Gloriana touched the Sihedron Medallion at her neck with two fingers and felt her health bolstered, as if her skin grew more dense.1
Lem resumed his search of the kitchen and soon uncovered a set of dining silver, very fine, beautifully polished, spectacular condition, complete. They collected it and stowed it in Gloriana’s magical backpack.
Then Lem found a loose brick on the chimney, above the stove. Inside the space stood a small clay urn. Gloriana detected for sign of magic, but there was none. The gardener handed the container to the oracle, who in turn set it on the charred tabletop that Kara had previously extinguished with a concoction in the wake of Rahab’s incinerating spell. The others were somewhat tense as Gloriana opened the urn, not sure what else was going to happen in that haunted place. When she upended the container a few dried pine cones tumbled out onto the table. The adventurers stared for a moment.
Gloriana shrugged, nonplussed.
“Treasure,” Rahab intoned.
“What?” asked Abby.
“It’s a trove.”
Kara and the warrior glanced at one another in confusion.
And then Gloriana realized: “A child.”
“Just so,” answered the wizard.
Lem picked up the urn and something rattled inside. He upturned it once more, and three small garnets fell out amidst a fine cloud of pine shavings. Gloriana plucked them up and stowed them away in her belt pouch.
Their next inspection was a wine cellar with two racks and a variety of dusty bottles, most of them broken and long since divested of liquid. Abby spotted something on top of one of the shelves, something strange about the section of stone wall, and a moment later Lem had clambered up the rack as deftly as a spider traversing a web. It took him mere moments to locate a secret compartment painted to resemble stone. Once the gardener determined there was no devious mechanism it was a simple matter to open the cavity and reveal the contents inside.
“Wine. Eight bottles,” Lem called down.
Rahab stepped forward as the gardener handed one down. The wizard dusted the label.
“Ah, Vigardeis! Indeed,” purred the conjurer. “A Chelliaxian vineyard. 4683! This is a prize!”
“Worth something are they?” Lem asked, trying not to sound particularly interested.
Rahab was admiring the label with delight and holding the bottle up to the hovering glow of Abby’s lightstone to examine the color of the liquid. “About a hundred coins of gold a bottle, I should think. It is a superlative vintage from a renowned winery.”
Lem looked at the roughly seven hundred gold pieces sitting dusty in the cache before his eyes. Tyrannous Chelliaxian monsters. Clearly—clearly!—the right thing to do is liberate their incredibly fine wine. The gardener took special care handing the remaining bottles down so Rahab could gleefully wrap them in burlap for safe transport.
Abby led them down another narrow hallway and opened the door to reveal a small chamber. It was seated directly beneath the end of the hallway on the ground floor with the four stained-glass windows. The space was an old laboratory of some kind. A workbench stood against the western wall littered with tools and containers in various stages of rust and decay. Ancient birdcages no longer housing occupants stood on brass stands stained with the patina of years and moisture. Almost in direct imitation of the room above, two stained-glass windows featured in the east wall. One showed a man drinking a concoction of some kind, the second showed the implied result of such consumption: The man transformed and triumphant, full of power and radiant menace, no longer human but become undead, though what variety was lost in the stylization of the stained glass.
Rahab detected for magic, and found none. The wizard approached the cluttered workbench to more closely inspect its contents. He found several books among the tools and materials, and as he reached out to begin inspecting them his fingers lightly brushed the leather binding of the first.
Abby was overcome by sensation. Images and emotions rushed her mind like a wave upon a shore. Shame filled her, shame that a loved one would do such a thing to himself. Rage followed, compelling and complete and demanding satisfaction. The warrior knew she must gather herself and her child, who was secluded upstairs, and flee as far as possible. The danger was immense, immediate, implacable, and no force of friends or physical threat would keep her from secreting herself and her child away from the nightmare that had come to that place. She would fight.
Abby shook her head, and then the sudden sensation faded. She stumbled against the workroom door.2
Kara stepped close. “What is it?”
Abby placed a gauntleted hand to her forehead where sweat had begun to bead. “Something . . . ”
Kara placed a hand under the burly warrior’s armpit to support her. Gloriana drew close in concern. Rahab was still in the middle of pulling the book from its place to inspect it. Lem stood to one side.
“I am alright,” the warrior said after a long, slow, deep breath. “There—there was a . . . I don’t know.” Abby felt very tired.
“Someone you didn’t know, someone who was you, but not you?” Gloriana asked, her voice unsurprised, but no less concerned.
“You feel yourself again?” the oracle asked. Another nod. “You will be alright, Abby. The other is a memory that is not yours, making itself known because of the doom that shadows this place.”
Abby pushed away from the door frame. “That’s the second time. I do not think this was the Iesha you mentioned. I think it was someone else.” The warrior accepted help forward from Kara and resumed her ready stance.
Rahab was already paging through the crumbling leaves of the text. What he found was necromancy: explicit, potent, glorious, nightmarish necromancy.
The text unfolded before his formidable understanding: Creation of undeath, the transformation of mortal form into undead, the translation from living arcanist into lich, the word that simultaneously meant corpse and power.
Rahab marveled. Even this cursory glance was a thousand times more intoxicating than the wine in the bottles they had found. He glanced up at the other volumes and saw they formed a complete set. Triumph took him, soaring skyward and riotous, calving motes of fire.
With expert hands the conjurer gathered the tomes, and carefully wrapped them in a length of cloth discarded on the worktable. He moved as though handling a delicate crystalline container filled with some volatile potion.3 His mind raced, trying to encompass and catalog the few sections he had been able to glance at while calculating and hypothesizing potential paths of power, luminous reaches of new understanding. The sensation was like that of casting a spell, or . . . .
Rahab paused, his hands hovering above the cloth, trembling slightly. He regarded the possibility acutely, as though it was a sample of magical artifact under a convex lens of magnification. Its implication was discovery, to be sure, as much discovery as new valences of power in the expanding knowledge and growth of a wizard.
“Rahab?” Gloriana said. The wizard lurched out of reverie.
“I am ready. We must return here before we depart to take these.” His hands patted the books. “They are delicate, having suffered much damage with the years. They must be transported carefully.”
“What are they?” asked the oracle.
“Texts on the necromantic translation from living wizard into an undead form of arcane power known as a lich.” He smiled his angular, devil-grin.
“Rahab . . . ” the caution in Gloriana’s tone was palpable.
“Indeed,” the conjurer replied and his eyes grew brighter, his grin grew wider. He pressed his palms together in delight.
Abby led them to the nearby door which opened onto a narrow, low-ceilinged passageway that ended at another portal. Beyond this they found a small stone room, the floor of which had been rent by many strokes of a pickaxe now cast aside. The rift in the stone floor revealed an ancient set of spiral stairs winding deep into the bedrock of the cliff below. A rank odor drifted up.
Kara looked up at the ceiling and realized the location of the stairs was directly below the strangely arranged mold on the hallway floor above them, the pattern of skulls in blue-black stains spotted with sickly green.
A dampness clung to the air in the small room, but there was no smell of salt air. Instead, the atmosphere reeked with the stench of rotting meat. Gloriana was suddenly overcome by a vision, and she cried out, and her arms flailed wildly for a moment. The others looked on in sudden alarm, but the oracle recovered almost the next instant.4
“Another ghost?” Kara asked, though by this time the query was largely academic.
Gloriana caught her breath, nodding. “I saw Aldern, in this very room. He was using the pickaxe,” and she pointed at the discarded tool, “to hack at the stone floor and unearth the stairs. He was desperate, and as the hole widened a group of ghouls rose up out of the darkness below. They were hideous, cackling, and clutching, howling their mad hunger as they dragged Aldern down and away. Still more ghouls squirmed forth, surging over me, clutching, and as I fell their teeth began to tear at my skin. Their undead eyes were lit by a horrible glow, like some unholy lamp.”
What the oracle did not relate was the fevered gleam she had witnessed in Aldern’s eyes as he dug, and the furious repetition of a single phrase punctuating each stroke of the pickaxe as the maddened noble called over and over again, “For you!” She shuddered to think that it was, in fact, for her that Aldern had desperately excavated the hidden stairs.
“Are you well?” Abby asked.
Gloriana nodded affirmative with a reassuring smile that masked her concern at what lay beyond. “I think a significant source of evil in this place lies below.”
They made their way onto the stairs, cautiously, nervously descending into the darkness of the cliff bedrock. Abby’s lightstone drifted like a sluggish firefly, and Rahab’s torch flickered mysteriously against the slick moisture that had accumulated on the walls. The lights did little to banish the darkness; if anything, the gloom was more prominent, more oppressive, more encroaching for the sickly dance of luminescence reverberating in frantic and faint slashes around them. It was as if the very darkness beneath the haunted manor relished the opportunity to devour light, a damned feast that swallows stars and leaves only faint whispers begging remembrance in the cold, still halls at the lost heart of the cosmos.
At the bottom of the stairs was a limestone cavern that expanded in twisting passageways to the east and north. The glistening walls showed lines of dripping moisture and spider-lines of grey-green lichen. Patches of furry mold crept over a pile of broken and discarded bones like a blue-black pelt that made it difficult to tell what creature the skeleton had originally supported. Rubble that had tumbled down the stairs from Aldern’s reckless excavation lay strewn about and crunched slickly underfoot. The air churning through the tunnels from still farther below sounded like an immense set of lungs breathing lurid and predatory.
The mold increased in the reaches of the northern passageway, eventually proving a threat too significant to ignore. As Abby pressed forward a sudden burst of cloudy spores filled the cavern space with dusty, drifting, choking haze. They fell raggedly back, and spent long minutes lingering under Rahab’s torchlight as Gloriana carefully checked the warrior’s breathing. The doughty woman had inhaled the toxic ejecta, but her stout constitution had resisted the worst effects. The oracle nonetheless sacrificed some prominent magic to help Abby. Further, she plied the warrior with a potion against toxic effects, and even then Gloriana was not entirely sure what nature of strange life the spores represented, nor the extent of their threat.5 It was nevertheless too risky to venture into the northern corridor without first dealing with the mold, and at present the adventurers were not equipped to do so with precision and care.
They moved east instead, and found ghouls.
The noise echoed off the limestone as the undead advanced. A guttural rattle that was part growl, part scream, part mad laughter rebounded up the tunnel conveying neither warmth nor mirth, but only the inevitable triumph of the grave. As accompaniment there sounded a scrape-and-slap, the creeping rhythm of bare feet and dirt-caked claws bounding across stone.
Rahab worked magic at the intersection of tunnels. At his command a rectangular grid of lines glowing richly green appeared on the ground, flared briefly, then faded as his spell conjured a space within a space, a pit that plunged twenty feet to a floor of rough stone and wide enough to prevent access from the tunnel branch.6 On the far side of the conjured chasm the ghouls appeared, lean bodies draped in grave-clothes, dead-grey skin cast even more sickly in flickering torchlight. At sight of the party the undead muttering and tittering rose to a discordant howl signaling the fevered anticipation of flesh for feast. One of the necrophages lunged forward, planted on all-fours, and made an ambitious leap to clear the gap Rahab had conjured, only to tumble into the cavity with a distended cry cut short by abrupt, crunching impact.
The remaining ghouls glared, their eyes the color of flat clotted cream. Lean jaws gaped to show rows of razor teeth around which snaked their pink, profligate tongues, and they shuffled backwards in jumbled collection of lurching limbs to make their way around to the other branch of tunnel, bottle-necked exactly as the wizard had intended.
Abby stepped forward to command the narrow space as the ghouls filed into the warrior’s precise line of attack. Gloriana bolstered the adventurers with blessing magic, while Rahab drew a scroll and quickly scanned the lines, reciting in measured voice the words that faded just before the parchment disintegrated. A sheath of invisible, mystic armor encased the conjurer.
Kara overhanded a steady throw into the line of ghouls and the burst of electric violence splashed the hindmost undead in a parasol-frame of blazing blue-white. The undead lurched obscenely and fell twitching as the remnants of bottled lightning scuttled frantic and insect-like over the corpse.
Lem waited in Abby’s shadow with twin daggers, poised on the balls of his feet, silent. The warrior stood ready with sword and shield, and Gloriana was immediately behind, one hand braced supportively on Abby’s shoulder. A wave of golden power emanated from the oracle and flooded over the two undead in the lead. Hisses of rage echoed against the narrow limestone walls. Abby lunged and put her sword stoutly through the torso of the lead ghoul, felling it swiftly. In the next second she braced Avenger’s brilliant, gleaming surface against a second monster’s clawing. Lem cut at the ghoul’s leg and drew a wicked scar that did not bleed, only exuded a thick ichor the color of blackened suet. Then the gardener deftly tumbled around the undead, finding his feet expertly and, without looking, backhanded his other dagger into the monster’s other leg. This gave Abby another opening and the ghoul collapsed under the arc of her sword stroke.
Three more ghouls appeared in the tunnel. Abby and Lem pressed forward to meet the reinforcements. The magic duration of Rahab’s conjured pit ended and the tunnel floor righted itself, rising to level gently and bringing the broken body of the ghoul to the floor. For his next trick, the conjurer transformed the air around the ghouls closing on Abby and Lem into a blinding snowstorm of hyper-luminescent yellow-white motes that rendered two of the three undead blind.
Gloriana summoned a ghostly scimitar and sent the spiritual weapon into combat as the necrophages stumbled in magical blindness. The sweeping curve of edged light sheared away the skull of one of the undead and the creature fell. Immediately the oracle radiated glowing golden light in another wave of purifying power that ripped a second ghoul apart as a desiccated snail shell unravels in a sandstorm. The third ghoul reeled under the punishing light but survived, only to suffer the soft, slithering chime of Abby’s sword impaling just beneath the sternum and emerging through the spine. The ghoul collapsed.
Two more undead sprang from the dark recesses of the tunnel, ignorant of Lem’s stealthy presence. Seizing opportunity, the gardener stepped into their wake unobserved and plunged a dagger right at the level of the kidney, drawing another gout of slick grey ichor from one of his foes. Gloriana’s golden shimmering scimitar swept back to attack the new arrivals and the weapon missed, but another surge of brilliant fiery radiance billowing in a wave from the oracle’s body did not, and the last two ghouls withered and wasted into hollow, crumbled shapes.
Abby listened, tense, but there was nothing save for the faint and distant drip of water. The party made their way forward. The tunnels wound this way and that, descending slowly west-northwest into the cliff bedrock. After a few minutes exploration the course opened up onto a larger chamber, like a massive upended jar, hollow and reverberating with the sound of water. The pathway wound around to the right along the cavern perimeter, quickly becoming a steep helix curving down to a churning pool far below.
To the left, just before the path began to spiral down, another narrow space in the limestone opened on a tunnel leading to darkness from whence wafted a powerful, rancid miasma. Before they could investigate, however, movement caught Abby’s eye from the right, and below. Slowly making their way up the perilous curve of the helical stone path were four more ghouls. Their dead-grey bodies glistened with ambient moisture, and they crawled on all fours, claws scraping and clutching at the stone with urgency on the dangerously slick and narrow path.
The glow of lightstone and torch danced off the dampness coating the walls, and in the fractal illumination all realized this was bow work. It would take some minutes for the ghouls to make their way at present pace, and by the time they reached the broader area at the top of the pathway they would have to fight in single file, for there was scant area to mob. Abby, Lem, and Kara unlimbered their bows, and Gloriana did the same with her crossbow. Rahab stood back; the space at the top of the winding path did not have enough room for him to assist, so the wizard remained alert to the cramped, reeking opening on the left, and to the coil of tunnels behind them in the event anything should emerge in flank.
Against the backdrop of water sounds came the singing twang of bowstrings while the gleaming scimitar of light that Gloriana had summoned from the spirit realm still had a few final seconds of viability. The oracle bid blade to foe, and the shining gold curve drifted close to the nearest ghoul, cutting deep before it faded back to the realm of ghosts. The monster howled and swiped uselessly at air. Abby’s bowshot found its mark, the shaft burying deep into the undead and the monster slumped, its tenuous friction on the path gone, the body sliding inexorably toward the edge before plunging noiselessly into the churning pool far below. The three remaining undead clambered slowly, insistently up.
Lem and Kara’s efforts proved largely ineffective as the gardener and alchemist were unable to achieve a good line of fire, but between Gloriana’s crossbow and Abby’s longbow, the three undead sprouted multiple fletchings. The last ghoul fell just as it managed to crawl to the space upon which the adventurers had selected as their firing platform. Right before it could put a clutching, rending hand to the oracle, the warrior fired a final arrow straight into the throat and the monster collapsed, sliding back down the path to rebound off a curve in the wall and plummet to the pool after its fellows. Oracle and warrior regarded one another with brief smiles and nods of success.
“We should look to this before we go further,” commented Kara as she observed the malodorous fissure to the left of the path.
Before advancing into the tunnel beyond, Rahab cast a spell to detect magic, but registered no signals. He nodded to Lem who crept forward scouting the floor for signs of danger.
After a sharp turn the tunnel widened into a small chamber littered with all manner of gnawed and discarded bones, some beastly, some anthropoid. A body lay amidst the scattered skeletal pieces, clothed in the torn and ruined remnants of a laborer’s vestments. Embedded in the skull of the corpse was a wedge-shaped piece of stone that had chiseled detail reminiscent of feathers.
“The bookend,” Gloriana remarked quietly.
“Hmm?” Rahab inquired.
“From the library upstairs. We found a bookend near the fireplace, in the shape of an angel. One of the wings had been broken off, and it had clearly been used to visit violence on someone or something.”
The wizard was nodding recognition now. “Another victim of Aldern’s, I gather.” Gloriana said nothing; it was what everyone was already thinking.
“Not dressed like a noble family member,” said Lem, “nor liveried like a servant. Hired hand, maybe.”
“Aldern had been restoring the property,” observed Rahab. “It is illogical to hire labor with an eye to massacre before the work is done.”
“What are you thinking?” Gloriana asked Rahab.
“The picture remains unclear, but perhaps we have some insight into the timeline, at least. The Sandpoint murders and ghouls in the farmlands postdate the Foxglove heir’s return to ancestral grounds with intent to reestablish. When last we saw him in Sandpoint Aldern was obsessive and lovelorn, to be sure, but unless he is among the more accomplished of deceivers, he was not nefarious—so far as we knew.”
Abby frowned. “What do you think happened?”
“Perhaps it was this house,” Gloriana speculated. “The doom here is older than Aldern. The ill-aspect over his family’s history has extensive reach.”
“Necromancy,” murmured Kara. The oracle nodded.
Rahab rolled his eyes. “And yet spells of that very category have been used by me to our personal advantage,” the conjurer intoned bitingly. “It’s not necromancy that is at fault here.”
“But it is involved,” Gloriana insisted.
“By that logic, we should do something about Sandpoint when we return, because the village is ‘involved,’ too. So are we, for that matter,” countered the wizard. “We are getting ahead of ourselves. We do not yet have enough evidence to render verdict on the forces, ambitions, and strategies in play.”
The alchemist folded her arms. “Not like you to forgo hypothesis.”
“It is exactly like me to forgo hypothesis when such is uninformed. Our information remains insufficient. Whatever else you think of me,” Rahab’s tone was acid, “credit, at least, my intellectual rigor. I do the same for you.”
“Then we should get going,” Abby rapped her sword resolutely against Avenger, “and find out more.”
“Just so,” assented the wizard, and the adventurers left the bone pile and the corpse and returned to the top of the stone path winding down toward the pool in the large cavern.
1 False life power of the Sihedron Medallion.
2 Abby made her Will save to resist the haunted compulsion that overcame her at that moment.
3 It’s not just that Rahab is power-hungry. He happens to have maximum ranks (relative to level) in the Craft: Bookbinding skill, so he does know how to handle antique books. But mostly it’s that he’s power hungry.
4 Another successful Will save.
5 Between a bear’s endurance spell and a vial of anti-toxin, Abby made successive Fortitude saves against the mold’s effects.
6 Create pit.