We took a commission for Talnor, a dwarven emissary out of Hammer Rock, to caravan a cargo back to Vigil for him. He brought along a man named Menas,; among the boxes in the wagon we provided, pulled by our horse, they loaded one that looked like a coffin wrapped against the weather.
We – let’s remind you who we are: I’m Alyris, wanderer and ranger and singer and archer. Mine are catfolk, from the isle of Azleeyna; my friend and partner here is Kaidan, a puissant wizard, thoughtful and deliberate. We work for Sir Vayktor of Vigil, and over the weeks since we first came to his demesne we’ve made several caravan journeys to various places, with various guards and drivers he assigned. I own half the horse that pulls our caravan, a beast more valiant than I’ve sometimes been. On this trip we had a driver and four guards along, including, for the first time, a young paladin named Leonidas, whose fondness for the horse is charming. Talnor, as I’ve said, is a dwarven emissary, wearer of a most intriguingly made hammer; he brought with him Menas, perhaps a member of the brass-dragon clergy, if what I’ve heard about those magnificent dragon-emblazoned cloaks is true. This fellow’s the size of a mountain, but pleasant in demeanor, unflagging in his cleanliness, and apparently well acquainted with his quarterstaff and an armsman’s craft. He wears clothes that do not wrinkle or hold dirt; he seems ageless, his hair as flashing golden as the glints I see within his clothes, of silver and gold.
So, we arrived in Harmwood with dusk upon us, a tiring day at our backs as a thickening fog enveloped the ville. I wanted nothing more than a good night’s sleep, perhaps, with a meal and a flagon of ale, so arriving at King’s Crossing – the postern inn, with its palisades and resident force of night watchmen – struck me as relieving. Until I paid attention at Kai’s outburst in answer to something Talnor had said.
“No, this isn’t normal,” he announced. “Far from, and ware is what we all must be now.”
Discussion went on a bit and ended with Talnor detailing Leonidas to light the torches by the gate, and then take up a watch atop the wall.
Unsettling: the King’s Crossing inn had always done such things of its own resources on our previous visits. Kai and Talnor called me to go arrange our lodgings, and … beyond the gate ‘twas obvious murder and ravage had occurred. We scanned the premises quickly, partly out of need to know and partly out of reaction to the stench. I’d not smelled the like since one of Father’s fishing boats kept a thirty-foot shark aboard too long, and the thing burst inside the hold, spoiling everything she carried.
King’s Crossing Inn has a dozen or so residents: the smith, his wife and children, the barman and the cook and their assistants, the noble who owns the grounds and pays the bills that keep the doors open, a stables-master, the noble’s wife and their sons, the six watch-force members … well, it had. We found bits of four humans scattered about the grounds, and a well-gnawed horse carcass in the stables, with a look around the well of something having gone either in or out through it; further search revealed a general tossing of the inn, no other living folk or beasts about, and a welter of sign. While they’d been rent and gorged upon, the bodies hadn’t yet begun to putrefy; all this happened, we figured, a day or less before. Something had clawed in through the stable roof, and the panicked horse had not made it from the stall to the front gate. Ghouls, ghosts, ghasts, and zombies had left their scent and sign upon the place, but we thought them gone.
So, we felt, no matter the state of the inn, we’d be safer in its walls during the night than out in the woods or trying to press on. That in mind we brought in the wagon and our guards, split ourselves into watches and prepared to spend the night, with plans to, come daylight, dispose with decency of the remains. We blocked up the well, sent half our guards out to the tower and the wall with one to watch the service door, and I took first watch. That passed uneventfully; Kai relieved me, Talnor took up a post atop the wagon, and Leonidas and his partners went in to rest – Talnor had left us a cold supper – along with me.
Alarums woke me mid-second-shift, the driver’s voice and Kai’s and Talnor’s all.
I ran for the courtyard, to find attacks underway from both the service gate and the main gate, our sentries gone who-knew-where, Menas running for the farthest threat and Kai, with Talnor, facing a horde at the gate. I went to join them. The fight there didn’t take long, but it cost us the driver, and another of the guards. I saw but could not bring down a black-clad archer driving the undead forces through the gate we had to fight to shut and hold a second time. The dwarf and Kai worked well together, giving me time to load and sight between my shots. Presently the black-clad archer vanished, and we heard noises from the wagon, but I wanted to make sure Menas had more help to close that door. I spent some shots to that end, and presently we held the Inn again, though I saw the black-clad archer flee via the hole in the stable roof.
Dawn found us a sorry sight, our party reduced to five and one horse, and the coffin empty in the wagon, among the spilt boxes of various goods. Well; but we’d survived, and the well remained hard-shut, with me refusing to be roped down it to explore. But along with the remains we’d found the night before, four of our comrades’ bodies must be dealt with now – and the dragon cleric told us we should be wary of undead with teeth. So we spent some time in gathering, and setting afire, those corpses.
Talnor told us, then, what had gone missing: the body of a necromancer, Festus, he’d been taking back to Vigil for resurrection, and the gems to do the raising. No wonder so much treasure had been left. And Talnor vowed he’d die before he went back to vigil without that body. So the five of us and one horse set out to follow the tracks of our attackers, after Menas purified enough well-water – it was stagnant and stinking – to replenish us and our traveling vessels.
Our way led into a cavern, where three swarms of bats met us coming out because of the light magically attached to Menas’ quarterstaff. Kai cast a spell of shout to disperse the swarms; beyond the cavern’s first turn lay a horrifying pit full of dead, and dying, and undead, but we could do nothing there. Passing that, we found a door, emblazoned with prayers to Aridan, which we decided to leave shut. The next turn of the cavern showed a drop, and as Menas approached to scout it, the edge collapsed beneath him, in a 30-foot fall. Something attacked him there … eventually we learned we’d killed, in that battle, the first of the escaped undead archers from last night. We found ourselves in a maze of underground passages, one leading back to a stagnant pond, a bit of eldritch light above a portion of it. From inside there tentacles enwrapt first Talnor then our paladin, dragging them under. I lost count of what we slew in there, but we nearly lost Kai to bolts from some unseen crossbow, and none of us could heal the wound.
I spent one undead-bane arrow in that fight, intent on ending Karn, the black-clad ranger-ghast who’d pierced so many of my companions. Menas consecrated a 20-foot cone of area into the water, making it gleam a little like the ornate fountain we had passed in another chamber of the cavern; all the little haunted eyes around us flashed away at that, and something floated to the top of the stagnant pond, which began to drain away as the dragonman-cleric dove in to try and fetch back our paladin and the dwarf staggered back from under its surface warning us how murderous the water’s inhabitants meant to be.
We did not pause there, but started up another incline – and because I have, newly, learnt to throw a spell that hides us from animals, we slipped unnoticed past the swarms of bats within. Spiders big enough to show above gnomes and dwarves inhabited the ropes of web beyond, but we succeeded in not damaging the webs. There we found some serious treasures, including a healing staff, a map, some elven platinum, potions and other items. That floor appeared to bear another map – one like, but not accurate to, the country we’ve been travelling; and I acquired yet a different map, along with a diamond necklace with an amulet, in there. Another door drew us onward … to meet The Hanging Seer and hear the tale of how our stopping, the night before, with Festus’ body set in motion all the tragedy we’d seen.
We go forward; but what we’ve been through has made us stronger.