Pharast the 16th, 4711 A.R.
Hex 30.15, Wolverton
Cloudy, moderate, light wind
There was a feast in their honor in Wolverton that night. Lord Kendrick was high on another victory engineered by his prime mover, Ayuku. The nobles of Wolverton and some influential merchants were invited, along with other noteworthy citizens favored by the crown. A dire boar was carved and devoured, and mead and ale were spilt as they celebrated in the great hall of Caer Syllan.
The old campaigner, and lord of the Lonely Coast pulled Ayuku up to the head of the table with him, and addressed the courtesans. “Here is a true hero of Wolverton!” He raised his goblet, and with a gusto cheered, “Wolverton honors Ayuku of Taldor, for his courageous deeds in her service, cheers!”
Glasses clinked and cheers erupted from the gathered revelers. When they had drunk and finished congratulating the Tien, he was given pause for comment.
“I would like to recognize Sir Tonlor, for his bravery and loyalty to Wolverton, during the action with the Broken Arrows and in aiding my efforts to clean up the villainy lurking beneath the surface of this town. After all, he led the charge up the hill to root out the remnants of our defeated enemy,” he recounted.
Kendrick nodded, his great beard wagging an assent. “Indeed, I do recognize the bravery of such a man. Sir Faight, stand,” he said in a commanding voice. Tonlor stood. “Sir Tonlor Faight,” he drew his sword (which was never far from him), “I name thee Sir Tonlor Faight, Knight of the Realm.” Tonlor took a knee, and bowed his head. There was an eruption of applause.
After the ceremony, congratulations were extended to Ayuku, Dekhar, Tonlor and Margaret. The latter was formally pardoned. D-Dog was given a medal to decorate his parade armor.
Gordan wasn’t done with them though; he seemed only to be tolerating the party in order to get to his business afterward. He summoned Ayuku to his office when the fire had burned to embers and the guests were taking their leave. D-Dog was content to gnaw at dire bones nearby while Dekhar reclined and Ayuku left he and Sir Tonlor to enjoy their wins.
The steward closed the door behind him, and looking over his glasses, he said, “You’re forming an elite group to root out threats to the crown, I’m told. It seems you’ve made good use of your time of late.” He bowed slightly, which Ayuku returned in kind.
“But now you’re recognized as a ‘hero of Wolverton,’ aren’t you afraid that it paints a target on your back?” the steward asked.
“I welcome the title,” the Tien replied, “It is quite an honor, and I do not fear our enemies.”
The steward nodded, satisfied. “There is also the matter of Beren Skewes. Hols told me about his ravings, which he endured at length. I wonder if Lord Kendrick will buy into it? What do you think?”
“I have seen many things more wretched than what the man has described, I’m afraid,” Ayuku said. “I fear he is telling the truth, that there is some evil power manipulating the fate of the Lonely Coast. We shall see – I will investigate further.”
“We lost men in the sea tunnels under Skewes’s warehouse. I feel a sense of growing dread, like an undercurrent that rots at the core of our society. Even with all the successes we’ve had of late, I fear it only serves to misdirect our attention from the true threat,” Gordan said in a hushed tone, almost as if to himself.
Ayuku paused, watching the man intently. “I’ll take care of it,” he said, and then took his leave.
Back at the Hare & Ass, the familiar haunt that had become their home in Wolverton, they retired at a late hour. Ayuku had fitful dreams at first, then they became a nightmare. He was in a black hole, underground he thought. Shadows moved about him. One emerged, a woman’s shadow.
“You left me to DIE,” she whispered – an accusation, leveled at him. He was transfixed, he couldn’t move as she approached. “You’ll never sleep again,” she said.
Other shadows appeared, whispering together, “Skinsaw Man, only a whisper…” he knew the rest. In his dream he began running from them, released from his paralysis. He awoke in a cold sweat, back in his bed at the H&A.
In his room, it smelled like an open grave. A figure stood over his bed – it was Senaria, alive. The older woman smiled at him, and reached for him. As she did, her visage changed. He skin turned ashen purple, her teeth elongated, and a long purple tongue lashed out of her open mouth. She was wearing a symbol around her neck – the unholy symbol of the Skinsaw Man, father of murder.
Ayuku rolled out of bed to the opposite side, his heart racing, blood pounding in his ears. He went invisible, and pulled twin wakizashis as he stood, facing the abominable thing. He stabbed at it, piercing its midsection.
Dekhar pushed his door open, having smelled the ghoul even before Ayuku awoke. “Why does it smell like…” he saw the ghoul and pulled his sword. D-Dog rushed past him, leaping over the bed, leading with claws and teeth. He decided against biting it, and instead raked two slashes along the ghoul’s chest and kicked off to land skidding to the floor.
The ghoul lashed out with its claws at the raptor, opening ragged slashes on his back. He hissed. The thing reeked, and it stung their noses and eyes.
Dekhar kicked Maverick’s door to wake him – the big man was startled awake, and he crashed heavily to the floor. D-Dog continued the fight, desperately biting and slashing at the undead fiend. He bit a chunk of dead flesh from the thing’s leg, his senses overpowered by its stench. The ghoul laughed, feeling no pain, and bit the raptor in return, slashing with claws and teeth. Dekhar rushed to his side as D-Dog went unconscious.
The Raven and Tonlor appeared in the hallway across from Ayuku’s room. Seeing the commotion they rushed to aid their companions. Ayuku slashed at the ghoul with his wakizashi, cutting through hard sinew and muscle. Dekhar pulled D-Dog out of the fray.
Tonlor rushed at it, but his sword was deflected by a quick thrust of its arm, and it bit into his unprotected neck. The knight got the smell of the thing and nearly wretched while its teeth were still buried in him. A crossbow bolt from the Raven’s hand crossbow struck its shoulder, causing it to lose its hold. Its teeth were bloody and its tongue lashed about like a whip.
Tonlor brought his blade down on its shoulder, and it buckled a bit. Ayuku followed up with two keen-edged slashes that tore into its core. The ghoul disintegrated into a black mist – but it never stopped smiling – or looking – at Ayuku. He knew it would be back.
He turned to the Raven. “Go to the church of Iomedae,” he barked, “bring a cleric with you!” She nodded, then leapt out the second story window, landing silently in the street below, and sped off into the darkness.
Ayuku, Dekhar and Sir Tonlor tended to the wounded as best they could while they waited. Margaret retuned with Melyor Vosper herself, and two of her acolytes. They prayed for the healing of the wounded; Iomedae’s power flowed into them and their wounds disappeared.
“Thank you for coming,” Ayuku said with a bow.
Melyor gave a stiff bow. She leaned on her sheathed longsword like a cane. “Describe what you saw,” she said.
Ayuku gave an account of his dream and the nightmare that awaited him when he awoke. Melyor’s brow furrowed.
“I had a dream also this night,” she said, turning to face to the open window. “It was of the miller in Swallowfeld. A black vapor surrounded him. I’ve lived long enough to know a portent when I see one, and there is evil about the man. It’s no coincidence that your dream and mine occurred on the same night.”
Ayuku nodded, cleaning his wakizashis. “Let us sleep on this, hopefully in peace this time.” Melyor blessed their rooms, then took her leave, her acolytes in tow.
Pharast 17th, 4711 A.R. (Oathday)
Hex 30.15 Wolverton – Hex 30.14 Swallowfeld
Cloudy, moderate, light wind
Their dreams did not trouble them that night, and they met together in a private corner of the tavern for breakfast. They were not refreshed when they awoke – Ayuku slept fitfully, despite the absence of further dreams.
The sword Gorum’s Tooth hung behind the bar, alongside the taxidermied head of a green forest drake that was labeled “Green Dragon,” and in smaller lettering under that: “brought to you by the Arkhan party.” Ayuku smiled to himself, and shook his head.
The Thunderhammer dwarves brought them a mighty breakfast – Ayuku and Dekhar had to explain what had happened to cause the commotion last night. The dwarves were glad they won out over the fiend that attacked them, and the breakfast feast was congratulatory. After eating, they talked.
Ayuku told them the story of the night they lost Senaria in the Skinsaw Man’s hidden shrine.
Tonlor said, “Was this woman your friend?”
“She was an ally, and sister-at-arms,” he replied.
“Do you feel the need to avenge her?” Tonlor continued.
“It has weighed heavily upon me these many weeks. Much has happened since then, I’m afraid I have been too preoccupied with other business to consider it,” Ayuku said.
“There’s also the matter of the tunnels under Skewes’s warehouse, I don’t think we can leave that stone unturned,” Tonlor said.
“We can’t be in two places at once,” Ayuku mused.
Tonlor nodded. The Raven looked disinterested, and Dekhar just listened. D-Dog was lying belly-up by the fire, legs akimbo, and snoring after gorging himself.
“I fear for your safety. We can’t fight this thing every night – if it makes good on its promise. If you can’t sleep, you aren’t any good to Wolverton. I say we go to Swallowfeld and investigate the miller,” Tonlor said resolutely.
They packed up and headed out, but first stopped at the Justice of the Light temple of Iomedae. D-Dog had contracted something from the ghoul attack, he had pox, a fever, chills and rickety joints. The attending priestess cured him, and they waited to speak with Melyor. She adjourned court early to see them before they left for Swallowfeld.
She approached them in the vestibule – they heard her before they saw her, as the rhythmic tapping of her sword on the stone floor gave her away.
“Welcome, I see you’re packed and ready for a journey. Headed for Swallowfeld?” she asked.
“We are. Our other business will have to wait, we’ll investigate your miller first,” Ayuku said. “Can you offer us any aid? We fight an evil that Iomedae opposes, after all. And we aren’t clerics.”
“And yet you’ve been chosen, if I read the signs rightly,” the woman countered, steely-eyed.
“I will not lose any more companions to this Skinsaw Man,” Ayuku challenged. Her eyes darkened at the mention of his name. “Give us aid, cleric!”
Melyor shook her head and looked away. “No, it’s too dangerous. I won’t risk any of my people. You say you have lost an ally to the forces of evil? Well, you look upon one who has lost many. I won’t send anyone, but if you get any volunteers, I won’t stop them.”
Ayuku said nothing to her, but went straightaway to the antechamber where the acolytes were tending to the wounded and sick citizens of Wolverton.
“Servants of Iomedae,” he began, “I am Ayuku. I seek your aid to fight unholy evil. Weeks ago, I and my party found ourselves beleaguered by undead shadows in a desecrated temple of Father Skinsaw. We lost a friend and ally, a champion against evil, a great woman. Last night a fiend visited me in my dreams, then appeared by my bedside in her guise, mocking her and dishonoring her death.”
He paused to let this sink in. The acolytes and the infirmed alike had quieted, and all eyes were on him. “It seems this force of evil grows in our lands. I have left it unchecked, pursuing the safety of Wolverton instead. Now it is time to cleanse the Lonely Coast of the evils of the Skinsaw cult once and for all. I need holy men and women who serve the forces of good to combat this evil. Any who volunteer will be rewarded handsomely for service rendered in the fight against the god of murder.” He bowed and he and his companions left them.
They waited outside the temple, talking about their plans. An oread man in white robes appeared, his skin stony and reflective like granite. He approached Ayuku and bowed.
“I offer my sword to you, lord,” he said, holding his longsword up and kneeling before Ayuku.
“I gratefully accept,” the Tien said, motioning for the man to rise. The oread cleric looked sincere, and a little afraid.
They rode for Swallowfeld, leaving the palisade of Wolverton and taking the Cliffway west, along the muddy, well-traveled road. They were greeted by the common folk – farmers and traders, and saluted by the highway guard as they passed.
Sevanna was quiet for most of the trip, but at one point he rode up beside Ayuku to say, “I have to apologize for Melyor’s seeming indifference. She is a hard woman. She has seen much death in her day.”
“I do not hold it against her,” Ayuku said. He knew too well the effects of bloodshed on a person’s soul. His own inner darkness recognized hers.
As they descended toward the farm-village, they heard a deep rumble, and a noise of stones cascading and earth falling. The village was still distant, and what little they could see was quickly enveloped in what looked like a dense white fog.
They spurred their horses forward, and dismounted before they crossed the bridge that spanned Taran’s Run. The old mill was just on the other side, but they could see through the dense fog – it was flour from the mill – that the mill had collapsed into a sinkhole and the waterwheel hung down into it. The river had swollen from recent rains, and now it was swirling into the sinkhole. Half the mill had collapsed into it.
They heard screams and shapes moving in the cloud of flour. They approached the bridge, and saw three ghouls, which looked similar to the one they’d fought the previous night, dragging villagers toward the sinkhole.
Dekhar approached, reached toward them and closed his fist slowly and deliberately. The plants about the feet of the ghouls began grasping at them, preventing them from approaching the sinkhole. They hissed and cursed at the newcomers, and the three captive villagers began to fight back.
Ayuku, D-Dog, Tonlor, Margaret, Dekhar and Sevanna charged over the bridge, drawing weapons. The Raven loaded her hand crossbow, but found it hard to draw a bead on her targets through the flour cloud. They quickly found that they had to cover their faces to breathe in the slowly settling white plume.
Dekhar sent an arrow their way, but missed due to bad sighting. The ghouls had dropped the villagers, and fled down the sinkhole. The party let them go, and turned their attentions to the villagers. As the cloud settled, a crowd gathered.
They learned that this was the second collapse of the mill; the first occurred minutes before their arrival. The first wave of ghouls fought with watch Sergeant Feng and three men-at-arms. Jory Mayne was with them, but they were all captured and dragged below. As they listened, they could hear faint cries coming from the sinkhole.
They saw the river rushing into the hole, and wondered if it would fill, drowning the abducted villagers, or if there was an outlet somewhere. They heard faint cries for help coming from within. There was clearly a chamber below the mill. The waterwheel had dropped into it.. Under it was a pile of stone and wood rubble from the mill structure that had fallen into the sinkhole. The cries for help came from underneath the rubble, they realized – they might be able to get them out alive if they were careful.
They enlisted the help of two nearby strong-backed farmers to help them lift the waterwheel enough to remove some of the trapped victims. Sergeant Feng and two others were rescued.
“Jory is still down there,” the gruff man said, winded and clutching his ribs. “Several others too. Not sure who,” he said between labored breaths.
“We’ll get them back,” Ayuku promised.
They roped down to the exhumed chamber, picking their way down the rubble heap and avoiding the torrent of Taran’s Run River that swirled into its depths. They were in a square room, with two arches leading further in. Three evil-looking statues faced them. As they approached, light filtering down into the room – hazy with flour motes and water spray, the statues animated and attacked with marble swords.
D-Dog slashed at one, which promptly vanished. Tonlor’s blade rang against another, sending a spray of marble and chipping his sword. He frowned as the thing advanced on him. Ayuku fared no better – his blade was notched after his first assault.
They finished the statues off, trading cuts until only two piles of rubble remained and their wounds bled into the slowly rising water at their feet. Sevanna cured them with healing prayers, and they advanced into the left passage, as the water continued to rise around their feet.