|Thistles And Thorns|
The Naga called me Sukoshi Toge, or "Little Thorn" in their tongue. Not an uncommon appellation, given the cloak of brambles and briars I wear, as much a part of my flesh and bone as anything else that grows from within them. The Dwarves on the ships hence and Humans of this land like simpler terms, of which "Thistle" seems to be the most common, along with "Ivy", "Monk", and "Archer". These callings are sufficient, all in all. A name that is not a Name is but a name, and I will answer to any that does not malign me. So long as it is not that which I hide, it holds no power over me.
I only hear my Name in my dreams, in deepest slumber and vague memories of a life I left behind long ago, or in the invigorating fevers and muse-images of a flayleaf haze. These have been more and more as of late, as I find my worldly possessions swiftly dwindling and with them any opportunity to escape the confines of this wretched bolthole of a town. Yet better this than the battlefield, where from the Shadowlands flow the Never Dead, the Oni, the Maho, and the Kage-no-Ongaku: the Music of Shadows. Yes, better this than the ever-lingering risk of the taint, the sundering of the soul, the endless dissonant song of corruption.
My countrymen - by life if not by birth - would call me a coward and denounce me as without honor. I would see no reason to argue such with them. But there is no weight of honor that is worth the danger posed by the creatures of the Shadowlands, most of all that dreadful song, that ancient otherworldly melody from the skies that sings of the end of worlds. I have heard its songs before, in my youth and in my nightmares, and there is no price I would not pay to put myself well away from its symphony.
Thus am I here, in the land of Storm and Wind, tucked away between the forests and the mountains in the miserable little hovel called Diamond Lake, stolen coin flittering away on days of pointless labor and failed pursuits and nights lost in a mist of illusions and inspirations, one ear open to rumors and legends of something, anything that might begin a road toward escape from this place. Safe I may be from the horrors of the Shadow, but a safe prison is no less a prison.
I have heard tales of an abandoned cairn, a tomb of lost treasures and old histories left fallow, secluded away and out of sight to all save the most perceptive of strangers and most informed of locals. Noted for the strange sounds and voices heard from within its dusty catacombs, this Whispering Cairn has received far less attention than some of its sister tombs, and may still have riches for the taking. And it's not as if my dwindling honor will be noticeably besmirched further by adding graverobbing to my crimes....
|Thistles And Thorns|
The Whispering Cairn
I arrived second. I should have expected it, that I wouldn't be alone; after all, I spend half my days searching for meaning in whatever mysteries the smoke shows me; someone more perceptive and more alert during the evenings would certainly have had no less opportunity to capture the same tidbits of information I collected. Despite this, however, I found myself surprised by the sheer number of those who came near-simultaneously to investigate. There was not only myself, but four others - a knight of my homeland, wielder of a blessed blade; a sage of the wilderness, a clanless vagabond; a mage of unknown potential, vibrant disposition, and limitless energy; and a scout and scoundrel, enforcer at a local tavern, the only one among us native to this consuming village.
Introductions, such as they were, were made, and it did not take long for the collective of us to come to the decision to share in our excursion, citing the superiority of strength in numbers and the necessity of extra hands to carry out any treasures we might discover within. Our first foray into the tomb was as expected - dusty, dank, drafty, and devoid of anything of notable value. A small pack of wolves had made a den of one of the interior corridors, sheltered behind a collapsed wall, but we were able to make short work of them upon our encounter.
Beyond, however, the cairn expanded into much more interesting - and valuable - developments. A broad mural on one wall depicted several halls adorned by glimmering lamps, lamps that matched the design of an azure treasure found amidst the wolves' leavings, along with other debris and possible valuables, including a broken finger of a statue. A shattered mirror frame of ornate and unusual design adorned the dais before it, and the mage was exceptionally interested in the designs marking its remaining circumference, claiming they emblemized the power of elemental wind.
Further in, beyond a shroud of spiderweb, we found an enormous compass chamber, each of its seven corridors painted in a varied hue of the rainbow, most of them set to be lit by currently-dark lanterns of similar shade - a live recreation of the mural from the area previous, or perhaps the inverse, the painting was of this room, it was impossible to say which for certain. We immediately began investigating, hanging the blue lantern at its empty chain - leaving only the red corridor unoccupied - and setting them alight. While the wanderer, who sufficed to be addressed as Finnegan, and I turned our gazes to the corridors, the rest of the group - the knight, Miyako Yin; the brute, Jorgan; and the mage, Ling - investigated the grand sarcophagus in the center of the room. Attempting to open it released a blast of flame that thankfully did not do much harm to anyone; however, the carving in the sepulcher's surface was noted for having a missing finger on one hand, and replacing it with the stone digit found in the wolves' den allowed the structure to be rotated sunward about the circle of the room, directing its pointed head toward one of the seven corridors.
|Thistles And Thorns|
Upon turning the sarcophagus to the hall alight in yellow, a vast column rose from the ground and opened a door, allowing us to descend into the levels below, one at a time. The corridor below was blockaded by a massive stone; however when the group of us managed to shove it aside, the chamber was flooded with a noxious smoke, which it seemed most of us were able to avoid breathing before it dissipated; Jorgen however was not so fortunate.
Beyond however was a straight hall flanked in several places by statues; upon pressing down the passage, strange creatures resembling floating eyes connected by sinew emerged from behind, firing bursts of light at us. We were able to swiftly disable the trio of them, and Jorgen collected the creatures - Lurking Stranglers, he called them - and stored them away among his things, suspecting they could be worth money to a curious mage.
Pressing on, the next room had a pair of adjoining chambers, a doorway in the rear, a strange lever on the east wall of the central pillar, and a patch of dark mold on its west. Engaging the lever caused a stone slab to rise, revealing a crushed skeleton beneath, garbed in armor and finery; we raided its belongings despite Ling's objections and desires to leave the corpse where it rested, though she swiftly fell silent when we presented her with the two wands it carried. The room to the east held nothing but a statue, matching many of the wall carvings and pictures of bizarre humanoids.
Yin chose to take the lead into the west room, despite what Jorgan warned about the mold - that its frigid touch would sap heat and life from any who came near - and simply ran through, seemingly ignoring most of the icy aura. However, investigating the treasures in the next room, she touched a stone that opened to reveal a creature made of rock, which then went on the offensive and knocked her unconscious. I was able to make my way into the room, catapulting off a wall and around a corner without coming too near the moldy ground, and was able to put a few arrows in the elemental creature while Finn and Ling attacked from the outer chamber and Jorgan, unable to fight at range, simply watched.
Once that battle was over and the samurai once more awake, we chose to wait, to allow our wounds to recuperate and to let the sage work; Jorgan claimed that if exposed to enough cold the mold would die, and Finn claimed to be a capable alchemist, and had brought enough materials and equipment to craft liquid ice while we waited. Once she had completed her work and the mold was clear, we took the treasures of this area, including a large valuable block of metal and a set of abandoned stonecrafting tools, back up to the central chamber, where we left them while we investigated the rest of the cairn, with intent to leave with them once our explorations were complete.
We attuned the sarcophagus next to the green hall, but rather than another column rising, the earth beneath our feet began to rumble and shake, and after some time the far end of the corridor collapsed. I moved over to investigate and heard thousands of skittering feet, and was able to retreat just in time to see a horde of acid-spewing beetles emerge from within the depths. While the conjurers dealt with these attackers, a larger insect - one with a single enormous eye and many bladed limbs - emerged from within the pit; this creature I focused my arrows on. The knight was forced to fling herself into the path of the beetles to shove free the mage, who was pushed into a nearby wall and knocked slightly askew in the chaos of combat. The scout, on the other hand, elected to the better part of valor and fled into the blue chamber, climbing the chain above the lantern and ascending into a concealed upper corridor.
Thankfully the irritants were swiftly killed, and after Finn and I collected a few of the beetles for later purposes, we were prepared to move deeper into the tomb. Finn and I followed after Jorgan while Yin remained behind to tend to Ling.
The corridor above was a single passage, straight down and dominated by an enormous leering face and gaping mouth carved into the far wall. Jorgan located a trap near its edge, cautioned us to avoid it, and began examining it in more detail to attempt to locate a way to bypass it, requesting Finn to use her magical sight to see if there might be an unseen trigger.
With nothing to do to assist, I returned down to the central chamber to assess what had become of Yin and Ling; amidst our investigations above, I'd heard some distant shouting, as well as having been suggested to go retrieve something heavy from the knight with which to trigger the trap, and came down to find the warrior alone. She claimed the mage had been rambling of "something coming", then had slipped free of her grasp and plunged down the hole from whence the insects had come. Thankfully, she had left her resources behind, but that still left us with one less of our number, driven to madness by something as of yet unknown. I attempted to lead her up into the blue corridor above, but several falls from the chain dissuaded us from asking her to attempt it further.
From above, the sounds of howling winds alerted us to the trap being activated; Finn and Jorgan scrambled down some time later, and chose not to elaborate on the nature of what had occurred since I had departed. Instead, we turned our attentions toward the mage's departure and the only remaining viable passage of exploration - the red corridor lacked a lantern, which made it, if there was anything to be observed of it, currently a dead end, and the upper passage above the blue corridor was for all we knew closed to us at this time. Investigation of the other corridors revealed only the indigo to react to the sarcophagus's pointing, and Jorgan was quick to alert us to the nature of that column as a sinister crushing trap. Given no other options other than retreat back to the village, I led the descent into the green passage under-chamber, warning Yin not to fall; I had scouted the column earlier, finding it quite a long descent, and a fall that none of us would survive.
That, however, begged the question of why I found no remains of our missing mage at the bottom - no blood, no viscera, not even footprints. Simply an empty chamber that opened into an adjoining intersection.
|Thistles And Thorns|
The area ahead branched into a four-way intersection, with the paths to either side terminating in short chambers and the path forward descending down stairs into darkness. Our knight and scoundrel scouting ahead alerted the pair of us in back to the presence of more swarming insects in the area to the left; Finn still had alchemical fire on-hand, and agreed to expend her remaining equipment as necessary if the rest of us focused on destroying the two larger beetles present in the chamber with the swarm. After some debating about the best method to do this, and what to do if the attempt failed, I stepped forward and placed an arrow square into the nearest creature's carapace. It was enough to lure it, its twin, and the swarm of smaller creatures toward us, where they were swiftly and efficiently annihilated.
The others searched their chamber, finding several corpses carrying a few moderate treasures. I instead searched the room to the left, where yet another corpse - in armor of significantly better quality and less weathering - was slumped over a stone pillar or shelf of some sort, and a third large beetle was skittering about in a corner. After sneaking in to examine the body up close - and feeling the effects of some sort of hex or ward in the area, causing me to feel somewhat sluggish - I stepped back and put two arrows in the insect's head, then retrieved the corpse and added it to the pile, but not without claiming a ring from one finger as my own treasure. I may return it to the group's funds at a later time, I may not. It depends on my mood at the time.
Those two areas cleared, we pressed forward. The explanation for the darkness of the room ahead, even to all our eyes well capable of seeing in the dark, was readily apparent: it was water, not mere absence of light, that awaited us ahead. Jorgan and I made it no further than ten or fifteen feet past the point of descent into the standing flood when we were alerted to the sounds of movement ahead; within moments an angry elemental was upon us, thrashing and splashing and making a painful ruckus. Both Jorgan and I were knocked unconscious temporarily, only to be pulled back and roused by our remaining companions. We - mostly they - did eventually put the creature out of its misery, but we soon after came to an agreement to sit and rest, let some of our wounds mend and our heads clear, for a few hours before pressing further into the depths.
In that time, I secluded myself back in the chamber beneath the entry column, intending to spend the hours in meditation; I was far enough away from the others that the flayleaf smoke wouldn't trouble them, and would drift up out of the way from whence we came rather than spread about this set of corridors. However, Yin approached me a few moments after the visions began and started to berate me about "muddling" my mind when we would be returning to combat shortly. I, as best I could in my meditative haze (though I was not too far gone as to be incapable of communicating lucidly, thank the ages), explained that we planned to rest for at least two hours and the effects of the smoke, so long as I burned no more than one set of leaves, would pass within a single one. She was, for the time being, unconvinced, and demanded to know why I "polluted" myself with "intoxicants"; I explained, trying to keep the discussion simple, that it was part of the meditative practices I'd learned in the monastery at Aadhi. Clearly Senkakuan herself, she would at least be familiar with its existence, if nothing else; I may not have been quite completely honest, as while they do burn incense during meditation back at the monastery, as far as I know they do not, and did not during my time there, use something as strongly... "mind-opening" as flayleaf. Nevertheless, it serves my purposes as standard incenses do not.
And open my mind it did. Within a few minutes after she gave up and wandered off, I found myself enraptured in a vision - standing on a bloodied battlefield, watching air-elemental knights at war with earth-elemental warriors accompanied by oni-like fiendish forces. Unfamiliar with the specifics of the creatures, it was nevertheless obvious that this was a great conflict and massive in scale, and that unfathomable destruction was coming, was here, and that I wished to be elsewhere at any cost. Alas, I did not escape, at least not within the vision itself; I was crushed beneath a falling boulder and shaken awake to reality in the depths of the cairn. But given the markings on the walls, the mirror in the first corridor, and other areas within this tomb, I cannot say in any way that this vision was a mere hallucination - I, as intended, must have tapped into the latent spiritual memory of this place in my meditations. If only I knew what it meant in greater detail than merely a war between earth and air bolstered by demons....
Nevertheless. As claimed, by the time we ceased rest and resumed our excursion, the flayleaf had burned to cinders and ashes, and true to my promise I'd not burned another and was quite sober by the time I roused. This time Jorgan and I remained behind while Finn and Yin swam below, returning eventually with another corpse in red armor, bearing that same star-shaped emblem as the many before, and more trinkets in its pockets; they return after a second trip with the missing red lantern and speaking of a large door that held back some of the Never Dead, specifically ghouls.
Jorgan offered to go down and lure them out, and disappeared into the depths while the others emerged from the waters, dried themselves and relieved their waterlogged clothing and equipment as best they could, and re-donned their armor. As promised, a few minutes later a shambling corpse emerged from the waters and was promptly returned to its rightful place among the silent dead. Jorgan returned a little while later, claiming he'd slain a second of the creatures in the water below.
Armed with the final lantern, we quickly regrouped, returned to the central chamber, lit the last lantern, and - with some apprehension from Yin, though among the treasures we'd found a ring of feather falling and given it to her, just in case she fell again - climbed back into the corridor above the blue hall.
This time, when Jorgan tripped the trap panel, the stone inside the face on the wall seemed to evaporate, revealing a passageway beyond, opening into a rectangular room. This chamber was a deep pit filled with iron spheres, crossed by a narrow wooden beam across the center. I scouted ahead, deemed the most likely to be able to navigate the narrow balance but anchored by rope to Yin, and discerned a ward trigger about halfway across. Jorgan followed me over, stepping over as I lay flat on the beam to allow him to pass, and disarmed the trigger, as well as a second directly in front of the door at the far end of the chamber.
At this, however, a shrill, childish voice began to lament, claiming we'd ruined the fun by disarming the trap. A ghostly figure in the shape of a child appeared and began flying around the room erratically, bemoaning that we'd ruined the fun of setting off the traps. The others questioned the creature, who gave its name as Alastor Land. It claimed to be an investigative child who had made it this far into the tomb before being slain by the trap on this bridge, which had caused more iron spheres to fly from the honeycomb openings in the walls. After some discussion, the spirit revealed that it was trapped here until its corpse was returned to its rightful burial place. Yin, of course, immediately seized upon this and agreed to transport its body away; with Jorgan's aid, she was lowered by the rope around her waist, pulleyed over his spear, into the spheres below to retrieve the body of a brutalized boy with a broken neck. The ghost gave one final proclamation - a somber repetition of his earlier request - before vanishing.
With the boy's corpse and our many treasures in hand, we - with some reluctance on my part to be of any aid to one of the Never Dead, but with little other option to bypass the solid wall ahead of that narrow bridge, which could only be opened from the other side - began making our way back toward the entrance of the Whispering Cairn.
|Thistles And Thorns|
Finn and I followed Yin back to the local shrine of the Tomb Matron and waited outside, avoiding the sting of holy ground, while she saw to the sanctification of the child's corpse before burial. The bones were left in the priests' care with the plan that we would return on the morrow to see to their proper interment; in the meantime, we dispersed back to the local taverns to while away the evening, eventually making our way back to Jorgan's place of employment, an establishment called the Feral Dog.
There actually were dogs to be spoken of there, fighting rings on the upper floors, but we bid them little mind. Rather, we sought out food and drink and simply relaxed from the excursion. Yin immediately busied herself into a game of sorts being played; her repeated losses instigated Finn and I to ask why she played, and rather than attempt to explain she convinced both of us to participate in a round. Somewhat miraculously, both of us managed a winning hand, but rather than surrender what we'd gained we both chose to withdraw. (Trying to explain why gambling would not appeal to one of the fey gives me a headache.)
The bustle of the evening crowd was interrupted by the arrival of four bruised and beaten looking toughs, headed by a towering albino Orc who stood taller even than Jorgan, marked with a sort of tattoo or brand of a glyph on his forehead. He and his three human compatriots seized the bar and drank while quietly conversing amongst themselves, seemingly ignoring the stares they received from Yin while the rest of the bar resumed the nightly noise. I managed to distract her from her staring for a moment, but all the quicker she returned her gaze, and attempted to draw the orc's attention directly; he never answered, though, and a few minutes later they all filed upstairs, where the bartender said they spent their nights watching the dog-fights.
The rest of the night passed mostly uneventfully. Finn excused herself and went to sleep out in a tree, Yin became more and more drunk before seeking a room she didn't have then heading out to pass out at the foot of same tree, Jorgan ended his nightly shift and retired, and I likewise withdrew to my chambers and spent the rest of the night in a flayleaf haze, as has become usual. I woke in the morning, performed my waking routine and exercises, and meandered downstairs for breakfast in time to catch Finn just leaving and Yin just arriving.
Likewise, by the time I'd finished the gruel offered for breakfast, Jorgan had roused and joined us, and Finn had just returned as the sound of imminent rainfall on the roof alerted us to an incoming storm. Without further fanfare I departed, and spent the next half hour or so walking around aimlessly, drinking up the rain. Sometimes there are benefits to a floral anatomy.
The shower was short, and when I returned my accomplices - I do not suppose 'friends' would be a term any of us would use for one another, yet - were already discussing the plans for the day. Jorgan had sold off the treasures we'd found in the cairn, and presented all four of us with ample coin; had it not been for Yin's oath, we could have seized the opportunity to escape Diamond Lake just today with the wealth we'd gained. Alas, the knightly soul refused to depart without completing her part of the bargain; it was for the best anyway, as Jorgan and I agreed that if we'd found such treasures in the more accessible portions of the cairn, even greater must be hidden behind the door we could not open without the spirit's aid. Yin had managed to acquire a more exact location of the boy's old homeland, and we departed well before noon to investigate.
What we found surprised us all. The ramshackle remains of a farmhouse were expected, but the dug-up graves along the edge of the property were not. We did indeed find them marked - including one noting the boy's name, Alastor Land - and all but his identified with a glyph denoting they'd perished of a plague about a decade prior. The corpses were gone, though, and we quickly discerned that the spirit had been quite emphatic about wanting his bones buried with those of his family, not merely on their own grounds. The only clues we had were several sets of booted footprints and tracks left by a wheelbarrow or other large cart. Some of the sets had entered the farmhouse; however, a slightly smaller set had departed.
We chose to investigate the farmhouse first, spreading out to surround its entrances from different angles. Yin and Jorgan were the first to see the smear of humanoid gore on the front step, moments before they caught sight of - and were seen by - a bizarre creature that had taken up residence in the ruin, a hideous cross of bird of prey and mammoth predator, which Finn later informed us was called an Owl-Bear. We assaulted the creature for some time, and it us in turn, until we spotted that its ferocity was due to shielding a much smaller infant in the corner of the rubble; at its sight we all withdrew save Jorgan, who landed a shocking but mostly nonlethal blow to the creature's face, convincing it to flee through the doorway and out into the fields, its spawn trailing in its wake. The youngling unharmed, the creature seemed to decide this warren lost and lacked a desire to avenge itself upon us, and it did not return. We found the corpse of another adult - likely a mate - and a shredded human arm bearing a brand matching that on the albino Orc's head; closer examination allowed us, collectively sharing what knowledge of the city we'd been able to scrape up, to identify the mark as associated with a dead mine operator who had branded his slaves. The original maker of these marks was gone, but his property had been seized by an opportunist named Balabar Smenk, and among those assets were included the mine workers, such as the Orc, who Jorgan informed us was named Kullen and was fairly well-known in the city for his strength, size, prowess, and violence.
We attempted to track the wheelbarrow back to Diamond Lake, attempting to ascertain where the corpses had been taken, but when it reached the main road it was lost amidst the many other traveling vessels and people, aided in its vanishing by the recent rain. We then began debating what to do with our disparate remaining leads. I suggested we inquire of Kullen and his companions, avoiding assaulting or accusing them but perhaps attempting to ascertain the whereabouts of their gains somehow, while Yin was emphatic and insistent that the only proper procedure would be to approach Smenk himself. We all attempted to inform her that nothing good would come of going after these men's master, knowing that if he is involved in whatever corpse-trade they are undertaking that he likely has other secretive investments as well, but she would have none of it, insisting that as a master of men he would be obligated to make the situation right. It took quite some talking to convince her that such things did not work that way outside of Senkaku, and of all places Diamond Lake would be among the least likely to hold to any semblance of what she considered honor.
Jorgan then made two suggestions. His first was that we simply find someone to purchase the information we sought from. It was an appealing idea to Finn and I, and practical, but Yin seemed displeased. He then made a suggestion that twisted her disposition even further - that she be the one to approach Kullen, and inquire of him as to where a body might be disposed, preferably while making use of her female charms. This immediately struck the knight as greatly insulting and compromising in a way none of the rest of us quite expected, and we spent the next several minutes bantering the idea back and forth, both explaining how she could make the inquiry without breaking her oaths against lies (after all, everything Jorgan suggested she ask about was completely true, if she left out some unnecessary details) as well as Finn and I attempting to convince her to indulge herself and acquire some clothing that was not so austere as the one or two heavily-patched, color-assaulting garments she had remaining from years of monastery life and ascetic travel. I even offered to see to making or purchasing some for her, for a price to be later determined of course, to no avail. We eventually, after much amusing conversation and argument, set the idea of new wardrobes aside for now - Diamond Lake would likely not have any of the resources we needed for such a thing, regardless, but we now had the funds to travel to better-equipped locales for such things, perhaps even as far as Olympia, the great mountain city from whence this land that shares its name is ruled.
During our discussion, Jorgan disappeared for some time then later returned and served the three of us a late lunch; he let fall several vague hints that he had seen to inquiring of a knowledge merchant of some sort, and may soon possess the very answers we sought. Perhaps by the time night comes, and - if still needed - the opportunity to approach Kullen and his followers arises again, we will have some or all of the information needed to follow these threads of fate back to their source.
|Thistles And Thorns|
We spent the remainder of the day busying ourselves around the city, which in my own case meant spending time sitting outside enjoying the intermittent sun and near-constant drizzling of rain. I was left alone for the majority of the day, except for a short visit from the knight to inquire as to why I did not display the same elaborate wardrobe I had recommended for her; I informed her that I did indeed possess more extravagant clothing, but felt it inappropriate to wear on excursions such as our trip to the Cairn or to the farm to bury the dead, and regardless I lacked three things she possessed that would be necessary to make the entire suggested course of action function: an innocent appearance, a figure that would be emphasized by the donning of the suggested garb, and the ability to be anything but brash and blunt in my conversation. Our conversation - which eventually meandered its way back into the Feral Dog - then moved on to the nature of her purpose in these lands, the happenings in Senkaku and the war in the Shadowlands, and the arguments for and against remaining at the frontlines; notably Yin became more closed and guarded in such discussions, though she has released more information each time I've spoken to her on the subject than each time prior.
Later that evening, after Kullen and his cadre had arrived and made their way into the rooms below to resume a night of dogfights and wagers, Jorgan was summoned below by his informant, and suggested the three of us situate ourselves somewhere within shouting distance, just in case the negotiations went sour. While we waited, Yin, Finn and I discussed the information we had at hand and possible further actions; Jorgan returned some time later, sharing with us what little he'd learned from the informant. According to him, the bodies had indeed been taken by Kullen and his gang, delivered somewhere, and to a person notably new in the village; however, further information was restricted to a further offering of over three hundred gold pieces.
We debated for some time as to whether or not to acquiesce to this heightened demand, and how much each of us would contribute to the necessity of it; however, when the euphemisms were discarded in favor of blunt explanation to our paladin that the offerings were mostly needed as bribes, she took matters into her own hands, rising and approaching Kullen directly. The two spoke for some time, growing increasingly louder and increasingly less subtle in their dealings, until at last she confronted the orc directly with claims of his involvement in the situation, to which his denials fell hollow upon our ears.
However, Yin displayed some level of conversational savvy and prevented the discussion from turning hostile by convincing Kullen he had not been fairly recompensed for his involvement; at this, and some minor further prodding, he led her off into another room to speak more candidly in private, while his three companions blocked off the area from anyone else who might be inclined to follow. The three remainder of us sat with our food and drink for the next few minutes until Yin returned some time later with news.
Kullen and his men, she revealed, had been tasked by their employer (or perhaps more accurately, owner) Balabar Smenk to render service to a newly-arrived necromancer by the name of Filge, who had taken up residence in an abandoned observatory to the north of the village. Filge, in turn, had used the quintet (now quartet) of disenfranchised miners as little more than slave labor, and among their many thankless and penniless tasks was the acquiring of corpses for his experiments. Kullen seemed eager to extract some petty revenge on the mage even if by proxy, and had requested that Yin bring back his eyes after he had been dealt with, preferably whole.
Now more fully informed of the situation, we retired for the night, each of us to our various methods of rest or preparation for the day to follow. Come morning, we dispersed to the markets to equip ourselves of the necessary materials, equipment, and rituals for combating the Never Dead. Jorgan also took it upon himself to return to his informant, but for what reason he did not deem necessary to share with the rest of us. Once prepared, we reconvened and headed north to the observatory.
Upon arrival, Jorgan's first idea was to scale the outer wall of the building, hoping perhaps to catch the mage unawares in the early hours of the day; he solicited a magic ring from Yin in the (soon to be revealed common) event he should lose his grip and fall from the perilous height. Unfortunately, though he got several good views of parts of the interior of the upper tiers, he could not locate Filge himself, and with great reluctance acquiesced to the backup plan of simply heading in the front door.
After opening the initial aperture, we were faced with a well-prepared trio of walking skeletons, armed with bows and sequestered behind toppled table barricades and a floor scattered with debris. Yin and Jorgan moved to approach for direct assault while Finn and I remained at the door to attack from afar. We were, as a unit, able to fell the three without significant injury or interference, though Jorgan was momentarily caught off-guard by a failed attempt to leap the barricade.
Finn and Yin examining the three corpses quickly determined they were of two adult humans, one male and one female, and one female adolescent. The bones also displayed a characteristic warping known to be a symptom of the red plague that had claimed the lives of the spirit's kin; however, the fourth corpse, another adolescent male, is still unaccounted for.
|Thistles And Thorns|
We continued deeper into the old tower, navigating through several abandoned rooms, searching for clues, directions, or possessions to relieve of their current ownership. We first discovered an abandoned office behind a well-stuck door; however, nothing of interest awaited us within, and we were forced to back up to a door we'd passed on the way, leading into a large dining room. We were assaulted by the scent of decay and rot as soon as the door was opened, and greeted beyond by a large group of corpses sitting at the table in the chamber's center. They responded not to noise of our movements or speech, nor to attacks on them; even when we entered the room and approached them, they did nothing.
There was one empty seat at the otherwise fully occupied table; seeing no further recourse as to the strange behavior of these of the Never Dead, I claimed the remaining chair, daggers and bow at hand in case they became hostile; however, their reaction was exactly the opposite, suddenly bursting into motion of calm and friendly dinner conversation, littered with aggrandizing flattering directed toward the Filge we had come to find. Apparently our necromancer is not without ego, and had created these corpse-puppets as entertainers to demean his rivals and opponents while exalting his own accomplishments. We eradicated the dead while they spoke, apparently heedless of the injury done them until at last they were too damaged to continue.
After searching and raiding the nearby closets and cabinets, we ascended the stairs to the next level, a chamber arranged as bedroom and study for its current occupant. While Jorgan searched through the paperwork and spellbook on the desk and Finn examined an array of exotic-looking potions against one wall, Yin approached a halfling corpse in regal finery holding aloft a silver platter upon which was resting a woman's severed and preserved head, holding itself a platinum coin on its outstretched tongue. Jorgan soon joined us and pilfered the coin; however, upon making contact with the head it began to scream, announcing the presence of intruders loudly to the entire tower. He tossed it back down the stairs in his panic.
I took up position between the stairways up and down, ready to fill hostile approachers with arrows, while the rest of the group completed ransacking and raiding the room of anything worth taking or information on our erstwhile necromancer; Yin managed among his papers to find a letter from someone signed "S." - no doubt Balabar Smenk, from what Kullen told us of Filge's arrival in Diamond Lake - regarding strange experiments and the discovery of bizarre green worms and unkillable walking corpses in the depths of a place called Dourstone Mine: not one of Smenk's own, but rather owned by a surly local Dwarf, far from the seas their kind usually haunt. No doubt in this place a devotee of the Craven Publican Karloth, a greedy god of this land that history records being a rare land-loving dwarf who abandoned the sea for the glory of inland gold. Regardless of this other's religious leanings, however, it seemed there was something of greater ill going on within his mines, and Filge had been summoned to advise "S." on the subject.
Nevertheless, our task before us at the moment was clear - to put an end to Filge's experiments and retrieve the last skeleton of the spirit's clan. We ascended with caution the final stair, emerging into the topmost tier of the observatory; Filge had transformed the room into a laboratory, turning a recessed area in the chamber's center into a surgical pit and animating several monstrous corpses to do his bidding. He unleashed two of his beasts upon us immediately then began to cast; however, while Jorgan and Yin fought off the attacking reptiles, Finn and I were able to put an end to Filge's magic before the necromancer could order more hostiles forward or initiate an attack of his own.
Slowly but surely we whittled down the remainder of the undead after destroying the first two, at the last defeating a third lizardman, two bugbears, and a skeleton that no doubt further investigation will prove to be the missing member of the quartet from the farm. In the chaos of the ensuing battle Filge was all but forgotten; however, after all the Never Dead were laid still, quick examination of the mage revealed he had managed to evade death momentarily, and while he'd lost significant amounts of blood he would live if given medical treatment soon.
Excellent. We all have a few questions we would like answered before sending him to meet his ancestors.