There is no turning back now, as our heroes gather in the back corner of the keep. Unknown numbers of bandits around them, to come running the moment they are discovered. Bandits and perhaps more lurking below, in the old cellars of the keep. Even as they collect themselves, they hear voices from out past the kitchen, two raised in argumentative tones, the third subdued and sullen. Scir is able to hear just enough of their speech to know someone is being sent to investigate the sounds made by Nithauk’s crashing descent into the keep. Quickly, they scramble to hide. Moments later, a malnourished adolescent bearing scars and recent bruises, steps through the door from the great hall. No sooner does the door shut behind him when a dagger point depresses the flesh of his throat, just under a line of hapless stubble that might one day be a beard.
The lad is no fool, and offers up neither a struggle or a sound, allowing them to lead him back to the base of the tower. He makes a soft choked sound at the sight of the half-elf’s broken body, but it seems more like surprise than grief. The youth proves thoroughly eager to answer their questions in return for his life, and they learn his name is Dreyus. From picking pockets in some distant village, he has traveled here reluctantly in the company of the bandits. His Common is oddly accented, and his dress marks him as a foreigner to these frontier lands as well. He tell them of the other bandits, skilled and organized, and led by a frightening death priest. The knows little of the bandit’s purpose, as his tasks among them are mainly serving their whims and dodging their abuse. He does urge them to make certain of two deaths among the bandits. He describes two particularly dangerous and savage lieutenants with a taste for torture.
He also cautions them to avoid the cellar depths, telling them that there are implacable and horrifying creatures of undeath patrolling the darkened halls. His fear of the catacombs is palpable, and no amount of threatening or cajoling will urge him down the stairs. With various light sources, from Ezio’s unsheathed sword to Nithauk’s carefully shielded sunrod, they creep down the spiral stairs. The depths of the keep prove to be dark and damp, with a a stench of death hanging heavy in the air. Through an archway, they find the remains of a chapel, once sanctified to Pelor, now desecrated by blood sacrifice. Steeling themselves to investigate, they search from clues about the grisly ritual.
Ezio is able to discern that the shrine was once dedicated to Jansraed the Golden, a Saint of Pelor, god of the sun and life. It has been desecrated, but not by an specific ritual or religious act. Instead, simple and brutal murder of sentient creatures has corrupted the sanctity of the place. A velvet tapestry is draped over a table, stained black with blood. The legs of the oaken table, where they can be seen, are stained a red-black. Congealed gore is pooled all around the table, glittering wetly in the flickering candlelight. The candles themselves are gruesome, rendered from the tallow of past victims. Backing away from the horrifying scene, they move further into the catacombs.
Through a dust laden door they find a crypt, every sarcophagus opened and the bones scattered about the room. A layer of dust covers everything. Most disturbing is the perfect pyramid of skulls, mostly human, stacked in the deepest reaches of the crypt. To all appearances, a few dozen skull, many of them from children, are stacked here. As with the rest of the room, the pile is covered with dust, though there is no sign of cobwebs. Kane notes that the infernal aura he detected on the fallow grounds outside is strongest here. But no undead, not even the most feebly animated skeletal remains. They decide to pull back from the thus far deserted depths of the keep, for they can hear distant sounds of movement above. The mysteries if the these dark halls will have to wait until the more immediate threat is dealt with.
Back up near the kitchens, they hear the two argumentative voices approaching again. This time they seem confused as to what is taking their servant so long to report, and sound most displeased at the delay. Their displeasure is rendered moot as they open the door from the great hall. A glowering construct of enchanted wood and mithral plates, forged in ancient time for long forgotten battles, stands before them. Cuts advances, glaring at the lead bandit over his shield, his sword clearing its sheath in a metallic hiss. The larger of the two stands to meet the advance, a nervous frown slowing replacing the initial naked shock on his features. Like Dreyus, the man is a foreigner. Unlike the boy, he is well fed and well equipped. So too, his more slender companion. The second bandit flinches in surprise, but recovers even faster than the larger one. An agile flip back onto his hands, and then another rotation, landing back some ten feet atop the large table which dominates the hall.
Even as Cuts and the larger bandit clash, the acrobatic one sends a knife spinning end over end… at the wall. Its pommel weight strikes a large bell set into the wall beside the hearth. The crashing ring of the bell reverberates through the keep, and shouts of alarm can be heard from the direction of the courtyard. With a roar from Scir, our heroes charge into the hall behind their Warforged ally, and the battle is joined. Crossbow quarrels and throwing knives whistle through the air, while blades sing off shields and parries. The main doors to the hall burst open as the bandits arrive in force. Snarling dogs trained to battle lead the way, followed by a mix of bandits. Elves, dwarves, humans… men and women… all bearing quality arms and displaying considerable skill.
Cuts takes up a deadly defensive stances, longsword flashing through an endless dance that slips past the guard of any who get close. Mikal’s battle song lends inspiration to allies, and sews confusion among he enemy. Even as he sings, he hurls plateware, cutterly, and even loaves of hard bread. The rain of improvised projectiles further confuses the bandits, directing their attention back to the lethal storm of steal that is Cuts. Scir criss-crosses their crumbling ranks, his clawed feet ripping into their shins, his shoulder battering their chests, and his axe finishing them off. Nithauk unleashes throwing knives and deft slashes as he ducks and weaves through the chaos of the battle. Ezio calls on Kord, wreathing one in radiant flames. Moments later, the apparition of a burning sword appears at his command, floating above the bandits to strike down at them. Kane gestures and an invisible hand grips one hapless bandit by the throat, dragging her into range of Cuts’ sword. Glaring at another, he conjures nightmare images from their subconscious, the sudden terror nearly causing them an aneurysm.
The battle is all but over in a few minutes, the bandits mostly slain. One, a Crimson elf with twin blades, continues to hold her own against Cuts, but she is tiring while the Warforged… cannot. Their battle slowly edges out the door into the courtyard. Even as it does, the door from the kitchens explodes into kindling. With a strength that knows no self-preservation, the undead creature has battered through it in a single blow. The bones of its hands and forearms are crushed to powder, but it does not seem to notice. Shambling forward with malevolent intent, the zombie prepares to attack Mikal. The bard’s song is useless on a creature who no longer hears music. Fortunately, Kane’s magic cares not whether the creature can hear or not. With a snarling curse in some eldritch tongue, the warlock channels fell power into the animated corpse until it bursts into flames and staggers back.
More zombies spill into the room, and with them a wave of chilling darkness that saps strength from limbs and will from the mind. Ezio meets this energy with its opposite, warmth and light flaring out from his holy symbol as he faces the undead creatures. Rallying to the new threat, our heroes engage the foul monsters bravely, first holding them and then driving them back. Nithauk uses his great size and considerable speed to devastating effect, executing a spinning grapple that sends one zombie careening back through the others. Bones break and flesh tears, weakening the hold of the animating magic. Into this temporary breach, Ezio and Scir advance, toward the heart of the deathly aura. Stepping to meet them, an undead Goliath crushes lesser zombies underfoot, dissipating the necromantic spells which lend the corpses their unlife. The Dragonborn lets his battle frenzy take over, his roar spiraling up into a crescendo of rage. In seconds, the massive zombie is prone on the floor. Next to the vicious cuts from a great axe, the slashes created by Ezio’s sword seem like nothing. However, the shimmering white flames still licking the edges of each cut tell a different story, and the cleric shares equally in the speedy kill.
Down the corridor, they can see the death priest chanting his spells, defended by two hulking skeletons. These last two undead creatures are horrific to look upon. The bones and claws of wild creatures are mingled with those of the races of men and goblins. Barbs jut outward from every joint, the hands end in vicious talons, and the over-sized skulls boast a staggering array of teeth and fangs. With a menacing clatter, the skeletons advance, accompanied by spell after spell from the evil priest. The chill creeping into their muscles, and the creeping fear at the edges of their thoughts, begin to slow even the frenzied Scir. Kane totters forward, his armor soaked through with sweat and gore, much of the latter now his own. Mikal staggers to lean against a wall, his heart and lungs clinging to life by the feeblest of measures. Nithauk appears to have no exposed skin which is not lacerated and weeping blood. Ezio stands unbowed before the onslaught of evil magic, a steady trickle of crimson from his nose, eyes, and ears.
With a hoarse and savage cry, Scir calls on the deepest reserves of fury in his blood. Flexing his powerful legs, he heaves the two skeletons aside and lunges forard. The great axe flashes through the air and cleaves into the torso of the evil priest. Ribs shatter into fragments, and the blade cuts a gaping rent from shoulder to hip, stopping only as it scrapes on the man’s spine. Blood and spittle foam from the priest’s mouth, drowning his last incantation in a soggy gurgle. Viscera and bile spill to the floor as the limp body slides off Scir’s axe and crumples to the flagstones. Both skeletons explode in the same instant, the dark magic binding them together and granting them unlife now hurling them apart as it dissipates. The hail of bone and talon tears through our heroes, threatening their demise even in the moment of victory. With the last of his strength, Ezio calls out a word of healing, staunching the wounds of his allies on all sides.
The silence that follows is broken only a few shuddering breaths and groans. They have survived. Their worst battle since facing the warped creatures of the Anthalp Vast, and they have emerged victorious. Barely, but they have. Cuts draws their collective attention when he lumbers into the hall from the courtyard. He moves slowly, the wooden fibers of his body slashed and chipped in numerous places. Here and there, mithral plates hang so loosely they threaten to fall free. The Warforged is already repairing, the same magic that imbued him with movement and purpose now mending the damage to his battered form. His sword and sword arm are awash in red, clearly indicating that the last bandit is no more. Too much of her blood is on spattered on Cuts for her to still live. They share a moment, eyes tracking from face to face. Slowly, split and swollen lips peel back from red-stained teeth. Bruised cheeks flex painfully, as one by one they surrender to an exultant grin. Cuts cannot smile, but the light in his eyes betrays elation and mirth as well. The joy of survival, the affirmation of life and of victory.
Kane spits to the side, clearing his throat and chuckling darkly. Mikal’s laugh is less bitter, more heartfelt. Scir’s bellowing laughter is tinged with that dangerous hint of hysteria that always lingers in the wake of an all-consuming battle rage. Ezio shouts out praise to Kord, smiling as though he does not feel his own injuries. Nithauk is the most reserved, his smile tainted by sorrow as he scrapes up the piles of dirt left behind when the Goliath zombie was released from necromantic thrall. They take water from the well to wash the battle from their skin, armor, and weapons. Binding one another wounds, and sharing a bit of ale from the bandits’ stores, they slowly replenish their strength. The ruined keep is theirs. Now, to find out what they’ve won.