Edited and posted by Jozh
Looking around, the Contingent found itself in an officer’s office, the room strewn with debris but still mostly intact. Josephine produced a rag to wipe down her sword, but didn’t sheathe it yet. “Have any of you seen anything like this before?” she asked.
Pravo suppressed a shudder. “Nyet.”
Blegovian shrugged. “Could be Cryx. Seems like something those nasty bastards would do.”
“Everyone stay alert,” said Josephine.
Alexi began examination of the corpses, being very cautious. “These men have been dead for at least a month, Sergeant.”
“Oh? Quite lively for dead men,” said Pravo.
“How do dead men move, Doctor?” asked Konstantin
“There’s more of the green chemical in their blood. Just like the wolves,” said Alexi. “Dead men moving is something that I have not studied. But many things are possible with magic and alchemy.”
“Is science? Or witchkraft?” asked Pravo.
“I would guess Withckraft, Mr. Pravo. The alchemical concoction in their blood points that way.”
“Alkhemy is not science. Got it.”
“It is scientific magic, Mr. Pravo.”
“So this was intentional, then,” said Konstantin. “Someone here is causing this?”
“I think we should proceed with that assumption, Sgt. Dragov,” said Josephine.
“Then I recommend we need to keep moving and find them.”
“Agreed. We should drag these out to the courtyard and burn them, once the area is secure,” said Josephine, glancing at the trollkin. Blegovian nodded, using some cloth remnants to wrap around the legs of the corpses and preparing to pull them out.
“It is unlikely that two will move again. I would guess that we ma safely leave them for now,” said Alexi.
Josephine nodded in agreement as he handed her the keys he’d found on one of the bodies. She, in turn, handed them to Pravo. “Hold onto these, if you will, Specialist Ostavil.” He shrugged as he pocketed the keys.
Tossing the office, they found more paperwork and some foreign-language surveys that appeared to show some kind of caverns under the keep. Plenty of diary writings that could be worth something to a historian. Josephine took the map and made ready to press on. “Let’s have a look at that dining hall,” she said.
The Contingent came to a large dining hall with two tables down the center and tables along the walls. The tattered remnants of tapestries adorned with Orgoth images hung from the wall, apparently depicting war. The tables and chairs were smashed and scattered, and a single corpse lays beneath some broken furniture. A spike of lumber piercing her through her back and out her chest held her slightly upright. Unlike the previous bodies that had appeared preserved, this corpse was decayed and desiccated.
Pravo turned a shade paler at the sight, knives appearing in his hands. “Please beink dead-dead,” he muttered.
After a moment’s hesitation, Josephine trained her pistol on the corpse. Then she heard a slight shuffling sound and a very quiet grunt from an opening to the left, so she wheeled around to face it.
Alexi began to move towards the corpse. “Kareful, komrade,” Pravo warned, indicating the open door. The doctor gave a distracted nod. While examining the body, he muttered, “Defensive wounds, death by impalement, non-accidental….”
Blegovian was also more interested in the noise coming from the north after seeing the state of the corpse. He snuck over toward the opening and found a storage chamber beyond, where broken boxes and barrels were stacked or smashed. Old food items like stale bread and cheeses were stacked, they weren’t fresh, but they seemed edible. A cask of Llaelese wine sat untapped against a wall. There were also some opened sacks of grain and dried beans spilled over and it looked like someone had torn it open with their hands. The old smell of mold wafted through the air, but nothing was left of the remains.
Josephine stood by, sword and pistol ready, while Pravo circled to the eastern door. Konstantin opened the door back into the courtyard to make sure it was still empty of threats. The trollkin twisted his great-axe around in his hands, approaching the cask and listening for movement. He also kept his eyes on the ground, for any trap doors that might lead down into the cavern. There, he noticed a drag mark on the floor that led to a crate pressed against the wall covering a hole large enough for a small man or woman to crawl through unarmored.
Blegovian motioned for backup and pointed to his eyes with two fingers before pointing to the crate. Pravo and Josephine advanced to support the trollkin, who quietly sheathed his great-axe and drew his halberd. He stood to the side of the crate, ready to smash anything that came through with his halberd in one hand, lifting the crate out of the way with the other. He found only the hole in the wall and darkness beyond. Though too small for the larger members of the Contingent to fit through, the smaller ones might fit.
Pravo peered through the hole, finding that it was a literal hole in the wall leading to another room on the opposite side. It was large enough to notice a dark room with an open door on the opposite side. He reported this to the others. Blegovian kept an eye on the hole and said, “Well, perhaps we should split up. Konstantin and I can go back out into the courtyard and through the door leading to the room that should be the other side of this wall.”
“All right. I’m going to see what’s in there,” said Josephine. She shrugged out of her winter cloak and draped it over the wine cask.
Pravo shook his head. “Nyet. Am thinkink other external door leads to it. Sergeant.”
She glances at the spy. “All right, then. You and I will stay here to catch it if it comes back through.”
He gave her a look. “Push krate back in way. Havink ’jack go through outer door, perhaps.”
Meanwhile, Konstantin checked the rooms on the other side of the dining room that no one had opened yet. Through the right was a kitchen. Three stone and clay fire-pits and hearths sat along the back wall with smoke pipes leading up. The table in the center was broken in half and cobwebs floated through the dead air. The second door led to a small room containing nothing of note. The third door was closed tight and heavy. It had a set of three large iron locks set into it. They were old and tarnished but still solid and sturdy.
Konstantin headed back to the dining room. “We need either the ’jack to break open the door, or those keys.” Pravo nodded, fishing the keys out and inserting them in the locks. They fit, so he turned them, producing a pair of satisfying clicks. Then he pulled them back out and got out of the way.
Blegovian switched back to his great-axe as the first lock was opened. Once opened, the doors led to a stone hallway, solid craft with two branches to the left and right before heading straight back into darkness. The trollkin stepped in, Pravo behind him, holding the light. Alexi returned to the courtyard to check on Ivor, then they both returned to join the others.
They found the far side of the hole in the wall from the storage closet in a room with moldering scraps of cloth and furniture. “The area is clear so far, Sergeant,” said Konstantin through the hole. “You can come around now.”
Josephine rejoined the group, and they heard a scurrying, shuffling sound coming from down the hall further in the darkness. The sergeant motioned everyone forward. Cautious advance revealed a stairwell leading down into the stone flooring about two men wide, descending further into darkness.
Blegovian nodded to Pravo. “You first?” The operative quirked an eyebrow and muttered something unflattering before descending. Konstantin followed right behind, and the others trailed the two men. Down the darkened stairs a chamber opened. There was no light at all aside from the one Pravo carried. Across from the staircase was a wooden door that looks to have been used recently. It was slightly ajar, wide enough for someone small to fit through.
Josephine trained her pistol on the door and motioned for Pravo to open it. He did so without complaint, for once. The chamber opened to an extremely long hallway lined with barred cells leading south, and across from it was another closed door with a lock on it. The faint scurrying noise could be heard again, coming from down the hallway to the south. The door was locked but it was a much simpler lock. Pravo crossed the hall and opened the next door.
The door opened to an antechamber that appeared to have worn walk-ruts in the floor, a crumbling podium, and another set of large double doors at the back. “Empty room,” Pravo reported.
“Let’s move on, then,” said Josephine. She looked at the double doors to the east.
Blegovian asked, “So, are we going to check out that door or go down the hall?”
“Down the hall.”
The trollkin nodded, moving down the hall while keeping to the side of the light source. The hallway was long and lined on both sides with 12’ x 12’ cells, five on each side. Some contained the skeletal remains of long dead prisoners, and each was barred with iron and chained shut. The chains were broken or missing from a handful of cells, but on a few they were intact. Blegovian glanced into the cells briefly before moving along.
At the end of the hall a huge rusty iron door sat slightly ajar, as though something couldn’t close it all the way. Blegovian grabbed the door and made ready to open it enough for the big guys to go through.
“This thing is becoming tiresome,” said Konstantin. “It’s either mindless and fleeing a threat, or it’s leading us into a trap.”
“Either way, we can’t rest until it’s dealt with,” said Josephine.
“Okay, then,” he said, nodding to the trollkin.
“A doorway will be a good pinch point if we have to fight a lot at once,” said Blegovian before heaving on the door.
At the end of the cells was a chamber best described as a crematorium, its door sitting open. It appeared to sit beneath the kitchen and the hearthfire pits and chimneys doubled for the charnel house below. There were three grand burner cells with ash on the walls. Closer inspection revealed handprints and scratches in the walls, indicating that some of the victims weren’t exactly passed to Urcaen when they were placed within. Old busted bellows were attached to the side of each oven, the mechanisms long worn and broken over the ages of neglect. The whole room still smelled of burned meat. One could only imagine the number of bodies set ablaze here by their Orgoth captors. Another door sat ajar on the opposite side and grunts could be heard from beyond.
“Let this be the end of the chase,” said Josephine.
“Mmm, creepy,” said Blegovian, heading towards the other door with Pravo and his light close behind.
Through the door, another hall branched left and right, and a double-door rotted open directly across from the crematorium. The grunting came from the right-hand hallway, beyond a slightly ajar door. The opposite direction was another wood and metal door, rusted and closed.
To the right, three pirates with glowing green eyes appeared to be searching in the hallway for something. It was not a shambling search, but an intelligent one. They glanced up at the Contingent as soon as the trollkin set foot in the corridor.
“Ivor, attack," said Alexi. The ’jack pushed past the rest of the team, whumping his way down the hall toward the glow-eyed pirates. Pulling back its massive spear, Ivor drives the point through the animated dead-man with extreme prejudice. It crumpled to the floor, dead again.
“Charge!” cried Blegovian, before doing just that. He noticed movement on the other side of the bars, but ignored it as he plowed forward, his halberd arcing toward the farthest pirate. The blade cleaved down the creature’s shoulder and deep into its ribcage, dropping it to the floor. The trollkin grunted in satisfaction.
Konstantin moved up and thrust his blast-pike, connecting with the third pirate, obliterating it.
Pravo waited to see if these twice-dead men were going to get back up. Josephine moved up to look at the cell on the left. Within, she saw what appeared to be a dirty girl huddled and trying to hide under a linen blanket. She seemed to favor one leg and there were traces of food stuffs lying about.
Suddenly, two pirates’ eyes snapped open again, and they clawed at the Contingent from the ground. Pravo’s waiting knives pierced their skulls and they fell still once more. He spat on the ground, looking disturbed and satisfied all at once.
Blegovian chopped the head off the pirate at his feet, its glowing eyes opening briefly again before the blade crunched through its spine, killing the glow that had briefly flared. “Eh, bloody pirates. What’s that in the cell?”
They all gazed curiously at the cell, seeing the wounded child within, Konstantin moving to a forward guard position. The girl stared out at the Contingent, wide eyed and fearful. She was young, perhaps eighteen or nineteen, and covered in dirt. She might have been considered attractive if not for her obvious malnourishment. She moved back in the cell, blinking. Her eyes weren’t glowing.
“Were they looking for you?” Josephine asked the girl, trying to sound friendly. “My name is Josephine,” she said, putting her weapons away. “What’s yours?”
“A-a-a-a-Aurelia…” the girl stammered.
“Hello, Aurelia. Did you come here with the pirates?”
She pursed her lips tight as though thinking. “Y-y-y-yes…”
“But something happened to them, yes? Do you know why they’ve… changed?”
“D-d-did you kill them all? Can I go now?”
“Maybe she wants some grub?” suggested Blegovian.
Josephine nodded to the trollkin, then turned her attention back to the girl. “We aren’t sure yet, Aurelia. How many pirates came with you?” Blegovian rummaged through his bag and pulled out some jerky, waving it at the girl.
Aurelia cocked an eyebrow at the food and looks at the group, at the dead pirates, back at you all and swallows hard. “Whole crew with … Captain Iron Tooth … Sixteen? Most dead now?”
“Post up, trollkin,” said Pravo to Blegovian, indicating the empty place beside Konstantin. He held up five fingers, to indicate his estimate of the re-deaded pirates. Blegovian tossed the jerky into the cell and shrugged, heading over near the Iron Fang. Aurelia looked at the jerky and her stomach audibly growled.
Josephine nodded before continuing. “This is Blegovian, Pravo, Alexi, and Konstantin,” she said, indicating each in turn. It was the first time she had used any of her companions’ first names. Pravo frowned when his own name was said aloud, and Blegovian looked askance at the sergeant.
“I am a doctor, Miss Aurelia,” said Alexi. “Would you permit me to examine you?”
“D-d-do I h-h-have a choice?”
“I am no monster here to hurt you. I am a doctor and wish to see you well.”
“Y-y-you help me get out and home, and I’ll tell you what … tell you what I know happened.” Her eyes watered, leaving streaks in the dirt on her cheeks. “I just wanna’ go somewhere else, away from the Captain.”
“All right, then,” said Josephine. “We will help you get back to civilization. Please, tell us what you know.”
The girl slowly began to move toward Alexi, squeezing between the bars to exit the cell. She favored a bruised leg, and while Alexi examined her, she began her tale.
Her name was Aurelia Dovenkoz and her parents were taken as slaves by Razor-Tooth, a pirate captain known for cannibalism. His beard was strung with fishing hooks, his teeth sharpened to knives, and he had a scythe for a hand instead of a simple hook. Aurelia was given to the men of the ship as a plaything.
Finally, she had hidden a makeshift shiv in her hair and stabbed the first mate when he tried to have his way with her one night. Razor-Tooth liked this and took her on as a deck-swab, but threatened worse punishment than her previous life should she turn on him. Over the next year she’d had to bear witness to the rape and murder of her mother and the hanging of her father from the sailing rigging. She then carried on with Razor-Tooth’s crew, and they had found this place and set up attacking cargo ships.
She said that she wished to find her family in Khorsk and that she would tell the Contingent anything they wanted about the keep place if they could get her out of there first. She feared the creatures in the mountain and swamps. She had been living in here for months now since “the incident," but she wasn’t willing to talk about it yet.
When they had come across the Khardic ship a few months back, it had a strange haul that the captain took for his own. A strange glow emanated from the crate, and he’d kept it on himself at all time. He changed, becoming crueler, and shortly even his mates changed, transformed over a month until there were those with the glowing eyes and those without. The latter were slain by the captain and his new men.
“I stayed hidden in the dark," she concluded. “Snuck around in the quiet for a month before you came here.”