To get up-to-date on this adventure, previous chapters are below.
Chapter 1: Blood and Butterflies
Chapter 2: Murder and Glass
Chapter 3: The Sin Pit
Chapter 4: Tussles in The Tangle
3 Lieutenants, and A New Ally
While Gogmert had been helpful as a prisoner, his demense was the Nettlewood. He knew practically nothing about what lay inside the crumbling fortress. There were goblins, he knew that, in addition to Nualia's other commanders; the bugbear Bruthazmus, the mercenary Orik Vancaskerkin, and the wizard Lyrie Akenja. And then, beyond them, Nualia herself.
|Four on four? We got this.|
The initial thrust into Thistletop took the enemy by surprise. Bruthazmus, long a terror in the region, was taken unawares while he was at his pleasure with several of his lesser goblin kin. Though he fought hard (literally and metaphorically), It didn't take long before both the bugbear and his paramours were dead in Bruthazmus's chambers. Though the battle was loud, telling the difference between a bugbear in battle and one making love is a subtle distinction for some, and it appeared the invaders still had the upper hand.
Until they were ambushed, anyway.
It turned out that Orik was quite able to tell the difference between battles carnal and deadly, and had taken the time to arm and armor himself before preparing an ambush. Though not to rush to Bruthazmus's aid, which was fortunate for Sandpoint's heroes. Zhakar led the way into the chamber, and was the one who took Orik's bastard sword across the shoulder blades. His response was swift, his short sword trying to duck into the big mercenary's guard while parrying the heavy blade with his gauntlet. Thok rushed to his friend's side, using his superior reach to put Orik on the defensive, his ranseur probing at the man's defenses. Orik was a professional, but once Zordlan leaped into the fray, there were simply too many blades even for his heavy shield and stout armor. He collapsed to his knees, trying to fight even as he drowned in his own blood.
Panting and wounded, though far from dead, the band proceeded through the halls. Orik hadn't bellowed a warning, but there was no mistaking the sounds of that clash. And unlike Bruthazmus, the battle hadn't been confined to a narrow room that was often filled with grunting and bellowing anyway. Cautiously, they advanced... but when they caught a sudden movement, they found Nualia's last lieutenant; the wizard Lyrie Akenja. Panicked and terrified, she'd been hiding in the hopes she could avoid being discovered. Rather than surrender, however, she tried to bring her magic to bear. While she managed to shatter Thok's ranseur, it was the only thing she succeeded in doing before Zhakar stepped in close and backhanded her with his heavy right hand. She was given a chance to surrender, but tried to cast a final spell. Another hard blow drove the wind from her belly, and the light from her eyes as she slumped unconscious to the floor.
Zhakar placed his left hand over her wound, and her breathing eased. Once she was no longer at risk of dying, the party captured her familiar, and carefully bound the enraged cat in a cloth so it couldn't escape. Then Zhakar took off the banded mail he was wearing, and slid the wizard into it, binding her ability to fight as surely as he did her ability to bring what spells she had left to bear. To be safe, she was also bound and gagged. Mirelinda used her magic to clean the blood from Orik's armor, and Zhakar donned it. He left the mercenary's sword, though, as he had no need for something so large and cumbersome.
With two prisoners securely locked in bare rooms in Thistletop, there remained only one threat left for them to face.
A New Friend?
It was when they opened a door to dungeon cells that they found something unexpected. Slumped in a far cell, her eyes simmering with resentment and fury, was someone who didn't belong in Thistletop. Big and hard with muscle, her skin was a green that spoke of lush jungles, and the patterns of scars across her body told a story of battle, as well as community. Though unarmed and unarmored, the callouses along her hands and the lack of fear in her expression testified that she was, indeed, a warrior.
Her name was Chikara, and she'd come north from the Mwangi Expanse looking to trade her skill for silver. Of course, in this case, she swore she'd fight by her rescuers' side if they would get her out of that cage. Vengeance on her captors would simply be a bonus.
Unfortunately for Chikara, and for the others, the creatures that awaited them in the next room were not of this world. The sinister baying of yeth hounds sent Zordlan running from the room, and Mirelinda was reluctant to approach them. Thok stood steady, but the beasts seemed immune to the tip of his spear, as well as the blade of Chikara's greatax. Zhakar had found a silver blade among Tsuto's effects, though, and had never left it behind. So when he struck home with the small weapon, the creatures howled in agony. The others retreated, with Zhakar holding the beasts back, parrying their snapping jaws, and driving the dagger home time and time again. The hounds soon became the prey, with first one falling, then the other following suit.
Spirits shaken, the five of them took a moment to regroup. Tossing back potions, and waiting to see if anything else dogged their heels.
The Architect of Suffering
They advanced deeper into the bowels of Thistletop, wary for ambushes and traps. Down a dark hallway, they heard something. A keening sound, rising and falling as if in perverse prayer. Though there was a trap near the door, they leaped over it, and threw the door open to confront the creature behind the crop of fear that had been sown in Sandpoint.
|We've got you, my pretty... and your little dog, too.|
Zhakar approached her, his weapons sheathed and his hand extended. When Nualia saw her mirror in him, down to the corruption spreading along his arm, she smiled. In that moment they knew there was no bringing her back from what she'd become. Madness burned in her eyes, and she howled like one of her yeth hounds that answered her summons as she leaped into the fray.
The response from Zhakar was equally strong. Black fire burned on the knuckles of his devil's grip, and white light shot from his eyes. Slipping her first slash, he hammered the palm of his hand into her chest. Fear joined the madness in her gaze, as the touch took hold of her, putting doubt into her every swing. Zhakar drew his blade, then, and drove into her, aiming the tip of his sword for the scars along her belly, the exposed hollow of her throat, and for the dark veins of her own demonic arm. Zordlan joined the fray, his song lending strength to his allies' attacks even as he fenced with the snapping jaws of another yeth hound. Chikara, determined to prove her worth, attacked with reckless abandon, her weapon driving past the creature's otherworldly protections. Thok slid through the fray, his spear point striking like a serpent. And, from the doorway, Mirelinda tested her arcane might against the protections of the Mother of Monsters.
After a furious battle, the yeth hounds were sent back whence they'd come. And despite the gifts of her new mistress, Nualia fell. When Zhakar reached for her, his left hand already emanating a gentle glow, Nualia's scars tore open from within. Fanged maws and grasping tendrils ripped at her flesh, bending her in half at the spine. She shrieked, screaming as her own promises rent her apart, devouring her until there was nothing left but spatters of blood, and the smell of corrupted afterbirth.
The fires dimmed, and somewhere in the ether was the barking laugh of a mad hyena. The glow faded from Zhakar's hand, and he retrieved his gauntlet. Hiding the shame that drove him from his home, he turned from the belly of the beast. His silence was a cold, empty thing, and it left a blackness in his wake that turned their victory sour. There were prisoners to deliver to Hemlock, and when that chore was complete, a more thorough scouring of the fort would be necessary. But for now there was no denying that, for at least one member of the company, heady wine had turned to ashes in his mouth.
What other secrets lie beneath Thistletop? And what is the dark origin of Zhakar's curse? Find out more on the next installment of Table Talk!
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