After performing last rites for our companion and disposing of our foes' bodies, we rested for the night. The next day dawned red and hazy, with a smell of smoke in the air.
OSH: “Is Pyroclastic Flo related to Jana Vendt?”
Bimp (who had exhausted herself with spellcasting the previous day) performed some sort of restorative magic that involved rubbing herself a lot. (I have to remind myself occasionally that not all gnomes are this strange, just the two I happen to travel with.
We continued northwards. The lava on the ground was getting thinner, and now and then we came to patches where it had missed altogether and the old earth showed through. On one of these, we found an old and weathered milestone, pointing back the way we'd come to 'H-C' (Haut-Chevre, presumably) and 'T' ahead of us.
Grot LuNob (speaking of which, my remarks above about gnomes should also be applied to half-elves) recalled some old tales about a town in the region called Tinnadus. At one stage it had been a major trading point known for its gold and silver, and then around three hundred years ago it had disappeared. The tales were patchy, and it was unclear whether it had actually vanished or fallen victim to some catastrophe. Since we were already headed that way, and some of my companions were interested in the tales of wealth, we decided to see what we could find; if the milestone was to be believed, we had half a day's walk ahead of us.
Around midday, we began to smell something beyond the pervasive smoke in the air – a sort of half-cooked, rotted smell. We moved off the path and skirted around uphill, in case of ambush, but there was no threat visible – just two very dead bodies, and a flock of carrion birds that reluctantly waddled away as we approached.
The bodies were badly burnt, and rapidly decomposing in the heat; as best we could tell, one was an orc and the other an ogre. Holding our noses, we searched the bodies; besides ragged clothing and so forth, the orc was wearing a ring that the gnomes identified as magical, and the ogre had a badge showing a crossed mace and sword. Grot, who was holding back Hercule and Barry (his hawk and wolf, both of whom were looking hungrily at the corpses), identified the mace-and-sword motif as the insignia of a band of ruffians and brigands. (I can't say I was terribly surprised, really.)
BIMP: “Squeezing the wizard makes fireballs!”
Ilde was of the opinion that the two had crawled quite some way before they finally collapsed. It seemed quite likely that they had come from the same place as the ogres and orcs we fought yesterday, and we decided to follow their trail (although not without some misgivings, considering the severity of their injuries).
As it turned out, the trail was simple enough to follow, since they'd come along the same path we were already on. We noticed as we went that the grass in this region was withered, more so than we would have expected from the dry weather alone.
Eventually, around mid-afternoon, we came to a fork in the road. One fork led to the left (that is, downhill), while the other ran uphill to our right. There were quite a few tracks here, both orc- and ogre-sized, perhaps fifty in all, and Ilde was of the opinion that they'd come from the right-hand fork in a great hurry, some taking the left-hand path, some headed south – enough to account for the ones we'd met - and others running across rough country. We could smell rot in the air again, and we were more than a little nervous as we took the right-hand fork.
It wasn't long before we came to the remains of what I presume was Tinnadus. From the general state of disrepair, we got the impression it had been abandoned for some time – quite possibly, three hundred years. But recently it had been visited by orc and ogres; we could tell because many of them were still there. None were in any state to threaten us, but we felt no more reassured for that; their bodies were scattered around the town and draped over the walls, all badly burnt and decaying, food for the crows. Some carried sacks hastily stuffed full of valuables (at least by orcish standards); I got the impression they had been hurriedly looting the place before whatever doom befell them descended, and had left their exit too late.
We crept through the gate, and surveyed the silent town. There were a few large buildings towards the centre – a mansion, a low building of heavy stone, and a couple of others – surrounded by smaller houses, most badly damaged by centuries of neglect and the occasional rumbling of the mountain. The smell was bad here – not just burned and rotting flesh, but something dank and musty beyond that – and as we approached the stone building it got worse.
The building had one heavy wooden door, and a few small grates high up on the wall. The gnomes cast a light-cantrip on a small stone, and I climbed on Osh's shoulders and threw the stone in through the grate. The smell through the grate was appalling, and I could see that inside the building was a singe large room, with motionless bodies scattered around the edges and a wet darkness in the middle; the stone rolled across the floor and sank into the pool, until only a glimmer of light was visible.
Returning to the door, we saw tracks running inside the building and scratch marks on the wood, some with orcish fingernails still caught in them. I guessed – and no doubt the others did too – that some of the bandits had taken refuge inside this building, shutting their comrades out, and met their doom there – whether from the same cause as their kin outside, or some other danger, I was unsure.
I questioned the wisdom of going into the building at all – there seemed little point in tempting fate – but the others felt that it would be worse to leave an unknown threat behind us. The door was old and singed, but still very solidly built, and Osh was unable to force it; in the end he resorted to hacking a hold through it, and then reaching through to lift the bar so it could swing open. The smell, of course, got even worse; Bimp was reminded of the room we chose not to investigate in an old ruined castle some time back, a door from behind which we'd smelled something similar.
With a little more daylight coming through the door, the nature of the place became clear: it was an old reservoir. In the middle was a dark pool of water, about twenty feet across; around the edges lay motionless bodies.
OSH: “There's something nasty in the watershed.”
One of the gnomes lit up another rock for me. I tied a string around it, and threw it just inside the doorway, shedding a bit more light on some of the nearby bodies – one of which, I could now see, was missing a piece out of its midsection, although the light and the ankle didn't allow me to tell exactly how this had happened.
At this point I felt it would be sensible just to shut the door and leave the place alone, but I couldn't persuade the others to leave it alone. It was at around this point that we noticed the water (was it water?) had begun to spill out of the central pool and was flowing towards us.
I raised my crossbow, but before I could cock it I heard an alarming noise – Norton was casting a fireball. This time, however, I was pleasantly surprised as the missile whizzed past my head and detonated in the middle of the reservoir, at a safe distance from myself. In the light cast by the flames, it was clear to see that the gooey black mass flowing towards us was moving of its own accord, and I took a step back as I shot at it, to no obvious effect.
Norton stood there watching the flames, and was caught unawares when a pseudopod lashed out and struck him, dragging him into the creature's slimy mass. Osh charged in and struck it with his axe, slicing it in two – but to our horror, the halves seemed quite unharmed by this, each fighting back as ferociously as before, and as we struck at them they divided further. Furthermore, their substance apparently contained some powerful acid; those of us who struck them found our weapons beginning to smoke and corrode.
Things got a bit chaotic, with the creatures dividing more and more as we struck them; Norton escaped, only to be grabbed again, along with Osh and Bimp. But in the end, by striking at them with blunt weapons and magic, we managed to mash them and wear them down until only one remained. By now we had things under control, and we were about to smash it into bits with our fast-dissolving weapons – Osh had switched to the flat of his axe, or what remained of it. Then Norton, standing well away from it, decided to shoot through a crowd of no less than four of us with his crossbow. By great good luck he did hit it, and not one of us instead, and it lost all animation and fell to the ground lifeless – but I am not sure this is something that ought to be encouraged.
My staff had rotted away, and I discarded it and cut myself a new one, but the others had suffered rather worse. Osh's beloved axe was nothing more than a withered stick with a few shapeless lumps of metal attached, and his armour had melted away; so too had Bimp and Norton's clothing. Fortunately we managed to scrounge some replacements for them – I am not sure the world is ready for naked gnomes.
Inside the reservoir, we found the remains of several ogres and orcs – judging by their clothes and equipment, the leaders of the group. The ones nearer the middle had been burnt by Norton's fireball, but the ones at the corner were in slightly better shape (aside from decomposition, that is). They had a few weapons and some pieces of armour – poor quality, but they should serve Osh until he can replace his own gear – and one, perhaps the leader, had an ogre-sized robe studded with gems.
Osh held a quiet interment ceremony for his axe, followed by a brief wake during which he reminisced about the many, many things he had hit with it. Since night was coming on, we decided to take shelter in the town, and made for the mansion I mentioned previously.
The mansion had been comprehensively looted, and to my eyes there seemed nothing notable inside, but Ilde was more observant; in the cellar she found a bricked-up area, where a section had been sealed off in the distant past. Since dark was falling and we were sorely in need of rest – Osh and the gnomes had been both crushed and burned by the ooze – we decided to sleep first, on the first floor so we could look out over the town, and investigate the cellar in the morning.
The first two watches passed without incident. Norton and I were on the last watch, and around halfway through the watch I noticed it growing cold – very cold.
Then I heard a scraping noise, distant and muffled, far below us. Perhaps in the cellar, behind a brick wall.
We waited a few minutes, and just as I was beginning to breathe more comfortably, I heard a scraping again, this time louder and less muffled, and I felt the chill again. Our animals were looking uneasy, backing away from the open doorway. I was beginning to find the darkness oppressive, and I let Bahamut's radiance flow through me, creating a comforting silvery-white light around me.
Then I heard the scraping, loud, as if somebody was dragging a chain up the stairs. We softly woke the others – although had we left it much longer, I think they would have been woken by the animals, who were on the verge of panic.
Then the shadows in the stairway deepened, and two apparitions came into view. They were insubstantial – I could see through them to the wall behind – and they glared at us with hateful burning eyes.
We stood to either side of the doorway as the first of them entered the room; the other was right behind, and Norton took advantage of the position to unleash a blast of lightning that flashed through both of them – although it was hard to tell whether they had been hurt. Nevertheless, they seemed to have identified him as the greatest threat, and they floated towards him, grabbing at him with cold ghostly fingers. The rest of us struck at them; sometimes I felt my blows strike something at least half-tangible, and sometimes there was nothing but air and the chill of the grave.
At last, as one of them drifted past me to attack Norton once more, I concentrated all my energy and punched as hard as I could, feeling its undead substance dissolve under the force of Bahamut's wrath. To my chagrin, however, my fist continued through it and struck Norton hard in the face. I made profuse apologies afterwards; I suppose it goes some way to make up for the times he's fireballed me, although it was certainly not intentional.
The second of the wraiths had gone for Osh; he had been striking at it with a magical sword salvaged along the way, and it was beginning to look very tattered. I slipped behind it, drawing on Bahamut's force once again, and struck at the centre of its being. It exploded in a burst of divine light – the radiance of Bahamut shining from me more brightly than before – and this time, I am pleased to say, I learned from my previous mistake and checked my blow before I hit Osh.
Come dawn, we made our way downstairs to the cellar. When we broke down the wall, we found a small room behind it, in which lay two skeletons sprawled over a small wooden chest. It looked as if they had been walled up in there alive, poor souls.
OSH: “Does either of them have a Ring of Axe Restoration?”
Osh prized the lid off the chest – unfortunately, the contents suffered in the process – and inside we found the valuables these poor folk had been protecting – a magical wand and bracers of some sort, and a smashed bottle of sparkling magical dust.
Our exploration of the village revealed nothing more of interest, and shed no further light on what had happened to it – either three hundred years ago, or more recently – so we set off again, this time headed for the left-hand fork down the mountain.