Throne Of Cards 77 – Cabin In The Woods
A good tip for the new adventurer is to study up on the different kinds of monsters you could run into, and to keep your eyes open. If there are going to be surprises, you want to be on the giving end, not the receiving.
Excerpt from ‘Ruminations Of A Master Bard’
Scary monsters. Sendai could remember them invading her head even from early childhood, crawling through her dreams on clawed feet, slithering under her skin until she wanted to scream and tear and tear and rip them free. There had been the voice as well, behind the monsters, promising safety and comfort, strength and security. There was precious little of that to be had in the Underdark, and what there was you had to carve out for yourself, frequently from the flesh of those around you. She had learned, and learned well. Her mother had died by her hand, as was right and proper. Surviving in the Underdark was nothing though, not compared to surviving as one of the Children of Bhaal. The knowledge of what she was had filled her with elation, yes, but with dread as well, for she knew what it meant, knew it from the start.
There can only be one.
Maggots crawling across the carcass of their dead sire, her siblings would never cease their struggle to slay, to dominate. It was in their blood, as it was in hers. She would need to be cautious, oh so very cautious, like a spider in the midst of its web, safe and secure. It hadn’t taken her very long to learn that the more regular deaths of mundane mortals would feed her growing powers, and she had taken the lesson to heart. She amassed her followers, a small and secretive cult at first, by now an army. The potential threats on the surface around the entrance to her web had been dealt with, the potential resources absorbed for the rituals used to empower herself and her followers. The game was nearing its end though, she knew that. This delicate balancing act she and the rest of the Five had been maintaining couldn’t last, but it would be a mistake to be the first to strike. The others might all turn on her then.
Sendai pondered this as she slowly raised her hand. It was glowing with a sickly purple colour that almost seemed to be dripping from her flexing fingers. She trailed a single digit across the cheek of the emaciated man on the ground before her and he gurgled with pain as flesh sizzled and melted, running like candlewax.
I must make him speak. I must learn what Balthazar truly intends.
The monk was the hardest one to comprehend of all the Five, and that made icy tendrils of dread twist her belly every time she thought of it.
What I do not understand may destroy me. I must understand.
Would disembowelment be too much? It would certainly send a strong message, but it would also kill her brother’s messenger for certain and ruin his potential. She could use the special tricks of her newest allies perhaps…but that would mean admitting to them that she couldn’t handle this herself, and that definitely wasn’t a good idea. They might well turn on her then. Her mouth felt dry, her heartbeat too fast as she thought of it. There had to be a better way to handle this, there just had to! And then, there was a distraction. A sensation in the outmost strands of her web of traps and alarms, slight stirrings. An intruder. Sendai startled, her eyes wide. This was unexpected, and unfortunate, but Balthazar’s machinations were more important and she couldn’t afford to be distracted.
I am deep within my lair, my traps and my minions all around me. I am safe enough.
That was her own voice, trying to be calm and steady, but the other voices, oh the other voices chittering in her head, they were anything but calm. They were taunting her, laughing at her, and her heart was pounding so loudly.
Fool! Do not give in to weakness, that way lies destruction. You are safe.
She should be safe. All reason and logic told her this. So why, why, oh why was her blood rushing so quickly through her veins, and why was the smallest voice in her head, the voice of the little girl she once had been, crying out that the inevitable monsters had come?
“This place really gives me the creeps,” Imoen said with a brief shudder. Her face was more pale than normal under her pink hair, and there was a tightness around her mouth as if she was trying very hard not to lose her composure. Zaerini could easily understand her best friend and sister. The portal from the pocket plane hadn’t landed them smack in the middle of Sendai’s lair, but within walking distance. That meant that they’d had to travel through more than one village and farmstead where Sendai’s creatures had already passed through. Ghost villages, with no living soul left behind, and unsettling clues and bits of evidence as to what had made them that way. There had been the village where a bloody slaughter had clearly taken place, gore splattered across the walls, doors and windows broken, and the occasional body part left behind. No whole corpses though. All the villagers were gone, taken away from their homes, alive or dead. Well, by now they’re probably pretty much dead. There had been the sizzling ozone feeling left in the air of strong magic, like a persistent itch in her mind, and writing in blood on the wall of one of the houses.
“Glory to Mistress Sendai, Supreme Matron,” Viconia read, bending close to study the curving script on the wall. “All must bow before her…it goes on like that, much what you would expect. The interesting part is of course the writing itself, the contents are fairly generic.”
“Drow,” Zaerini said with a grimace. “Nothing personal Vic, it’s just that other than you I’d hoped not to run into too many other drow any time soon.”
“Believe me abbil, I utterly share your sentiment. Unfortunately it would seem that this Sendai is a Drow sibling of yours.”
“Too much to hope she’d be another kobold, I guess. At least now we know what to expect.”
However, by the time they reached the second village it became clear that Drow wouldn’t be the only foes they had to contend with. The villagers here were also very dead, piled into a tidy pile of corpses on the village green. Men, women and worst of all children, with blank and glassy eyes, and faces that seemed very pale even for corpses. Rini hadn’t really wanted to look, but she’d made herself do it anyway. Sure enough, as she gingerly pushed the long dark hair of a dead woman aside, there were the telltale marks on the throat. “Vampires,” She said. “This just keeps getting better and better.” She’d turned around to see Edwin go a nasty pale green, and hurried over to grab him by the elbow, even as Dekaras propped him up by his other shoulder.
“A…momentary lapse,” The wizard said, his jaw tight. “Something unfortunate I ate, no doubt. (If that oaf of a berserker makes us ‘Rasheman Surprise’ again, I swear I will set his bedroll on fire.)”
“Of course,” Rini said, even as she leaned in closer to whisper into his ear. “It’ll be all right, Dread Wizard. Any vampire that so much as bears a tooth at you, I will show it what kind of fangs I can grow.”
“We will be prepared for them,” Dekaras agreed with a chilling finality that Rini didn’t think would have sounded out of place on the lips of Irenicus himself. “I look forward to testing some of my new equipment properly.”
“Right, yes, of course,” Edwin said, nodding a little too quickly. “All will be…well.”
The third village had been the most unnerving one. There were no corpses here, and also no traces of blood or random body parts. The village was simply…empty, as if all its inhabitants had evaporated into thin air. Half eaten meals rotted on dinner tables, sewing lay unfinished, fires had burned out and the ashes cooled. Some doors were open, others closed, but there were no people to be found anywhere, or animals for that matter. Zaerini definitely didn’t blame Imoen for being unnerved. She felt much the same way herself, and even though they had looked through all the houses there was still the lurking sensation that something was about to leap out at her from one of the dark houses.
“I don’t even want to think too much about what happened here,” She said with a grimace. “But I suppose we’d better. Anybody got any ideas?”
“Whatever it was,” Edwin said, “It did not involve magic. No spells were cast here, not in recent memory.”
“No,” Dekaras agreed. “But I do wonder why Sendai seems so intent on collecting all these people. These aren’t wealthy cities, there is no plunder to be had here, and in this place it wasn’t for the sake of vampiric feeding. She wants them for some other reason.”
“Whatever it is, it’s bound to be horrible,” Rini said. “It reminds me of Irenicus and Bodhi, and those Shadow Thieves they abducted.”
“A ritual of some sort,” Edwin said. “Yes, it is possible, very possible indeed. Without further evidence I cannot say what its purpose might be, though.”
Minsc nudged an empty cradle, left abandoned in the house they were currently standing in, making it rock with a slight creaking sound, and then picked up the woolly blue blanket from it, tears running down his face. “Oh, my friends,” He said. “This is bad, very bad. Can we go find the worm lurking inside the core of this Apple of Evil now? It needs to be chopped into tiny bits, and soon.”
“Yes Minsc,” Rini said, patting her friend on the arm. “We just need to find her first, but it shouldn’t be far. According to the directions Balthazar gave us, it’s inside the forest just after this village. We’ll go there directly, and we’ll just have to prepare ourselves for Drow. And vampires.” She looked around the abandoned cottage. “And…the unexpected.”
By the time they reached the forest marked on their map, the sun had already set some time ago, and it was getting quite dark, especially beneath the trees. It seemed to be mostly tall firs and spruces, with dense branches so that even what little moonlight there was barely trickled down to the ground. At least there weren’t a lot of crackling leaves, but then again not everyone in the party was that adept at walking silently so any monsters around would probably hear them coming. After she brought that up, Dekaras and Imoen offered to go have a look up ahead, and she readily agreed to that. It was after perhaps half an hour or so that the pair returned, looking rather pleased with themselves, and informed the group that there was a small woodcutter cabin not that far ahead, apparently inhabited by an elven woodcutter.
“A lone elven woodcutter,” Rini said. “In a lonely cabin in the woods. Closer to Sendai than any of the three villages that got entirely wiped out.”
“So it would certainly seem at first sight,” Dekaras said. “Then again, I do have an eye for enchantments, and I would say it’s a very rare woodcutter who uses highly enchanted axes for his work, and wears enchanted armor to boot.”
“And we found a graveyard too,” Imoen piped up. “Only, the graves were all phonies. One of them even moved in the wind.”
“The presumed woodcutter had company,” Dekaras said. “To all appearances a group of human teenagers. Well, I say ‘human’, but the one smoking Black Lotus probably counts as ‘vegetable’ by now.”
“Ha, and you wouldn’t believe what we saw two of them doing in the bushes,” Imoen giggled. “You want to tell them, or can I?”
The assassin cleared his throat, and even in the darkness Rini thought she could see that his face had gone a bit pink. “Never mind that,” He said. “It involved combining compatible body parts in multiple ways, let’s leave it at that.”
“You always say I should take note of my surroundings, I was just studying, that’s all!”
“Yes, fine, Imoen. Believe me when I tell you that I will not be giving you a quiz on this topic.”
“So,” Sarevok said. “Shall we go and see what these completely innocent teenagers and humble woodcutter with enchanted weaponry know about Sendai?”
“Oh yes,” Minsc readily agreed. “Perhaps they can be good friends and help us with directions!”
“Perhaps,” Rini said, and she felt herself baring her teeth in what wasn’t entirely a smile. “I’m sure they’ll be helpful. One way or another.”
The small cabin was situated in a clearing deep within the woods, with tall trees all around it and plenty of snarly bushes that made it easy to approach unseen. It was made entirely from logs, with a grassy roof, and with light burning brightly in the windows it looked quite welcoming. There was music as well, clearly audible, cheerful and upbeat, and now and then the approaching group of adventurers could hear bright laughter and muffled voices even if they couldn’t make out the words. “All set?” She whispered to her friends, and once all present had nodded in agreement she gave the door a good hard knock. The voices and music inside instantly fell silent, there was a moment’s pause, and then the door swung open. The man who had opened the door certainly looked like a typical elf, with blond hair and skin bronzed from the sun. He smiled, showing white teeth, and the light of the fire winked off the gleaming twin axes hanging from his belt.
“Greetings, travelers!” He said in a mellow, warm voice. “So much company, so late at night! Please, come in and join us for a spell. There is warmth here, and good company. These young folk are just my nephew and his friends, come here for a little holiday.”
Rini looked at the five young people lounging about the cabin. On the biggest sofa there was a handsome and very muscular young man with a square jaw and bright eyes, entwined in an embrace with a pretty girl whose mane of long, blonde hair didn’t quite manage to conceal her state of partial undress. Another young man, with a rather unkempt beard and a blissed out smile, lay on the floor, a pipe in his mouth, and the smell coming from the pipe forced her to swallow hard. Finally, over in one corner, a third young man and a final girl had their heads together over what appeared to be a skull with a diamond lodged in one eyesocket and a dagger in the other. They both had a bit more studious appearance than the pair on the sofa, and definitely had more clothes on.
“So kind of you,” She said with a warm smile of her own as she stepped inside. “What are you all up to then?”
“Oh, nothing much,” Said the young man holding the skull as he pushed his glasses up his nose. “We just had a poke around the basement, see, and happened across this old thing, thought it would be a laugh to bring it out.”
“Except some of us would apparently rather satiate their lusts than engage scholarly pursuits,” Said the darkhaired girl next to him, her red lips twisting into a pout as she glared at the pair on the sofa.
“Oh, shut up,” The blonde scoffed, as she climbed on top of the muscular young man and dug her nails deeply into his chest. He hissed with pleasure and her dainty pink tongue lapped at the droplets of blood. “We’ve earned a break anyway. Not everyone can be a total suck up to the Mother. ”
“You know,” Sarevok said, “It strikes me as odd that an elf would have a fully human nephew. Wouldn’t he have to be a half-elf?”
The woodcutter’s smile turned slightly stiff. “Er…adoption?” He said.
“You also seem exceedingly well armed,” Edwin said. “Expecting some particularly aggressive moose or beavers out here? And that skull has summoning runes engraved all over it. Hardly an appropriate toy for children (Or so I was always told. Some people clearly get to have all the fun.)”
“Finally,” Viconia said, “I am familiar with the tune you were playing earlier. A word of advice, wael. Do not expect the ‘Caress of the Val’sharess’ to blend in on the surface.”
“Curse you, outcast!” The woodcutter snarled, and he raised his axes as he rushed towards the priestess, murder in his eyes. “In the name of Sendai, die!” Viconia neatly dodged, even as Minsc brought his own blade up to block the blow, and then havoc followed.
Rini went for the half-naked female on the sofa first, who was reaching for a pair of throwing daggers in sheaths halfway up her shapely thighs. The half-elf was faster though, and her sword went through the other’s heart, spraying both of them as well as the wall with a gust of bright red blood. She started yanking her sword free but a blow to her side made her stumble, and now the muscular and bare-chested man had his hands around her throat and was tightening his grip until her vision started to blur and darken. A sharp word from Viconia rang out and the implacable fingers around her throat went slack and dropped away, and as she sat up she heard him start to scream, smoke pouring out through his mouth and nostrils along with a nauseating smell of burning entrails. Edwin winked at her across the room in a way that made her heart take a little skip entirely unrelated to adrenaline. The young man with the glasses had reached for a wizard staff leaning against the wall of the cabin, and was now enveloped in so many protective magical shields that she could barely make him out. Clearly he was prepared for anything – except for Imoen aiming a nasty kick at the back of his knees that made him fly across the room and hit the wall, head first, with a nasty, hollow sound. A particularly nasty painting portraying a woodland scene with twisted demonic faces peering between the trees clattered to the floor and the shields winked out of existence, even as the pink-haired girl practically skipped over to the prone man. Rini couldn’t quite see what happened next, but there was a gurgling sound and a rapidly widening pool of blood on the floor. She had got to her feet now, just in time to see Sarevok lop the woodcutter’s hands clean off, taking both axes with them to the floor, at the same time that Minsc sent his head flying. It landed between the horns of a stuffed moose head on the wall, and it was hard to tell which head looked more surprised. The man with the pipe had a sword out, but he was in no fit state to fight, and tried to stab the floor with great energy right up until Viconia smashed the back of his head in. Almost done. Just the final girl left. Where is she?
The brunette girl was clutching the ritual skull to her chest, muttering to it as her free hand moved in rapid circles. “Servants of darkness, servants of shadow, rise and serve me. Servants of darkness, servants of shadow, rise and serve me, servants of darkness, servants of shadow, rise and…unnnnh.”
“Sendai needs a better class of guards,” Dekaras mused as he let the corpse drop to the floor, fastidiously diverting the pulsing blood from the gaping wound in the throat away from himself. “This lot was practically asleep on the job. I can’t believe none of them thought to bar the back door.”
“Well, it saved you taking the fireplace approach at least,” Rini said, even as she started digging through her pockets for a hopefully clean handkerchief. There didn’t seem to be any. “But it was a good idea, a flank attack is always helpful. Immy, what are you doing?”
“Just making sure,” Her sister said, stabbing one of the corpses one more time for good measure. “Don’t want any of them to suddenly leap up and go ‘Grrrraaaah’ at us. You know how that goes.”
“Fair enough, but I think you can skip the headless guy at least. Oh, look at that.” The corpses were all shimmering, the spell that had previously concealed their true nature disappearing. “Drow. What a surprise, eh guys?”
“I’m shocked to the point of swooning,” Viconia said with a satisfied little smirk on her lips. “Now, there was one thing they said that interested me. They mentioned a basement, did you notice that?”
“Mmm,” Rini said. “That sounds worth checking out, I agree.” She stepped across the nearest corpse and examined the floor. “Here we are, a hatch.” She easily pulled it open, and they descended down a ladder into what at first seemed to be a fairly ordinary basement, other than the many shelves and tables crowded with various arcane paraphernalia that involved everything from odd dice, over creepy dolls and a flute that looked like it was made from human bone. “Don’t touch anything. Eddie, that goes for you especially.”
“But if I could merely have a brief…”
“Nether…” She said.
“Scroll,” Dekaras filled in, giving Edwin an implacable look.
“Oh, fine. I demand a later excursion here though, once there is time for a thorough and systematic examination.”
“In the meantime, let’s have a closer look at this!” Imoen interrupted, as she pointed at an apparently blank section of stone wall.
“Very good,” Dekaras said, nodding at the wall. “Well done.”
“I can do better,” Imoen preened. “I found a little something when I checked one of the corpses.” She pulled a long, oddly shaped metal rod out of her pocket, and inserted it into a nearly invisible crack in the wall. There was a quiet rumble, and the section of wall neatly slid aside, revealing a dark tunnel leading further downward.
“Nice,” Rini said with a beaming smile. Then she rubbed her hands. “Let’s go meet Sister Sendai. I bet she’ll be thrilled to see us.”