After further interviewing Serenia and searching through Ortach’s home office and papers, the team determined that he had fired one new hire a few weeks ago – Berrysmythe – and that the guy and his buddy, Erstwhile, had attacked Ortach outside the Willow, a dockside tavern in Valshar’ak the day after they returned from their field training. According to Ortach’s notes, Berrysmythe was not trustworthy, and wasn’t fully competent for the job, either, and that his buddy had quit when he was fired. The two then jumped Ortach from an alley. Ortach handled them both and delivered them to Crove’s Asylum, which, the team learned later, is both a nuthouse and jail, privately run by the Crove family in Valshar’ak.
While Mishka munched, the other three examined Ortach, and determined that there was some faint necromantic magic lingering in him, and Foen also picked up a strangely familiar scent from his body, as well – something slightly metallic.
The team also visited Slapdaddy, the local half-orc oracle, and learned through his drunken vision quest that there was a “rot from below, coming from within,” and that whoever or whatever did in Ortach was “more than one, but too few to be noticed.” After this, and with Ortach’s death assured and no more than a day or two hence, Foen made his peace with his uncle and the team headed off to Valshar’ak to speak with Torbin Forth, Ortach’s closest friend and supervisor – he’s in charge of the Tharashk depot in that small city.
An uneventful four days of paddling and polling later and they arrived in Valshar’ak, which sits on the shore of a medium-sized lake, and alongside a river that leads back to Zarash’Ak. It would have been high sun but for the thick layer of clouds that was busily dumping a steady rain on the entire area. Soaked and cold, the team found their way to the Willow and had lunch, and noticed significant tension in the air. Asking the innkeeper, they got the sense that he didn’t want to talk, and that something bad had happened in the town recently.
After lunch they headed across town to the House depot, and passed by what seemed like a crime scene: a partially collapsed building, a few guards under a makeshift lean-to, three covered bodies, and a bizarre symbol painted on an alley wall in blood and black sludge. Learning little from the jumpy guards, they continued to the depot, and were immediately given an audience with Torbin, who, after catching up with Foen, told them of some calamity that had befallen the town that very morning: something, it seems, had destroyed several buildings from within, and had killed several townspeople, as well as town guards. Given that Tharashk is the real authority in the little ‘burg, Torbin wrote a letter of marque for the team and sent them back the scene to investigate – this, after Foen had placed the scent from Ortach’s body as being suspiciously similar to the stench emanating from the black sludge that coated the inside of the wrecked building…a stench so bad that it was powerful enough to offend out in the street, through the rain. It was a scent that he associated with spent Khyber dragonshards.
The team was eagerly given full access to the scene once they returned – the guards seemed happy to fob the work off on someone else. The inside of the building was a complete wreck: walls partially or fully collapsed, furniture destroyed, and body parts mixed with stinking black sludge. It had been a residence, with a bedroom, parlor, and office. Books, many about history, geography, and astronomy, were strewn about, and a staircase was found, leading…down. After more closely examining the strange symbol on the alley wall, no one could determine its meaning or association.
The stone stairs, Mishka observed, looked to have been recently cleared of debris, and the doorway to them was not of the same architectural design as the rest of the residence (I failed to mention this last night). The sludge was mostly dry on the stairs, and far less offensive. The farther down the team went, the older the stone work was – another observation from the keen eye of Mishka, junior dungeoneer.
Upon arriving at the bottom of the stairs, after a few 90-degree turns, the team discovered a 35-foot long, 15-foot wide chamber, the far end of which ended in a heap of debris from a collapse. The room held 6 alcoves, 3 on each wall. In each was one ancient wooden sarcophagus, all of which were in very bad shape. One had seemingly long ago collapsed, spilling its contents – old bones and burial implements – onto the chamber floor. Just before the heap of rubble there was a door, mortared into the carved rock wall, on the right; and an open passage, leading downward, opposite it on the left wall. A dry, almost 10’ wide trail of black sludge led straight down the middle of the chamber, through the open passage, and down.
The team stood and decided whether to head down the passage, or to investigate the door to their right. Arko!’s glowing stone hovered above them for light.