Terror in the Tower, part 1

Another tale of the Beckett Family’s adventures in Northumbria.


Background

The session began with the PCs in the small village of Lakesend, where they have been helping the local Lord Balin in finding a missing provost.

Cast of Characters:

Most party members are part of one large extended family—the noble Beckett family. A few are retainers.

Granny Beckett: Witch, eccentric matriarch of the family
Jade Cormallen: Half-elf ranger, distant relative to most
Lord Roger Beckett: Ranger, new family head
Acolyte Denston Beckett: Cleric of Pholtus, grumpy and dour
Daniel Beckett: Assassin, passionate and protective
Sir Callum Beckett: Cavalier, burly and jovial
Sir William Beckett: Cavalier, sarcastic and brave
Brother Lewie: Cleric of St. Cuthbert, erratic but insightful
Sven Ragnarsson: Barbarian, bastard of Granny, Bjorn’s twin
Bjorn Ragnarsson: Barbarian, bastard of Granny, Sven’s twin
Brother Liam: Cleric of St. Cuthbert, comrade of Brother Lewie
Sir Raynard: Cavalier, handsome and witty
Raymond: NPC (Fighter 1), stoic and responsible
Owen: NPC (Ranger 1), introverted and self-sufficient
Kieran: NPC (Magic User 1), gentle and intelligent
Sergeant Blaine: NPC Fighter, porter to the Beckett family
Dagis: NPC (Fighter 0), new squire to Sir Callum

Narrative:

Day 22, Eighth Moon 

The night passed without incident.  The family was now residing in the two abandoned shepherds’ cottages and that of the missing provost.  Most were up and about, eating breakfast outside Jehan’s cottage.  Roger had started a small cooking fire, and the smell of roasted trout and charred wood filled morning the air.  The peaceful scene vanished when Elwood, disheveled and clutching his gnarled wooden staff, came running down from the hillside.  Excited and gasping for breath, he eventually yelled something about a dead man.  Several family members grabbed their weapons and followed him back to the hillside at a brisk pace.  Along the way, Elwood, flustered and still short of breath, provided the others with more information.

“I was gathering worms for my fishing chores later on,” the young druid gasped, “when I heard the sound of something big crashing through the brush, coming toward me.  The sheep started to scurry away, and I picked up my staff, unsure of what was coming.  Then I heard it stop.  I couldn’t see anything, for whatever it was still lay inside the treeline.  I crept up and saw a man lying in the weeds, groaning in pain.  He was wounded, though I could not see exactly how.  It became obvious that he was no threat so I tried to help him, but he only moaned two words and then stopped breathing.  He said, ‘Pholtus’ and ‘Kieran.'”

“Is that all he said?” asked Jade.

“Only those two words,” said Elwood, “and as he did so he thrust this into my hands.” The young man produced a dirty, wrinkled packet of parchment scraps.  Roger took the scraps and opened them up, revealing three maps.

The ranger spoke aloud as they walked, saying, “These look like sketch maps of a large mansion or castle.  Lewie, can you make anything of these?”

The young cleric studied them closely as they hustled across a grassy field and up the hillside.  After a moment of thought, Lewie muttered, “This looks like a monastery.  The center seems to be a cloister.”

Pushing through large tufts of tall grass, Daniel spoke up, saying, “This is surely not Blackwater Keep. The layout is different, though it does look fortified.  Are you sure it is a monastery?”

His robe swishing through the tall grass, Lewie looked again but reached the same conclusion, saying, “It is definitely a monastery.  Could it be something around here?  We should send for Kieran, as he copied a map of the lake.  He might recognize this.”

Daniel added, “Remember too that this dead guy seemed to ask for Kieran by name.”

The group finally reached the pasture, where Elwood and some others had been watching the flock of the missing shepherds.  Elwood ran off to corral some of the sheep, which had scattered in his absence.  In the meantime, Daniel, Sven, Bjorn, Jade, and Roger looked upon a man lying face down, just inside the treeline near the top of the hill.  The man wore an arming jacket of brown leather and a hunter-green cloak over a chain hauberk.  No weapons were in sight.  A worn, buckskin belt pouch still rested on a belt at his side.

Brother Lewie immediately felt for vital signs, pressing his ear upon the man’s chest and feeling for breath or a pulse.  After a moment, he sighed and said, “He is gone.”  Narrowing his eyes, he continued, “There is little blood though.  I see cuts and bruises on his forearms, but nothing life-threatening.  Look at the marks on his face.”

As the cleric rolled the corpse, everyone saw that the man’s face was pale.  More curious, on the skin of the face were large red rings, almost one inch across.

“Carefully Lewie,” quipped Daniel, “he could be infected with plague.”

Sven and Bjorn had the same reaction at the same time, wincing and groaning.  “Aaggh, not plague!” they groaned.  Sven continued, “I hate plague.  My sword is useless against plague…  Plague rots!  Get it?  Heh heh heh!”

Rolling his eyes, Brother Lewie backed away from the corpse and said, “Perhaps ringworm?  The only time I saw rings such as these, it was a case of ringworm.”

Without touching the man’s flesh, Daniel slid to the body with a drawn dagger and cut the pouch free, examining its contents.  “Just a few coins,” he said.

Meanwhile, Roger scanned the area and moved about carefully, saying, “It seems that he made little attempt to hide his tracks.  They indicate that he moved quickly, smashing through the underbrush.  This fits with a mortally wounded man.”

Jade nodded in agreement, adding, “I see no tracks following his.  Last night’s rain made the ground soft and easy to decipher.  We might backtrack him to see what happened and where.”

Roger asked the twins to run back to the cottages to fetch Kieran.  They ran back immediately, eager for action instead of talk.  “Bring a few others to haul the body back as well,” Roger yelled after them.

Less than an hour later, Kieran, Sir Raynard, Raymond, Owen, and Sir William arrived with the Varangian twins.  All eyes went to Kieran, and Lord Roger explained what the dead man said before he fell.  The young sage looked clueless, and he stammered, “I know nothing of this man.  I have never seen him before.”

Raynard spoke up, never missing an opportunity to needle Kieran.  “Did you hire this man or send for one such as he?  Is this part of another hare-brained scheme to make a fortune?  Have you had any secret dealings like those of your last debacle at Harrison’s Landing?”

Kieran still looked perplexed, saying, “No, I swear that I made no deal whatsoever and have never seen this man.  Perhaps he meant a different Kieran.  What else did he say?”

Jade replied, “Elwood reported that he said only ‘Pholtus’ and ‘Kieran’.  Take a look at the maps that he had.  Do they look familiar to you?  Are they from any structure on your map of the lake?”

Kieran took a few moments to study the sketches on the parchment scraps.  While he did, William looked at the corpse, while keeping his distance.  With a look of disgust, the knight quipped, “What in the Nine Hells happened to his face?”

Sven spoke, saying, “Maybe a giant octopus attacked him.”

William shot a sideways glance at the hulking barbarian and muttered, “We are miles inland, my meat-headed friend.  That must have been a large octopus.”

Sven’s eyes narrowed.  Looking concerned and glancing about, he asked, “How will we fight such a large creature?”

Bjorn jumped right in, “We cut off all the wriggling legs!”  Before anyone could do anything, the two drew their large Varangian swords and began circling the area cautiously, looking in the bushes for any signs of a giant octopus.

Brother Lewie exhaled deeply and muttered, “It is indeed a miracle that we accomplish anything.”

Daniel moved closer to the body, though he was careful not to touch it.  Squatting next to Lewie, he said, “However ludicrous the idea of a giant octopus, the rings do resemble those made by the tentacles of such a beast.”

Jade chimed in, “Do you remember the statues on Wycliffe Island—the one with tentacles instead of fingers and the one with the mace that had tentacles instead of flanges?”

“A giant squid cult?” quipped Lewie.

Owen—not only a gifted tracker but also an avid collector of rumors—said quietly, “At the Welcome Wench, I have heard many local tales of a Devil Fish living in Blackwater Lake.  Of course, this is unlikely, but I can imagine a cult that worships such a beast.  It is not that far-fetched.”

Kieran, having studied the parchment sketch maps carefully, finally said, “I believe these maps to be those of the ruined Temple of Pholtus.  The site is situated on a hilltop, overlooking the western shores of the lake.  I recall from my notes that it once contained a great library—the greatest in these admittedly backwards parts.  I read that the library once held over 1000 volumes.  The cloister at the center of this map would fit with the temple, as would the tower depicted here, which is likely a lighthouse or beacon.  The topography seems correct too.”

“The what?” asked Raynard.

Kieran quickly clarified, “The lay of the land looks correct, cousin.  Note the lines on the map, which show elevation.  They are close together here, here, and here, which indicate cliffs or steep slopes.”

Raynard simply grunted and nodded, for once leaving the young sage alone.  He seemed to know his business.

Roger finally spoke up in a loud voice, “Daniel, William, Jade, Lewie, and the twins will come with me to backtrack the dead man.  We move quickly to see at least from whence he came.  The rest of you, get the body back to the cottage.  Send someone to the Keep to ask if they are missing anyone.  Take note of his features before you go.”

Kieran interrupted, “I can sketch his face, if that will help.”

Roger agreed, “Make it so, cousin.  We shall return to the village before long.  Also, send someone to purchase supplies for a brief trip to the temple.  If we want to investigate that place, we may want to move quickly.  Be ready.”

With that, the two parties separated.  For two hours, Roger and his companions backtracked the dead man’s steps.  They eventually led to the West Road, which was really just an overgrown goat path.  Roger and Jade were able to discern that the man had stumbled southwards down the road.

“The tracks do lead in the direction of the ruined temple,” noted Roger, staring at Kieran’s sketch map of the lake.

Daniel stepped closer to Roger and asked in a low voice, “Do you wish to investigate?  Remember, we are in the middle of trying to find Lord Balin’s missing provost, not to mention that someone is spying on us, or that some locals have seen a man-sized bat flying over the village.  Are we spread too thin?”

Roger responded, “We have no shortage of people.  Let us return immediately to the village.  Callum shall purchase some food at the inn or the market so our cousins need not hunt, gather, and fish for a few days.  They will likely appreciate the break.  During that time, we shall send Raymond and his brothers along with Granny to continue the search for Master Kevan the provost, while I shall lead our group here to the temple.  Granny will continue to tend to Sergeant Blaine, who is still beset by some strange ailment.  We shall deal with spies and giant bats when we must.”

Loooking away from Roger, Daniel asked, “Do we bring Denston?  You know he will insist on going if we mention a temple of Pholtus.”

Roger paused for a moment and then said, “We shall not tell him… yet.  If the place turns out to be a sinkhole of evil, we may need to torch it or raze it, and I am in no mood to argue with him at present.  We can always send for him if we must.”

With that, the group made its way back to the village.  It took an hour or so, but they followed Roger’s plans.  The group that departed for the ruined temple was as follows:  Lord Roger, Jade, Daniel, Sir William, Brother Lewie, Sven, and Bjorn.

The horses’ hooves barely made a sound on the soft ground.  The smell of rain was still in the air, though the sky had been clear all morning.  Jade was out in front, leading her sleek, chestnut-colored Sheffield along the weed-choked West Road.  The road had not seen any maintenance in years, as evidenced by the myriad saplings that grew out of its hard-packed earth.  It was narrow, perhaps only five feet wide in places.  It was less of a road and more of an easy trail to follow as you weaved through the trees.  Thick broad-leafed bushes crowded its edges, occasionally blocking the path completely, while tall oaks, elms, and linden trees towered overhead.  A gentle warm breeze blew through the leaves, occasionally sending a line of linden sap drizzling down upon one of the companions. Acorns littered the path.

It was several hours after noon when they turned sharply to the northeast and left the road.  Halting her steed, Jade asked aloud, “Are you sure that this is the way?”

Studying Kieran’s map, Roger replied, “Yes, this is the way.  The main trail to the temple seems to have completely disappeared. It must have been abandoned long ago. The road ahead leads downhill, meaning that we would have passed the hill on which the temple sits.  This is the way.”

At the back of the column, Bjorn said aloud to his brother, “The bushes here are thick and could hide many enemies.”

With a light in his eyes, Sven agreed with a grunt and laid his hand upon the hilt of his sword.

“There,” cried Jade softly, pointing ahead to something atop the hill in the distance.

Roger steered his mount next to hers and spied a few buildings, made of field stone and arranged along the side of a large hill.  Turning to Daniel, he said, “There lies the entrance, near those broad steps.  Let us back out of here and find a place to camp for the night.  Then I want to circle the place and see if anything moves within.”

The group turned their steeds and trotted about a half mile back along the trail.  Jade then located a small dell, sheltered from the road by a thick row of spruce trees.  A deep crevasse ran nearby, which Roger planned to use to hide their small fire. A brook was close by as well, offering fresh water for the horses.

The group settled in, while Roger and Jade circumnavigated the entire hill on foot.  They moved quietly, keeping to the shadows and using trees to mask their movements.  It was late in the day when they set out, and Roger judged that they had less than two hours of light remaining.  During their walk, they spotted no lamps or cooking fires.  They smelled no roasting meat or burning wood.  A stillness hung over the place, but they did hear the normal song of birds and insects.  Only one thing struck Roger as peculiar.  A number of times, he spotted large black birds in the distance, and they seemed to be near the temple’s tall, round, stone tower.  Then, later, Roger thought he saw a black shape flying through the trees.  He thought it was a condor or an unusually large hawk, but out of the corner of his eye, for a fraction of a second, he thought it had a human torso.

“Harpies?” Roger mused.

Jade shrugged. “I have never seen one.”

Roger’s eyes darted about as he mulled the possibilities.  Finally he said, “We go without fire tonight.  I want no surprises.”

Jade sprinted up an adjacent hill just before sunset, keeping alert for any large birds and making as little noise as possible.  The sun must look glorious from up here, she thought.  Cresting the hill, she pushed her way past a cluster of pine trees, and there she took in a magnificent sight.  The sun was setting behind the hills to the west, and the sky seemed aglow in golden-red fire.  She sometimes described to her human kin that the elven thirst for beauty was as real as the human need for water.  Going without it for long spells actually hurt, much like a dull stomachache from lack of food.  Just as cool water brings relief to a thirsty man, so does a beautiful sight soothe the elven soul.  For a few minutes, she sat down on the hillside and watched the sunset, losing herself in thought.  He mind went back to a favorite subject of hers, one that had captivated most of her attention in recent months.  Growing up, she had heard rumors of elven ruins along the shores of Blackwater Lake.  She wished that she could remember clearly who had shared this with her or what exactly they described.  All she recalled was that an ancient civilization once lay upon the shores of the lake and centuries of drifting soil and lush vegetation now hid its remains from view.  She longed to explore the ancient ruins, where perhaps no mortal had set foot for centuries.  She yearned to know the secrets left by those so long ago.  Were wondrous treasures buried within?  Anticipation made her skin crawl, but she forced herself to get to her feet and return to camp.  Both moons were now clearly visible in the darkening sky.

Day 23, Eighth Moon

 

The night passed without incident.  The group was up at sunrise, eating cold rations from their leather packs.  Afterwards, Brother Lewie crept up the hill for a while to say his morning prayers, while Sven and Bjorn tended to the horses.  Sir William and Daniel sharpened their swords with whetstones, while Roger and Jade consulted the maps.  They decided to leave the horses tethered in the grove, unguarded, hoping that all would turn out well.  Then they fell into a column of two and walked through the trees toward the hill.

Jade, at the head of the column, stopped abruptly when she caught sight of the entryway and the stone outbuildings.  The group hesitated, looking for any sign of trouble.  Again they smelled no cooking fires, heard no noises of habitation, and saw no smoke.  Roger turned to Jade, pointed two fingers at his eyes and then the same fingers toward the temple.  The elven lass had far better eyesight than any of her human kin.  Jade squinted, using her hands to shield her eyes from the morning sun.  A moment passed, and then she said quietly, “I see nothing out of the ordinary, save for a large crow or raven perched atop the squat circular tower to the left.  All is quiet.”

Roger waived them forward, and the column moved out.  They first approached an old, freestanding, circular stone tower, covered in ivy vines.  The roof had partially collapsed, and the door was ajar.  After a brief check, they pushed inside and found that saplings were growing wildly inside, nurtured by sunlight that shone through a gaping hole in the roof.  Brother Lewie pointed across the single room to a stone altar at the far side, saying, “This was a chapel, most likely for pilgrims.”

Daniel smirked and said, “I guess the good priests did not want the unwashed masses inside the temple proper.”

Roger rubbed his hand along the soot-covered stones of the wall. “A great fire raged here.  Perhaps that is what took down the roof.”

Jade asked, “Was it an accident or something else?”

Just then, Daniel stopped in his tracks and swayed a bit, for in his mind’s eye, he saw flashes of imagery that surprised and disoriented him.  It only lasted a second, but it seemed much longer.  He saw hazy gray images, like those from a dull memory, playing out a scene right before him, as if people were in the room with him.  It occurred so quickly that he had no time to process it.  No one saw him sway or stop, as he was toward the back of the room, keeping an eye on the door.  In the next minute, he tried to make some sense of what he had seen.  He remembered images of many people, perhaps commoners, for they were dressed poorly, rushing into this room.  Some bore torches and other pitchforks or clubs.  In his mind’s eye, he saw flames erupting in the room and growing.  He saw a robed man bleeding on the floor, while the angry crowd ransacked the place.  That was all he could recall.  Disturbed, he did not share this immediately with those in the room.  This was not the first time he has seen such visions, but they always surprised and unsettled him.

When he forced his attention back to his kin, he noticed that Jade had discovered something amiss with the flagstones on the ground in front of the altar.  While William examined a stone statue of a robed man behind the altar, the Varangian twins helped to uncover what turned out to be a rectangular stone slab in the floor.  It took some time, but they eventually uncovered its edges.  They were about to muscle it off, when Jade insisted that they first clear the wind-blown soil off the top.  This they did, revealing a hand-sized carving of crossed lightning bolts, etched into the center of the stone slab.

Happy with herself, Jade pointed triumphantly to the pictograph.

Roger looked at Lewie and asked, “Do you make anything of that?”

The cleric rubbed his chin, saying, “It seems familiar, but I cannot place it.”

Sven spoke up, “Thunder.  THUNDER!  It means thunder.”  With a smile, he looked proudly about the room.  Bjorn nodded in agreement, grunting, “Thunder.”

Roger shrugged and said, “Very well then.  Thunder.  Open it up.”  He stepped back to let the twins position themselves.  This they did, and then they pulled with all their might.  The lid came loose and slid back, but a brilliant flash and deafening boom knocked the hulking barbarians onto their backsides.  The others instinctively turned away or threw themselves to the ground.  The effect was gone in an instant, but the strange smell of burning ozone lingered in the room.  The group slowly picked themselves off the floor, save for the twins, who still lay on their backs, wide-eyed, a bit frazzled, and muttering, “Thunder…”

A flash of recognition then came over Lewie, and he said aloud, “Glyph of warding!  I knew it!  Damn.  That was my fault.  Sorry.”  With that, he helped up Bjorn, who seemed more rattled than Sven.  The stone lid had slid back to reveal a shallow stone niche, in which Jade found a large bundle of badly disintegrated wrapping, made of linen or burlap.  Old, rotten, and smelling of oil, the gooey material seemed to come apart in her hands, but she eventually found within two silver candelabras, a golden chalice, and a large silver decanter.  Each was ornately carved, featuring holy symbols and tiny runes along the edges.

Daniel quietly stuffed the goods into his backpack, while Roger examined the old statue behind the altar.  Worn by the passage of time, it was also chipped and broken in several places.  The left arm was entirely gone, and the face was badly scarred.  Roger tried to read an etching on the base of the statue, but he had no luck.  Neither did Lewie, though he could tell that the script was Aquilonian.  “Does anyone here read Aquilonian?” asked the cleric.  Most shook their heads.

“I know someone that does,” said William, smiling.  For a moment, there was silence.

“Oh, no,” said Jade dejectedly.

“Denston,” Daniel said flatly.

William replied with a laugh, “I know, I know.  The man is as charming as foot rot, but the fact is that he could read this.”

“We shall see…” quipped Roger, but at that moment all heads turned to the two Varangians, who now held aloft the stone floor slab and proceeded to slam it to the ground in an attempt to break it.

“THUNDER!” they yelled as it hit the ground with a thud.  It failed to break, causing them to grimace.  As the others just watched, the twins picked it up and slammed it to the ground again.  Again, it failed to break.

“We should keep moving,” said Roger.

The group did another quick search of the room and then prepared to move out.  As Jade was about to leave the room, walking behind Daniel, she looked down and saw that liquid was dripping profusely from Daniel’s breeches.  Her face tightened in a look of disgust as she slapped him on the shoulder.  He turned about with a puzzled look and followed her eyes to the puddle on the floor beneath him.

“What in the Nine Hells?” Daniel began, as he dropped his pack.  The leather bottom was soaked, and something had dripped onto his breeches and onto the ground.  After some rummaging, he found that the silver decanter that he had just packed was now filled with water.  After a brief examination, they found that it slowly filled itself up with clear liquid.  Daniel took a sip and said that it tasted like clean water.  Unsure what to do, as there was no cover, Daniel simply wrapped it back up and tried to keep it upright in his pack.  His breeches were now soaked, which gave the others quite a laugh.  They all prepared to move out when a great crash suddenly echoed from the back of the room.  All spun about with weapons drawn.

“THUNDER!” the twins yelled, as the stone slab, which they had just hurled into the chipped statue, crashed to the floor, taking the upper half of the statue with it.  A small plume of dust swirled about the two.

“Did it work?” asked Bjorn.

“The statue broke, not the slab,” said Sven dejectedly.  Bjorn and Sven grunted in displeasure, while everyone else turned without a word and left the room.

Just outside, Brother Lewie mused aloud, “If troubadours ever write tales of our glorious deeds, do you think they will include everything?”

“I hope not,” quipped William.

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