A windowless room with a musty smell and oppressive yet diminutive size. In its middle lies a desk with mounds of parchments and ledgers fill and nearly overburdening the desk and the rooms sole occupant. Tranled sits hunched over a particularly convoluted ledger making notes as he untangles the unnecessarily complex accounting systems put into place.
“500 gold pieces for toilet paper? Well least someone is having more shit than me.” Tranled snorts to himself and looks up to see that there is no one to laugh at his good material. He rocks back in the chair and stretches out to the chorus of small pops from joints and a prolonged sigh from his lungs. He rubs his eyes with the palms of his hands then looks at the mountain of parchment in front of him. He considers what brought him so low and remembers his encounter with Shalvus Martholo. The so-called Zhentarim agent of Goldenfields. The Snail still will not let him talk about why he self-promoted Martholo to death.
Tranled breathes in deeply taking in the musky, smoky, after sex smell of the room and rocks back to the table and his shit paper investigation. One of the clerks that bring the unending supply of parchment work told Tranled that this room used to be one of the ‘entertainment rooms’ and had been emptied out especially for Tranled.
He feels the footfalls as well as hearing them. The steady booted steps of one in armour. With the light from under the door changing to the curt knocking, he had gathered his wand loosely in his hand. When you cook the books for the Zhentarim sometimes people get burned. Tranled calls out “Enter.” in a monotone. The door opens even before the second syllable has ended. Tranled calculated that if his visitor meant him violence he was in deep trouble.
Filling the doorway was a Tiefling in plate armour. The sheen of the armour was that of silver but gave an iridescent purple as the light caught its edges. The orle of a shield protruded behind with a épée hung from a belt and a rod of obvious magical power in a short sheath on the hip. When Tranled’s eyes rose to meet their silver counterparts in his unexpected guest he suddenly realised that this armoured interloper was female. She stared down at him and Tranled recognised the look of someone reevaluating the terms of a contract. Whether that was in his favour or not he was bound to find out.
“I would offer you a seat, however, I have none to offer. Although I dare say you might want to stand,” offered Tranled.
“The Snail said that you were interested in the Left Hand and that you used more words than you needed to.” She said in a clipped tone that made every syllable sound as though it had a wall built around it. Tranled rose at the name and asked her to come in and close the door.
“Yes and I want them and all that associates with them dead,” he said with nearly contained vitriol.
“Then I think we can work together as I have heard of a cell operating in the village of Peenbrook two days south of Daggerford,” she tempted.
“Now before we go off and slay the anarchists may I know who my most charming travelling companion is?” questioned Tranled in icy tones.
“I am Promise, are you coming?” pressed Promise. She opened the door and left without waiting for an answer.
Tranled quickly scribbled a short missive to the Snail, snatching his satchel and cloak and trusting the letter in hands of the clerk as he left the Shining River Inn. “I am off to see about some account irregularities give the Snail this.” He did not give the clerk time to retort.
They stopped wordlessly at Promise’s lodgings while she collected her own pack and cloak. They continued in an equally untalkative manner down the south road out of Daggerford.
The journey to Peenbrook was uneventful and the only words crossed between the Tieflings were information relating to their task. Promise revealed what she knew about the activities of the Left Hand and Tranled informed her of the contract out on the Auraests of Waterdeep. She volunteered no information about herself and Tranled did the same.
Upon seeing Peenbrook for the first time it lay in a flattened river valley with thin pillars of white-grey smoke coming from forty or fifty huts, cabins and houses of different sizes. Only one stood with a second story and looked as though it was near the middle of the village. The village basked in the afternoon sunlight and the sound of linen snapping in a stiff breeze.
“Looks idyllic,” commented Tranled.
“People say that the cities and towns are where evil is found. Wolves don’t live in cities,” said Promise icily. Before entering the village proper Tranled cast prestidigitation on himself to remove the signs of rough travel. He offered the same for Promise, “I shall clean myself,” she said with a chilling tone.
Walking through the village Tranled and Promise receive worried looks from the villagers. They seem to be going about their usual business but give the Tieflings a wide berth. Tranled questions many of the villagers as he and Promise move from the outskirts of the town to the large building near its centre. The villagers know of the disappearances but blame the local wolves. When Promise questions them about the Left Hand they all claim not to have heard of the group. None of the villagers really want to look the Tieflings in the eyes.
The large building turns out to be an inn. The ground floor is walled in grey rough hewn stone with the top floor in the same light coloured wood as many of the surrounding houses. Smoke pours out of multiple chimneys. The normal hubbub of a popular tavern welcomes the pair as they enter. It slowly dissipates as Tranled and Promise move to the bar counter and begin to be noticed by the patrons. The innkeeper has his back turned as he pours a tankard of ale. He turns and slightly jumps at the sight of two Tieflings across his counter. With ingrained muscle memory from years behind the bar, he does not spill one drop from the tankard. Carefully he places the tankard on a tray and the young man who was waiting and trying his best not to notice Tranled and Promise takes the tray.
“Obard, after you drop those off, go to the kitchen and see when will the stew be ready.” says the innkeeper. The young man nods quickly and turns with haste. He turns to the pair and says, “Welcome to the Crossed Arrows. I am Hune. What will you be having?”
Tranled leans with one elbow on the counter, “An ale for me and for my companion….” Tranled looks to Promise and she orders, “Ale and answers.”
“Well I can provide the first with pleasure but the second, I am not sure if it will be to your liking.” Says Hune as he turns and reaches for two tankards and begins to fill them with a steady hand. The back of his head shines with reflecting light from the lanterns and fireplace. “People have already told me of the questions that you have been asking around the village.” Says Hune as he places two brimming tankards on the counter.
“Are you the alderman?” Intones Promise.
With a short barked laugh Hune says, “Ha, hells no. It’s just when folks get a run in with an unexpected Tiefling it gives them a scare. Bump into two and they have a desperate thirst. People have a hard time forgetting that saying about Tieflings. One’s a curiosity, two’s a conspiracy….”
“And three is a curse.” Finishes Promise with a tone that implies that she has heard the proverb too many times.
“Right”, smiles Hune opening his arms, “people can be a bit… prejudiced with their thinking.”
“Well, aren’t we lucky to meet a free and open-minded spirit to answer our questions.” Smiled Tranled.
“Since you already know our questions let’s get to the answers.” Probed Tranled then sipping the ale.
Hune sighs and begins to gather empty tankards from the counter and passes them through a hatch at the back of the bar. “The Crossed Arrows used to be a hunting lodge popular with minor nobles from Daggerford and further. Deer were plentiful in the forests around Peenbrook and my father built this impressive inn off the coin of the nobles spending the summers and sometimes winters hunting. It was good times for all in the village. Most of the nobles were good shots but not hunters. They brought in pregnant doe, fawns or bucks with barely four points on them. We were blinded by the coin and instead of chastising them as I would a local, congratulated them on a fine hunt. We did not listen to the druid and his warnings about the deer population. We thought it would last forever,” heaved Hune as though he had a stone weight on his chest.
“What has this to with missing people?” Pressed Promise. Hune looked up and replied, “The wolves used to hunt the deer. Now that they are all but gone they hunt the sheep and the odd unfortunate that finds themselves out after dark.The most tragic was the Farlins girl. She was in love and had arranged to meet a boy at night. He raised the alarm when dawn came and she never arrived. The boy still comes into the inn and drinks the grief away on occasion.”
“Well then what of our second question?” leant in Tranled.
“The backhand or dead hand?” quizzed Hune.
“Left Hand.” Said Promise in a tone that made Tranled flinch. Hune paused for a moment and then collecting himself by starting to wipe at unseen spills on the countertop and not making eye contact with either of the Tieflings.
“Sounds like some of them secret societies that are so popular in the big towns. The noble types would try to impress us small town folk with tales of their secret meetings and handshakes and rubbish. Sounds like rich people that have time to waste on nonsense.” Then stopping and looking steadily in Promise’s silver eyes, “Times here don’t allow for playing silly buggers in secret shenanigans.”
The young man named Obard calls to Hune from the hatch that the stew is ready. A smile comes over Hune and his seriousness disappears. “Now can I interest you in something to eat?” he slaps his hands together as to put a full stop on the previous lines of conversation.
“What meat is in the stew?” Asked Tranled.
“Ha!” Barked Hune, “Veg. We have no meat.”
Promise and Tranled take their bowls to a secluded table and the locals gave them their space. Tranled suggests that they stay at the inn and then make their way back to Daggerford. Promise agrees about staying at the inn but she wants to question more locals in the morning. Tranled relents and goes to Hune to book rooms for the night.
“One night or two?” He asks.
“One for the moment. We will decide tomorrow. Could you give us directions to the Farlin’s house in the morning?” Asks Tranled.
“It’s a farm and a fair bit off normal tracks. I’ll get Obard to lead you there for a small fee.”
Tranled goes back to the table with two more tankards. They drink wordlessly. Promise is the first to finish. She tells Tranled that she is going to bed. Tranled has one more and makes his own way to his room. He falls into a deep, half drunk sleep.
Hands on him, pulling, hushed whispers. Tranled tries to reach out but his hands are bound. He begins to kick but his legs are similarly bound. He shouts and can feel the air leave his lungs, however, no sound leaves him.
“Quick! It won’t last forever.” Hisses a shadow by his head. Tranled’s usual excellent vision is befuddled and he can only see shapes and shades of darkness. Two, three? He is bound and tries to struggle. A blunt pain in his stomach warns him.
“Move again and I’ll go for something more sensitive.” Threatens the shadow. They bundle him into the hallway. Tranled knows he has to time this perfectly. He thrashes violently just as they pass Promise’s door. One of the shadows trips and falls onto it. A blunt pain blossoms in his groin, turning into a ringing throb of unpleasantness. Tranled jackknifes in pain. The second pain on his side. Then the sound of a door opening. Tranled hears the intake of breath from the shadows as a welling darkness sweeps over him. There are sicking, sticky sounds of a sword being unsheathed from flesh. Not long lived yelps come from the shadows as they are clipped like dead flowers from a bush.
Promise cuts the bindings and props Tranled up against the wall. He tries to speak but only the ghost of a whisper comes out. Blurred shapes now have outlines but no detail. He feels Promise take his head in her hands as she scrutinises him. She then leaves wordlessly and returns to the pop of an uncorked flask. With a single word, “drink” she brings the rim of the flask to Tranled’s lips. He quaffs the solution and feels a brightening sensation come from his stomach. He nearly immediately starts to see more clearly and can start to speak.
“Are they dead?” he questions with a croke. Promise points with her now crimson épée at two figures slumped over each other with blood pooling underneath them. Tranled stands to move away from the ever approaching edge of the blood.
A door on the far end of the corridor open and Hune in his nightgown holding a lamp. He hisses a curse as he approaches the bodies on the floor. “By Tymora’s tits what happened?”
Promise answers for the still recovering Tranled. “He was poisoned and assaulted by these men.” Hune looks with disbelief at the bodies and Tranled. Promise strides over the fallen men and makes Hune backup defensively. Tranled can now see clearly and now notices that Promise is in a single long undershirt. Her bare feet slap slap in the puddles of blood and don’t seem to affect her. Promise presses Hune. “Who are these men?”
Hune splutters, “He,” pointing to the body slumped on top, “is Jarnis. Old Farlin’s boy. The other is a farm hand of theirs from out of the village, Olliner I think.”
“Get your son, he is going to lead us to the Farlin farm tonight.” Commands Promise.
“I will not have Obard be involved in this.” Says Hune shocked. “I will lead you there myself.”
Tranled attempts to take command of the situation. “Let us all get dressed and meet downstairs. “Then we will leave.”
A few minutes later Tranled meets Hune downstairs and is shown the jimmied lock on the kitchen door. “After the deer were gone and the wolves became bolder everyone started to get locks for their doors. This,” he points at the crude broken device, “…was all we could afford.”
The solid steps of Promise signal her arrival and readiness. “Lead us to Farlin.” She commands.
With a torch raised high Hune leads the party down a path in the forest.
“Does your son know of the bodies?” Asks Tranled.
“Yes, but I told him and his mother to stay in their rooms until I return. They have no need to deal with that amount of blood. I doubt they will listen to me,” huffs Hune as he walks.
After half an hour the forest clears and the dark shapes of buildings appear in the distance. Clouds dark and heavy with menace loom over the horizon.
“This is the Farlin farm,” puffs out Hune.
“We will deal with the rest from now. Go home to your family and get that lock repaired,” suggests Tranled.
Hune accepts the offer and before he turns to leave utters “Gods be with ya.”
Promise unsheathes her épée and equips her shield and starts to walk with measured steps towards the buildings. Tranled with his wand firmly in his left hand follows behind. As they draw closer to the buildings they appear lifeless until they pass the barn and a nearly inaudible chant can be heard coming from within.
Promise stealthily pries the doors of the barn apart and moves inside with Tranled following. The barn is in disarray with several dead sheep arranged in a circle, heads pointing towards the centre. Promise and Tranled inspect the sheep and discover that their throats have been slit. The chanting has become louder and is issuing from a trapdoor that has the remnants of the sheep blood flowing into it.
Promise kneels down to inspect the decent and motions wordlessly to Tranled to follow as she shoulders her shield and sheathes her épée. She descends gingerly and signals that it is safe to descend to Tranled. As he plants his boots on the floor he sees it is slick with blood. Funnels in the floor channel the blood down a shallow ramp. The chanting has become louder and nearly hypnotic as torch lights play in the distance of the tunnel. Tranled follows Promise as she is silhouetted against the light.
They both emerge into an eight-meter diameter, three meter high, hand hewn cavern. Blood has pooled in the middle and at the far end is a crude ring of bones, skin, sinew and rotting flesh. Four figures in rough flaxen hoods chant at the ring unaware of Promise or Tranled’s presence.
“WHICH FOUL MASTER DO YOU SERVE!” Booms Promise. Tranled ponders the same question as he sees the figures stiffen and turn.
As their darkened gaze fell upon Promise and Tranled it seemed as the temperature of the cavern dropped. The silence was broken by Promise unsheathing her épée and holding it loosely in her hand.
One of the outlying figures turns to the one closest to the foul circle, who has the rough approximation of a dark stone amulet around his neck. The amulet bearer commands, “Hold them back; I need time.”
Two of the cultists pull dull notched short swords and rush Promise. She batters one with her shield and parries the other with her épée but with two attackers she is defending and cannot strike out her own blows.
A third cultist draws out a small crossbow and levels it at Promise. Tranled backs up to get a better line of sight on the crossbow cultist, sights him with his wand and unleashes a purple shimmering force. A small cloud of smoke appears on the upper chest of the cultist and he is thrown bodily against the far wall.
The cultist begins to prop himself up on his elbows as blood starts to stream from his nose and ears. Tranled smiles at he can see that this will be a short battle.
Promise has used the distractive opportunity of Tranled’s blast to wing one of the cultists and batter him away so that she can bring her full fury on a single foe. She thrusts and connects with soft stomach and as she withdraws the blade an exhalation from the cultist. He doubles over and drops his sword. Promise with a backhand sweep cuts the cultists from mid chest through the collarbone. He slumps with a wet squelch in the blood soaked earth. Promise turns her attention to the now recovered but wide-eyed cultist whom she battered with her shield.
Tranled begins to take aim at the still prone crossbow wielder as an arm comes across his neck and a sharp and blossoming pain races from his lower back. Another set of arms grabs his left arm and tries to dislodge his wand. Tranled sees the Crossbow cultist recover and takes aim from his prone position. Tranled hears the twang of the loosed bolt and closes his eyes.
When he open his eyes again he is right behind Promise as purple cloud start to recede from around him. He wheels around in time to see the bolt sink itself into his unseen attacker.
Hune’s face is a mixture of disbelief and shock. He still holds his left arm as though he was choking a ghost with his right hand holding a blooded dagger. Obard is next to him with his own near comical expression and arms out straight as though he was holding onto an invisible rope.
Tranled puts his thumbs together and splays his fingers towards the father and son. A hell’s worth of fury fans out from his hands. The start of their screams was evaporated in the heat blast. Their proximity to the small tunnel’s mouth acted like the focus of vortex as the fan funnelled up the tunnel and they died where they stood.
Promise dispatched the remaining short sword cultist by bisecting one of his legs and then a quick thrust in his chest when he fell to the sticky ground.
Tranled returned his attention to the crossbow wielder and had no qualms in concaving his chest with a pinpoint blast to his sternum.
That left the amulet adorned cultist. As he turned the inscription on the amulet was glowing. Tranled could read it from where he stood and knew that Promise would also recognise the Infernal script. “Orcus worshiper.” Spat Tranled.
Tranled tried to vault over Promise as the cultist touched his amulet with his left hand and reached out towards the pair with his right. Promise snatched Tranled out of the air and drove him unceremoniously to the ground. She sunk to one knee and pulled her shield down to guard both herself and Tranled.
No sooner had she dug the base of her shield in the wet earth did storm of black swirling darkness surround them. From his low vantage, Tranled could only see the shield acting as the bow of a ship crashing into the blackest sea.
As suddenly as it had started the torrent disappeared. Tranled could see that Promise had paid for protecting him. As she lay on her side the left side of her face was a ruin with large weeping wounds where her raven locks curled. Her shield was all but useless with only the leather straps being recognisable.
The cultist was on his knees with both hands squelching through the bloodied mud. Tranled had lost his wand so drew his dagger and tried to remember if he had ever stabbed someone before. “First time for everything.” He fumed.
As he took his first sucking and smacking step the head of the cultist snapped up and his hand shot to the still glowing amulet. Tranled stopped. He felt his will leaving him and could not command his legs.
The cultist started to rise and pulled the hood back to reveal his face. The pact with Orcus had a high price. His eyes were sunken and rimmed with black. His skin looked like the overused blotting paper that Tranled used in his ledgers.
Those dark eyes looked deep into Tranled and sought a kinship.
With near blinding swiftness, Promise rose to her knees and threw her épée. The all steel arrow flew true and straight at the chest of the cultist and then as fast as it was loosened it stops just in front of the cultist.
His eyes turn from their interrogation of Tranled’s soul to bear with fury at Promise. She, in turn, unsheathes her rod and a blast propels the épée through the cultist. The resulting force pushes him to the back of the cavern and the épée pins him to the middle of the cadaver circle.
Tranled moves to help Promise to her feet. She put up one hand to warn him off and after a moment gets up with confidence. She walks with purpose towards the pinned cultist and Tranled joins her.
She lifts his head and the dark eyes are truly lifeless now. The amulet has been shattered and his blood is turning the flax cloak a vile violet.
“Is Orcus the patron of the Left Hand?” Muses Tranled as Promise puts a boot on the chest of the cultist and pulls out her épée. “I don’t know,” confesses Promise, “but it would make sense.”
As they walk back up the small tunnel they can hear the crackling of a blaze. From the bottom of the short shaft, they look up at what must be a vision of the nine hells. Both wrap their cloaks tightly around themselves and pull their hoods up. Walking through fire for a Tiefling is not pleasant but survivable. As the climb out of the trapdoor and the barn they see that the nearby farmhouse has also caught alight.
Everything is a roiling inferno. Tranled thinks of another farm in another place. The brooding clouds losing their own fury. He pulls down his hood to let the rain onto his face.
Promise cannot see his tears in the rain.
Tranled arrives at the Shining River alone looking worse for wear. He is sent, without ceremony, into the office of the Snail.
“Hope you brought some of that shit paper with you. You are going to need it.”