As the body of the Blackfist burned down to ash, the party went to the Shepherds’ Outpost to ask who held the command in L’Ekar. At the Outpost, a Shepherd named Markus Brakes told them that Commander Brightfoot was extremely busy and not around. He did offer to deliver her a message. Kaijo asked him to tell her that:
the White Dragonborn says he has news of the Shepherds in M’ziir, and the new ruler of M’ziir. The dragonborn will be at the Mason’s Rest in Crafter’s Row, or at Mama Cat’s in the Pale Quarter, if the Commander wishes to talk.
Then the party headed for L’Ekar Keep to seek audience with Lady Sheraz’Aal.
The Keep was just one squat tower, surrounded by a wall and a handful of outbuildings. The small courtyard, dusty and baking in the midday sun, was clearly not meant to hold so many. Mercenaries, Shepherds, militia, and members of Lady Sheraz’Aal’s household guard all busily moved about, shoulder-to-shoulder, carrying supplies, and messages, standing in line at the smithy or as part of the long queue of petitioners seeking audience with the Lady. With a sigh, the party settled in for what looked like an hours-long wait.
Kaijo, never one to dilly dally, picked a fight instead.
Well…he had Akra start one. Specifically with a burly, surly-looking dwarf standing in front of her in line. A shove, a few insults, and abruptly Kaijo was stepping in to breakup a fight between the two. Not interested in a peaceful resolution, the dwarf turned his ire on Kaijo. Naturally, as soon as trouble started, a ring of onlookers began forming, deforming the queue. Few seemed upset about this, as placing bets on a fight between a giant albino dragonborn and a boulder of a dwarven mercenary was much more interesting than anything else they’d been doing.
Kaijo, fighting unarmed against a dwarf with neither patience nor a concern for fair play, got much the worst of the fight. The stocky man repeatedly bludgeoned the dragonborn to the ground with his shield, while Kaijo mostly rapped his knuckles against the dwarf’s armor. Still, with his typical bullheadedness, Kaijo just kept standing back up, demanding that his opponent surrender.
Eventually, after Kaijo landed a punch or two, the dwarf, announcing himself as Billcoch Stonewall, fell from punching to laughing, and both parties agreed to get an ale instead of finishing. Which, naturally, threw the entire booing, shouting crowd into an uproar, as everyone tried to claim that their favored combatant had won the fight. Nobody seemed to have bet on a draw.
Billcoch wanted to go with Kaijo to the Lark and Bone immediately, but Kaijo insisted through the tumult that he and his friends had to see the Lady of the Keep first. This apparent reneging nearly began another fight, until Pony smoothly intervened, offering to buy ales for Billcoch until Kaijo could catch up and make good. Appeased, the dwarf left the courtyard with the elf, just as Lady Sheraz’Aal’s captain of the guard came out from the Keep to restore order.
As the rest of the guard left off their arguing and began calming the crowd, the Captain announced that, due to the ruckus, the Lady Sheraz’Aal would see no more petitioners that day. As the crowd thinned, the Captain came to the party and asked them to follow him inside.
The party, sans Pony, followed, through a narrow stone corridor pierced by arrow slits and murder holes, into a small receiving hall. Six guards, plus the Captain, a hobgoblin bodyguard, and a cloaked and hooded adviser stood flanking Lady Sheraz’Aal Az’Zoran, who sat on a modest but elegant stone throne, carved in patterns suggestive of a spider’s web or a bat’s wings.
The Captain and his soldiers divested the party of their weapons, and the group bowed. The lady greeted the party cordially, and commended them, with amusement in her voice, on clearing the path to an audience with her. She seemed amused, and impressed, and perhaps a little as though she had already heard something of what had passed in the impromptu bazaar earlier in the day.
Somewhat surprisingly, the conversation quickly turned frank, and the Lady sent her guards out of the hall. Her bodyguard, Botro the Hobgoblin, and the cloaked person to her right, remained.
The conversation was lengthy. The Lady clearly wished some way to ensure her son’s safety, or, better, his rise to power. She was also clearly insightful and cautious, displaying interest and astute understanding of most of those present, though she clearly thought little of those who spoke roughly.
Ultimately, she seemed to believe (especially after Kaijo displayed his Blood King tattoo), that the party had King Isra’Asiel’s ear, and that they had some power to strike bargains on his behalf. She did want assurances that Isra’Asiel wouldn’t seek to take her hostage as leverage against her home City of Shek’Zur. She also displayed a great interest in Lady An’Ikar’s apparent willingness to work with the Blood King in return for his favor.
Considering this, Lady Sharaz’Aal proposed a mutual blood oath:
In return for Kaijo’s promise that he would personally support Chur’Aal as the next king of M’ziir over any other, she would she would write a letter, instructing her son to allow the Blood King into the City, and insisting Chur’Aal release one prisoner of the party’s choice, and that he preserve the wellbeing of the Pale Quarter.. Kaijo agreed, conditioned on Chur’Aal remaining faithful to both the Blood King and the preservation of the Pale.
White Kaijo and the Lady of L’Ekar, over and against the quiet but clear objections of her hooded adviser, each bled, and swore.
Seemingly satisfied with the bargain, the lady inquired as to Kaijo’s thoughts regarding the disposition of her forces. She was torn between remaining in L’Ekar and seeking to join the Blood King as he passed through, versus marching to M’ziir and betraying Thuz’Ur at an opportune moment. After a brief discussion, they agreed that marching to the City was the better strategy. The Lady sighed in apparent frustration. There was, she said, a small tribe of ogres that had been raiding the outlying farms around L’Ekar. While they hadn’t been able to do much harm with so many warriors massed in the village, she feared that if she marched to M’ziir, they might wreak genuine havoc. Might, she inquired, the party be willing to pop up into the hills northwest of the village and take care of them?
They agreed once she’d offered them 50gp per ogre-ear they brought back.
With that, she asked Botro to show the party out, and gracefully excused herself upstairs and out of sight.
As he lead them back into the oppressive heat of the courtyard, Botro turned and quietly admonished the party to beware the Astrologers.
Whatever that meant.
Wasting no time, the party returned to the Lark and Bone, where waited a drunk dwarf (who was appeased when Kaijo bought him one more), and their horses (who had been tied up outside, as the stable was already overcrowded), but no Pony. The elf had left a message with Billcoch, who told them she’d said they should press on, and she’d catch back up with them later. Concerned, but not willing to wait, the party rode off into the hills, to a ruined keep about 2 hours away on horseback, or about an hour by magical horse.
At the first sight of the ruin, the party retreated back down the path and hid their horses. Then Sardis crept up the arid hillside, ghosting between stunted trees and giant boulders, to see what he could see.
He returned saying that he’d seen three ogres, the nearest of which seemed to have smelled him for a moment, and the other two of which had been “bathing” and “fishing,” respectively, in the muddy, stagnant water of the fort’s moat. He’d also heard at least two more ogres, seemingly in some kind of struggle, inside the ruined walls.
They developed a plan. Sardis would take the magical horn they’d captured from the goblinoids at Dead Falcon Mine, and sneak into the old fort through a crumbling gap he’d spotted in a wall at the base of a turret. Once inside, he’d blow the horn, which, hopefully, would serve both to alert the party to rush the keep, and to draw all the ogres inside so that, once Sardis had fled, the ogres would have to fight their way back out against the combined might of the party. A bottleneck at the gate, they reasoned, would tip the odds in their favor.
The plan went…pretty well. Sardis made it inside, unnoticed, though he had to stifle a gasp when he peered around a corner to see a truly massive female ogre, lasciviously and idly rubbing between her splayed legs, as she lay, naked, waiting for the departing male ogre to send in one of the others to continue servicing her.
Sardis didn’t speak ogre. But…it was…pretty obvious what was going on.
Trying to distract himself from the shocking sight, Sardis blew his horn good and hard.
The party came running. The ogres came running too. Only…the ogres were a lot faster than anyone had reckoned. Sardis had to flee up a steep, narrow stairway that led out to the ramparts, and leaped desperately off and into the moat, just inches ahead of two ogres who, thankfully, were slowed tremendously as the squeezed and pushed themselves by main force up the human-sized steps and over the ramparts, quite nearly crushing Sardis beneath them.
Meanwhile, the other ogres, ran out the front gate to catch Sardis outside…though the first to do so set off the wrong direction around the fort at first. Naturally, everything changed when they spotted the approaching party, who found themselves charging uphill at five angry, if confused, ogres.