Vampire Neighbors, part III
The party heads for the last county of unknown status: Iochoarr, home of the Earl Theodoric, a paladin of high rank. They know him as the leader of the War Party back in the days of the Spice Wars.
He welcomes them into his castle and takes their news about Irlyd well; he never thought much of Baron Darcio anyway. Mostly he seems intent on sounding out their views on possible contenders for the throne, should something untoward happened to King Ragnar. He gets as blunt as preparing to challenge any of them to a deadly joust if they do not recognize his superiority.
Surprisingly, none of the party wants the job of king; they’re happy to let Theodoric do it. This ends what could have been a potentially dangerous encounter on good terms. When he receives the news about the utter devastation of Ieppyxoox, his words begin to border on treason. For one party to seize the throne from another is just life as usual; for an entire county to be exterminated is a failure of royal duty.
The party then leaves for the capital, promising to report back to Theodoric on the state of affairs therein, and potentially with evidence sufficient for Theodoric to declare for the throne. As they are leaving the Earl happens to mention that his fellow paladin Count Kird died at the beginning of the demon war, a fact that grieves the party as he was a true ally.
The capital seems healthy enough, having suffered only moderate despoilment in the on-going demonic attacks. Rumors abound, though, such as the conflicting claims that Ragnar’s sister has been abducted by or sought refuge with the Order of the Edge, a knightly house even more powerful than the Order of the Tower. Faced with three options – seek an audience with the king, investigate the Order, or call on the new Minister of War to pay their respects – sees them choose the least committal of these actions. After all, they know how to get into the royal stables where the Minister holds court, having visited Kird there many times.
They are unpleasantly surprised to find the stables full of Dire Wolves instead of noble war horses, but this is the least of the unpleasant surprises for the night. When they meet the new Minister in a barn full of large dangerous canines, he turns out to be none other than Payson Graylek! (Long-time readers will recall him as the demon-summoning sorcerer from the start of their adventuring career – they arrested him and turned him over to royal justice, only to see him wriggle out from consequences. Well, other than the fact that they burnt his house down.) To see this vile creature in the office of the noble Count Kird is an insult.
But Graylek is not alone; the Minister of the Arcane, Yeron the Skald, is also in the barn. He quizzes the party on their adventures, and interrupts their war of words with Graylek to have a side-conversation with the Bard. At this moment things are put into motion that will have far-reaching consequences.
The Bard has suspicion only for Graylek, and thus is completely unprepared with Yeron stares into his eyes and crushes his will with vampiric domination. Only the Cleric notices that something has changed in the Bard’s manner. He can tell that something has happened, but cannot distinguish whether it is arcane enchantment or supernatural domination. Smoothly he maneuvers next to the Bard and places his hand on his shoulder as if to say, “Time to leave,” but in fact he casts Protection from Evil, risking everything on a choice between two spells, one to foil arcane and the other to foil vampires.
He makes the right choice. The Bard immediately begins casting a defensive spell, aware that only seconds ago Yeron was in his head. Yeron begins a spell, Graylek notices and starts his own, as does the Druid, and the Barbarian leaps into the middle of the room attacking an entire knot of Dire Wolves. The Ranger also decides to stab a random wolf because it seems to be the thing to do.
Then the wolves start biting. And they bite hard! Mirror Images save the Bard, but the Cleric takes a tremendous bite and eats a heat ray from Graylek. One round into combat and the Cleric is already facing death. The Barbarian saves him by stabbing the attacking wolf, and then in an astonishing feat of swordsmanship uses the attack to cleave into the rest of the wolves, killing them all. This frees the Cleric to Rebuke Undead, which sends Grayson cowering into a corner. Yeron responds by dominating the Cleric and ordering him to kill the Barbarian.
The Bard and the Barbarian attack Yeron, but the man is now protected by several layers of magic and all they succeed in doing is eliminating a few of his images. Yeron’s response is to dominate the Barbarian and order him to kill the Cleric! Fortunately the Bard strikes an enchanting note on his lyre and breaks the curse before the Barbarian can carry out the command. Yeron then attempts several area-effect spells, none of which have any effect on his foes, while the Barbarian simply ignores the Cleric’s feeble attacks and the Bard whittles down Yeron’s images.
Meanwhile the Ranger and Druid finish off the rest of the wolves. The Druid then charges the cowering Graylek, hoping to destroy him in a single attack. The Barbarian, frustrated by so much magic defense, pauses to intimidate Yeron. Much to everyone’s surprise, it works: Yeron simply disintegrates into a cloud of smoke. Graylek follows suit and soon both of them have gone down a drain pipe.
Not to worry, because the Bard goes gaseous and follows them (apparently forgetting that both of them are in fact still combat capable). However, he comes to fork in the pipe; choosing the left hand, he soon runs into a sealed end. Going back and choosing the other fork dumps him in a small basement room with an old servant whiling away the time whittling and half a dozen pipe entrances; the servant appears to be waiting for a signal from the cloud of gas, and when it doesn’t come, he places an end-cap on the pipe behind the Bard’s gaseous form.
The Bard becomes solid and easily bluffs the servant into answering a few questions. He finds out there are several rooms like this under the castle, staffed by other servants, who close or open the pipes according to signals from the clouds of gas that sometimes pass through. He also confirms that no other gas has appeared in this room tonight, meaning that the vampires the Bard was pursuing went to a different room and shut the pipe behind them. Foiled, he returns to the stable, where the party is planning their next move.
At some point the Protection from Evil spell lapses… but no one remembers. The Bard is now secretly under the command of Yeron the vampire, as is the Cleric. (Notes are passed under the table between the DM and a player!) The Bard suddenly goes from arguing for a hasty retreat to arguing for an immediate assault on the Order of the Edge. Since his arguments about maintaining the element of surprise are sound, he wins the day, and the party quickly rushes through the night to the gates of the keep.
It is there, just as they are about to assault another tranche of vampires, that the Druid asks the Cleric what actually happens when the Protection from Evil spell expires. In response… the Bard casts Doom on the party and the Cleric summons a hammer to kill the Barbarian. A full-on party on party fight begins, with comic results. The Cleric Air-walks towards higher ground, trying to get room to hammer the Barbarian to death; while the Bard and Barbarian begin chopping at each other with swords and halberds. The Druid turns into a bear and unleashes a deadly blizzard of claws and fangs on the Cleric, only to be foiled at the last second by the Bard blinding him and causing him to miss (the Druid had rolled a critical hit and would have killed the Cleric outright by accident!). Then the Bard casts Fear and drives the Barbarian into the night.
The Druid turns his attention to the Bard and knocks him out easily, remembering at the last minute to switch to non-lethal damage. The Ranger follows the misty form of the Cleric through the streets, firing arrows up at him while he vainly tries to find the fleeing Barbarian and complete his command. Eventually the Ranger manages a bring down the Cleric, although another critical hit provides a momentary bit of drama.
Now that both their dominated fellows are unconscious, the party binds them and makes a total retreat, running all the way back to the safety of Earl Theodoric and his Curate. They stagger back into the Earl’s hall in terrible shape: one member blind and two raving of vampires. The Curate puts them all in order pretty quickly, and then Theodoric calls a war council.
It is clear that King Ragnar must be a vampire; it is impossible that two members of his retinue are vampires and he, a high-ranking cleric, does not know. It is not yet certain whether the Order of the Edge is compromised, though the party strongly suspects they are. The party considers fleeing once again, but realizing that any foes they face now will be just as dangerous and at least here they have some allies, decide to try again. They load up on potions and precautions (making the Curate very happy and very rich) and plot to return to the Order and determine the truth. Meanwhile, Theodoric will travel north to county Dearl, make his peace with the Vicar, and recruit the man to rebellion. For rebellion it must be; a vampire king cannot be allowed to stand!
This was the most unprofitable and dangerous mission the party ever faced, with the potential for a total party kill while there were no actual enemies on the board at all! Everything depended on a few key moments, from the Cleric noticing that the Bard had been dominated to the Druid remembering that the counter spells only temporarily stopped the effect before the next combat started to the Bard blinding the Druid before he murdered someone. It was both frustrating and hilarious at the same time.