The impoverished Paladin of Serik Claire arrives in the cursed city of Malkara. She is pursuing a lead for her hunt of the Dama de Ferro, a monstrous creature terrorizing the rural areas of Temir.
I’ve done it! After all of these dark years, I’ve finally made a breakthrough, and moreover, the thing was right in front of my nose. Redemption is within my reach yet! I should’ve suspected that more clues would be around Malkara - after all, it’s where I met her to begin with.
I still remember that day fondly - the others in the armoury gossiping around that some adventurers would be contracted out by Lord Vincent to seek adventure and treasure. What a glamorous arrangement! I practically had to beg the head steward to allow me to watch as the groups made their entrance. Dragon slayers and magical wielders marched side by side, smiling and sharing idle talk as they were brought up to my master. I was given a manifest and had names to refer to - the names of heroic Frontier Rangers, Rodrigo, various Pangols, even War Wizards were among the ranks! They were confident and dashing, with the scent of dust and battle on their battered cloaks. I was enamoured.
A ruckus caught my attention that day; other adventurers seemed to be seeking entrance. I was told under strict orders not to accept anyone that wasn’t on the list. But an Aarakocra aristocrat in resplendent plumage was demanding audience with the Lady Victoria. My Lady would not take kindly to unscheduled interruptions, so for someone to speak so directly beckoning her presence was most unusual. With the aristocrat were two servants - one a halfling that had been fidgeting around with a number of trinkets and the other a towering half-orc clad in nothing but a netted shawl and some undergarments. She stood a head again taller than our most grizzled guards, and bore an immense anchor tied to her back that I could only assume was a weapon. Some coloured feathers were woven into her blue hair, and she bore a big grin the whole interaction. She was grand and boisterous and beautiful and had her eyes locked on me the whole time. She seemed to be quite enjoying the discomfort her master was instilling upon me, which I did not appreciate. After I led them to the great hall of the manor, she turned to me and asked about me. How was I supposed to react?
She told me about her youth growing up in the slums of Volos under the watch of the Rilador. Why she wasn’t brought upon their merchant ships as a young girl is still beyond me - the practices of the pirate fleet are still as mysterious as the Lankaeran Sea. She had sailed as a Rilador for a while before heading north to Isard, which was difficult to discern given her penchant to chatter about actions rather than connecting consequences together. She had fought a dragon, defeated a woodland demon, uprooted some giant insects from a farmer’s home, demolished a treasure chest, absconded a sorcerer from her ancestral home, battled with gnolls, and generally seemed to be in a perpetual state of chaos. There were many missing pieces in the story, but I didn’t care about that at the time. Here was a real life adventurer, someone who had seen the world in all of its beauty, telling me all about it! I soaked it in as heartily as I could.
I apologize. This is agitating to me. You must understand that I’m a little flustered at this moment. It has been twenty and one years since that encounter. Follow the incantations, Claire. They are there to centre you.
I’m in Malkara for a fleeting moment. This place is pestilent and dangerous, and my wards seem to wane in this environment. A stench pervades the streets with plague, and the streets are nearly bare. This is a place of great evil, and I am not in a position to purge my home of blight. Both the Dirge and the Dreamwalkers’ Blight linger here, and that’s not to mention the murmurings of a thing darker yet than them. I’m now convinced that the thing is the creature Simon that Ren resurrected within Shoreline Manor. I dare not go there - the Throne is still broken and I am not yet strong enough to confront a demon directly. Even the Witch Hunters avoid this place. But I am on a mission.
Word from the Hand is not cheap. I worked hard but kept my convictions true. I did not stray from my path and was rewarded with a contact - a Grue named Lucien that had been peddling information. After the fall of the manor and the TIP’s disbandment, Lucien took to the shadows and was said to be dead. Both the demons and the Conquerer were itching to get at him, or so I hear.
Near the northern square was a pile of rubble untouched for over a decade. I approached the pile and, with my reward, a small ledger marked with various accounts, begun to search for a trap door. The ledger was a cipher - as is the way of the Hand - and marked a sequence that I was meant to input. This was a former bookshop that dabbled in the exchange of secrets. My contact wouldn’t divulge what allegiance the bookkeeper shared - they were perhaps afraid of the consequences. What a wicked world we live in.
The trap door took some time to discover. I inserted the combination - four - one - three - and with a click the mechanism opened. A puff of rancid air filled my nostrils as I descended into the dark. May Serik’s Light never fail. An illumination from my battered God cloaked me in grey light, unshrouding the basement I had entered.
“Away, vile demon!” a voice shrilled behind me as a blast of energy whizzed past me. I ducked out of the way and turned to face a gaunt form clad in tattered rags. Flesh was dripping from its spidery fingers as it turned to me with translucent eyes. Blood dripped from sores on his dishevelled face.
“Praise be to Serik.” I responded, putting out my hands in a sign of nonaggression. I slowed walked towards the creature, but it rebuked my advanced.
“No! Not with the light! The Conquerer will see it!” The creature muttered a word of power and vanished into the darkness.
Curious. This must be Lucien, but why was he afraid of Nurzhan? I didn’t have enough time to see the extent of the harm inflicted upon him, but it didn’t look like he was touched by any blight. The dreamwalkers’ blight causes delusions, yes, but this didn’t seem aligned to those symptoms.
“It is my duty to protect the innocent from the influences of all evil, including Nurzhan. Demon or God, I distinguish only intention and act only to restore the light of Temir.” I reached out to sense my surroundings for any dark intimations. The area reeked of evil, but in this space was a sanctuary. The Grue had done his homework, counteracting the influence of the town of Malkara with a number of powerful wards. A number of small mines bristling with destructive magic sizzled along the proximity of this dwelling. These things could be knock-offs not registered by the TSR, and could detonate at any provocation. I decided to take a chance and absolved myself of formalities,
“Lucien, I am here to help you. I only ask that you believe me.” A moment, then another passed. The room remained stagnant - then, a movement in the dust! Lucien apparated and lurched over a nearby table, winded from the excessive use of magic. I pitied him for his transgressions, but with magic once again running rampant in the land, it was understandable. He was not well, and I invoked a blessing from Serik to restore him back to health. He winced at first blush, but accepted the offering after a tense moment.
“Who are you?” he asked. “Some fanatic listening to sweet nothings from a dead God or something worse.”
“I am only here to ask some questions. Here - a gift.” I fumbled in a brown pouch laced to my waist and grabbed a small ring, showing it to Lucien. It gleamed dimly in the dark, a pleasant grey amidst the blackness around. He tentatively took the ring and briefly examined it.
“Magical? What’s this for?”
“It’s for you. This is a dangerous area and I’ve compromised your safety in pursuing you. This should help you.”
Lucien snorted, then pocketed the ring.
“What do you want?”
“The Dama de Ferro.”
Lucien’s eyes widened at the mention of that name. He slumped back and found a rickety chair to stay his fall. I had been hunting that name for nearly twenty years and have seen similar reactions before. She’s bigger than a dragon and is stronger than a giant. She feeds off of secrets and kills you if you give them to her or not. The tales are largely apocryphal and change from region to region, but it is true that a figure bound to an iron golem lives in the rural areas north of the Lankaeran sea. The Frontier Rangers would have traditionally been the faction to investigate something like this, but they are a shadow of their former power. Too many threats on the roads and not enough hands to help. The Dama de Ferro kills indiscriminately - farmers have been found hewn by the waist alongside Fire Giants. I am curious about her motives.
“No, no. You can’t. I won’t tell you. I can’t.” he shook with white-hot fear.
“You have nothing to fear Lucien.”
“I still have ears around, infidel. I hear stories within stories, and I still keep secrets. You might be too stupid to realize what would happen if I told you what I know about the Dama de Ferro.”
“I’d prefer you call her Ren.”
Lucien stopped, aghast. He trembled at the mention of that name too.
“How do you know that name?”
I shared what I had seen in Malkara as a squire of the manor of the house Del Dega. I described a powerful, confident hero and her retinue, then her descent into something I could only describe as madness. The last time I saw her was in the foyer of the manor, trading blows with my mentor. They fought honourably and with dignity; then things changed.
“So you’re from around here. Maybe my ears haven’t heard enough, nobleblood. You saw that encounter, then. I’ve been tracking down an accurate account of things for some time - it would complete my collection. Perhaps we can make an arrangement.” Lucien lurched up from his seat and walked over to a dilapidated bookshelf. He stroked long, spindly fingers through the spines of several titles before stopping on a charred leather cover. He picked it up.
“She punched me in the face, you know. Always reckless but not so well equipped to handle secrets. That has changed a bit, of course.”
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing at the book.
“An account from the Dama de Ferro about her time before that title. It took some significant work to decipher some of the earlier passages from the journal, but her demonic pacts mercifully bestowed some literacy within her. She mentions you fondly.” He presented the book to me. I hesitated for a moment, then took it.
“The TIP waltzed in like they owned our manor, and I guess that they did at that point. They gave Danger the opportunity to be the Justicar, and all the squabbling between the houses was over. I let them in…” tears welled in my eyes. It burned so much to remember this. Lucien stood idly by, waiting for me to continue.
“She drew arms and slaughtered our guards. It was terrifying, like watching a butcher cut through meat. She seemed possessed by a terrible power, and was moving forward to the other. Danger intervened, valiant, heroic. He was welling with power from the geode, but it was unstable. They came to blows - Serik’s light rushing out to strike down his adversary. His strikes were true, but it seemed like nothing could stop her. She vanished out of sight for an instant, and then the golem started to move.”
Lucien smirked. I continued,
“An otherworldly creature put Danger down, but something miraculous happened. An avatar of Serik, in all its light, emerged and stood against them! It was meant to protect us, just as Danger did. But Ren spoke a wretched thing about herself and her compact with a demon, then a shimmering aura surrounded her and the war machine. It activated and struck the avatar, ending its existence in a single strike. Then she turned and left.”
“So she struck down the false Justicar. Interesting. She admired him too, Claire. Hansur’s grip must have been very strong at that moment. I wonder if she’s responsible too for the Dreamwalkers’ Blight?”
The name Hansur surprised me. The Demon of Nightmares had been terrorizing the Eastern Seas for much of my adult life. I had not made that connection until now.
“Äke, if you aren’t familiar, is the perpetrator of that. He still owes me, but I don’t think he’s in the state to reconcile our accounts together.”
Above, a crash shot through the dark shaft ascending to the surface. We heard a few voices, then some shouting. A pillar of purple balefire engulfed the shaft. I invoked Serik and shrouded us in a barrier of holy light, checking to see if my grue companion was unscathed. He had taken to the ground and curled into a ball. We waited a moment, quietly, as the culprits shouted some more. They’d need to come down to check.
“Lucien! We know you’re down there! You’ve been very rude not responding to the Chosen’s invitations. She wants to reconnect.” Lucien quivered but stayed silent. We heard the ladder creak as at least one figure descended the stairwell. Wait, Claire.
The figure was clad in the raiments of Nurzhan, the Conqueror. Of the Broken Throne at least one of its ranks had done well for themselves. I acted quickly and decisively, tackling the zealot and pinning them to the ground. They struggled for a moment, flaring with evil energy. But my resolve remained, and soon they resigned to being held captive.
“Serik’s dead, pissant. Get off of me at once!” spat the intruder.
“The Light wavers but will never fail.” I rebutted, from rote memory at this point. I’ve found that invoking dogma makes , and I don’t apologize for enjoying that at least a little bit.
“You’re harbouring a threat to the pantheon. The Chosen will treat this an open declaration of hostility.”
“I am merely passing through. I have no quarrel with your Chosen.” I loosened my grip slightly. The intruder calmed, but began quivering, then convulsing. I gripped on him as they lashed out viciously. Purple polyps erupted from its flesh, and despite illuminating it with more light from Serik, I could not save them. I shielded myself from the eruption of viscera, then turned again to see Lucien’s fate. He was gone, once again, to the shadows. I cursed under my breath, then looked at the book. I opened it and read the first page,
“Summer campaign’s done.”