We rejoin our heroes in the servants’ quarters of the imperial palace, discussing the situation with Enderian.
Alfirin and others check the “PalaceCam” scroll, finding that the rooms are even more empty than the last time they checked. The Throne Room is bereft of any guards, the room behind it has no more of the Usurper’s things, and the Empress’ chamber looks like it’s been tossed.
Meanwhile, Araphor and Nwalme-Anna talk with Enderian about the goings-on at the Palace. He apparently has only recently returned from an appointment to deal with the tunnel that leads out of the city to the north. But the ones he was supposed to have met, the ones who knew the details about the tunnel, never showed. He has very little information on the most recent events in the Palace as a result, but does indicate that the Usurper relocated from the rooms shown on the PalaceCam to the major-domo’s apartments. He also mentions that the number of Usurper’s troops within the city have been diminishing rapidly, and those that remain seem to be growing more and more panicky as the days go by.
The party and Enderian then set off for the major-domos’ apartments, making their way through the administrative offices of the palace. To the surprise of everyone, especially Enderian, the offices are vacant – not a single bureaucrat or soldier is anywhere in sight. They decide to check in on the Throne Room and behind it, as it’s on their way. The room behind the throne has several empty wine and beer casks, and a pile of dirty cups in one of the corners. Moving to the Throne Room, they find it almost completely abandoned. A single guard stands at the front door, but fails to notice the group. Alfirin, Thaliondor and Guthwyn approach him, only to find that he’s fast asleep. From the smell of him and the various fluids soiling his clothes, it’s clear to them that he’s sleeping off a night of heavy drinking. Thaliondor and Guthwyn take his arms and start to drag him toward the rest of the group, who are approaching.
As they do, the man awakens with a start, shaking free one arm from Thaliondor’s grasp and nimbly regaining his feet. He looks around, asking what’s going on. Nwalme approaches, dropping his disguise spells, and tells the soldier to be quiet – which he promptly does. Thaliandur takes his arm once again, and as Araphor looks around outside the main door, Nwalme begins to question him about his duties and the events of the previous night.
He explains that he and his unit have been with the High King’s (Usurper’s) armies for years, and his unit has been together even longer. They were assigned to guard the Throne Room, but someone brought in casks and flagons, and they got to drinking. He wouldn’t leave his post, though others weren’t quite so diligent. Guthwyn seems incredulous that someone would be drinking on duty while on such an important guard duty, but it’s clear to Araphor that he’s just a low-ranking mercenary. Nwalme offers to let him go, provided he leave the city, and Smial suggests he take the postern gate. He accepts the offer, and sets off in search of the rest of his unit while the party continues on to the major-domo’s apartments.
Along the way, they find signs of looting just about everywhere. Tapestries have been pulled down, some even stripped of their gold threads. Floor tiles are missing, presumably where they contained precious metals. The Usurper has abandoned the Palace. They get to the major-domo’s room, finding it similarly empty of valuables.
Nwalme casts a Seeker to find the Usurper, using the bed to help attune his magicks. He locates the man outside the city, a few miles to the southeast. Araphor prods Nwalme to report this to the Empress immediately, which he does. She orders him to give chase while she sends a patrol from her forces to help, and to maintain thrice-daily contact.
The party leaves the palace, noting the scarcity of guards. They easily avoid what few remain as most are either sleeping, eating, or otherwise distracted with looting.
They make their way south to the postern gate, where they find a sizable crowd gathered, clamoring to exit the city. Two armed men, apparently mercenaries, keep everyone back, calling them cowards and telling them to return to their duties.
Guthwyn and Alfirin call out, “Stand aside, in the name of the Empress!” The group takes out and dons their winged helmets, readying their weapons as the crowds begin to scatter. Nwalme begins to tell the two mercenaries that they have two choices – leave the city, never to return, or die – but they’re off through the gate before he can even finish the sentence.
At the gate, Enderian takes his leave of the party, offering to remain and do what he can to speed the city’s fall and recovery by the Empress’ forces. Our heroes exit the city, Guthwyn calling up Arod and the rest of the group’s horses, Stormdancer gliding through the air above. The party mounts up, and Araphor casts Rider Within on the bird, sending him up to spot the Usurper’s men. Through the bird’s keen eyes, he spots them about ten miles distan: seven riders, the three leading the group dressed all in black, on black steeds. Only a couple of miles away is a patrol of twenty men, apparently those sent by the Empress. The party rides to the patrol, and all of them ride hard after the Usurper and his men, Araphor keeping them on track using Stormdancer’s eyes overhead.
It soon becomes clear that the Usurper’s party is outpacing the group by a fair margin, and as the horses tire the group finds a village in which to spend the night. The next morning Araphor sends up Stormdancer again, using his eyes to spot the Usurper’s party some thirty miles ahead, nearing a spur of the southern mountain range. They continue to follow as the Usurper’s party disappears into an out of the way keep in the mountains. They contact the Empress for further orders, and are told to keep watch on the keep. She is sending reinforcements, which should arrive the next day.
The group settles a little ways off from the keep where they can watch its main gate. Nwalme casts a few Divinations, to locate the Usurper (in a dark room nearby), all the exits from the keep (the main gate and a secret tunnel in the well), and the exit from that tunnel (up in the mountains somewhere). Alfirin, Thaliondor, and some of the members of the patrol take this time scout out the surrounding terrain.
As the party regroups to set off for the secret tunnel exit in the mountains, a man on horseback emerges from the front gate of the keep and approaches them. He rides up to the party, who greet him warily -more than one drawn weapon, and grumbling from Guthwyn and Alfirin which Araphor tries to quell somewhat. The man ignores most of the group, and speaks only to Nwalme. He introduces himself as the Mouth of the High King, and attempts to tempt Nwalme to join the Usurper’s forces, within. Meanwhile, he secretly casts a Mass Daze over the rest of the party, catching them all, as well as a few members of the patrol – except for Smial. Smial reacts by drawing his crossbow and firing a bolt into the man’s shoulder.
Nwalme, of course, has not been idle, either. While one of his attempted spells against the man fails, he succeeds in creating a Strike Blind curse to use on him. When hit with the curse, however, the man resists.
As Smial re-readies his crossbow, he finds it suddenly bursting into flame, and he drops it. He then turns to the closest party member, Guthwyn, and gives her a smack to stir her from the Daze spell. Guthwyn follows suit and awakens Alfirin. Before either of them can do anything more, however, scorpio bolts rain down upon them from the keep. One bounces off of Alfirin, but the other seriously injures her. Guthwyn is hit with one, as well, but it fails to slow her down. She moves to attack the Mouth of the High King (MotHK), who has turned to flee.
Nwalme, nearly exhausted from spellcasting, falls back. Alfirin does likewise, but takes a moment to awaken Araphor and Rene. They both set off after the MotHK, Araphor ordering Stormdancer to attack as well. Guthwyn, in the mean time, manages to get in several solid hits on the envoy, but fails to hinder him. Smial even throws a knife into his horse’s hindquarters, but it isn’t enough to slow him.
As the MotHK approaches the keep’s gate, three men in black on horseback emerge. Wary of the potential presence of Nazgul, Guthwyn and the rest of the man’s pursuers break off the chase. As their quarry re-enters the keep, however, they realize that the men in black do not possess the palpable dread aura of Black Riders…