The company made haste to conclude their business in Nuln. Herger delivered his messages and was granted a few weeks to pursue his own affairs. As they rode out, Marri was a little pensive. She had felt some tension between Sugar and Mace, her brothers, but hadn't been able to determine the cause.
Four days ride brought them to Dunkelberg, where they spent the night and Marri showed her license to her old friend the Doctor. Then another day's easy ride took them to the village of Gemusenbad, and another to the ruins of the little village of Verghof. The following night they camped in the woods and the next night in the foothills near the canyon that would take them to the keep. Despite Herger's fears, his wound did not seem worse as they approached the spot where it had been dealt.
The next day, after only an hour or two, they rode past the rubble of the gargoyle statue and into the little valley where the keep stood.
Tibbiddo pulled out his herb pouch and began to pack his pipe. His demeanor had changed drastically from the first trip through, this time focusing on his heroism from the initial encounter that no one else seemed to recall. "Yes, tis safer this time," he mused with a puffed out chest.
Marri glanced over at Tibbi. "I am always amazed by his opinion of himself which seems never to have anything to do anything that actually happened!" she though t. "Still tis probably better than worrying about one's brothers, when there is nothing that can be done at the moment! And if I hope to get back to them to fin d out what the problem is, and fix it" she continued to herself, "and I will fix it! Can't have one's brothers unhappy after all! Still I must put those thought s behind me for the moment! Yes, indeed, I would be better served by concentrati ng on my surroundings! I wonder what happened to those bones?" She paled a bit w hen the thought occurred to her that there might be something that ate bones! An d she began to look around uneasily though she said nothing.
Herger had a serene manner about him as he gazed out upon the san-dappled moun tain tops surrounding the valley. The hood of his robes was pulled over his head to protect him from the morning chill and he used his clerical staff for suppor t, resting for a moment from the brief hike through the crevasse. He voiced his agreement that the lack of bones was indeed an oddity.
He adjusted the strap of his tanned, leather slingbag and suggested that they press on towards the keep.
Rurik dismounted at the site of the missing bones to take a closer look. He didn't expect to see anything, what with the passing winter and all, but there's always that chance. "Animals may have taken the bones, but it's as likely that someone may have cleaned up the area. Or worse, they may have gotten up and walked away on their own." Not more than a year ago the very idea of a walking corpse seemed unbelievable to him. Much has happened in the course of that one year.
He shrugged and walked back to his horse. "If someone was relying on that stone monster to protect the keep, they've had plenty of time to plan some nasty surprises since we were last here." Configuring himself for a more mobile posture, the Northlander calls cheerfully to the brave halfling warrior, "OK Tibbs, time to put your keen senses to work! Let's make sure the way is clear for the others to follow."
Tibbiddo almost lost his pipe as his jaw dropped, for it had not occurred to him that someone could rebuild defenses in their absence. Having recovered, he took a draw on his pipe and said, "Lead on, my able friend. I will keep an eye on your broad back."
Rurik smiled broadly at Tibbs words as he made his way forward. "It's not my back that is likely to attack. Perhaps a vantage point that is not obscured by my person would be more suitable?"
Marri was still uneasy, but found she had to smile a little as the two men, so unlike each other, bantered.
"Should we move along as Herger suggested?" she asked. "With Tibbiddo the Brave leading the way?" She managed the last with a completely straight face, and, for that, was quite proud of herself.
Pointing a thick thumb in the direction of the Halfling doctor, Rurik beamed a grand friendly smile Tibbiddo's direction. "That's right! Tibbiddo the Brave leading the way!" Lowing his voice a notch, he leaned closer to speak conspiratorially. "You know, Tibbs... If I didn't know better, I'd say Marri was soft on you."
"Wasn't so long ago you were regaling us with tales of your deeds when last we t rod this ground. Well, now is your chance to make good on those claims. Beside s, most booby-traps are set higher than your head level, and most ambushes held until the vanguard passes the ambushers." Michael chuckled as he checked his cr ossbow for moisture.
The company set out, Tibbo reluctantly leading and the others following. As the y moved closer, the saw signs of habitation in the valley. A scrawny looking horse was foraging in the distance, and a thin trickle of smoke rose from a chimney on the keep itself. They saw no sign of guards nor lookouts, though. They approached with even more care, dismounting and leading their animals until
they could tie them out of sigh of the keep and continuing on foot. They reached the walls of the keep and were, to the best of their knowledge, undetected.
Herger stood near the wall leaning easily up on his staff which he held in one hand. The hammer symbol hung from a leather cord about his neck, while the octagon representing Sigmar's joining of the eight tribes of Humanity adorned the top of the staff. His plain robes caught in the gentle breeze passing through the valley as he reached up to lower his hood. From his thick, brown belt hung the warhammer that had been given to him by the priests of his order. He looked around in order to gain his bearings and recalled the events that transpired the last time they visited this location.
He muttered a few words in prayer as he fondled the token hanging at his neck. Then, in a louder voice he prayed to Sigmar at a level the others could hear as he bowed his head, "Oh, Sigmar, lend thy mighty will and spirit that your humble and penitent servant may attend to his duty to thine greatness.. That he may boldly go into the deepest pits and darkest reaches bearing the light of thine truth and bring an end to those whose machinations would bring about the downfall of thine glorious Empire. Sigmar, I beseech thee, grant me the strength and ability to protect those present should any foul creatures fall upon us. Glory be to thee, Sigmar."
Marri was slightly taken aback at this sign of the change in the way her friend now approached the world. But she listened respectfully, added her own silent prayer to Blessed Esmeralda and the Eternally Serene Verena. "Should we go in?" she inquired softly when Herger finished his prayer.
Herger felt that Sigmar was with him and was certain that his amulet now drew Sigmar's attention in an appropriate fashion.
Tibbiddo's eyes grew wide upon witnessing the power his friend wielded, and after quickly pushing any thoughts of what such an amulet could bring on the open market he stepped uneasily forward. "Let's proceed," he said with confidence approaching the door.
Tibbo opened the door and the companions beheld the corridor they had seen once before. The recalled that to the right was the great hall, while directly ahead was the staircase. There was something new, though. Two human skeletons stood just inside the door, one to either side. As they watched, the skeletons began to move, drawing their weapons and lurching toward them!
"Aaaaaaiiieeeeee!" screamed the halfling as he grabbed for the door.
Herger let loose a cry of alarm and reached for his hammer with his free hand. H e fumbled briefly with it as he pedaled backwards before the advancing undead. A s the hammer came loose in his hand he said, "We must bring an end to the unlife of these abominations of Khaine!"
Once armed, he moved purposefully forward to attack the animated bones.
Marri took a step back, loosened her sling, and picked up a couple of rocks from the ground. "Right inside the door!" she thought irritably, the annoyance helping to keep the fear at bay, as she waited for a clear shot. "You would think we could get a bit further than that! Perhaps none of our gods are listening today!"
"Well, here's some fun!" Michael shouted, reaching for his sword.
As the skeletons began to lurch toward them, Marri hurled a stone from her sling which smashed into the skull of the first skeleton shattering it into tiny fragments. The skeleton took one further step and then whatever malign force that was animating it fled and the bones began to separate and fall to the floor.
Despite his faith, Herger was given a moment's pause by the foulness of the creatures they faced and he shrank back against the wall. His companions, too, were taken aback by the monstrosity and for a moment they could do nothing but gaze in horror as the creature closed. Cooly Marri loaded another stone and fired, but missed since her companions blocked the way. With that example to inspire him, Michael leapt forward and swung his sword in a short arc that swept the head from the skeleton to sail against the wall and smash itself to pieces.
As quickly as the violence had begun it was over.
Tibbiddo kicked a femur viciously, and turned back to the others. "All appears safe now," he proclaimed muttering prayers to the The Pilgrim that the rest of the journey within was less frightening.
Herger looked at the lifeless, old bones and rested the head of his hammer upon the ground, the handle dangling from his wrist by the attached leather strap. He leaned his head back against the wall and said something about the 'power of Kh aine' and 'mortal men'.
After a moment, he gathered his composure and was once again ready to proceed.
"I think we found the missing bones." Rurik chimed amusedly.
"Really?" Marri queried, staring at the bones. "How can you tell?"
In truth she tried to avoid looking at bones as much as possible, unless, of course, they came from a fat cow or a plump sheep, and were about to go into one of her lovely stews. She decided she most definitely did not want to link *these* bones with thoughts of food.
"Perhaps, we should have one person look into each room before we go marching boldly forward?" she suggested.
Tibbiddo gulped and tried to slink back from the fore, trying to think where a creature most definitely would NOT go just in case he were asked to choose a place to explore.
Rurik shrugged absently as he looked around the rest of the entryway for any new surprises. "Unless whoever resides here went out and 'acquired' a fresh pair of skeletons, I'd say the the ones gathered from the field of battle would serve a... what? Necromancer? quite nicely."
He paused a moment after he made the realization. Blinking, he looked back at Herger. "That is what we have here, is it not? What of the remains of the women locked in the cell...?"
Herger returned Rurik's gaze and gave a solemn nod, saying, "Aye, a necromancer. A practitioner of the dark arts is in residence here and has called upon the bl ack power of Khaine's hatred to bring false life to these creations, may their s ouls rest in peace. Sigmar's strictures require that this keep be cleansed of su ch filth. As for the remains we came across on our last trip hence I assume the worst. We must needs find them and strike them down if they, too, have been furt her defiled. Then the perpetrator must be dealt with harshly. Such use of magic brings with it a heavy price: a death sentence." A pause, and he adds, "At least , that's what I have been taught by my revered brethren and, looking at these wa lking skeletons, I am inclined to agree with them."
Rurik's gaze transformed to an ever-growing smile as Sigmar's Chosen spoke - and continued to speak. "You just can't give a simple answer anymore, can you Herg?"
Turning his attention back to his surroundings, the Marienberger twirled his sword and spoke out to nobody and everybody. "You heard the man!" Rurik glibbed. "Time to deliver almighty justice!"
Tibbiddo pulled out a trusty throwing knife and awaited instruction. Over the time spent together, he truly believed that Rurik would not betray him nor cause harm to befall him intentionally. It was an odd feeling that the little halfling had never felt before, for most of his associates in the past were not what anyone would call trustworthy.
"A n-n-necromancer?" he stammered out. Memories of the bony hands crawling free from the mounds flooded Tibbiddo's head and he gripped his knife harder.
"In all the stories, the lord of the keep always occupies the highest point. Unless one of you has a better idea where this -- necromancer," Marri's mouth twisted with more than general distaste at saying the word because she too remembered the bones of the women in the cells and she was angry that even in death they received neither respect nor rest "might be, I suggest we go up the stairs. I still think we should quickly check the doors as we move. No point in leaving someone, or something, down here to come at us from the rear."
With a grin at Rurik and a nod of agreement to Marri, Herger said, "Let us be ab out it. Rurik and Michael should be the vanguard, the less tall folk in the midd le and I shall have my faith keep me company at the back."
He muttered in prayer, "May the light and knowledge of my great patron keep me e ver vigilant." Then he brought the blessed token to his lips and let it drop aga in before taking his hammer back in hand. He would follow behind, keeping a keen eye out for any evils that thought to take them unaware.
The company moved out. First they opened the doors to the Great Hall and peeked in, but saw nothing that immediately concerned them. Then they opened the door across the hall. This door gave on to the kitchen. From the doorway, they could see a long firepit to their right and two doors in the opposite wall. The room had a jog around the central area where the stairs were, so a part of the room to their right was out of view. They saw that some food supplies of fairly recent vintage had been laid in.
The company moved carefully into the kitchen. It was clear that something that needed to eat was living in the keep. Food supplies were in evidence, unlit but new-looking torches had been placed in the sconces, some firewood had been stacked by the firepit, and some minor repairs had been attempted on some of the furniture.
As they examined the room, a door opened and a horrible creature shambled out. It looked like a human, only stooped and loose-limbed, with a slack-jawed expression which revealed oversize and pointed teeth. It was filthy and the eyes showed only a glimmer of intelligence.
Herger charged while the man-like thing was staring in shock, having already concluded that anything living or staying in this keep had been tainted by evil necromantic magic. He cried "For Sigmar!" as he brought his hammer to bear.
His hammer blow smashed into the creature's right arm knocking it to the side and eliciting a horrible cry from the creature. Answering cries, somewhat querelous, came from the door whence the creature had issued as well as the next door on. Herger spun around fearing that he would be surrounded by the creatures, but he need not have feared that the one he had wounded would be a threat. His blow had knocked it, off balance, into the path of Michael who was coming forward to join him. Michael's cutlass swept into the wounded arm, removed it neatly and buried itself in the creature's rib-cage. It fell to the ground as they considered their next move.
Herger watched the creatures vile form drop to the floor. Then, he looked to the next door on, from where additional cries came. He said, "Cover this door!" and moved to an ambush position beside the other with his hammer raised and ready.
Marri was more than a little annoyed that anyone should treat a kitchen so shabbily. "It has such potential!" she thought as she readied her sling and tried to find a position where a clear shot would be possible. (assuming there is enough room to use the sling. If not she'll look around for something heavy to swing - skillet, pot or some such. Last option will be to pull out her knife and ready herself.) Though she was torn, worrying that Herger might be biting off a bit more than he could chew trying an ambush at the door by himself, she followed his order and focused on the other door.
Tibbiddo inched forward, suspecting that his contribution to the team was that of bait. "Want me to open the door?" he whispered to Herger to lure out whatever creature lay beyond.
Rurik unslung his readied crossbow and handed it to the halfling. "Tibbs, get in position to cover both doors from range and hit whoever proves a good target," he whispered; turning to head to his position. "Oh, and Tibbs..." he said, reaching an arm around to point to his back. "...memorize this view. This is not a target." He threw a quick grin back at the halfling and winked.
All the jockeying for position took place in mere seconds, with Herger lying in wait near the closed door with Tibbo juggling the large crossbow annd covering him. Marri covered the open door and Rurik was in position near it, while Michael remained in reserve ready to move where he was needed.
Barely had they reached their positions when more of the creatures began to come out of the doors. Marri was unable to get a clear shot at the first one in her door, and the cramped quarter's hindered Rurik as well. The ghoulish creature barrelled past him into the kitchen.
At the other door, Herger smashed his foe in the chest and as it tried to get past, Tibbo raised the unfamiliar crossbow, knocking the bolt loose and scrambling for it on the ground. The ghoul moved toward the halfling and gave a cry of victory, cut short as Herger's warhammer crushed his entire chest.
Michael moved to intercept the ghoul who had made it into the kitchen, allowing Marri a clean shot which thunked meatily into the ghoul's leg. Michael's blow cut a deep gash in its arm, which oozed a thick vaguely bloody substance and it keened, lashing a talon at Michael before turning to flee.
At the door, Rurik sliced brutally across both of the legs of another creature who struck out with his filthy talons opening a long and deep scratch on his arm. A chill spread from the wound and he felt his limbs stiffening. Tibbo seeing this aimed Rurik's own crossbow and fired. The bolt took the ghoul in the shin, shattering it and knocking the creature to the floor.
Herger, meanwhile, made short work of the ghoul at the other door, a blow from his hammer crushing it's hip and leaving it thrashing helplessly in its own ichor.
Marri put another sling stone into her sling and a moment later, the fleeing ghoul was dead. Michael stepped over to the ghoul near Rurik who was trying to crawl away and put it out of its misery.
There were no more of the creatures and the company reviewed their own casualties. Marri ran to Rurik and examined him. His wound looked ugly, but the paralysis was already beginning to show signs of wearing off. Marri expertly cleaned the wound, applied an unguent to a bandage and bandaged the wound.
As she did so, the others quicky the rooms whence issued the ghouls. They were devoid of interest, apparently being servants quarters which had been taken over by the creatures. The only other room off the kitchen was an empty storeroom.
Tibbiddo hoisted the massive crossbow to his shoulder, tipping his balance over and after a stumble he was once again upright and steady. "I believe this contraption is in poor repair, but I'll make do," he said as a way of apology fumbling for a new bolt.
"Should we clear the ground floor, to guard against any filthy backbiters?" he asked with a glint of swagger.
"I think we just did," Marri replied a bit dryly.
As Rurik got his movement back and Marri finished her treatment, Rurik firmly yet gently grabbed hold of the Halfling Doctor's head and gave her a big kiss on her rosy right cheek. "I love this woman!" he announced grandly for the benefit of the others as he let her loose to test his arm. He did his best to stifle the winces of pain as he gingerly moved it through as much of a full range of motion as possible.
Resigned to the new condition of his arm, Rurik rested a hand on Tibbs shoulder. "Nice cover. Why don't you hold on to that for now? You've put it to better use than I."
"Oh my goodness!" Marri exclaimed, blinking in surprise, for once, almost at a loss for words. "Um... eh.... perhaps... eh... Tibbi was correct... we *should* check out the rest of the rooms down here."
Herger speculated that there would be occupants of some sort in the secret room they had uncovered on their last visit.
"I feel we should fully explore the second floor of this cursed keep. However, t hat would give any fiend in the secret chamber a chance to slip past us. As long as we keep a free eye on the windows we should be able to spot any refugees if we do not hear them on their way out. Otherwise, to prevent such an occurence, o ne or two of us could stand guard by the stairs as the others make an explorator y sweep."
Marri nodded at her friend. "I agree," she said. "I certainly don't want any... thing either at our backs or slipping away before we find them. I think someone standing guard by the stairs might work best, as it is possible we might get a bit... busy and not be as aware of secondary things going on around us as we might hope to be."
With Michael in the lead, they began to climb the stairs, which spiralled around a stone column in the center of the keep.
The expression on Michael's face as he reached the second floor was probably priceless, but none of his friends could see it since they were behind him. What they heard was his exclamation followed by a rattling of bones and shouted cries.
The skeleton swung at the terrified Michael, who managed to put his shield in the way and shout to his companions what he had found.
Standing right behind the marine, Rurik suggests a plan of action, "Michael, back out and we'll surround and dispatch them one by one at the base of the stairs."
Hearing the commotion and Rurik's words, Marri turns and hurries back down the stairs. Once at the bottom, she turns and loads her sling, keeping her eyes on the others and waiting for a clear shot at whatever was at the top of the stairs.
For a few moments, nothing much was done while Michael got control of himself, then he began to back down the stairs, which the others had already cleared at Rurik's command.
They drew themselves up around the stairs, ready to attack anything that came down, and able by the construction of the stairway to fire at anything on the entire flight.
Nothing came down, though. They heard some clattering from above them as some number of creatures, certainly more than a single skeleton got off the staircase, and then silence.
"What are they waiting for?" whispered Tibbiddo hefting the crossbow up to eye level.
"They may very well be set to only attack if we enter that floor." Michael sugg ested. "Damned scary looking thing, that gal."
"Well," Marri said after another minute had passed "we either need to all get up the stairs and onto that floor quickly or we ought to give up trying to go up there at all."
A noise from behind them, alerted the party to something happening behind them. They spun to look down the hall and saw a figure just stepping out the door from the great hall - the noise of the door was what they had heard.
Several of the party thought they recognized him as the light from the lantern spilled his way. It wasn't until he raised his hands in a spell casting gesture that they made the connection; it was the wizard who had accompanied the Dark Rider in the badlands.
Recognition jolted Rurik into action. He knew he couldn't reach the necromancer in time to cut him down before he summoned dark powers against himself and his friends. Since Tibbiddo had his crossbow, Rurik instinctively knew there was but one option left to him. Thrusting his blade in the direction of the vile sorcerer, the wastelander blasted the fiery vengeance of Ryo-Aldonar at his foe.
As Rurik raised his sword, Tibbo fired the crossbow. The bolt went wide, as the wizard held his ground. Then the fire struck, Rurik saw with horror that his targeting had been off, it splashed against the wall near their foe and washed gently over him with it's outer edges but did not stop his casting.
However, the wash would also have struck the creature crawling along the wall. To avoid the flames, he leapt clear and into the light. The whole company could now see what had once been a man but was now a horrid semblance of a man. His flesh seemed almost to flow and change colour which was why he had been so hard to see. His hands were ragged talons and his mouth a gaping, toothlesss maw. His appearance shocked Marri to her senses and she whipped a stone from her sling at the wizard, although it went wide.
A second later the fire of their foe was amongst them. Marri cried out and fell followed a moment later by Rurik. The others were able to shelter behind the walls and were unharmed.
Proving once again completely inept in his martial prowess, Rurik collapses in despair for his consistent inability to protect himself or his friends. Though assured of certain death, the wayward Wastelander's final thoughts involve a promise to once again avoid armed conflict if at all possible, and fond memories to his time spent with the sea elves in Marienberg.
As Tibbo reloaded the crossbow as quickly as he could, Michael charged the horrid creature the fireballs had revealed and a second later Herger charged the wizard.
Herger reached the wizard as he was trying to cast again, an in something of an anticlimax, smashed his hammer into the wizards chest with enough force that the foe dropped to the ground with several ribs broken, unconscious and bleeding. Even Herger knew that without medical attention it would be mere moments until the man died.
Michael, meanwhile, had given his foe a pair of nasty cuts, one on each leg, and the creature was meweling piteously and scrambling for safety while lashing out with his claws. His flight was halted by a crossbow bolt from Tibbido.
The friends turned to their fallen comrades. Marri, wounded as she was, wanted first to tend to Rurik. She cleaned and bandaged his wounds before turning to her own injuries. With the help of Herger and Tibbo, who followed her instructions, she was soon also cleaned, salved and bandaged.
Throughout the process they heard no further noise from upstairs.
Tibbiddo pet the crossbow as if it were a domesticated rabbit. "Good shot," he cooed. As soon as Marri was cared for he withdrew his dagger and approached the unmoving wizard, seeking to see if he carried anything of worth.
The wizard was still alive, just barely. Faint breath burbled through bloody foam on his lips. He was dressed casually, as if he was at home rather than exploring the castle as Tibbo and his friends were. His robe was ruined now, but even had it not been, there was something of an aura of decay about it and his accoutrements. The exception was his jewelry which seemed to Tibbo's eye to be old but of good quality.
Holding his dagger carefully, Tibbiddo pocketed the jewelry and turned to the others. "He is still alive," he commented.
Marri moved to the wizard. Kneeling beside him, she hesitated for a moment, but then began to examine him to see if there was anything she could do for him.
Marri realized that he was beyond all human aid. She thought that, if she tried, she might be able to bring him to consciousness for a few moments, but that was all.
"Stop. He may still be dangerous," Tibbiddo warned Marri waving his dagger boldly before the wizard's glassy eyes.
"I cannot save him," the little halfling said looking up at her companions, unsure whether she was happy or sad about this. "But I might be able to bring him back to consciousness for a few moments... if you think it might be worthwhile, and safe, to try to question him. Decide quickly!" she finished.
Herger had been kneeling to offer a prayer of thanks to Sigmar, but he now rose and stepped towards the sorcerer. He said, "No. Do not revive him. Let his spirit pass to the realms of darkness that he chose to serve as swiftly as possi ble. I have no questions for him, and in his hatred he might use his last breath to place a curse upon us."
After speaking, the initiate moved to the chaotic creature now lying in a h eap on the stone floor. He knelt beside, touched its cursed flesh with his bless ed token and muttered words he hoped would ensure its soul was also sent to be w ith the mage.
Looking at Rurik, he hoped that one of the next prayers he was given the in sight to use would be one that would allow him to help even the wayward and unfa ithful. Maybe he could help guide the Wastelander to one day see the light and g ood offered by Sigmar's being.
Tibbiddo stood by silently, watching Herger with reverential attention. Sensing he was finished he spoke in a whisper, "Should we try the upstairs again?"
Marri, who had moved away from the wizard upon hearing Herger's words, was now sitting on the ground, leaning against a wall.
"I don't think I'd be much help in a fight just now," she said, "and no offense to Rurik, I don't think he will be either. And it seems whatever it up there isn't going to follow us down, so how are we to get everyone who can still fight up there and out into the open so that we can fight if we must?"
Looking over at Tibbi and the crossbow, she continues "Or perhaps we might try having someone stand on the stairs and pick them off with the crossbow?"
Tibbiddo gulped, and hoped that someone would come up with a better idea, preferably one that presented less danger to his wee body. He then hefted the crossbow and puffed out his chest, "if need be, I will do it," he said sighting along its length.
"However, we know that a sorcerer of dark magicks has inhabited this place," he glanced at the downed form. "Perhaps this is he, and all is well now that he is dead," Tibbiddo said hopefully.
Rurik moved gingerly in the direction of the wizard; anger, pain, and hate play openly on his face. His urge to brutally kick the body over and over again held in check only by the desire not to contaminate his own person. Instead, he finds a favorable stance and powerfully swings the sword of Ryo-Aldonar in a vicious arc; attempting to sever the necromancer's head from his body.
The head separated cleanly from the body annd rolled a few feet away, spinning on its back before rolling over to rest gently on one ear. The stumps gave only a single spurt before settling to trickle, since most of the man's blood had already leaked out onto his shirt.
Herger nodded at Tibb's thought, "I agree that that is possible, else we wo uld have had multiple foes upon us. Michael and I shall go up and check. Tibbidd o, stay here and holler if there's any trouble." Herger began making his way up the steps, holy warhammer in hand.
A quick reconaissannce showed him that roughly a dozen skeletons encircled the top of the staircase, apparently in ambush. He was able to duck back down below before they could attack. He noted in passing that the stairs had been designed for just such defense - spiralling counterclockwise upwards as they did, his right arm was against the center pillar hindering his attacks.
Herger relayed the information to his companions as he tried to formulate a plan for countering the skeletal ambush. He eyed the Elven weapon at Rurik's si de in speculation, wondering if a couple of fireballs would do the trick. He loo ked askance at Michael, "Any ideas? Do you think we could find another way into the room above?"
Tibbo crept up the stairs carefully until he could just barely see a sliver of bone at the top and took up a position as picket while they decided on their next move.
Noticing Herger's gaze, Rurik adds his opinion. "It takes about a day for the sword of Ryo-Aldonar to regain it's fiery magics. Perhaps we could use the secret staircase to get around behind these abominations."
"Should we check to see if that secret stairway we found last time has an entry point on this level?" Marri asked. "Perhaps we might be able to send someone up the spiral stair to distract those things, and send the others up the secret stairway to attack them from the rear."
Tibbiddo shivered at the mention of someone distracting the bone creatures. His thoughts of sheer terror went back to the mound and a chill ran up his spine. "M-maybe they cannot be distracted as they have no brain," he offered with a stammer.
Herger thought it sounded good, and said as much, "Let's check it out."
"I'll take the distraction and rear-guard, since I've been in the fray with thes e already." Michael assents. He's a little ashamed to have lost heart last tim e.
The friends' plan worked to perfection. Rurik and Herger, with Tibbo behind them, crept up to the second floor and into the bedroom. Noises from the stairs indicated that the diversion squad was doing their duty. They peeked out and saw that the skeletons, eleven of them, were arrayed around the stair but making no further moves. Perhaps as Tibbo said, with no brains they had no good plan. The trio took their time girding their metaphorical loins then leapt into action.
Tibbo's shot shattered the nearest skeleton's arm and as it turned, Herger smashed its ribcage into splinters. Rurik, furious over the result of the last fight, let fly with the sword of Ryo-Aldenar and hacked one skeleton in half through the spine, continuing up to crush the skull of a second.
The skeletons did not respond to the attacks until one, carrying a rusty blade, advanced on Rurik. The others then moved to join the attack. As they abandoned the stairs, Marri and Michael moved to join the fray.
The skeleton's blade scraped down Rurik's shield as Rurik dropped low and then cut upward, cleaving though thigh bone and pelvis before sticking in the lower spine. As the creature collapsed, whatever foul power animating the others seemed to lose its evil vitality. They moved sluggishly and Michael and Herger were able to easily avoid their spastic movements annd crush the skulls of several more as Tibbo's crossbow bolt caused the skull of another to explode. Marri's sling shot did not strike a skull but did strike one in the ribcage with enough force to stagger it and a moment later it collapsed.
The others began to lose their extremities as well now, skulls toppling from spines, arms from shoulders and legs from pelvises. Within seconds what had been a fearsome army of walking dead was no more than a pile of bones.
"Well..... Well.....," Marri said, looking a little surprised. "No one hurt?" she inquired to make certain she hadn't missed anything. "Excellent. Now what?" she asked next.
Tibbiddo scurried about salvaging what bolts he could and puffed out his chest in the process. "Now we loot," he said triumphantly, adding "er, I mean look for anyone who needs our help."
Carefully, the company began to search the ruined keep top to bottom.
The top floor and laboratory had been partially restored and converted to a use that was easy to see - that of necromancers lair. The furnishings remained rotten but at least a nod had been made to human habitation in that some bits of food and fresh firewood and candles had been laid in as well as some odds and ends of personal interest to the deceased practitioner of the dark arts. A book entitled "Liber Mortis" rested on a table next to some bones. The bones were bits and pieces that could not make up a full skeleton, presumably the complete sets were now in pieces a floor below. A pouch with some thirty or so crowns was near the bed.
Tibbiddo glanced over to the book. It felt evil to the little halfling but he reached out for it none-the-less. With an eye to Herger deferring to his new career path he asked, "Should we take it?"
Marri didn't care for the feel of the book either. "We should take it or destroy it!" she stated emphatically. "It isn't the sort of thing we should leave laying around for someone to find!"
The floor on which they had fought the skeletons consisted of nothing but bedrooms, all disarray and several of which featured little nests made of rotting tapestries and linens.
The ground floor had been thoroughly explored already.
Both the spiral stairs and the secret stairs led down to a basement which was oddly clear. There was nothing of any interest save the well on one side, covered with a stone lid. Fire marks scorched the floor and walls in several places and there was a faint greasy smell permeating the whole area.
Marri was coming to dislike staircases and basements a great deal! She decided it might be best not to think too much about what the necromancer had been doing down here. She suspected the details would spoil her enjoyment of her meals for a very long time.
The secret staircase continued down to a sub-basement where they found another secret stair back to the basement. The sub-basement itself was primarily a prison with ten cells along one wall and eight tiny hotboxes on the other. Here, too, were a pair of altars. One bore the symbol that they had come to recognize as that of Barsnarg and the other a symbol that they did not recognize. That second altar was far older than the first and stained suspiciously. Nearby was a stone tub that contained some sort of horrid goo. It seemed to be alive for when they shone a light on it, it seethed and tried to climb out of the tub while its surface sizzled lightly and gave off a greasy smell.
Recoiling likewise from the goo, Tibbiddo stumbled backwards. "What is it?"
Marri gave a little scream and jumped back from the horrid mess as well. "Whatever it is, insofar as it lives, we ought to make certain it is equally dead! And I don't think it would hurt to make certain those alters are destroyed as well!" Watching the roiling ooze make her quite queasy. She turned away and began looking around the room for tinder. "Fire is generally cleansing!"
With fire and water the company set to cleansing the keep. The foul altars were demolished, the goo burnst away, and the various remains put in a pit, burned and then buried. Such furnishings as were too damaged to be of use were used as tinder, which meant that most of them were destroyed. A few paintings remained, along with some pieces of furniture that it looked like the necromancer had brought with him and twenty nice silver place settings that seemed to predate him.
Marri pronounced most of the food supplies untainted and made food and tended to the wounded. Within a week or so, the work was done and the company feeling more hale and hearty.
The company discussed what to do with some of the good, the silver service in particular. Marri suggested selling it and donating the money to Verena or Sigmar. Tibbo was appalled at the idea.
Rurik listened a moment to the conversation before adding his opinion. "If I understand Herger correctly from the conversations we have had, Sigmar encourages self betterment. I suggest we take the silver and the rest and invest it in our enterprises - and do so in the name of Sigmar, if that makes you feel better."
Herger nodded and said, "Sigmar expects all citizens of the Empire to tend to the betterment of themselves and, by doing so, all of the Empire will grow and prosper. My share will go to the church." He looked around the room in which they found themselves and continued.
"This place still feels as if the hand of Chaos is upon it. Let's face it.. in the time that we have known of its existence it has been the home to, not one, but two separate wielders of evil magic. There is something about this valley that acts as a beacon to the dark things in this world. Something must be done with this keep before any of you decide to put it to use for anything you have in mind. I do not possess the knowledge for what is required. However, allow me to speak with the priests of my order concerning the keep. I believe that I may be able to convince them that this place," he indicated the land surrounding the keep,"would be an excellent location to construct a temple or monastery. They would see that these grounds are blessed properly to ward off the influence of the Dark Powers. Also, the security of the keep could only be increased by having such a structure nearby."
Usually opposed to the idea of permanent religious structures at his residence, Rurik found himself somewhat more approving of the idea than he might otherwise have thought. In fact, Herger's 'ministrations' have so far revealed a fairly pragmatic faith that doesn't outright condemn him and most everything he does for a living or for amusement. Additionally, unlike the Druid, Herger has issued forth no death threats for stepping on dirt piles or wasting precious escape-time worshiping with squirrels. Perhaps a Sigmarin worship structure wouldn't be such a bad thing after all. As for Marri's Verana or whomever... Anything that keeps the provider of fine foods and lifesaving healing happy is welcome, at least as far as Rurik is concerned.
Turning his attention to other matters of the keep, Rurik queried, "This valley falls within the Empire's borders. Is anyone familiar enough with royal property decrees that cover a site such as this? Land ownership, taxes, and that sort of thing?" Tapping a finger on a table, his mind strays toward money. "Also, how much would a place like this cost us in upkeep? I don't see any ready revenue stream from this site, so we'll have to acquire wealth elsewhere." Frowning, he looked at the others. "Anyone of you good at working with these sorts of numbers?"
"Money, I have a familiarity with," said Tibbiddo casually with a grin. "However, this place is a bit out of the way for those who enjoy a more...urban flavour."