While they are far from fully rested, our heroes are fortified enough to continue their exploration. The afternoon sun has dipped low, and twilight is only an hour or so away. Gathering themselves and their gear, they head in to tackle the catacombs anew. There is no way any bandits did not hear the battle in the hall, and so it is unlikely any lurk below. All the same, a bit of caution is definitely in order. Their reserves are low, fatigue just a bit of exertion away. Fatigue dulls a rogue’s senses, makes a warrior’s reaction slow, and cripples the judgment of spell casters. In short, it is one if the most insidious foes an adventurer faces. No one questions why Nithauk insists on dragging the body of the evil priest with them by a rope. The set of his jaw and the clouds that gather in his expression suggest it is a matter best left alone for now.
Once more they are surrounded by the damp and gloom of the cellar depths. The steady flicker of everburning torches augments the constant glow of Ezio’s Sunblade, beating back the darkness. Again, they examine the sickening scene of the desecrated shrine, and the crypt with its macabre skull pyramid. Further down the hall, they find a locked door, cobwebs frosting its surface. Nithauk works at the lock for some minutes before finally prizing it open. Beyond they find a modestly appointed room, layered in dust, and devoid of moisture or vermin. Kane detects the lingering remnants of old spells on every wall, the floor, and the ceiling. Rituals cast so often, and for so long, that their memory is impressed on the flagstones and mortar. Magic to repel the seeping waters that dampen the rest of the cellars. Magic also to drive away the skittering and scampering vermin evident elsewhere in these subterranean halls.
The small suite appears to have housed a scholar of some sort. A study to one side holds a lectern, bookshelves, and a writing desk. The central room contains spartan furnishings to seat a few people. The last room provides a grisly find. A four-post bed on which is laid a skeleton, tucked into the covers as if sleeping. The finger bones are interlaced in placid repose atop the covers, an elegant iron ring adorning one hand. Closer inspection reveals that the vertebrae of the skeleton between the shoulders and skull have been crushed to powder. Once again, Kane detects the lingering echo of infernal magic. Some time long ago a fell presence stalked these halls. Ezio slips the ring from the skeletal finger, suggesting that they show it to Rathlaris and find out more about it. No one argues, and everyone seems eager to move on from the grim bed chamber.
Scir and Cuts spend some time examining the walls in a curious dead-end hallway in the corner of the suite, certain that there must be a door hidden there. Persistence pays off eventually, along with some from Nithauk, and their search reveals a cunningly concealed door. A veneer of stone, matching its surroundings, but affixed to a wooden frame, betrayed by an oddly hollow sound when struck. The door is released by a small pieces of flagstone atop a pressure switch, and sticks a bit, forcing them to heave it open the remaining distance. Almost instantly, an icy wind buffets the first two through the door, chilling them to the bone and covering them in a layer of frost. Staggering back from the wintry assault, they huddle around their torches to warm themselves. It takes some minutes to alleviate the numbness in their limbs and ease the stinging of their ravaged skin. Further inspection reveals the remains of a glyph on the inside of the door, a ritual devised as a trap to kill the unwary.
Cautiously, they move into the small chamber their efforts have revealed. The alcove is laden with treasure, some of it very old and some quite new. The bulk of the bandits’ hoard from the look of things. Bolts of fine cloth, chests and urns full of coin, and small coffers of gems. All in all, a baron’s ransom. Enough to fill their every pouch, satchel, and saddlebag to bursting. It quickly becomes clear that they will need more than one trip to clear all the wealth stashed in this place. Months of bandit activity, coupled with some treasures gathered from throughout the ruined keep, have culminated in staggering amounts of treasure. There is more coin here than Mikal has ever seen. More than Nithauk has ever pilfered. Sums approaching those Ezio saw from afar as a child, growing up among the wealthier families of Arkandia. They are wealthy. If they can survive the return trip to civilization, while laden under a burden of coin and gems.
The next two rooms they investigate are less exciting. The midden is investigated at length, as many of the bandits bore the stench of rotting fish about them. Perhaps, our heroes surmise, some clues about this can be found in the well water of the keep. This theory proves to be a dead end. The well water is clean enough, and the midden smells only of the usual unpleasantness one expects of such things. Beyond that is a larder, the larger of the rats within easily dispatched, and the rest scampering from their torchlight. A decent supply of food and ale is available here, enough to have kept the bandits in comfort for much of the winter, all of it if they were disciplined in their consumption. The final room in the catacombs proves the most interesting. There is a a gleam of soft, flickering light visible through the bars on the door. A prison of some sort, perhaps.
From within, they can hear sounds of a person humming softly, and the panting of one or two large dogs. The light comes from a large brazier, banked low and burning with only the smallest bit of smoke. They cannot see, through the narrow bars set high in the door, who is humming. Ezio eventually decides on a most straightforward approach, and raps one gauntlet-covered fist on the door firmly, calling out a greeting in the Common tongue. A husky, though definitely female, voice calls out for him to go away. That there is no one there. Confused glances are exchanged among our heroes, while from within come the sounds of movement. Then silence. Slowly, Scir opens the door. Immediately two mastiffs begin to growl, showing teeth and advancing from the corners of the room. Baring his own mouthful of sharp teeth, the Dragonborn answers their growl in kind, glaring them down. Whining, both dogs retreat to their corners and lay down.
Moving around Scir, Nithauk and Ezio head further into the small jail. Four cells line a small hallway, and they find a woman sitting in the back of the second cell. The door is shut, but not locked. The woman is humming to herself, tunelessly, and fiddling with something in her hands. The object seems to consume every ounce of her attention, and she ignores attempts to address her. Carefully, the rogue and the priest push into the small cell. The woman does not react, until Ezio crouches in front of her and waves a hand between her gaze and the object in her hands. It is a river stone, smoother on one side than the other, with clear signs that something has been scraped over both side more times that anyone could count. A sharpening stone. The woman is passing it back and forth between her hands while rotating it rhythmically, humming as she does. When Ezio’s wave breaks her gaze, she looks up and blinks. The stone’s rotation reverses without a missed beat, but never stops passing from hand to hand.
The conversation is surreal, to say the least. The woman seems unaware, or uncaring, that she is not confined to the cell. She is calm, far too calm, in a manner that seems more like dementia. Her answers to their questions are disjointed, revealing someone not quite in touch with reality. Of the bandits, or their captives, she seems to know little or nothing. It has been a long while since she had visitors, and she prefers to be alone. Death does not concern her, since everyone dies and there is no one to bother you then. By turns, she praises the gods for the comfort their names bring to the fearful, and damns them for being imaginary. Eventually, even the most diplomatic among them give up in frustration. Kane, never the most patient to begin with, is ready to abandon the crazy woman to her fate in minutes. Scir does not even try, as he is occupied in keeping the dogs cowed. Cuts decides to collect rope from their horses, and helps Scir tie the dogs up. Mikal resigns from the interrogation with a sad smile and a gesture to indicate the woman is beyond reaching, or help; her mind far detached from reality.
At last, even Nithauk gives up, leaving only Ezio attempting to reach past the woman’s madness and communicate with her. With a prayer to Kord for more straightforward battles to fight, the cleric turns to leave. A blow behind one knee staggers him, and a weight lands on his back to further breaks his balance. Hands are flung forward to arrest his fall, and so cannot intervene as a length of cord snaps taut around his throat. The garrote locks implacably into place, and Ezio struggles for air. His chain gauntlets render his hands too clumsy to disengage the cruel, cunning tool. The last thing he hears as blackness swallows sound and vision, is a husky feminine voice beckoning for the “puppies” to come along.
Nithauk is trailing in the wake of his companions when he realizes Ezio is not behind him. Nor does the priest answer when he calls out. Concerned, he rushes back. Of the madwoman, and the dogs, there is no sign. The cleric lies face down in the cell, lips turning a dangerous blue, a lethal garrote locked in place around his neck. Swiftly, the rogue disengages the device, pocketing it for later investigation. Working with only half an idea as to a healer’s craft, he struggles to revive the cleric. Against his own dread-laden expectations, he succeeds. Ezio gasps for air and croaks past damaged vocal chords that the woman escaped. Swiftly then, the rogue pursues the only course she could have taken. The others were climbing a second set of stairs, meaning the woman had to have gone back to the first. He finds traces of dog fur on the stones, and damp footprints in the hall above. The tracks of large dogs in the courtyard… the gate open… the trail vanishes into the Tanglewood, now blue-gray in the twilight gloom.
Discretion is ever the best portion of valor, and Nithauk decides not to chase an insane strangler or her two trained hounds into a shadowy forest. Racing back, he alerts the others and returns to Ezio. The cleric has managed to rasp out a prayer, and apply healing magic to his own injuries. Never the less, he is shaken and weak. Laying him on the woman’s cot, the rogue feels something beneath it bump against his foot. Something heavy. Kneeling down, he finds a locked chest concealed by the draped blankets, and pulls if forth. Beneath the unfocused gaze of the priest, he sets to picking the lock. It is easy… too easy, he realizes… even as he feels the lock disengage and the spring-driven needle plunge into his palm. He tastes a cloying sweetness in the back of throat, but cannot seem to swallow around the sudden lump that forms. Saliva spills onto his lips, an oddly yellow froth. His gaze swims as mucus fills his nostrils and tear ducts. His limbs feel leaden, and an itch travels down the inside of his arm toward his chest. His heart beats with increasing difficulty, and his breath labors past an ever more constricted airway.
Ezio reaches out, calling on Kord once more, even as Scir reaches the door of the jail at a run. Just in time to see the Goliath keeling over to one side, the cleric with his horribly bruised neck and trembling hand still reaching for the rogue. Swiftly, the barbarian, rolls the rogue over and attempts to pump his chest. Keeping some air moving might buy time. In the wilds of Arkandia, many poisonous plants and animals exist, and Scir knows a little of the remedies one might use if they work quickly. Directing Cuts to the rogue’s hand, Scir bids him grip the arm tightly and squeeze back towards the point where the needle entered. Their ministrations prove effective, though perhaps some natural hardiness on Nithauk’s part contributes. In any case, they manage to rouse him, and then leap away as he is violently ill in the wake of the poison.
Lifting back the lid to the rogue’s find, they reveal an astonishing collection of personal jewelry. It ranges from baubles a merchant’s wife might wear, all the way to the sort of finery only a wealthy noble could afford. Some of it is even mildly enchanted to combat tarnish, and provide additional luster. This chest is added to their already expansive haul. Leaving the rogue and the cleric to recuperate form their brushes with death, the others finish searching all the rooms above and below ground. An enchanted crossbow and some bolts in the armory. More food stuffs and dry goods in a storage building along the wall. Plenty of firewood and kindling to last the winter. But no sign of where the evil priest and the undead had come from. It is now well into the evening hours, the sun fully set, and our heroes settle to a meal in the main hall. A good smoky fire is enough to cover most of the scent of battle and death in the room, and they are too tired to care about the rest.
It is over dinner, discussing the layout of the keep and all they had discovered within, that inspiration strikes. With renewed vigor, they descend again into the cellar. They are searching now for another of those concealed doors, with the cunning veneer of stone over a wooden frame. It takes a couple hours to find it, but they finally do. Two more rooms are revealed, sumptuously appointed and decorated in the adulation of Vecna. The priest worshipped this god of necromancy, undeath, and arcane tyranny. Specifically, the nefarious saint known as Slave Kalanthak, the Despot’s Seneschal. Judging from the ornate (albiet horrific) tapestries, the saint teaches that blind obedience and unflinching servitude to an evil master is the true path to power. One cannot hope to be powerful than a god, so what better tyrant to serve? What greater power might one wield than to carry out the orders of a deity? Apparently, no atrocity is unthinkable, if it is carried out in the name of one’s master. Such is the power a slave can possess, to crush and kill any who stand in your way… all at the behest of another.
Here they find yet more treasure, much of it in objects of artistic value. And brandies. Apparently, the priest had a taste for the finest liquors, and there are some truly expensive bottles in his collection. They also find more copies of the ritual that created the warding glyph which encased some of them in cold and frost, as well as the dark ritual book used by the priest. Sealed in a small coffer, cautiously opened by Nithauk, they find a curious key, bulky and shaped most strangely. Finally, in the bottom of one chest, there are two flasks, silver-plated and stoppered with a wax seal. The contents are liquid, and smell most foul when one is opened. Like rotting fish.
In the back of the room, behind a tapestry, they find yet another door. This one is not some cunningly concealed part of the keep, but a recent addition. Opening it reveals a short passage, more crude than the halls behind them, hastily dug and shored up. This passage breaks into natural tunnels just a short way down. These tunnels and caves are old, formed by water, and filled with recent goblin-sign. Laden with treasure and exhausted to the point of tottering, our heroes decide to withdraw and regroup. They needs must consult Rathlaris, and perhaps others in the Dale. But they will be back. This could be what they are searching for, these hidden caves. Perhaps this is how the bandits made their captives vanish.