The pale woman from the end of the last episode appears from the darkness and only dimly lit by a nearby flame, telling the story of the ancient Kingdom of Cynidicea and its fall from grace with the discovery of the evil creature known as Zargon. It seems that Cynidicea’s leaders fed people to the creature and a cult grew up around Zargon’s worship due to fear and awe, and the Kingdom – which was once peaceful and booming – started to rot from within with decadence. Lizardfolk from the mountains nearby sacked the Kingdom and its survivors fled to caverns beneath the civilisation while the desert claimed the ruins above. With the cultists well in control of those who remained, they exerted further dominance over them by poisoning the water supply with a sedative called the Elixir of Fantasy. Only a secretive movement of followers of the old gods remained free of the Zargonite tyranny, and two paragons of the rebellion led their people, overthrowing the cult’s rule, but the surviving Zargonite cultists rallied, waging a campaign of violence called The Time of Rage against the old gods’ followers, who fled the city after the onslaught. Zargon’s clerics were then left with the onerous task of sating Zargon’s appetite, and they travelled far and wide to claim victims…
Nightmares at the Ball
In the ballroom, despite all partygoers seemingly under the ill effects of a mass enchantment which forces them to act out the experience of their costumed aliases, one thing is certain: there are also goblinoid invaders who are not so ensorcelled and mean to at least kidnap the unfortunate guests – if not also mean them outright harm. Tower, in the process of tucking unconscious guests safely under tables for their own good, sees the goblinoid captors and engages them in combat. Amidst the confusion, Klara tries to free the Cynidicean slaves from their cage. She enlists the aid of a partygoer who is dressed as a wizard, but his evocations on the cage door have no effect. She abandons the effort, and using her dabbler-level training in the arcane arts, manages to distract one of the goblins with a spell while she hides herself in the roiling crowd.
At the same time, in the kitchen, the pale woman – who calls herself Ilsinan – despairs to Ashton and Renard that she is too late and that the party guests have been poisoned and will no doubt be captured, also explaining that the effects of the drug will last a few hours at least. The three of them quickly decide to try to rescue as many guests as possible by ambushing the invaders one by one, and Ilsinan arms herself with a morningstar from one of the fallen goblins. They cross into the east hallway next to the kitchen, encountering hostile invaders almost immediately and entering into melee.
In the south hallway, Audax struggles to subdue the dwarf, and manages to knock him unconscious. He spots a polearm-wielding guard who is dressed like a statue standing further along, and Audax arms himself with the guard’s longsword and dagger, who doesn’t make a move to stop him. He opens the doors to the ballroom, desperately seeking his comrades. He doesn’t spot Klara, who busies herself by acquiring a curtain rod to lock off the doors into which the invaders are attempting to enter, but has to defend herself with it against attacking goblins.
Tower holds his own against many foes and drops quite a few invaders using his considerable martial skills. During the fight, outside on the patio he spots an armchair general who opens a cage holding a krenshar, which immediately escapes and attempts to gut the hapless unfortunate. Audax sees this and rushes to rescue the poor old man, but is stopped short physically by Klara, who strongly grapples Audax before he can commit to dangerously sacrificing himself. They block the doors off before any more goblins can make their way in by pushing the curtain rod through the door handles.
Ashton, Renard and Ilsinan combat the goblins in the east hallway, and during the struggle, Renard is clubbed viciously across the side of the face by a goblin morningstar and he strives to defend himself under the onslaught of enemies. The pale woman steps up and intercedes, protecting Renard from further harm. Together they manage to defeat the small pocket of attackers, and Ilsinan then unexpectedly calls on divine power to heal Renard of some of his wounds.
In the meantime, the partygoers are overturning tables, swinging from chandeliers, breaking windows and doors, and spilling out from the ballroom in the hallway in a seething mass of bodies. A group of effected guests start a mock crusade against any of the other guests that they deem ungodly, and another few mount a hunting party, throwing random missiles at other guests who are dressed as wild animals. Audax and Tower manage to clear the room of goblins, and Audax then attends to the captured Cynidiceans, endeavouring to open their cage by smashing at the lock with a goblin morningstar. At the same time Ashton, Renard and Ilsinan enter the ballroom and spot a number of Zargonite cultists capturing the drugged and oblivious Ashinana. Ashton follows the Zargonites as discreetly as he can by acting like one of the crazed partygoers, and as the goblins and their nefarious allies escort the hostess out of the front gates of the compound, a crossbow bolt whizzes out of the front stables and kills an unfortunate guest standing next to Ashton.
Tower then charges up the mezzanine level of the ballroom, opens the doors to the balcony outside and then leaps heroically onto the back of the wild krenshar, wounding it. Tower then rolls off badly but comes up into a ready stance, facing off against the great cat. The krenshar then peels back the skin on its own face and lets out a keening howl – Tower feels a wave of unnatural fear creep into his mind, but his discipline and mental training allow him to shrug the effect off. This is followed up by a savage physical attack as the krenshar leaps onto the warforged and shreds at him with claws and teeth – Tower comes close to being rendered inert by the onslaught but rolls with the blows, and lashes out with both fists against the animal, crushing its skull.
Renard joins Ashton at the standoff near the stable as they hear a dwarven-accented voice yelling as if he were in wartime and under heavy fire. Renard recognises the voice as that of Delvis, Ashinana’s head of security, who is apparently – as a result of the Elixir of Fantasy – having a flashback to his days in the Last War. Experienced with the shellshocked, Renard plays into the delusion and pretends to be a part of Delvis’ “reinforcements”, and finds that Delvis is protecting his two “wounded comrades”: an overturned bucket and a barrel of apples. Renard successfully fools Delvis into thinking that he has magically healed them, and the dwarf – satisfied that his “friends” are safe – gives charge to the goblins. Klara intercepts Delvis and she manages to convince him – even in his unhinged state – to assist her in rounding up the escaping guests and keep them indoors, separating the more dangerously psychotic guests from the others and locking them in the estate’s guest rooms. Tower assists with the more dangerous guests – taking on the group of “crusaders” by himself – but is overwhelmed by them.
Ashton in the meantime shadows the retreating invaders, and spots them being accompanied by at least one bugbear; the captured guests are then rounded up into a camel train and are being lead into the desert. Returning to the ballroom to report to his comrades, Ashton confronts the leader of the crusaders and manages to convince him that he is the leader’s princely leader and orders him to stand down. Audax then uses his artificer magics to repair Tower, bringing him back to working order.
By midnight, the group manages eventually to get the chaos in the ballroom under control, the invitees’ magically-induced psychoses wearing off after a few hours as Ilsinan promised. The heroes comfort those in shock, and bind the wounds of those who were injured. They take stock using a master list of guests, and realise that Ashinana herself is among the missing. As they try to figure out why the guests were captured by the Zargonites, Ilsinan tells the story of the Cynidiceans…
Into The Wastes
The group commits to rescuing the captives immediately. They gather their equipment and form a posse to venture into the desert. Delvis and Ilsinan agree to accompany the Deneith representatives – the dwarf feels that he has failed the Marchioness and will rescue her or die in the attempt, and the pale woman knows the three-day trek to Cynidicea too well to merely stay behind with her enslaved people.
Renard examines the tracks of the camel train from the courtyard, and the group mounts up on their own camels to follow. The long day before wearies the group as they ride through the night, and the morning desert sun beats down relentlessly upon them, making the expedition an exercise in endurance even before the first day into the dunes is over.
In the middle of the day, they reach a hollow in between in a few rocky bluffs. Ilsinan rides forward on her camel, catching up with Renard, who is leading the train. She warns the shifter of this area – apparently it is a dragon graveyard, and legend has it that the place is haunted. Renard tracks the trail through the area, so decides that there is no choice about avoiding it by skirting around. Moving into the defile, the wind picks up, and Klara spots something in a crevasse that initially looks like a dinosaur skeleton, but ridges upon its skull belie its draconic origins.
Before long, they hear a mysterious whisper on the wind, asking the group who they are. The heroes explain their situation – that they are servants of House Deneith, tracking a group of captured innocents across the desert – and they realise that the voice is coming from the dead dragon’s skull. The voice reveals to our heroes that many travellers came through the gorge moving east, but the voice also stipulates that our heroes’ passage through will not be allowed through its “domain” unless they can solve its riddle.
A storm without water,
And earth without land,
I drown the unwary,
Tell me what I am.
The group confers, and settles on the answer “sand” – logically thinking that a sandstorm and quicksand can both drown the unwary. The voice answers, asking them to approach. Tower does so, and the voice asks Tower why he cares so much for these people. The warforged answers that it is his solemn duty; the voice tells him that they have failed the riddle, and asks why it should let them leave his domain. Tower offers a tribute of a hundred gold crowns to the dragon, which the voice accepts. The voice ceases and they never hear it again – they then assume that the spirit has been satisfied and leave.
Hours later, still on the trail, they hear the flap of leathery wings in the distance. They look toward the sound and see a horrific sight – from behind a pile of dry rock, a red skull borne on two sets of demonic wings, its eyes and mouth burning with green flame, is speeding toward them. Tower is ever alert, and before anyone can react, cocks his crossbow and fires – the bolt pierces it between the eyes and it drops dead to the sand. Audax identifies it as a vargouille – an evil entity with a paralysing voice and a deadly kiss, spawned from infernal planes of existence. Tower sets fire to the corpse, and asks Ilsinan if this thing is a harbinger of Zargon – she has not seen its like.
The day passes uneventfully, and the next day dawns, the same unrelenting heat wears at the travellers. It’s not far into the morning when they discover a body – a partygoer, specifically the mouse-masked woman that Audax danced with at the party, who seems to have died from exposure to the elements and left behind. Ilsinan gives the woman last rites in her own tongue and to her deity Madarua as they bury the unfortunate, and it is then that Audax notices that Ilsinan wields her reclaimed halberd with some familiarity – and since that weapon is favoured of Dol Arrah, the god that Audax reveres, the young artificer then realises that while Ilsinan’s deity may go by a different name, they may have very similar origins, lost to time.
Nearing the end of the second day, the heroes come across what initially appears to be an oasis, but the trees and plants here are dry and lifeless, and where there should be a stand of water rests a dustbowl instead. As the party reaches the area, the dessicated foliage parts and something which looks like a dried-out zombie with a distended stomach lurches its way toward them. With each step closer, its very presence seems to steal moisture from the air, and an unnatural dryness creeps toward the group.
Ever at the ready, Tower immediately sees it as a threat and charges toward it, swinging a backfist at its head which connects sharply – but the creature does not appear overly hurt by the blow. With an empty moan, the thing quickly reaches out menacingly to Tower in return, but the warforged deftly dodges and counters with another devastating blow from his fists. Delvis and Ashton heft their bows and both manage to hit the creature with missiles, but seemingly with only little effect.
The thing returns Tower’s blows and slams the warforged, as Audax dismounts and charges into the fray, shouting for Ilsinan to use her divine powers to banish the obviously undead monster – she does so, clutching her holy symbol, and while she successfully channels positive energy from her god, the thing is not cowed by it. Klara and Renard follow up with missiles of their own, which go wide as they struggle to get a clear shot around Tower.
Tower, still trading blows with it and dodging its touch in return, then manages to drive a powerful fist straight through the creature’s breastbone. In an instant, the preternatural dry aura surrounding the oasis dissipates as if disspelled, but the bone-dry plants and dust remain. The heroes continue on, still vigilant for more dangers yet unseen in this inhospitable landscape.
That night, miles ahead of the group, a full moon lights the sky above a fire raging in a pit at the base of of a mighty and ancient ziggurat, the base of which is enshrouded by whirling sand. At the edge of the fire, a woman in flowing robes and an armoured breastplate stands, her head covered with a helmet adorned with the visage of a seven-horned demon. A low chant is heard around her as she watches westward, and a baleful gleam of anticipation lingers in her gaze. “They will come soon,” she whispers to herself, “and Zargon will feed…”