In which the company becomes embroiled in a murderous plot and finds that even the assassins have had the wool pulled over their eyes.
Roster (Party Level 12th)
Berend - Dwarven Fighter (Dreadnought)
Elumai - Eladrin Wizard (Shiere Knight)
Seraiya (Companion) - Eladrin Cleric
Finial - Half-elf Paladin (Justicar)
Jonas - Human Rogue/Ranger (Master Spy)
Delgado - Human Slayer
November 9th, 370 Pale King's Reckoning
The companions leave the hag's tomb behind them, and spend a day trekking uneventfully through the forest.
November 10th, 370 Pale King's Reckoning
Pushing on, the company is attacked by a trio of assassins intent on killing them in their sleep before they make any further progress. Under interrogation, they reveal they were hired by a red-haired woman known only as "Lady Marisa", and that it was their job to ensure that no-one interfered with the kidnapping of a merchant of noble blood called Fetsuad il-Sook. They carry the mark of the Assassin's Guild of Emerandes. One of them is put quickly to death, the other suffers a lingering fate in the flames of Finial's wrath.
Just a couple of hours further down the road, they come upon a circle of caravans reeling from some kind of attack. The dead and injured litter the ground, tended to by the survivors. A half-elf called Tantalroy greets the adventurers and explains that they are the escort for a rich merchant of the Coin (named, unsurprisingly enough, il-Sook), and that they were on their way to a business meeting in Lukktor when they were attacked by overwhelming forces. Upwards of ten have been slain, and il-Sook was kidnapped in the confusion.
Tantalroy is a good liar, but Finial knows that something is amiss. After asking around the camp under pretense of helping the wounded, the party uncovers evidence that the slain guards were drugged prior to the attack, and that the officers of the merchant house charged with protecting il-Sook on his way to Lukktor all foster a simmering hatred of their employer, born of mistreatment of either themselves or their loved ones. It seems the affable generosity of his public persona is distinctly at odds with the violent bully he turns into behind closed doors.
Confronted with the party's suspicions and ill-equipped to make an escape, Tantalroy is forced to admit under questioning that the kidnapping was an inside job, revenge for il-Sook's arrogant and insufferable predations against he and his friends. He explains that the merchant has been taken to an abandoned eladrin fort to the west, where he will be put to death after hearing an account of his crimes. (He also confides a suspicion that il-Sook isn't even human, but can offer no evidence to support the fact.)
He has no choice but to throw himself on Finial's mercy. He offers to show them the meeting place, and even to accept punishment for his part in the deed, but he insists that he will only do so if his friend, Cara Toyden, whose hatred of il-Sook is born of the scars he allegedly inflicted on her after she turned down his advances, is allowed to go free. The company turns to Finial for judgement: he considers the bargain, and agrees.
Tantalroy leads them into the tree-line. The forest is dense and unforgiving, alive with shadows and the unshakable sense of being watched. At one point, he signals for them to hide and three trolls blunder through the bushes, seemingly oblivious despite the presence of two heavily armoured adventurers holding their collective breath in the undergrowth. The creatures pause, sniffing the air. "I'm tellin' ya I heard summin! And it weren't that other lot, either!" His mate, however, is unimpressed, and the trolls eventually move on.
As do the adventurers, in fact, and a short while later the trees thin slightly before giving way to a clearing. Tantalroy pauses and whispers, "I didn't know anything about this..." but the tracks they're following pretty obviously step out onto the tall sunlit grass. There's a stone cottage with a mud roof near the center of the clearing, and a fast-running brook crosses the grass nearby. The keener-eyed observers in the group also spot a large, hulking shadow lurking in the treeline to the north.
Delgado and Elumai sneak towards the shadow while Berend, Finial, Seraiya and Tantalroy push out from the bushes and start following the trail left by their quarry. They quickly spot a person lying slumped near the point where the trail re-enters the treeline, but the grasses are too high to reveal much more. They advance, and the door to the cottage swings open.
A tall, attractive young woman wearing weathered gear emerges carrying an axe. She takes two steps before noticing the warriors and lobbing the blade into a nearby woodpile, where it thunks inches-deep into a broad chunk of oak. "Good day to you all!" she smiles as the party greets her. "Are you passing through? Can I offer you some lunch?"
"No thanks," says Berend, and then, ever keen on getting to the point, asks: "What's that great hulking shape in the forest over there?"
The woman turns and shields her eyes against the sun. "I can't see anything," she shrugs. To those sneaking through the forest however it's clearly an ogre, albeit an ogre with leaves and branches stuffed into its pants in a vain attempt to camouflage its bulk. For now, it's intent on the clearing, and doesn't notice the adventurers sneaking up on it.
The body at the edge of the clearing turns out to be a decapitated human female, her head having been removed with exquisite precision by some unknown means. Tantalroy pushes forward, shouting: "It's Tyster! She's a friend of mine... how the hell..?" He begins rummaging through the her pockets, removing a bag of coin as he does so, while the others look on, gauging the time of death at no more than an hour ago. "Tidy job, though," Berend says as he walks back towards the silhouette of the ogre. Finial quirks an eye at the woodsman's axe, but doubts it could have done the deed.
Delgado takes matters into his own hands at this point, and launches himself at the ogre. Unfortunately his longsword glances off the creature's leather armour... but Elumai's Lightning Bolt has more impact. The ogre bellows "WHASGOINON?!" and turns to defend himself, a look of child-like shock on its lumpy face. Delgado provides an answer by smashing his longsword into its nose, drawing a spray of blood and a strangled cry of pain... which then provides enough of a distraction so that Berend, who roars into view with his axe raised and a familiar berserker rage on his face, can smash headlong into the hapless creature from the rear.
The woodsman turns at the sound of the melee... and sighs. "Oh dear," she says, "I always thought he'd pay for loving me one day... still, the Patriarch will pay me handsomely to make dolls of you..." Her face suddenly explodes in a shower of shiny black beetles and her left arm collapses into a boiling swarm... but Finial shoves her away before the swarm can envelop him. She stumbles back and smiles at him like a spurned lover. Tantalroy seethes with rage as he brings his sword to bear on her: "Tyster was my friend!" he roars, but his attack is wild and uncontrolled, cutting a swathe of beetles from her arm but having little other effect.
"More bodies for the Patriarch!" shouts the ogre as he smashes his flail down on Delgado. Berend is also forced to tumble aside as the massive weapon gouges the earth at his feet, but then the tip of Delgado's blade erupts from the ogre's chest and it collapses to the grass. He looks up with terror in his eyes and whispers with his dying breath: "Don't... let the elf stitch me up... please..."
Meanwhile the beetle swarm has found the chinks in Finial's armour, and surge inside, biting his flesh. The beetle-woman uses the distraction to plant a kiss on the paladin's cheek, and he swoons, unsteady on his feet, as the swarm pours over him... but then a ray from Elumai's wand envelops her in flame, causing clumps of beetle-flesh to crisp and pop in fountains of yellow goo. Berend, recovering from the barely missed attack at the treeline, barrels across the clearing and sends beetles exploding in all directions as he smashes into the swarm to help his friend. Under threat from several quarters, the woman rips the last veneer of flesh from her face and roars at the companions, who stumble away, clutching their eyes. She takes the opportunity to collapse into a living swarm, surging over the grass and into the cottage by whatever means of ingress she can find.
Elumai races after her and in an uncharacteristically confident display of athleticism, clambers up the nearest drainpipe and takes position on the roof. Finial peers through a window at what was probably once a quaint cottage but is now a ruined shadow of past comforts, covered in mildew and now with hundreds of beetles swarming over the decaying floor. He pushes himself resolutely through the window and engages the swarm as it envelops him .
Berend steps up to the wall, hefts his axe, and swings the blade at the stone wall. The mortar is ancient and gives way easily as a section of wall crumbles inward ("Don't worry lads, it's only me!") Elumai, up above, is determined to make the most of her vantage and with barely a thought for the consequences, unleashes a Thunderwave upon the roof. The whole structure trembles but doesn't give way.
The beetle swarm retreats from Finial and starts to funnel underneath the rug as if trying to escape. He throws the carpet back to reveal a rotten trapdoor, half fallen through, and in doing so releases a ferociously putrescent smell into the room. Delgado, newly arrived, pushes past him and drops through, landing on his feet in a dark cellar dug out of the earth beneath the cottage.
Aside from a few boxes covered with leather tarps, the most obvious feature is the corpse of a man, horribly blackened and bloated, swinging from the joists above with a noose about his neck. He's dressed in clothes similar to the form taken by the beetle-woman when they first arrived. Finial cuts the body down, and let's just say it would be best not to dwell on what happens when it hits the floor. Of the beetle-woman there is no sign, but the company does discover that the back wall of the cellar is perforated with tiny beetle-sized holes. A brief discussion doesn't yield any suggestions as to how she might be flushed out, and the party resigns itself to the fact of her escape.
In a small box hidden in one corner of the cellar, Berend finds twenty-five locks of hair of varying colours, individually bound by ribbons, as well as several hundred gold and three valuable sapphires. Back out in the open air the company is surprised to find that Tantalroy has declined the opportunity to escape and is lingering morosely near the corpse of his friend. They decide that a Speak With Dead might yield some valuable information, and Elumai spends a few minutes whispering over the headless body before she feels the departed spirit of Tyster Dent connect with her.
What killed you? I have no idea. One minute I was running through the trees, the next I was floating around in this place. Are your friends with you? I was at the front of the pack, so I have no idea what might have happened to them. They're not here.
Tyster departs as the power of the ritual fades. After a careful look around the area they find a length of admantine wire which was strung across the trees at head height. They recover six-feet of the stuff, carefully coiling it up and putting it away. Elumai also decides that the basement will make a fitting grave for both the dead woodsman and Tantalroy's friend, and literally brings the house down on both their remains. Only then do they move on.
A short trek later they emerge from the edge of the forest looking across a sick-looking field of yellowing grass towards a grassy hillock. Perched upon it are the ruined lower two levels of what was once, Finial reckons, a pretty solid eladrin fort, but which has long since crumbled. Elumai thinks the structure is reminiscent of towers used in her homeland to mark and defend complexes built underground. Something about the topography of the hill also seems slightly off... but no-one in the party can put their finger on it.
One thing that immediately gets their attention is the remains of a male body, resting in a smear of blood and viscera half-way down the rough path which leads up to the remains of the gate. Seraiya performs a quick examination, finding that the human in question was cut in two at the waist... and that a human arm has been sewn with gruesome precision onto his stomach at the belly-button. A hard, amber residue coats the stitches... and in a flash of inspiration Elumai recognises the suturing pattern as a well-known technique in the creation of constructs and golems of flesh. (No-one thinks to ask her how she knows these things.)
Everyone looks askance at Tantalroy, but he just shrugs. "Don't know him. Look, I didn't know anything about this place, but the fellow who helped us set all this up said it would be a good spot for a rendezvous." When pushed, he reveals the name of his fellow conspirator: Micah, il-Sook's manservant.
The company pushes on towards the fort, but despite taking several precautions they fall foul to a carefully-prepared ambush as they pass beneath the ruined gate. The creatures that attack are a nightmare of rotting flesh and thick, scabrous skin, clearly constructs of some kind and attacking with a keen, decisive intellect. Finial dodges a small barrel which is flung by one of the creatures and rolls away from him down the hillside, but Berend isn't so lucky. The barrel smashes open at his feet and a cloud of tiny, biting beetles swarms over him... as well as over Finial, who finds himself caught in the blast.
The paladin, muscles bulging with effort, hauls himself up to the cracked ledge from which they're attacking and smashes into the first crusty, which unfortunately dodges the blow. It steps forward and punches the paladin with a fist of encrusted scab tissue, splattering him with god-knows-what and sending him reeling.
Delgado shifts around the outside of the ruin and, intent on taking the ambush back to his foes, clambers up a defensive wall. Elumai jaunts through the Feywild and appears atop the highest wall, from which vantage she unleashes a storm of lightning upon the hapless enemies beneath her. It leaps between them, causing suppurating fractures to crack open across their encrusted skin.
Berend grits his teeth against the pain of the swarm consuming his flesh and launches his Thunder Hammer at one of the creatures, but his aim is still thrown off. Finial, meanwhile, finds a target with his flail and, with a burst of radiant light which infuses his friends with strength, the crusty almost implodes under the blow, spraying puss and fluids everywhere and limping feebly away from his next attack.
At this point a massive flesh golem with a rotting pig's head sewn to its neck and disjoint limbs of various racial progeny lumbers into sight from the other side of the fort. It carries two blood-spattered cleavers, each the size of a man's arm, and charges Berend, sending him tumbling back. Saraiya sends powerful healing energies his way but is also smothered by biting insects as the crusty poised above the arch finally gets another target for his beetle-grenade. She advances, and there's an ominous snapping sound from beneath her feet.
Several rotting planks give way and from the dark void beneath, a massive horde of cockroaches surges forth. Seraiya barely avoids tumbling into the pit and is resolute in her intention to strike the golem. She does so, smashing what's left of a human arm away from its chest.
Delgado coolly observes the melee... and decides that the skeleton he's noticed is much more enticing than all that. He jumps down from the rear wall, shoves the remains over and rummages through its pack, finding a wrapped parcel of stained paper tied with string and oozing a clear liquid into his hands, as well as a pair of armbands, tied together with a short steel chain. Above him, from on high, Elumai unleashes a pillar of flame upon the various swarms crawling about the place, crisping hundreds of the tiny creatures and blackening the flesh of the golem and its crusty minions.
Berend smashes into the golem, sending the abomination stumbling back, multiple arms flailing feebly in the air as it tries to ward off his attacks, but so ferocious is the assault that the sutures on the creature's body start unraveling, leaving a trail of body parts sliding to the floor in its wake. Sweat beads on the dwarf's forehead... he's under constant assault from hordes of malevolent insects, and it will only be a matter of time before he's brought down...