After the meal, the Duke asks to speak with Grundle privately about certain personal matters, leaving Ines and Edgar in the care of the Duke's manservant, Lucius. The old servant takes them through some of the estates more scenic halls, to view the wondrous collection of treasures the Duke has acquired over such a long history, when Excellia whispers to the pair that she can sense the presence of artifacts from Golgorin nearby. Sensing duplicity on the part of their host, Edgar and Ines are determined to seek out these treasures.
While Ines distracts the old manservant by charmingly asking about the history of a particularly intricate painting on the wall, Edgar slips through a nearby side door and, following Excellia's direction, comes to another door in the next hall behind which are belongings from the demon city. Putting his eye to the keyhole, Edgar can make out two figures in some kind of workshop, and he can hear them battering over some sort of transaction. One of the voices sounds like it could belong to the clockwork, Dervish, who rode off with Grundel the Goblin's bag of artifacts from so long ago.
Sneaking back to Ines and Lucius, a quick and decisive plan is put into action as Edgar knocks out the old servant abruptly from behind. With time working against them now, Edgar is put on the spot as he is forced to have a quick heart to heart with Ines over his true nature… as his face melts away, and he takes on the guise of the manservant, Lucius. With little time to discuss the act, the two find a side parlor to stash the old man, while Edgar takes his clothing to put their plan into action.
Rapping upon the door to the workshop, Edgar enters under the guise of the manservant, to find the Duke's artificer in the midst of a transaction to buy a pair of artifacts from Dervish (as suspected). The moment is tense, but through some quick conversing, Edgar is able to bring their transaction to a quick and successful close, and as Dervish leaves the scene, Edgar informs the artificer that the Duke wishes his manservant to bring the artifacts to him immediately. The end result is that the Edge walks out of the workshop with two demonic artifacts in his possession: the Horn of Golgorin, whose sound is beautifully inspiring and brings tears to the eyes of men, and the Mirror of Souls, a tiny framed mirror which can trap the essence of spirits within itself.
Quickly reuniting with Ines, the pair return Lucius' clothes to his unconscious form and try and doctor the scene as best they can to hide their actions, before returning with good timing to meet the Duke and Grundle in the dining hall. The party bids a hasty adieu to their host, and before any more chaos breaks loose, they depart the Duke's estate with their prize.
DREAMS OF THE FIRST BORN
That night, the sleep of our party is disturbed by a terrible vision: a visage of a great, charred skull, wreathed in flame, looms out of the darkness of their psyche, haranguing portentous words:
"Children of a crumbling empire, heed the call. Those who walk under the shadow, those who see past the veil of the mortal realm, your world blackens, cracks… rots away, as the corrupt lords of a failing theocracy seek to secure their chains about you, to use you as the bulwark against a dying world on the verge of collapse. The hypocrites and fools who guide the machine of your empire will grind your bones to dust to secure their lives of privilege and power, even knowing its collapse is inevitable."
These are the words Ines hears, before an image of Astrid appears in her mind, sheltering her with comforting, warm light and sending her into sleep. For others, though, the vision continues:
"There is hope for all, children of the failed empire… for the Rebirth of Gog is imminent. We stand on the verge of a world where the frailty of flesh will fall away and the strength of one's spirit is all that will determine one's fate. The false wall between life and death will be torn down and all will experience immortal existence."
In Edgar's tumultuous mind, he can feel the presence of the shades of Jacob, Mina, and Agatha looking up upon this vision along with his own consciousness, the attention of all who inhabit his body rapt on the vision before he, too, falls into true slumber. For one, though, the vision continues:
"The time is at hand, children of the world! Rise up and throw off your chains… Cast down the carrion birds that feast on the festering corpses of your cities and your people, for the old Empire comes again, to claim you everlasting…"
As Grundle hears this last portion, he feels as if the great fiery vision before him is reaching out toward him with a dark, cold hand… but before it reaches him, he awakes, haggard and haunted.
MEETING WITH MILDRED
Before the party gets down to any other business, Edgar is summoned to the quarters of the Lady Commander there in the Grand Citadel at an early hour. Coming to meet the Commander, Edgar is relieved of all weapons and shown into the quarters of the visiting Lady.
Mildred Veld is a stern, but civil woman, inviting her guest to sit and recount in personal detail his description of the events on the caravan road and the demon city. At the end, the Lady Commander takes a moment to reflect over all that was recounted before her, before thanking the man for his service. Edgar, for his part, seems hesitant to accept any praise given the state of affairs as they stand, and offers to return the money he was paid to keep Matthews Veld safe on his travels. The Lady Commander refuses to accept the returned payment, stating, "You're still earning it."
Her emotions momentarily break through her hard, cold facade in this moment of personal interaction with the man she is tasking to return Matthews to her. The words she uses, the things she says… "Return my boy to me…" Edgar's keen mind is forcibly drawn back to the rumors about the true nature of Mildred's relationship with her twin brother… and to the rumors about the true nature of her relationship with Matthews: a son, rather than a nephew.
Pushing the matter no further, Edgar leaves, accepting the charge to accomplish his original task: bring the boy back safely.
INTO THE CITY
The day has dawned grim and dark, thick grey clouds heralding a storm covering the skies on this morn. The Duke's valet comes to the Grand Citadel to escort the party into the city to meet with Ellsworth. Also, he comes bearing a gift: the gem from King Shit's crown made into a necklace. Of the previous night's theft… there is no mention, to the relief of the party.
As the party descends into the lower echelons of Vanguard, they see the darker, dirtier parts of the city as they never appear from the lofty heights of the Grand Citadel. The streets are narrow and dirty, clogged with the refuse of too many people living in cramped quarters. Children beg in the street, or are seen working as hard as adults, dirty and broken in spirit. Everyone in the city works to keep the great warmachine of the city fortress functioning and prepared to defend itself, including the old and the infirm. Wild dogs run through the streets, fighting over scraps of what could barely be called food. Beggars from campaigns past, many missing limbs or other parts, begging around the corners of the lower sections of the city. The black smoke of funeral pyres as the city burns its dead, and the wheeling of carrion crows overhead.
Among all this, the party notices that most people they see are armed. The fortress city was always a militant stronghold, filled with knights, guards, and militiamen, as well as drawing its own share of adventurers, mercenaries, and unsavory cutthroat types. After the events of the past day, however, the city is filled with a palpable tension. The appearance of the demon city of legend and its sudden disappearance has the entire city on alert, and its populace on edge. Not only that, but as the party members at last begin to discuss the disturbing images in their dreams from the night before, they realize that the dream was a vision, shared among them… but not only among them, it turns out, as they hear whispers from the folk on the street as they walk to Ellsworth's shop. Mutterings and whispered conversations make it seem that others shared the dark vision as well.
Coming to the address where the Duke told them they could find Ellsworth, the party finds itself outside a shop named Goodsworth Crafters, a woodworking shop. Inside, they find an old dwarf, Boris Goodman, manning the store. On the back wall, overhanging the counter of the shop, is a large, ornately carved picture frame that contains a painting of a proud orc warrior.
It seems Boris is the orc's partner and companion, and one who doesn't look too kindly on the Duke and his relation to his partner's past. A strained conversation follows, as Edgar tries to finesse the whereabouts of the orc from the old dwarf, while Grundle… tries to do so with less savory means. For his part, Boris – who was originally pleased to meet a fellow dwarf in the company of this party – takes a dislike to the tone being used from this other dwarf, who is very obviously the Duke's man. The party is told that old Ellsworth is down at the Breaking Circle; there are more executions scheduled for the day. Then they are asked rather brusquely to leave, with the warning that Boris won't forget them should they bring any trouble to him or to his partner.
THE BREAKING CIRCLE
In the northern part of Vanguard, the side of the city facing the Desolation itself, is a large, circular plaza. Dominating this plaza is a statue of Astrid, showing the aspect of the warrior, standing proudly in the center of this circle. To the north, near the wall that protects the city from the ravages of the Desolation, is a large structure of scaffolding and platforms that is used by the Inquisitors of the Church for public executions. This plaza is known in the city as the Breaking Circle, so named for the great wooden wheels upon which the condemned are chained by the Inquisitors before their bodies are broken and their remains placed atop the north wall of the city, as a warning to the things that may crawl their way southward from the Desolation.
Every time the Inquisition arranges a day of execution, the Circle is filled with people: citizens and outlanders coming to watch the show grimly or gleefully, merchants looking to sell their wares, artisans looking for attention, ladies of the evening and other assorted camp followers looking to make money from the typical sort any large crowd like this draws, children running unattended through the crowds – some even looking to dip their hands in pockets, beggars lining the walls and nearby alleys, gypsies looking for any opportunity for coin, nomads doing business and grimly observing the affairs of the city folk… and a host of armed men, soldiers from Vanguard and Neverfall, the city watch and numerous mercenaries, all present within the Circle.
As the party approaches the plaza from the south, a legless beggar leaning next to a dirty hovel begs for some coin. Edgar and Ines are generous to him, and he spares a few words for them. The rumor on the street this morning is of a dark vision that haunted the dreams of many in the city the night before… no one really seems to want to talk about it, but it has an already tense populace nearing the tipping point of panic. As well, there are rumors of traitors and seditionists in the city, he tells them. Thanking him for the words, Edgar leaves the man with the party advice that he should probably leave the plaza area – no telling how the day might go with the crowd on edge and tensions high. The legless man follows his advice, hobbling off away from the plaza.
As the party enters the plaza itself, trying to find Ellsworth among the crowd, the day is growing darker. The thick storm clouds overhead and the rising winds herald a coming ashstorm, the chalky soot from the barren lands of the Desolation blowing into the city and coating everything in a fine powder. Seeking to finish the days events before the full storm arrives, the Inquisitors on their platform continue to read the condemnation for the prisoner on the wheel, and then break him, before finally delivering the killing blow amid his screams. As they prepare the next prisoner, the party splits up in the plaza.
Grundle finds himself followed by a figure in a thick dark coat, and turns to find a man smaller than himself who introduces himself as Jon Rags, a gnomish trader new to Vanguard. "I knew it!" he exclaims, "You're da Crusher from da udda day!" The gnome openly tells of his eye witness account of Grundle dragging that big warhammer and taking it to the Craven Dog and clearing out that lot of goblins on Cutter Street. Rather than seeming adverse to the violence, the gnome is ecstatic as he tells of how he and his crew of gnomish mineral traders have been under the thumb of the goblin gang every since they arrived in the city, trying to establish their own business. With Grundle putting an end to the Dirty Bastards, that means no more extortion and threats of violence for the gnome and his crew, and he happily brings Grundle over to meet the lads (Flint, Rocky, Em, Shale, Talc, and The Boulder, as he introduces them one by one), the entire lot of gnomes smaller than Grundle and wearing big thick coats dragging on the dirty paving stones of the plaza.
Ines walks over to the statue of Astrid in the middle of the plaza, looking up at the winged figure holding a sword aloft. She reaches out to touch the statue and as her fingers make contact, a feeling of numbness strikes her arm. It's as if she has lost the feeling and sensation in her arm… as if another is possessing her body and taking those feelings for itself. She feels the presence of Astrid in her mind, as the spirit uses her as a vehicle to reach out and touch this monument to herself.
Edgar, walking toward the north part of the plaza, readily finds the large form of Ellsworth among the crowd. He appears as the same orc as the one from the painting in the woodcrafting shop, albeit with a lot more salt than pepper in his hair now. Edgar walks up and introduces himself, as the old orc stands there stoically watching the actions of the Inquisitors with a condemning gaze. He also seems to react quite coldly to the idea of having any business with the Duke or his agents. As the two speak, the last of the prisoners is brought up on the platform before and the crowd and chained to the last wheel. "The blackest soul for last…" so says the Inquisitor.
Before the crowd, the Inquisitor intones to the condemned man: "You have been found guilty by the Church of sedition, murder, conspiracy against the state, and heresy against the Church of the True God. Your soul hangs over the abyss of damnation. Do you recant your deeds and beg the forgiveness of the True God?"
The man, as nondescript as any of the others executed before him, cries out, "They who die shall rise!"
A momentary silence hangs over the Breaking Circle… and then it is suddenly broken by a large explosion from the south end the plaza.
AMID THE CHAOS
A loud explosion rips forth from the south end of the plaza. Everyone in the plaza is thrown to the ground from the force of the blast, even as at the same time the two cracks of firearms rip through the air. As Edgar quickly takes stock of the situation, he looks up to see the Inquisitor on the platform fall back as his chest is struck by a projectile, blossoming with blood. The other projectile strikes the chest of the chained prisoner on the wheel, killing him.
There is chaos and confusion in the plaza, the cries of the wounded filling the air, along with blackened smoke from the south end of the plaza and the ash being swept in by the growing storm. Scanning about, Edgar sees two figures holding rifles, one on a rooftop at the east end of the plaza, the other on the west end. Even as the two snipers begin to reload their rifles, more urgent cries ring out from the crowd around the edges of the plaza. Our party can see skirmishing beginning to break out among the assembled crowd as blades are drawn among the men of Vanguard, those from Neverfall, as well as the outlanders, mercenaries, and men of the city looking to defend themselves. As he scans about, Edgar clearly sees one man, dressed in the uniform of the Vanguard city watch, take out his knife and cut a long gash into his own arm, then incite a group of nearby guardsmen to attack an uninvolved mercenary, blaming the man for the wound.
Thinking quickly Edgar draws his bow and takes aim on one of the rooftop snipers, striking the man, who falls back wounded or dead. All about the edge of the plaza, scenes of violence are breaking out as the words of the beggar regarding "traitors within the city" ring in Edgar's head. The party tries to assemble itself, Ines clambering to her feet, Grundle making his way through the chaos toward them while also doing what he can to help out his gnomish allies recollect their valuable wares being kicked about in the chaos. Ellsworth gets to his feet, and as the party assembles on the south side of the great statue of Astrid, the big orc lets out a cry as he spots a woman he recognizes from his district kneeling there, blinded in the chaos and searching for her daughter. As people are scattering through the plaza, stumbling and tripping over bodies and debris, from the billowing black smoke emanating from the husk of an exploded building on the south entrance of the plaza, comes a group of figures.
Dressed in the armor of a Neverfall knight, the lead figure is flanked on either side by three soldiers. They look like competent men, but the one who stands out among the followers is the figure to the leader's side, who bears a helmet with scorpions carved into the faceplate. The knight seems to be surveying the chaos in the circle, this group of armored warriors almost a circle of calm in a swirling storm. As they enter the Breaking Circle, hands on weapons, the crying, kneeling woman looks up as one of the armored men drags the small broken body of a child at his side, tossing it before the woman on the ground, who shrieks hysterically. With a cry of rage, Ellsworth draws a knife and charges at the men, completely ignoring Edgar's words of caution.
BATTLE OF THE BREAKING CIRCLE
As weapons are drawn and battle is engaged, Excellia warns that the danger they face is not of a human nature. Even as Ellsworth goes to strike at the warrior who threw the corpse of the girl to the ground, Edgar quickly draws his bow and takes aim at the leader of the troupe. Dodging the projectile with an inhuman grace, the supposed knight removes her helmet to reveal the pale, too-young face of a beautiful woman. A smirk crosses her lips as she eyes the party assembled before her, and she says, "The sweet stench of death permeates this place… it lingers on so many who walk here…"
The party engages the group of enemies before them, Ellsworth holding the line against the three on the party's left, Grundle stepping up to engage the three on the party's right, focusing on the man with the scorpion helm, while Edgar provides support with his bow, both in the melee before him as well as keeping an eye on the remaining sniper. Ines calls upon her magic in the midst of the battle, several of their adversaries (as well as Ellsworth, unfortunately) becoming dazed by the dazzling display of celestial light. She then moves to secure the crying woman kneeling on the ground in front of them, pulling her away from her daughter's body and trying to drag her to safety.
Ellsworth and the adversaries in front of him are momentarily stunned, slowing the enemy advance on the left, save for one of the warriors who pushes through – only to be met by Edgar's arrows, striking him down. Grundle holds the line on the party's right, though his blows which should have been raining mightily on the warrior in front of him barely did so much as dent the armor of the man with the scorpion helm. Faced with unwelcome odds, Grundle was surprised to hear behind him, "Oi, lads! Da Crusher needs our 'elp!" as Jon Rags and have a dozen gnomish warriors came running up behind the beset dwarf to lend aid.
The pale woman smiled cruelly at the sight before her… and then her face seemed to split open, her skin instantly wrinkling and her lower jaw splitting open like a pair of mandibles, even as her incisors grew into two incredibly wicked looking fangs, her face and maw transforming into the horrific visage of a predator who crossed the boundaries of death, seeking to feed in the world of the living – a vampire.
As the horrific creature stood before them, inside Ines the voice of Astrid came strongly to her, "Now is the time for the aspect of the warrior!" Inside her mind's eye, Ines saw Astrid embrace her unbidden… and as she did so, she felt something change within herself. To everyone else in the plaza, a sudden and overpowering glow of blue-white light began to emanate from the body of Ines, and the image of two glowing wings of translucent blue-white feathers emerged from her back, mirroring the image of the statue of Astrid behind her in the plaza.
When the blue-white light hit the pale woman, it seemed as if to burn her flesh, steam rising from her skin as she shrank back momentarily. The vampire unslung a bow from its back, and as time seemed to slow, pulled forth an arrow seemingly carved from pure bone at a quiver on her hip. Drawing the projectile back, she took aim on the glowing figure of Ines and released. The arrow struck true. As the arrow buried itself into Ines' flesh, pain wracked her, as if the arrow was seeking to dig itself into her very bones and yank them from her body. In her own field of vision just then, it was if Ines, already holding the arrow and trying to prevent it from violently yanking its way out of her body along with her insides, saw the glowing image of Astrid's arms embrace around her, overlaying her own arms in her vision and giving her the strength of the prophet to resist the deadly pull of the reliquary weapon.
Around the plaza, the carnage and chaos began to slow and subside as men laid eyes upon this divine vision before them. Edgar, sensing an opportunity, called for the men of Vanguard and Neverfall, citizen and outlander alike to put down their arms and cease their fighting. As the divine light cut through the smoke and the ash, driving out part of the chaos that had dominated the Circle moments before, the people present began to obey, weapons being sheathed or dropped, many people dropping to their knees in the sight of what looked like the prophet's return. As her weapon failed her and she stood there, burning in the holy light, the vampire fell back, looking about her hatefully and fearfully, before fleeing the Breaking Circle, her men quickly following her.
Having at last landed a few blows amidst the chaos, and with the help of his gnomish allies, Grundle took advantage of the situation when the scorpion helmed man turned to leave, striking the figure down as he tried to flee. Looking down at the figure he'd just struck down, Grundle could see through the broken armor the decayed flesh of a revenant. As the vampire's living followers fled to join her, the twin voices of Ines and Astrid called out in unison to the populace in the plaza, "The faithful among you, seize the traitors!"
As a number of the men in the plaza somewhat dazedly gained their feet to obey Ines/Astrid's command, Edgar spied the figure of the vampire running from the Breaking Circle suddenly transform into a cloud of mist and spirit away unseen from the scene of the battle, leaving her followers to be hounded by the men of the city.
An old seer at the top of the Grand Citadel uses his magic to peer into the Desolation. He sees the armies of the First Born, but not before the Dread Lord looks back and burns his mind, sending him to the brink of death. "Black, as far as the eye can see, horizon to horizon…" the old man mutters, as he collapses, his aids rushing to his side. The Duke and The Angel of Vanguard are both present, silent steel-masked faces assessing each other. Finally, the Angel speaks, "Assemble the expedition."
An inquisitor of the Church of the New God waits in a dark cell, implements of pain and coercion arrayed on a small table next to a sturdy wooden chair with shackles built into the legs and armrests. Guards enter the room, along with Grundle and Ellsworth, and between them all, a bloodied man brought to him, dressed in tattered clothing and bearing a long bloody gash on his arm (self inflicted, as witnessed by Edgar at the Breaking Circle).
"Courtesy of the Duke," the lead guards snarls, as he and his fellows shackle the man into the chair. He is put to the question as the men arrayed in the room look on, the guards stoic, Grundle unmoved, and Ellsworth, at least, seemingly disgusted by the brutal display. The man's body and mind are subjected to the deadly skills of the Inquisitor. "Were your orders from Lord Commander Veld?" the Inquisitor asks. "I… I take no orders from that bitch!" the man replies.
"Who do you serve?" the Inquisitor persists.
After much coercion and much screaming, the man answers, "The Pale Woman." The Inquisitor asks, "The Pale Woman… Where is she now?" After more prolonged torture and screaming, the man answers, "She has returned… to the Grand Mausoleum!"
The Great Library
An old scribe lifts a heavy, dusty tome from a shelf in the great library of the Citadel. The book is titled "The First Crusade: Subfortress Vanguard." The old man flips through the book on a reading stand, before finding the page he is looking for. He brings the heavy book to a table and sets it down, opened to a page filled with writing and a huge diagram of an underground structure. Surrounding the table are the Head Inquisitor, the General of Vanguard's military, Ines (dressed in finery) and the Angel of Vanguard himself. The diagram depicts an archaic underground mausoleum, lined with what appears to be hundreds… maybe thousands of sarcophagi. Following the diagram upward on the page leads from the grand structure to a series of catacombs dug into the rock from the surface. And sitting on top of the catacombs is a scratched ink drawing of an old building. "The old barracks" the Angel says.
The Old Towne
The old barracks stand cold and silent, where the visiting retinue of Knights, Crusaders, and men at arms from Neverfall have turned this temporary station into a fortress within a fortress. Torches light up the upper echelons of the barracks, a building itself built on top of other buildings, as is the entirety of Vanguard. Black armored knights patrol the barracks grounds dutifully, while the nearby streets and alleys of the mazelike city fall into shadow.
In one such nearby alleyway, a man sits on the wet, dirty pavement, bundled in rags, his face covered in a high collar from below and a hood covering his face from above. A dirty, tattered cloak, is wrapped about him. A half filled bottle of whiskey hangs lazily from one hand as he leans against the cold stone wall, watching a heavily laden corpse cart roll by. His head raises slightly, and the sharp, clear, sober eyes of Edgar peer out from underneath the hood, watching the cart roll on, accompanied by an armored figure dressed in the Ebony and Ivory of Neverfall and a handful of dark robed monks. The monks wear the black robes of the Body Burners, the order responsible for cremating the bodies of the deceased in Vanguard – and yet they, and the armored figure, seem to be carefully avoiding any possibility of being seen by the Knights of Neverfall stationed in the old barracks building above them.
Having put a number of their allies to the flame already, perhaps this time the spy will use a more subtle approach. As quiet as the corpses they carry, the band of figures trundles their cart into the labyrinthine maze of narrow streets and alleys – and eventually tunnels – under the stone of the building and descends below the old barracks of Vanguard.
Black smokes rises out of Vanguard, carried up to the black clouds in the sky above, black clouds that stretch beyond the horizon into the depths of the Desolation, beyond realms where men journey, beyond the lands of nomads and creatures to the old lands of Gog, where the Black Pyramids lie. And there, an army of the dead is rising.