The songs of early-morning birds heralded the arrival of another blessed day in the kingdom of Arlon. For decades the empire had enjoyed prosperity and growth unknown at any time before; their heroes had chased the very gods of Evil themselves back to their dark demesnes and vanquished the dark pantheon with steel, magic, and cunning. Though the last of the fabled and mighty Heroes had finally been called to her mothers, there were no tears in the streets of Ci’quend Shorz, Arlon’s capital city and unassailable bastion of the righteous. Celebrations poured into the streets and all loyal citizens pledged themselves to redouble their efforts to maintain the glory and honor of their benevolent kingdom.
The last three gods of Evil, minor beings that had been overshadowed by their vanquished kin, tired of feeding on the meager hatreds and scraps of darkness left in the world and seeing their chance with the last Hero gone, gathered together the blackest hearts of the mortal realm in what they agreed was the last chance they had to regain some modicum of their former power. Confused and dazed from their unexpected teleportation, the dozen strangers from all corners of the known world found themselves in a dark wood, kneeling before Death, Strife, and Tyrant.
Tyrant spoke to them, resonant voice booming from within the heavily-lidded visor that served as its face and breaking the arrivals’ stunned stupor. “You will have wealth beyond your imagination. You will command legions to do your bidding. You will enjoy your lives ruling a civilization born from your own making, instead of hiding yourselves and your wants within Arlon’s gilded cage. Work together and you shall succeed; stand alone and be cut down.”
Strife spoke next, a dissonant cascade of ill-tuned crystal. “Pledge yourselves to this cause, pledge yourselves to each other, pledge yourselves to us.” It unfurled a simple-looking contract in its dainty yet ill-shaped fingers. “Become something more. Become our Shadowsworn.”
“And if you don’t,” Death rasped with a voice that grated the very soul and sent shivers down and back up every spine, “I shall devour you as an example to the rest.” Its teeth gnashed hungrily.
Some signed for the Tyrant’s promises, others for Strife’s ideology. The rest signed to live even one more day. Few actually read the contract they were signing their lives away for.
No Shadowsworn may, through wilful action or inaction, allow another Shadowsworn to come to harm.
Each Shadowsworn must comply with missions assigned by The Three Shadows except were such would conflict with the above.
Each Shadowsworn must preserve its own existence as long as such does not conflict with either of the above.
All Shadowsworn must always work toward the destruction of the White City and the forces of Good.
Tyrant, growing more satisfied as each name was added to the contract, pointed to the North. “A township rests a short distance away. This provides a perfect opportunity—”
“Uh, Three Shadows number one?” a leather-clad ruffian spoke up while raising his hand, interrupting the god that had teleported him halfway across the world. “So if we just start murdering people, that’s following your plan, right?”
Tyrant blinked and—for a moment—considered ending the experiment then and there and starting over in another generation.
Gliding forward on feet of ghostly mist, Strife answered the upstart. “Evil does not succeed through wanton killing and destruction. A murderer, even more than a dozen of them, are no challenge to the White City. You must foster and nurture the small jealousies and betrayals which live in every mortal’s heart. Lead them to destroy themselves and you will start an avalanche of moral decay that cannot be stopped.”
“But we can kill some of them, like if they make us mad?” the upstart continued, looking for permission.
Tyrant gritted its teeth and spoke forcefully enough to drive the man back to his knees. “Start with the town. Work together. Destroy the White City.”
With a ear-splitting report that echoed off the trees that ringed the clearing, the three gods were gone.
“Is that a yes?”
Having set off toward the village pointed out to them, the makeshift troupe of evil-doers began introductions. Sorcerers, musicians, a sea captain, thieves, fighters, a mentalist Goblin, and even a fallen priest had made the cut of The Three Shadows’ unknown selection process. None knew where they had been transported, and more than a few wished the ruffian—named Clem—had let the gods speak their peace, to give them a bit of direction of exactly what they were supposed to do in the town.
Coming to a small river cutting through the forest, the assemblage considered their options. “Hey captain,” one of the thieves pointed out jokingly, “can’t you just sail us across?” He grinned at the pirate with an unsettling leer.
She was not amused, rolling her eyes rather than interact with the weasel-faced trickster.
“Shorty,” Clem barked, unintentionally breaking the tension by adding even more, addressing the Goblin. “Use your brain powers to build us a bridge or something, and do it quick.”
“I’m more than happy to do so,” the quiet Goblin psion replied, keeping his cool in the face of the latest example of traditional Human arrogance. “But keep in mind that you don’t own me, and I don’t owe you anything. Ask again nicely and I’ll see what I can do.”
Clem did not like being talked-back to, even if he were the one who started it. Unsheathing his greatsword with one smooth motion, he arced it through the air and solidly into the Goblin’s chest. “Nobody speaks to me like—”
A bolt of jet-black lightning streaked out of the cloudless sky, smiting Clem where he stood and sending the rest scrambling for cover.
“The first rule! The very first rule is to … not do exactly that!” a woodsman from the southern reaches cried out plaintively.
With a mix of natural and magical healing, both victims—one of malice, the other of ego—were stabilized and brought back to wakefulness. The party decided to set up camp on the bank of the river until the Goblin was well enough to build a bridge for them, and spent the night swapping stories of subterfuge and daring-do, tales of places and people far removed from the unknown forest where they would start their quest for world domination.
Eventually making the trek to the village of Stonecreek without any more “incidents,” most of the cabal headed to the tavern, deciding that the events of the prior day required a stiff drink. The town had a small peacekeeping militia, suggesting that Clem’s original idea of wanton murder would be met with a quick end to their quest.
Illrisar, a decrepit and sinister-looking Human wizard specializing in necromancy, headed directly for the local church. Making nice with the head priest, he introduced himself as a kindly undertaker who tragically suffered the loss of his cart fording a nearby river. Asking if he could purchase a new one, along with several sturdy coffins, they agree on a price of three gold pieces—easily affordable with what the wizard had with him at the moment of his teleportation. “Thank you, good sir, and bless you. I’ll be around tomorrow to pick them up?” The priest nodded and waved as the old man limped away, toward the tavern.
The pirate spent most of the evening regaling the crowd with her stories of independence and liberty on the high seas, enjoying a life free from the rules and strictures of some far-away lord. Naturally charismatic, her jokes and stories of adventure went over very well with the locals, most of whom had never traveled beyond the farms which bordered most of the town. So entertaining was her performance that the innkeeper offered her the executive suite, free of charge.
The next morning saw the group break off into smaller groups; the more light-fingered among them wanted to scope out the area’s mercantile row and any wealthy patrons who may be about, those of a martial bent to seek out any representative of the kingdom’s fighter’s guild, and the most charismatic members to encourage more and more villagers to hear the pirate captain’s tales of freedom and autonomy.
Arriving with his “young assistant” to help collect the goods, Illrisar and Xenos the sorcerer attended to the church. The head priest was happy to make some coin for the church and to help out a stranger in need, but bore a look of confusion confused when the older man handed him a piece of paper instead of coin. “What is this?” he asked, looking at the simple note.
Writ of Wealth—worth Three Gold Pieces—High King of Arlon
“The sin of Greed is rising in the capital,” Illrisar started to explain, “and the King has decided to ensure the citizenry are protected from that most base and vile of desires. And,” he added before being able to help himself, “if there’s less gold floating around, the risk of dragon attack is greatly reduced. By downsizing the army, the empire can provide even more resources to its people.”
The priest blinked, trying to understand the strange outsider. “These notes will be replacing gold?”
“By order of the High King himself,” the necromancer smiled broadly, crooked teeth shining in the morning sun.
Xenos had visited the church with a very different plan in mind, unbuttoning his shirt to the waist and using a small amount of prestidigitation magic to accentuate his muscles. Once inside he searched the minds and thoughts of the clergy for someone with a kernel of doubt for the church’s teachings, and all but dragged the poor priest into the confessional to admit his terrible sins.
Illrisar spent several weeks flooding the local economy with official “writs of wealth,” his efforts bolstered by the tavern keeper accepting—and ultimately preferring—them to pay for drinks as the pirate’s subtle subversive stories grew ever more popular with the landlocked residents. Before long the necromancer’s worthless scraps were a common sight in all corners of the city, in active use for trade and commerce. The captain continued to treat audiences to her seemingly endless bounty of adventure tales and her exploits fighting against the very concept of laws and legality.
Xenos, emboldened by his success with the doubtful priest, spent his time creating and formalizing a cult operating right beneath the head cleric’s nose. With twin branches devoted to death and hedonism, he aimed to show his growing flock what kinds of fun could be had away from the church’s strict moral rules.
A half-ogre farmhand was lured to participation in the cult and became the group’s de facto muscle; many of the more formally-trained fighters and warriors spent their days scouting out the wilderness beyond the town, looking for opportunities to spread their evil influence even further. His herds were used in the cult’s rituals as sacrifices to summon minor demons, further cementing the sorcerer’s message of untamed power within the minds of his flock.
Not satisfied with just being the group’s financier and overall strategist, Illrisar took to actually becoming the town’s undertaker, filling a niche when the last one fell ill and ultimately succumbed to a serious bout of food poisoning. In his private workshop—fully paid for by writs he himself wrote—he began assembling a terrifying bone golem out of parts scavenged from the bodies he buried. He poured over arcane tomes and imbued it with as much dark energy as he could muster, without drawing undue attention to himself. The assassin-turned-cook working in the tavern’s kitchen continued to impress with her culinary know-how and skill with a chef’s knives.
Unfortunately, all good plans—even as slowly-paced and careful as the group’s had been—eventually run into resistance. Traders from the town returned from their trips without goods, raving about the Writs being worthless in all neighboring villages. An allied acrobat overheard the commotion and sprinted to the tavern, the group’s semi-official headquarters, to report the news. The traders had marched to the cathedral and a cleric had been dispatched to summon the local militia to deal with the usurpers in their midst. Drastic action had to be taken or the entire scheme would fall apart.
The handful of cabal members near enough to rally raced to the church, where they and their cultist allies proved too much for the lower-level priests to handle. All but kicking in the door to the main sanctuary, the group confronted the head cleric, who had been growing ever more suspicious of their goings-on. He began to angrily proselytize about their sins and attempts to destroy the town with their lies and corruptions, drawing holy strength from the relic hanging around his neck.
Illrisar sneered at the priest’s holier-than-thou anger and gestured for the half-ogre to put down the large coffin he had carried with them to the confrontation. “What do your morals have to say about this, preacher?”
The half-ogre, instead of merely opening the casket as expected, wound up and kicked the coffin across the room with all of his might. The wooden box exploded as it hit the sanctuary’s marble stairs, revealing an eight-foot-tall undead monstrosity expertly crafted by the necromancer’s own dark magics. With a horrifying and otherworldly roar, it raked downward with ivory talons the length of a man’s forearm. The priest screamed as he was cut down.
Captain Traglar of the town militia chose that moment to arrive, poking his head in through a side door. “What was all that noise? A priest told me to come as quickly as I could.”
“The preacher has lost his mind!” the acrobat improvised, gesturing to the fallen cleric in the final throes of his untimely death. “He was going on about ‘purging the unclean’ and ‘burning the town and all its sinners with it!'”
The guard captain turned his head, his mouth falling open as he beheld the animated collection of bones and sinew still dripping with the priest’s viscera. One carefully-thrown dagger ensured he wouldn’t ever make another sound, his body slumping down in the doorframe. Moving to collect her blade, the assassin-turned-chef suggested they marshal their forces—it was time to take over the town once and for all.
With the town’s head priest and militia captain dead, and a vast majority of the populace converted to the cult, the Shadowsworn deliberated on their critical next step. After two days and nights of contemplation, argument, and disharmony, a single offhanded suggestion by the youngest member of their party—a pickpocket and cutpurse from a distant coastal city—unified everyone under one common cause.
They would build a castle.
As they inserted themselves into more and more local governance, the cabal was able to oversee all aspects of urban growth. Trade routes were kept open, and they even sent out caravans of goods, religious pilgrims, and pamphlets extolling the virtues of their new church, in the hopes of spreading their influence near and far. They funneled money—in exchange for writs of wealth of course—into building materials and cultist labor. The psionic goblin named Blue was tasked with first building walls for the city and improving roads for the trade routes before construction on the castle would begin; if their self-aggrandizing monument were to attract attention, they wanted to make sure suitable defenses were in place first.
Frequent delegations were sent to the druids in the forest, infrastructure designed and implemented to keep the worst excesses of their construction hidden—choking mists rising out of the ground would have been hard to bluff away—and several thieves spearheaded a wide-ranging spy network to keep the group appraised of any potential threats. Illrisar and Xenos lead the cult, running recruitment through intermediaries and proxies. The pirate even ventured to other towns herself, talking up how grand life was in the new Stonecreek.
Blue was receptive to all of the suggestions and demands made about their new base of operations—including those that were entire contrary. Feeling like kings and queens of their own domain, their ideas grew larger and more ostentatious with every pass. Everyone agreed it needed a skull motif, but there was confusion about whether the focus should be on the front gates or the roof. Giant green flames were unanimously agreed upon. Flames in the skull’s eyes? Skull eyes for windows? A spooky wizard’s tower? The suggestions kept coming.
A windowless, arcane tower with a big orb of demonic energy on top. A little sanctum on the side of the wizard’s tower. Floating skulls on every surface. An enormous great-hall with a skull-themed stain glass window. A massive shipyard, no matter that they were nearly one-hundred leagues inland. And of course the castle had to be huge. Huger than huge. Larger than the cathedral by an order of magnitude.
For months Blue labored as the rest of the group worked to expand their influence. Blue, as foreman and overseer of the work, forbade any of the laborers from revealing what they were constructing. The large sheet concealing his efforts grew taller and wider as the work progressed. Larger than a ship’s sails, then larger than a circus tent. The sound of ax, hammer, chisel, and maul could be heard at all hours. With nearly all of the town converted to the group’s purpose, every resident was either employed in the erection of the monument to evil or to the spreading of their new theological ways.
Finally, Blue gathered his fellow evil-doers together for the grand unveiling. Finally releasing the sheets which had obscured the work site for months, the entire town was struck dumb with awe.
“Castle Dave” whispered Illrisar, and all agreed the name was perfect.
Things for the Shadowsworn had been progressing very nicely. Having transformed the town of Stonecreek into a well-oiled machine of subversive evil, they began exerting control over the countryside, forging a trade agreement with the nearby dwarven fortress of Khaz’gol. Many of the cabal moved up into newer schemes, bartering their success for divinely-granted rewards from The Three Shadows, who expressed appreciation for their minions’ efforts, even if the slow start had given the gods pause.
Among the various magical items, forbidden knowledge, and other requests, Blue requested an item to facilitate his uncontrollable hoarding: The Box. An unbreakable safe that could have objects deposited into, but never withdrawn from, the threat of spending eternity within The Box kept even the most zealous do-gooder in line until the cult could wear down their morals. Polly the chef-nee-assassin requested the fabled recipe of Ninja Sauce, a combination of seven herbs and spices that were said to drive men and women into an insatiable hunger for more. Opening a fried chicken shop, she crafted a taste sensation so good it bordered on blasphemy. The entire town, as well as traveling merchants, loved it.
Having become the rulers of Sonecreek in name as well as function, Illrisar decided the group should do away with the forged writs of wealth, instead announcing that gold, silver, and copper pieces no longer held any value within their territories. Everyone was forced to adopt his new currency, the Stonecreek Funbux. Currency exchanges were set up within the city, and all trade caravans would carry and accept Funbux. Each member of the City Council got their picture on a denomination, with his own cleric-slaying skeleton minion immortalized on the 1bux bill. Soon all commerce in the city used the new fiat currency.
Xenos the hedonist, having embraced more and more of his abyssal ancestry, made full use of the alchemy lab he had demanded Blue include in his tower. He crafted and tested out ever more potent and mind-affecting drugs at cult parties, taking fastidious notes about the effects of different doses on the populace. He became more popular than ever, and held rigid control over his faction of the cult.
In addition to his alchemical experimentation, he was slowly teaching the cultists who showed an aptitude how to summon beings from other planes. Even the most gifted among them couldn’t manage more than a minor imp or sulfurous hound, but he grew pleased with the success. During an attempt to summon a fiendish wolverine however, the cult got far more than they bargained for. Whether through sabotage or incompetence, one of Xenos’ followers unwittingly summoned an astral deva, one of creation’s most holy and good-aligned entities. With flaming sword held aloft, it bellowed a condemnation of the palpable evil it felt surrounding it, and launched an attack against all in sight.
After a long and bloody encounter, in which more than half of the elite cultist sorcerers lost their lives and the arcane tower suffered critical structural damage, the deva was finally subdued through the efforts of every martial cabal member present in the city. The battle would not have been nearly as disastrous for the side of evil if Xenos hadn’t demanded halfway through that the celestial entity be taken alive instead of slain. Illrisar figured the sorcerer wanted to figure out a way to permanently kill the being, rather than merely send its soul back to the upper heavens when its body died. Xenos had a very different plan in mind, however.
“Get Blue up here,” he demanded of a nearby, exhausted, cultist.
“He’s currently organizing efforts to make sure this entire tower doesn’t fall off the castle, m’lord.”
“Forget that, I need Blue here this instant.”
As the surly Goblin mounted the final stairs to the roof, Xenos was already calling for him to focus his psionic energy. “I want that angel crystalized.”
“You want to turn it into a chandelier? Whatever you want, just let me get back to my work afterward.” Blue rolled his eyes and focused his energies. With an unearthly popping sound, the deva’s body was transformed into pure, transparent crystal. An artisan working for two lifetimes wouldn’t have been able to carve something so intricate. Blue trudged back down the stairs, grumbling about ectoplasmic scaffolding.
Xenos paced around the still form of the celestial combatant which had slain so many of his underlings. Even inert the body radiated holy power, sending itchy waves across his drug-mottled skin. With a particularly cruel smile twisting his lips, he spoke a single word of power and the crystal form shattered, shards and dust covering the secluded rooftop summoning circle.
“What in Evil’s name did you do that for?” an incredulous Illrisar asked.
“With this crystal I’ll distill her essence into a fine powder, and lace my next project batch with her. Can you imagine how addictive pure angel would be?”
“Let me know about your progress,” the cook-assassin asked, scratching her chin. “I have ideas.”
“You and you,” Xenos pointed out to two surviving cultist sorcerers, “after she’s cleaned up and sent down to my lab, start setting up rituals of planar binding. If this works, we’re going to need more angels.”
The druids holding dominion over the nearby forests had long since stopped receiving delegations from Stonecreek, decrying them as “servants of a vile, evil corruption” and had even gone so far as to start attacking the town’s trade caravans headed to Khaz’gol, in an attempt to stop the “sickness from spreading.” Even the elite warriors sent with the wagons had started returning with tales of nature itself coming to life to stop them. Occasionally the warriors didn’t return at all.
Xenos had begun to ride a fine line between crippling addiction and overdose on his new blend of angel dust; unwilling to stop, it nevertheless took many clerics to keep him alive when withdrawal set in, the effects of which wracked his body with spasms strong enough to very nearly break his own spine.
Meanwhile, the ninja chef’s new, “Seven Forbidden Spice Chicken,” laced with minute does of Xenos’ distilled angel essence, started causing changes within the cult. The people of Stonecreek began developing strange arcane abilities, becoming aggressive, and nearly to a one were willing to do almost anything for another bucket of chicken. Some turned downright feral when prevented from getting their next meal.
The area’s population was steadily increasing as well, as merchants seeking wealth—in the form of Sonecreek Funbux—cultist converts, and helpless dwarves unknowingly addicted to drugged chicken made their way to the city and petitioned for citizenship. Rejected applicants would come to sit in a shanty town outside the fortified gates, asking passersby if they had any more chicken. It had become impossible to hide the changes the cabal were having on the once-peaceful village, even ignoring the massive, skull-encrusted castle erected in their own honor.
All was going well, aside from several cultists going on a chicken-fueled rampage and having to be put down, when the Evil order were summoned by their benefactors, The Three Shadows. Death was displeased by the relatively low body count in recent months, while Strife showed its fury that the group’s initial blitz had given way to slow, methodical conquest. Tyrant admitted it was perfectly content with how things were going, particularly in their complete and utter subjugation of an entire geographic region and all of its denizens, but warned that the continuous harvest of celestial beings from the upper planes was going to draw divine attention, and that they had to either stop making drugs or cause some sort of large distraction elsewhere to draw attention away from their affairs.
With the gods’ threats and dire warnings heard loud and clear, the cabal attempted to come up with ways to expand their influence, obfuscate their continued murder of divine entities, destabilize other regions, and up the body count. Ian, a meek rogue who had a propensity to cry at the slightest provocation but otherwise had a fantastic logistical and business-oriented mind, suggested the idea that would prove the solution to all of their problems. “Franchise?”
The group set about drawing up plans to expand Ninja Chicken into the dwarven city of Khaz’gol, located deep in the mountains on the other side of the great Western forest. They already had open trade with the city, semi-frequent druid attacks notwithstanding, and by greasing the right palms—with gold, not merely funbux—proper permits and agreements could be granted with a modicum of fuss.
With groundwork established in Khaz’gol, the time came for the cabal to put their expansionist ideals into practice. The dwarven council had been bribed, business locations had been purchased, and all necessary bureaucratic paperwork had been finalized. All that remained was to transport raw materials—namely powdered and refined angel corpses—from Stonecreek to the new franchise. The Shadowsworn knew the druids would never let such a large shipment from their den of evil pass without a fight, so a number of them decide to guard the caravan themselves, three carriages’ worth. Leaving the rest at home to look over affairs in their absence, fully half the cabal, armed to the teeth, prepare for war on the trade route.
The pirate, as the unofficial public face of Stonecreek’s ruling council—she also had her face on the 100bux bill—stood atop the first carriage, shouting orders to the handful of cultist scouts they had placed as a vanguard, patting the huge iron cannon mounted thereupon. Illrisar waited in the back, playing cards with the half-ogre, using his upgraded undead monstrosity’s reinforced metal coffin as a table. Xenos and Blue rode in the back of the second carriage, sampling the new chicken recipe with unbridled enthusiasm, with The Box as a snorting surface. The craven rogue who suggested franchise opportunities in the first place sat with the ninja chef in the back of the third, nervously picking at his doublet; it had not been his idea to come along on the maiden voyage.
Riding through the night, the scouts were primed for an ambush. No matter their preparations however, they could not have expected what the druids had planned.
Cresting the top of a hill, the road ahead was simply gone, in its place a deep gorge cut savagely into the earth. The pirate captain sounded the alarm, only too late feeling the tremor of moving earth.
Three enormous land-sharks, swimming through dirt and rock with equal ease and covered with stony armour from nose to tail, burst out of the ground beneath the trailing wagon, reducing it to exploding splinters in an instant. Ian—the even-more-terrified rogue—escapes, scrambling under the middle cart, large tears rolling out of his eyes. Frantically looking out from between the wagon’s wheels, he saw no sign of the ninja chef.
Each shark had a strange, stony being riding them like a bizarre elemental rodeo. Two pair, riders and mounts, dove back underground while one stays above, surveying the damage.
The vanguard make haste to the back of the caravan but are impaled by swarms of arrows coming from the treeline. As their dying screams fill the air, the half-ogre grabs the metal coffin and leaps outside, the necromancer leaning back in his seat, biding his time.
With the cultish underlings dispatched, five scantily-clad barbarians burst from the trees, screaming war-cries and frothing with bloodlust. More arrows vault over their heads, most finding purchase in the sides of the two remaining wagons.
A strident voice barks from the dense foliage, condemning and decrying the caravan. “For your crimes against nature and all that is good, We the druids of—”
The half-ogre wasn’t interested in speeches, he only wanted action. With all of his might he spun in a tight circle, gaining terrifying momentum before releasing the coffin with bone-crushing speed. One charging barbarian manages to dive out of the way of the impromptu projectile but an archer poking his head out from the trees wasn’t so lucky. With a gruesome splatter most of his upper torso continued on into the woods on the front of the coffin, slamming resoundingly into something quite solid. The druid’s challenge died out with a gurgle.
Xenos emerged from his garish partywagon, looking to all the world like an animated corpse. His eyes and hair were wild, waxy skin loose on malnourished muscle, gums peeled back and bleeding. His world moved in slow motion; he could see the auras of the hidden archers, clearer even than he could see the trees themselves. In a hedonistic fury of arcane might he rage-cast as many spells as he could muster, each supercharged by the drugs coursing through his collapsed veins. Ice shards, black lightning, viscous green fog, dazzling sprays of color, all of it erupts from him like a fountain. Having cut down almost all of the attackers, he collapsed to the ground, blood streaming out of his nose, mouth, eyes, and ears. His ragged breath barely disturbed the dusty road on which he lay.
Screaming with unbridled fury, the pirate ignites her cannon, aiming at the shark and rider still visible behind the caravan. The shark dove into the earth quickly enough to avoid getting hit, but not quickly enough to save its rider, which took a magic-infused electrified cannonball directly to the chest. It all but disintegrated into dust, eddies swirling in the wake of the ball’s passing.
Illrisar stepped out of the first cart, just avoiding being peppered with splinters from a land shark reemerging from beneath the second wagon. He cocked his head strangely, as if trying to mentally manipulate the rock creature. With a shudder it began to buck its rider off, who tried with all its might merely to stay on, let alone try to control the beast.
The half-ogre, thinking quickly, grabbed the cannon from atop the first wagon, and aimed it at the ground beneath him. As the pirate leapt from her perch, the cart exploded as another land shark erupted from below. Rather than firing his monstrous armament, the half-ogre instead slammed the entire iron cannon down on the shark, bending the unfortunate creature’s neck and body into a most unnatural u-shaped bend, the rider’s body having become intrinsically linked to that of its mount.
The shark locked in a staring contest with Illrisar shuddered and jerked strangely before its head fell cleanly from its muscular shoulders. Two arms snaked out of its throat and stabbed daggers in the rider, burying them to the hilt in its rocky chest. “I’ve never had to butcher an animal from inside before,” the ninja shrugged as she wormed her way out of the earthen monstrosity.
The entire fracas having taken only moments, even the most seasoned and bloodthirsty barbarian realized they were no match for the forces arrayed against them. The survivors who were turned and ran back into the woods.
Not everyone had given up the fight however. A great and terrible roar came from the trees, followed by the snapping of branches. An unholy amalgamation of dire beasts, the druid approached, clutching the battered iron coffin in one clawed hand. Roaring again, he continued growing.
“A sad loss of life,” it growled with an inhuman voice made up of the cries of all forest creatures great and small, “but they were weak. The world has been at peace for a long time, but I am ageless. None of these poor souls have ever had to face evil like you. But I have seen greater evils still, and I have outlived them all. I will crush you here, and return—”
Illrisar snapped his finger.
The aging necromancer’s undead horror, enhanced and improved with all the dark magics its master could muster over months of careful research and experimentation, burst from the too-small iron coffin which had all but barely contained it. Before the druid could react to the new threat it already had its claws buried in its chest, raking down to its haunches. The druids preternatural strength was no match for the vile necromantic enchantments which fueled the mighty golem. The druid, mid-sentence, fell and did not rise again.
While Illrisar and the pirate captain tended to the fallen Xenos—necromancy being the study of twisting life’s energies in all its forms—the half-ogre walked slowly, menacingly to confront the two remaining barbarians, both frozen to the ground from the sourcerer’s massive outpouring of magical energy,
“Who is stronger?” the giant demanded of the much-smaller berserkers.
The larger of the two looked down, avoiding the half-ogre’s gaze while the smaller one sheepishly pointed a frostbitten finger at his companion. The half-ogre merely stared at the smaller man, a look dripping with disdain and contempt. Without looking away he reached out and grabbed the larger barbarian by the face, and began to squeeze.
“I am the Strongest. I am in charge.”
He squeezed harder, the man flailing ineffectually against the oversized hand enveloping the whole of his head.
The half-ogre’s fist closed and the body slumped to the ground, legs still encased in magical ice. He wiped his hand off on the remaining barbarian’s trembling face, covering it with streaks of blood and worse.
“Do you get it? You run home. Don’t stop running until you find your people. You tell them. I am the biggest. I am the Strongest. I am in charge.”
Limping back to Stonecreek, the advance party reported on the catastrophic loss of their convoy, the near-death of their resident drug-creating, angel-binding, cult-leading, hedonistic sorcerer, and the fact that they found Blue passed out in a tree, having been shot up and out of his wagon when it was attacked by the land shark. While Xenos labored in recovery, under the care of recently-ordained clerics of evil, the others had a council meeting to decide their next steps would be.
“No road means our trade to the West grinds to a halt, and with it most of our cashflow.” The pirate captain had taken it upon herself to oversee the collection and storage of wealth, going so far as to have Blue construct a mighty galleon to serve as her living quarters and cabal treasury.
“We could cut through the druid woods, forge a new road,” one thief opined, wrinkling his face as soon as he said it.
“Going North through the barbarian steppes would be easier terrain, but the locals are far harder to deal with,” one of Xenos’ acolytes suggested.
Illrisar turned his attention away from the fireplace and back to the expansive council table. “Why don’t we just recreate the road?” All eyes focused on the wizened necromancer.
“We take half the skeleton guard we have patrolling the city and repurpose them as caravan guards and road construction crew. They work around the clock to pave a new road around the northern side of the chasm as we go. I’ll forge some official-looking druidic documents declaring they’re reclaiming the wilds and all signs of civilization are to be wiped out. Ian’s spy network distributes the information and convinces local authorities of the threat. The people will flock to our defense and help with the road project, and act as a human shield against further attacks.”
“Besides,” the ninja chef added, “the people need our chicken.”
Blue had spent most council sessions designing continued renovations and additions to Castle Dave. Nevertheless even he grunted his support of the idea. It was decided.
Deciding to use the ever-increasing shantytown for their own ends, the cabal pays the down-and-out addicts with the one thing they crave to launch suicide attacks against the forest. The spy network spun this as the druids attacking and killing helpless refugees forced from their homes due to food shortages caused by the road’s destruction, further fanning the flames of neighboring nations against those living in the forest.
As Xenos recovered as much as his body is able, he bent his considerable will toward concocting an alchemical weapon that would render swaths of the woods a desolate wasteland, ill-suited for man or beast. Each of the cabal had a hand in forging their new path forward—every one save the half-ogre who neither had the head for strategic planning nor interest in fried chicken expansionism.
His call to action came in the form of an ornamental war-axe, hand delivered by a representative of the Chieftan of the Wolf Clan barbarians. Apparently the chief was unhappy that someone smashed his eldest son’s head with his bare hands and declared himself the strongest. Message firmly received, and messenger handed over to Illrisar for repurposing as a skeleton caravan guard, the half-ogre informed his companions that he was heading North. His tone brooked no argument and no discussion.
The half-ogre and a small retinue of like-minded warriors fought their way across the steppes to the gates of the Wolf Clan stronghold, demanding to see the Chieftan and his strongest men. The warriors fought an almost even battle while the Chieftan and the half-ogre fought one-on-one, disarming each other in a long and bloody combat. Grappling for a moment before all of the Wolf Clan, the half-ogre’s overwhelming strength won out. He forced the Chieftan to his knees without releasing his hands, placed a foot on his chest, and disarmed him again, with a grim finality.
The remaining barbarians lost their will to fight, seeing their Chieftan broken and screaming on the ground. The half-ogre grabbed the fallen Chieftan by the throat, lifting him into the air over his head. He shouted to the Clan, as if he were shouting to the heavens themselves, as he grabbed his helpless foe’s leg with his other hand. “I see my message was unclear. I am the Strongest. You work for me now.”
Then he tore the struggling Chieftan in half.
The barbarians of the Wolf Clan all knelt before the half-ogre, as he asked them again who the Strongest is. They finally answer correctly.
He then asked them a different question: “Which Clan is the strongest?” The crowd stutters for a moment before he sweeps his arms toward the kneeling throng.
“You are the Strongest Clan, for I am the Strongest. Together, we shall show the other Clans our Strength.”
Rallying cheers erupted from his new warband, and they did not stop as they rode to every single barbarian Clan on the steppes, in order of hierarchy.
Six months after his departure, Stonecreek scouts announce that their fears had come true—the barbarian hordes had finally come for war. More than two-thousand blooded veterans rode, weapons held high in the air, straight for the sprawling den of evil and corruption that had, in only recent memory, once been a bastion of simple goodness.
The half-ogre dismounted and approached the gates alone. “Who must I kill to get some chicken?”
The gates creaked open, with much rejoicing on both sides.
With the barbarian hordes bolstering the cult, and their dark influence slowly and inexorably expanding through the environs surrounding Stonecreek, several members of the Shadowsworn decided it was high time to kick their plans into high gear. The captain’s absurdly huge—and landlocked—pirate ship was nearly complete, though Blue needed unique lumber to finish the massive undertaking, lumber that could only be harvested from the heart of the sacred woods to the West. Illrisar was pleased with the city’s increased headcount and began working on a secret project within his tower in Castle Dave, one that would require as many of their new recruits as possible.
Saddling up once more, they again endeavored to caravan to Khaz’gol, the dwarven stronghold. A high priest of Lolth sent word to her subterranean countrymen that the time for victory over their long-time rivals was at hand, and to marshal their forces at the underground stronghold’s rear gate—though she received no response, she was hopeful. With wagons flanked by elite barbarian guards, incognito skeleton troops, sorcerers who may have become reliant on powerderized angel to empower and fuel their spells, and ninja chefs, they made their way on the newly-secured road, free of distraction or undue druidic influence.
Descending into the mines which served as the traditional mountain home of Khaz’gol dwarves, they were met by a small army, ready for an assault. Dwarven scouts had been appraised of the caravan’s approach, and did not trust the intentions of the strangers who had been for so long promising vague “gifts” upon their arrival. After a frosty and tense greeting, the party was asked to submit to a thorough search before entering the monolithic stone doors of the fortress-kingdom. Split on the issue, Illrisar, Xenos, and the Half-Ogre didn’t mind, but the Blackguard and Priestess refused to surrender their weapons. Ian the rogue and the chef-nee-assassin merely sneaked inside. Eventually Illrisar was able to broker a compromise—the two hold-outs would be allowed to keep their arms, but would be supervised by heavy guard while in the city.
Once inside, the cultists set out at once to establish their first Ninja Chicken franchise. A massive turnout of dwarves, interested in and hungry for the new taste sensation, lined up as they started serving from a small portable vending cart. Blue oversaw the construction of and immediate expansion of a permanent location as the rest of the party was summoned to the Dwarven High Council. Suspicious but ultimately unconcerned, they entered the vast chamber, flanked by stone monuments to noble heroes of ages before, statues depicting the great works and long history of the kingdom. Twelve pairs of eyes stared at the visitors with venom.
Almost immediately the council doors locked behind them, as the head of the council—an old and wizened elder with a silver beard—launched into accusations of duplicity and subterfuge. Others chimed in with their agreement, with only a single dwarf dissenting, or at least refusing to take part in the vindictive dressing-down—Axebeard, the primary beneficiary of Ian’s plentiful bribes spent to gain a purchase for Ninja Chicken in the first place.
Illrisar, his smooth tongue dripping with honey, and in no small part assisted by several magically-persuasive items specifically worn for the purpose, swayed the council back from the brink of exiling the interlopers. He convinced them that the dwarves’ overly cautious nature had no place in the wide, beautiful world and that they themselves were holding their citizens and their kingdom back from greatness. A firm trade relationship—nay, a partnership—with Stonecreek was necessary for the advancement and profit of both cities.
“These awful misunderstandings between us are at an end now. The druids of the west have tried, time and time again, to drive a wedge between our people. They think all progress is inherently evil. Your entire civilization is built upon progress! Why, if they had their way, they’d shut down your legendary forges and distilleries before the end of the day.”
The dwarves clamored in agreement and outrage—no forges, no beer? The high councilman attempted to quiet the room, to bring back some measure of order, but utterly failed in the face of Illrisar’s inflammatory words. Axebeard’s voice raised to the fore, as if speaking for the rest of the council. “See? These goodly people transformed Stonecreek from a human backwater to a glorious city-state! They’re champions of industry and I’ve argued for closer relations with them for ages! The time to solidify our partnership is now!”
The high councilman was running out of options, his voice nearly cracking as he yelled out, silencing the rest. “These so-called ‘champions of industry’ have come to Khaz’gol with neither care nor concern for our traditions! They serve only themselves! Where is their traditional offering of ale? They come seeking to—”
“Oh we brought ale,” offered the pirate captain, buffing her nails on her doublet.
The old dwarf was brought up short. “You … where is it?”
She turned to Ian the rogue. “Tell my crew to start rolling in the barrels. At last count we had nine-hundred casks of ale ready for delivery, just outside the city walls.” Ian smiled widely and departed the council chamber, the doors of which had somehow become unlocked when nobody was paying attention to him during the debate.
The rest of the council cheered uproariously as Ian returned with singing pirates each carrying bottles and wine barrels full of rum; the captain’s crew had delivered as promised.
“And what’s more, we have with us the very chef who perfected the world-famous Ninja Chicken recipe, ready to ply her services for all of the council at our grand opening this very night!” The assassin bowed with a flourish.
The elder glared at them with steely eyes brimming with feelings of betrayal as he watched his compatriots accept and welcome the invaders directly into their midst.
This fiction entry was wholly inspired by the posts of a user named Cuchulain on the SomethingAwful forums, who presented the highlights of a two-year evil Dungeons and Dragons campaign they ran in a thread. It doesn’t appear that Cuchulain posts any more, and didn’t ever finish the tale of the party’s evil adventures, but I felt the session summaries that did exist were too good not to weave into a narrative tale. I hope you enjoyed this retelling and that your own role-play experiences can provide stories that inspire and enliven, even years down the road.
Header and interstitial images from Pixabay, a wonderful resource for royalty-free stock photos.
Castle Dave and Stonecreek Funbux images created and originally posted by Cuchulain.