Edited and posted by Jozh
Konstantin started to gather up the Contingent’s gear and made ready to head out, while Alexi hooked Ivor to the sled. Irkuk took a final look at the Khadoran soldiers and said, “You guys, luck to ya, but I’mma get Ol’ Burt and head our way back to town. Place gives me the creeps and on my own I can make better time. Luck to you.”
“And to you,” said Josephine. She nodded to the gobber before taking to the trail.
Blegovian nodded to Irkuk as well, looking back to the trail, smirking. “Piece of cake.”
Pravo offered a casual salute in the gobber’s direction, then took a look at Konstantin’s slalom plan. “You first, komrade.”
Travel down the pass was treacherous and it became difficult for all and especially Ivor to manage. It switched back all the way down with slick stones and snow. After a time, they arrived at the foot of a treeless path.
The land ahead appeared to be frozen swamp/tundra with mosses and ice and slush in the marsh-ponds. Old crooked and gnarled short trees struggled to rise from the ground and appeared sickly. Small rat-creatures scurried among roots and fled at the soldiers’ approach. On at least one occasion, the frightened retreat caused the rat to be caught and chomped down on by other glowing-eyed creatures within the gnarls. It appeared to be a six hour trek through the briny swamp to the keep. Blegovian led the party down the trail, pointing out the best spots to walk. While the air seemed to threaten a storm, it hadn’t started yet.
“If we get any more snow, it might mask our approach,” said Josephine.
“I do not think that Ivor’s approach can really be missed,” said Alexi.
“Aktivate stealth mode,” Pravo said dryly.
They had to pull their hoods and cloaks tight against the freezing breeze. Alexi walked close behind the steamjack for warmth. They trudged through the icy mush, every once in a while having to correct their course. Ivor occasionally sank into the slush and had to be removed, but they kept on trekking.
“I hate this land,” said Pravo.
“It seems to hate us in return,” said Josephine. The operative nodded crisply.
“Has anyone seen any sign of our mysterious stranger now that we in the open?” asked Konstantin.
They could see about seventy yards through the trees. “Nyet,” said Pravo, who had continued his vigil with the spyglass.
“Good. One less distraction to deal with.”
On occasion you heard a squeal as some of the fauna caught up to other fleeing fauna or as Ivor crunched a swamp rat beneath his treaded feet. Aside from annoying rodents and tangled vegetation however, they managed to approach an area where old stumps were scattered about the “living” trees.
Blegovian relayed a story to pass the time. “So, this one time, in the Thornwood, I was trailing a group of Cryx thralls near the Temple Garrodh. I saw a pack of warpwolves stalking them and they finally decided to charge out of the underbrush and demolish the thralls in short work. Really borked that recon mission.”
“Did the warpwolves attack you, as well?” asked Josephine.
Blegovian gave her a toothy grin. “Nah, I was hiding in a tree.”
“Of kourse,” said Pravo.
Alexi interrupted the tale to point out that not only were the stumps cut with tools, but the first few they came across were cut somewhat recently. No sooner than a month ago or so, by the doktor’s estimation, and the farther they went, the older the cuts seemed to be, as though someone was working their way away from the keep in their cutting.
“So the keep is occupied, said Josephine. “Or was.”
“Klear kutting area around keep,” said Pravo. “Perhaps to limit available kover. Krap.”
“Firewood?” suggested Alexi.
Pravo nodded. “That too.”
“New construction possibly,” suggested Konstantin.
The Contingent continued on their way, and the trees thinned more and more until they saw the keep itself – an old stone structure built on the cliff over the sea. Jagged broken walls were topped with crumbling crenellations, and the ruins of a handful of moldering ruined buildings rotted outside the walls, the structures providing nothing but broken walls. A portcullis hung half-closed across a front gate, stuck in the wall tracks. It appeared as though it had dropped and caught in the stone about three feet from the ground, bending the metal and breaking the railing.
“I will skout,” Pravo asserted.
Blegovian nodded. “I will head around the side.” The two men crept toward the ruins from different angles.
“I suggest getting out of the open while we wait,” Konstantin said to the others. They took cover behind what once might have been a guard shack or stable, and Alexi pulled out a book to read.
The trollkin headed south and made his way to the edge of the keep, peering around the wall, which stretched toward the cliff and actually appeared to extend beyond the ledge. Pravo approached rotting wooden gate-doors that were just slightly ajar, wide enough for one person to get through if they squeezed under the metal gate. He peeked around the portcullis and saw that the gate and doors led into a large entryway through the old keep walls that had once served as a checkpoint for travelers and troops into the tower. It was eerily quiet and a light snow breezed into the open doors into the dark antechamber. The operative probed a little farther in.
Pravo stole through the gap into the dimly lit antechamber where a door to the north creaked on its hinges in the breeze from the open front doors. The opposite side of the room also has a closed door which had a smashed lock on it. There was a large arched double door ahead, closed along the western wall, straight across from the portcullis.
The spy inspected the open door to his right. It opened into an empty guard chamber that holds a long-cold fire-pit and a table and benches. Seeing this, he went back outside to fetch the others. “Entrance looks klear,” he reported. “Where is trollkin?”
Josephine points to the other south side of the keep, where Blegovian was just rounding the corner. They waved him over and he joined them near the front. Alexi continued scratching notes in a ledger as the Contingent approached the entrance. They all had to duck under the dropped gate to pass the doors, and it was clear that Ivor would not be able to get underneath. Seeing this, the doctor waited around the corner, trying to thaw his ink.
Blegovian frowned at the gate. “I’m not sure my chest can get through that.” He squeezed and it took some crunching, but he managed to get his massive torso through. The trollkin put his greatcoat back on, and Josephine and Konstantin stood ready, while Pravo checked the door to the south.
He heard nothing but noticed a sheaf of papers under the door. The operative pulled them out, and some of the pages crumbled under his touch. Josephine came over to see what he had found. The pages were shipping manifests but appeared to be in a language neither could read. Newer pages, found on the bottom half of the stack, were in Khadoran and appeared to be more manifests and an inventory list of supplies.
Pravo handed the pages off to Josephine, then pried open the door. “Be ready, Iron Fang,” he advised.
The door came open easily enough, revealing a room with a table and a makeshift mattress stuffed with reams of more papers. The things about the room appeared to be scattered, and dust was thinner around the bed and papers. Pravo moved in and searched for threats. Finding none, he said, “Klear.”
After a more thorough search, the Contingent found some week-old stale bread and hundreds of papers padding the mattress and the table. Under the table in the papers was a tarnished pistol and handful of rounds, appearing to have been placed haphazardly. Pravo pointed the gun out disinterestedly, and Josephine collected it and the bullets.
“This place seems abandoned so far,” said Konstantin.
The operative nodded and crossed the entry to the chamber with the open door, giving it a cursory search. On the opposite side of the chamber through a door there was another room with benches and a cold fire pit. There appeared to be more papers in an unknown language scattered everywhere, mixed with some Khadoran rosters and lists of people. Many appeared to have been used to fuel the fire. The dates were centuries old, and Pravo noted that they dated back to a few years after the Orgoth were pushed back.
“Ah. Historikal kolor,” said the spy, returning to the entryway.
“This place is older than I thought…” said Josephine. "There’s got to be a stairway or something leading up … or down.
Blegovian hung out in the entry way, examining the wooden double doors. They appeared to be heavy, but they were not locked. “Clear?” he asked Pravo.
“Da. Is klear,” said the operative.
The trollkin nodded and moved to listen at the double doors. He heard nothing but the icy wind, so he pushed on the doors. They began to creak, but he thought it would take some doing to get them open. He grunted and said, “Huh, these are blocked or rusted.”
Konstantin joined Blegovian, lending his strong shoulder to the problem. It began to open sluggishly, weighed down by snow as they pushed, the snow bunching up and making the door harder to push. Through the crack they could see a snowy courtyard and another door on the other side.
“Dok Komrade?” said Pravo.
“Uh…. Yes?” said Alexi.
“We may need ’jack power to open door.”
“Of kourse. I’ll be right there.” At Alexi’s instruction the ’jack lifted the portcullis, allowing it inside the keep. The groan of metal on stone echoed loudly.
About that time, Blegovian shouldered the doors to the inner courtyard open wide enough to squeeze through. The snow was easily calf- to knee-deep. He shrugged his shoulder to alleviate the sting. “Heh. That felt good.”
“Good work, StautTrunk.” Josephine clapped him on the shoulder, having to stand on tiptoe to manage it.
Blegovian nodded. “Welcome Sergeant.”
The Contingent readied their weapons, scanning the courtyard for threats, then followed the trollkin through the breach. The courtyard was large, bleak and open; snow flurries whipped about the calf deep snow, spinning around old lean-tos and broken training dummies. Around the top of the wall of the keep, crumbling crenellations jutted all about, lined with rotted and snow-soaked wooden walks leading to archer-nests. Other than the moan of the winter wind the place is deathly silent.
Three doors were set along the western wall, opposite the keep entrance: a single door on the left, double doors in the center, and another single on the right. The Tower seen from the distance rested above the double doors, a broken and crumbling shell. Shattered stairs and walls pointed at the sky with no true usefulness.
Konstantin moved to the center of the courtyard, while Alexi ordered Ivor through the door. It took the ’jack some doing, but it finally made it through.
Blegovian moved straight up to the double doors in the center, and when he tested them, they creaked and pushed inward a touch, as though they have been moderately kept up. The trollkin paused and listened through the crack and thought, for a second, that he heard a groan or creak from inside.
Meanwhile, Pravo advanced through the heavy snow to the single door on the left. “Première à gauche,” Josephine sighed, following the spy, who placed his ear to the door. Blegovian stumped over to join the others at the door. He nodded back toward the double door and said, “Not sure, might be trapped. Seems more used, and I heard a noise when I cracked it.”
Pravo gestured for silence. “Somethink in here, too,” he said quietly. “Make call, Llaelese.”
Josephine pointed decisively to the nearby door, backing up and gesturing to the trollkin. Pravo stood aside, and Blegovian shrugged, pushing open the door.
The door opened to an armory, broken racks and shelves littering the floor. There were broken Orgoth arms and armor scattered about, shattered from use or age. A couple of corpses sprawled on the floor, one beheaded, the other run through. The corpses wore sailor uniforms. A few daggers and other solid metal pieces can be found still intact and could be used or sold for a good price.
Pravo peeked around his companions with narrowed eyes. “I heard somethink!” he insisted. The Contingent paused quietly, listening. Then the spy pointed at a door sitting ajar in the back of the armory, beyond the wreckage. “There it is again. Somewhere farther in. I say we advance.”
“Agreed,” said Josephine.
Blegovian nodded to Pravo and snuck over to the other door, avoiding fallen debris and corpses. Through the door he found what appeared to be the old barracks. The trollkin moved in, searching around. Sundered beds and broken furniture were strewn about haphazardly. There was another door in the back that was open just enough for a single person to squeeze through if they were waif-like. There was a single sailor corpse in the room, a large chunk hewn out of its side. It appeared fresher than the two in the armory.
Konstantin joined Blegovian in the room, pike trained on the door. The others trailed in behind them, Alexi in the rear, since Ivor was stuck outside in the courtyard. The trollkin crossed the room to the other door, peeking his head through the crack. There was a long hallway beyond the door.
Pravo approached the door and held up a hand for silence. “Up ahead,” he hissed. “Same shufflink sound. Also, wood … groanink?”
“I can’t imagine what would make such noises,” said Josephine.
Blegovian shrugged and slowly opened the door to squeeze through, looking around. The hallway branched to his right and stopped ahead at a closed door. He motioned for the others to follow, moving down the hallway quietly.
They heard wood creak and stop suddenly from the room to the right, but ahead they another noise beyond the door – some kind of louder grunt and then some kind of halting language.
Pravo gestured back to Konstantin to indicate potential hostiles, then stepped out of the Iron Fang’s path. Konstantin marched into the room at a half-job pace, trailed closely by Josephine. When the Iron Fang reached the door he drove his blasting pike into the wood and detonated it. The door exploded, blown to flinders, and caught the two pirates inside by surprise. They looked pale and gaunt, and their eyes exhibited a light green glow. They raise their swords.
Konstantin moved into the room and fired his cannon shield into the enemy on his left. It blew a hole right through him. Josephine advanced next, firing twice at the other pirate and taking him out of action. Blegovian moved into the room after the guns were done firing, rubbing his ears with his fingers from the deafening noise. As the Contingent began searching the room, the corpse with two holes in him began to pick itself up from the ground, snarling something in Sulise, its eyes flaring green.
“дерьмо!” swore Pravo, throwing a pair of knives at the risen corpse. The first blade spun the creature around, and the second imbedded itself in an eye socket. Squish. Thump. The corpse remained still, the glow from the eyes faded. The keep was silent. “What the hell?!” the spy demanded.