“Whoa!” Drake cried, jumping back a step from the small rock man. Xan immediately drew the enchanted short sword and advanced on the earth monster. He hacked at it with his blade, and sliced off the end of one of its “arms”. Mom bellowed and charged into the workshop from the hall, but his wild swing missed its mark. Liberty brought her quarterstaff up defensively, and turned part of the creature’s stony body to slag with a fiery ray. The alchemist downed a protective elixir, and moved between the elemental and the sorcerer.
Denied access to its preferred quarry, the monster slammed its “fist” into Xan’s chest. A couple of the rogue’s ribs cracked from the force of the blow, and he crumpled to the floor, senseless. Mom took a cautious step back, then touched Xan’s prone form and prayed to Kord’s healing strength. Since the men stood between Liberty and the elemental, she strafed to the side and struck it with fire again. In a fury, it lunged for her, but between Drake’s mighty fists and Mom’s greatsword, it was smashed to stones before it could reach the sorcerer.
“Thanks,” Liberty said, kicking a couple of rocks away.
“What was that?” asked the cleric. No one seemed to know.
“This part of the cairn really doesn’t like me very much,” Xan quipped from the floor. He tried to stand, but couldn’t manage it on his own. Drake heaved the smaller man to his feet and held him steady while he regained his balance. “Thanks, Drake,” the rogue. “And thanks again for saving my ass,” he said to Mom. The half-orc only grunted, then channeled more healing energy into his companions.
“Doesn’t seem to be much else in here, does there?” Liberty said, eyeing the red stone pedestal. “Can we get it back up the elevator, do you think?” Drake crouched down to pick it up. He heaved with great effort and managed to lift it, but it was clearly a struggle. Mom came over and took half the burden.
“Looks like we can,” Xan concluded happily.
* * *
One by one, they took the elevator back up and stashed the red stone pedestal near the cairn entrance. Once more, they returned to the false tomb, Mom said, “What if you all get to the upper hall, and then I light all of the lanterns?”
“The one with the mouth?” Liberty asked.
“I could go, see if it’s safe. I should be fine if I fall,” she said, holding up the hand with the magic ring.
“True,” the half-orc said.
“Let me go back up,” Xan said. “I’ll try to disable the pressure plate.” Liberty let him borrow her ring.
“Everyone go up, and stay put. I’ll light the lanterns, and then Cornelius can help me up,” Mom said.
The plan was put into action, and once Mom lit the final lantern, the stone face at the end of the tunnel lifted up and out of sight, revealing a large open chamber. Past the gaping mouth at the end of the hallway was a long, dark room with no floor. A three-foot-wide beam of petrified wood spanned the chasm, leading straight ahead into darkness. About ten feet below the beam, countless iron spheres the size of large oranges formed an irregular floor, but it was impossible to tell if they represented a wholly solid surface. The northwest and southeast walls were covered in a honeycomb of geometric patterns. The featureless stone ceiling extended about twenty feet above the beam.
“Huh,” Liberty said as Xan crouched down to examine the path more closely. “Do you think that beam will hold anyone’s weight? And even if it does, would it be safer to cross it one at a time?”
A childish giggle echoed off the walls of the chamber. The adventurers exchanged nervous glances and looked around for the source of the sound. The room was silent for the next several moments until Mom broke it. “Creepy.” Drake only grunted.
The rogue finished his work, declaring the first several feet of the beam to be safe. Before heading out onto it, he stopped himself short, and handed the magic ring back to Liberty. “I’m pretty comfortable in places like this,” he said. “Balancing is kind of a hobby of mine.”
“Tie a rope to yourself, please,” Mom said.
“Sure thing… Mom,” Xan replied snarkily. He looped one end of a rope around the beam and tied himself to it, making a mobile harness that would move with him as he proceeded across the chamber.
“Oh, that’s smart!” cried a boy’s voice from nowhere.
“Who speaks to us?” Mom asked.
“Did I mention that I hate it down here?” Liberty said quietly.
“You could help with it, maybe?” Xan called out. He waited another few moments, but there was no reply.
The rogue systematically disabled the pressure plates cunningly built into the narrow beam, but when he got nearly to the end he hit a snag and iron spheres like the ones in the pit below blasted out of the holes on either side of him. One of them beaned him in the shoulder, and he narrowly avoided toppling over the side of the beam.
“Ouch!” the voice cried again.
“Enough out of you,” Xan grumbled. Turning back to the others, he called out, “I’ll try not to do that again.”
“Please don’t,” Mom said. “I may have trouble reaching you from here.”
Once Xan had crossed the bridge, he found himself at a blank metal section of the wall. If it was a door, it had no obvious handle or hinges that he could manipulate to open it. He was about to report this to the others when, a ghostly figure manifested from the wall beside the door. The translucent specter appeared as a translucent young farm boy with a broken neck, long black fingernails, and a demoniac glare in his eyes. It grinned at the rogue before merging with his body.
The others stood watching in stunned silence from across the chamber. Presently, the boy’s voice emanated from Xan’s mouth. “Oh, that’s better.”
“Oh, crap,” Liberty said.
“Hi, y’all!” the boy called, waving with Xan’s arm and beginning to stroll back down the platform toward the other adventurers.
“Hello?” Mom said uncertainly. “Can you please get out of our friend?”
“Oh, acourse! I jist needed his voice. My name’s Alastor Land.”
“Well, what do you want?” Mom asked.
“I been down here fer decades, though it’s kinda hard to keep track. I think… I think I’m being punished fer abandoning muh fam’ly in their time a need to run off and go… ‘venturing. As ya can see, that whole thing ain’t exactly worked out fer me.” The ghost manipulated Xan’s lips into an awkward frown.
“Over the years, I seen other splorers like you come an’ go. The trap in the walls did fer most of ‘em, but others jist give up an’ left. I cain’t git out the way y’all come in, but I ken push through the metal door yonder, an’ I seen what lay past it.”
“What?” Liberty asked curiously.
“A glorious chamber a strange carvin’s an’ a pillar a air. An’ there’s a catch on t’other side a the door that opens it like that,” Alastor snapped Xan’s fingers to emphasize. “I could open ‘er up fer ya… if’n y’all do somethin’ fer me in return.”
“What would you like us to do?” Mom asked.
“The way I figger it, muh body needs ta be with the rest a muh kin, or I ain’t never gonna sleep peaceful like. Muh bones lie there, jist ‘neath the far side a the bridge. I danged near made it, not that it’d’ve done me much good. Anyway, y’all take muh bones from here an’ bury ‘em with muh fam’ly on our farmstead jist east a Diamond Lake an’ I’ll open the door fer ya ‘fore I…cross over to t’other side. Deal?”
“That doesn’t seem like too much to ask,” Liberty said. “Fellows?” Drake grunted assent.
Mom looked thoughtful for a moment. “Hmm… If that’s all there is to it, we’d be willing to help.”
“Just tell us where to go,” the sorcerer added.
“Oh, wonderful!” Alastor said. He gave them directions to the farmstead and then exited Xan’s body and faded out of sight. The rogue staggered a step before catching his balance.
“Xan? Are you all right?” Liberty asked.
“Yea, I’m okay surprisingly. Actually, that was pretty interesting. It’ll make a hell of a good story back in town.”
“Is it safe to cross now?” she asked, indicating the beam.
“Yes, but be careful. Let’s get those bones!”
Liberty offered to go down and collect Alastor’s bones, so Xan stepped out of his rope harness and the sorcerer stepped into it. When her feet touched down, she found the surface of the balls to be stable enough, but something felt wrong. She saw the iron balls shift a few feet from her position and called out a warning.
A pallid, slimy, worm-like creature burst from beneath the iron balls. It was roughly the size of a human, its mouth a sickening tangle of tentacles and hooked jaws, and it bore down on Liberty with hungry intent. The monsters tentacles lashed out as it took a bite out of the sorcerer. The pain was intense, but she managed to stay conscious. “Pull her up!” Mom cried, tossing one of his cleavers just past the abomination. Drake didn’t have to be told twice, and with a heave of his massive arms, he pulled the sorcerer back up to safety. She nodded her thanks to the alchemist then burned the creature with a lance of flame. Throwing caution to the wind, Xan somersaulted off of the beam and landed right beside the monster, stabbing it with his enchanted blade.
As the rogue engaged the creature, Mom jumped down from the beam… somewhat less gracefully. “I’m just going to get a damned spear,” he grumbled as he picked himself up. Drake dropped a bomb in the corner which burned the beast but spared his friends. Xan maneuvered into a flank before the beast’s bitey, tentacular assault overwhelmed him. He fell bleeding to the floor, but only for a few more moments as the others’ combined attacks laid the creature low.
Mom cast another healing prayer and Xan regained consciousness, but he didn’t get up right away. “I think I might just lay here for a bit,” he said. “You guys have fun.” They dug up Alastor’s bones, and placed them in a burlap sack. Further investigation of the pit revealed a few more corpses with partially filled coin pouches and a suit of masterwork banded mail.
They made their way carefully back out of the cairn. Xan insisted on stashing the red stone pedestal back at the mining office, and then the group made its way south and east to the old Land farmstead.
* * *
A copse of immense deklo trees shaded a small quiet clearing just where Alastor had said it would be. Crumbling walls and a seemingly abandoned farmhouse stood vigil atop a small bluff overlooking the clearing, the sad ruins of what must once have been Alastor’s home. Five grave markers stood in the clearing, each with a different name: Anders (531-564 CY), Bemissa (534-576 CY), Coldaran (550-576 CY), Gertia (563-576 CY), and Alastor (552- ). Open pits yawned from before all five headstones. Piles of fresh dirt and a pair of abandoned shovels suggest that the excavation took place recently, certainly within the week.
“These were victims of the Red Death plague,” Drake commented, indicating the four-petaled flower motif.
“And victims of grave robbing, as well,” said Xan. “I think we keep that fact from Alastor.”
“Now why would somebody want those bodies?” wondered Liberty.
“Something about the plague that made them valuable?” suggested Mom.
“Can’t imagine any wholesome reason for anyone to take them,” said Drake.
The sorcerer shrugged. “Unless we’ve got a necromancer in town.”
“That’s just creepy,” said Xan. Mom grunted agreement.
“I guess we should bury this one, at least,” said Liberty, hefting the sack that held Alastor’s bones.
“I say we wait until we find out what happened,” said Mom.
“I imagine we’ll need to bury them with the family,” said Drake.
“Alastor doesn’t need to know the other bodies were moved…” said Xan.
“Uh… I’m sure he would know,” said Mom.
“Well, if that happens, we can deal with it,” said Xan. “Until then, let it just be our little secret, ‘kay?”
Drake grunted uncertainly, but Mom frowned angrily. “I really do not think it will work at all, and it may even piss him off enough to cause us harm.”
“I think Mom’s right,” said Liberty. “Plus, if there is necromancy going on in the town, that’s bad news.” The half-orc grunted.
Xan persisted. “Just let me talk to him, and it will be fine. I won’t even lie. ‘Alastor, there was already a burial plot on the property. We laid you to rest there with great care. Your bones are where they belong now.’” He turned to Liberty, “As for the necromancer, that can be dealt with after we get into the true tomb.”
“And then if he doesn’t open the door, we’re just gonna have to go back to Diamond Lake, then back here, then back to the cairn,” said Liberty.
Mom shook his head. “Xan, it won’t work.”
“I think I see some tracks here,” Drake interrupted. He pointed at wheelbarrow tracks heading away from the small cemetery and toward Diamond Lake. This prompted the others to take a closer look as well. They found the tracks of five booted humanoids that matched the prints left around the graves. After their robbery, it appeared that the five people walked up the bluff to explore the farmstead.
“We should probably have a look in the farm house before we go anywhere else,” said Liberty.
“Yes,” said Mom, frowning at the confused tracks nearby. “Five went up, but it looks like only four came back down, and they seem to have left in a hurry.” He looked up from the ground to the others. “So, let’s see what happened.”
Xan drew his blade and looked toward the house. “We might as well go say hi.” He led the way up the bluff.
The dilapidated Land farmstead consisted of a crumbled wall and a sagging, unsafe house with broken windows and a sagging roof. Liberty hung back near the wall as the others drew nearer to the front door. They saw that thick, sludgy puddles of dried blood and unidentifiable fleshy chunks littered the wooden floor immediately inside.
“That… smells… awful,” said Xan. He held up a hand for quiet and listened intently for a few moments. When he spoke again, it was in a whisper. “Something… big is breathing in there. Wait here.”
The rogue moved quietly around the perimeter, peeking into the windows. It was dark inside, and even the sunlight overhead didn’t pierce too deeply into the farmhouse. While he did this, Mom quaffed a healing potion, knitting up a few of the wounds that lingered from the fight with the monstrous worm. Drake pulled out an unusual looking ampoule, and held it ready. Liberty shifted from foot to foot, all nerves.
Xan returned about a minute later. “Looks like the Land estate’s new owner is a very large bear,” he reported.
“Maybe it ate the fifth grave robber?” suggested Liberty, moving forward a few steps.
“Yes, well. The fifth grave robber is just past the entry. At least, some of him is.”
“Oh,” she said meekly.
“It is a man-eater very close to town,” said Xan in his wheedling tone. “Maybe we can get a bounty for it?”
“Pelt’s worth something, at least,” agreed Liberty.
“That’s my girl,” grinned the rogue. “What about you two big strong men? Want to try to put it down?”
“Makes me wish for a spear again,” Mom said. “But we can’t just leave it here, and we need to search the remains for clues.” Drake grunted in affirmation.
They decided to try to flush the beast out, so Drake mixed a bomb and made for the window from which Xan had seen the bear. However, as the big alchemist moved around that side of the farmhouse, a low growl emanated from within, ending in a higher pitched “HOOO!” sound.
Xan held the lantern up to the front door to illuminate the deeper reaches of the house, and from around the corner lumbered an amalgam of fur and feathers. This bizarre half-bear, half-owl monstrosity raised its huge, ursine claws in anger, and barreled toward him. He barely had the presence of mind to note the injuries the beast had sustained.
“Oh shit!” Liberty said as the owlbear smashed through the wall near the open doorway. She lashed out with fire, scorching the fur and feathers of the large hybrid creature. Mom engaged the beast, and Xan hacked at its neck with his enchanted short sword. Drake came rushing around the house and staggered the monster with a wild haymaker.
As its last act, the owlbear brought a heavy claw down, raking the burly alchemist savagely before it slumped to the ground, overcome by its wounds.
“Drake!” cried Liberty, even as Mom brought his greatsword down to finish the beast off. Assured that it was dead, Xan reached for the last remaining healing potion. He knelt down beside the alchemist and coaxed the magical fluid down his throat.
The alchemist coughed as he regained consciousness then sat up, grunting in pain. “Ugh, that bastard hit pretty hard.”
“Oh, I’ve seen Kullen hit you harder’n that,” said Liberty, sounding relieved.
“Seems to happen quite a lot with this treasure hunting thing, Drake,” said Xan. “You took it like a pro.”
“Get a drink in me, and I’ll be fine,” said Drake.
“That was not a bear,” said Mom, using the owlbear’s fur to clean its blood from his blade.
“Its head has got to be worth something,” said Xan with a grin. “Or its pelt? Could you skin it, Mom?” The half-orc grunted assent and set to work.
The others entered the house to explore and discovered a complete human arm bearing a familiar tattoo. “That’s… weird,” said Liberty.
“Speaking of Kullen…” said Xan.
“Aye?” Mom prompted him from the doorway.
“I believe that is the same tattoo branded on Kullen’s head.” He looked up at the others. “It was the mark of Garavin Vesst, an old mine manager that Smenk ran out of town. I think he died last year…”
“Oh, wow!” exclaimed Liberty. “I think you’re right. Got to be at least a few folks around town with that mark… But it’s not nothing.”
Xan nodded. “Yes, Vesst banded all of his employees with that mark. Still… We have a lead on these bodies after all. I’d still really like to get inside that vault first, though…”
His thought was interrupted by an unusual sound from Drake near the collapsed stairs where the owlbear had made its den. The big man crouched down beside an owlbear about the size of a puppy. He reached out one of his large hands tentatively and gently patted its feathered head. The baby owlbear rumbled a purring hoot and nuzzled Drake’s arm.
Liberty smiled as shook her head at Drake. “You thinking what I’m thinking?” she asked.
“I’m thinkin’ I like him. Devil…” Drake said.
“Oh, don’t give it a name,” she teased. “Can you even train that thing?”
“Doubtful,” he replied. “I’m not a caretaker type. But he could watch the shop.”
“You’re cleaning up after it,” said Liberty, still grinning.
“Aww… mom and dad’s first argument,” said Xan. “It’s cute.” Drake scowled at him, but the rogue ignored it.
“Master James would be happy to sell you raw meat to feed it,” said Mom.
“May try my hand at it after all, then,” said Drake, scooping up the baby owlbear. “C’mon, Devil.”
Once they were back outside, they returned to the burial plot and buried Alastor’s bones in his grave. Mom scratched “565” on the right side of the dash to indicate his estimated date of death. Once this was finished, Xan broached the subject of what to do next.
“So… do we go have a chat with Kullen or go talk Alastor into opening the door?”
“I think you should have a chat with Kullen,” said Mom.
“I say we find Kullen,” agreed Liberty. “Or see how far those tracks go.”
“Gotta find the family,” Drake rumbled.
“Kullen isn’t doing this on his own,” said Xan. “He was hired, by someone bigger and more powerful. Maybe the Mayor. Maybe Smenk. Do you guys really want to go through all that trouble and danger if we may not even need to?”
“Kullen might not have anything to do with it at all,” said Liberty. “But he might know someone who’s gone missing. Or missing an arm.”
“We agreed to lay him to rest with his family,” insisted Mom. “I’d like to at least try to hold up my end of the bargain.”
“You and your damn morals,” said Xan with a frown. “We owe nothing to this ghost. He possessed me and blackmailed us into doing what he wanted us to do.”
“He could have threatened to throw you to the worm-beast, too,” Liberty pointed out.
“We made a deal, Xan,” Drake said. “You goin’ back on that?”
“He offered a bargain that we accepted!” said Mom. “We should at least try, Xan, to be honest and honorable.”
“We agreed to bring him here and bury him…and we did,” said the rogue.
“So, what would you rather do, Xan? Go back to the cairn and get him to open the door?”
He nodded once. “I’ve said as much. And, Mom, if you are so honest and honorable, why don’t you go tell the other adventurers how honorable we were when we sent them to an empty tomb.”
“I could,” said Mom. “But I never made a bargain with them that I felt I needed to uphold.”
“They were going there anyway,” said Liberty. “I just… encouraged her. Them.”
“Ha! Now we aren’t even being honest with ourselves,” said Xan.
Mom pressed on. “But I did agree to bury the boy with his family, and his family has been removed. I gave my word, and I will do my best to fulfill it.”
“I suggest y’all shut it,” said Drake. “The ghost isn’t going to do our bidding until we do his. Xan, if you’re so keen to lie to the ghost that can take control of your body, please do. I ain’t stopping it from having your corpse to animate when you make it mad.”
“I have no intention of lying,” said Xan. “I don’t need to.”
“You are still trying to weasel out of the agreement,” said Mom. “But fine. You didn’t agree, but I did to help you out. And I will carry on the way I feel I should.”
Xan sighed. “I’m obviously outvoted in this, so I’ll play it democratically. Let’s vote. I vote for first seeing if the ghost is happy with what we have already done for it.” He looked around at the others expectantly.
“Bury it with its family, not a grave next to its family’s desecrated graves,” said Drake.
“I am going back to my house to sleep and pray, and then I will talk to Kullen myself, if that’s what I need to do to keep my word.”
The men all looked to Liberty, who had remained quiet. “Well Lib?” said Xan. “What do you think?”
“We have to find the other bodies, yes,” she said.
“Okay… We play it that way,” said Xan. “I just hope that you all realize that intelligent criminals are a lot more dangerous than anything we found in that tomb.”
Drake laughed. “Rather fight a man face to face than die to a burst of fire or a screaming stone face.”
Xan sighed again. “I said ‘intelligent criminals’, Cornelius. They won’t confront us face to face because they don’t have to. But it’s decided. If we’re going back to town, we should split up. I’m going back to the mine office for a change of clothes. These tears and bloodstains would raise too many questions.” He frowned at the owlbear in Drake’s arms. “And don’t even get me started on that thing…”