Last Time: Vrykerion, his lover Calowen, and two other paladins – Waeryn and Jolsin – were on a mission to Deatholme in the Ghostlands, but upon finding that the majority of the fortress had been abandoned, they were set to head home. But as they left, a strange smoke stack had manifested from the necropolis in the center of the dead city. After a short argument, they four paladins headed into the foul smelling depths to investigate…
The silence was broken as they reached the bottom by dry and crackled female voice coming from a room at the bottom of the last flight of stairs, “Imagine it, Dolcrim: The Master Dar’khan’s mind and soul, in such an unstoppable body!”
A second voice chimed in, this one low and grumbly but with a slight echo to it that made Vrykerion’s blood run cold, “I should hope so. Gandling wants the Ghostlands back in the Cult’s hands. These setbacks are growing too many in number, and this project of yours cost us nearly three legions of undead to construct.”
“Did they say Dar’kahn?” Jolsin asked.
“And who’s Gandling?” Waeryn muttered.
“Quiet. I’m going for a closer look,” Calowen uttered and she slowly started to step down the stairway. Step by step, her armor rattled gently. Step by step, it felt like Vrykerion’s heartbeat was slowing. As Calowen crept down the finally stair, Vrykerion remembers to inhale. She peeked around the edge of the doorway and gestured back to the rest of the group: THREE SCOURGE. TWO ‘MANCERS. ONE BIG.
Vrykerion tilted his head and mouthed back down to her, “How big?”
Calowen widened her eyes a bit and nodded slightly, mouthing back, “BIG.” She glanced back through the door for a moment and then looked back to gesture that the large one appeared to be unconscious.
Vrykerion nodded and turned back to Waeryn and Jolsin, “Here’s the plan. We’ll split up. You two take one of the necromancers and Cal and I will grab the other. Hopefully, whatever this big one is we hopefully won’t rouse it.” His team mates nodded and Vrykerion turned back to Calowen and lifted three fingers. Then he dropped one to two fingers, then to one.
As soon as the last finger dropped into a single balled up fist, Calowen leapt into the room and unleashed a judging blast of holy power at one of the necromancers. Vrykerion and the other two members of the team bolted down the stairs to quickly join her in the room. The necromancers were dressed in the garb of the Cult of the Damned, one a male human with glowing blue eyes and the other a forsaken woman. Behind them rested a massive figure, covered in a bloody sheet inscribed with necromantic runes.
Calowen and Vrykerion dashed towards the man, landing their shoulders against his chest and pushing him toward the wall. Meanwhile, Waeryn and Jolsin got on opposite sides of the forsaken woman and begun to swing their blades, one low and the other high, in a maneuver they called ‘the double duel trap’. The technique had proven excellent against mindless ghouls, but as their blades collided was a shielding sphere of dark magic, they quickly found themselves on the defensive. Dodging blasts and calling upon the light to cleanse the foul curses burning their flesh from under their armor.
The forsaken cackled, “You cannot stop us! The master stirs! THE MASTER COMES!”
“Silence! Your breath is worse than your plague,” Jolsin shouted as he drove directly toward the shielding spell, shattering its protective barrier and allowing Waeryn an opening to take his sword to the necromancer’s neck from behind, severing the spinal cord and causing her to drop to the floor, still screaming her zealous proclamations.
“Finish it, Jols.” Waeryn said.
“With pleasure. By the Holy Light, be purged!” A brilliant light burst forth from Jolsin’s hand, engulfing the downed necromancer. As the light faded, a burning pile of ash was all that remained.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, Calowen and Vrykerion slammed the human into the wall next to the sleeping monstrosity. From beneath the sheet, a large hand fell out bearing several foot-long blade like claws. Calowen brought down her mace toward the man’s face, which he caught with his hand. She could hear the cracking of bones as it made impact causing her to wince for a moment, while the man only grinned at the sound. Vrykerion slashed at the man’s side and cut him deep, but no blood spilt forth.
“What are you?” Vrykerion asked.
The man gave him a toothy grin, “Someone you will regret meeting.” He then slammed his open hands into both Vrykerion and Calowen’s solar plexuses and threw them across the room.
As Vrykerion struggled to his feet, the man rushed over and clasped his hands around Calowen’s head. He began to squeeze, causing the helm to start to crack, “Imagine what will happen to your head once I break your shell.”
“I don’t think you’ll have a chance,” Vrykerion said as he stood. Taking his sword in hand, he began to wail away at the man’s back. Tearing through his robes and cutting deep into his back. As chunks of fleshy flew off, there was no blood. Instead there was viscous black ooze that just seemed to splatter out from the wounds.
The man laughed maniacally as Vrykerion hacked away at him bit by bit to the point of exposing the back of his rib cage. He continued his anguishing squeeze of Calowen’s head. The cracks grew larger in her helm, and as the pressure built up she began to scream.
Hearing her voice cry out in pain, Vrykerion gritted his teeth and balled up his fist. ‘No one hurts her. NO ONE.’ Vrykerion’s hand ignited with holy energy. It took the form of a hammer as he launched his first deep through the monster of a man’s shredded back, breaking through bone and flesh until he reached the man’s heart. Taking that organ into his hand, Vrykerion squeezed with everything he had until he felt it rupture and spilt the black tar out. The man, hands still wrapped around Calowen’s nearly shattered helmet, collapsed.
Vrykerion threw the body to the side and grabbed Calowen, “Are you okay?” She nodded slightly, her eyes barely able to stay open. Vrykerion’s eyes swelled with tears as he hugged her.
“Mission accomplished. Can we go back to the Sanctum now?” a winded Waeryn said, leaning up against the doorway with Jolsin. Vrykerion looked up at them, tears rolling down his cheeks and a massive grin on his face, and nodded.
Suddenly, Calowen’s grip on Vrykerion’s shoulder tightened, “Vry! MOVE!” She shoved him aside and onto the floor just in time for him to see a massive, grey, muscly arm covered in blades and spikes rip into Calown’s chest. It broke right through her ribs, the claws ripping right out the back of her armor and leaving a puddle of blood.
All eyes followed the arm back to its owner. It seemed that in all the commotion that the thing under the sheets had decided to get up after all. A gigantic abomination with four arms, each lined with claws and what appeared to be embedded swords and daggers. It’s twisted mouth cracked open, “BehOLD, thuh Neeew DAAR’KhAAAn! I AM reBOOOOORN!”
“Welcome to the Ghostlands.”
That was not the phrase Vrykerion had wanted to hear after having such a wonderful night, but orders were orders. He, along with Calowen and a dozen of other new recruits were ordered to report that morning to Dame Auriferous. Auriferous was a red headed woman wearing a red robes and a tabard marking her as member of the defense forces at Tranquillien.
“I understand each you visited here once during your trials, but this is not a quick jaunt across the runestones to kill a couple of nerubians. You’ve been brought here to go in the heart of the infection, Deatholme, for some mop up operations. The Scourge have been harder to rip out of there than a dwarf from the pub,” Auriferous announced. Vrykerion glanced over at Calowen; she had gone pale in fright. Vrykerion reached over and took her hand in his and he watched as a smile grew and some of her color returned.
“We will begin launching attacks in groups of four from the Sanctum of the Sun. You can drop your gear and take your downtime there. Just don’t bother the Magisters. Any questions?” The group stood silent. Vrykerion wasn’t sure if they didn’t have any questions, or everyone was too afraid of the forceful elf standing side by side with a forsaken deathstalker. After a moment of silence, she dismissed them and they began to hike down the trail to the Sanctum.
The attacks really weren’t as bad as the Auriferous had made out. They would leave in a team of four and clear out the Dead Scar up to Deatholme and then make precision strikes against specific targets inside the fortress. The one group attacked a mausoleum, another struck a crypt, Vrykerion and Calowen’s first target was an underground laboratory. Over a couple of weeks, they each met with success and everyone regrouped at the Sanctum to share stories, battle tactics and have a good laugh. Vrykerion spent his evenings with Calowen or taking apart his pocket watch and examining how it works. They were paladins, and they feared nothing.
It wasn’t until Vrykerion’s tenth trip into the fortress that he began to notice that the dead were getting fewer in number. He felt a swell of pride at first knowing that he had contributed to it but something in his gut sat wrong. Why were the forces in the fortress thinning out, when the legions of undead waddling across the Dead Scar were always renewed back to their previous day’s numbers? His team made their way across the foul grounds of Deatholme, the sickening stench of rotten meat still filled the air. They ascended the steps of a ziggurat, finding it completely unguarded and ultimately empty.
“This is wrong,” said Waeryn, one of Vrykerion’s other teammates; “There should be something in here. No one has been in this far.”
Vrykerion’s other teammates, Jolsin, smiled and let out a laugh, “Maybe they retreated. Decided they couldn’t best us and just packed it up and headed home.”
Calowen looked at Vrykerion with a stern look on her face and he met hers with an equally concerned one. She turned to Jolsin, “The Scourge do not retreat.”
Waeryn shifted nervously, looking around in fear of an ambush, “Regardless, the objective is complete. We cleared out the ziggurat. We should head back.”
They looked back and forth amongst the group a few times, silently nodding along with the idea. Vrykerion sheathed his blade, “Very well then.” One by one they exited, making sure to watch every dark corner as they stepped outside. That’s when Vrykerion saw it. A pillar of green smoke coming from the necropolis at the center of the fortress, “Has anyone reported that before?”
Calowen shook her head, “No. That most certainly is new.”
Waeryn looked back and forth at Vrykerion and Calowen, “No. NO. We did our job. Mission complete. We are not going in there.”
“Oh come on, Wae-wae. It’s not like we’ve encountered a single thing thus far that four of us couldn’t best,” Jolsin taunted, nudging Waeryn toward the necropolis.
“Cut it out you two,” Calowen scolded, “What do you think Vry? It’s not our job.”
Vrykerion shook his head, “We’re paladins, Cal. It IS our job.”
Calowen nodded and drew her shield and mace, “As you say, sir.”
Waeryn, however, did not draw his weapons, “No. I’m sorry, but no. I’m not getting killed going against the battle plan just because you two are sneaking off to fondle each other in the bushes every nigh-”
Calowen cut him off with a firm slam of her armored hand against his helmed face, “Do you want the Scourge to win? For all we know they’re brewing up another batch of plague in there, ready to spill it out across the entire Ghostlands. This is suspicious behavior and we don’t have time to wait until we report back and send out another team, nor do we have time to waste trying to pry your head from your arse because you have nothing to come back to base for – except your hand!”
Waeryn and Jolsin immediately drew their swords. Vrykerion chuckled, “Impulsive as ever I see.”
“Oh shush. You know you like it,” Calowen smiled, “Now let’s see about that smoke.”
The journey into the necropolis was similarly easy and just as worrisome. The fact that so few undead were in the fortress, especially high ranking ones, just fueled Vrykerion’s fears about the smoke. They cautiously made their way into the depths of the building though, making sure to check everything and everywhere for possible traps or potential ambushes. One that that grew more obvious as they traveled deeper was that ever present smell of rotting meat was getting stronger.