It turns out that the leader of the Slayers, a fellow calling himself Rock, is a distant cousin of Gronk’s, and he spends quite a lot of time while traveling listening to the tales of the party. That evening after dinner, he approaches Gronk. During the conversation, Moriel finds a rock in the woods with “The Woman Is A Lie” carved into it. Cutscene ensues.
[Rock very deliberately lays out two tin cups full of some thick brew, loads a pipe, lights it, and sets it down
between the cups. Pretty much Dwarven for “we need to talk”]
Seems to me, you’ve been set up.
Been talking to your mates – sounds like that dark goddess got her claws into one of the ancient ones, woke ‘im up, drove ‘im mad, made him drive the greenies up out of the depths at the appointed hour. Means she’s scared of us, right? Just like the Wizards and the Halflings (for whatever damn reason). Scared of our
iron, for we are mighty.
She’s scared of you, too, you know. No one invades a place without knowing the movers and shakers, and she would’ve known you and Altair were like brothers…that you’d pull that bloody mountain down atop her head for so much as looking at those kids funny. Think on that – a dark goddess, going way the fuck out of her way just to keep you and The People bottled up.
So it seems to me that you’ve been set up. Maybe we all have.
[By this point, pretty much all the slayers have gathered round, some in the firelight and others just outside in the shadow.]
I killed a man. In wartime. Over the affections of a woman. And for that I will die.
What did you do? What crime? What did you do besides try to defend your people against the encroaching night? [A murmur of assent from the dwarves] You’ve slain the ancient one. You’ve razed Her navy. And now you’re marching off to conquer one of Her generals?
I deny you. [a grumble of approval from the gathered dwarves]
That’s right! I deny your shame! [shouts of approval now]
You are Lord of the Great Hall! Defender of The People! [Shouts echoing the cry from the Dwarves]
[Rock takes a knee and bows his head]
And I beg the honor of dying for you, my King.
[The rest of the assembled slayers go to their knees and bow their heads and make the same plea.]
The party proceeds on to Hillcrest. When they approach, the supply battalion gathers on the road, cheering the party and the band of dwarves as they pass through the town. At one point, someone in the crowd screams “the woman is a lie”, but can’t be spotted. The party proceeds up to Everwatch, where they find Mengst on his feet again, as well as Sir Robert Kirk holding council in the command tent. They notice Gronk’s demeanor and Mengst, Smoot, and Kirk all give a bow as he enters.
When evaluating the plans for High Guard, they discover an entrance into the dungeon level that may have gone unnoticed by the occupiers and plan an assault through the old dwarven highway. During their planning, the sound of an Elven war horn is heard, and the party emerges in time to see a battalion of Elves marching up
the road – a literal measurable percentage of the surviving Elves in the North. When Mengst greets them they announce that they aren’t there to fight for for Mengst, they’re there to fight for Poppy, whose audacity saved them. The party retrieves the star metal device from Corky and headed out to the cave through
The party and the company of Dwarves travel through the mountain caverns, stopping briefly at the cairn built for Warder Joseph, before proceeding in to the abandoned highway. They travel a ways before coming to the place where the wall of the keep is exposed through a natural cave, but the entire area had been turned into an encampment of orcs and deep ones. Rock and his Slayers leap into the orcs in a suicidal attempt to allow the party to reach the entrance to High Guard unhindered.
After sealing the door and the battle behind them, the party finds themselves in the tiny dungeon of High Guard fortress, where they encounter the Emperor Joseph Altair and Sir Gavin, a Knight Leopold. Gavin relates the story of how Tahl’Mearis had cast a spell on the Empeoror, forcing him to forget his identiy, and cast him into the slave pens, where they had languished for over thirty years. Banagher easily dispells the glamour, and Joseph Altair remembers himself, and has a moment of reverie with Gronk.
The party proceeds up into the kitchen level, kills the cooks in passing, then Alton and Poppy proceed to massacre all of the men sleeping in the barracks, before making their presence known to the gate watch. A battle ensues, during which the party manages to secure twenty of the twenty-five cannon in the battery,
close the South gate, and open the North gate. The weight of the remainder of the garrison is coming down on them when Poppy’s mysterious followers come over the wall to lend a hand. The party leaves them to rain a few shots down on the Southlander army and proceed into the private tower of Ari Stonehand.
In the antechamber, they find Gareth Stein, flayed, and hanging from the wall, he whispers that he wasn’t the traitor, that he and Mengst were as brothers. Simultaneously, Banagher sees the Ring of Spirit on display on the other side of the room. The vision of Aluviel appears to him, whispering to him to take it and be her champion. At that time, a man comes from around the corner, holding a familiar sword. Warder Erik. Cutscene ensues.
Banagher looks over his shoulder, sees Erik, and says, simply…”Oh…”
You know that feeling you get, when something not only completely life-changing, but utterly horrible happens? It’s that pit-of-your-stomach, I’m-living-in-a-nightmare feeling. The kind of feeling that’s so bad, when you
wake up the next morning and you realize it wasn’t a dream you just want to weep?
A final piece falls into place in the puzzle of your mind and there’s a “click”.
You see a noble woman waving her hand at you, saying she doesn’t approve of being watched…
You see blood on the wall of a prison…”The woman is a lie”
You hear her snarl in your ear to destroy your enemies…”Smite them!” she said
You hear Volkov’s voice saying, “they’re so paranoid they use the Warders as messengers…”
The woman is a lie.
You see her bending over the sleeping form of Poppy…but it wasn’t sadness…it was pain…
The woman is a lie.
You see Her, face painted, waking you out of a dream… “Erik’s in trouble!”
The woman is a lie.
The voice of the ancient one “I feel her mark on you…”
The woman is a lie.
You remember the massive rush of power, the fire from the sky, Diego’s voice in the distance, saying the WayGate is open…
The veil is lifting.
The woman is a lie.
Westergarde. Eight years ago. You’re on the battlements of the Keep, watching Kironius Mengst, bathed in light, on the field, standing down the ringwielder Tor’Ellian Tahl’Mearis, and there she is, striding to him, handing him her sword with which to strike down Kishara’s greatest general. And you see past the illusion. You
see past the lie.
It was not her. [Aluviel]
It was her. [Lady of Penshin]
The woman at your ear changes. The black hair melts away to blonde. She smiles a sultry smile and runs a finger along your chin.
It’s not his fault, really. The sword…it’s first owner – Ri’tu Delial – was mad. No human mind could withstand his influence for long. The Circle in Erebor’s been trying to bring him in for years. Lucky for me, he’s one of the greatest swordsmen who’s ever lived. He endures.
What, surprised? Do you really think you little men channel some sort of divine power?
She giggles then, a light, girlish thing.
What you have comes from me. What all of you have comes from me. Haven’t you wondered? Hasn’t anyone mentioned the stain in your eyes?
Let us put an end to this foolishness, join me. Teach me who betrayed me at Westergarde. Be my mightiest general. My lover. Take the ring.
A sense of calm comes over Banagher, and he turns and smiles serenely at the rest of the party, before emitting a bone-curdling, reality-twisting scream – a burst of energy flows from him into the sky, and it consumes him completely. Leaving only ash, which crumbles to the ground. After a moment of stunned silence, the
party engages Erik, and a short, pitched battle ensues before a massive hit from Gronk leaves the door open for a rifle shot from Alton to slay the Etu’sauri. The party tries to save Stein’s life, but he expires.
Footsteps alert the party to the approach of the Ringwielder Ari Stonehand. He is dressed in robes, face covered in a mask. Before he can say a word, Gronk opens the music box, and it seems to have a dramatic effect on him. He jerks, his eyes widen, and he begins to stumble forward, humming the lullaby as though half
controlled lips. He falls into Gronk, then leaps back, hissing. Gronk opens his hand to discover the Ring of Earth in his palm, and the High Strangler who once wielded Ari Stonehand screams as the stone of the floor envelops
There must’ve been a Strangler in the Southlanders’ camp, because mere moments after Ari went off the reservation, the army pulled way back out of range of High Guard’s guns and starting hunkering down for a siege. The General over there was no dummy, and he’d had several years to learn from the best about how to keep an army bottled up behind that wall.
Fate sometimes brings people together for specific events, for a moment. For the span of a single season, just a few short months, thirty-two years after the Kisharan invasion, fate brought seven people together, and their footsteps were felt for generations.
It was found out later that Banagher’s final act was a release of energy so intense, it destroyed the top of Tablenhelm Mountain, utterly destroying the keep and burying the Waygate for five hundred years, greatly reducing the power of Kishara’s minions and effectively removing the threat of Avengers.
No one ever really knew what happened to Banagher in that moment, but every priest of Aluviel in all the lands went mad at relatively the same time – some turned into psychopathic killing machines, other simply went catatonic. Warder Thomas was one of the latter. Warder Vladimir Korgramssen spent a number of months
nursing him back to health. Recovered, they became inseparable – and synonymous with blood, booze, and women. They were known as Mengst’s Mad Northmen, and he particularly enjoyed sending them on diplomatic missions to the court of Duke Tyr. He even took them as his personal guard to the Second Council of
Isabella Vasquez, with her high court training and extensive education, landed in the relatively primitive court of Duke Stephan Tyr like a boulder in a pond. It wasn’t long until she became the most powerful woman in the North, manipulating the court and the Duke (from his bed, if the rumors were to be believed). Many
wonder if it were she who whispered the words that started the war….
Corky Bogbottom built a little shack for himself in the ashes of Harfoot Downs. He ate from a garden that he kept, and never invented another thing.
Shara Tev and Chumley, both weary of war, travelled into the Eastern Wastes. Word has it she rebuilt a thriving trade empire amongst the Caliphates.
Don Diego Vasquez never quite adjusted to military life. After a few months of a relatively boring state of detente with the South, he recruited a number of other disenfranchised nobles and their retinues and snuck back into the Southlands. Almost immediately, stories began filtering back about a band of highwaymen and pirates wreaking havoc with the Kisharans on land and sea. The trade routes and especially military convoys weren’t safe. At roughly the same time, Pedro Vasquez founded a philanthropic organization that provided alms to the poor and downtrodden, giving special attention to those who had been wronged by the Kisharan hierarchy. The organization’s funds seemed curiously endless. After several years of these adventures and several very major public embarrassments, Cyan Marinetta and Aril Flambeau formed a task force of people
specifically recruited to hunt down the ringleaders of the organization. Soon after, the stories stopped – there simply ceased to be any new tales of daring-do by the masked crusaders. But that’s okay, because the old stories were retold for generations among the peasantry of the South.
The Emperor Joseph Altair didn’t survive his freedom long – upon learning of the death of his eldest son during the invasion, and the recent murder of his youngest daughter Anastasia, the woman who called herself Annabelle Cirrus – he simply didn’t seem to want to survive. He and Sir Sebastien Bineau, his sworn
defender, died within days of each other. Sir Robert Kirk, Sir Gavin, and the Etu’Sauri Lucas lived on for a number of years, each trying to win the award for Wiliest Old Bastard, each serving the Imperial line in their own
Kironius Mengst was never quite the same after all of the betrayals and losses – especially that of Anabelle. He remained as competent as ever, but aloof. It’s said that, besides Volkov, he never made another true friend. He travelled with Altair’s two surviving sons, the eldest of whom was crowned Emperor in a small ceremony in Hillcrest, to the Second Council of Westergarde, to discuss the future of the Empire. All three, and their defenders Warders Thomas and Vladimir, perished in the betrayal that started the Succession War. In a sad
bit of irony, Kironius Mengst died without ever – the whole of his life – setting foot in the Southlands.
Warder Vladimir did fight his way free of the initial trap that killed Mengst and escaped with the Emperor, and spent weeks evading the pursuit of the Duke’s forces. He was found, finally, with sympathetic magic, using a lock of hair from the Duke’s son, who, as it turns out, wasn’t the Duke’s son at all. Cornered in a small barn in a no-name village Southeast of Westergarde, he defended Emperor Frederic Altair for three days, slowly barricading himself behind a wall of Duke Tyr’s dead. It is said, in the end, that it took a hundred men, two ballistae, and a wizard before Warder Vladimir Korgramssen gave up his charge.
Moriel Celebhen went home. She took up the Ri’tu Delail Sword, bearing the weight of its former mad wielder and its latest tortured one. A few years later, a number of individuals began making themselves known – all of them exceptionally trained woodsmen and using a swordfighting style that was slightly reminiscent of that
of the Etu’Sauri. They called themselves A’she’te – The Shadow Walkers – and in a few short years they could be found in or near every seat of power in Khevoran. Their mission wouldn’t be revealed for nearly a thousand years – but that’s another story. For the rest of recorded history, the Ri’tu Delial sword never troubled another soul.
Alton continued to advance in the Society, very rapidly reaching the rank of Sergeant Major and holding the post once held by Gareth Stein. When news of the betrayal reached High Guard, Volkov and Smoot mustered the loyal armies of the North under the banner of Emperor Severin – a young man who just a few years before
served you a simple dinner in a farm at the edges of the Ar’Avariel – Alton vehemently disagreed, arguing that the Society shouldn’t escalate a civil war, and most certainly shouldn’t deplete the forces manning High Guard – but Volkov was loyal to Mengst, and Smoot was loyal to the Empire, and neither would be convinced. After they marched, Alton assumed command of the company, and recruited enough loyal Society men to bring the force up to the strength of a battalion. When Volkov and Smoot failed to return, he took the rank of Colonel
and recruited a new set of officers, and notified both armies in the civil war that the Society defended the people of the North, and would continue to stand post against the Kisharans while Tyr and Volkov fought it out. Independent of the evolving governing body of the peoples of the North, The Black Rose Society, under the command of Colonel Alton, defended the wall and the southern Massaan range against the South for many years. When they finally massed enough strength to take High Guard, he stayed behind, ensuring his men had time to retreat to safety, effectively saving the Society from annihilation. Stories are told amongst the veterans of the South, of how the entire might of Kishara was held at bay for three days by two Warders and an officer with a long-gun.
The general of the Southlands army personally returned Alton’s body to the Society under a flag of truce, and remained to fly honors at his internment at Hillcrest.
Poppy Sokledodge finally found her followers. They called themselves The Magnificent Ones, but everyone else called them The Eaters Of The Dead, or, colloquially, The Herd Of Batshit Crazy Halflings. Poppy’s cult of personality attracted a certain self-obsessed glory-hound – thankfully those aren’t traits most halflings are predisposed to or else she likely would’ve ended up with an entire army at her beckon call. They were impulsive, reckless, generally devious, impossible to control, and astoundingly dangerous. On more than one occasion,
Mengst sent private messages to his counterpart in the South explaining that one disaster or another was completely out of his control. One Spring, Poppy gathered up the lot of them and went on a pilgrimage to Harfoot Downs, where she, and her entire cult, vanished. Some say they went East to find their lost
brethren, some say that old Leitus finally caught up with her, and others still say that Poppy found something there in the ruins of The Downs that sent her on a quest into the frozen North to find the ancestral home from whence all halflings came.
King Thane Ironfist, Lord of the Great Hall, Defender of The People, bore the tortured spirit of Ari Stonehand to the mountains. He formally abdicated his throne to his son Borin, and kept himself apart from Dwarven politics. He always lived near the front lines where he could wield Ari’s power against the hordes of the deep. With his help, within two years, the Dwarves had retaken Karak’ap’Karak and restored the Great Way. He continued to call himself Gronk, though no Dwarf would ever call him such again, and he stubbornly refused to answer to Thane Ironfist. In time, The People began to refer to him by a new name – Ar’Kaz t’Thun:
The Lord of Ash And Stone.