Beyond the green hills lining the Vayoron River lies the desolate wasteland known as the Border Marches. These lands, subject to the Great King only in name, have long been unpoliced and untaxed by any official Imperial force. Control of swathes of this dusty, chilly land thence fell into the hands of opportunistic counts, retired Imperial generals, warlords, and bandits. In some places in the craggy hills above the dustwallowing valleys of the Marches, the ancient black towers of sorcerors (once driven out by Imperial might) were seen once again lit with glowing windows. But many of the tenants of this land, who taxed the land and patrolled it with their own hired men (with the Great King’s tacit approval) found the wastelands, quite obviously, to be barren, poor, and difficult to make a sustenance of. Many landlords simply abandoned with their retinues the ancient, crumbling keeps into which they had tenanted, after struggling to establish any kind of power or wealth in a land of blowing dust, starving cattle, nomad herdsmen, and the curses of black-eyed wizards. Others were done in by the struggle, or slain by bandits and raiders, or by foul magic, leaving their holds wasted and empty, and stuffed full of unwatched treasure. Most inticing to bold adventurers, the Border Marches are so thinly populated and so barren, and the reputation of some of the forts so fearsome, that many have never been plundered! Surely, the riches and wealth of this baron or that must remain in a keep in the wastelands.
One such keep is this place, a crumbling conical pile atop a windy scarp. The populace of the village below, who grow a pitiful plot of maize in the shadow of the hills, claim that the fort is haunted and that none ever return from its dark walls. It has been untenanted for over a hundred years; village legend states that it was the keep of the Count Jjun of Irgoz, a cruel and bloodthirsty individual.
It is said that Jjun of Irgoz offended the God of Gods by trapping and murdering a guest in his home, and for his misdeed, his entire household was struck down by a plague in a single night. His retinue mouldered away before his eyes, his advisers and friends thrashed screaming in the blood of their own sick lungs, and his great guard-hounds feasted on the bodies of his family. But Jjun of Irgoz did not die, the villagers say, but remains eternally pox-stricken and in terrible pain, alone in the dark with his sorrow. And that, conclude the warty village wives in their cord skirts and painted arms, is why one must please the Gods by honoring guests with a cup of water and safe passage (but as the heroes will find, not much more than that).
Room 1: The High Door And The Hounds
The heroes, drawn by promise of treasure, seek the door of the keep through a narrow, high stair hacked out of the craggy face of the cliff. This stair, not wide enough for two men to walk abreast, and steep enough that hand holds (some of which house nests of yellow-banded wasteland scorpions) were hacked into the rock at intervals, is buffeted by dangerous winds and random gusts. Further up the stair, a rusty chain has been bolted to the steps to aid as a handhold, and stretches up to a metal post by the doors. The post is loose and weathered by age, and if two many of the heroes throw their weight against the chain, they will unknowingly pull it loose, with disastrous consequences.
The doors are slotted deeply into the scarp walls down a slight defile carved out of the bare rock; windows in this rock were probably arrow slits for the defense of the keep, but looking into them now reveals only what appears to be a partially-collapsed chamber filled with rubble and broken wood.
The doors swing open with a rusty squeal. It has been quite some time since anybody entered here- a layer of wasteland dust, blown in over time, lies spread thickly across the pavement. The heroes stand in a tall central room. They can just make out the brick walls of the conical structure in which they stand in the gloom; a shaft of golden sunlight spears down through the center of the room through a window high above and behind their heads. As their eyes adjust to the dimness, they recognize the pale shapes of scattered bones spread in patches across the floor.
In this chamber, the heroes meet their first test. Out of the darkness, the heroes sense a presence, shuffling silently just beyond the edge of the visible. Lurking in this chamber are the gigantic guard-hounds Vvikush and Vvoralgu, who have become huge, immortal, and terribly ravenous from feeding on the cursed flesh of Jjun of Irgoz’s stricken family. Their bristling, silvery fur is crusted with filthy brown and black from the seeping blood of numerous infected sores, and their enormous drooping-lipped jaws peel back in demonic snarls to reveal shattered and bleeding teeth and diseased gums. These creatures have lurked in this chamber for over a hundred years, gorging their cursed hunger on the foolish ones who trespass within the unholy fort, and a century of undying fear and rage has stripped them of any previous allegiance they might have held to mankind. These beast-dogs provide the heroes with a terrible battle.
Room 2: The Mechanical Door And The Tragic Family
Having laid put the hounds Vvikush and Vvoralgu to rest, the heroes descend one of several small stairways that exits the dusty, bone-strewn entrance hall (there are four; three of them lead to deserted dusty servants’ quarters, barracks, and kitchens with little loot to speak of besides rust-eaten pieces of iron and the scattered bones of the baron’s stricken retinue and vassals). They find themselves in what appears to be a throne chamber. A moth-eaten rug and dusty tapestries hang from the walls, depicting the victories of the hero Nastra of the Lightning Hair. Behind the throne is heavy bronze door with an intricate mechanical lock on it.
In this room lie the gruesome remains of Jjun of Irgoz’s tragic family, who died from the horrible disease inflicted by Jjun’s curse and whose bodies were fed upon by the devilish hounds- three age-blackened and dog-savaged mummified bodies in the faded tatters of ancient gowns, their limbs and faces unnaturally twisted in disturbing ways by rigor mortis. The corpses of the cursed count’s two daughters lie in each others’ arms at the foot of the throne, their legs separated from their bodies and their stomachs ruptured by the corpse-eating hounds. Their shriveled eyes are small black pits and their teeth shine very whitely. Across the room, the body of the lady countess Tleyeson lies on her back, surrounded by a black coating of some flaky black substance, actually the rotten material that the countess wretched up before she died. Her body, too, was savaged and eaten of by the dogs, her face is twisted in a horrible shriek.
This sight, while tragic, seems irrelevant to the heroes. They must be more concerned with opening the mechanism which seals the door, a contraption obviously constructed by a sorceror learned in mechanical arts. It is a combination lock, and in order to open the door, four ivory wheels (each marked with a number symbol) must be rotated to form the correct code. But what could the code be?
Clues lie on the door itself. It is a great, heavy, bronze relic, worked with symbols of the traditional birth-to-death cycle of the Sun Dog (from young pup, to angry warrior pierced by arrows, to one-eyed leader, to emaciated dying elder). If the heroes look closely, they can see indicated in the relief the phrases: "Let answers spring forth as lightning" and "A hair is the breadth between the open door and the closed", old proverbs. The words "lightning" and "hair" are juxtaposed. If the heroes are very good at inference, they will know that the numbers of the combination are hidden in sequence on the tapestries of Nastra of the Lightning Hair, worked into scenes therein.
There is a simpler solution, though it is likewise obscured by time and age. All three corpses of Jjun’s family know the combination, if the heroes can convince them to divulge it. After a few minutes of inevitable frustration in which the heroes cannot devise the solution, the body of the youngest daughter will speak in a low, hissing whisper:
"Father is inside. He doesn’t want us to see him."
A startling interjection from a hundred-year-old mummy! The youngest daughter is the most forthcoming, and will divulge the combination to the door if it is promised that she will see her daddy and that she will marry the handsome Prince of the Kingdom someday (she is a bratty and fickle little child who wants her dreams fulfilled, even in the grip of undeath). The other two corpses are angry and bitter, having dwelt a century beyond the veil of death, and are very mistrustful of the heroes (recognizing them as the treasure seekers that they are), and will not speak unless the heroes can prove that they will see be allowed to see Jjun of Irgoz one last time.
Room Three: The Hall Of Dust And The Giant
The great bronze portal opens with a sigh of old musty air. Within, the heroes perceive a long hallway lined with thick Kaitakian carpets. At the far end, a short stair is elevated into the baronial bedroom.
The heroes pace up the carpet, their footsteps raising puffs of heavy dust. Thick cobwebs tear apart as they brush through them. Approaching the stairway, they discern a large dark figure, seated on the steps and slumped against the wall.
This figure is Xaggarng, the count’s personal bodyguard. Loyal to his death, this huge man died puking out his rotten innards into his lap (like the countess), and his shriveled corpse is encrusted with the gruesome dried remnants.
The heroes should know by now that the dead do not rest well in this cursed keep. As they near the doors to the bedroom, Xaggarng releases a thick sound like a deep sigh, and a cloud of black dust pours forth from his distended jaw. Flickering green embers awaken in the wrinkled pits of his eyes as he lifts himself heavily from the steps. Despite the withering of age and mummification, which has made his grey-black skin peel away from his bones and crack apart at his gruesomely-twisted teeth, he remains a giant among men, 7 feet tall, with long arms and hands that have become claws through the action of rigor mortis. He fills the narrow hall and attempts to smother the heroes in a horrible embrace. An unholy strength fills him, and driven by a loyalty to Jjun of Irgoz that lives beyond death, he will not die until hacked into pieces.
Room 4: Jjun Of Irgoz
The heroes ascend the staircase, spattered with the congealed guts and caked dust of the terrible fort. This is the count’s bedroom, the family abode buried deep beneath the keep, and (hopefully) just above the coffers.
As the heroes push open the bronze doors to the bedroom, they are driven back by an overwhelming, sick stench of rot and foulness. They feel an unfamiliar wetness as the dust that cakes their sandals is washed away by a thin, warm fluid.
The heroes are standing in a dark chamber, filled with a noxious moisture and humidity not present in the rest of the dust-choked fort. The blackness of the chamber is complete- their torches gutter and flicker in it. The fluid that rushes across their toes lies in slicks and pools across the stone floor of the chamber, and has reduced a once-fine Kaitakian bed-rug into a soggy rotten mat of mushy fibers. Along the walls, several ancient divans have collapsed into wet piles of splinters and rotten silk. In an alcove in the left wall, there is a step upward into the private family shrine, containing statues of Tlonos, the Mother Goddess, One-Eyed War, and a small altar to the God of Gods. However, examining this altar will show that the sacrifice bowls of these altars have been defiled with some kind of stinking filth, and the statue of Tlonos (the goddess who preserves from harm) has been strewn with what appear to be human entrails.
The heroes move slowly through the defiled room, until coming upon the great platform of the count’s bed. Lying in the center of the denuded slab of the bed is the cursed lord himself, Jjun of Irgoz.
Cursed never to die, but to live eternally, cancerously stricken by the hideous curse of disease which slew his entire household. Over the course of a century, the endless pain has driven him beyond insanity, and all semblance of what it is to be human has been lost to his rotten brain. He appears to the heroes now in a form that could only be vaguely described as human- composed of rot-blackened organs that swell and split, clustered around his crumbling bones like sacks of stinking awful, with his intestines hanging in ropey coils from his belly. His arms hang long and loose and end in twisted skeletal claws. His skull seems to have collapsed into a mass of hideous tentacular cancers that writhe and whip about in a medusa-like fashion. All that remains of his skull are the bridge of his nose and his eye-sockets, nested masklike and eerie amidst the pulsing, rotten flesh. Out of a mouth-like cavity, filthy grey-black puke, filled with shredded, bloody organs, dribbles and splashes about on the floor. This is the horror that was once Jjun of Irgoz, lord of the keep.
The horror-that-was-Jjun will not die easily. With a disturbing howl, the creature reverses its joints and crawls up the wall and ceiling of the chamber like a cockroach. The creature attacks with its flesh-tearing claws, and spits hideous plague-bearing fluid at the heroes, a substance so filled with the curse that it raises festering sores on their arms and causes them to bleed from their noses and mouths. The creature also attacks them with its intestines, which animate like arms to strangle and slap at the heroes.
This disturbing atrocity seems impervious to pain, and only after it has been hacked apart into tiny fragments (or burned) will the creature die. With the end of its life, there is a huge sighing throughout the keep, and a wave of putrescent air sweeps out from the bedroom throughout the whole tower.
Room 5: The Treasure Chamber
There is a small door at the back of the bedroom. It opens upon a narrow stairway that descends deeply into the bedrock. The heroes descend the shadowed stairway with trepidation- the bottom is illimitable inky blackness.
When they reach the landing of the stairway, they find themselves in a low-roofed long slot chamber. At the far end they find, finally, the coffers of Jjun of Irgoz.
The heroes have worked striven hard for this moment, and crack their knuckles in anticipation. The lid of the stone box is slowly pried away to reveal…
What is this? No gold bars stamped with old Imperial seals? No jewels? No silver goblets, jade rings? What have they been fighting for?
None of these things remain the box. Some of the count’s unscrupulous guards and his vizier broke into this chamber and stole away with the gold, escaping the plagued household with the treasure, before dying of the disease somewhere out in the badlands.
Left over at the bottom of the cask, however, is something that might highly interest the heroes- it is a document, on vellum, marked with the gold-leaf seal of the Great King himself (of a hundred years ago). It is a deed of debt, redeemable to the Great King at any time, for a tract of land to the bearer- a gift to Jjun of Irgoz for taking on a command in a Godforsaken wasteland and giving up his ancestral tracts. This document bears the seal of a Great King, and is written in the most proper of High Sorgic. Should the heroes present this document to an Imperial governor, they are fully within their power to demand a tract of Imperially-sponsored land be given over to their lordship as their manor, with accompanying serfs and servants.