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.