Part 22: Chapter Sixteen"The countess requests that you please don masks before entering," the servant explains. She gestures to one side, where a curtain hangs to provide some privacy. "If you did not bring a mask, her ladyship has provided several for your use."
The party shuffles behind the curtain and finds several white domino masks, in a variety of sizes. Aria picks up one of the masks, tries it on, and frowns. "Not really my style. Ugh, we should've bought cool masks from the market earlier." She turns, then jumps with fright coming face-to-face with a shaggy green visage.
Deepmind chuckles and pulls up the spirit mask she bought from Hetharr. "Yeah, shoulda thought ahead I guess."
Athtar secures the moon mask Celyse gave him as the others pick out domino masks. "The convention of these balls is that we are all strangers," he explains. "The masks act as a symbol for hiding our identities, which-"
"Yeah yeah," grumbles the surly man with dark hair as he finishes securing his mask. "Another noble game we all have to play along with. Let's just get it over with."
The woman in a matching white mask and a tailored librarian's dress takes his arm. "Don't mind him. My companion always gets grumpy to cover his excitement. Let's get this ball started!"
Falling behind the group, the dwarf in a slightly-crooked white mask reaches into one of his many pockets and withdraws a dried mushroom stem. "Well," he murmurs to himself. "I suppose I might as well make this evening interesting..." He eats the stem, and rather quicker than he expects, the world around him comes into incredible focus.
Urist gains Awareness! Spends one XP
"Urist!" calls the surly man from the door. "Ugh, I mean - hey, dwarf guy! Keep up!"
"Coming!" says the dwarf, who passes into the manor.
Beginning Questbook "Paper Faces"
In the manor's grand hall, lanterns have been strung from colored ropes above, giving the space a brightness and light seldom seen even in daylight. Excited guests in masks of all shapes and sizes crowd the floor, already overflowing into the tables set aside for food and relaxation. Several liveried staff move to and fro through the crowd carrying trays or bottles. Each wears a plain black domino just like the woman at the door. Some of the staff are wearing swords at their hips and mail beneath their livery, ushering guests to and from various rooms of the house.
The crowd is brightly colored and in constant motion, making it difficult to pick out individual figures, but a few may be recognizable.
A gnome woman stands near the windows, chattering with a cluster of other guests. She wears a mask painted with blue swirling designs and a butterfly ornament set with a blue gemstone cleverly perched at her right temple.
A dwarf man sits against the wall to the right, his mask sporting black and white checks and a gold trim. A small dwarf girl clings to his leg, her mask a ruff of feathers styled to look like an owl.
Standing just to the left is a tall orc woman with a plain black mask. Standing at her side is a gnome woman with a flamboyant mask, a curl of immense red and pink feathers fluttering well above her head. The orc laughs at something the gnome says, then glances toward the party and pauses. After a moment, she touches the gnome on the shoulder and crosses the floor toward them in three long strides.
"You're here," says the orc woman. "I'm glad. I don't think we have anything to worry about - there are guards masked and mingled throughout the crowd, including some from the Belmonts and the Cunninghams - but I'm always happy to have you all to hand." She smiles around the group, then glances down as the wavering feathers of her gnome companion appear at her side. "You should try to enjoy the party," says the orc. "Leave protecting the guests to me and the other guards."
"Not before I get a dance out of you," says the gnome, leaning back and shoving her feathers aside with one hand in order to see the orc's ace. "A proper one."
A) "Thank you for letting us know."
B) "HI MARIAM!"
(Note: This phase of the quest is relaxed. Decisions we make won't exhaust anyone's activation, so don't worry about keeping track who's in the active party just yet.)
(It's the last quest! Anyone want to start us off?)
"HI MARIAM!" says the orc in the white domino mask.
"Hi Urk!" says the gnome happily. Her orc companion in the black mask smirks. "Uh, I mean - who's this Mariam lady? I'm sure I don't know her. She sounds like a wonderful person!"
The masked orc chuckles as the gnome continues. "I'm honored that you - a stranger - would mistake me for this Mariam I've heard so much about!"
"I thought you didn't know who she is," interrupts the orc.
The gnome glares up at the orc. "Did I say that? Goodness, I think it's time for a dance!" With that the gnome takes the orc by the hand and drags her - well, the orc allows herself to be dragged - toward the dance floor.
The crowd stills as a chime rings out, silver on glass coming from the balcony overlooking the grand hall. A tall, ethereal human woman in a resplendent green gown and a quartered black-and-white dragon mask steps forward on the balcony to address the guests.
"Welcome to the annual Three Lords' Ball," she say in a voice that feels quiet, but nonetheless fills the hall. "Tonight we celebrate the alliance of three noble houses, House Cunningham," and here a group of men and women in mainly blue and gold cheer from where they cluster near the garden door," "House Belmont," another cheer, this from a group of people in red and white close to the musicians, "and of course House Fairfax. Our relationship remains unique in the barony, I believe, stretching back some ten generations to the union of the Three Lords on the battlefield against the shambling undead hordes that threatened us all. By working together then, we showed that we were stronger than the forces that would tear us apart."
She raises her glass, where the wine within sparkles in the lantern-light. "Tonight, we celebrate that relationship and join together once more. Eat, dance, be merry. Together, we will always be stronger than the darkness."
The crowd cheers, but the woman's glass drops from her fingers, falling over the edge of the balcony to shatter on the floor far below. She stagger s and begins to fall back, before being caught at each elbow by a human man in a black domino mask and a human woman in a mask angled and stylized to resemble a knight's helm. For a moment, the crowd holds its breath, and then the woman in the dragon mask steps forward once more, now clutching the arms of her two supporters.
"But it would be foolish to pretend that the darkness is not present. We mourn, tonight, the life of one of our own, taken from us before her time." She gestures down to the hall floor, where a table sits to one side, occupied by no one. A mask rests on the table, flocked with pure white wool and stylized to look like a lamb. The mask is surrounded by white roses and other cut flowers, with the occasional talisman or scrap of paper laid by mourners and guests. It evokes the Tree of Tales, a gathering of mementos to memorialize the fallen.
A slender young human man in an elegant mask with an intricate wire butterfly wing that covers half his face places a white rose in front of the white lamb mask. He glances up at the balcony, where the woman in the dragon mask and her knight companion both nod.
"Make no mistake," the woman in the dragon mask continues. "The darkness that claimed Sonia Fairfax is a threat to us all. If left unchecked, it will spread and throw us all into chaos." The woman bows her head and grips the hands of her supporters tightly. "A moment of silence, please, for those we've lost."
Silence settles over the assemblage like a snowfall. Heads bow, and stillness reigns. Then the woman in the dragon mask lifts her head and speaks again, her voice stronger, brighter.
"And now, it is time to celebrate. We celebrate the lives lost, and those yet living. We are the light against the darkness. Make merry, my friends, and let your light shine. Thank you." The crowd cheers, the minstrels strike up a tune, and the hall is once again awash in merriment and fellowship.
With no immediate demands on their attention, the party takes a moment to watch the crowd and survey the room. With the speeches out of the way, the guests are spreading throughout the manor. The minstrels, perched on the spiral stair overlooking the west side of the hall, are dashing out a lively tune on lute, pipes, tabor, and harp. About a dozen couples whirl and prance in a complicated quadrille on the dance floor, forming and re-forming into ever-evolving patterns as they move.
Many guests are clustered by the banquet table at the head of the hall, helping themselves to platters of food and settling in at nearby tables to eat. It's an unusual arrangement, but probably the only way to feed the large number of guests present in the space available. Two humans, a man and woman in stag and doe masks, are talking in low tones near the table, watching the rest of the crowd.
The woman in the dragon mask remains on the balcony overlooking the hall, where she is now surrounded by guests who are likely other nobles. A tall human man with a half-mask of blue and gold checks is leaning over the edge of the balcony, scratching a small jeweled drake under its scaly chin while the creature coos in contentment. A stout human man with a bushy red beard and wearing a mask of red silk with a white rose at one temple leans in closely to the woman in the black-and-white dragon mask, talking less privately than he seems to think.
The doors to the garden are open, with lanterns dotting the greenery. Several guests have already fled the noise and bustle of the main hall to walk in the garden alone or in pairs, where the pools of shadow and many twists and turns of the path provide privacy. At least one couple is walking hand in hand, clearly out for a romantic stroll.
The catfolk in the green spirit mask cracks her knuckles and turns to the rest of the party. "Guess it's time for us to get to work. Where should we start?"
A) Find a dance partner
B) Mingle near the banquet table and try the food
C) Approach the dragon woman and her entourage
D) Venture into the garden.
"I'll see how the nobility are faring," says the elf in the moon mask. "Ari- ah, that is, milady in the white mask, I could use your help. You have a knack for blending with local notables, and might be able to overhear their discussions."
"Gladly," the woman in the tailored dress replies. She sashays toward the balcony, the elf following in her wake as the rest of the party tries to look casual and fan out among the guests.
The group of nobles on the balcony sprawls down the staircase, sorting themselves higher or lower on the stair presumably based on rank. At the head of the stair stands the woman with the black-and-white dragon mask. Leaning over the balcony rail at her side is a tall human man in a mask with blue-and-gold checks; a chirping drake flutters its leathery wings while perched on his hand. A step below the woman in the dragon mask is a stout human man with a mask of red silk with a white rose at his temple; his bushy red beard burns brightly against the black of his velvet tunic.
Below the man in the red mask stands a slender elf woman with a crescent-moon mask, in conversation with a brown-skinned human woman whose mask resembles a knight's helm with a crown of black feathers. Still more well-to-do partygoers spill down the steps, some climbing up or down in their pursuit of food, dancing, or gossip.
Some of the guests linger by the table covered in flowers long enough to lay one of their own upon it or just to touch the mask in the center and bow their heads for a silent moment. Then they move on.
The elven knight in his own moon mask joins the conversation on the stairs with the knight-masked woman and the elf woman, standing aside briefly to let a human woman in a red riding costume with a skull-faced mask brush past him.
"...never once beat her in a game of King's Folly," says the slender young human man in a butterfly mask. He has sprawled himself on the banister of the stone staircase with no apparent fear he'll fall, although the elf woman with the crescent-moon mask standing nearby keeps reaching out a tentative hand whenever he shifts position.
"No, nor me," says the woman in the knight's helm mask. "She'd drub me mercilessly, and then I'd try to get her to spar just to repair my self-esteem, but she was too clever for that."
"She was clever," agrees the elf woman. "She had a gift for seeing the lesson and even the lesson behind the lesson." The elf steps aside to grant the newcomer some room on the stair. "What about you? Do you have any memories of Sonia you'd like to share?"
"I regret that I did not meet her," says the male elf, his tone solemn. "Though, I had heard she was fond of horses. A passion I can respect."
"She did," agrees the woman in the knight's-helm mask. "And not the way I do. It wasn't just the riding that interested her."
"No," agrees the youth in the butterfly mask. "She liked to study bloodlines and think about training and breeding. I'd never have the patience to think about something like that."
"In fact, wasn't her horse put to pasture because she was with foal?" asks the woman in the knight's helm mask. "I wonder. If she'd been riding her own horse the day she died, do you think...?"
"Best not to dwell on it," suggests the elf with the crescent-moon mask. But as the others climb down the stairs to the dance floor, she remains, lips pursed, thinking.
Meanwhile, the woman in the tailored dress deftly maneuvers up the stairs toward the balcony, in order to overhear the chatter of the trio of figures at the top. "...another two families last month, and I'll lose a half-dozen more when harvest is over," complains the human man with the bushy red beard. "They're all moving to your lands! I'll have farms going fallow, and who will replace their taxes in my coffers, hmm?"
"They're not serfs, my lord," says the woman with the dragon mask. If they're leaving your lands for mine, that's their choice. Perhaps you should spend more time thinking of ways to encourage them to stay and less time blaming me for your problems."
The human man with the drake coiled around his arm chirps, and the drake suddenly flutters out into the air above the dancers below. "Dragonholt's prosperity can help us all," he says.
"Oh, so you were listening all along," grumbles the bearded man in the red mask.
"I was. Your mistake is seeing Dragonholt as competition, rather than finding ways to benefit. In my county, I've shifted the market day to the middle of the week. That way, merchants don't have to choose between two markets but can visit them both. And some of those rich travelers who are flocking to Countess Fairfax's streets are passing through my lands on their way home. We both win that way." He shrugs as his drake returns to coil around his arm again, proffering up a small morsel of something in his free hand for the creature to eat. It flares its iridescent ruff of scales and coos, darting in at the food like a striking serpent.
"Well we can't very well both shift our market day or we're right back to the same problem, aren't we?" grumbles the man with the beard. He turns to the woman with the dragon mask and points one thick finger. "You need to bar my peasants from settling on your land!"
"I'll do nothing of the sort, my lord," she says with a flick of her fingers. "Our families have been intertwined for generations, and so have theirs. You'd have me sunder brother from sister, grandparents from their grandchildren."
"Leave off, Leone," says the tall man with the drake. "Tonight isn't the time for this discussion."
The man with the bushy beard huffs, takes a drink of wine, and fumes over the balcony. The woman in the tailored dress takes the opportunity to take interest in something else and wander off, before anyone asks what she's hanging around for.
Five or more time has not yet passed
A) Find a dance partner
B) Mingle near the banquet table and try the food
C) Approach the table surrounded by flowers
D) Venture out to the garden
As the orc in the white mask approaches the dance floor, the music changes, and a new dance begins, a contradanza were rows of couples exchange partners in ever-more-complicated flurries of movement. The human woman with the knight mask is in the centr of it, dancing with gusto down the row of celebrants arm in arm with a human man in a long-nosed grotesque mask before handing him off to take the arm of a human woman with a mask like a fox.
Off to one side, the tall orc woman with the black mask dances rather carefully with the gnome and her flamboyant plumage. The orc dances stiffly, formally ,while the gnome spins and flourishes before her. "I do actually know these court dances," says the orc. "I could lead you through one if you want, it's not that hard."
"But then I'd have to dance with other people," says the gnome. "I'd rather dance with you. And this way I get to show you what gnomish dances are all about!" She cocks her hips, raises her arms above her head, and shimmies side to side until her partner begins to laugh.
At the other edge of the dance floor, near the garden, two dwarves are dancing, an older man with a black-and-white checked mask with gold trim and a young girl with a feathered mask styled to resemble an owl. They don't seem to be moving with the music, but they don't seem to have noticed this fact with all the jumping and shrieking the young girl is doing.
"Dah," asks the young girl as the orc in the white mask approaches, "did you ever dance this way with Mah?"
"Nae, not like this," says the older dwarf. "A proper Dunwarr dance be lower to the ground, and far more kicking. The men and the women would ne'er dance together, but separately, to show off, y'see." He chuckles at some memory.
"More kicking," says the girl in the snowy owl mask. "Like this?" She adds high kicks to her leaps at great peril to those around her. Her father laughs, then nods to the orc as he notices her arrival.
"URK-" Urk begins, before screwing up her face in concentration and starting again. "I doN'T KNow thesE HUMAn dances either," she manages with great effort. "BUT your dauGHTER seemS LIKE EXPERT, DWARF I have never met before."
The snowy owl grabs both of the orc woman's hands firmly, surprising her. "Let me teach ye how ta dance," she says, her voice serious. "It mainly involves kicking." She leaps into the air and kicks out with one leg. "Like this!"
The orc and the small dwarf dance for a while, the music shifting several times, not that the music makes much difference to how she dances. The dwarf girl compliments the orc's excellent kicking and suggests that she also jump, explaining that the jumping is how to tell she's dancing, and not just walking in circles. The dwarf's father watches the whole affair while trying to hide a smile.
Just a little further away, four of the orc's companions watch her jump and kick with equal amusement. "She's really taken to this town," suggests the catfolk in the green mask.
"Glad someone did," suggests the surly man, a little less surly than usual. He still receives a punch on the shoulder from his companion in the tailored dress, but it's barely a tap.
"Well," says the elf in the moon mask, turning to the catfolk. "Perhaps we should follow her example?" He extends his arm, which his companion stares at, blankly.
"Uhhh..." she begins. "Should someone check on Urist? I mean, the dwarf with the white mask."
"I think he's all right loading up at the buffet," says the woman in the tailored dress with a sly smile. She gives the catfolk a none-too-subtle nudge toward the elf, and after that bit of extra coaxing, the two clasp hands and join the courtly contradanza.
"Oh spirits, finally," mutters the surly man as he watches them go. "That will-they-won't-they stuff was getting so old."
"Yeah, well, so am I standing around like a wallflower," replies his partner. "Come on, I know the next movement, and even these second-rate party minstrels can't mess it up."
The surly man grins and follows in the lady's wake, and the music strikes up again for the next song.
Five or more time has not yet passed
A) Stay with the contradanza for a while
B) Mingle near the banquet table and try the food
C) Approach the table surrounded by flowers
D) Venture out to the garden
The garden is cool and dark, with only a small handful of lanterns glimmering softly to light the paths. A gentle breeze stirs the leaves and washes across the woman in the tailored dress's skin, bringing with it the sweet scent of flowers.
The dark silhouette of a large oak tree stands in the center of the garden, the moon silvery behind it. It towers above the hedges that mark off its space. On the right along the manor wall and near the door to the kitchen is a vegetable garden, pragmatic but not precisely beautiful. To the left, behind another hedge, can be heard the tinkling of a running brook, feeding a pond. Directly in front is an arched trellis covered in flowering vines. Beyond it lies a rambling footpath marked with occasional stone lanterns, benches screened by tall shrubs, and flowers blooming in the moonlight.
She makes her way through a short hedge maze to the oak tree. From its crown hangs a half-dozen paper lanterns, akin to those adorning the great hall inside.
Beneath the spreading limbs of the oak tree an elderly couple sways gently to the music lilting out from the manor house. One, a human man, has a wooden mask carved like a frog. The other, a human woman, has a cascade of bright flowers flowing off her mask. She rests her head lightly against his chest as they dance in the flickering light of the lanterns hung from the tree.
"Was it worth the wait?" she asks after a silence.
"Yes," he says. "It was worth every single day that brought us here, tonight." She tilts her head up, and they kiss, then giggle as their masks clack together.
The woman in the tailored dress watches the pair, charmed by the moment, before making her way back toward the hall via the garden. The vegetable garden is quiet and lit only by moonlight and the spill of light from the manor. Carrots and cabbage, beets and broccoli, parsnips and peas, and other vegetables grow in rows in raised beds of rich-smelling dark earth surrounded by grey stones. Rusty-red pots bracket the beds and march along the manor wall, filled with basil, hyssop and other herbs. The entire garden is surrounded by a weathered wooden fence and waving stalks of lavender and bee balm.
The woman in the tailored dress stops, as she is overcome by a strange sense of awareness. She feels the crops breathing, hears the plants dreaming, and feels the world drop out from within her stomach and then come crashing in around her.
"Maybe I drank Urist's tea by mistake," she mutters, clutching the sides of her throbbing head. An unexpected rushing sound close by causes her to snap around in place.
A tall figure looms above her, cloaked, and crowned with stag's horns. "We grow and thrive, thanks to her life, thanks to her blood, thanks to her sacrifice."
"W-what are you talking about?!" asks Aria, her mask falling off as she stumbles backward.
"The bride," it says, its voice tinged with sadness. "She will join us, soon."
The figure turns to go, and Aria finds herself laid out on the ground. She fumbles around for her mask and staggers to her feet. "Nope!" she yells, stumbling back in the direction of the ball. "Don't want anything to do with that!"
A) Stay with the contradanza for a while
B) Mingle near the banquet table and try the food
C) Approach the table surrounded by flowers
D) Move to cool off in the garden
The elf and the hyrinnx twirl around one another. Neither are particularly dressed for the occasion, in heavy boots and weathered armor, but their natural agility keeps them moving through the steps of the courtly dance smoothly enough. "We look ridiculous," the catfolk mutters. "Why are you so damn tall?"
"How inconsiderate of me," the elf replies with a wide smile.
"You've had a hundred years to pick up human dances, too," she continues to gripe, her tail flicking awkwardly to maintain her balance. "I demand a rematch."
"Well, you shall have your chance in the next movement." The elf nods toward the end of the row. "Now we switch partners."
This almost causes the catfolk to tip over. "Wait, what?" But before she can protest, the dance carries her away, and the elf chuckles to himself. Another partner swings into place - another elf, wearing another moon mask. A burst of emerald plumage rises from her left temple, and she moves with expert precision through the complex forms of the dance.
"I see you're wearing the mask I gave you," says the elf woman. "It looks well on you. Although it could do with a flash of colour, don't you think?" She grins and gestures at the spray of plumage bursting from her own mask. Then her voice shifts down an octave and she leans in closer. "I don't like this masquerade business. I have a hard enough time telling humans apart, and now with everyone's face hidden I'm not sure how I'm supposed to spot Kyric or any of his cronies in this crowd." She sighs. "I'm probably just being paranoid."
The male elf shakes his head. "I came to a masquerade carrying a sword and wearing full mail, you're hardly the only one."
The dance spins on, and it is nearly time to hand the elf woman off to her next partner when she leans in for one last murmured exchange. "I nearly forgot. Gawin, the stablemaster, he's left. Packed his things and vanished earlier tonight. So keep your eyes open."
With that, she's gone, and the male elf is passed on to his next partner, a human woman wearing a knight's helm mask. She gives a stiff bow, incongruous with her ruffled peach ball gown, and steps into the dance.
"I'm sorry if I'm not much of a conversationalist tonight," she says. "I keep thinking of my sister. She would have loved this ball." She spins slowly, flowing into the next form of the dance before resuming the conversation. "She died recently. And my brother narrowly survived an attempt on his life, as well."
The elf in the moon mask briefly wonders if perhaps humans find elves as difficult to tell apart as the reverse, but considers instead how the feigned anonymity of a masquerade gives some the opportunity to unburden themselves. He remains silent.
The dance brings the lady close, her eyes blazing behind the helm's visor. "I'll find the man responsible. And when I do, I'll make sure he never threatens my family again."
The elf is saved from responding as the woman in the knight mask hands him over to the next dancer in line.
The music takes on a sprightly air during his set with his next partner, a young human man with an elegant mask whose butterfly wing covers half his face. He sneaks a quick bow of greeting into his dance steps, and moves with a bouncing energy that makes the elf wonder if his smile is about to fly off his face and around the room.
"I'm having a wonderful time," the boy says. "I think about how much my sister would have loved this, and everything I see reminds me of something I loved about her." He steps crosswise past the elf, then loops back around, still grinning. "It is splendid to be alive, don't you think?"
"I am inclined to agree," says the elf, barely containing a smile. Then the music shifts and the dance moves on.
His next partner is a tall, broad-shouldered human man with his face concealed behind a mask styled to look like a black dragon. He dances smoothly, with great ease and skill. "This is an elegant affair," he says. "I haven't been to one of the Fairfax's masquerades since I was scarcely more than a boy. I see they have not changed."
He glances up at the balcony, where the woman in the black-and-white dragon mask looks out over the dance floor. "Much else has, however. And much more will, I am certain."
"Kyric," Athtar growls, his voice barely above a whisper.
The man in the dragon mask turns back to his dance partner. "Come now, Sir. I was told you were an elf of honor. We are all strangers here tonight, at least for now."
The elf grits his teeth and his movements become stiff, but he takes no direct action. "Apologies. My manners have suffered somewhat as I recover from a crossbow wound."
"Bad luck, that", the man replies. "But that's the sort of misfortune you can expect, if you try to stand in the way of change. Good evening to you." The music comes to an end and the elf's dance partner gives him an immaculate bow before vanishing into the crowd.
The elf briefly tries to give chase without causing a stir, but soon realizes the man is out of reach. Instead, he spies the woman in the tailored dress, her mask askew, stumbling and looking as though she's just seen a ghost as she rushes back into the hall from the garden. Concerned, he begins to make his way over to her.
Five or more time has not yet passed
A) Mingle near the banquet table and try the food
B) Approach the table surrounded by flowers
C) Move to cool off in the garden
Anyone? Last choice before we reach the end of the party!
As the hyrrinx steps toward the table, a tall, broad-shouldered human man briefly blocks her view. He pauses over the flowers for a moment, then walks away without a backward glance. The catfolk follows him with her gaze for a few moments, her nose twitching, but the scent of the flowers is stronger and draws her toward the table.
A mask lies on the table, stylized to look like a lamb and covered with fluffy white wool. White roses form a dense carpet on the table, interrupted here and there by mall mementos and rolled pieces of paper, trinkets and gifts for the departed.
In the center of the table rests a sprig of purple flowers like a swirl of stars - hyacinth - resting on the very top of the pile. At the near edge lies an ink pot and a loose stack of blank papers for guests to write their own missives.
The hyrrinx stands in silence for a moment, meditating on the young woman who was intended to wear this mask and her untimely death. After a short time, a slender elf woman in a mask shaped like a crescent moon appears at her side.
"She was too young," the elf says. The emerald feathers that sprout from her mask flutter a she glances up to the balcony above them. A young woman in a peace ruffled dress and a mask stylized like a knight's helm wraps one arm around a young man whose mask sports a butterfly wing taking up half his face. "This family has had too much grief. First Sonia, then Phillip had a narrow escape. And more is coming; Regina may not survive the year. They're good people who want what's best for everyone. But the world is a cruel place, full of crueler people." She sighs and glances over at the hyrrinx. "They need people like us to stand for them. Especially Rochelle, now. She will need friends, and badly, lest she end like her sister."
After another moment in silence, the elf steps away. The mask sits silently, looking at them with empty eyes.
Movement in the periphery of the catfolk's vision causes her head to snap up. The broad-shouldered man, secluded in a darkened alcove, shares words with a servant before both men part and step quickly away from each other. The guest moves too quickly, but she has a moment to recognize the servant - Gawin.
He has a hunted look, and moves quickly for the exit. The catfolk grits her teeth and sets off quickly but quietly after him.
The two emerge into the night air through a concealed postern gate, likely a servant's entrance. Whoever was tasked with guarding it has been derelict, and Gawin has a clear run to the stables he was once master of. He makes it clear across the open ground and creeps through the back door.
There, his horse is saddled and ready. He's stayed overlong. He checks the strap on the saddle is secure and is about to swing up into it when a firm hand on his cloak yanks him back hard. He has to bite his tongue to keep from crying out, but his balance proves harder to control, and Gawin is sent falling backward into the hay.
Live steel presses against his throat and two narrowed yellow eyes fill his vision.
"Talk," the hyrrinx hisses.
"I-I-I didn't do anything!" Gawin babbles, his eyes rolling wildly as his hands scrabble for purchase in the hay and the dirt. "I'm just on my way! Just on my way out, nothing to-"
"Tell me who you were talking to before you left the party." The blade digs in a little deeper.
"It's too late!" Gawin's voice is shrill now, no longer controlled. "Kyric's already moving! The Fairfaxes - Regina's lot - they'll be dead before dawn! Nobody can stop him, just let me go!"
Deepmind's grip slackens just an inch from shock. Too late. But the sound that reaches them from the manor is not the sound of clashing swords or yelled curses, it's something that cuts much deeper.
Five time has passed
The orc in the white mask sits with three dwarves, the father and daughter she had joined earlier along with a jolly older dwarf with a similar white mask, worn askew. The two grown male dwarves are sharing stories of the Dunwarr mountains while the orc picks over the detritus of their buffet plate. Then, all at once, she sits bolt upright.
"URIST," the orc growls. "TAKE GRISBECK AND PENNY OUT OF HERE NOW."
The little dwarf girl frowns. "Yer not s'posed t'use our real names, y'know."
Whatever sixth sense had alerted the orc has kicked in as well for the older dwarf, who goes quiet and adjusts his mask. He nods to the orc before turning to his two fellow dwarves. "No time to explain, I'm afraid. Quickly now, follow me."
A shriek tears through the music and commotion like a talon through lace. Screaming comes from the stairs up to the balcony, and panicked guests go streaming past in every direction, rushing for the doors. The ghostly figure of a young human woman moans in midair over the stairs! The woman's skin is dark, her hair a riot of golden curls, and she wears her dress worn bunched at one hip for riding. Color fades in and out as she moves, flickering in the air, and blood spatters across her face.
Celyse removes her crescent-moon mask and gasps. "Sonia!" She steps toward the ghost, holding the mask over her breast as if to guard herself. "Sonia, talk to us!"
"He sabotaged my saddle..." moans the ghost. "Kyric! My own uncle!" She moans and floats out over the crowd, where a sudden circle appears around a tall human man. "You wanted my mother's seat, and you were willing to kill me to get it, uncle!"
The tall man removes his black dragon mask, revealing the scarred face of the bandit leader. "I did not!" he shouts. "That idiot stablemaster acted without my orders!" He pulls away from the specter but finds his path blocked by a broad-shouldered orc woman in a black mask. Braxton throws her mask aside and draws her sword. The elf in the moon mask steps in behind Kyric, his sword similarly drawn.
On the balcony above, Regina removes her black-and-white dragon mask, and Rochelle doffs her faux knight's helm. Both seem several shades paler than normal, transfixed by the sight of Sonia's ghost.
"Regina!" Calls Kyric. "I never intended for things to get this out of hand. The spirits hate a kinslayer."
"Uncle!" says Phillip, tearing off his butterfly-wing mask. "Please, uncle. Surrender. Face justice for your crimes."
"I did not kill her!" murmurs Kyric again, turning a slow circle.
"Perhaps not," says Phillip. "But you abducted me. Held me prisoner. Threatened me, tried to force me to support your claim to my mother's seat. And when I refused, you tried to kill me. The only reason I'm alive today is an act of sheer heroism." He nods gravely at the elf, who removes his mask with his off-hand.
"You can't win, Kyric," says Athtar, leveling his blade. Aria and Minar step out to either side of him, their bows retrieved and arrows drawn. "Your crimes are revealed with half of Allerfeldt as witnesses."
"Uncle, please," urges Phillip. "It's not too late. This can end without any more death."
Kyric shakes his head. "You're wrong, my nephew. It is too late."
Braxton steps forward and throws Kyric to the ground. She holds her sword to him. "Kyric Fairfax," she growls. "You are under arrest for treason."
The other Fairfaxes walk forward. Regina leads the way with Tymothi hovering at her side. "Brother. I think you can understand why, under the circumstances, I do not consider you an invited guest."
"Let's throw him in a cell," says Rochelle. One hand drops to the hilt of her sword and th other hikes up her ruffled skirts to free her movement. "Dame Braxton, would you be so kind?"
"Of course, my lady," says the orc, hauling Kyric to his feet.
Rochelle watches her uncle warily. Behind her approaches a woman in a red riding costume and skull mask, drawing a long dagger and padding forward, the knife held flat against her arm - an assassin!
A) Shout a warning to Rochelle
B) Spring forward to protect her
C) [Frost Rune] Freeze the assassin in place
(Battle is joined! Normal activation rules resume!)
Urk feels the cold creep into her body before she even pulls the frost rune from her bag. Even as she wills it - almost before she wills it - ice slicks the floor beneath the assassin's feet, sending her tumbling, then rushes upward with a crack to encase her arms and legs. A gasp runs through the crowd, and everyone takes a step back, except Regina, whose eyes remain fixed on the assassin.
Celyse steps toward Urk. "That is a very impressive rune. You must tell me everything about where you found it." She glances to where Rochelle has drawn her sword and Braxton wrestles with Kyric. "But later, I think."
Kyric slashes at Braxton with a knife, breaking away. "There's no turning back now!" he calls. A number of partygoers throw off their masks and draw a motley assortment of hooked knives, cudgels set with nails, and other weapons made as much for cruelty as effect. Sonia's ghost shrieks as the remaining guests cry ou in fear and begin running for the exits, where more bandits come streaming in. The ghost rises above them all, her cries rising higher and higher, until a knife flashes through her and she vanishes. "Kill them all," spits Kyric. "And may we all be damned for it."
Five bandits rush forward, heading for Rochelle and her mother. Braxton steps forward and lashes out at the lead bandit, sending him staggering, but the other four rush past her like water. Rochelle shoves her mother behind her, holding her sword in a low grip.
"You get to her past my corpse," she hisses.
"That's the idea, princess," chuckles the bandit in front, a lean dark-skinned woman with dramatic patterns shaved into her hair.
The screaming crowd parts, and a woman in Fairfax livery shoves to the front, tossing aside her black domino mask: the surly guard, Tallea. "You vermin are going to make me earn my pay tonight, aren't you," she snaps, drawing her sword. Then she rushes forward and scatters the bandits with a swing of her blade.
"To me!" yells Athtar over the din. "Rally to me!" He takes up a position with Rochelle and Regina, scanning the crowd for his companions. Minar and Aria are close at hand and join the small circle, their arrow points sweeping across the crowd as their bowstring strain. Urk, too, manages to cross the distance, frosty air still following in her wake.
More bandits fight their way through the fleeing guests, moving to surround the party. Rochelle shifts to and fro, desperately trying to stay between all of them and her mother.
"Okay Ath," says Minar. "What's the plan?"
"Plan?" replies the knight, shaking his head. "No time left for plans, we settle this with steel."
A) Cut a path through the enemy
B) Charge headlong at the bandits
C) [Runes] Blast the flanking bandits away
D) [Performance] Inspire with a bardic song
"Cover me!" Aria yells, loosing an arrow into a bandit then dropping her bow.
"What?" exclaims Minar, gawking as Aria pulls out her violin. "Now?!"
Aria gives no reply, instead setting bow to strings. Given the night's appearance of the recently deceased, Aria decides a rendition of "Requiem for a Martyred Love" (Vulgate) would be appropriate. Mariam's mezzo-soprano joins her before she finishes the first verse, and a sense of grim resolve settles on the assembled company like a cloak.
Everyone regains two stamina
Aria has Empathy
Moving in perfect rhythm with one another and with Aria's song, Braxton and Rochelle fend off the encircling bandits, each swing of their sword leaving no gap for the miscreants to exploit. Athtar watches the flanks, keeping the bandits either side from hitting the two women while they're distracted.
Three bandits rush to complete the circle around the embattled group. Aria's music rises to a crescendo as Celyse steps forward, holding one hand aloft and shouting a phrase in the elven tongue. A stone secreted in the palm of her hand flares with an impossibly bright light, a light which blinds the onrushing bandits but leaves her allies, moving in time with the music, unfazed.
The old orc guard, Tweegal, casts aside his mask and steps into the disordered bandits, lashing out with a steel mace to the beat of the requiem. Minar's arrows rain down on any bandit still standing, setting them to flight.
The party has a moment's peace and regroups with the Fairfaxes, Tymothi, Braxton, Mariam and the three guards Tweegal, Tallea and Deakon. The bandits hang back, but every moment, more filter through the doors or out of the rapidly thinning crowd.
"We cannot stay here," says Braxton. "We have no cover and are badly outnumbered."
"Aye, the young knight has the right of it," mutters Tweegal. "We must move or die." He jerks his head at the stone stair behind the group. "Up into the tower. It's the only part of the manor grounds that are fortified at all." The eastern wing of the manor house is, in fact, an old stone tower, and the balcony overlooking the ballroom would be a fairly defensible position.
"The garden," suggests Tymothi, his voice ragged. "We'll be trapped in the tower. In the garden, we can use the hedges to our advantage, and we'll have room to run if we need to." The gardens border directly on the orchards surrounding the village. Although its hedges offer some protection, the true safety in that direction might be to slip into the trees in the darkness and hope for the best.
Tweegal and Braxton share a glance, then look to the party for their input.
"URIST OUTSIDE," suggests Urk. She's drawn the Rune sword and steps next to Athtar to strengthen the circle of blades protecting the group. "COULD REGROUP EASIER OUT THERE."
"No sign of Deepmind?" Athtar asks, scanning around the hall. "Did she go with him?"
Urk shrugs. "PROBABLY NOT."
"I like the balcony," says Minar. "Clear shots and better cover. None of these bandits are better fighters than you or Braxton, so long as they can't get around us we can hold out. Outside we can get run down."
"But we can also run," insists Aria. "It's Rochelle, Phillip and Regina they're after, and two of them can't fight. If we get into the garden we can get them to safety while the rest of us provide a distraction."
Athtar is unmoving, watching the bandits marshal their strength. Whatever they're going to do, they had better do it soon.
A) Up the stairs to the balcony
B) Out to the garden
(Let's say first to two votes on this one, if we can - might be important!)
Athtar nods to Minar. "We can hold them off. The balcony."
"Do it," snaps Rocelle. "Braxton, Tallea, with me. We'll give them some cover."
The group moves toward the stair as Braxton, Rochelle, and Tallea launch a concerted attack on the bandits, driving them back and giving everyone else room to maneuver. Regina and Tymothi soon reach the stair and begin to climb, followed by the rest of the group one by one.
Soon enough, the only ones left on the great hall floor are Athtar, Braxton and Rochelle. Tallea, Urk and Celyse hold the bottom of the stairs, using flashes of magic and swings of their swords to keep back a pair of burly, almost neckless brigands. Further up, Aria and Minar pelt arrows at anyone who gets too close.
Four bandits lie between them and the stair, led by a lean, brown human woman with dramatic patterns shaved into her hair. "Get the noble girl," sneers the lead bandit. "Kyric's paying one hundred hold to the one who cuts her down."
"Try it," hisses Rochelle, her knuckles whitening on the hilt of her sword.
"We have to get back to the group," says Braxton, shifting to keep her focus on the bandits now moving to encircle them.
Athtar blocks a bandit's cut and kicks him back, clearing space to see to the far end of the hall. Squinting, he spies two familiar figures lurking near one of the entrances. Reuniting with Deepmind and Urist while also breaking through to the relative safety of the balcony would be a tall order.
A) Flank the bandits while Rochelle clears a path
B) Provide tactical support for the group
Athtar and Braxton close ranks and keep the bandits at bay. Rochelle, meanwhile, steps toward the stair and engages the bandit leader, her sword ringing as she moves. Flanking the skirmish, Deepmind rockets across the ground, zipping around confused bandits with her knives in hand and aiming for the bandits looking to surround Rochelle.
Deepmind has Brawling
One of the bandits, a dwarf with her black hair shaved back to a single tall strip, leaps forward, attempting to knock Deepmind out of position and leave Rochelle exposed. She slashes at her with a hatchet, spinning to follow up with the hammer in her other hand.
Deepmind sidesteps her first swing, then steps into the second and knocks the hammer from her grip. She slams her hip into the dwarf, locking into corps-a-corps and sending her stumbling back. Her attack rebuffed, the dwarf bandit sprawls in the path of her companions, leaving the entire flank in disarray, which gives Deepmind time to pivot to the center and lend assistance to Rochelle's duel with the lead bandit. In moments, the bandit is falling back, clutching at a bleeding sword arm, and the group joins the others at the staircase, giving them command of a highly defensible position.
"Timely intervention," says Athtar, approvingly.
The hyrrinx pulls the elf knight down to her level by his mail shirts and plants a kiss on his startled face. "Don't forget to cover Urist," she adds, before climbing the stairs.
The whole party begins retreating into the tower while Athtar holds the foot of the stair as Urist comes up huffing and puffing in the rear. Before they can follow, a bandit steps forward to challenge them to a duel. "Come down here and fight, you coward," he calls, grinning around a mouthful of sharp teeth. He is an elf man with skin so pale it almost seems translucent, and he holds his hooked sword with a casual arrogance that suggests he knows how to use it. "Your countess can't hide behind your skirts forever, not if she wants to keep the respect of her people!"
Before either adventurer can respond, the elf bandit leaps to the attack, his sword flashing in a deadly arc!
A) Meet his assault with a clash of steel
B) Take advantage of the high ground
C) [Runes] Fend off his advances with lighting
It's obvious almost immediately that the elf bandit has the upper hand on Athtar blade-to-blade - eccentric though he may be, the shark-toothed-elf is also surprisingly strong and wildly aggressive. The knight starts scrambling up the steps, trading position for a chance to find an opportunity to gain the advantage. "Kill 'em, Shark!" shouts a gnome woman, waving her twin knives in the air.
Athtar does not have Reasoning
We also never finished Academic Study, so he can't buy it
And no potion gives it to us either, yeesh
And Urk doesn't feel like burning the Spirit's Blessing just yet
Athtar scrambles to keep himself above Shark and out of range of his sword, while also trying to keep himself between Shark and Urist. Sadly, no weakness presents itself for Athtar to exploit, and he keeps jumping, scrambling, and losing ground, pressed back as he narrowly dodges the hooked tip of his sword. When he reaches the top of the stair, he puts a foot wrong looking for a step that isn't there, and Shark's blade lashes out, tearing a bloody gash out of his calf. He falls as his whole leg spasms and stiffens with the pain.
Athtar loses four stamina
The guard, Tallea, steps up to defend Athtar before Shark can bring his sword down for a murder-stroke, catching his sword on her own and locking the two swords together. Back and forth they wrestle their locked blades, as the bandits below howl for blood, hurling insults and accusations of cheating and trickery.
Shark's attention seems to be on Tallea's sword, so Athtar grits his teeth and uses his good leg to kick him in the chest and send him tumbling down the stairs to sprawl limp atop his companions.
Deepmind comes bounding back out of the stone tower to the balcony, spitting mad. "Are you kidding me? I was gone for two seconds!"
"Urist's covered," the knight offers fairly weakly from the ground.
She turns to give the embarrassed dwarf a dark look. "For all the good he's been."
"This is no time to fall to pieces," says Celyse, looking over the railing toward the hall. "We have much larger problems brewing."
Standing on the balcony, the small group watches as the bandits below get organized and prepare to mount an attack on their position. Some of them have found bows, and others now clutch spears. One group begins to climb the stair, led by a wiry human man with freckles and eyes as dead and colorless as a fish.
Urist stands on the balcony with Celyse, she with a rapier in one hand and her rune, bound with copper wire and looped around two fingers, clutched in the other. "Just like old times," she says sourly.
"I recall I spent most of those old times safely back at the tavern," suggests Urist in a small voice. "More of, ah, a support role sort of fellow. You and Athtar did most of the actual adventuring." He glances back to where his fallen colleague clutches at his bleeding leg, while Deepmind furiously tries to drag him back toward the tower, then straightens his back and turns to face the oncoming bandits.
A) Fend off the bandits at the top of the stairs
B) Find a way to keep the bandits at bay
C) Smash a vial of liquid smoke on the stairs
With a hoarse cry, the bandits rush the stairs. Celyse readies her rapier and rune and takes position at the top, alongside Urist. "Maybe that trick you used in the goblin caves outside Nerekhall?" she suggests. Urist nods and pulls out a vial of grey liquid, hurling it to shatter halfway down the stair. A cloud of silky grey smoke billows up, soon enveloping te entire staircase. Within the smoke, bandits can be heard shrieking and stumbling.
Urist has Awareness
One bandit trips and falls over the side of the stair, her shriek suddenly cut short with a meaty thud somewhere below the balcony and out of sight. At least two more are shouting within the smoke, panic tinging their voices. A looming silhouette appears within the smoke at the top of the stair.
"Celyse!" Urist calls, pointing to the interloper. She is redy, and as an olive-skinned human man with crooked teeth rushes out of the smoke swinging a handaxe, she is ready to meet him with a brilliant flare of light from her rune and a precise and lethal jab from her rapier. As the man staggers, surprised to find blood running from his throat, she pirouettes and kicks him down the stair.
"They're rather bigger than goblins," she says.
"Most goblins," Urist agrees, and the two of them retreat to the countess's audience chamber while te bandits struggle to regain some semblance of order. Braxton and Tweegal slam and bar the door behind them, and the whole group is safe for a moment.
(Big update later today, so catch your breath!)
The countess's audience chamber is almost silent, with only the hissing and spitting of the fire in the hearth breaking he stillness. Regina sits on her chair of black wood, slender fingers wrapped around the arms of the chair as if she fears to fall. Tymothi hovers at her side, fingering the dagger at his belt and casting nervous glances to the double doors. Rochelle leans against the fireplace, staring at the flames, Braxton paces by the door, and Mariam sits with her legs kicking in the air on a cushioned wooden chair, chewing her lip.
The adventurers are gathered in a motley circle in the middle of the room, Urist feeding a healing potion to Athtar and setting his leg. Deepmind kneels nearby, watching the process intently, while Minar and Aria sit back to back. The bard plays a few plaintive notes before stashing her violin with a sigh. Urk gives the Rune sword a few impatient swings, limbering up for whatever comes through the door. Only Celyse seems serene, kneeling in the center of the room with her eyes closed.
Athtar regains full Stamina
One health potion consumed
"We have to do something," says Rochelle. "They'll get through the door eventually." The door suddenly rocks, a loud bang sounding from outside.
"They're trying to batter it down," notes Braxton. "Probably using a table. The balcony isn't large enough to get a proper ram up there. It won't work. They're better off using axes." Moments later, the distinctive "thock, thock, thock," of an axe sounds through the door and Braxton shrugs apologetically against Mariam's glare. "What? I scarcely think they heard me and took my suggestion."
"That's it, then," sighs Regina.
"No," says Rochelle. "We fight." Her hand slashes like a sword through the room, arranging battle lines. "Braxton there, me here-"
"Rochelle," says Regina. "Spending your life to save mine is a poor trade. Daughters do not die for their mothers. Rather it should be the other way around, I feel."
"WE CAN PROBABLY STILL WIN," insists Urk, but Aria shushes her from the ground.
Regina smiles, a paper thin thing already tearing apart. "Rochelle. I love you with all my heart. You will be a marvelous leader. I'm so sorry that I couldn't stay with you longer."
"Mother-" Rochelle steps forward as Regina groans, resting her head against the black wood of her chair. A light fills her, escaping through eyes and mouth and fingernails, and she stands, a tall, fey figure, shimmering with power.
Sonia's spirit appears at her side, offering a long sword. Another ghost flickers behind her, a broad-shouldered, dark-skinned man with love and sadness writ in the lines of his face, and hands the spectral Regina a shield. More and more apparitions appear, some human, others animals or fanciful creations. A badger - its fur marked with a heart and inscribed with initials - snuffles at the hem of Regina's dress. A diminutive knight, lance streaming with black and white pennants, sits astride a sparrow on her shoulder.
"You are not welcome in this place!" thunders Regina. She gestures and the doors to the audience chamber burst open, shards of wood flying out into the mass of bandits on the balcony. "You have no roots here. Depart or perish!" with a wordless cry, Regina and her legion of spirits rush forward and the bandits shriek in terror. One leaps forward swinging an axe, but his weapon shatters on a shield of shimmering light. Regina's shining sword lashes out, and the bandit falls, split in two.
The bandits scream, some rushing forward to attack and die, others fleeing, even leaping from the balcony. In moments, the great hall is empty of bandits and the spirit legion vanished, chasing the few survivors in all directions or simply fading from existence.
The whole group crosses out to the balcony and looks out, seeing no sign of Kyric either alive or dead. The spectral Regina nods to them, then vanishes as if a cloud blown apart by the wind.
"My word..." murmurs Urist. "Everyone else saw that, right?"
"A brave sacrifice," Athtar declares, striking a salute.
A strangled sob pulls everyone back to the black wooden chair. Rochelle lies there, gripping her mother's skirts and shaking with grief, Phillip's hand on her shoulder. Regina's body sits on the chair, her face peaceful and empty.
Phillip places his fingers on Regina's wrist and closes his eyes for a moment. "No," he breathes. "She's gone, 'Chelle."
"I never knew," sobs Rochelle, straightening and wiping tears from her eyes. "All this time I never knew the power she could command."
"Your mother wanted it that way," says Celyse, carefully closing Regina's eyes wit slender fingers. "She never wanted you to know the price she paid for her power."
Soft laughter comes from the balcony. The party turns to see Kyric standing in the shattered remains of the door, his scarred face alive with a manic light. "So, dear sister, your flame has finally burned out. I thought it might, if I gave you enough incentive." He pauses, drawing contrition around himself like a masquerade costume. "Rochelle. Phillip. Children. It's over. I am Lord of Dragonholt now."
Rochelle stands and draws her sword, her eyes burning like green fire. "Not while I live," she growls.
Rochelle rushes forward, slashing at her uncle as she comes. Kyric sidesteps her attack with no apparent distress. "This tantrum is unbecoming a young woman of noble birth," says Kyric. "Even a bastard's daughter."
"Enough!" shouts Rochelle, parrying Kyric's thrust. Her riposte cuts across the bridge of his nose, sending him staggering back. "You did this!" she screams. She slams the hilt of her sword into Kyric's stomach, dropping him to his knees. "You killed your sister, your niece! You kinslayer!" She lifts her sword over her head.
"No, Rochelle, don't kill him!" Phillip rushes forward, arms outstretched. ROchelle steps back, glancing back and forth between her brother and her uncle.
"Should we do something?" Deepmind hisses, as the party awkwardly mills in the audience chamber.
"URK THINK MAYBE LET NOBLES WORK OUT WHAT THEY WANT FIRST."
Kyric struggles to his feet, wiping blood from his face. "I'm not the monster you believe me to be, Rochelle. This isn't what I wanted." His knuckles whiten on the hilt of his sword and he laughs, a brittle, breaking sound like a shattering pot. But it doesn't matter, does it. I've come too far, now, to turn back." Suddenly, he turns and flees.
"Or not," snorts Minar.
Rochelle shrieks an incoherent wail of rage and races after. The party, Phillip, and Braxton all leap forward in pursuit, jumping over bandit corpses and struggling to keep both Kyric and Rochelle in view.
In the great hall, Kyric runs for the front door. Behind him, Rochelle bends and snatches a spear from the hands of a dead bandit lying on the floor, then steps forward and throws. The spear sinks into the wood of the door with a "thock!" nearly striking Kyric's head. He jumps back, and Rochelle rushes toward him with her sword high, only o be hauled to a stop by Phillip.
"Please, Rochelle," begs Phillip. "What our uncle did is terrible, but don't stoop to his level."
"He doesn't deserve to live, Phillip!" ROchelle grabs Phillip's hand and hurls him back into Braxton. "He was going to kill you!" she screams, fear, anger, and tears marring her expression.
Phillip stands tall and places himself between his sister and uncle. "But he didn't. I'm alive, and so ar you. No one else has to die."
Mark two progress in Peace
Rochelle screams and swings her sword, splitting a nearby chair in half. She seems torn in half herself, afire with rage and grief. Kyric sprints away from the siblings, climbing the fair stairs up to the salon.
Rochelle lifts her sword and makes to chase after Kyric, but suddenly Braxton is standing in her way with all the insistence of a brick wall. "No, my lady," says the orc. "You are Countess of Dragonholt now. I can't let you risk yourself like this." Braxton turns to the adventurers. "Go," she says. "Kill him or talk him down. I don't care which."
Athtar nods in response before looking over his shoulder toward his companions, weapons drawn and ready. "With me." With no more instruction than that, he bounds up the stairs and after Kyric.
The six adventurers climb up the stairs and find Kyric pacing in the salon. He sees them and readies his sword - a handsome blade featuring the Fairfax family crest.
"REALLY?" says Urk, waving the Rune sword. "OUTNUMBERED SIX TO ONE? STILL GOING TO TRY WITH SWORD?"
"I never wanted Sonia to die, nor anyone else," he says. "But now it seems I have no choice. This county is mine by right; I should never have let my witch of a sister steal it from me." He raises the sword.
A) Engage Kyric in martial combat
B) [Archery] Nock an arrow and threaten him
C) "I know. Just put down the sword."
D) "No one else has to die."
(As you may have noticed, the second post has two new trackers - these control the outcome of this final boss fight. Take some time and discuss your strategy if you can before taking these fairly momentous last few votes! I'll put a minimum of two votes for an outcome but I'll also give longer for discussion if necessary as well, because these are definitely going to matter)
"We can talk this through," begins Athtar, lowering his sword point.
Urk rushes forward, and Kyric steps up to meet her as the rest of the party cries out in alarm. His new sword, with its dragon's head at the crossguard, is evidently no show piece, but as sharp and deadly as any weapon of war.
Urk has the Rune Sword
Urk has Dueling and Military
Kyric meets her in the middle of the salon with an aggressive high counter, followed by a classic "threshing the wheat" advance, clear evidence of a formal education in swordplay. Thankfully, the war rune thrumming in Urk's sword seems to know the moves, and guides her swings to counter Kyric's.
Eventually, Kyric is able to batter her guard aside and land a glancing strike across her chest, but in doing so he leaves his wrist overextended, and she lands a telling blow to his sword arm. He pulls back, shifting the word to his other hand and evaluating the orc with newfound respect.
The party closes ranks around their orcish companion, tightening the noose around Kyric. "That was stupid," snaps Deepmind, a throwing knife poised.
"ALMOST WORKED," Urk grunts back. "JUST SMACK KYRIC A FEW TIMES AND CAN TALK TO CRAZY MAN ALL DEEPMIND LIKES, AFTERWARD."
Mark three progress in War
Urk loses two stamina
Peace: [x] [x] [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ]
War: [x] [x] [x] [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ]
"Let's just cool it for like two seconds!" yells Aria over the din, her bow drawn back. "If we can just calm down a bit without-"
Rochelle suddenly appears at the top of the stairs, her naked sword in hand. She stalks forward, Braxton behind her. "Give up, Kyric. You'll never be count."
"I already am," he growls, then kicks through the door and into Phillip's studio, arrows flying wide over his head.
Aria spits a string of curses as the party chases Kyric. "Stop provoking the crazy person!"
"Or get better aim," Minar suggests, sending another arrow thudding into the far wall.
"The county is mine. If you make me kill you for it, you'll have only yourself to blame!" Kyric knocks over an easel and shrouded canvas and topples a plinth holding a half-finished sculpture across the party's path. They follow, stepping sideways around the debris.
A) Give chase, despite the obstacles
B) [Frost Rune] Block his path with a wall of ice
C) "There's nowhere to run, Kyric. Give up!"
D) "It's as Rochelle says, you've already lost."
Second vote from anyone?
"Give up, you crazy old asshole!" Minar yells from the back. "Rochelle's already the legal count of Dragonholt!
Kyric lashes out with one fist, knocking over an overstuffed bookcase. Loose papers and volumes go tumbling and fluttering through the air. "Enough. The child knows nothing," he growls. "My sister stole the title from me. It was never hers to begin with!"
We learned the history of Regina's claim
The party picks their way through the clutter of tomes while Minar keeps yelling. "We found out how she 'stole' it - your dad made her the heir after you failed to step up when the county needed you! You ran and hid, while Regina struck deals with spirits and sacrificed for her people, a sacrifice you threw back in her face tonight!"
"No," mutters Kyric. He slows in his flight, becoming sluggish as the words set in.
Minar, now spitting mad, takes another wild potshot in Kyric's direction, more for emphasis than effect. "Everyone in this one-horse town loved Regina, they love her kids. The other lords recognized her and the last count died glad she was taking over instead of you. This is their home, and you're just some bandit from the woods terrorizing and killing anyone who gets in your way. Nobody in Dragonholt wants you for their lord, because you did nothing to earn it!"
Aria actually comes up short, shocked by Minar's vitriol. "I guess you were listening after all."
"I would have done as well, were I in my proper place," Kyric mutters. "The lords will see that, surely." He staggers away from the party, as if wounded by their argument.
Mark two progress in Peace
Peace: [x] [x] [x] [x] [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ]
War: [x] [x] [x] [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ]
Stumbling through the fallen books, Kyric staggers through the door from Phillip's studio into Rochelle's training hall. The adventurers follow, passing into the long dueling salle with its racks of weapons and carefully smoothed floor to find Braxton and Rochelle blocking the door back to the salon. Braxton's face is grave, Rochelle's flushed and bright-eyed. Kyric has nowhere to run.
"Everywhere I turn," he breathes. He lifts his sword and stalks to the side, keeping his eyes on Rochelle. "Come, then. Let us make an end of this."
Athtar draws his own blade level. "Very well. Allow me." Before he can lunge forward, however, a hand tugs the back of his mail shirt. He pauses to glance toward Deepmind, her expression filled with urgency.
"Don't!" she hisses, peering past Kyric to Rochelle. "Chasing him all over the manor isn't helping. We're just making a mess and putting our real mission in danger. Remember what we're here to do!"
"He's deaf to reason," Athtar growls. "He refuses to admit he's beaten. Even now, even after so much death, even surrounded. I could put a stop to this masquerade with a single blow."
"It's not about out-swording him," protests Aria, as she draws up behind Deepmind. "We can't even be sure Kyric's the only one involved. But I do know nobody's gained anything from all this fighting. You can see in his face he knows he's in the wrong. If there's a way to end this peacefully, we have to try."
The elf hesitates, his sword dipping a fraction of an inch, but he turns his gaze back to Kyric and locks eyes with the furious bandit chief. Athtar's grip tightens on his hilt.
"Trust me," Deepmind urges. "Don't give him what he wants."
A) End this farce with steel and blood
B) "Throw down your sword. You're outnumbered."
C) "We're not going to fight you, Kyric."
(I don't want to put my thumb on the scale here, but I should note that we absolutely don't have time to fill both meters before the end of this sequence)
Athtar slowly lowers his sword. "I'll follow your lead," he murmurs back to Deepmind, who steps cautiously toward Kyric.
"It's over, Kyric," she announces, crossing her arms. "Your bandits are finished. Even if you beat us somehow, there's no one left to make you Count. It'll be a miracle just getting out of the manor alive, you're completely outnumbered."
"Outnumbered?" chuckles Kyric. "I have allies you haven't seen yet."
"LORD BELMONT, YEAH, WE MET," Urk helpfully mentions.
Kyric continues as if he weren't interrupted. "I don't need to beat you all. I just need to kill... her!" He spins and lashes out at Rochelle with his sword, but Braxton catches his blow on her shield, then steps into the block to drive him back. Kyric staggers, laughing and cursing.
Deepmind gains Persuasion, spending one xp
Deepmind perseveres. "I can tell what you're doing, and it doesn't have to end this way. You don't have to force us to kill you. The fight with your sister is over, let your niece and nephew live their lives instead of forcing them to continue this fight they had nothing to do with. You have the power to end this right now, just put down your sword."
Deepmind carefully moves closer to Kyric, her hands open. Rochelle and Braxton take tentative steps forward, their own weapons drawn.
Kyric looks from Braxton's sword, to Deepmind, to Rochelle's face, drawn and grave, her green eyes burning. The same color as his eyes. He sighs, his face contorting and then smoothing to blankness.
Mark two progress in Peace
Peace: [x] [x] [x] [x] [x] [x] [ ] [ ]
War: [x] [x] [x] [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ]
Kyric drops his sword to clatter on the floor, bringing his hands up to cover his face. "That's it, then," he sighs, his whole body shaking. He straightens and wipes at his face and watering eyes with one blood-streaked hand, then steps toward Rochelle with his palms open.
Eight progress has not been marked in Peace
A calm settles over the group. "I'm sorry," says Kyric. Rochelle turns away, recoiling as if burned. Braxton sheathes her sword and steps forward to restrain Kyric, who suddenly bounds past her, drawing a knife from within his tunic.
Minar and Aria curse in unison, both reaching for arrows, but Minar's quiver comes up empty while Aria hesitates - startled by Kyric's speed. Magical energies start roiling around Urk and Urist, but build too slowly. Athtar dashes past Deepmind, sword raised, but they're simply too far away.
Eight progress has not been marked in War
Rochelle turns back, raising her sword between herself and her uncle, but she manages only a shallow cut across his side. Suddenly Kyric is behind her, one hand tangled in her curls and the other holding the dagger to her throat.
"Dragonholt is mine!" he hisses.
"Rochelle!" screams Phillip as he rushes into the room behind everyone. "Let her go!" Urist releases his hold on his runic power, hustling over to the boy to keep him from throwing himself bodily at his uncle.
"Drop your weapons or she dies," barks Kyric. Braxton pauses, her sword half out of its sheath, her whole body tense. "Do it," the rogue lord demands, pressing on the knife until a drop of crimson forms on Rochelle's light brown neck.
Braxton's sword clangs as it falls to the floor. The only other sound is Rochelle's ragged breathing.
For a moment, the whole tableaux is frozen. Arcane power still hovers around Urk, barely contained, while Aria's bowstring is pulled taut and sweat beads on her brow. The tip of her arrow shakes as she tries to keep it trained on Kyric's head, without endangering Rochelle at the same time.
Urist holds Phillip back, time moving like treacle through his heightened senses. He sees the spells, arrows and blades poised to strike, and tries to calculate their odds of beating Kyric's knife across the narrow span of Rochelle's throat. The chances are frightful.
Athtar is mid-stride, his sword perfectly still, just two steps away from Kyric. Two steps behind him, Deepmind is similarly poised, trying to whisper something to the elf, but he can no longer hear her. The knight's vision narrows until his whole world is Kyric's blazing green eyes and the weight of his weapon - and, perhaps, a tiny voice on the edge of his awareness.
A) Rush Kyric and strike him down
B) [Archery] Try to put an arrow between Kyric's eyes
C) Drop your weapons
D) "You've already lost your sister. Don't take another of Phillip's from him."
(Here it is - the final vote! I'm going to leave this up as long as I can, so hopefully people can discuss the choice a bit. Success is still possible, good luck!)