With the help of the alchemists, the gunpowder users and the siege engineers, the walls of the demon-infested citadel Drezen were breached and the Brevic army surged through. Aaron, Keiran, Akaros, Evander, Alexei and I led the charge through the destroyed main gate, quickly dealing with the minor demons foolish enough to stand in our way. Mr Tiddles and Brutus stayed outside with the main army to ensure the demonic forces were thoroughly dealt with and then we progressed into the main building alone.
We came into a room filled with maps of previous battle plans – maybe not useful to prevent a new incursion, but with great historical value and may hopefully give insight into the enemy’s tactics. As we studied these, some minor demons (goat-like, I believe) led by a dwarf attacked: the demons were quickly dispatched. I managed to paralyse the dwarf using a spell I didn’t think would work* and we proceeded to tie him up. We’re just about to attempt to interrogate him, when several minotaurs led by another dwarf (in spanglier armour) charge in – one minotaur aiming straight for the incapacitated dwarf and goring him with sufficient force to end up wearing him as a hat. So much for our questions! We dispatched the minotaurs and the second dwarf: he died rather more easily than anticipated so Alexei did his ghost thing and stepped into the ethereal plane to try and get some answers from the dwarf’s spirit. It was not very helpful, and ultimately dismissed by a scythe-wielding entity far more powerful than Alexei.
Around the neck of the dwarf’s body was a skeleton key that opened, as well as the doors, a chest at the foot of a bed in an adjacent chamber. Amongst the loot therein was the dwarf’s journal, revealing him to be Staunton Vhane (the other dwarf, the one turned into a fashion accessory by a minotaur, was his brother). He was the one who had taken down the Sword of Valour, enabling the demons to capture Drezen all those years ago. He seemed to have been well-rewarded, Lord of the citadel. The journal referred to a succubus who had been held as a heretic in the dungeons until an oubliette had been prepared for her in the Abyss: she had escaped. There was also talk of magic potions brought by a demon lord. Staunton had experimented on various underlings, recounted in morbid detail their grisly demises – the only survivor was the three-headed beast we fought on the bridge – before daring to drink himself. It made him more powerful (and was familiar in story to how my own mythic power awakened within me, albeit more brutal than sharing a drink with Erastil).
The journal also mentioned a forge that enabled the two dwarven brothers to corrupt weapons and armour – one had wanted to use it on the Sword of Valour but the other had refused, so at least we knew the banner was safe. The journal also revealed it to be guarded by a shadow demon in the depths of the citadel. Onwards and downwards, then.
The dungeons below were largely empty but the place felt dark and creepy and magic aligned to good or law seemed sluggish, reluctant to be present within these unhallowed walls that seemed to whisper just beyond the edge of hearing. A group of vampire-lings melted away at our onslaught, although Alexei warned they may have survived and be licking their wounds elsewhere.
One of the cells appeared to be that in which the heretic succubus had been kept: the walls were covered in scratched drawings of butterflies and a prayer to Desna begged for release and freedom, not just from the cell but in life beyond that. Something in the prayer sang to me: I hope the succubus – Aurashalé – is safe and we have a chance to meet her.
But onwards. A brutal torture chamber with a stench of blood so strong it was like bathing in it. Dispatched the demons quickly, and Kieran walked into the side room to see and slay a half-orc… who crumbled to dust. Presumably the sire of the smaller vampires we’d fought earlier. A sealed door behind his seat led to his coffin, which we carefully made uninhabitable to him lest he had survived and tried to return there to recover. The door was well-hidden, so we began to trawl the dungeons once more to seek out others.
Another hidden route led to a forge that Alexei realised was where the dwarven brothers had undertaken their experiments in corruption. He neutralised its effects: relief washed over us as the whisperings faded and our magics returned to normal. In a room beyond, we found the Sword of Valour on a wall in an iron frame. The walls were covered in art work of a demon-god slaying the gods of Golarion in cruel and horrific ways. We approached cautiously, expecting the shadow demon to reveal itself at any moment. Alexei and Akaros reached to remove the banner from the wall: it crumbled to dust and in the same instant Evander was hit by a black flash, falling unconscious such that Alexei could not wake him – he reminded me of how I had felt after being dragged back to life, but this did seem to be different: I had been awake.
I was disappointed that we’d come so far only for the banner to be destroyed so carelessly, until Akaros reminded me that only Iomedae herself could destroy the banner, and then only if certain conditions were met. This, then, was not the true Sword of Valour. Evander was carefully secured to a levitated ladder and we continued on our way.
Following another passageway, we found a giant statue of a serpentine woman with 4 arms wielding viscious-looking weapons. A narrow ledge led passed it, but it struck Aaron as being obviously trapped so he attempted to fly over the pit from which the statue rose – and vanished, pushed down to beneath the apparent floor of the pit as he left the ledge. The actual floor was many feet lower and covered with a grim, green slime that coated him, weakened him. I spotted a switch on the ledge behind the statue and skipped over to it: the gravity field that held him down lifted and we were able to pull him out before the slime sucked the last of the life from him.
There was another door here, so we went through and down a corridor to another small room. Pitch black inside, Alexei alone could see the banner lying rumpled on a ledge. He dispelled the mystical darkness to reveal the hidden shadow demon stood between us and it – an ominous black and grey form, ranging from highlights the colour of shade by trees in spring to the blackest depths so dark the eye could not comprehend what it was seeing.
It vanished. Evander’s limp form fell to the floor and Kieran was struck by a powerful spell that nearly felled him – Aaron shifted into his large Red Mantis form in preparation for a tough fight and started behaving in strange ways that I recognised from the ‘confusion’ spell, babbling incoherently before attacking himself. And I… a splitting headache as half-formed thoughts and unrelated memories muddled at the surface of my mind – the prickle of hay as I practiced kissing with Piotr; a refrain from a song my father taught me when he visited that I thought I’d forgotten; the overwhelming shock I felt when I first met Noleski (and the love and pride when we married); rosemary and fresh bread; my mother kissing a skinned knee better; the suppressed fear when Devin didn’t show up at the coach like we’d agreed – like a fishing net cast wide and pulling up whatever it tangled**. The feeling lasted less than a second; left me in pain and tasting blood. It was time to get out of there. I tried to grab Alexei as I ran, but it was all I could do to manage the out-of-control Aaron. Keiran and Akaros ran, carrying Evander.
We made it outside the room, back down the corridor to the ledge behind the statue. I tried to run from Aaron before his madness shifted and made me his target, but I was too late – pulling him from the room had set me in his sights and it was only Akaros stepping between us that prevented him from killing me. We had to beat him to unconsciousness, when he shrunk back down to his normal tiefling size. About this point, Evander sprang to his feet, going so fast from prone to standing that it seemed he didn’t move but merely was stood. He whipped at Alexei with his flail and the image dissipated. He ran back towards the room in which the shadow demon possessed Alexei’s bird form.
The others ran back to the room with Evander as I attempted to loosely tie Aaron – enough that he would not be able to hurt himself or others whilst under the influence of his madness, but not so much he couldn’t free himself when it passed. The door sealed shut behind them, so I could only hope when it opened again shortly after that it was truly they who stood there before me. Akaros lifted the banner and I knew we were ok. They explained that Evander had spotted and struck the small bird Alexei had shifted into, forcing the demon out for them to battle. The two paladins flanked the demon as Alexei crashed to the floor, bloodied from the strain of housing and releasing the demon. Evander, Akaros and Kieran managed to defeat the creature and we returned triumphant to place the banner in the main hall.
From Kenabres had come 3 representatives with knowledge of the area to help rebuild the citadel and return it to its glory. Irabeth and her wife Aenevia, who had experienced some of the worst days in Kenabres, would oversee the forces stationed here. Between them, they have good knowledge not only of the region but also the demons who occupy it: Irabeth, a fierce paladin half-orc, was the one person who saw through Staunton Vhane before he betrayed Drezen and removed the banner, as evidenced in his journal whilst Aenevia survived the demon-occupation of Kenabres and is an accomplished scout. On the other hand, the person sent to finance the project grated on my nerves. He seemed aggrieved to have been told to help (but couldn’t refuse Queen Galfrey) and spends most of his time boasting about his wealth. A tedious, odious person; very good with money and evidently trusted by the queen of Mendev but not someone I would choose to spend time with.
We will need a few days to lick wounds and clean the place up before moving on to the next challenge – which will hopefully include tracking down the heretic succubus, Aurashalé.
*‘Hold Person’ was one of the first 2nd level spells I took but I’ve never managed to pull it off before, so that was exciting.
**Alexei’s ‘Brain Drain’ Oracle tapestry power has only worked once before, when he accidentally murdered a child…