Surrounded by skeletons and beset on all sides, Atu-Sinda spurred his mechanical mount through the leaping flames of the bonfire. The mechanical steed, eschewing the preservation instinct that would be hard-wired into the nervous system of a real horse, trampled through the intervening skeletons to go galloping through the bonfire. Safe on the other side, Terra slipped down off of the back of the horse, brushing flames and cinders from her clothes, while Atu-Sinda looked back for any signs of pursuit.
There were none. The skeletons, being mindless corpses motivated only by dark magics, ceased their assault on Atu-Sinda and Terra the moment the two martial adepts were out of visual range. For a creature with no memory, out of sight truly is out of mind. The skeletons surrounding Paeael were similarly stupefied when the binder invoked his invisibility vs undead ability.
The undead minions stood around like so many statues, waiting for new orders that would never come. Sergei grabbed up a flaming branch and, at Terra’s suggestion, rode back on the horse to finish off the skeletons, seeing as how he would not be harmed by their explosive death throes, and would also not activate the skeleton’s programming to attack the nearest living creature. Sergei returned several minutes later, caked in soot and bone dust, and reported the job finished.
On the other side of the bonfire was a cleared patch of ground that extended for perhaps a hundred feet before being overrun by the red jungle. A number of Mordent vehicles were parked in this clearing, which the party promptly proceeded to fence to Arronax in exchange for a handful of coins and a cure to Rhyken’s disease. A discussion ensued about the best means of transport through the jungle-whether it would be best to try to crash through using the Mordent bulldozer, fly over using an airship, or tunnel underneath in the hopes that the damaging radiation did not extend far underground. Sergei volunteered to go scout for a path, and Paeael offered to go with, so as the rest of the party debated the matter the two of them headed out into the red wasteland in the hopes of finding safe passage. They found it, and returned an hour later, informing the less negative-energy tolerant members of the party that there was a dry river an hour’s walk away where the jungle did not thrive, and where negative energy did not predominate. The heroes cut their way through the intervening forest, with Paeael doing his best to keep everybody alive in the face of the constant degradation of flesh and blood and bone that came with traveling through such an environment, until they had reached the other side.
The riverbed was free from the toxic growth, as promised. While red trees and vines predominated on the cliffs that overlooked the wash, the riverbed itself afforded safe, albeit clumsy passage, on account of all the rounded river rocks that lay mostly submerged beneath a thin layer of snow and were often only discovered after some unfortunate adventurer were to accidentally kick one or catch one with his shins.
Another day’s travel took the adventurers to the southern end of the jungle. As they emerged from the gully, they found only scattered clumps of scarlet grass and a few isolated flowers that broke through the crust of snow. Their attention was drawn to the southeast, where a bouquet of colored lights burst forth from a city in the distance, illuminating the dark grey clouds from below.
The heroes forded through the snow and reached the outskirts of the settlement, where their progress was stopped by a high wall encircling the city. The wall looked to have been slapped together from any available material-sheets of steel overlapped crumbling piles of mud brick, and timber spars jutted out at random angles like dislocated bones. Crudely made, the wall was nevertheless very thick. A sign hung over the metal trellis of the gateway, proclaiming, in letters of dripping black paint, that this was, indeed, Hopetown, Pop. 3209. The population figure had been struck through with black paint and another lower number painted onto the sign beneath that, and another beneath that until the sign had run out of room, and another board had been nailed onto the corner with more descending figures until, at last, the number bottomed out at 2984. Rhyken stayed behind, invisible, and Sergei stayed back, hiding, while the other members of the party approached the gate.
Two guards, barely visible from their position at the top of the fifty-foot barricade, made a din by banging the hafts of their spears against the wall. They demanded to know the party’s business, and then demanded a gate tax of the party, tossing down a bucket that the party could fill with gold. The party members coughed up the coins and then went in through the gate, Sergei and Rhyken stealing their way through without paying the tax.
Hopetown was an overload of scents, sounds, and activity. The streets were packed with people going about on unguessable errands. Many of the inhabitants were ragged-looking refugees from Guia, somewhat thinner and the worse for wear since the fall of the city. But other races were represented in Hopetown, as well. The most striking thing about the crowd was that Mordent soldiers walked among the living humanoids. These Mordent had shed their armor for dress uniforms, and were the very picture of military elegance in their black boots and their coats of dark cloth with the bold lines and steel buttons. They clustered together in groups, gesturing at the humans, strolling slowly through the mud of the streets, and laughing.
The party resolved to find its bearings at the nearest tavern. Along the way, they had to push past stalls where vendors were selling small bags of grain for twenty gold pieces, and past one barbecue stand that had a special on “long pork,” either wet or dry rub. Terra almost purchased some, but then decided not to. They passed stalls where pleasure slaves, their bodies gleaming with grease to make their skin shine and to offer some small defense against the cold and their limbs bound to posts by means of iron chains, gestured and called and thrust themselves at the passersby. Terra stopped at one of these stalls and spoke with the proprietor as the prostitutes stroked their fingers up and down her arms; the Warblade was quite disturbed to learn that such enslaved prostitution was a fairly common phenomenon in these parts, and left the stall deeply disturbed (and without a date).
Presently, the adventurers reached an inn with a somewhat familiar sign hanging above the door: The Sultan’s Sigh II. Inside, they found none other than Tariq the Ifrit behind the bar. It seemed that after Karibe, Tariq had intended to return to his native Plane of Fire, but had not realized that were over eight hundred years remaining in his sentence of exile (or perhaps Tariq had hoped that the political climate in the City of Brass had changed such that he would be able to return, but such was not the case). The party and the proprietor caught up on old times; Tariq was somewhat saddened that the funny little man with the stories was dead, but such is the way of frail mortal flesh, is it not?
A few other patrons had straggled into the tavern in an attempt to chase the cold away, and they were mostly sitting around the table speaking in quiet, controlled voices. Only one other person was sitting at the bar, and this was a strange individual indeed. Superficially, he resembled a male human, but the resemblance was only a passing one. His face was a stark, bleached white color, while the heavy creases across his brow and cheeks were as black as ink. Strange rings of black text, the individual characters composed of severe lines and stark angles, floated and rotated around his body like perverse halos. A small circle hovered around one of his fingers like a ring, another was a cuff around his wrist, while the largest one orbited his chest like a bandolier. After binding the proper vestige, Paeael was able to read (but not identify) the writing, and determined that the text was some kind of contract or legal document, written in incredibly convoluted and challenging terms that were enough to turn a gnome’s head around. Terra tried to engage this individual in conversation, but he was quite clearly drunk and in a black mood, and he would only speak of how hopeless it was to try to fight against the Mordent.
As the party exchanged stories and tossed back shots (or, in Sergei’s case, lamented the inability to drink), they heard a screaming coming from a rear room in the tavern, separated from the main room by a drawn curtain. Terra and Atu-Sinda rushed over, but the sound was cut off abruptly as the martial adepts made their loud approach. They retreated, and Sergei crept over and listened at the curtain. He returned to tell them that there were at least three people inside, having some kind of argument. One of them was talking about the weakness of the local vintage, how the taste was all upfront with no body or finish. Another disagreed, criticizing the first speaker for his lack of subtlety, and saying that he found the taste to be rich and earthy, with tones of iron and copper. The third person mused that she preferred blends from hybrid varieties, and that she found the unadulterated taste of pure strains to be lacking in complexity, without the complements and contrasts of a blend.
After hearing this, the party became convinced that the speakers beyond the curtain were not discussing anything so harmless as wine. Atu-Sinda demanded that they come forth, and they did. The lead one-a male with curly yellow hair and and a square-trimmed beard and pale skin, wearing plate mail dyed red and adorned with visually disorienting spiral patterns-pushed through the curtain, dragging a naked female human by the hair behind him. Her throat and shoulders were covered with puncture wounds, some of which were still seeping sluggish blood. Seeing that the party was bent on a fight, he tossed the body away as a normal man might have discarded an empty bottle of beer and called for his companion. They emerged, too-another man in mithral full plate, his stained blue and covered with panels of etched artwork, the unifying theme of all the panels being that each depicted some horrific method of execution, and a woman in unadorned armor, her brown hair cut short and her eyes fixed on the floor. Each of the vampires had foreign features, their hair and skin of much lighter tone than that of any human in the region. They also shared a hardness of feature, their faces lean and the bones prominent beneath the thin skin. That, combined with their flowing movements, made them simultaneously appear noble and bestial all at once.
The vampires asked for no quarter and expected none, and the heroes did the same. Everybody would’ve thrown down right there, if Tariq had not demanded that everybody take it outside. So they went out into the street, the crowd clearing away from what was obviously going to be a lethal combat. Once everybody was assembled, the vampire in red armor threw his head back in savage laughter, and battle was joined.
Sergei had grown accustomed to ending any fight quickly, but his bullets all went astray of these opponents. Their mithral full plate and predatory quickness defied Sergei’s aim. The vampires threw themselves into melee combat, striking out at the party with mailed fists, and executing deft maneuvers that showed that they, too, had trained as Warblades. Atu-Sinda took a hit in the first round, and felt the effects of the vampire’s touch: for a moment, all the color and sound bled out of the world, only to come back a second later, somewhat duller and dimmer than it had been before. Simply being near the vampires, too, had the effect of draining a person’s senses. Rhyken blasted one with his spells, which caused the vampires to turn their attention on him, but Terra and Atu-Sinda blocked their way. The party’s own martial adepts struck back, but found it to be difficult to land a blow on these unnatural foes. Paeael tore lightning from the sky to throw at the vampire, who, when struck by the bolt, groaned and clutched his chest (in his best impression of Paul Rubens from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie) in mockery of the ineffective attack. Paeael then switched to his super soaker filled with holy water and, in true Lost Boys fashion, began to squirt the vampires, which proved to be more of an annoyance than a real threat.
Things were looking grim until Terra and Atu-Sinda landed several strikes that reduced two of the vampires to clouds of foul-smelling gas that drifted away on the wind. Only the female vampire remained, and she fought on, uncaring of the apparent deaths of her companions. Her attacks and draining aura reduced Atu-Sinda down to a screaming fool, and her gaze broke the Crusader’s will. She turned away from him to advance on Rhyken, ordering the Crusader to cut down his friends or to share their fate. The command, which violated Atu-Sinda’s notions of righteous violence, broke the domination, and Atu-Sinda threw himself forward in one last all-out attack that caused the last vampire to dissolve into mist, as well.
Heady with victory, and his head empty of wisdom, Atu-Sinda went back into the bar and started chugging beers and flashing his breastplate. Terra took advantage of the situation to ask him for a bunch of money to buy restoration scrolls, to which the brain-damaged Crusader readily agreed (Atu-Sinda’s player, on the other had, was pretty pissed about it).
And thus the heroes had their bloody, depraved welcome to Hopetown. Things could only go up from here.