The Keepers of Los Claustros

Chapter 3: Cages

The Keepers arrive at Ft. Summer. The city is heavily fortified, surrounded by minefield and patrolled by Federation snipers. A thin trickle of refugees streams in through the gates. The heroes make their way inside and are immediately invited to conference with the fort’s commanding officer, General Graf.

Agnam, from his time stationed at the fort, knows that Graf is recent replacement for a retired and well-beloved officer.

Graf is as soldierly a man as they come, but the Keepers see almost immediately through his disguise. This is the last of the changeling spies, the one masquerading as President Summer. The “general” commands a banquet to be held for the Keepers and invites them to stay through the night. The Keepers, sensing a trap, confront the changeling, who reluctantly reveals himself. He confesses that he did not intend to betray the Keepers, and that he only hopes to survive the invasion – that he holds no allegiance to any but himself. As a sign of peace, he surrenders his fragment of the tome they seek, and allows them peaceably on their way.

As the Keepers leave, a young soldier manages to slip a note to one of them: “DONT EAT.” Bewildered, they begin to collect rumors in the central market. Whispers abound of a group of soldiers who have begun a hunger strike and are being held in the brig. Even more alarmingly, the Keepers remember that a number of refugees came in with them, but none can be seen in the central market. They’ve disappeared.

The heroes immediately go to the prison, where they intimidate the guard into allowing them in. He acquiesces, and they enter to find a cadre of emaciated soldiers. When the Keepers reveal their suspicions – that the citizens and soldiery of Ft. Summer have been harvesting refugees for food, the prisoners agree. They tell of a basement “processing center” in which the civilians are taken and butchered for meat. The people of the city are unaware. Only a select group has any idea of this. The refugees are lured to the city by a psionic beacon – a constant message played in the minds of those desperate and dying. “Come to the fort.”

The Keepers find this slaughterhouse easily enough, and manage to get a look at the records of the refugees who have passed through the grinder. Among the names are many citizens of Los Claustros – including Ari’s father and brother.

The Keepers are tempted to seek revenge. They weigh their options – remove the psionic beacon and consign thousands of innocents to death, or allow it to continue, that the meat of the meager might be used to sate the appetites of the hungry survivors. The party argues for hours, finally coming to the conclusion that the beacon must be destroyed. This charade cannot continue. Dissent continues, but it must be done.

Rorith, utilizing an enchanted ebony fly, reaches the hidden beacon at the top of the tall tower, and manages to reprogram the beacon to broadcast a warning. “Stay away.”

The Keepers prepare to leave the fort behind for good. Soon, its inhabitants will be forced to flee or to become marauders in the wastes. This is the price of human flesh. This is the price of war. A sentry asks if they’re ready to come to the banquet.

They leave, turning their backs on such a place.

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Chapter 2: The Hall of the Mountain King

The Keepers arrive at Hammermount to find it under siege by Baal and his demonic horde. The front gate is barred beyond any possibility. To fight through the army would be suicide. Three-Jack recalls a bit of lore about Hammermount – namely, that ancient artificers built a tunnel under the city in order to facilitate their invasion of the Melancholy Mountains. He leads them to the entrance of the barrow, where they’re met by an enormous, stone dragon.

The dragon introduces itself as Oldwing, former guardian of Hammermount. He confesses that he knows the Keepers are hunting his mistress, Aela Haydron. He allows them entry, but threatens to raze every town if Aela is harmed.

The Keepers enter the barrow and immediately feel a strange aura of fear. A deep, penetrating sense of foreboding. Then they stumble over a dead body with its eyes clawed out. They proceed deeply, through a mist that drives the senses from their minds, past a puzzle with troubling implications, past an ambush of maddened zombies, and deeper into the the pit of fear.

They continue until they find a figure seated on a stone throne, grumbling to itself. When the Keepers try to move past it, it mutters “Away,” and half the group simply disappears. The remaining adventurers beat the thing until it breaks, then push past it into a pit. The pit contains a number of chairs, stone thrones with emaciated bodies. And a few Keepers, frozen in unconscious fear.

The Keepers find the source of the oppressive sense of fear in the back of the room. They awaken their friends and investigate the machine. It is a box filled with incredibly complex machinery and enchanted with arcane runes, and it emits a barely audible frequency that elicits a terrible dread in those who hear it. The box is attached to struts that radiate like tendrils deeply into the mountain. The Keepers shatter them, and the fear partially dissolves.

They decide to venture deeper into the mountain, toward Hammermount. There, they find Haydron in her changeling form, known as Axid. She castigates the Keepers for damaging the fear engine, revealing that it was a superweapon she was improving in order to repel the sieges tormenting Hammermount.

That’s right. Sieges.

In retribution for the dwarves’ actions against Thieves’ Landing, the pirates have invaded the city and are prepared to seize the capitol. And demons threaten to push through the barricades within the week.

Haydron wishes only to protect the dwarves, whom she has adopted as her own people. Thanks to the Keepers, her weapon has failed. Regardless, she agrees to surrender her position as chancellor and flee the city.

The Keepers lead her out and return to Oldwing. She gives the Keepers her segment of the book and through a veil of tears, begs them to end the violence. Oldwing spirits her away to his roost, then agrees to bring the Keepers to Freedom, where the next portion of the book is hidden.

Freedom is in flames. Everyone is dead. President Summer, the next agent of the Eternal Hunger, has relocated to Fort Summer.

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Chapter 1: That Murdering Bastard

Victor Van Fleet has fled into the desert, and the Keepers pursue. They come upon a house, and in the house, the bodies of their charges: Tifa, whom they rescued from a serial killer on the streets of Freedom. Hodor, landlord and proprietor of the Empty Barrel. Doug, the farmer who never could go a day without being pestered by those rowdy sheriffs. Inside the house, the Keepers also found a pair of bickering strangers: Hadaris, a fair-haired warrior from a land far beyond the sea, and Teresa, a scholar of demonology, along with her bound demonic pet. A brief investigation confirms that the murders were carried out by a powerful figure carrying a dagger.

The Keepers invite Hadaris and Teresa to join their ranks for the time being, and race out, following the ever-shifting tracks of their quarry.

Soon, they come upon a demolished elven village. Immediately, they recognize this as the tribe into which Veronica Van Fleet married a year before. Her body lies mangled and crushed with the others. Only her husband, Hunter, whose wounds seem imminently mortal, remains alive. He confirms that it was Van Fleet, who rampaged through the village while desperately trying to effect a forbiddance ritual. The Keepers leave the wounded elf to succumb to his wounds and resume their tracking.

Soon, they find Van Fleet, actually a changeling known as Azra, backed up against a cliff face, trying to perform a pair of rituals. The Keepers manage to disrupt the rituals, and immediately Azra is confronted by a pair of demonic jailers.

The Keepers manage to kill the demons and force Azra to surrender. They interrogate him, and he reveals what he knows about the Eternal Hunger: Their leader is a being named Skathrax. The group managed to summon the demons with a book. Skathrax brokered this deal in exchange for a promise of immense demonic power. When the demons made it clear they wouldn’t fulfill their end of the bargain, Skathrax divided his book and scattered it among his followers. One segment lies with Aela Haydron in Hammermount, another with Roderick Summer in Freedom. The demons and the Eternal Hunger have broken ties.

The Keepers beat Azra to death with their bare fists, then head to Hammermount to sort out that other bitch.

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Interlude

The Keepers awaken amid the rubble of Los Claustros and meet their benefactor. He is Orion, a deva, and is the mysterious catalyst of the heroes’ journeys to Los Claustros a year ago. It was he who framed Aurora for murder in the Briarwood, who drove Orianna nearly insane with terrible visions, and who pulled Ari out of her deathly slumber.

Gasping, he tells you that he expended much of his power to save their lives, and that there is no time to lose. While demons scour the country, an century of devas prepare to purge the infected world in a deadly rain. Orion is the only deva who has any faith in the Keepers.

He tells them that the Eternal Hunger has a leader, a being named Skathrax, who might know of a way to repel the demons. The former mayor of Los Claustros, the changeling known as Victor Van Fleet, has fled into the wilderness in the wake of invasion.

As the heroes set out to take vengeance on the Eternal Hunger, two more of Orion’s pawns move onto the board.

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Act II: Hell on Earth

Despite your efforts, Los Claustros was destroyed. Your town lies in ruins. The people of the town, your charges, have fled into the desert, pursued by the demonic horde. You do not know how many have survived.

Agents of the Eternal Hunger had been placed in other key locations – Hammermount and Freedom. Thieves’ Landing has been left unprotected. The fates of The Briarwood and Fort Summer are a mystery. You know not whether your loved ones are safe, or whether any city yet stands in the whole world.

But something saved you from death. Its motives are unclear. Only one thing is certain.

You are needed.

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Chapter 11: D-Day

The heroes stood at the edge of their town, eager to greet the few dozen demons they expected. As the sun rose, something began to glow on the horizon. At first a singularity, just a mote of shadowy energy, it soon exploded into an enormous portal into Hell. Before the heroes stood an immense legion of devils. The Keepers gave the order for the townsfolk to evacuate. In the moments before the army marched, the Keepers wondered whether they should stand their ground, to fight insurmountable odds, just to afford the people a head start on their retreat. After a brief discssion, it was unanimously decided that the Keepers would stand and fight to the last man.

The army of Hell marched on Los Claustros. The Keepers managed to form a bottleneck. Orianna formed a wall of psychic force, helping to corral the demons toward her allies’ blades. Three-Jack took cover on a rooftop and opened fire with his rifle while his wolf protected his flank. Mhera and Roc bolstered their allies with wave after wave of primal energy. Aurora singled out an enemy commander and quickly managed to cut him down. Next to her, Kove’s flurry of blows carved a massive swath through the horde. Ari stood on the opposite end of town and called the demons to her, pulling them away from her allies. When they arrived, she swung her blade in tandem with pulses of psionic energy, but she was soon surrounded. Atop an adjacent building, Rorith rained down bolts of arcane magic, ricocheting shots from minion to minion. Agnam, however, the mercenary, the minotaur who had no ties to Los Claustros except the honor in his contract, charged headlong into the fray. His sharpened horns gored the body of a rage devil and flung him to the ground. The beast-man roared with the thrill of battle!

But then, from the portal, amid a swarm of devils, emerged Baal, the first vanguard, lesser prince of the demons. He leapt about the battlefield on massive, blackened wings, swinging an axe that crackled with red lightning. With little effort, he cut down the heroes. The demon lord leapt to the rooftop from which Three-Jack and Orianna fired, and he grabbed the warforged by the throat.

“Surrender,” he growled.

Quickly, and guided by the spirit of his mentor, Three-Jack rewired his core into a singularity bomb, capable of tearing a tiny hole through timespace. As he prepared to sacrifice himself, his allies demanded he resist. After all, Baal was only the first of many demon princes, and to trade a life for a life would be hopeless.

Baal and the rest of the horde continued to ravage the Keepers until the heroes were overrun. They fell each into the hopeless sleep of death.

Or so they thought.

The Keepers awoke sometime later amid the ruins of Los Claustros to find it empty, save for Baal’s discarded axe. A voice, in an unearthly timbre, called to them from the shadows.

“Awaken. You are needed.”

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Chapter 10: The Secret War

It was the day before the demons came. Victor Van Fleet called the Keepers into his office on urgent business. A twinge of hate in his voice, he castigated them for their involvement in the affairs of others – notably, the brigands and louts in Thieves’ Landing. Then, with little warning or notice, Van Fleet commanded Kove to kill the Keepers. Kove refused. Van Fleet, finally able to grasp at vengeance for the humiliation heaped upon him by the Keepers, revealed himself to be a Changeling and revealed the plans of the Eternal Hunger – to seed agents in the highest of places so that they might divide the mortal forces who would seek to thwart the demons’ conquest – he named these other agents as Aela Haydron, Chancellor of the Dwarven High Council, and Roderick Summer, President of the Human Federation. “Van Fleet,” in an attempt to stall them, then forced the Keepers into a deep dungeon in the caverns for which Los Claustros was named.

There, the Keepers battled a bound dragon and forced their way through the tunnels until they emerged into the night air. Once free of the caverns’ influence, Kove confessed to his ruse – he was changeling, an agent for the Eternal Hunger who, when the time was right, was instructed to sabotage the Keepers’ efforts. However, having seen justice and nobility in their acts, he offered himself to them completely. They assented and returned to the Empty Barrel.

There, waiting for them, was Mhera. She brought news of the failed assassination of Aela Haydron, and the Keepers revealed to her all that they had heard from “Van Fleet.” Then, Orianna arrived, followed by an enormous minotaur in plate armor and carrying a massive axe. “I hired us some help,” she smirked. This was Agnam, blacksmith and soldier from Fort Summer.

Night fell completely. The Keepers all slept restlessly, knowing that sunrise would bring their most difficult battle yet.

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Chapter 9: The Black Mast

Someone slipped an envelope under the door of Mhera’s apartment. An envelope emblazoned with the sigil of an organization she thought she’d left behind: The Black Mast. The letter within was from one of Mhera’s oldest friends, and a former employer – the she-pirate Tallis Mayne. The letter, written in the seafarer’s shorthand, told of ships gone missing on the sea, entire crews disappeared on the Silver Sea. Tallis called on her old shipmate to bring the Keepers and perhaps solve this mystery.

The Keepers arrived that evening at Thieves’ Landing and journeyed to the Black Mast guildhouse, where the pirate greeted her old friend joyfully. The two had long been separated. But some of the other buccaneers, superstitious folk, shunned Mhera, believing her to be a bringer of bad tidings. Tallis, moved to extreme measures, elected to sail out on her very own ship, The Pearl, with the Keepers as her crew, in an effort to draw out this unknown threat.

They sailed all night. One the fourth watch, Aurora noticed something in the water – something massive and hungry. But before she could warn her companions, the beast rose from the deep: The Kraken! Its tentacles wrapped around the ship and its jaws took an enormous bite from the hull. The crew ran to the deck while Captain Mayne held back the ship intact with an arcane ritual.

The battle raged on for hours, with many of the Keepers near drowned, but finally the beast sank back into the deep. As sharks circled the ship, the Keepers pulled one another aboard.

Soon, a quick vessel bearing a white flag approached. Tallis recognized the ship as belonging to a former member of the Black Mast, a thri-kreen named Mantis. Years ago, Mantis had defected to begin his own profiteering business. As the boat approached, Mantis and a companion – a huge, black-scaled dragonborn in purple robes, hailed the ship, obviously surprised to see it still intact.

The Keepers surmised quickly that Mantis and his companion, Dunwither, had intended to sack the wreckage left behind by the sea monster. Thus began an interrogation. Mantis folded eagerly, ready to surrender to any who could best the kraken. He revealed himself as having been hired to follow the sea monster and to loot any vessels it might destroy. The Keepers demanded further information, but Dunwither reminded Mantis of their duty to the holder of their contract.

In an effort to not have to beat the information out of these ruffians, the Keepers agreed to buy out the mutineers’ contract in exchange for service and information on the previous contract holders. Dunwither, once free of his contract, explained that he had been approached by Aela Haydron of Hammermount to animate sea creatures and to have them attack ships coming up the Raider Coast. Essentially, the dwarven government authorized this as the first stage of a full-on embargo on Thieves’ Landing.

The heroes brought Mantis and Dunwither back to the Black Mast guildhall and called a meeting of all the guilds. In attendance were the Keepers, Mantis, Dunwither, and representatives from each of the five guilds: The Consortium of Murder, The Smugglers’ Guild, the Zerial family of gnomes, Duyoth, dragonborn leader of The Fangs mercenary group, and Tallis of the Black Mast. The profiteers revealed their mission, and the leaders of the guilds called for war.

Of course, even five bands of cutthroats and thieves wouldn’t have been enough to storm the mighty fortress of Hammermount – but Tallis and the guildmasters of the Consortium of Murder and the Smugglers’ Guild devised a plot to assassinate Aela Haydron and steal most of the ships from Hammermount’s shipyards. Because of her piratical experience, Mhera elected to accompany the operatives as liason to the Keepers, and to oversee the contractual obligations of Mantis and Dunwither.

Because with the demons only two weeks away, Thieves Landing would need a navy, and a place on the sea that would be safe from the reaching tendrils of darkness.

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Chapter 8: Madness in Freedom

News reached the Empty Barrel of a crime spree in Freedom. A rash of murders, targeting tiefling women, had erupted. Without thinking, without consulting with her fellow Keepers, Orianna set out for her home city. After all, tieflings were her people. Though few and far between, they shared a common bond – a connective tissue. Her teammates gave chase, and soon they arrived at the capitol of The Human Federation.

The rumors swirled around the lower quarters – a slasher on the loose – a cave – one would-be victim escaped and held in custody. The Keepers tracked her to a barracks, where city guards held her under tight watch. When Orianna requested to see her, however, the guards unflinchingly allowed her access. Whether this was because of her racial affinity, her psionic power, or something else, Orianna entered suspiciously.

The girl was no older than eighteen, much like Orianna, afflicted with just a drop of demonic influence, enough to wear an aura of supernatural beauty and existential fear. The girl told them what she knew – a man, a human noble, abducted her, rode out to a cave, and prepared a ritual slaughter. She escaped only because the killer was so distracted by his own mad ravings. “Her, it’s her, they’re all her.”

Orianna and the Keepers paid a superstitious local tracker an immense sum to take them out to one of the only inhabitable caves in the area – just outside the city walls, away from prying eyes. They released the woodsman of his contract and entered the cave. Orianna scanned the main rooms for any signs of him, and she found it. A book, bound in red leather with gold edging around the pages. A note written in the cover. She slammed it shut before the others could see.

Then, they found him. Joseph, a wild-eyed man dressed in what once must have been elegant finery, now too small for him, worn through and dirty. “It’s you!” He summoned an undead guardian, one of his stitched-together tiefling girls, and attacked.

Orianna defended herself, and with the aid of the rest of the Keepers, managed to subdue his creatures. She then impaled Joseph before he could preemptively reveal her secret. The reason she had fled to the city was because she was responsible for this. She had not raised a finger to kill these girls, but it had been her immense psionic power that snapped the mind of her childhood rival – a boy named Joseph. For years, he had been stashed away in an abattoir, but then his wealthy parents ran out of money and he was thrown onto the streets, obsessed with exacting his revenge against Orianna. She took the necklace from around his neck. A necklace he had stolen from her in their childhood – a simple brass pendant, and she draped it around her neck. She confessed it all to her allies, and for the first time they embraced her – not as a fellow Keeper, but as a friend and fellow sufferer. She vowed silently that she would continue to increase her power until even the flow of time was hers to command. And then, she would return to her childhood and stop any of this from happening.

In the morning, the Keepers told the escaped tiefling that her captor was dead. She smiled, the kind only a beleaguered woman can smile, and asked where they would go next. The Keepers told her of Los Claustros, where the people were all right, and you could see the mountains, and there was no bustle. The girl asked if she could come along.

Within days, she was the star of the town. Everyone flocked to the Empty Barrel on the nights she was working. Orianna smiled, proud of her new friend, the barmaid, the pretty tiefling with a heart of gold. Also waiting at the bar was a hulking figure with the body of a shark, who introduced himself as Kove. He told the Keepers of a past in which he protected other towns as part of a roving band of adventurers. But, having found himself the last of his crew, he elected to spend his time preparing Los Claustros for the oncoming D-Day.

With Kove’s bolstering presence in the group, Orianna decided to return East to search for more suitable candidates for Keeperhood. She bid the group farewell and promised to return before the portals opened.

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