft invisible acrobatic killing of Zeyara as she continued forward to the next group, blades dripping unseen blood.
Vega returned some minutes later, seeing the end as Ghlorofaex smash his fist clean through the brigandine-armored mercenary, the last of the second group to arrive. There were easily sixty or seventy bodies strewn about the street and alley. I stepped out of the Crucible and slowly turned it until the blood that had accumulated during the battle poured out to mix with the gallons covering the cobblestones.
We’d let one live, of course. As we paused, catching our collective breaths, he was rushing to the self-styled Pirate King of the city, to tell him that an army of monsters were here to assassinate him.
”Call me Roussanne,” the arcanist had stated after her return, a newfound confidence visible behind her glowing blue eyes, and I wondered if her captor had been slain or was stashed away someplace for further retribution. I never found out, but it’s rude to ask. Revenge is a private thing.
Combined, our magics summoned five of the immense tyrannosaurs that had been so successful at wreaking havoc in the minutes of their existence. Roaring, they made a direct line towards the center of town, the lair of the Pirate King. Dozens of armored troops beat a tactical retreat before the stomping and roaring creatures, falling back to the stronghold of our target.
As we reached the square and the Pirate King’s fortress, the vast force our opponent had assembled stretched out below us, flying a dozen feet above the rooftops. For the moment, their eyes were focused on the approaching mayhem as the beasts rushed toward them. With a nod, Roussanne and I undid the magics binding the creatures to our plane, and they vanished.
“We are the monster army.”
I went right, Vega left, while Zeyara flew down into the thick of the enemy. Hastened by Vega’s quickening magics and bristling with dark energy, sharp invisibility, and slicing, smoke-enshrouded immensity respectively, the mage, the assassin and the I descended upon the enemy army—two hundred armored, veteran mercenaries, and several hundred more of the various scum the Pirate King called allies.
The truth of my sight allowed me to witness Zeyara’s stunning feats of murderous agility, spinning her way deep into the throng of sweaty, burly bodies—bodies which dropped one after another, victim to her fell blades and literally falling to pieces.
The Pirate King was shouting, and a few foolish cowled figures stepped forward, guestering at the sudden opponents. Vega—Roussanne—hurled a spinning vortex of fire into a clump of enemies, setting several homes aflame in the process. The enemy spellcasters hurled their assault at the floating arcanist, only to watch in dismay as the magic was casually dispelled by Roussanne and her dragon-polymorphed familiar.
Despite the damage, the exhortations of their leader drove the enemy warriors onward, desperately trying to reach me and figure out where the invisible Zeyara was. I saw, and smiled, spinning the Slicer of Domination in a wide arc to clear myself a bit of space from the melee. “YOUR KING IS DEAD,” I shouted, heedless of the celestial overlaid abyssal gibberish that was all the pirates heard. They saw me pointing with my Rune weapon, and enough glanced back to see Zeyara appear behind the screaming Pirate King. In one fell moment she lunged, the twin blades of her wakizashis bursting forth from the ruler of the city in a spray of blood, ending his last words mid-shout.
“BEHOLD YOUR NEW QUEEN!” the fetchling shouted dramatically, decapitating the corpse and hurling the head into the crowd.
There was almost silence for a moment, then one of Roussanne’s fireblasts roared into the void, re-igniting the pirate’s fervor against us—those it did not leave as scorched cinder.
As the hundreds of enemies pressed into us on all sides, there was a tremendous roar from above and a crackling beam of lightning reaved its way through dozens of our foes. Ghlorofaex emerged from his invisibility, the vast and sinister wyrm we had slain in Xin Shalast filling the sky as he dove. His wings, a hundred feet and more wide, raised a terrific wind as the blue dragon slowed itself before abruptly dropping onto a group of hapless pirates, crushed into paste.
Zeyara continued to carve her way through the surviving mercenaries, Vega finally tiring of the cowled mages and sucking the life out of both with a horrific spell. As the tally increased, our opponents began to waver, and suddenly they broke all at once, running back into the city, heading hopelessly towards the docks.
Shadelord Zeyara, Pirate Queen
They were not chased. When they reached the harbor, the place was still choked with ships seeking shelter from the approaching storm. Despite screamed threats and outright violence, it was impossible for the moored vessels to set sail—something had been preventing the ships furthest out from leaving the harbor.
As the panic continued to build, Ghlorofaex emerged from between the buildings, his immensity hidden by the stalking crouch he’d adopted. Gripping one of the spikes growing out of his dorsal ridge, Zeyara rode in plain sight, deftly leaping off the dragon’s neck as it lowered its head, a few dozen feet from the terrified remnants of the army.
“I am your new Queen,” Zeyara informed the group, voice amplified with Vega’s assistance. “Things are going to be different,” she began, explaining the new rules. Hundreds of dockworkers, pirate-citizens and children had gathered at the strange sight—gathered and froze in terror as the blue dragon turned its chilling gaze upon the crowd.
Roussanne went off to free the slaves we’d left unliberated—too easy to get stabbed or accidentally fireballed if they had been running around in the streets. Then, according to the plan, she’d teleport out and return with a half-dozen stone giant volunteers, liberating the booty belonging to the Pirate King and the various pirate captains who’d been slain in the fighting, bleeding sheets of flesh mapping out the most hidden locations through her terrifying magic.
Further along the docks, a group staring out to sea let out a ragged cheer, followed jarringly by screams of surprise and dismay. Beyond the rim of the harbor, a vast shape swooped down on an intrepid ship that had decided to brave the run to the sea. A searing bolt of electricity lanced down, cutting a swath of steam near the ship. Yawing violently, the vessel swung around, nearly capsizing in its haste to return to the harbor.
“Who are the captains? Come forward,” Zeyara demanded with silky intimidation, getting a murmur and shuffling feet but no definitive response from the crowd. After a moment, she changed tack. “First Mates, if you kill your captain and bring me his head you will take his position.”
Several brief, bloody struggles occurred in the seconds following the fetchling’s proclamation. One of the pirates hidden in the crowd took the opportunity to shout unmentionable insults at Zeyara as she watched the half-dozen mutinies that had broken out at her behest. Ghlorofaex snarled, and the crowd was backing away frantically, several people in the rear shrieking as they were pushed off the dock into the water as his massive clawed arm came down on what I assumed was the offending heckler, suddenly obscured by a spray of blood. Some of the pirates and most of the mercenaries pretended not to see the mangled lump of meat and bone; others gazed with sick fascination, the unidentifiable mess somehow more upsetting than all the cutting and fireballing that had been going on.
“You work for me now,” Zeyara began, voice still magically amplified with Vega’s assistance.
“BOW TO YOUR QUEEN!” I shouted.
And they did. Most of them. Those bowing felt a hair-raising tingle along their spines as, not so many inches above, a beam of corsucating lightning washed across the gathered humanity, dozens of rebellious and grumbling non-bowers charred and blackened into shards of charcoal.
“Accept my authority, and I will ensure your talents are put to the right use. We will all gain fabulous wealth. Some things are going to have to change first.”
The storm overhead rumbled, a peal of thunder giving the crowd a start. Zeyara looked up in mild annoyance, and I decided it’s work was done. As I released the magics holding the spell together, the roiling clouds began to split apart, sending gleaming rays of sunlight through the damp air. One of these played impressively across the scene of us, the fetchling gleaming strangely in the golden light while the shadowed masses watched her with rapt attention.
She laid out her case pretty well, considering she was addressing a mob of unruly pirate scum and the remnants of the mercenary police force trapped against the docks. With a choice of turn over half your treasure and kneel or walk away free but with nothing but the clothes on their back, the vast majority opted for the tribute. Over the next few days, there was dissent and sullen rebellion, but those she’d convinced, along with the newly-promoted pirate captains who brought her the heads of their former bosses, ensured she had enough momentum to deal with any opposition. The effect of six stone giant bodyguards, plate-armored and carrying oversized mauls reminiscent of Skalmold’s great hammer, as well as the occasionally-patrolling form of one of the dragons, had a distinctly calming influence on the city’s residence.
That, and invisibly sneaking around the city, listening, Zeyara was her own best spy. When the fetchling heard talk she determined was traitorous or seditious, witnesses saw the perpetrators of the crime punished immediately and from out of nowhere.
With magically-reinforced stone I improved the defenses around the Queen’s Manor, or whatever Zeyara chose to call her newly-acquired property, feasting with her and her new underlings regularly but staying out of things. Aside from recruiting attempts amongst some of the pirates with experience in naval warfare, at least.
The massive stacks of loot that the stone giants gathered were split between the group, most of it added to Zeyara’s treasury, with a portion going to the dragons and another to Roussanne’s desire to outfit the freed slaves with some potential future—land was cheap, but mules were expensive. Taking the most eager and experienced of the Cyphermages who studied the cryptic Thassalonian arch, the human spellcaster bid us farewell, returning to her new home in Xin Shalast.
Zeyara pulled the remaining pirate forces in with a mixture of personal magnetism and intimidation, her soft-yet-deadly voice entirely different from the blustering self-importance of the previous ruler. Achieving dominion over the city in less than a week, Zeyara was utterly confident in her rule. “And remember, I’ve never died, never gone down, not once,” the fetchling stated matter-of-factly. “Unlike some of you, I’m basically invulnerable.” I nodded, playing along with her harmless delusion, shuddering inside at the feeling of that disintegration ray—
Best not to dwell. Like the disgusting mouth-mandible thing that filthy tick stuck in me near the beginning of all of this. Damn the Tickwood—I decided to cleanse it or burn it down the first chance I got. Shaking my head, I turned back to look at Zeyara’s new city.
We’d been little better than mercenaries and wanderers two years ago; now we were the Warlord, Magelord and Shadelord of Varisia.
Smiling, I rose up and attached the Crucible to Ghlorofaex, watching the city shrink below me, thinking of all the things that still had to be done.
An Unforgettable Arrival
I was able to return to Magnimar before my absence was widely noticed. I ensured that my return was noticed by riding Ghlorofaex in all his magnificence. The tiny scrambling figures far below resolved into terrified people, the screams and shouts just heard above the roaring wind in my ears as we descended.
We wheeled around the city a few times, the deep rumbling bass of its roar echoing through the streets and off the cliff walls. “LOO CRET ZEE AAH-AH-Ah-ah!” Probably the best announcement I’ve ever had, it even gave me the shivers.
We landed in the city’s square across from my new fortress. Slowly, people began to emerge, regarding the vast spectacle of my sapphire-scaled ally with fear and wonder. After several hundred had accumulated, I gave a friendly wave and detached the Crucible of Blood from the dragon harness, floating impressively towards the House of Ushers to report some facts about the development in Riddleport.
Ghlorofaex nonchalontly assumed a brutish humanoid form before the eyes of the crowd, who let out a singular gasp as the dragon-turned-man followed me inside. Were there any other such beings, even now, masquerading and walking amongst them?
In the days to come, my army began to coalesce, equipped with quality dwarf-forged steel procured from our tentative trade agreement. Brief campaigns were embarked upon, attacks on several goblin encampments and other dangerous nuisances were conducted in the following months, culminating in a coordinated assault against the ogrekin in the hills near Turtleback Ferry, a month-long endeavor aided by a small number of giant troops.
The remaining four Fire-Beam Towers were completed, one atop the ruined structure in Sandpoint, solidifying our control over the Varisian coast and midland near the Torval Steps. I approached several Shoanti tribes, resulting in some regrettable bloodshed but ultimately succeeding in impressing upon them the importance of staying away from our lands.
Work on the Irespan continued at an impressive pace, stoneshaping elder giants and a few well-paid mages regrowing the shattered support pillars and reconnecting the bridge. As the it began to extend across the ruined section high above the water, reports of ghost lights seen in the distance became more frequent, and ships coming from the north told tales of gouts of fire erupting from the Hollow Mountain on Rivenrake Island, the bridge’s final destination.
As time wore on, and the adventures with my sisters faded further into memory, I had a stroke of maudlin genius. Skilled bards were hired to compose ballads of the Sisterhood of Steel, competing for the most epic rendition and the position of my personal bard. In addition, they were tasked with spreading anti-Chelaxian propaganda throughout the country. This was made easier by rumors that spoke of a new power in the Cheliaxian hierarchy, a woman known as Riskhva, most mentioning the use of hellfire to make her guards and servants into something beyond human. Talk against Korvosa was rampant throughout the common rooms and taverns of the region.
When the privateer fleet of Zeyara set sail for Chelaxian waters the following summer, I knew it wouldn’t be long.
With impatient anticipation, I awaited the upcoming war.