Nursing a fresh knot on her head and a badly bruised arm, Phoenix votes to go in search of medicine (of the alcoholic kind) and let the dead take care of themselves. A quick search by Effren reveals nothing of interest or value, and he too recommends a strategic retreat to the inn lest the lizard men have any friends who might wish to pay them a social call.
As they are leaving, Sarviena notices that one of the windows hangs loosely in its frame. Simply removing a concealed peg allows it to open freely and explains how the creatures were able to come and go without creating a commotion or leaving a trail. "It seems this was not just a casual hiding place, but a prepared lair. There is perhaps more going on here than we thought," she remarks.
The party's deliberations continue the next day over breakfast, with the arguments over what should be their next move passing over Phoenix's head, which is bent forward to facilitate her shovelling in prodigious quantities of food.
On the pretext of taking a healthful turn around the village to inspect the sights, and having secured the bulk of their weapons in their rooms lest their being heavily armed should arouse suspicion, the stroll forth. The Constable scowls at them from his porch, the more so in response to a cheery wave from Effren. "I believe I need some rope," he tells his companions as he strides off in the direction of the village store.
The adventurers are pleased to see as they pass the stable that their horses have been turned out to pasture by the liveryman. The store seems well kept, stocked with the basics that a small farming village might require, but nothing beyond that. The storekeeper and his wife offer only basic politeness, which swiftly turns to coldness and irritation as Effren persists with questions about the village and what has been occurring there.
The storekeeper and his wife become agitated and tell the group to leave as they are closing for a stocktaking, a point emphasised when a bolt appears quivering at Effren's feet, closely followed by an aggressive son who appears from a back room with a freshly loaded crossbow.
Deciding that perhaps he should continue his enquiries elsewhere, Effren wanders over to the Blacksmith's shop which he has spied behind some scrubby trees. His welcome here is, if anything, more vigorous than the one he received in the shop, with the mere sight of him driving the smith to such fury that he has to been restrained by his two sons.
"Perhaps a little religious instruction might be helpful at this point," suggests Reginald, his hand twitching for his stowed sword. A few hundred yards away they can see the imposing bulk of the Temple of Merrika squatting on a hillside, dozens of stately elm trees surrounding it like watchful guardians.
Phoenix has been around dwarves long enough to have an appreciation of stone buildings, and she feels a grudging respect for the quality of the masonry. Not even the chill wind, however, can excuse the jarring contrast with the state of the grounds which look woefully neglected by the gardener who seems to be mostly just stirring the dust.
Reginald strides confidently up the steps and into the central sanctuary. Five elm trunks and a large carved statue of the Goddess support the ceiling, while at her feet an attractive young woman wearing clerical robes is attending to something on the altar.
As she hears the party clatter into the room she bows to the Goddess and approaches, politely warning them that this is the only public part of the Temple and that the rest is strictly for the clergy and servants of the Temple only. In response to the adventurers' questions she is polite but vague, stating that she has been purely attending to Temple matters and has little knowledge of or interest in the outside world.
Reginald is inspired to mention their little fracas in the decaying hulk of The Foaming Mug Inn the previous night. Keen-eyed Sindawe is interested to notice that the priestess's small exclamation of surprise at the discovery of lizard men in the centre of the village seems less than fully sincere, and that her congratulations at their slaughter seem equally so.
"Interesting," comments Effren as the group once more descends the gentle slope up to the Temple. "We have pieces of a puzzle here, but no idea of the picture they might form." Sarviena suggests that, as he has been declared decent and honest by the merchant Korwyn, and it is probably part of his job description to know what is going on in and around his village, Zakarius Ormond, the mayor, would likely be a profitable ally.
Set well back from the road, the mayor's imposing house stands amongst more of the seemingly ubiquitous elm trees, looking out over the large mill pond. Intricately carved columns are clearly the work of a master craftsman, and the small workshop next to the house indicates that it might be Ormond himself.
A long and exhausting conversation ensues. The mayor asks many probing questions before he finally satisfies himself that the adventurers are genuine in their intent to get to the bottom of the mystery of Orlane. He is unsurprised by their concern about the Temple, as he too has his suspicions that all is not well there. He also believes that others are involved, naming the smith, the shopkeepers and the carpenter as well as voicing grave doubts about the old man who lives in a cabin in a grove on the other side of town. "Talks too much to that damn weasel of his, if you ask me," he huffs.
When Sarviena mentions that some in the village have alluded to the Elves in the nearby cottage as having unknown and possibly malign reasons for being there, the mayor reassures the group that they are 'handled', whilst warning against indiscriminate slaughter of suspects during their investigations. By this time Phoenix's stomach is growling like a wounded bison, so the group decides to continue their investigations after lunch.
As the grove of Ramne the Hermit is close by the Inn, the group decide that is as good a place as any to go next and as they weave their way amongst the largest elms any of them have ever seen, they spot a wizened old man tottering unsteadily about a yard in front of a ramshackle cottage, gathering and adding sticks and branches to a woodpile, upon which a bright-eyed weasel darts back and forth.
"Garn, bugoff," he says, by way of greeting. Reginald puts on his politest and most conciliatory face as he addresses the cantankerous old man. It tests his patience and diplomatic skills to the limit, but eventually he is able to convince the ill-tempered curmudgeon that they do not intend to murder him in his bed, steal his sticks or molest his pet (who sticks his tongue out at them for emphasis).
Ramne spits on the ground as he hears of the demise of the occupants of the Foaming Mug, and thaws slightly. He concurs with the party that the Temple is not as it once was, and seems to be a focus for the evil which has enveloped the village. He also spits at the mention of The Golden Grain Inn citing it as a place to beware of, and better to sleep in a ditch than to take one of their beds.
He hints that he might be able to offer them further assistance if they can bring him additional information. As the day wears on towards dusk and the party prepare to take their leave, Ramne, lays a hand on Reginald's arm, and mentions his concern for the Widow Merridy who has a cottage close to the Temple. He asks that, should they be passing, the party check in on her and pass on his greetings.
Having agreed that another night-time 'constitutional' may be appropriate, the group return once more to their Inn and surreptitiously retrieve their weapons before making their way along the back road which leads to the Temple and which passes the widow's small but neatly kept cottage.
Thinking it best not to crowd too many people into such a small space, Phoenix and Sindawe stand watch outside while the others enter. Once within they are regaled with drinks, small sweetmeats, and endless tales of 'the old days'. A small blush appears at the mention of the crazy old man in the wood, and she becomes quite forceful in her hope that the 'suspicious-looking men' who have moved in next to 'that nice Mayor Ormond' don't bring him any harm.
She too has her conclusions about who and what is bringing danger to the village, citing the priests of the Temple who used to be so nice (in the old days) but who changed after going away for about a week on a 'religious retreat' about a year ago. In amongst her ramblings she also expresses concern about her two neighbour farmers at the bottom of the hill, the carpenter, the vineyard owner and the blacksmith. She, of course, has no direct proof but states that she 'can just feel it in me water'.
Reassured as to her robustness and continuing safety, the group press on, finding a secluded spot amongst the surrounding trees from which to scale the Temple walls. They very nearly bring disaster down upon themselves as when Effren casts a small spell which allows him to scuttle up and over the wall he finds himself almost on top of a small group of outbuildings. A less sure step or the use of a grapple could have drawn an inconvenient amount of attention to their efforts.
Motioning frantically, Effren directs the adventurers to a safer spot, dropping flat to the top of the wall he suddenly hears the unmistakable crunch of an approaching guard, leading what looks to be a mangy wolf. As soon as they pass, Effren lowers his rope to allow the others to gain the interior of the Temple compound. Swiftly they dart across the open ground to the Temple door, the lock of which Phoenix picks with a triumphant flourish.
Closing it silently behind them, the adventurers spread out, listening at doors or alert and with weapons drawn to meet any potential attack. Selecting the door closest to her, Phoenix is disappointed to find it unlocked. Poking her head inside she sees a room bare except for three wooden benches and another enticing door. Following quickly behind, hoping to forestall any impetuosity, Reginald and Sarviena also enter the chamber while a beaming Phoenix delicately tickles the lock of her door into obedience.
Effren approaches, carrying a small torch he has found. Gesturing for Phoenix to wait until he has brought Sindawe, he crosses the sanctuary to where Sindawe stands with one sensitive ear pressed against a door. Not understanding what all the hand-waving is about, Phoenix gives a tentative wave back and then opens the door to the room beyond.
Within lies the sleeping form of Misha Devi, the priestess whom they had encountered earlier in the day. Sarviena and Reginald also enter. Unfortunately the scabbard of Reginald's sword scrapes and clatters along the wall, causing the recumbent cleric to sit up with an expression of alarm on her face as she pulls a cord which disappears up into the ceiling. As Phoenix whips out her alhulak, Reginald rushes to wedge a chair under to door handle of a second door, hoping to slow down whatever help Misha Devi may have summoned. A flurry of blows quickly subdues the unfortunate priestess, just as Effren and Sindawe arrive to find out the source of the sudden commotion.
"Hmm, so we just beat up a sleeping priestess, in her own Temple, which we officially have no right to be in, on the grounds that... what?" Effren comments sarcastically. "She doesn't keep a very tidy garden?"
Such questions become meaningless as the door bursts inwards, knocking Reginald back a step with the force of the blow. The man responsible ducks, allowing his companion to vault over him into the room where he claps his hands together, producing an implausibly thunderous sound which makes Phoenix and Reginald’s ears ring.
Muffled sounds of combat also come from the anteroom as Sindawe and Effren engage a second pair of nearly silent attackers. Moving with improbable speed they rain down carefully targetted blows on the adventurers, inflicting more pain with each contact of their open hands than they would have done using the sharpest of blades.
The force and speed of the attack momentarily stuns the adventurers, and it is all they can do to try to mount some sort of effective defense. But then their own discipline and training begins to assert itself and some of their attacks begin to find a target. Reginald lunges at the figure by the door, arcane fire rippling down the blade of his enchanted longsword and attaching itself to the man’s clothing where it burns fiercely.
Effren creates a band of magical force which slowly begins to choke the life out of the foe in front of him. Seeking to dent their morale, Reginald holds his sword meaningfully against Misha Devi’s throat, but they seem unmoved by her possible demise. Sarviena attempts to create a slick area of ice to prevent the men from pressing their advantage, but a chance blow from one of them spoils her spell.
Phoenix swings her alhulak with all her strength just as one of the men’s heads rises to meet it, and he drops like a sack of grain to the floor. One of the men from the antechamber pushes past Sindawe and into the bedroom, more agile than even the Elf can match, and sweeps Phoenix’s feet from under her.
As Effren discards the corpse of his victim, the gleam of his killing rage fades. “P..p..prisoners,” he gasps. “We need prisoners!” His cry is too late to save the man in the door from succumbing to an icy blast from Sarviena, but Sindawe is able to stay his hand sufficiently to merely stun their last foe. Reginald trusses the man firmly, using as much rope as he can easily find so that, when he wakes, he will struggle to breathe let alone escape.
Hoping that their swift and merciless dispatch of her putative rescuers will loosen the tongue of their captive, they are swiftly disappointed as Misha Devi seems unmoved by their fate. A short debate ensues about how much more time can be justified in questioning such an unresponsive subject. Phoenix resolves the issue by punching her firmly in the head, stunning her once more into insensibility. “So, now we go, yes?”
Sindawe peers through the smashed doorway and is surprised to see a long hall with many alcoves containing huge stylised representations of various food crops, all done in what seems to be solid gold, perfectly set off against black velvet drapes. Phoenix pushes past him with an avaricious gleam in her eye. Reginald restrains her and points out that, given the corrupted clerics had more than ample opportunity to plunder the gold for whatever nefarious purpose they chose, the fact that it still remained in place was indicative that something untoward was almost guaranteed to happen to anyone who defiled these divine offerings.
With a sulky look on her face Phoenix almost rips from its hinges the open concealed doorway through which it seems likely the men who attacked them had come. A small and sparsely furnished room greets the adventurers, with a bead curtain still swinging gently and leading through to a corridor with another four similar spaces. “Monks’ cells, most likely,” decides Sarviena, “But we seem to be one short…”
Keeping their eyes peeled, the group press on through a door at the end of the corridor into a refectory, and from there into a kitchen area. Frustrated, they open another door and find themselves back in the central sanctuary. “Well, there’s only one door we haven’t tried, so we might as well give it a go,” Sindawe whispers.
Cautiously separating the rich blue floor to ceiling hangings, he is disappointed to see only a meeting room, and the group console themselves by ‘liberating’ a bottle each of Orlane Special wine from a supply on a shelf to one side of the room. Effren remembers that the statue corridor disappeared around a corner behind the monks’ cells and suggests that there may be stairs there which could give them access to the upper level which he is sure there must be.
Sure enough, a door at the far end of the narrow corridor leads to a stairwell, which the party swifty and silently ascends. Beyond a further door, a scene of horror awaits them. Pierced through the chest with heavy metal spikes, the corpses of eight warriors are pinned to the walls like gruesome decorations. Several empty spikes clearly await new occupants. They have surely been dead for some time as only a few scraps of meat and sinew still cling to the bleaching bones.
Phoenix laughs quietly to herself. “Scary,” she says as she strides forward. But the laughter dies on her lips as the eyeless skulls swivel towards her and the tips of the spikes descend, disgorging their grisly burdens into the room. Moving with surprising speed towards her, the Skeletons begin to strike out with their longswords. “Maybe we should have given the sign,” Sarviena says as she sends an icy blast into the room.
Her companions are too busy to respond as the Skeletons rush forward with what Effren is sure is a murderous gleam where their eyes should be. Calling on the favour of the goddess Melora to undo these foul undead creatures, Sindawe aims a blast of blinding light at the foe in front of him. Even though it seems that the light falters at the last minute, the Skeleton’s bones dry and begin to crumble in the intense glare. A well-placed strike from Phoenix reduces the remains to a pile of ash on the floor.
The area of cold created by Sarviena continues to do its work as, teeth chattering, several of the Skeletons begin to shake themselves to pieces. Reginald strikes down another, as does Effren. “No need to take prisoners here,” he cries maniacally as he explodes its head with an eldritch blast. Sindawe runs another through the ribs, to little effect, and barely manages to duck its counter-strike.
The Skeletons continue to attack but, although they still stike effective blows, their reduced numbers soon begin to tell against them and before long the room is filled with shattered bones and the panting of the exhausted adventurers.
As the dust begins to settle and the fog of battle recedes, sense returns and Reginald quickly assumes a defensive position by one of the unopened doors, guarding against any who might have heard the sounds of battle and decided to investigate. Divining his purpose, Effren moves to the other door and listens carefully for any sounds of running feet which might be coming from the other side.
Hearing nothing he flings the door wide, causing a minor flurry of torn paper to blow around the room beyond. It is a scene of chaos as torn and defaced books spill their papery guts across every surface. Drifts of paper stand ankle deep on the floor, and lap up against the two small square tables set with reading slopes. On one of these lie the remains of a book clearly beyond any other in the room.
Heavily bound into a gold-encrusted cover, it has clearly suffered more abuse than the rest, with its slashed pages smeared with unknown but doubtless unpleasant fluids. A curious Effren lifts it up and can just make out amongst the wreck of intricate gilding the words ‘A Most Worshipful Guide to Benign Merikka’.
Showing it to Sindawe he asserts that, with a little work and a cunning spell or two, he believes he can save it. Sindawe nods, “Gods can be funny about those who are sacrilegious, yet are often grateful to those who undo such profanity.” Effren considers briefly before stowing the tome in his pack, intending to give it his full attention once no longer potentially surrounded by enemies.
Meanwhile, Phoenix, bored again once the fighting had ceased, pushes past Reginald and, after a perfunctory listen at his door, pushes it open. Spying another unopened bottle of wine on a shelf she quickly liberates it before anyone else is aware of its presence. Her companions quickly move to join her, concerned lest her impetuousness trigger some hidden trap or betray their presence.
Effren looks scoldingly at her and waves his hand at a blank spot on the wall. “That could be a secret door with a horde of enemies waiting to pounce on us, you dumb ox!” Phoenix looks crestfallen. “Don’t see no enemies,” she points out sulkily. Sarviena is already listening at the door which leads from the room to the chamber beyond. “All quiet, as far as I can tell,” she whispers.
Reginald leads the way along the short corridor beyond, sword-tip questing from side to side in search of foes. As the corridor broadens into a room, the party are shocked to see signs of recent bloodshed. But no battle has been fought here. This was slow and drawn out, for the pleasure of whoever perpetrated the atrocity. An iron maiden stands open in one corner, its vicious spikes covered in what the adventurers hope is merely rust.
To one side, a blood-stained rack stands in mute evidence of the pain which it has inflicted. A table set with heavy leather straps carries an impressive range of tongs, pincers, clamps and blades. Clearly whoever these items belonged to was a master, and frequent practitioner of his craft. In another corner lies a small accumulation of large pine boxes, presumably for the disposal of the results of his work. The adventurers’ sombre contemplations are suddenly interrupted by a door slamming open, followed by screams and battle-cries in the guttural goblin tongue.
With lightning reflexes, Sindawe springs forward, barges his way through the open door, his falchion flashing in the faces of the surprised Goblins who instinctively fall back a step to avoid the flurry of blows. However, they just as quickly recover themselves and Sindawe finds himself fending off strike after strike from their vicious little spears.
Before they can move to help their companion, the rest of the party find that they have problems of their own, as a knot of Goblins comes charging into the torture chamber through the door which the adventurers had themselves entered but a few moments previously. It seems as though Effren’s casual remark about secret doors was closer to the truth than he could have guessed.
A javelin catches Effren a glancing blow, but two more briefly pin Phoenix before she shakes herself free, snarling and cursing at those who threw them. Sarviena’s response is perhaps more effective as she hurls a splatter of magical cold into the midst of the attackers, causing them to slip and stumble.
Reginald, seeing Sindawe’s plight, aims a vicious cut at the nearest goblin, forcing a gap in their ranks through which Sindawe can slip away. Reginald grabs the door and slams it shut behind Sindawe, temporarily containing the enraged Goblins. Phoenix swings her alhulak menacingly before whipping it across the faces of two of her foes, spraying blood and teeth across the nearest wall.
Effren ducks another flying javelin and explodes the head of the Goblin which threw it, while Sindawe inflicts a flesh wound on another, causing it to throw wildly and embed its weapon in the ceiling. The yells and curses of the trapped Goblins get louder and more vitriolic, and Reginald is barely able to hold the door closed against them while his companions deal with the remainder.
A wild swing from Phoenix fails to connect with anything but air, but the Goblin’s spear finds its mark in response, causing her to grunt in pain. Unleashing another blast of cold, Sarviena sprints past the roiling melee and through the door, concerned that the other Goblins could give up their struggle with Reginald and come upon them from behind.
Effren has the same thought and follows her, leaving Sindawe and Phoenix to finish off the remaining Goblins in the room. When she squeezes through the secret panels which gapes into the small meeting room, Sarviena sees another four Goblins clustering around the door, scrabbling at it and arguing amongst themselves as they try to get it open. Suddenly feeling very alone and exposed, she breathes a sigh of relief when she sees Effren coming up behind her.
At that moment the door opens and Reginald’s sword painfully skewers one of the clustered Goblins, and it is clear that those they left behind have all been despatched at last. Effren floors one of the startled Goblins with an eldritch blast, while Sarviena turns the ground beneath them slick with ice. Hampered and demoralised as they are, the Goblin’s defence crumbles and Reginald fells the last one with a stunning blow to the forehead with the flat of his blade.
“Now for some answers’” Effren gloats as he picks up the limp form and transfers it to the table, where he quickly and firmly straps the unconscious Goblin down. A few swift slaps and a splash of water soon bring it around, much to its regret as it sees Effren wielding a pair of tongs in a way which suggests much pain to come.
It gibbers away in goblin for a few moments before Effren ‘persudes’ it with a vicious slap to speak the common tongue. Having no love for Goblins, his questioning is brutally efficient and the party quickly learn how the Goblin and his companions were captured by ‘her’, the very mention of whom sets the Goblin to quivering and gibbering once more. After a terrifying audience with ‘her’ (more quivering), they were set to guard the inner precincts of the Temple, with strict instructions not to be seen by ‘outsiders’ not sworn to ‘her’ cause (more quivering).
Whether it is terror, its wounds or the ill-treatment by Effren, the Goblin is clearly weakening. Sindawe tries to suggest allowing it some time to recover, but Effren is sure he can extract more information from it. Sadly, he is proved wrong as the very next question, demanding greater detail about ‘her’, causes the Goblins eyes to bulge in such terror that it expires.
Phoenix meanwhile has been continuing her ceaseless quest for booty, turning over the rough straw pallets on which the Goblins had been sleeping, and rifling through the pockets and pouches of the fallen. Sadly, the search is futile, save for a few ripe strips of dried rat, which she consumes with relish.
Concerned that there may still be other dangers lurking within the Temple walls, Reginald suggests that they move on, to general agreement. A large and impressive door stands at the far end of the torture room, and the party move cautiously towards it, with weapons at the ready. It is unlocked, and they carefully move through into the room beyond. It is a sight beyond easy comprehension as the walls are scratched, stained and covered with strange markings. Loose chips of stone cover the floor, and a gap in one corner leads to a narrow corridor which then turns back on itself, obscuring the view of what lies beyond.
They again advance silently and with care, but it seems as though their previous activities have already betrayed they presence as they have barely gone twenty feet before they hear a scurry of footsteps followed by the sound of a door being heavily slammed.
Sprinting forward around the corner, Sindawe sees a door at the far end of the corridor and rushes to put his shoulder to it to try to force it open. The door is not strong, but largely resists his efforts. It needs the assistance of Reginald and Phoenix before it bursts open, disgorging them into another strangely decorated room. A dirty straw pallet lies in one corner, while two plush and expensive looking armchairs are pushed up to a low table. A beautiful robe lies over a battered chest, while muddy rags are strewn across the floor.
Hooks along the walls have clearly been used in the past to hang expensive tapestries, and an ornate wooden desk stands halfway along the far wall. The mixture of opulence and squalor is disturbing. “Someone definitely came in here,” Sindawe states with conviction. A thorough search reveals little but meaningless gibberish scrawled on the top of the desk.
“This place is riddled with secret doors’” Reginald states. “We just have to find it!” The chest reveals nothing but soiled rags and a shattered ivory statue of the goddess Merikka, while the pallet conceals nothing more than an evil smell and a few lice. Effren’s gaze turns towards the desk and, running his hands carefully along the decorative moulding on one side, he finds that it moves slightly under his hand. Giving it a firm pull results in a click and a section of wall in one corner turns inwards.
Reginald, Phoenix and Sarviena all move forward. Effren and Sindawe share a look which speaks volumes about the possibility of other secret doors leading away from the chamber they are about to enter, and they both sprint back towards the Goblin sleeping quarters in case the mystery fugitive should try to elude them there.
In the uncertain light in the large chamber they have entered, Reginald and Sarviena struggle to see past the four large and crudely carved blocks of granite. Phoenix has no such problems as her Orcish heritage means that, to her, the dimness is as clear as day. The first thing which catches her attention is the slumped figure of a young girl, lying on the floor of a large heavily-barred cage along on wall.
The next thing is garbled and angry shouting, followed by what sounds like an incantation. A figure standing in the middle of the room takes on an appalling visage and a lambent glow which leaves trails of gossamer flame as he moves. “More light, good!” Phoenix grunts in appreciation.
The three companions spread out, unwilling to give this enemy of unknown power the opportunity to easily strike them all in one blow. From the positions they occupy it is clear that it will be next to impossible for the man, if that is what he is, to get past them. Sarviena takes a deep breath and weaving an incantation into her words sends a whisper into the wind to summon Sindawe and Effren back to confront him.
But a moment later, Sindawe stiffens as the unexpected and seductive words insinuate themselves into his awareness. Turning on his heel in mid-stride he sprints back the way he has come, leaving a somewhat bemused Effren trailing in his wake. He lunges into the room, falchion to the fore, to find Phoenix lying in a bloodied heap on the floor, struggling to get to her feet as a glowing figure capers about making wild but effective swings with a mace. His blow skitters off the man’s shield, but his attention is distracted enough for Phoenix to rise.
Sarviena meanwhile has been trying to rouse the caged girl from her stupor. She seems momentarily unable to grasp that she is being rescued, even if rather unintentionally. Eventually the soothing words make a connection and she looks at Sarviena with growing comprehension, and at the glowing figure with growing hatred. “Abramo, you bastard! By all the gods, I’ll gut you this night if it’s the last thing I do!” she screams.
A still confused Effren pushes his way into the room through the secret panel, but he needs no explanation of who their enemy is or what do about him, unleashing a powerful blast of arcane energy which throws Abramo back a step as his divine shield glows fiercely under the impact of the spell. Reginald strikes true as well, staggering Abramo again.
While Abramo has been comfortably holding his own against three opponents, five together are more than a match for him and his eyes begin to dart feverishly around the room, assessing his available options. Phoenix narrows them considerably when her alhulak whips out snake-like and coils itself around his legs.
Abramo quickly shrugs it off, but the delay costs him his escape, as a succession of blows and spells force him to his knees and then into unconsciousness. Reginald swiftly strides over to examine the lock on the cage and delivers a heavy and ringing blow from his hammer, which unfortunately bounces off in a shower of sparks. Phoenix steps forward and, inserting her dagger into the mechanism gives it a small twist and a push. There is an audible click and the lock springs open. “Men!” she exclaims dismissively.
The moment the lock falls away, the young girl leaps forward and begins kicking the prostrate form of Abramo so hard in such a sensitive place that, even unconscious he squirms and groans. Reginald, as gently as possible, restrains her before irreparable damage is done, and Sarviena speaks soothing words until the girl calms down enough that they can be sure that no further attacks will ensue.
Sarviena continues to talk soothingly with the girl while the rest of the party move swiftly to restrain Abramo, before examining the rest of the room more closely. The girl reveals that her name is Carilla Finla, daughter of the village shopkeeper and his wife. The words tumble from her mouth as if they too have been uncaged, sometimes almost too fast to be comprehensible.
It is clear that she has endured a terrible ordeal. Kidnapped with her family, she resisted the foul charms of the snake-woman, who she names as Explicita Defilus, and was fated to be fed to her crocodiles before Abramo, in his madness, formed the notion that there was something special about her that only he could bring out. He smuggled her back to his quarters, interspersing long insane monologues and descriptions of the ‘beautiful’ statues he was carving, with extended periods of physical and mental abuse.
As the snake-woman’s senior servant within the village, all her slaves came to him for their instructions, and Carilla willingly named all whom she had seen, saying that she would happily repeat the same to the mayor, whom she regarded with almost reverential respect. She also says that, although she would never go near the place herself again, she will happily give the adventurers sufficient instruction that they could easily find the snake-woman’s lair.
The chests are empty but for a few coins, the funds obviously moved somewhere else quite recently, but the most striking feature of the room is the glowing green statue. Apparently constructed of the finest jade, its exquisite carving depicts an enormous snake with the head of a beautiful but cold-eyed woman. The name Explicita Defilus is graven in sinuous characters on its base. Even an untrained eye can see the magic pulsing through the veins and fissures in the stone.
“Jade valuable, but don’t like the smell of that magic,” Phoenix states firmly. Reginald agrees that it is uncomfortable to even stand near the statue, let alone touch it. Sarviena examines it closely from a safe distance before pointing out various spots on the surface where a gentle blow might disrupt the magical energy.
Reginald, still smarting from his failure with the lock on the cage, swings mightily, determined that his effort will not fall short this time. Sarviena watches with horrified fascination as the blow sweeps through the fragile jade, shattering it into hundreds of tiny shards which flare briefly and then fade as the magic within them dies. “Too much?” Reginald asks rhetorically.
As the dust settles, it outlines a slight inconsistency in the floor, describing a rough circle about two feet across, with a small depression to one side. Inserting the tip of a finger into the depression produces a loud click as one edge rises just enough that it can be lifted to reveal a thin crust of ceiling plaster. Phoenix stamps firmly in the middle, producing a hole through which can clearly be seen the recumbent form of Misha Devi stirring and groaning on her bed. “She seems… different,” Reginald observes, “Maybe we should go have another chat?”
Effren and Sindawe carry Abramo through to the other room and, discarding the cooling corpse of the unfortunate Goblin, strap him securely to the table in its place. “I’m sure he’ll have lots of interesting stories to tell us,” Effren comments grimly. “Yes, but will we be able to understand them?” Sindawe retorts.
Phoenix is already pawing at his clothing in search of interesting trinkets and unimportant coinage which no-one else will miss. She is delighted to find a small amulet which gives off the characteristic tingle of magic when first she touches it. Momentarily satisfied, she rocks back on her haunches waiting to see what the group will decide to do next.
It is agreed that Effren will remain in charge of Abramo, while the rest return to question Misha Devi further. As they go, Sarviena speculates that perhaps the magic in the statue was somehow involved in keeping the villagers within Explicita Defilus’s power and that now it has been shattered, those in the village may once more be free of her malign influence. “We will shortly be able to test your theory on our esteemed friend, Misha Devi, won’t we?” says Sindawe, “Perhaps we should get to it?”
Leaving Effren to encourage Abramo’s revelations, should there be any, the rest of the party proceed once again to the lower reaches of the Temple, and Misha Devi’s chamber. The man they had previously bound and dumped unceremoniously in one corner is squirming and wriggling against his bonds. Phoenix casually renders him unconscious once more with a backhanded blow which lays him out at her feet.
Reginald’s questioning is neither subtle nor compassionate, and it quickly becomes clear that, while Misha Devi is trying her best to answer his questions honestly, she is in such a state of confusion that her responses have little value, save only to prove that she was an unwilling participant in the events centred on her Temple.
Effren has not fared much better and, while Reginald applies his healing skills to Misha Devi’s broken legs, he announces with some disgust that Abramo is as mad as a bucket of frogs and will say nothing but ‘the teeth will bite, the coils will crush, accept her embrace or turn to dust!’ Sindawe suggests that perhaps a report to the Mayor may be in order, to general assent, but not before Abramo and the surviving bodyguard have been securely caged in the upper chamber.
Sarviena indicates that if the rest of the group assist Misha Devi, she will go ahead to rouse the mayor. With that she sprints off, down the road. As she approaches the edge of the mill pond at the centre of the village she makes and arcane gesture which causes the water to shimmer for a moment before becoming as solid as a cart-track in high summer beneath her feet. “That girl cannot resist showing off,” Reginald remarks caustically as he shifts the semi-conscious burden which is Misha Devi.
When they arrive at the Mayor’s residence a few short moments later, he has been aroused and is eager to hear the news, listening with increasing shock and horror as the details of the sinister plot are revealed. “It seems that the curse is, for now, broken or at least diminished. We should secure all those whom we know have been ensorcelled, that we may discern at our leisure who remains enslaved by this evil,” he states firmly.
Carilla Finla, who has accompanied the group, quickly and clearly lists all those whom she knows have been ensnared by the curse of Explicita Defilus, and says she will help in any way she can to lift her taint from the village.
Phoenix cracks her knuckles and grins at the thought of the potential fights to come. Sindawe lays a restraining hand on her arm, saying, “and no-one else needs to die.” “Can I at least hurt them a little,” she asks, sulkily. “I will send assistance with you,” the mayor says, favouring Phoenix with a significant glance, “to ensure there are no ‘accidents’.”
He quickly scribbles a note which he gives to Sindawe with instructions to rouse the two Eladrin in the nearby cottage in whom he has implicit trust. They read the note silently before swiftly gathering weapons and equipment and dashing up to the Mayor’s house where the three are soon in hushed conference.
The party and their new allies take to the streets once more and quickly come across several villagers wandering around in a confused state. These are rounded up with little resistance and led away to safety by the Eladrin. Sarviena’s owl, patrolling silently overhead, spots three figures in the woods close to the cottage of the widow Merridy.
However, it seems as if the widow has had a lucky escape as the three sons from the farm near the Temple wander aimlessly about, their kidnap bid forgotten. Sarviena rushes to check on the old lady and is surprised when she asks that they also reassure her that Ramne, the old curmudgeonly hermit is safe and well.
As the last of the stragglers are rounded up and secured only one place remains uncleared – The Golden Grain Inn. By now the party are tiring, and even the Eladrin council that it would be better to keep the establishment under close scrutiny and only attempt to enter after some rest and in better light.
December 6th, Year of the Ferret
Reluctantly the party seek their beds in The Slumbering Serpent, only to be awoken shortly after dawn by the sounds of sudden conflict. Dressing as quickly as possible (in Phoenix’s case simply standing up suffices as she has slept in her clothes), the rush over to the Golden Grain to discover the Eladrin grinning amidst a scene of some devastation. “It seems as though when they awoke this morning there was some disagreement between them as to the correct course of action, and they settled it in the traditional manner. We merely tidied up after their discussion,” the female warrior states nonchalantly as she fastidiously cleans the remains of some poor unfortunate’s blood from her blade.
Although one of the miscreants took to his heels like a rat fleeing a burning barn there seems little hope or point in pursuing him so the party decide to finish their interrupted sleep before having a further conference with the Mayor.
A late breakfast leads into an early lunch, which leads to the conclusion that with the information they have from Carilla, locating the lair of Explicita Defilus should not be too difficult to achieve. Remembering her promise to the widow, Sarviena and the rest of the group head off for what she fears may be another ill-tempered encounter with the old man.
However, mention that the widow has survived the night’s excitements seems to put him in a good mood, to the point that when he hears of their plan to resolve the situation once and for all declares that a small expedition such as this may benefit from someone of his wisdom to advise them and ensure that they don’t fall over their own feet at the first sign of danger. “Just stick close to me and you’ll be fine,” he concludes with a snaggle-toothed grin and a distinct waft of raw garlic.