A Rise of the Runelords campaign journal that became two books

15. Trouble at the Hambley’s

4th of Lamashtan – Oathday – 13th day at Sandpoint

Outskirts of Hambley farmlands, five miles south of Sandpoint

“Off the mounts”, Oswald, a town guardsman and Hemlock’s deputy, told us and jumped off his horse. The three other guardsmen escorting us followed suit as ordered. I didn’t like his tone, but got down as well, as did the others. I crouched to scratch Faroth behind the ear. “Do you smell anything?” I asked it. The firepelt did not answer, of course.

“These are the Hambley farmlands”, Oswald informed us, pointing and moving his hand slowly from south-east to north-west, “ten acres of crops.” Ilori was the last to dismount. “You don’t suppose we’ll search every square feet”, she asked, shaking up her long brown hair after the two-hour ride. The soldier looked at her, transfixed. Ilori caught his eye, and he pulled his gaze down, a bit embarrassed. “No my lady, of course not. We’ll head straight out to the farmstead.”

There was indeed a collection of houses only 300 feet away southwest from our position. In the moonlight and under clear skies, it had been visible from a long distance. It was our, or Sheriff Hemlock’s, destination.

Earlier that evening we had ridden from the sanatorium back to Sandpoint with the caretaker Habe as our prisoner. Hemlock had been waiting for us at the Sandpoint bridge. His news had not been good. He had had with her a shaking little girl, who had told us her story – peasants missing or going crazy, including her own father, and attacking their own friends and family. The crops were being irrigated with human blood, and everything, both the child’s story and necromancer Caizarly’s notes, was pointing towards a specific farmstead south of Soggy river. Hemlock had wanted to send someone investigate Hambley’s at once, and had prepared a retinue of his soldiers already. He had wanted us to go as well – maybe the ritual killer was hiding there? It’s not like we had had anything better to do, right?

We’d left Habe to the hands of the sheriff, restocked some of our equipment and rode off with four soldiers; Oswald, a bearded grunt with most experience and thus the one in charge, and three greenhorns, Micke, Adolf and Thomas – fresh off the boat from Magnimar. The ride had been silent and uneventful – only once did Oswald wonder out loud how there were no people at sight, anywhere. Normally the roads would’ve been full with peasants returning from the fields, he had explained. They had ran, went into hiding, or been killed, I had mused darkly.

“Stay between us, sirs, lady”, Oswald ordered us, directing the other soldiers into a formation that left us in the middle. I think they resented us coming with them, not sure why Hemlock had wanted us to join them. They think they are escorting us, protecting us, I sneered to myself. We obliged initially but I knew the moment hell broke loose it would be us protecting them, not the other way around.

And I was so right.

The crops were man-high, yet to be harvested, so we resorted to moving via dirt roads that criss-crossed the farmlands. Vidarok of course would have had no difficulty traversing through the crops, but for simplicity’s, and the soldiers’ nerves’ sake we kept to the paths. The growth was thick, and we could see only some ten-fifteen feet into it. A perfect environment to stage an ambush.

We let Hemlock’s men play soldier for a minute or so, before we reached a crossroads. A scarecrow had been planted into the ground next to the crossroads. I paced past Oswald and gestured them to wait. “I’ll scout ahead”, I informed them curtly. Oswald looked at me, half-surprised, half-irritated. Vidarok was quick to take note. “Let him go. He’s pretty good in this.” I jogged forward, moving without making a sound, keeping low, and senses keen. Faroth was keeping close to me, his eyes glinting in the moonlight. If somebody was planning an ambush, I was damned if I wouldn’t spot it in advance.

Staying close to the side of the path, I went for about fifty feet before I spotted another scarecrow at the distance, in the middle of the crops. There was something out of place with that scarecrow. I stopped, and focused. It was obviously not stuffed like the first, and it had eyes. And they were alive. Backtracking, I made my way back to the others at the crossroads.

“There’s another scarecrow close to the path leading to the farmstead, but this one is alive, and possibly a threat”, I reported, whispering. Harsk frowned. “Are you sure your eyes are not fooling you, Alpharius?” He asked. I turned to him and spat to the ground. “I know what I saw, cleric.” Ilori, crouching next to Oswald and the dwarf, gestured with her hand and a sphere of light went hovering towards the living scarecrow. “Wait-“, I managed before the light wandered some 20 feet away from it. The scarecrow growled audibly and started to pull and push in the stick it was hanging from, as it was trying to shake itself loose. “See?” I asked the others, rolling my eyes and pulling an arrow from the vine. I nocked, pulled the bow string and let loose an arrow, hitting it square in the chest. It dropped off the stick, roaring now in anger. Vidarok, always quick to react, ran past me, dazzling the creature momentarily with a spell.

That was all I needed.

Aiming carefully, I put another arrow through its roaring mouth and pinned it back on the stick. It died, wriggling.

I went to retrieve my arrows with Harsk. “Now Alpharius, this is a ghoul”, the cleric said, examining the now-perished undead creature and reminding me how I had mislabeled zombies as ghouls in the sanatorium. I shrugged. “An undead is an undead. Seems like I’m quite adept in making them dead-dead”, I joked with a serious face as I pulled the second arrow off the creature and the stick. “Well, technically-” Harsk started but I gestured him to be silent. At the farmstead, a door was slammed close and I could hear faint voices, approaching quickly. More growls. More of the ghouls.

“We’ve got incoming, south-west!” I alarmed the others and scanned the horizon. They were coming through the crops. Hemlock’s men ordered us back, taking positions before us at a junction. I stayed back, nocking an arrow, Faroth at my feet hissing, smelling the enemies. Harsk ponderously stepped forward. “C’mon lads, we can take care of ourselves”, he told Oswald and braced himself at the middle of the road. The roaring was approaching quickly now. Footsteps in the crops, ghouls crashing through with murderous intent. Ilori stayed back as well, and one of the soldiers, Micke, a young boy really, remained close to her, unlike the others. I didn’t know if he was cowardly or horny as kept looking at Ilori as much as the battleground. Probably both.

“They’re close now”, I urged the others while I aimed towards the sounds. “I can hear them too”, Vidarok shouted back and casted entanglement in front of us. The crops came alive and started to move on their own, seeking something alive to latch onto and ensnare. Immediately, angry barks and roars sounded from somewhere in the fields – some ghouls were trapped. But the path to the farmstead remained clear, and finally one of the undead jumped on it and took off running straight towards us. Damn, they’re quick, I thought, recalling the slowly lumbering zombies. And intelligent, I realized as it had clear deliberation in its moves as it made its way towards us. Ilori shot magic missiles at it, but it shrugged them off like they were nothing and continued its run towards our cleric. Harsk remained at place. The foul creature kept coming. When it got only three feet away, Harsk sidestepped and put all his power behind a horizontal swing of his longsword.

It was beautiful.

The tip of the longsword connected right at the unprotected neck of the running undead and sliced its head clean off, along with the tips of its right hand fingers, that happened to be on its way. Still in motion, the headless corpse took two steps before crashing into the dirt path. The head continued its flight, landing at Micke’s feet. The soldier jumped at the sight.

So the battle ensued.

“Curse it! They are coming through the fields, we can’t see anything!” Oswald exclaimed, keeping his spear at the ready. Thomas and Adolf were at the side of a road leading south-east, and frantically were trying to clear the long growth with their spears. “I can help”, Ilori said smugly and joined the others at the line. She pushed her fists forward, and then opened them. A huge plume of fire exploded from them, immediately torching an area fifteen feet across and ten deep before the warriors. Hemlock’s men covered their faces instinctively. The fires of the burning crops added to the light of the clear star skies and full moon, reveling a pack of ghouls previously hidden. I immediately fired an arrow, and hit again, but not killing the monster this time. It leaped over burning ashes and tried to reach Ilori, but was stopped by a whack of Vidarok’s quarterstaff. Purple blood and broken bones flew as the staff caved in its head. Another ghould attacked. I fired, missing terribly. Fiery magic missiles struck its form and the undead erupted in flames, but remained standing.

More ghouls appeared from the west. Vidarok and Adolf turned to face them in melee. The burning ghoul wormed its way to Harsk and they became locked in fierce close-combat. As I was nocking yet another arrow, I heard new roars over the fight, this time coming from the east. They’re surrounding us, I gritted my teeth. “More incoming, east by south-east!” I warned the others of the new threat. I shot an arrow, and it burrowed itself into the head of one ghoul, slaying it instantly. Finally, feeling like myself after the trip here from Korvosa, I allowed a smile.

Harsk decided the games were over. “For Iomedae!” With an angry bellow, he threw his hands wide apart and powerful white light danced from them, pulsing all around the stout dwarf. The evil undead closest to him simply exploded into black bits, ravaged by the positive energies. Two others screamed in pain, their skin boiling and turning into hot steam where the holy light touched it. Ilori was less theatrical. She simply pointed at the other remaining, screeching undead, and an searing arc of fire struck it and its unlucky fellow. They burned to ash in less than a second. The carmine lady turned to me and smiled. I smiled back.

I spared a glance at the soldiers. Oswald, Thomas and Adolf were simply stunned, their mouths agape. Micke had pissed his pants. See now, soldier, I thought while I stared at Oswald.

But the fight was far from over. My sharp hearing identified more ghouls, coming at us from the west. And ones coming from the east were right upon us. Standing at the middle of the junction, with a clear line of fire to every direction, I turned east to face the onslaught.

A ghoul jumped from the shadows of the growth, landing next to shaking Micke. I managed to fire an arrow and hit the bastard, but it did not go down. Instead it surprised the poor fool and sank its long, sharp teeth into the man’s neck. Micke howled in pain, before becoming paralyzed altogether. Adolf called his name and turned to attack the ghoul, along with Thomas. The ghoul hissed at them and evaded the thrusts of their spears. Pure white light still shone from the eyes of the cleric as he thundered into the melee. Powered by his goddess, he swept an overhead blow and split the ghoul in half from head to midriff. As its body slumped down I laughed hard. “Iomedae is strong! Suck my sword, unholy one!” Harsk roared in triumph.

Two more ghouls came running from the vegetation. But Ilori was ready to welcome them. She swept her hands forward, like she was awaiting them to come over and hug her. Fires circled around her arms and hands and another massive burst of flames burned the other to cinders, while the other fought through the fires and leaped to attack Thomas. The soldier gave a pained grunt as claws went past his parries and leather armour. The creature was about to attack anew but its head exploded like a ripe melon as my arrow flew through it.

I had the time to give a third warning, and Vidarok moved to the western side of the junction, Oswald at his heels. I too prepared for what seemed to be the last wave of monsters. Again, using the tall vegetation to their advantage, they got close to us and engaged. The first perished with my arrow in its throat. Second used the distraction and jumped on Vidarok, managing to bite him. Vidarok groaned, and remained still, just like Micke. Faster than I could think, I drew a new arrow from the vine, nocked it, and fired. My aim was true, very true, as I hit the beast straight through its other eye socket, killing in instantly. I was grinning now, increasingly satisfied with my performance. The final ghoul, oblivious to the fate of its kin, stormed to the junction, trying to get its claws into Harsk. The cleric easily parried, and landed a fine blow that drew undead blood. Ilori almost serenely took a step forward, her hands already in magical fire, and with a gesture, set the last ghoul alight.

**

The crops around us were burning, but there was little fear of burning all the fields as Ilori’s magical fire was making short work of the vegetation quicker than it could spread. Vidarok was first to snap out of the paralysis. “What, who, where”, he exclaimed as he struck at an enemy that no longer was there. “Take it easy, smelly”, I cooled him down, “the fight’s over. We won.” I looked at the ghoul corpses around us. Some were headless, some were just cinders. “Easily”, I added. I counted over a dozen enemies, slain under a minute. We’d made short work of the ghouls.

Micke returned to normal with violent coughs. He almost emptied his stomach. Thomas and Adolf were beside him and they didn’t look happy. “You don’t look too good”, Thomas was first to note. Micke coughed again, lighter this time, and turned to his brother-at-arms angrily. “Of course I don’t look too good, I was just attacked!” But the cleric intervened. “No, he’s right. Your skin, it’s already almost light green. You might be infected by the ghoul fever”, he explained seriously. Oh great. Micke swallowed audibly and was looking terrified. Harsk folded his arms. “You should ride back to the cathedral and seek immediate help there.” It was the rational thing to do, I mused, agreeing with the cleric. But Micke, as it turned out, was not only a coward but also an idiot. “No sir, I will remain with you to the end of the mission”, he replied, having gathered mental fortitude from somewhere. Harsk just shook his head and continued with his trademark, almost fatherly tone. “You cannot risk it. We’ve seen what could happen. Without proper treatment, you could turn into one of those”, he pointed a headless ghoul corpse which he had killed, “and then we’d have to kill you.” But the boy was not cowed. “I’ll kill you first”, he spat, not knowing any better. I walked to him, looked him straight in the eye and gave him a gentle but powerful push to the shoulder. “Don’t ever threaten Harsk, kid, or you’ll find an arrow between your eyes.” Micke couldn’t hold the stare and looked down. Thomas, Oswald and Adolf all moved unconfortably. “B-but he started it-“, Micke stuttered. Harsk interjected. “Fine, fine. The transformation takes days most likely anyway, so you can come with us”, effectively defusing the situation. I paced past Micke towards the farmstead, knocking his shoulder with mine and pushing him aside before taking my normal position at the point.

**

We reached the farmhouse uninterrupted. Next to it stood a large barn. Everywhere was silent, even the birds had fled the place. The main door to the farmhouse was open – it was here from where the ghouls had started their attack against us. Vidarok peered in through a window by the door, but didn’t see anything. The soldiers remained put, uncertain what to do. They seemed to wait for our instructions.

“I’ll go check the barn”, I said to the others, and started to pace carefully towards an open wooden doubledoor that led inside. Harsk joined me, leaving Ilori and Vidarok to investigate the main building with the soldiers. I moved silently to the edge of the doubledoor and checked around the corner. It was almost completely dark inside. No sounds, no movement, nothing. Just a dead horse, with its entrails leaking out, and the smell of death. I had trouble seeing as only a little moonlight shone through cracks in the ceiling, but Harsk had darkvision. He walked in almost carefree. “This was a rather wealthy household. They had several cattle, and horses”, he said, pointing towards empty stalls and pens. I followed the dwarf and squinted as I tried to see to the dark corners of the stable. Flies buzzed around the rotting cadaver of a horse.

“VIDAROK!” Ilori’s shrill cry broke the silence. We turned, and started to run outside. “What’s happening”, I asked the cleric, who of course had no answer. Outside, we could see the carmine lady in shock, her hands on her cheeks. Around her, the soldiers were frantically trying to get into formation and yelled at each other. Then I saw Oswald charge into the building, speartip first, followed by the others. Ilori remained put. “What happened?” I asked as we made it to the front of the main building. There was fight going on inside. I recognized the roar of a ghoul, but it was a bit different to the earlier undead. Tears fell from the carmine lady’s eyes. “A ghoul surprised Vidarok as he was searching the body of a dead man.. I think it killed him”, she managed. A howl of pain – Micke was down. I ran to an open window and saw well what was happening inside. Vidarok was lying face down on the floor. There was no blood but his head was in an unnatural angle. Shit. Gods no. A simple, even easy mission had turned upside down in a heartbeat.

The ghoul – a bit larger version of its kin – growled and slashed at the soldiers with its razor-sharp claws. Oswald, Thomas and Adolf were keeping it at bay, and I could see deep wounds in its torso, but sooner or later it would kill them. I bared my teeth in anger, pulled an arrow, aimed and fired it. And again my aim was true. But the death of the ghoul, a victory, was a hollow one.

I ran past Hemlock’s men to the body of the druid, Faroth at my tail. He wasn’t moving. I kneeled to him and turned him around. Faroth licked his face, desperately trying to wake him up but his eyes were lifeless and he wasn’t breathing. Neither did he have a pulse. “Fuuuuck!” I exclaimed. Harsk and Ilori joined me. Both looked utterly beaten. “How did this happen”, Harsk sighed. “The bastard snapped his neck”, I explained and my hand balled into a fist. I wanted to slay something, anything, in vengeance. “Micke”, Oswald uttered, “Micke needs some help”, he said crouched next to his fallen comrade who was still alive but only barely. “Fuck Micke!” I shouted angrily, surprised how easily I lost my temper. Harsk remained calm, and rested his hand on my shoulder. “I know. Step aside”, he told the soldiers. Reaching out with his hands, he casted positive energies and Micke spasmed, and returned to consciousness. Too bad the cleric couldn’t help the druid, I thought bitterly as I rose to my feet. There was nothing we could do. I paced over to the body of a dead man, apparently the same that Vidarok had been searching when he had been attacked. “We found a new message for me”, Ilori told us, almost whispering. He handed the paper out to Harsk, who immediately read it.

You continue to ignore my invitations, my love. Did you not sense my need for you that evening after we hunted?  

I could sense Ilori shivering. Harsk was rubbing his beard-covered chin, reading the note carefully anew aloud. It couldn’t be, I mused the implications of the letter. The dead man, probably a local peasant, had been mutilated – a gruesome seven-pointed star was cut into his chest. The slain big ghoul, a ghast, as Harsk informed me, was wearing well-made clothing of a house servant. I saw something glitter on its neck. A strange, beautifully crafted key. I took it and showed it to the others. Ilori nodded gravely. “That has the brand of House Foxglove.. I think it’s Aldern who’s behind this. It’s him who has been sending me these letters.” My denial was almost instinctual even though I was already considering the possibility. The ghast had worked for the Foxglove family, that looked certain. “That dandy nobleman, who couldn’t even hunt? No, it can’t be. He might be a lovestruck fool but not a gruesome serial killer”, I shook my head, but the evidence was there. And the motive too, even for horrible killings. “Men have killed for less”, Harsk gave voice to my thoughts.

**

We decided to stop the mission immediately and return to Sandpoint with Vidarok’s body. We knew that powerful magicks existed that could return a soul to a body, and we chose to go see Zantus and his priesthood for such services. With the decision made, and strengthened by a feeling of new hope, we searched the rest of the building before leaving. Only thing worth mentioning was a small casket filled with silver coins that we took with us. I shared the silver with the others, keeping Vidarok’s portion separate. He had earned it.

The soldiers offered to carry Vidarok’s body to the horses. We returned to Sandpoint with haste.

**

We made it to the cathedral after midnight. The soldiers carried Vidarok’s body inside, and we rushed to find High Priest Zantus. He had of course already went to sleep, so I had to verbally threaten a priest to get him woken up. After a brief wait, a groggy Zantus arrived from his chambers. “What is it, that you must disturb me while I sleep”, the holy man asked and rubbed his eyes, not irritated really, but genuinely puzzled. I pointed at Vidarok who had been laid to a cot. “He’s dead.. neck broken by a ghoul at the farmlands.” Zantus lowered his head, closed his eyes and muttered something. “I am sorry for your loss”, he said his condolences, indicating us to continue. Harsk stepped forward. “Do you have the resources here in the cathedral to perform a reincarnation? Can you call his soul back to his body?” At this, Zantus narrowed his eyes and seemed lost in his thoughts. “Hmmh. Yes, it is possible. But it is very costly.” I think we all let out a sigh of relief. “What do you need?” Ilori asked him. “Central to the ritual is a very expensive, very rare diamond that must be spent, effectively lost”, the grey-haired priest explained. “The cathedral has one in its possession, but to use it, we’d require a gift of ten thousand gold pieces, or valuables and equipment of the same value.”

None of us had that amount of gold with him or her. But we had gathered a quite a lot of magical equipment that we were willing to get rid of. Zantus summoned another priest, more familiar with the value of things than him, and we began to compile our valuables into a pile that would cover the costs of the diamond.

“We don’t know whether he’d even want to be resurrected”, Ilori noted as we were going through our things. “You’re right”, Harsk said, “this is something we never discussed. We don’t know if we are violating some sacred condition of his.” I waved my hand dismissively. “I know if I could return from the dead”, I said, thinking about my brother and my recent vision of him, “I would.”

In the end, we gave Zantus the cold iron dagger we’d taken from Erylium, Vidarok’s ring of protection, two master-wraught daggers, the other from Vidarok and the other from me, and a magic wand from Ilori. I didn’t know what powers it had but the priests were happy to have it. After a nod of confirmation from the other priest, Zantus asked us to carry Vidarok to an altar while he started to light candles, burn incense and chant.

I was weary, and didn’t want to remain back and see the ritual, so I headed out to the cool night. Apparently, Zantus wanted privacy so Harsk and Ilori came after me almost immediately. We were told to return at dawn – then we would see whether the ritual was success or not. Outside the main entrance, Hemlock’s soldiers were still waiting for us, and asked us what to do with Micke, the wounded yellow-belly. Overcome by grief and fatigue, I suggested a blade to the heart and stormed past them.

Not saying a word, we went straight to Rusty Dragon.

It was a busy evening, as usual, at the tavern. I spotted Shayliss on the tavern bar, hunched over the table, her forehead resting on her other elbow. An empty bottle of wine stood beside her. She was in bad shape. Ameiko saw us enter, and nodded at me and then towards the girl. I walked through the mass of people, taking a high chair with me, and placed it next to her and sat down. She was sitting still, but was awake. “Oh Shayliss, I’m so sorry..” I managed, brushing her lightly. She lifted her head towards me, and pushed a curl of hair off her face. Her eyes were red from crying and I could smell the alcohol in her breath. The poor girl started to sob and drew closer to me. I caught her, pulled her to my lap and started to stroke her hair. She just sobbed and trembled, and I kissed her head and held her tight.

The others came to the bar, and Ameiko noted the absence of Vidarok. Ilori soberly told her of his demise. I was holding Shayliss and didn’t say anything, but noticed how well the carmine lady was handling herself. She too had faced terrible loss before, that was obvious.

Ameiko bemoaned about the saw mill murders between customers. Ilori was quick to tell that we had actually been investigating them on behalf of Sheriff Hemlock, and that was the reason why we had travelled to the farmlands in the first place. She even showed her the last message we had found from the killer, and mentioned our suspicion that Aldern Foxglove was behind it all. Ameiko was as doubtful as I had been. She shared the belief of some other townsfolk that the mill owner, Scarnetti, had been behind the murders, as it was rumoured that miller Harker had been embezzling gold from him, and in revenge, he had killed him or had him killed. But he really didn’t have a motive for the killings of the three swindlers outside of town, as Harsk was quick to point out.

We had a brief, wordless snack of a dinner before Ilori excused herself and went to bed. But only minute after she had left, she returned, furious.

“Somebody has been in my room, and taken my personal belongings”, she snapped at Ameiko, probably feeling she was partly to blame for the intrusion. I was still holding Shayliss on my lap, caressing her, trying to reassure her. I thought Ilori was being a bit harsh, but so did Ameiko, given her frown, but she let it slide. “I’m sorry Ilori, but no-one has gone there, at least via the stairs. Are you sure someone’s been inside”, she asked carefully. Ilori calmed a little. “Yes.. someone has taken some of my.. clothes.” Ah, underwear, I realized from her expression. Odd. Ameiko just shrugged, and apologized again. There was nothing she or anyone could do about it. Ilori realized this, and returned to her room.

I asked Shayliss whether she wanted to go to her home or spend the night at my room. She nodded weakly for the latter, and I carried her upstairs. She fell asleep on the way up. I set her down on my bed, covered her with a blanket and after removing my armour and outerware, slipped in next to her. Gazing at the ceiling, I thought about Vidarok, and let sleep take me over.

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