The Beckett family ventures into the Temple of Pholtus described in part 1 of this adventure narrative.
The session began with the PCs at a ruined temple of Pholtus, not far from the western shores of Blackwater Lake. They had already explored one outbuilding, where they found some hidden valuables in a buried stone vault. One such bauble was a silver decanter that slowly filled with fresh water. Daniel discovered this the hard way when it leaked through his backpack and breeches, giving the group a laugh.
Cast of Characters
Most party members are part of one large extended family—the noble Beckett family. A few are retainers. Characters in gray text were not present during this encounter.
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
Day 23, Eighth Moon
Standing outside the ruined tower, which butted up against the side of the hill, they turned their attention to another freestanding stone building, or rather a series of connected one-story rectangular buildings. Here too the roof seemed to have collapsed, along with the walls in several places. Black soot stained much of the fieldstone walls, but a thick web of lush green ivy vines masked much of the damage. Early morning sunlight shone into several open door frames along the eastern walls.
Jade moved to the open portals first, listening quietly and peering about. However, when she seemed to relax and then moved inside, the rest followed. Four rectangular rooms of differing sizes formed one building complex, but each was ruined. Here too the ceilings had fallen in, and sunlight nurtured dozens of saplings growing through the displaced stone floor slabs. Drifting soil had partially covered the flagstones, and thick weeds grew from it in patches.
A human skull peered back at Jade in the third small room, giving her a start. She said nothing, but she tapped the wall with her sword to get Roger’s attention. She then pointed to the skeleton, half-buried under the weed-choked soil.
Roger whistled quietly to Daniel and pointed toward the corpse. While Daniel moved forward to inspect it, Roger said, “I see nothing except bits of debris—rotted furniture and such. Does anyone have an idea as to the purpose of this place?
Brother Lewie, brushing the weeds with his boot and looking about, said nonchalantly, “This was likely the almonry, where the priests dispensed alms to pilgrims or to the poor.”
Still crouched over the skeleton, Daniel unburied the bones with his gloved hands, saying, “I am no expert, of course, but I would venture that our friend here has been long dead. The bones are completely stripped of flesh, and almost no trace of clothing remains.” A look of disappointment came over his face, as he muttered, “No belt pouch, of course. Oh well.”
Jade asked aloud, “Do we know when this site was last occupied?”
Roger responded, saying, “Kieran did not share many details when he described this place. Perhaps we shall find some clue inside.”
Brother Lewie added, “The worship of Pholtus is not uncommon in Frangia, but it is predominant in Zeeland. A betting man would guess that Zeelanders constructed this place, and they have been active along the eastern seaboard for many years now. Despite appearances, this place could be relatively new.”
Jade agreed, noting, “Fire could ruin a structure like this overnight and could also account for the collapsed roof, while this tangle of ivy on the walls would only take a year or so to grow, given the frequent rains.”
Roger waved on the rest, saying, “We should keep looking around. Something tells me that whatever befell this place was no accident, and I would be more comfortable if I knew when it was destroyed. Keep in mind that if our dead friend in the village indeed came from here, something in this place may have killed him. Stay sharp.”
Moving clockwise around the wooded hill, the group came to a broad stone stairway that led up to the main entrance of the temple complex. A round, crenellated stone bastion, or turret, covered in ivy and perhaps twelve-feet-high, seemed to squat next to the bottom of the stairway. It butted up against a stone plateau, and a low stone bridge connected it to the plateau above. Perched atop the stone bridge, a large crow or raven sat, cawing occasionally.
Peering at the parchment scraps, Roger said aloud, “Based on the map, I thought this was a tower. Not exactly.”
With a smile on his face, Sven laughed and said, “It is a baby tower. When it grows up, it will be tall and strong.”
Clad in his plate harness, Sir William moved past the group to the stairs, saying, “The turret is short by design. It guards the stairway. Note the arrow loops. Archers could fire from inside and from the low roof. A porter probably lived within.” The knight casually bent over and picked up a thumb-sized stone with his gloved hand.
The crow cawed again, seeming to look at the party.
Sven’s eyes narrowed, and he growled, “Crows bring evil omens. They feast on the dead.”
Bjorn nodded in agreement, adding, “Some say that they can sense the dead, or those about to die.”
William laughed aloud at the twins, saying, “Old women say many things. ‘Tis a bird.” With that, he hurled the stone at the creature, but it went wide, ricochetting off the wall. The crow took flight and cawed repeatedly, flying up the hill towards the main structure.
“Come on,” muttered Roger, leading the way up the steps.
The steps ended on a small plateau, on which sat another long rectangular stone building. To the right, across from the rectangular building, another broad set of steps led up another ten feet or so to the temple’s main gate.
The twins spread out and scouted the plateau. Daniel and Jade took the lead toward the turret and approached the low stone bridge, while William, Roger, and Lewie consulted the parchment scraps again.
Daniel could see that the masonry of the stone bridge was worn and loose, even pitted in some places. On the bridge, rough gravel formed a floor of sorts, but it was spilling out the underside of the bridge, leaving holes and pits in the walkway. Daniel, careful of his footing, scampered across without incident. Jade, though clad in her hauberk of fine elven chain, lightly jumped up on one of the thick stone railings and then tiptoed across the bridge with ease.
“Show off,” muttered Daniel, causing the half-elf to smile.
Seeing the dust rising from the gravel that spilled out of the bottom, William stopped at the edge of the bridge and called out, “Take a look inside the turret. If you need me, yell.”
Roger carefully made his way across the stone railing of the bridge, following Jade’s example. Meanwhile, atop the circular turret, Daniel walked to the edge and looked down on the stone stairway that they had just ascended. Nodding with understanding, he said aloud, “Anyone going up those steps are easy targets. I can see the strength of this turret now.”
Turning back to the narrow stone bridge that he had just crossed, Daniel added, “And this causeway would be easy enough to defend. Sven pointed out a loophole on the side of the turret, below where we stand, but how do you get down below?”
Jade, moving past him and, tapping part of the ground with her boot, said, “Trapdoor.”
Daniel looked closely and noticed that the wind-blown dirt, moss, and gravel just barely covered an iron handle, about the size of a hand. The swipe of her boot made its outline clear.
“Not bad,” Daniel said, as he bent to examine the iron handle. It was worn and without detail. A light tug revealed that it was stuck or locked. After a moment of thought, he leaned back and pulled hard on the handle. He heard a pop or a click below, and a trapdoor of old wood, perhaps three-feet-square, partially opened. Daniel quickly cleared the soil and gravel off of the door, allowing him to pull it open on the next attempt.
A musty smell wafted out of the dark, square opening. Daniel dropped his pack, pulled free a pinewood torch, and quickly unpacked a tinderbox. Flipping it open, he took up the flint and steel, while Jade crouched down and peered into the darkness.
In a low voice, she said, “The arrow loop allows some light in, but not much. I see nothing of consequence, and nothing is moving down there.”
“We shall soon see,” replied Daniel, sending a cherry-red spark into a small pile of wood shavings. As a tiny flame emerged from the tinder, he quickly touched the oil-soaked end of the torch to the small fire. It ignited immediately, and Daniel thrust it into the dark, square void. Its light revealed several rotted wooden steps, leading down into what appeared to be a single room.
Listening attentively, Daniel heard only the whoosh of the burning torch. Turning to Jade as he unsheathed his sword, he asked, “You have good ears. Do you hear anything below?”
She pushed the torch aside with her hand, and Daniel withdrew it. Jade crouched motionless above the hole for a moment and then muttered, “Nothing.”
Daniel, Cimbrian broadsword in one hand and torch in the other, lightly descended the steps. The air below was musty, cold, and humid. The room was circular, with a low wooden ceiling. Large piles of soil or turned earth completely covered the floor. If there was ever a stone floor, it was completely covered. Some weeds sprouted near the narrow rectangular loophole, where a thin sliver of sunlight shone. Shards of debris, possibly wooden furniture, stuck up in places through the surface of the soil. Daniel heard nothing, save for the creak of the wooden steps as Jade and Roger descended to join him.
Jade upended a few pieces of debris with her boot, but a few others were larger, perhaps pieces of a table. Just as she was about to stop, her keen eyes saw something glint in the flickering torchlight. She reached down and picked up a heavily worn, bronze coin. “Look at this,” she muttered, walking over to Daniel. He took the coin and brought it close to the torch, peering at what remained of its markings.
“Aquilonian, I think,” he said. Handing it back to her, Daniel continued, “Hang onto it. It might be valuable, or it may provide a clue about… this…” He stopped mid-sentence and forgot about the coin, suddenly sensing an eerie, ominous feeling that he could not shake. Roger felt it too and looked about the room cautiously, sword in hand. To Jade, the feeling was almost overwhelming, and her hand went instinctively to her shortsword.
Daniel stumbled a bit in the darkness, for again hazy images raced through his mind in mere seconds. Again it surprised and disoriented him, and he dropped to one knee. Jade and Roger noticed him kneel, and they moved to his side, asking if he were ill. The images had already gone, but only now was Daniel processing what he had just seen. He saw blurred gray images of figures in dark robes, holding candles and chanting. He saw one robed figure holding a dagger and drawing it across his palm. Though it looked grayish-black along with everything else, a liquid that he assumed to be blood dripped onto a corpse laying upon the ground.
Jade knelt beside the young nobleman, asking, “What is it? Are you all right?”
Daniel stammered a bit, trying and failing to verbalize what he had just seen. Without further explanation, Daniel set down the torch and began to dig into the piles of earth with his gloved hands. He finally found his voice, saying, “Help me to see how deep this is.”
Trusting him, both knelt to help him, laying their weapons on the soil beside them. They rapidly scraped away the dirt, which seemed strangely loose for a site that seemed abandoned long ago. After several minutes, Roger’s hand struck a flagstone more than two feet below the surface.
“That explains why the ceiling seems so low,” muttered the ranger.
Still feeling overwhelmed by an eerie feeling, Jade urged, “Let us leave this place.” However, as she spoke, her keen ears detected a faint rustling or scraping sound coming from behind them. Just a fraction of a second later, they all heard it and slowly turned to look behind them. Then time seemed to slow to a crawl.
Across the room, where nothing had stood only moments before, a human skeleton now knelt beside one of the larger piles of earth. In the flickering torchlight, they saw that it held a short blade in its bony right hand. It made no noise, but its empty gaze and rictus grin seemed to burn a hole straight through them all. Without a sound, the thing suddenly stood up.
Wide-eyed, Daniel was the first to react, reaching for his sword and blurting out in horrified disbelief, “Cuthbert’s eyes!”
Roger said nothing but rose to his feet, his eyes fixated on the horror that somehow stood before him. His hand tightened on the hilt of his axe, but for a second, he could not move.
Jade felt the most powerful flood of revulsion that she ever felt in her life, and for a moment it struck her like a boulder, leaving her breathless. The first pangs of panic began to well up inside her, and without taking her eyes off the abomination, she blindly grasped for the sword beside her.
Then time seemed to race, causing everything to whirl and blur. Dropping into a crouch, the thing almost sprinted forward with a rapid, lifeless, yet animated gait. Daniel channeled fear into rage, shouting as he struck at the thing. Roger and Jade joined him, unleashing a flurry of blows. With unsettling speed, the creature dodged one blow after the next, and then thrust its blade into Daniel’s thigh. He screamed in pain. Roger and his kinsmen landed several blows to the ribcage, but with no flesh to slice apart, they seemed ineffective. With almost mechanistic precision, the thing parried blows and countered each strike, slicing Jade and Roger in turn. Someone accidentally kicked the torch where it lay on the ground, and the already dim figure became nearly invisible in the wildly shifting shadows.
Outside, Brother Lewie had just come to the narrow stone bridge when he and William heard the screams from below. Lewie was first to react, rushing headlong toward the turret, awkwardly pulling at the mace in his belt as he ran. William had been adjusting a strap on his leg armor, but now he grabbed his war hammer off the ground and bolted upright, ready to follow the cleric. He took one step and then stopped dead in his tracks, for Lewie made it only six paces before the gravel and masonry groaned and suddenly fell out from beneath him. An avalanche of stone, gravel, dirt, and dust cascaded ten feet to the ground below, swallowing the cleric and leaving a giant hole in the walkway of the bridge.
Sven and Bjorn were returning to the bridge when they heard Daniel’s scream. Just as they broke into a run, they saw the bridge collapse and the cleric vanish in a plume of dust. With cat-like reflexes, they both turned sharply away from the bridge and instead raced down the stone steps to rescue the cleric. Meanwhile, William had recovered from the shock of the collapse, and he hurriedly backed up ten feet. Then he charged toward the turret as fast as he could in his plate harness, shouting wildly as he reached the beginning of the span. He made it to the gaping hole, and then the remaining masonry gave way. The ground dissolved beneath his feet, but his wild charge was so fast that the ground collapsed just behind each footstep. He jumped the final few feet and landed with a crash on the top of the turret as the roar behind him died out. A second plume of dust rose high into the air, while the Varangian twins and the cleric below were showered with dust and debris.
William scrambled to his feet and started down the hatchway, but the rotted wood steps gave way beneath his weight. After the first one snapped or disintegrated, he virtually slid down the steps, feet first, snapping each step beneath him. Landing on his knees at the bottom, he looked up to behold a terrifying sight. The flickering torchlight poorly illuminated the room, and his eyes were still adjusting, but his kinsmen seem to be whirling about, locked in combat with a human skeleton. The thing slid in and out of the darkness, striking soundlessly with a short blade, like a viper. Jade, Roger, and Daniel hacked and sliced at it with wild abandon, but their efforts seemed to have no effect. With a shout of fear-driven anger, William scrambled to his feet and waded into battle.
Outside, Sven and Bjorn hauled Brother Lewie from the debris. All three were covered head-to-toe in gray stone dust, and Lewie hacked and coughed, gasping for air. He had no time to recover, however, for the twins virtually carried him up the slope at a jog, each with an arm hooked under his. They set him upon one of the narrow stone railings of the collapsed bridge, which were still intact. Hearing screams from beneath the turret, Lewie, still coughing, stood and then scampered across, trailing small puffs of gray dust. Once across, he hurried down the remains of the rotted steps. As for the twins, they leaped across the twelve-foot span, landing gracefully and then immediately descending through the hatchway.
In the whirling darkness, William swung his hammer with vigor, and it struck home, caving in part of the creature’s ribcage. A second blow sent shards of another rib flying against the wall. Roger, Daniel, and Jade, who by now seemed to have been locked in combat for a lifetime, noticed that William’s blows were the first to stagger the thing.
Immediately upon entering the room, Brother Lewie felt the eerie feeling that permeated the room, and though he recoiled from the unbelievable sight before his eyes, he grabbed at the holy symbol around his neck. However, the twins came rushing down the steps before he could act.
In unison, the two hulking warriors froze in their tracks for a few seconds and muttered, “Gods above!” They recovered quickly though and sprang into action. Seeing the flash of blades and deeming it futile, they hurled themselves at the lone creature. Missing the quick-moving form by inches, Sven tackled thin air and slammed into the stone wall, but Bjorn managed to grapple the thing and clutch one of its bony legs. He tried to pull it apart, but the skeleton sliced his arm deeply and pulled free of his grasp.
William struck home again, this time shattering its jaw, leaving only bone splinters hanging from the top of the skull. Sven grabbed one bony hand and, grunting with effort, swung the creature into the wall. Yet, it recovered immediately and lunged forward, thrusting its blade into Jade’s shoulder. Wide-eyed, the half-elf dropped to her knees, and the fiendish thing pulled its blade free.
Seeing Jade drop, Lewie lunged into action. Drawing himself up to his full height and stepping into the flickering light of the torch, he thrust his silver cross of St. Cuthbert before him and shouted, “Foul abomination, go back to the shadows! Flee from here! I command you to withdraw!”
If the shattered remains of the skeleton could hear or otherwise sense the cleric, it gave no sign. Instead, it drove its crimson blade into the center of William’s breastplate, punching a hole in the armor but failing by inches to impale the knight. The sword stuck for just a second, but it was enough. Kneeling as he swung his heavy blade down in a furious arc, Sven cleaved the remains of the skull from the spine, causing the remaining bones to drop lifelessly to the churned earth.
The whirl of activity ended with startling abruptness. The shouting and clash of steel gave way to relative silence, broken only by the panting of Roger and his companions. His adrenaline flowing, William was the first to find his voice, gasping, “What in the Nine Hells was that?”
Roger, doubled over and gasping for air, stood up with purpose, saying, “I know not, but let us be rid of the vile thing.” He moved to the bones, reached down, grabbed the top of the skull, and clambered up the ruined stairway. The rest followed, curious and relieved to depart the dark chamber. Brother Lewie, one of the last to depart, noted that the eerie and oppressive feeling had gone.
Atop the turret, Roger hurled the skull into the forest. As it disappeared into the trees, the ranger muttered, “If we cannot truly kill the damnable thing, perhaps that will slow it down.”
Brother Lewie, still covered in gray masonry dust, began to check each companion for injuries, and he tended to Jade’s wounds, which seemed the most serious.
Before Daniel ascended the steps, he picked up the bronze coin that Jade had dropped during the battle, as well as the skeleton’s short sword. When he emerged from the chamber, he looked more closely at the blade, saying, “Aquilonian, I think.”
Roger turned to his younger brother and peered at the sword, saying, “If so, it is in fantastic condition. The workmanship seems extraordinary. It may fetch a good price if we desire to sell it. Guard it well. It may also come in handy here.”
The somber mood vanished with Jade’s sudden laughter. The others looked at her and followed her gaze, finally realizing that Daniel’s breeches, shirt, and backpack were entirely soaked again.
She giggled, saying, “You seem to have had another accident.” The others could not help but laugh, and Daniel made a gesture of resignation.
Hoping for a way to plug the wondrous decanter, he ran back to the tower shrine to retrieve the oil wrappings in which they had found it, but they proved to be too rotted and slimy to be of any use. The Varangian twins, still covered in gray dust, also jogged back to the almonry to pull apart the half-buried skeleton there, lest it also animate and attack them.
The group of seven now stood before the double doors that formed the main gate of the temple complex.
Turning to Roger, Daniel asked, “Do we explore the inside first or finish exploring the outbuildings?”
Roger replied, “Let us sweep the perimeter first. I do not wish to become trapped inside by anything we bypassed.”
Bjorn pointed with his blade to a few low, stone buildings in the courtyard beyond that looked much the same as the others they had seen. The courtyard was about ten feet higher than the plateau on which they now stood, and it seemed that the natural route to that courtyard ran through the temple itself. However, Sven simply climbed to the top of the stone steps and then hopped over the thick stone railing. He was careful, for a nearby section of the perimeter wall, made of fieldstone, had collapsed into the lower courtyard below.
One by one, the companions followed his lead. Jade was last, and no one gave it any thought, at least until they heard her shout as rocks gave way beneath her feet. The half-elf slid over the side of the plateau and landed hard on the dirt below. Sven was closest to her and peered over the edge, asking “Are you alright?”
Grimacing, but more embarrassed than injured, Jade nodded and rose to her feet. She quickly scampered back up the steps and straddled the railing once again. In truth though, she wondered if she had lost more blood than she realized, for she felt light-headed. Just as she climbed over the railing again and stood up, she felt a sense of vertigo and lost her balance yet again. In disbelief, the others saw her slip over the edge with a cry.
Unable to control himself, William laughed aloud, and Brother Lewie simply raised his eyebrows.
Daniel muttered flatly, “So much for elven agility.”
Shaking his head, Roger then called out to Sven, “Would you please help her up here?”
The hulking Varangian hopped down with ease and raised the ranger to her feet. With an arm around her waist, he effortlessly pushed her up and over the railing. Red-faced and determined not to slip again, she forced herself to focus and finally managed to join the others.
Roger was the first to catch the scent of decay. It was not the telltale odor of decaying flesh, but more like the pungent stench of rotting food. He said as much aloud.
Jade noticed that wind was blowing in their direction from the courtyard beyond, and she breathed deeply, despite the foul air. She added, “I smell animal urine and feces too—a lot of it.”
Daniel slid his dagger from his sheath and sliced a strip of undyed linen from his under tunic. He then tried to tie it about his face, and Jade followed suit.
Irritated with the delays, Roger muttered, “Really?”
A few others snickered as well, but Daniel quipped, “Laugh at me when you vomit or catch some disease that causes your lips to fall off.”
It was then that they heard the high-pitched, eerie, almost otherworldly sound of song.