The morning after ...

The morning after …

The murderer was clearly in the volcano. Our heroes, having been asked to go and find him, set off up the mountainside to the location of his victim, from whence they hoped to track him. Now they were joined by Grunstein the wizard, who had travelled ahead to Steamline Spa on his own business. The slopes of the volcano loom over the northern side of Steamline Spa, and take some hours to climb to the misty summit; but all these slopes were smooth and perfect as an old Emperor’s burial mound, and a smooth path wound up the sides of the volcano, through fields scattered with sheep and dour shepherds. Brom Barca’s attempts to buy sheep having been rudely rebuffed, the group trudged on without incident until they reached the murder scene, a smear of blood and gore behind one of the volcano’s scattered basalt boulders. Rounding the rock, they found a scene of horror: the body of the dead shepherd had been torn apart and scattered across the land behind the boulder, disfigured so thoroughly and violently that it was almost impossible to say how the victim had died. Nonetheless, Leticia the elven swordmaster was able to piece together the clues; the attack had started with a sudden strike of the shepherd’s head against the boulder, and the shepherd had then been mercilessly mutilated while he yet lived. There was evidence that he had been drugged – perhaps with a soporific called Poggle’s Drakeboon – in order to ensure his unhappy compliance with his own dismal destruction. They could not find the head, though the ears were resting on a ledge of the boulder …

Having established they were most certainly dealing with a murder, the PCs set off up the mountainside to catch this evil Otto Mercads. Grunstein employed a new spell to transform himself into a wolf, and easily followed the scent of death and terror up the mountainside. They marched for another hour or so, into the mists that surrounded the top of the volcano. Here was a caldera, surrounded by high but broken walls of old volcanic stone. A narrow crevasse ran through the caldera wall, and they found themselves looking inside the volcano. The caldera was a rough bowl shape, filled with steam and a gentle rain from the higher steam as it emerged from the caldera to suddenly cool in the mountain air. A narrow path ran down from their crevasse to the bottom of the bowl, but it was impossible to see where it ended due to the steam billowing around the caldera. They reached the caldera a little after midday, so the bright mountain sunlight was streaming in great golden lances through the steam, but it was obvious that in just an hour or two this cloistered feature would be shrouded in clammy darkness as its walls cut out the sun. Realizing it best to do battle in the bright noon light, Azahi the dwarf marched forth down the narrow path. The others followed, and as they approached the bottom of the path they could hear the sounds of manic laughter echoing off the walls.

At the bottom of the path they found a small, neatly laid-out camp under a lean-to, with the shepherd’s severed head in pride of place in the middle. The steam parted for them as they fanned out in the caldera, revealing a large central pool of nearly-boiling water. A large stone jutted into the pool, and on this outcrop they could see Otto Mercad’s crouched and chuckling, painting pictures of blood with a loop of intestine and talking to himself. They approached carefully but he did not seem to care, and just laughed manically as they grabbed him, beat him a little, and tied him up.

Too easy. Just a few hours later they were leaving Steamline Spa with Otto chained in an empty wine barrel out of sight of prying eyes in their wagon …

The storm and the Drowning Well

That day’s travel was uneventful, but towards evening a vicious storm rolled in off the mountains, and they found themselves being pummeled by howling winds and heavy rain. Fortunately they had been told of an inn along the road, that most travelers a day out of Steamline Spa could expect to lodge at for the night. They redoubled their pace to this tavern, passing as they did a band of four road-wardens who had been called out in the inclement weather to attend a possible beastman raid. They were also surprised by a bounty hunter called Elizabeth, who emerged from the shadows of an old redgum to ask for their company on the final kilometre to the inn. She told them her horse had been lamed in the storm and, having killed it, she was walking to the inn to pick up the tail of her targets, two bandits who she had a mark on. A dour and tough-looking woman, she seemed more than capable of killing a horse and capturing two ruffians. All travellers on the road were focused now on the inn and respite from the rain, so few questions were asked; instead, they all slogged on through the gathering gloom, the howling winds and the mud.

By the time they arrived it was not yet sunset, but the storm was so intense that it had blocked out most of the light, and they arrived at the gates of the inn feeling as if it were already late. Grunstein the wizard had transformed into a raven and flown ahead, so he missed the strange arcane markings daubed on the wall by the gate, and none of the other PCs were able to decode them. Against the backdrop of the raging storm they pushed their way through the rain-soaked doors of the inn compound, and found themselves lodging within.

The inn was a large complex, consisting of a central three-storey mansion surrounded by stables, outhouses and gardens. The whole was ringed by a wall just over 2m high, made of dressed stone and thick enough both to repel any serious attempt at battery and to enable defenders standing atop the wall to fight back from crenelations. This kind of travelers rest is a common sight in the wilder fringes of civilization in the Steamlands, where local farmers are used to the predations of greenskins and, occasionally, beastmen. When a band is spotted approaching the neighbouring farms they lock up and flee to the travelers rest, from where they join together to fight off any siege and wait for roadwardens from other towns to relieve them. Like fighting summer fires, community defense is something that all remote farming hamlets practice at, and the scattered houses around the Drowning Well were no different, so it was no surprise to the PCs to find such a staunchly defensible tavern so far from civilization.

So, the PCs ducked into the tavern and booked a night’s accomodation, and a cellar for Otto Mercads. The cellar was as safe as a prison cell, pre-fit with chains and a portcullis that locked only from the outside, as well as a staunch outer door that only a minotaur could smash through. The Drowning Well was obviously used to hosting its share of passing prisoners, because the landlord locked Mercads down in this hole without a single word of complaint, and the group were able to repair quickly to drinking and relaxing. The evening passed uneventfully, and after a few hours’ rest the PCs were able to retire for a long, relaxing sleep.

The murders begin

The PCS were woken by the maid’s screams during the dead of night. The storm was still raging outside, but the maid was so disturbed that her anguished cries could be heard over the racket of howling wind, driving rain and banging shutters. Of course our heroes ran into the hallway to see the problem, and found themselves facing a familiar scene of horror: one of the guest rooms was open, and the occupant had been murdered in a very familiar way – the same way as Otto Mercad’s victim. There was blood and body parts everywhere, and guests gathering in the darkened hall to retch and cry in horror at the sight. The PCs, along with Elizabeth the bounty hunter, took charge, shepherding the guests downstairs to the common room and rushing to check on Mercads. They found Mercads sitting comfortably in his cell, chuckling and grinning and with not a drop of blood on him. How had he done it?

Other murders soon followed, with the maid, the landlord and his wife quick to succumb to some kind of brutish and supernatural force. Every time the murder was so reminiscent of Mercads’ artwork that the PCs just had to return to his cell to watch him, but the third time they returned they found him, too, dead, torn apart in the same way as the others. However this time they were fast enough to see the killer – a grotesque, incorporeal ghost, 3m tall and shaped like a beastman with a single eye. They attacked the ghost but it fled too fast, disappearing through a wall and out into the wilds of the night. Shocked, they realized that Mercads must have been the channel or conduit for some darker creature. They remembered finding a necklace made of a fleck of old beastman’s tusk when they captured him, and wondered if he might have been somehow connected with this ghost. While some of the PCs rushed to protect the guests in the common room, Gregor dashed to their own room to check on the chaos artifacts they were transporting to Heavenbalm, lest that should prove to be this beastman ghost’s true focus.

The ghost wasn’t there though, it was gone … but the beastmen were coming.

Artuta rises ...

Artuta rises …

The beastmen come

Shortly after they saw the beastman ghost, the PCs heard yells and clamour from the front door. Residents from nearby farmhouses were gathering at the gate, telling urgent stories of a new horror: a horde of beastmen was gathering in the darkness to attack the inn. As they filed in, bedraggled and dishevelled from the storm, they and the residents began to prepare for a siege. The PCs, however, were distracted by a light in the corner of the compound. Approaching, they saw the vague outline of a ghostly form, glowing faintly and flickering in the onslaught of rain and wind. This was no beastman, but the remnant form of a witch hunter, obviously injured and looking desperate, and wearing clothes from a previous generation – the ghost of someone with something important to tell them? As they approached the ghost whispered to them with a voice that carried despite the snatching wind and rolling thunder:

The truth is beneath the words. The truth …

With these words he disappeared, revealing a slab of stone, scoured clean of earth by the rain and wind, on which a short passage was inscribed:

Here lies Artuta,

Most twisted of the changer’s brood,

Cleansed by Solkan’s hands.

He will not be the last.

The PCs dug up the stone quickly, and beneath it they found a waterproof scrollcase, laid carefully in a hollow beneath the stone. Dashing out of the rain, they opened the case to find a torn piece of parchment, on which someone’s story was written:

I do not know why I have written this but I feel death is close. Artuta stares up at me. His one eye is still, but maybe it watches. Foolish thoughts, but in the forest lurk the remains of his band, now led by the Shaman Grazzt. He has strange dark powers at his call. Who knows what he can do?

What has brought this disquiet upon me? I cannot say, although a strange dream came to me last night. I was guarding Artuta even though he lies dead. Even in death, he led them. Yet I could not escape from this task for a wall surrounded me on all sides, a tunnel above through which I could see the stars. It was difficult to move, for my limbs were heavy.

This vision fills me with fear.

May Solkan watch over me.

Were these the words of the ghostly witch hunter?

At this point the party fragmented. Gregor fled back to his room and began a frenzied effort to destroy the amulet of the beastman tooth; Leticia and Brom Barca headed to the walls to coordinate the defense of the inn against the gathering horde of beastmen, who could now be heard outside the walls howling and preparing their attack; and Azahi the dwarven Trollslayer ran with Grunstein the wizard to the well after which the inn was named. Azahi had interpreted the “tunnel above through which I could see the stars” as the well, and wished to explore it. As he and Grunstein lowered themselves into the well they heard behind them the first roars of beastmen preparing for battle…

Born under a subterranean star ...

Born under a subterranean star …

The well and the battle

In the well Azahi and Grunstein found a tunnel leading into the earth below the inn. They followed it inward, Grunstein lighting the way with a cantrip, and soon found a locked stone door, on which a clear warning was written:

Ye thatz enter here, beware

For liez here, Artuta

When he rizes

Come hiz brood

To spill the blood of all.

The door was locked, and neither Grunstein nor Azahi a thief, but Azahi managed to remember a few hints of technical trickery from his dwarven tribe and disabled the lock. They opened the door to find a crypt, rough-hewn from the earth. In the centre was a depression covered in brush and rubbish; leaning against the walls of the room were four skeletons of beastmen. The mark of Tzeentch was carved into the wall at the far side of the room, and it was obvious what this room was – the resting place of something called Artuta, probably an ancient and powerful beastman. Grunstein began breaking up the first beastman skeleton, but before he had done much damage the other three came to life and attacked Azahi. The dwarf braced himself, and battle was joined; but as he fought the ghost of Artuta arose from the central resting place and fled out of the door. Both he and Grunstein struck at it, but their attacks failed to kill it, though they seemed to wound it badly. The ghost was now obviously more corporeal, gaining in power from the murders it had managed to commit, but still able to shift to ghost form, in which shape it drifted rapidly down the tunnel and out of the well into the stormy night.

Upstairs, the beastmen had begun to gather together for battle. Their force was far larger than a normal beastman band, numbering perhaps 30 in all and with four beastman captains. Lurking at the rear near some kind of makeshift altar was a strange figure indeed – a smaller beastman similar in appearance to a Gor and lacking full horns, unarmed and dressed in tattered cloth but obviously in charge despite its small size. As Brom Barca and Leticia watched, this figure was joined by the ghost of Artuta the beastman, and the attack began.

The inn compound had two gates, and the beastmen attacked both at once. Their attack was artless and brutal. A beastman captain charged forward, and used his enormous strength to boost a couple of Gor onto the walls; these then hauled the massive captain on, and they attacked. Meanwhile a gang of larger Gors lined up and took turns charging at the main gate, trying to smash it in with their horns. By this means, should the captain fail to seize the wall itself, his minions would still eventually beat down the gates. Unfortunately for this beastman captain and his Gor minions, Leticia and Brom Barca guarded the gates; Brom himself almost the size of a Gor took on the three minions, and Leticia moved forward to engage the captain, fighting with delicate poise and grace despite the slippery stones, the howling wind and the beating rain. The battle was short but brutal, and within a few short exchanges Brom and Leticia had slain their enemies. Leticia hacked off the head of the slain captain, and as Brom Barca lifted it high for all the beastmen to see the captain at the other gate began a temporary retreat. At this point Gregor joined them on the wall, scattering the fragments of the beastman amulet before him into the wind. This seemed to have no effect – the distant shaman ignored it, and Artuta’s flickering form did not change except to howl in rage at the retreating beastmen. Now Azahi and Grunstein also trudged up onto the wall through the rain, and our heroes grouped together ready to receive the next charge.

As the beastmen milled about, preparing to make a new attack and being berated, beaten and enraged by their captains, Gregor remembered the Hochland long rifle he had looted from bandits on the journey to Steamline Spa. Though the ghost of Artuta was far from the walls and beyond easy range of a crossbow or longbow, it was not beyond the reach of a long rifle, and Artuta was obviously injured. Perhaps if Gregor were lucky … he carefully lined up the rifle, Brom Barca and Leticia holding their cloaks over him to try and prevent the worst of the rain from damping his powder. He fired as the beastmen formed their lines for another charge, and his bullet flew true … with a single howl of outrage and shock, Artuta’s ghost dissolved into the storm, vanquished by the witch hunter. The beastman shaman took one look back at the walls, screamed his rage to the uncaring tempest, and without further ado turned to flee into the distant woods. His followers, seeing the destruction of their plan, lost all their lust for battle and fled after him.

The battle was done. The beastmen had failed to break the gate, and Artuta had been killed before they could drag any prisoners back to sacrifice for his manifestation. Whatever sick plot had been laid to wait here in the courtyard of the drowning well, it was done now. Though the PCs had inadvertently brought about the invocation of Artuta’s ghost by bringing Otto Mercads to the inn, they had triumphed over Artuta and his whole tribe. They could rest, and enjoy the reward of heroes. And heroes they must be, for in the morning they must surely head off in pursuit of the shaman, to uncover the full story of how Otto Mercads had become the kingpin in a plot to bring back an undead beastman; and to slay the shaman before he could foment more mischief. Perhaps in those hills they could find more dark magic to take to Heavenbalm for destruction … or perhaps there they would find their doom …

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