The Westerlands

Session 21: A Visit with Grandmother

Laughter is the best DEAD-icine

Here is a recap written by Galgacusferox, who plays Daethin Moonshadow. 500 bonus xp to the elf!
Please note that the story below is the only context in which I would EVER use a picture by the Painter of Suck

Daethin frowned as he scanned the ground in front of him. In his left hand, he held his longbow, with an arrow clasped against the stave and ready to fire quickly at need. With his other hand he batted at the branches which overhung the path, impeding his party’s progress. Scar padded quietly by his feet, the wolf’s long snout close to the ground, sniffing.

They were marching quietly through the Tangled Fens. They were seven, now. Rua’lanna had returned from her journey to Elionde, bound on a mission from the church of Ehlonna. Daethin was glad to have the paladin back in the group. She was a strong sword-arm, and she was very easy to poke fun at, and always gave a worthwhile reaction when provoked.

The two newcomers were Piruk the dwarf, and Santiago, an enigmatic half-orc. Both had proven themselves in battle already, which counted for a lot in Daethin’s book, and he had even begun to form a bond of friendship with the tormented dwarf – they shared a background as soldiers, even if their approach to combat differed as much as their blood. He was still trying to read the big, quiet monk, however. He’d never seen anyone perform the sorts of feats Santiago had done in battle, and yet, when at his ease, Santiago was reserved and polite. He was a different kind of warrior from the elves Daethin had fought beside.

They marched on, stopping now and again for a brief rest and a sip from their magical travel-mugs. The swampy forest was alive with sound all around them – the buzz of insects, the hiss of wind in the trees, the echoing clamor of frogs. Daethin should have been at east out here, amongst trees and sky and the sounds of nature; but there was something beneath it all, something wrong…

He froze, his hand shooting up to halt the others behind him. Underneath the sounds of the swamp, at the very limit of detectability, he could hear it.

“Listen,” he said quietly.

It was far-off, an echo, but somehow it came through clearly: the voices of children, forlorn and despairing, their whimpers intertwining with the voices of the forest, as if the trees themselves were weeping.

They all heard it after a moment. Scar was quiet, his ears swiveling toward the sound. Lanna grew visibly impatient, staring off into the forest in the direction the sound was coming from. Eleanor gripped her holy symbol, her eyes closed, her lips moving. Kit just seemed nervous; the thief was a brave fighter when it came to things of flesh and blood, but the supernatural realm tended to make her jumpy. Rayne gazed off towards the sound, her head cocked, her face unreadable. Santiago seemed to accept the new sound with a slight frown and a furrowed brow.

Piruk was pale, his eyes wide, seeing something only he could see. Then he swallowed, lifted his hammer off his shoulder to grasp it in both hands. He looked at Daethin.

“Let’s go,” he said, nodding toward the trackless forest.

“Aye,” Daethin said, reluctantly. “Be on your guard. We don’t want to come to the same end as others who’ve come this way.”

“Bloody right we don’t,” muttered Kit, her hand tight on her rapier’s hilt.

They set off through the woods, heading vaguely east, following the eerie sound. It grew louder as they went, until all could hear it clearly, and the natural sounds of the wood were drowned out. Daethin tried to focus on finding a clear path, pushing undergrowth aside, scrutinizing the ground, but soon the sound was not only too loud to ignore, but it had changed. Before it had been a pathetic whimpering; now it rose to terrified shrieks, screams of agony which sawed at the air and put his nerves on a razor edge. Lanna, Piruk, and Eleanor looked nearly frantic, and Lanna kept trying to push past him.

“Corellon’s pointy ears, woman,” Daethin growled, “do you want to get us lost out here?”

“Just hurry up, you skinny little faerie,” Lanna grated back at him, but there was no anger behind the comment, only a frantic haste. Behind her, Piruk said nothing, but his eyes burned with a different kind of frenzy, a mounting rage mingled with an echo of harsh shame.

Kit walked with her hand hovering next to her head, as if she were about to clap hands over her ears to shut the ghastly noises out. Her other hand still held the rapier’s hilt, white-knuckled.

Then, in an eye-blink, the sounds stopped. The natural noises of the wood returned.

Minutes later, the trees began to thin, and then they were standing in a clearing on the shore of a lake. A low frame house stood on the shore several hundred yards away. Black smoke floated lazily up from its chimney.

“I don’t like this,” Daethin said. They stood in a cluster, discussing what to do next. The house stood a hundred yards away, eerily quiet. Daethin got the uncomfortable feeling he was being watched.

“There is a thick aura of evil will all about this place,” Lanna said, as if she hadn’t heard him.

“I fear that the longer we stay here, the greater risk we run of contracting an insidious blight just from the air itself,” said Eleanor, examining the silk sash in her hands. The piece of cloth had turned inexplicably brown as they moved closer to the mysterious house.

“All the more reason to make haste,” Lanna replied. Her sword was in her hand; the tip seemed to tremble with the paladin’s eagerness.

“We have no idea what’s in that cabin,” Kit put in. “I think we should take more time to scout around.”

Piruk heaved a heavy sigh; the burly dwarf was leaning on his war-hammer, his face troubled. “I want to get in there as badly as anyone,” he finally said, “but I can’t ignore the fact that we have no information whatsoever on the tactical situation inside-.”

“Then you three can sit around out here and ponder your tactical situation all afternoon,” Lanna snarled, cutting him off. “Meanwhile, I’ll be in there, kicking ass and saving innocent lives.” Without another word or a backward glance, she stormed off toward the house. After a moment, Rayne and Eleanor followed, casting dark glances back at the stragglers. Santiago went with them, his expression neutral, walking with a quiet readiness about him.

Daethin spat. “This again,” he grumbled, and Kit shook her head.

“I have a plan,” said Piruk.

“Let’s hear it,” said the elf.

A moment later, the three started forward, Piruk following the main body of the group towards the door, Kit and Daethin circling wide to the left and right, respectively. Daethin took the arrow in his right hand and laid it across the bow as he walked, working his way into better shooting range, Scar loping along quietly behind him. His eyes never left the house’s front door. He stopped when he was about thirty yards from the house; he saw Kit move in a little closer. Piruk was a dozen yards from the front door as Lanna, Eleanor, Rayne, and Santiago came up to the house.

Lanna immediately tried the knob. Finding the door unlocked, she pushed it open, and all four of the companions filed in.

Daethin’s keen ears heard voices, but nothing distinct. Then he started: a small, gaunt figure appeared in the doorway. It was a child, a young boy. His eyes stared lifelessly out at Daethin as the child closed the door with the click of a latch.

The sounds of battle erupted suddenly from inside. A flare of magical fire burst from the windows; he could hear Rayne calling words of power in a clear voice. Then came another voice: a shrill cackle that made the hairs on the back of Daethin’s neck stand up.

“Shit,” Kit yelped.

“Follow me!” Piruk roared, and charged for the door.

Daethin frowned at the house. It wasn’t very big, and there was no knowing the layout of the inside. Four of his companions were in there, probably close to chopping each other’s heads off in a wild melee. Not a good place for a bowman, especially around the tiny front door.

“Kit!” he yelled. “Let’s go around back!”

“Right!” the thief agreed, running over.

Piruk gave a wordless shout and pounded the door with his mighty hammer; splintered wood flew all around him. He drew the weapon back for another swing, and then Daethin and Kit were around the corner to the right of the door, out of sight.

There was a lush vegetable garden around the back of the house; they skirted it and found a little path running to a rear door. That was in the side of what looked like a kitchen outbuilding, added on to the back of the house. The chimney with its black smoke rose above it.

“Check it,” Daethin said, but Kit was already there, examining the door-frame closely. She jiggled the handle, found it locked, produced a couple of pins and a length of wire seemingly from nowhere.

Inside the house the sounds of battle continued, as did the bizarre cackling.

The door popped open, and the two friends raced inside. They were in the kitchen: the walls were lined with cupboards, and an ample basket of picked vegetables lay next to the door. There was a frantic fluttering, and Daethin brought up his bow; but he lowered the weapon when he saw the small bird-cage hanging by the door, a startled raven beating its wings against the bars, squawking in fear.

There was a second door, one that seemed to lead into the house’s main ground-floor room. The clatter of weapons and the endless laughter came clearly through the thin portal.

“It’s unlocked,” said Kit, standing by the door.

Daethin turned to Scar. “Stay,” he said, and the wolf sat where he was, yellow eyes wide and bright, ears forward.

Daethin shoved the door open and drew his bow until the arrow’s feathers tickled his cheek. But what he saw made his stomach clench and his eyes go wide in shock.

The house’s main room was a charnel-house and a madman’s art-gallery. There was a long table set as if for a communal dinner, and on each platter was a bloody hunk of meat. Daethin’s knowledge of anatomy, among both civilized creatures and things of the wild, left no doubt that these were butchered human carcasses. On the walls all about the dining-room were framed sculptures; but the sculptures, too, were crafted of human remains, bleached bones that were small and delicate…

A battle raged amidst the hideous scene. The door was a broken ruin, lying splintered on the floor. Nearby were several children. Many of them lay unconscious, and as he looked he saw Santiago grab one of the fallen forms and haul a little girl out through the ruined door. Piruk came in a second later to do the same.

Some of the children were up and moving, and they seemed to be fighting against the party – albeit feebly. Lanna and Eleanor were trading blows with a withered creature like an old woman with livid green skin; Daethin recognized a Green Hag, a demon of the swamp. The creature swiped at Eleanor as he watched, her nails scraping off the cleric’s shield with a painful squeal. Two children batted at Lanna with tiny, weak fists; the paladin tried to ignore them as she swung her long-sword, angry flames trailing the blade through its arc.

Right in front of Daethin, less than thirty feet away, was the source of the demonic laughter. He was a spindly figure, attired like a court fool, with multi-colored clothing and a hat hung with bells. But his face was a hideous, leering mask, his eyes gleaming red. His fingers twitched greedily as he leaned towards Rayne. The young sorceress stood there, helpless, racked with irresistible guffaws, obviously caught in a spell of forced laughter that left her doubled over, her face locked in an expression somewhere between incredible mirth and intolerable pain.

Daethin could tell this creature was a kind of fey, one of the People of the Wild, but an evil thing, a sprite which fed on the very life force of other creatures. As he watched, the Jester seemed to be sucking something out of Rayne, like an insubstantial mist, wisps of the sorceress’s very spirit.

Daethin scowled. He centered his arrow on the Jester’s chest. The creature was oblivious to him, caught in the rapture of his feeding-frenzy.

“Die for your misdeeds,” the ranger growled, and loosed his arrow.

The shaft sang as it flew, and the Jester screamed as the broad arrowhead sank into his chest and shot out his back in a spray of blood. Kit bounded past Daethin in the arrow’s wake, bringing her crossbow out from the folds of her cloak. There was a sharp snap as she fired, and a bolt sprouted from the Jester’s eye. The fey creature shrieked again and grabbed at his face, then toppled backward onto the floor, writhing and wailing in agony.

“Huh,” said Kit. “Cold Iron.”

Seeing the Jester’s death-throws, the Green Hag tried to bull her way past Eleanor and out the door. But Lanna’s sword flashed, and the Hag screamed and fell to her knees, clutching at a wounded leg. She looked back up just in time to see Piruk loom over her in the doorway, hammer held high. There was a grisly thunk as he struck, and the Hag sank to the floor, her skull crushed.

Instantly, the two children who’d been battering at Lanna fell to the floor, unconscious.

Daethin rushed over to Rayne, who had stopped laughing and was now gasping deeply, her face red. After making sure she wasn’t badly hurt, he came over to the Jester.

The fey thing was still slightly alive. He giggled feebly as Daethin came over, blood oozing out the corners of his mouth. Daethin drew his long sword from its scabbard at his belt. The Jester’s one remaining eye seemed to laugh at him even then.

“Trouble the living no more, and go to what reward awaits you,” Daethin said, and chopped downward. The Jester’s head rolled across the floor, his laughter silent at last.

“Pelor,” Eleanor said in her clear alto, “let Your light shine unstained upon this place, and cleanse it, the resting-ground of many of Your innocent children. The manner of their deaths was gruesome indeed, a dark affront to Your light and goodness. Please, accept them now unto Your breast, that they may know the light and warmth they ought to have enjoyed, living many long years under Your sky.”

“Ehlonna,” Daethin heard Lanna mutter, “let Your earth embrace these, who came from it in the Beginning. Reclaim this earth as sacred land, that wholesome things may grow here. And forgive our slaying of one of Your People, the wayward sprite; but we struck only in accordance with the Law of the Wild – we killed to keep one of our Pack from being devoured.”

Daethin said nothing. When he prayed, he prayed to Corellon, for aid in battle, and none of those they’d found buried in the vegetable garden had been elves, or even warriors. Nonetheless he was glad to hear the two half-elven women speak the rights over that earth. He knew it was evil not to respect the dead, especially these, innocents taken in the dawn of their lives, by forces too dark for them to understand. The vegetables that had been fed by the rotting flesh of slain children lay hacked to pieces over the dark earth; he and Lanna had seen to that, the two companions who squabbled so often silently helping each other in a task both knew needed doing.

While the two holy women prayed over the burial ground, Piruk knelt nearby, forehead pressed against his hands where they rested on the hammer’s haft.

“I’m sorry,” he said, over and over. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

Santiago also stood nearby, his eyes closed. Daethin thought he heard a low rumble from the half-orc, as if he were uttering a low chant.

They came around the front of the house a little later. Kit and Rayne were there with the gaggle of surviving children; all of the young humans stared blankly, uninterestedly, at their saviors, but Rayne seemed to have charmed them, waving a magic wand and speaking to them in sweet tones that Daethin would not have expected from the brooding, pyromaniacal sorceress. In any case, the children now followed her, a silent troupe of small, gaunt figures.

There was a fluttering and a chittering from his left shoulder. “Hush, you,” he said in a friendly tone. The raven sat there; he’d managed to calm it and coax it from its cage in the battle’s aftermath. There was something in its eyes which bespoke a wit keener than usual for such a bird. He had his suspicions, but it appeared they would remain unconfirmed for now.

“I wish we could give the rest of the remains a more conventional burial,” he said as he came up to the sorceress and the thief.

“Cremation’s very conventional,” Rayne said, “and it’s also a fitting way to dispose of this…” She trailed off.

“Abomination,” Lanna finished for her, and Daethin could only nod.

Without another word, Rayne raised a hand. A searing beam of light sprouted from her palm and pierced the side of the house; instantly the wood started to burn, and soon the entire building was a towering column of flame.

There was a nearly imperceptible sound, like a contented sigh from dozens of young voices, that rose on the fire’s hot wind and passed away.

“We did rightly,” Eleanor said, smiling.

Then there was another sound, from behind: a rustling as of hundreds of feet in the thick brush, and a whisper of voices uttering wordless hunger between savage fangs.

Daethin whipped around, bow at the ready, and stared into the tree line a hundred yards away.

“Uh oh,” he said.

“What now?” said Kit.