Some ten miles from the bastion of Fort Rannick lay the deepest part of the Kreegwood where maple, oak, elm, and birch clustered among spruce and pine varietals, looming over ground blanketed in lesser celandine, honeysuckle, five-fingered ivy, and mountain stones host to red-tinged patches of yellow-green and gray lichens. The light grew fainter among the arboreal cover, and with the gradual increase in elevation the air thinned subtly, as if the very trees were intent on snatching breath instead of exchanging it. Elk were plentiful further to the south, moving quiet and proud through the region closer to the river, but in this portion of the woods their numbers dwindled. Ravens occasionally crossed the skies above, gibbet caws haunting aloft the whirl and whisper of the wind. After nightfall the spectral call of owls drifted among the bole and branch, spurring vole, mouse, and rabbit to flee in vain from the white-feathered death descending in claws. Residents of Turtleback Ferry or the hamlet of Bitter Hollow kept to the southernmost reaches along the water when they had to venture into the Kreegwood at all, taking care to go neither alone, nor after dark. Word of the vanishings had long permeated the region like a wisp of fog creeping among rushes, difficult to encompass and undeniably chilling. Newcomers, transients, and adventurers that braved the thick forest far from the road or waterways frequently disappeared, and whispers painted lurid pictures of faceless, bloody predation. When the laconic Black Arrows could be persuaded to comment they simply suggested that listeners keep clear.
A bird winging its way above the Kreegwood from Claybottom Lake toward the Storval Deep would sweep over ever more densely clustered trees. Copses would blur into forest until the observant avian might discern among the cascade of branches a small clearing in which stood two structures of rough-hewn wood. With little cause to linger the bird might continue unhindered and unconcerned. Were it eagle then its majestic eyesight might bore down from the heights and briefly capture certain ornamental details in that clearing such as the hanging cluster of rudely lashed bones chiming graveyard notes in forest breezes. Were it sparrow it might hear distant barking dogs, and were it wren it might dart aside the foulness of an oily, fatty smoke from a column of stones abutting one side of the construction to the west. Yet on their way north toward the mountains the scions of free flight might tender that clearing very little consideration indeed: apparent in one moment, gone in the next.
The big cat led them to that clearing.
Lem and the mountain lion crept through the trees. Pressed for answer an observer would have struggled to name one stealthier than the other. They parted around a maple to which a crude scarecrow had been lashed. Its scatter-stick body and tattered rags were distinguished most by a weather-stained humanoid skull, though of what species the gardener felt at no pains just then to guess, for his eyes scanned a break in the forest ahead where two rough wooden structures rose. To the east was a barn that had known neither varnish nor paint, and atop which the parabolic roof canted and slumped such that the building seemed to lean against the land more than standing from foundation. To the west squatted an edifice of two stories that in generous light might pass for a house. The whole of it was crudely-hewn planks abundant with gap, fissure, and knothole, and though numerous windows lined the visible sides, all were shuttered, or boarded up from the inside. Between the two ramshackles stretched an expanse of recently planted corn in uncertain rows, short stalks young and pliant green.
Lopsided movement caught Lem’s keen eye. At the edge of the corn field lurched a figure he estimated at eight feet tall. A tunic of ragged brown woolen cloth draped from shoulders to groin, but barely concealed an expanse of vaguely orange flesh showing curve of muscle and irregular angularity of underlying bone. From his hidden vantage one hundred fifty feet away Lem could see the figure’s left hand had six fingers, and atop the thick trunk of torso bobbed a misshapen, oblate head canted slightly down to the right under the asymmetric weight of lumpen, tumorous growths sprouting wiry hair. The slowly loping shape could only have been kin to the ogre-man lying dead among his dogs some two miles behind. He was called Crowfood.
The gardener rejected whatever designs of parley or diplomacy he imagined Gloriana may have harbored. Drifting around another tree trunk, Lem nocked arrow to his compact bow and drew when he guessed the creak would be lost in a turn of the wind. In his peripheral vision the mountain lion was already moving, seemingly in slow motion, pads propelling tawny shape silent as death over the soft turf in ambush. Lem released.
The arrow struck home between the ogre-kin’s shoulder blades, just beneath a mullet of black, brushy hair. A noise of surprise and pain wailed out of the corn field as Crowfood whirled, demanding that the air produce that which was responsible for such sensation. From a makeshift belt of hempen cord the monster lifted an ogre hook: part agricultural tool, part food utensil, part weapon. Lem was already setting his second arrow to bowstring.
“It’s on!” the gardener called back into the forest, and then he fired again. He saw the path of the arrow and knew it true. He saw the sleek leonine form emerge from the line of trees in full pounce. He saw the whiskers curling back as the big cat’s jaws spilled wide to howl violence at the ogre-kin. He saw in the corner of his eye his friends emerging at a run from their hiding places in the trees.
The second arrow landed in the target’s belly, and Crowfood roared fury as it spotted Lem—bowstring still humming—at forest edge. Just then the mountain lion appeared and leapt upon the ogre-kin, raking bloody groves across arm and ribs before landing deftly and already starting its turning run to build momentum and propel another attack. Crowfood ignored the cat and set off across the cornfield, bearing down on Lem, a line of drool trailing from his mouth as he swung the ogre hook back and forth.
In the woods Kara took to the air, the magic of her extract of flight lifting her from the ground and carrying her up and toward the clearing. As she flew she plucked a round glass grenado from her bandolier. Her thumb brushed the silver leaf embossing on the smooth, curved exterior, and her alchemical senses could almost feel the hum of the bottled electricity inside.
Rahab spoke a spell and manifest acceleration came crashing down upon Abby, Gloriana, the alchemist, and himself. Time dilated. The sensation never failed to thrill. The conjurer watched a drop of condensation on a nearby branch slowly detach itself, and in the time it took for the perfect sphere of water to hit the ground he had already reached the edge of the clearing sixty feet away.
Crowfood fell upon Lem, whose distance ahead of the others had prevented inclusion in the range of Rahab’s spell. The ogre hook landed heavy against the gardener’s leather armor, scarring it and drawing blood beneath.
Abby was in motion. In Lem’s peripheral vision the circle of Avenger blurred like a coin of argent skipping across ocean waves. Then the warrior crashed into the ogre-kin and smote him with her longsword. In her wake ran Gloriana, pain arriving down the vital link from Lem’s wound even as she summoned blessing on her friends from the ghosts that attended her.
The gardener’s bow fell uselessly aside, and twin knives whipped into view. Lem carved a single crimson crescent across Crowfood’s belly. A gout of blood fell like a wet sack upon the soil, and then a sound of shattering glass gave way to a hissing hum of electricity washing over the ogre-kin’s deformed head. Lem stepped out of the way as the monster collapsed forward under its own weight, blackened visage smoking in death. The gardener looked up and watched Kara settle into a resting hover thirty feet in the air directly above. The alchemist winked.
The others gathered close, and the mountain lion circled near, tail twitching impatiently. They scanned the area. A raven rose into the air squawking, winging past the roof of the barn and over the trees to the northeast. From the makeshift chimney at the side of the house rose a sluggish coil of greasy smoke into the gray of the sky. Both structures were quiet.
Rahab’s spell faded. The sensation was always somewhat disorientating, a disjointed moment of transition when all around them that had been slow resumed its normal speed, as if it was not the magic that was ending, but the world that was catching up. Lem bent to search the ogre-kin’s corpse while Kara circled overhead in a slow turn scanning for signs of activity from the barn or house, but there was nothing. The gardener found several items of note in a satchel made from an animal bladder: two potions, a ring, an amulet. Gloriana collected them for later evaluation.
The companions elected to start at the house. Lem and Abby moved together, while Rahab and Gloriana flanked, both reaching out with their power to detect the presence of magic. Kara remained in flight, slowly drifting and bobbing along at the rear, her feet hovering a mere foot from the ground. The mountain lion padded along, but circled nervously at a distance as the house neared, and it howled once to announce its refusal to enter.
Examination of the building exterior showed just how difficult it was to separate dilapidation over time from crudity of initial construction, though architectural stability was less a concern than the ornamentation they observed. A rocking chair stood underneath the porch eaves which were decorated with three grim wind chimes.
“Those look like . . . ” Abby began, but her voice trailed off with realization.
“Yes,” Kara replied quietly, as though reluctant to speak louder for fear it might cause the chimes to reverberate. Each was a collection of patchy down, bits of glass, small stones, and various hollow bones, all of which were undeniably humanoid.
Having grown up in a culture of . . . complicated . . . aesthetics, Rahab was somewhat more inured to the morbidity on display, but he did not even remotely underestimate the threat the chimes suggested. “No sign of magic as yet,” he reported in muted tone. The wizard’s eye looked upon the pine pillars supporting the sagging porch roof, and each was carved in crude representations of manticores, or large humanoids butchering smaller humanoids with thick, wide blades, or skewering them on pikes to suspend over flame. Perched on one of the pillars just under the eaves was a moth the size of a shovel head, its phantom-dusted wings and thorax painted in complex pattern of white-on-grey. Columns of ants coursed over the porch, following complex patterns of chemical cartography. The air hinted at foul odors within the house: sweat, urine, rotting meat.
Then Abby stepped forward, sword in hand, Avenger braced, and the house attacked.
The warrior’s boot landed on a plank near the only visible entrance and there was an abrupt click.
Alarm rocketed through Lem’s consciousness and he started to call warning, but it was too late. A length of polished bone, sharpened to cruel point and affixed to a flexible wooden pole suddenly whipped down from concealment in the porch roof and slammed into Abby with potent force. Though her breastplate absorbed most of the impact, the pain was insistent nonetheless, and the blow rocked the warrior back. Save for the gardener, whose keen senses had warned him just an instant before, everyone jumped at the sound. The spike trap retreated and reset. Gloriana took Abby’s pain as her own, and a short time later everyone resumed breathing.
The moth fluttered its wings momentarily, rotated slightly, and resettled under the eaves. Quiet returned. Lem glanced at Abby and sucked his teeth judgmentally, shaking his head. Still grasping her sword, the warrior flipped the gardener a rude gesture. Gloriana took the opportunity to channel healing among herself and her friends, relieving any damage.
All eyes turned to Lem who interlaced his fingers, stretched his arms out, and flexed in anticipation. He knelt close to the porch and began to search for the trigger.
“Right. I have it,” he murmured after a moment. His deft fingers worked a slim metal tool underneath a warped plank. “Now, this should disarm the trigger.” The others took a generous step back. By way of illustration, Lem tapped his fist against the plank, only for the trap to whip down and forward once more, though the others were clear of the danger.
The gardener was nonplussed. “Huh.” He scratched his chin a moment in reflection, then looked over one shoulder. Abby cocked her head in accusation. Gloriana raised an eyebrow. Kara continued to scan around in the event of ambush. Rahab looked at the façade for alternative routes inside, and the mountain lion paced back and forth, unspoken urgency in its brilliant eyes driving them on the unrevealed errand to this place.
“Wait, just wait.” Lem bent to the task again, and the seconds ticked away. Eventually he sighed, cut one of the bones from its frayed leather strip in a nearby wind chime, and jammed the ossiferous length under the plank. “There,” he sat up. “It’s jammed. Just the same, step here or here.” He reached up and pushed on the door handle. The portal opened onto darkness with a creak, and a sickening miasma drifted forth. As one they turned their heads away, or lifted sleeve to nose, and their eyes watered.
“Ghosts of the road,” Gloriana whispered. “That’s awful!” It was reminiscent of the foul air they had encountered in the Skinsaw Man’s cavern. The oracle fought her gag reflex.
Rahab took a few seconds to touch each of them on the shoulder as he bestowed a cantrip of resistance to his companions. Gloriana summoned power of endurance for Abby and Lem, then a ghostly shield of spiritual essence around herself. Kara remained hovering a foot above the ground. Just before they proceeded, Gloriana also bestowed a charm of increased strength on Lem. Then Abby set her jaw and stepped forward once more.
The entry room was approximately forty feet wide and fifteen feet deep. The ceiling overhead was a scant ten feet, and save for the little daylight at the doorway or seeping in from gaps in the walls, there was no illumination. Another door exiting the room was in the middle of the north wall. At the eastern end of the room was a cold fireplace piled with ash that had spilled onto the warped wood of the floor. A badly cured bearskin rug occupied a portion of the planks near the north wall. In the northwestern corner sat a sofa only faintly discernible in the dimness.
“Brightness find us,” Kara exhaled in horror as she floated inside. “There is cattle leather there, but also elf and human skin!” Her eyes widened as she looked on the sofa. Gloriana looked away, faintly ill.
Determined to press forward and resolve the nightmare of the place all the sooner, Abby advanced toward the other door as the rest gathered inside.
The house attacked a second time.
The floor caved under the warrior’s feet, the planks simply bursting with a loud snap, and Abby plummeted into darkness amidst a shower of splinters and dust. The distance was not great, only a couple of feet taller than the warrior herself, but the floor at the bottom of the crudely dug pit bristled with lengths of wood sharpened into stakes and thrust into the ground at various angles. Upon these the full weight of Abby in all her gear crashed, and she felt the points of rough wood penetrate her belly, legs, and arms. She cried out in surprise and pain, and then waves of nausea and a dizzying sensation washed over her. The pit was almost completely dark, but the burning sensation in her blood made Abby realize the stakes had been coated in poison, and in desperation her mighty constitution fought against the toxin’s effects.
At the lip of the gaping hole in the floor, just a few feet away, the fire of wounding tore through Gloriana and she grimaced against the agony. The others were already acting quickly. Lem set his pack down and unlimbered rope which he fed into the hole, while Rahab drew forth his enchanted torch of heatless fire, holding the brand over the pit to help illuminate the situation. Abby stood, grabbed hold of the rope, and soon climbed out, her breath coming in shallow gasps as her body tried to reject the poison. Once upright, she drew forth her own glowstone and released it to hover above her head for more light. Gloriana stepped close to inspect Abby’s wounds while Kara drifted down into the pit in slow flight to hover and take a sample of the poison on the stakes for alchemical research.
“The worst is passed,” the oracle said softly to Abby, her vision distant as she listened to the spirits whispering. “Your body has rejected the poison.”
Abby nodded, a sheen of sweat on her brow. She adjusted her grip on her sword, hefted Avenger, and looked at Lem.
“Maybe you should lead.”
The gardener nodded.
Satisfied it was safe to proceed, Lem opened the door and looked into the space beyond. They stood at the corner of two hallways met at right angle, one branch leading due north, the other extending west. Just beyond the corridor intersection, in the west wall of the northern corridor was a set of wooden stairs going up, and just beyond that were two doors on opposite sides of the passageway. The northern hallway ended in a third door.
Looking west the corridor progressed perhaps twenty feet and ended in yet another door. Save for a small spill of light from Abby’s stone and Rahab’s torch, the hallway was dark. He heard no sound save for the creaking of the inexpertly assembled timbers that formed the house. The close, thick air was a constant assault on the nose. The gardener had come rapidly to the conclusion that it might be best to simply burn the entire place to the ground.
They proceeded to the left. Lem took his time, carefully advancing as he determined the way was safe, free of tripwires, loose plates, weak planks, scattered shards of glass, or murder holes. At the western door he listened cautiously while the others held their breath. A sound of movement came from beyond the thick, rough wood, some kind of shifting weight, rustling of cloth, or trickle of water. A search for traps on the door revealed nothing, and the gardener looked back and gave sign, then stepped aside to allow Abby access.
The warrior kicked the door violently in, and the companions met Mammy and three of her boys.
Enduring the atmosphere in the house up to that point had been, to put it mildly, challenging. Now it became almost untenable. Waves of nausea swept over them as their senses took in the room. A chandelier shaped of humanoid and ungulate bone hung from a rusty iron ring in the ceiling. Fat candles of indeterminate tallow burned smokily, sending black wisps against circular stains long since carbonized on the ceiling. Largely empty, the room spanned twenty or so feet east-to-west, and perhaps thirty north-to-south. Directly opposite the door to the room stood a table next to a large easel bearing a grisly canvas splattered in abstractions of gore. Pots, pestles, palettes, jars, and hollowed humanoid skulls littered the work surface, each dark with brown, red, grey, and black paints rendered from seeped blood, pressed organs, or ground flesh, and there could be little doubt as to what kind of creatures had died in terror and agony to unwillingly supply such materials. The variety of artistic utensils all had handles of bone and brushes of humanoid hair. Cast casually among the media was a comb formed from the lower mandible of a human skull, and tangles of wiry black hair clogged the teeth as grass springs from cracks in stones. Splotches and runs of visceral paint coated the table legs, surface, and across much of the room’s floor. At the base of the eastern wall sat eight wooden buckets brimming with filth: congealed mucus, discarded organs taking to rot, runny excrement. Fat flies buzzed and circled in disquieting chorus. Propped against the north wall were three crude coffins without lid. Each was occupied by a form almost too wide for the oblong boxes, long of limb, stout of body, squat of frame, grey of skin, abundant of deformity. The mouths of the corpses had been sewn shut with lengths of hair.
But that which conjured the most horror could only have been queen of this ghastly place. She was perched atop a wide bed squatting in the southwestern corner of the chamber, its expanse sinking under the great weight of her. A tattered red drape stained with years of blood could barely wrap around her immense, billowing form. Adipose tissue emanated from her in rolling waves of quivering grey. Black nails speared from the ends of columnar fingers that clutched a wand of twisted wood surmounted by the severed hand of a gnome, or perhaps a halfling, or perhaps a human child. Her lips and eyes were equally black, and the strands of course hair on her head clung and twined in the manner of an epiphyte clutching the branches of a bald cypress in a swamp. From amongst the layers of flab her facial muscles managed to contort her mouth into a malign rictus of intermittent teeth. She spoke, her voice the sound of a kettle slowly boiling fat.
“Get ‘em, boys. Bring Mammy her luncheon.”
The corpses ejected from the upright coffins in a sudden lurch, then began to shamble forward, closing on Abby, their only sound the shuffling of misshapen feet on the floorboards. The warrior wasted no time, stepped among them to draw the battle center upon herself, and quickly struck twice, once with sword, once with Avenger. The onslaught of blade and shield quickly felled one of the monsters. Lem took up his most effective fighting role opposite Abby, flanking opponents to subvert their defenses, and his knife blades began slicing pieces of dessicated flesh from a second shambler.
“I think they’re undead!” Abby shouted back over her shoulder to Gloriana.
No shit! Lem thought, working his blades in their deadly dance.
The oracle stepped into the room, aghast at what she saw, and all the more determined to end this place. “You’re learning!” she yelled in response. Then the golden light of spiritual power suffused her and blasted outward in a wave of energy that ripped through the remaining two walking corpses. Death-grey flesh burned away like paper in flame.
Kara was next to enter the room, still in flight, and her alarm was a coil of revulsion the likes of which she had heretofore never known. The alchemist’s response was more instinctual than strategically considered. She hurled an explosive bomb at the corpulent form on the bed. A burst of noise, smoke, and fire sent a shock wave through the chamber that tumbled buckets of ordure onto the floor and scattered containers of gory paint from the table. The splashing fire from the device washed over one of the nearby undead, and a new odor fouled the air as first the bed, then the sarong, and then Mammy herself caught fire.
With most of the party crowding the doorway into the room, Rahab had little vision of the wider battle from where he still stood in the hallway, but he could see something attacking Abby, and line-of-sight was all he needed. The wand of magical missiles that he had claimed from an opponent wizard underneath Thistletop months ago finally came to use as he pointed it and commanded a tesselated flake of energy into the zombie. The undead ogre-kin finally found the true death it had been relentlessly denied for years.
Still ablaze, and all the more horrifying for the fact, the grossly fat form of Mammy rose sluggishly off the bed as she invoked a spell of magical flight. A sustained, ululating howl began to pitch from her maw, and she aligned her own magic wand in Kara’s direction. A spectral shape of ectoplasm shaped like a hand drifted through the air and alighted on the alchemist. The magic’s touch was as cold as a winter grave, and pain like needles of ice penetrated the elf’s body, snatching the breath from her lungs. Despite the flames licking at her garment and body, the ogre-kin matriarch’s flesh blossomed with necromantic vigor. Raspy with the effort to escape from lungs up through six hundred pounds of flesh, Mammy’s terrible voice emerged from the billowing smoke that was beginning to creep about the room.
“Eat you raw! Tear your fucking flesh, elf bitch! Tear all of you! Shit your brains tomorrow for glue!”
Satisfied with the diminished threat of shuffling dead, Abby spun on Mammy, backhanding Avenger’s silver-bright surface into the ogre-kin body with a fat slap. The doughy rippling sent shivers down Abby’s spine, and for a moment the appalling odor in the room threatened the warrior with emesis, but she managed to keep her stomach calm and her hand on her sword.
Lem smoothly moved to his right, behind the last animate corpse still smoking from the area effect of Kara’s bomb. The gardener buried both blades at the base of the monster’s spine, and tore out from the center, opening two cavernous rents that spilled dust and dessicated innards on the floor, putting an end to Mammy’s “boys . . .”
. . . the undead ones, at least.
The link of life began transferring Kara’s injury to Gloriana, who prepared a spell of counter magic in the event the ogre-kin matriarch tried the same attack again. For her part, the alchemist kept up the artillery assault, lobbing a galvanic grenado and scoring another hit. Blue-white bursts of sputtering electricity threw shadows in grim relief against the walls, floor, and ceiling, dazzling Mammy with blinding pain.
With the undead felled, there was room for Rahab to step inside the doorway. Recognizing another spell-caster immediately, he turned his wand’s power on the corpulent monster and compelled another shard of magic into the fat expanse of flesh. Then he heard a growing sound behind him: the sound of heavy footsteps hammering across wooden planks echoing down the corridor from some other part of the house.
“Company coming!” the conjurer shouted above Mammy’s stream of invective.
The ghostly hand floated in the air, menacing Kara once more, and Gloriana raised her hands and asked the spirits to intercede against the magic, but there was no reply. Again the eldritch appendage brushed the alchemist, delivering a new spell. Kara recognized the effect as the sensation spilled over her, and from his vantage Rahab understood what was happening, as well. The alchemist closed her eyes and bent her will in a supreme effort against the debilitating invasion, and a second later it was as if the magic had never happened.
Mammy howled incandescent rage at Kara: “Fuck you forever!”
Movement in the conjurer’s peripheral vision caused Rahab to glance over his shoulder as another ogre-kin—this one apparently alive, though no less unnerving in deformity—barreled around the corner at the end of the hall.
Abby found her stance, and struck the floating ogre-kin matriarch with sword and shield, and Lem tumbled expertly into position on the other side, still able to attack the monster due to limits on elevation owing to the height of the ceiling and Mammy’s immensity. The gardener scored a wound with one of his knives. Disgust welled in him, as his proximity enveloped him in a stench of stunning dimension.
Gloriana continued to appropriate the damage done to Kara, and brought her morningstar to bear in melee, but the sheer assault on the senses that was the room made it difficult to engage, and in the tight quarters her strike went wide for fear that she might hit one of her friends.
Rahab watched the bulky, stump-legged form of another member in Mammy’s increasingly expansive and incestuously improbable family race up the length of the hall toward him. The creature held an ogre hook out to the side against the hallway wall, digging a long, splintered gouge out of the wood as it advanced. Despite the additional friction, the monster seemed to be picking up speed, and it was muttering a bloodthirsty chant in guttural, broken Common the whole way.
It was unclear whether “Lucky” was a name or an adjective, and anyway it didn’t really matter to the conjurer, who was casting a new spell. Intent on slowing the advance and robbing the new antagonist of some muscular power, Rahab directed a thin green beam of magic energy down the hallway.
The spell missed.
Baalzebul’s bollocks! That thing is practically the width of the hall! But vector analysis would have to wait as the wizard took a nervous step back and slammed the door to the room shut between himself and Lucky.
Smoke still rose from the burns on her body, and her shift was all but gone, revealing the extent of thick, rolling fat around Mammy like a cocoon of flesh. Realizing help was at hand, the ogre-kin matriarch lifted her voice once more in another, rasping yell: “Get in here, idiots!”
Then she vanished.
There was just enough time—a brief portion of a second—in which Rahab and Kara shared a glance as they both recognized the spell Mammy had invoked to flee, and then the door to the room disintegrated.
Lucky had built momentum as he thundered down the passageway, slamming into the wood with all his weight, might, and anger. The force carried the door away from the frame as easily as rending paper. With no time to get out of the way, Rahab was standing directly in the path of the projectile portal, and Gloriana was standing just aft of the wizard. Lucky, driving the door before himself like a bow wave, lifted the conjurer and the oracle off their feet and deposited them back on the floor again a further five feet into the room. They were uninjured, but very surprised.
At the corner in the hallway behind Lucky another ogre-kin appeared, bulky, brutish, panting wet breaths of murderous exertion as it made its way toward the adventurers in the room.
Abby was already in motion even as the door burst clear and Lucky charged in. She stepped precisely into an angle of attack that intersected the ogre-kin’s lumbering rush, almost as if the Lady of Valor herself had asked for a demonstration of martial superiority. In that moment the warrior was deadly, beautiful, perfect. Her sword arced in an almost musical whir. Avenger spun in the candlelight, a shining silver moon of mysterious metal resonant with magic. Lucky was dead before he—or the door—hit the ground.
All right, Rahab silently admitted. THAT was impressive. Next to the warrior Gloriana could only stand in a kind of shock, jaw agape, eyes wide.
Abby took a single step forward and interposed herself between Rahab and the next ogre-kin that was even now stepping through the doorway. She brought Avenger around and held it up before her. Behind the rim of the brilliant shield her eyes glinted like steel, daring the monster to try something . . . anything . . . anything at all.
Lem dodged between strides of the newly arrived ogre-kin’s squat legs and stood up effortlessly behind, spinning his knives on his open palms. Gloriana blinked as more of Kara’s pain became her own, and suddenly realized the gravity of the accumulated injury she was sustaining. She cast a spell of intense healing upon herself.
Kara spun in mid air, still flying, and Rahab stepped to his left, casting the cantrip that detected magic and sweeping the sensory range in a wide swath, hoping to find some sign of the ogre-kin matriarch that had escaped: nothing.
Maulgro—another one of Mammy’s boys, and most recently arrived in the room—swung an ogre hook at Abby. The warrior easily shunted the attack aside with Avenger and then ran her blade straight through the monster’s gut and out the spine. Then she used the broad surface of the shield to hammer the bulky ogre-kin from the sword in a swift, smooth motion, almost casually, like separating a portion of beef from a skewer.
Like his brother Lucky, Maulgro was dead before he crashed to the floor.
Gloriana resorted to the wand of minor healing magic to restore the damage she had usurped from Kara. Rahab continued his search for signs of magic and found nothing. They were keen to move quickly. The room was horrific, and Mammy was still alive somewhere, for all they knew, and perhaps even now rallying for revenge. Lem found a closet door in the northeast part of the room, opened it, then closed it again almost instantly.
“What is it?” Kara asked.
“Nothing. Linens. Leathers.” He coughed once.
The alchemist furrowed her brow. “Leathers?”
Lem looked at the alchemist pointedly. “Skin.” Kara’s face blanched. “We should move,” the gardener urged.
Stepping past the array of corpses soon to attract still more flies, they gathered in the hallway and began to make for the other corridor.
“What happened back there?” Abby asked. “Where did—” The warrior’s expression suddenly wrinkled in disgust. “Where did ‘Mammy’ go?”
“She translated with a spell through a dimensional doorway,” Rahab said curtly. “I’ll explain later.”
They turned the hallway corner, stepped past the stairs ascending to the second floor, and assembled at the doorway in the western wall of the north passage. Lem began to check for traps.
“Wait, friends. Just a moment,” Gloriana said. She bent her head and closed her eyes briefly as her magic coalesced and then emanated outward. When she opened her eyes her vision could now capture the spiritual signs indicating the presence of the undead. She turned a full circle in the hallway, sweeping the house as Rahab had done when seeking magical signal. Like the wizard, she, too, found no sign of creatures from the necroclade.
Lem gave the sign and Abby opened the door onto a small storage area littered with refuse, including bones. They closed the door and moved to the next one at the north end of the hall. The portal was already opened on a square room with a bed. The gardener made a quick search, finding only the bones of an ogre-kin infant. “Nothing,” he reported as he emerged, dusting his hands together.
The next door, on the east, opened to reveal the dining room.
The house attacked a third time.
Abby rolled. Despite the bulk of her armor and equipment, she managed to move effectively, if less gracefully than Lem or Kara would have. She remained crouched at the end of her roll, unwilling to rise. Her heart pounded in her chest, and chill sweat rolled off her neck and down her back, over her shoulders, between her breasts. The air still rang with the sound of quivering steel. From the hallway, the others could hear the warrior muttering.
“Lem goes first. Lem goes first. Lem goes first. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Lem goes first. Lem goes first. Lem goes first . . . .”
Already the trap was resetting, and the companions watched as three scythe blades arranged on a wooden frame propelled by a powerful spring retracted against the interior of the dining room wall.
Lem slowly, deliberately reached up and scratched one eyebrow as they listened to the ratcheting sounds of the trap mechanism tumbling back into place. He opened his mouth to say something, paused, thought better of it, and then carefully selected some tools from the pouches at his belt.
Abby reluctantly stood, and took in the room’s grisly details. A massive table some fifteen feet in length dominated the center of the chamber, oriented north-to-south. It was draped in a crude table cloth of erratically stitched leather, the texture and thickness of which suggested human skin, which the warrior frantically denied by insisting repeatedly to herself that she did not want to know what the material was. Eight chairs of wood and bone ringed the table. A centerpiece of tarnished silver held a rotting human head, and the whole space smelled of putrefying flash. A chandelier crafted housing multiple unlit candles and crafted from bleached animal and humanoid skulls hung from the ceiling. There were two other doors in the room in the east wall, at the northern and southern corners.
“How’s it coming?” Abby asked quietly, eyes on the room, the query directed to Lem.
“Uh . . . good, good.” The sound of steel tools clicked and scraped from the doorway. Gloriana, Kara, and Rahab looked on from the passage. The procedure continued for some minutes. Abby felt the bile rise in her throat, and forced herself to focus on the other two doors, trying to shut out the vision of the table.
More clicking. “Um . . . let’s see . . . .”
Abby again: “What in the Nine Hells are you doing over there, Lem?”
“Almost got it.” Another click. “There. Uh . . . yes. I mean no.” The gardener stood and put his hands on his hips. No one moved. Lem eyed the section of floor that triggered the scythe blades as if it mocked him. Abby glanced back over her shoulder, then rolled her eyes in equal parts exasperation and trepidation.
“Fuck. Fine. Just keep an eye on the other exit.”
At the doorway, Lem unlimbered his short bow with a look of mild annoyance. Abby moved to the southern door in the east wall, skirting the room perimeter to keep as much space between herself and the table as possible. She listened a moment, heard nothing, and opened the door. The light from her stone spilled onto a musty kitchen and larder. Against the far wall hung an array of leather smocks and cleavers of copper and steel. A butcher block at room’s center was black with countless days of bloody use. Crockery and baskets along the walls held severed fingers, toes, hands, and feet. Slabs of unnamed meat hung from hooks on chains. An open doorway in the north wall looked like it led to a set of stairs descending into darkness. The sound of buzzing flies was maddening, and Abby watched as a cockroach the length of her thumb scuttled across the butcher’s block, antennae twitching. The stench hit the warrior like a block of stone launched from a trebuchet. She reeled and retreated, shutting the door behind her.
Returning to the northern door, Abby noticed a gap in the planks of the wall containing two metal levers. Probing the space with a dagger, she reached in when she decided it was safe and lifted the lever on the right. There was a loud click at the door into the hallway, and the others took a step back. When nothing happened, Lem gingerly advanced to find the scything blades had been deactivated.
“Nice work,” he said grudgingly. Abby ignored him, and tried the second lever. Another heavy mechanical click sounded at the northern door, signalling the disarmament of a second blade trap. The others crowded into the room and moved to where the warrior waited. As she made her way, Gloriana cast several orisons of purification about the dining room in a desperate effort to diminish the atmosphere even just a little, but to no effect.
The next room was L-shaped and occupied the northeastern corner of the ground floor. Little objects of carved wood and bone littered the floor amidst scattered whole and partial carcasses of small woodland animals. Crude shelves along the walls held skulls of various shapes and sizes, and almost every available surface had been scrawled with strange, messy drawings in blood long since blackened.
“Are those—?” Gloriana’s eyes widened in alarm.
“Toys,” Rahab finished. “I gather this is the playroom.” The wizard’s voice was subdued.
“Ghosts of . . . ” the oracle began, and could not even finish the oath, turning away to hide the tears of horror and sadness that had begun to well in her eyes.
Lem and Abby rejoined the others after a cursory search. “Look, there’s a set of stairs going down in the, uh . . . kitchen . . . over there,” the warrior said haltingly, her throat dry, gesturing to the southeastern door. “Or there are the stairs up back in the hall.”
“Pick one,” Gloriana rasped. “Please.” She had turned her back on the playroom and fixed her eyes firmly on the floorboards, which seemed the least awful feature in the immediate vicinity.
“Up,” Lem said. Kara and Rahab nodded agreement. Abby was secretly relieved, even if it meant different horror. At least it postponed a return to the kitchen.
At the stairs Lem bent to the task of searching for traps. He had already decided that the ogre-kin were only half the problem with this place, and fully expected more nefarious devices to hinder their progress and inflict injury at every turn. The others let him advance in stealth, awaiting his signal to proceed. He reached the top of the stairs safely, turned, and silently beckoned the rest of the party. Abby started after the gardener, with Gloriana behind her, then Rahab, and finally Kara whose power of flight allowed her to ascend the stairs without setting foot on them at all.
The short hallway on the first floor ended at two doors, one on the west, one on the east. Lem took his time listening for signs of activity, and finally satisfied, he shrugged in the glow of Abby’s lightstone to indicate the choice of doors was up to the others. Abby pointed to the western portal with her sword, and Lem nodded. In the next second the warrior kicked the door open and strode inside. A large room spread out to the south before them. Seven large, crude beds dressed in foul linens and moth-eaten blankets cluttered the space. The walls were hung with humanoid skulls to which deer antlers had been affixed. Some of the macabre decorations had been placed upside down, while others were arranged around the perimeter as posts for candles. Against the western wall was a single, large wooden chest bound in rusted iron. Gloriana detected for magic, silently shaking her head when she found no sign. They approached the container.
Lem produced his tools once more and set to work. His probes felt something along the seam between lid and sides, and after a few minutes with file, hook, pin, half-diamond, and s-rake, he carefully separated the trigger from the wheel of the trap. The gardener reseated his tools and lifted the lid.
The house attacked a fourth time.
There was a short rush of steel speeding through air, followed by another sound, a wetter sound, soft and squelching. Lem let the chest lid fall with a loud crash, leaned slowly back, and drew his arms up to his chest. A sudden gush of blood sprayed crimson on the box, wall, and floor.
“I don’t feel so good,” the gardener murmured, his eyelids fluttering, and then he slumped over.
A moment later consciousness returned in a sudden rush, followed by awareness of intense pain in his forearms. He realized Abby was holding him up, and he looked down at his appendages. The wounds were already closing, and the agony was already fading, but his astonishment was undiminished, for the severity of the wounds had almost severed his hands at the wrists. He looked up at Gloriana, and once again she had appropriated another’s pain through the spiritual bond of her magic.
A trembling weakness suffused Lem, and it felt as if his ribcage was collapsing under its own weight. He closed his eyes and focused intently on simply breathing. A minute passed, then another. He could hear the oracle invoking the power of the healing wand she carried to abate her injuries which had been his. His breathing returned to normal, though he was sweating and shaking, and when he looked at his wrists again they were scarred, but whole.
“Exactly what I thought: blade trap,” he coughed weakly. “Poisoned, too. Good thing I disarmed it.” Abby helped him to his feet.
“Do you need to sit for a bit?” Gloriana asked, stowing the wand away. The gardener glanced at the nearby beds in disgust.
“I think I’d rather be poisoned,” he gasped, and a fit of coughing took him. Abby hammered on his back with a gauntleted hand. “All right, easy! Easy, hammer hands! I just need to catch my breath.”
Kara lifted the lid of the chest to reveal the knife-sharp blades in the lid glistening with Lem’s blood. She busied herself once more with collecting a sample of the poison still coating the steel. The gardener wasn’t sure how he felt about this casual disregard for his vital fluids, nor the disproportionate interest the alchemist seemed to show in her toxins relative to his well being.
Kara was shaking one of her narrow glass vials with the newly collected poison inside. She had added some other ingredient and watched the color shift in the light from Rahab’s torch. She tendered verdict, expertly clinical: “Ogre spider poison. Unpleasant. You’re fortunate, Lem.”
“That’s me: Lem the Fortunate. Been nothing but good fortune since we entered this place. Where’s that damn cat? I’m tempted to kick its furry ass.”
Rahab and Abby chuckled, and the warrior clapped the gardener on the shoulder in a friendly gesture. Gloriana placed a tender hand against Lem’s cheek as though caressing a lover. The oracle closed her eyes and summoned the haunts to reveal the presence of any more poisons in the gardener’s system, and the ghosts whispered words only she could hear. “All clear,” Gloriana reported, opening her eyes, withdrawing her hand, and favoring Lem with a sympathetic smile.
“I am fairly certain this is the same substance coating the spikes in the entry pit,” Kara remarked, eyes still fixed on her sampling vial, genuine fascination tinting her voice. “I wonder how the ogre-kin harvest it?”
Lem shook his head in mild disgust, then decided to ignore the alchemist, and shuffled to the chest, eyeing the spent blades coldly. A glance inside the box revealed a roughly stitched leather sack. He reached to take it, only to recoil suddenly. The house held many horrors, but this one gave even his hardened psyche pause. The sack leather showed several patches of thick, curly metatarsal hair.
The gardener exhaled quietly. “Fuck.”
In the end Rahab employed his rarely-used dagger, and Abby helped with her sword point, to lift the sack clear of the chest, and then to upend its contents onto the floor. Some two hundred and fifty coins or so spilled about in denominations of copper, silver, and gold. They gathered the money and transferred it to their own packs. As for the seventeen severed fingers that had also been in the sack, they elected to leave those behind.
The only other room on the upper floor was across the short hallway. It proved to be some kind of workshop, cluttered and disorganized but clearly used with regularity. The adventurers detected no magic, but the work benches and tables were replete with alchemy tools, as well as trap assembly components. There were also several complete sets of thieves’ tools in well-oiled leather pouches. Lem carefully compared them with his own, selecting a few choice pieces to add, and wrapping the others in his pack for later resale.
That left the kitchen, and the basement.