Saturday, December 17, 2022

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #41

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.

Friday, November 18, 2022

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #40

 Vampire Neighbors, part II

The party debates how to convey the sad news to Lady Floressa, ranging from empathy to scientific proof of vampires to simple intimidation (“How dare you question my word!”).  In the end they settle for a business-like approach. In the Count’s throne room they present him with the swords of Viscount Godard (the leader) and Sir Jared (the son) of the Tower.

“Your vampire problem is resolved. We regretfully bring you these tokens of fallen heroes.”

They also hand over the keys to the tower as a sign that they are forgoing any claim on the building or its land.

Lady Kalyn is devastated and retires for the night. Count Forianus is grief-stricken, but duty calls. He explains that it is not just the loss of his son that hurts; but also, the loss of the Tower, which has been a bulwark against the Wild and Varsoulou and its demons.

At this the Bard digs in his heels. “There are no demons,” he repeats. “Just vampires.”

The Count chooses not to argue. “Regardless; the threat from Varsoulou remains real. Many times their raids have been blocked by the strength of the Tower. If the Hammer of the Desert (Varsoulou’s famous troop of high-ranked knights) comes to knock on my door, I will be hard-pressed to answer. And your own lands lie exposed to the East; you too may find yourself disturbed at odd hours.”

He proposes an agreement: should Varsoulou move against either of them, the other will come to their aid. He also suggests that the party travel to the remaining counties, both to introduce themselves as new peers of the realm and to warn of the danger from Varsoulou. His bard Margaretha, however, asks them not to travel to the capital at present, as she wishes some time to best frame the news about the Tower in a way that will not diminish her lord’s influence.

The party finds this accords with their own plans. The Cleric heads home to their keep in Irlyd, as he has no desire to encounter the zealous Vicar again (and also because the player couldn’t make this session). The rest slip north through the hinterlands of County Edersarr to the sea, where they hire House Marconi’s boat again. This time they are welcome to keep their weapons on hand, though, their reputation still intact from their previous dealings. The fee for a quick jaunt up to Ieppyxoox and then Dearl is only 100 gp, a small sum compared to their last travel fee but one the Druid still tries to haggle over.

However, at the port of Ieppyxoox, the crew refuse to dock, doing no more than pulling alongside a pier. The docks are empty of life, to all appearances abandoned. The party investigates first a warehouse and then the town, finding nothing living in the fresh snow. A few clues are uncovered: a headless body that the Druid determines died of smoke inhalation, a wolf-print in a garden, and the tracks of what could be zombies at a battleground with more headless bodies. A barn on the edge of town is stacked with headless peasants; the entire county seems to have been carried off by a series of raids from indeterminate sources over the last year. The party spends the night in the keep, expecting an attack at any moment, but finding nothing but emptiness.

They return to the dock and signal their boat, which comes in to pick them up. A day at sea gives the Druid time to try a new spell: scrying, the art of spying on your enemies. After an hour of intense concentration over a bucket, the water suddenly stills and reflects the image of a beautiful woman in a fine evening gown lying in a satin-padded coffin. The lady does not open her eyes, but she does make a rude gesture with her fingers; for this is Lady Night, and she knows that she is being observed. The Druid is disappointed at how little information his spell reveals, aside from the brute fact that the vampiress is still an active foe. And also that she’s doing quite well for herself, judging from all the jewellery.

In Dearl they receive a more normal welcome. Hustling off the boat at dusk, they march south to the town by midnight, mindful of the King’s Curfew. Announcing themselves as the new rulers of Irlyd, they are greeted by the Vicar, his retinue, and a room full of knights.

As the Bard recounts their warning about vampires, the Vicar’s face turns to stone. It comes out later that someone suggested King Ragnar might be somehow be associated with vampires, and the Vicar considers such talk treasonous. However, a contemptuous mention of alleged demons energizes the Vicar immediately.

“The Varsouloueans are demon-lovers, always have been. We all know that. And now they send the monsters against us!”

“There are no demons,” the Bard repeats with exasperation. “The courts we cleared out were vampires.”

The Vicar is astounded. “Varsoulou can use their demons to turn people into vampires? We are truly beset by evil! And with the loss of the Tower, I fear they will raid my lands even more.”

A little quizzing discovers that while Dearl has suffered some losses, the Vicar has not in fact actually seen a demon yet. However, he says that every night he and his retinue camp in a different village, hoping to interrupt a demon attack. He invites the party to do the same, offering the tael of the foes they destroy without tax, in addition to his appreciation and a tentative alliance against Varsoulou.

The party, sensing an Adventure Hook, agree. Soon they are standing in a village square, enjoying a small fire against the cold night, with bottles of holy water in their hands. They are certain they will soon be attacked by vampires: the only question is whether the vampires will turn out to be Vicar Dearl and his court.

A scream from the edge of the village sends them dashing to the rescue. What appear to be half a dozen zombies are trying to break into a house. The Ranger begins firing arrows while the Bard and Barbarian rush into battle.

They quickly discover these are not zombies, as their weapons are strangely ineffective and the creatures keep emitting clouds of poisonous gas. The Ranger is rendered helpless almost immediately, and three of the monsters tackle him to the ground, biting and clawing. The Barbarian does enough damage to cut through their strange resilience, but the Bard finds himself also on the ground, sickened and grappled.

The Barbarian destroys the creatures around him. Ignoring both their stench and the danger, he begins chopping at the pile swarming the Bard. He dispatches one, but then his next strike goes awry and he almost kills the Bard!

The Druid turns into a bear. Much to his surprise, his claws bypass their defenses and he begins decimating them at will. The Ranger realizes that innate goodness is the only effective weapon, and promptly punches a monster to death with his bare hands.

And then the real monster shows up. A winged demon drops from the sky and attacks the Druid-bear from behind, unleashing a fury of attacks and ton of damage. When the Druid and the Barbarian attack back, they are discomfited to find the monster is protected by many shifting images. Worse, it breathes spores instead of poisonous gas, and now the two heroes are covered in a web of viny growths that burrow into their skin. They shrug off the damage and its attempted stunning attack, but the images absorb many of their blows. Once they finally dispatch all the images, the monster shrugs and summons more. And then tears huge bloody chunks out of the bear.

Despite all of this, the two of them are successfully inflicting pain on the monster. After only two rounds of combat it decides to retreat, flying out of reach. The Barbarian jumps after it, trying to catch it, but it shrugs him off. However, thirty feet above them, it stops fleeing. Instead it glares at the Barbarian, and he begins to rise into the air!

The Druid catches him by the ankles, stopping his ascent (though the Barbarian was not particularly concerned, as a simple fall from 1,000 feet would probably not kill him). Both the Barbarian and the Ranger hit the monster with arrows, and do damage despite its formidable defense. This is enough; the creature flees into the night. The few remaining lesser monsters are quickly dispatched. A dose of holy water cures the viny growths, though the Bard delays telling the Barbarian this for several rounds, due to a grudge over his indiscriminate swordery.

The party gains little treasure from this encounter as the main foe has escaped, but they have learned much. Lady Night is indeed still a danger; County Dearl is still among the living; and there really are demons that can fly in, summon a horde of lesser demons, and lay waste to whole villages. This was the fate of Ieppyxoox, apparently, and may soon be the fate of Dearl.

Belatedly they realize that the Nightmare-flying vampires of the Tower may have actually protected Aechoamoapp from actual flying demons. The status of the throne is now more urgent than ever. Demons and vampires threaten the realm; is King Ragnar a friend or foe in this existential fight?

Sunday, October 23, 2022

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #39

 Vampire Neighbors, part I

The nearest neighboring counties are Gaebbalea and Aechoamoapp (apparently the Markov chain in my name generator was feeling Welishish), the latter of which is home to the Order of the Tower, a frenemie of old. The party resolves to test these lesser courts before investigating the royal throne.

First they indulge their perpetual hobby of fortifying. The peasantry are drafted into diverting a stream to flow around the keep, on the theory that vampires cannot cross running water. The morale penalty for the draft corvee is waived, as the keep is where the people expect to hide from vampires and thus they are doing this in their own interest. The Druid relieves the townsmen of a year of taxes on the condition that they surrender their silver coinage to be beaten into arrowheads for the two companies of archers, a far more tangible defense than esoteric theories. The question of castellan is resolved by installing the perpetually book-distracted wizard in a room of the keep.

With the town thus secured, the party sets out at the onset of night to visit the nearest court.

The town of Gaebbalea is in as sorry a state as Irlyd, with at least half the houses sitting vacant. The county was always struggling, having lost its previous lord and significant amounts of land to a poorly conducted dispute with Earl Theodorick some years in the past; the deprivations of the Varsoulouean demons have broken it in half. The innkeeper is roused from sleep, but happy enough to host nobles and their gold, a rare enough occurrence in the best of times. The Bard engages in light conversation and receives several concerning rumors, such as the fact that the local knights now ride Dire Wolves rather than horses and the opinion that Viscount Anazel has undergone a complete personality reversal since the King’s Curfew. He also uncovers that a demonic attack occurred only two weeks ago. After several hours of debate, the party decides to investigate the location.

A peasant hut, with the roof torn off, scattered scorch marks, and a single hoof-print in the ground, do not provide much in the way of clues. Reluctantly the Ranger accedes to the party’s original plan, which is simply to walk up to the keep and ask if the inhabitants are now vampires.

They arrange to arrive at the keep gates at the tail end of curfew, just before the sunrise. Announcing themselves as simple adventurers, they receive an invitation to the keep and the morning meal that is now dinner for the night-dwelling nobility. The Viscount is in good cheer and happy to have visitors, especially when they assert they are adept demon hunters. As it turns out, the Viscount has a demon problem, and he’s happy to house and feed mercenaries if they will help patrol his lands.

The Bard then explains that they already destroyed four demons in Irlyd. Anazel is confused; he explicitly is concerned about three flying demons that appear as clouds of smoke. If they slew four, that would seem excessive to requirements. It also means he no longer needs their help, but he is not graceless enough to immediately withdraw his invitation.

The Barbarian, feeling that the investigation is not really generating results, challenges Anazel to an arm-wrestling contest. Being a knight of prowess himself, Anazel thinks this is a grand idea, but only if they bet a purse of gold on the match. The Druid, as keeper of the treasury, is thus paying keen attention to the contest to make sure their gold is fairly lost. Which is why he sees the black energy flowing out of the Barbarian and into Viscount Anazel as the Viscount smashes the Barbarian’s hand to the table and traps it there. The Druid staggers back, his hand thrust out in accusation, as he shrieks “Vampire!”

The rest of the party is quick to join the battle. The Ranger leaps onto the table and stabs at the Lady Floressa. She blocks the thrust with a pewter goblet and stares back into his eyes but his will survives the challenge. The Cleric begins chanting and two of the six knights on guard behind the table break and flee, cowering in the corners. The Barbarian draws a dagger with his free hand and stabs at Anazel, but to no effect: the man is in full armor and protected by the unnatural nature of vampirism to boot. In response Anazel squeezes tighter, flowing yet more black energy from his victim. The Bard, of course, sings a rousing marching song.

The Ranger ignores the knights rushing to their lady’s aid, and stabs her directly through the heart. As expected, she turns to smoke. The Bard assume gaseous form while the Druid outlines her insubstantial form with Fairie Fire, their tried and true vampire-lair finding technique. The Barbarian puts his feet on the table and jumps backwards, freeing himself from Anazel’s powerful grip. In response the Viscount leaps on the table, draws his sword, and clobbers the Ranger well and proper but still not enough to incapacitate him. The Cleric chants harder, and two vampire knights simply turn into smoke on the spot.

One of the remaining knights runs to the door behind the table and throws it open, despite the first rays of sun creeping over the horizon. The other moves to flank the Barbarian. The Barbarian, having been drained of four ranks, discovers that he is no longer the death-dealing whirlwind of destruction he is accustomed to being. His feeble attacks accomplish nothing. Nonetheless, the battle seems to be solidly in the party’s favor.

Then half a dozen Dire wolves rush into the room, snarling and biting. Worse, two more Dire Wolves appear from nowhere on the other side of the room. The Ranger is now beset by fangs and a vampire knight, the Barbarian is surround by wolves summoned and real and the fury of Lord Anazel, the Cleric has a face full of fangs, and the Bard is drifting above it all and looking down in dismay as he slowly chases the Lady Floressa through a vent in the ceiling.

The Druid decides to provide classic medieval entertainment, in the form of a bear-baiting. He turns into a Dire Bear and plows into a knot of Dire Wolves, and both sides engage in a bloody melee. The bear destroys a wolf with every attack, but there are lot of wolves, and they do tremendous damage, as the Ranger can attest when one almost pulls him off the table. He kills it, but then the vampire knight stabs him and he collapses bleeding, now just a table setting for vampires. The Cleric manages to dispel one of the summoned wolves, and attacks the other with hammers physical and spiritual. Meanwhile, the Barbarian cowers in the midst of the melee, being beaten like a drum. Only his defensive blocking keeps him alive through it all.

Upstairs the Bard has found that the Lady’s crypt is in fact her bedroom. As her form solidifies and begins to regenerate, he dismisses his spell, breaks off a bed post, and hammers it through her heart. Then he readies another and waits for Anazel to appear. However, after several tense moments wherein he can hear the sound of heavy combat below, he decides that waiting might be in vain, and dashes for the stairs to rejoin the battle. In fact he returns just in time, to see Anazel mounted on a summoned Dire Wolf storming around the room and clobbering people with his glowing sword. The Bard charges across the room, leaping off of the table, his halberd sparking with electrical energy and his mirror images trailing in his wake like an 80’s Bionic Man action shot, and cuts the Viscount’s head clean off.

Before the party can even cheer, he turns around and runs upstairs again to finish the job.

In short order the vampire knights’ regenerating bodies are found in their barracks beds and destroyed. The party once again assembles a town to inform them of the change of management. And again few are surprised; the last year has been disastrous, and blaming the previous lord for either being the cause of it or failing to prevent it is a distinction without a difference. After a brief discussion the party suggests that what remains of this town should relocate to what remains of Iryld town, where there is a functioning and staffed keep. The townspeople readily agree. The peasants, of course, remain in their villages, but nonetheless are satisfied as Irlyd keep is hardly any further away than this one. While the town packs its bags, the party heads east to Aechoamoapp, expecting the worst.

This county was always larger than the other two, and seems slightly less despoiled. A brief stop in the inn reveals a town that is still functioning, and also that Count Forianus keeps to the King’s Curfew scrupulously. This is slightly mitigated by the fact that Forianus has a reputation for scruples in all contexts, as he and his pyromancer wife represent the ideal of Edersarrian nobility. Still, the party has seen fit to up their game: they are now bearing vials of holy water manufactured by their Cleric. Thus armed they journey again just before dawn to a keep they assume will be crawling with vampires.

This time they identify themselves as neighboring lords. Lady Margaretha, the Minister of Coin, greets them with fair if noncommittal words but the mood of the room is hostile. The Bard responds in equally discursive terms, each side trying to suss out the other’s secret agenda. Finally it comes down to brass tacks: the party asserts they have been killing entire courts of vampires, while Forianus presumes that is just an excuse for them to add to their lands.

Mind you, he’s not particularly disturbed by their murder of two low-level courts. It is a legal and acceptable act: a lord who cannot defend his own is no lord. They have gained the right of land-rule by the right of force, and as long as they obey the King, pay their taxes, and limit abuse of the common folk to some reasonable standard, they are no different than any other lord. Still, he would rather not be added to their ledger.

The Bard argues for the reality of vampires but realizes they have no compelling evidence. The conversation turns tense and it begins to look like swords might be drawn, until the Barbarian once again decides to cut through the niceties and straight up challenges Forianus to prove he is not a vampire.

The lord is too perplexed to be angry. “How, exactly, would I do that?” he asks.

The Barbarian responds by producing a flask of holy water. “Drink this!”

Forianus is a reasonable man. If he can avoid bloodshed by drinking a glass of water, he will, despite the borderline rudeness of the demand. But he’s no fool; he hands the flask to his Curate first, who divines it for magic and poison.

This open spell-casting looks like a potential to disarm the trap, but the Cleric’s spellcraft tells him the Curate cast naught but simple detections. When Forianus downs the pint in a single draught, the party relaxes. But before the court can do the same, the Bard brings up the next sticking point.

“We’ve heard rumors that the Order of the Tower has fallen to the vampires,” he says.

This is a bridge too far for the Count. “Though we have had our differences in the past,” he thunders, “Baron Godard is an honorable man. I will not tolerate calumny of his good name on the strength of idle talk.”

“Of course not,” interjects Margaretha, “The Baron’s honor is sufficient, after all, to allow your own son into his service. Yet it has been seasons since we have had word from the Tower. The King’s Curfew makes it impossible to travel hence and return in a single night, and of course your Lordship cannot abandon his post even for a night in these troubled times. Yet these wandering lords might well travel that way, and perhaps could do us the favor of delivering a letter from a mother to a son; and perhaps, even, return a reply.”

The Bard instantly sees the value of this ruse. It is an iron-clad excuse to knock on the door of the Tower and idle a few hours in their vestibule, with the imprimatur of the landlord while risking none of his authority.

While the Barbarian challenges the Count to another arm-wrestling contest (in which the bets are drinks, and which the Barbarian loses quite dramatically), the Bard confers with his counterpart, Margaretha. In private, as she hands over said letter, Margaretha makes it clear that there is no good way to tell the lord and lady that their son is a monster. Better that the party return with news that all is well, or at least inclusiveness, rather than with a tale of undead and death. The Bard realizes he cannot promise that; the party’s track record of walking away without leaving behind utter destruction is quite poor betting odds. He only asserts that they will do their best. While marching westward the party discusses the various deceits they might employ on their return, such as “when we got there, everybody was already dead,” which, while having the benefit of being true, is still nonetheless not particularly helpful.

This discussion of etiquette is cut short by the Druid’s hawk, shivering in the light snow on his shoulder and plucking at the Druid’s ear. In the distance he can see what looks like three clouds, moving low and fast. This time he points silently, and half the party immediately responds by trying to hide in a snow-drift.

Not the Barbarian, of course; he straps a lightstone to his helmet so he can see despite the darkness and snow. That this makes him a target does not bother him in the least. He readies his greatsword and waits with little more than a sneer of contempt.

The Cleric backs him up, preparing a prayer, while the rest of the party carries on a taxonomic discussion about the smoky clouds. Before they can reach any firm conclusions, the clouds are upon them; they dive down to the ground at fantastic speeds and swoop past their targets, the Barbarian, the Cleric, and the Druid (whose Hide skill is not as great as he thinks it is).

The clouds are revealed as Nightmares, each bearing a knight of the Order of the Tower. Improbably, their lances all miss, and they streak back up into the sky and wheel around for another pass. The Ranger shoots blindly into one of the clouds, and with his usual perverse luck, actually scores a hit; the Druid calls lightening down on another of the clouds, unaware that their undead nature makes the nigh-immune to that attack. As the three threats swoop down again for another potentially deadly pass, the Cleric rebukes them. The Nightmares change course, climbing high and soon disappearing into the snow-choked darkness.

Realizing they only have a few minutes of respite, the party quickly comes to a new strategy. The Bard reaches deep into his repertoire, exhausting all his skill and art to render them all invisible. The Druid flicks his fingers and makes them untraceable. Now they continue their six-hour journey to the tower without fear of discovery.

Once there, they repeat themselves. They hide in the bar until the sun comes up. After that they approach the silent and dead keep with a degree of stealth they have hitherto not displayed. The Bard casts a sphere of silence, allowing the Barbarian to chop down the keep’s door by force without alerting the occupants. They slip inside, and go room to room, opening doors and staking vampires. The first one has a brief moment of risk when the Ranger falls under the compulsion of the vampire knight hanging upside down from the ceiling, but due to the effects of the silence spell the vampire cannot command him, so the Ranger simply stands there while the Barbarian and Druid chop and burn the vampire to dust. After that the Barbarian dispatches each vampire before they can even act.

A room with a several Dire Wolves is simply avoided; the sorceress of the Tower manages to get off a few freezing spells but she is low rank and the damage is trivial. Her attempt to flee out the window is blocked by the rays of the sun, and the Ranger stabs her to death in the next instant (he seems to have a thing about that). Then they reach the third floor and the heart of the resistance.

Faced with three Nightmares and five vampires, one would expect an epic battle. Instead it is a rout, literally. The Cleric sends the Nightmares fleeing, breaking out the windows and taking a good part of the wall with them. In return the vampires identify him as the single greatest threat, and subject him to five successive and increasingly powerful domination attempts, all of which he easily refutes.

The Ranger feathers the Tower’s bardess (again with that thing), the Bard riddles the lesser of the vampire knights with arcane missiles, and the Barbarian charges forward with a whirling attack. The remnants of the vampires attempt to subjugate the Barbarian next, but their success is thwarted when the Cleric simply casts Protection on the Barbarian. And then all the vampires die.

The Order of the Tower, which has stood against Varsoulou and the wild for decades, has fallen twice in a year: once to vampires, and now again to heroes. All that is left is the looting, and the search for an adequate apology to the Lady Floressa for the second death of her only son.