It was a late night during the Winter Solstice Festival. The Fourth Ring of the city of Adamas was bustling with activity. Three dark-robed figures navigated their way through a bustling street; the crowd seemed to part before them. The people of Adamas had seen them before, and knew that they bore the Seal of the King.
The figures approached a large bustle of activity near a looming purple-canvassed tent. The throng was so intent on whatever activity was going on inside that the cloaked figures were scarcely paid attention to. They attempted to push past some of them, but they were never able to see what had caused such a commotion.
Then, a voice erupted from somewhere near the skirts of the crowd, exclaiming, “There’s a talking horse down the next street! A talking horse! I couldn’t believe it at first – everyone come see!” At first, the crowd seemed hesitant to react to this, but as a few left to investigate, more and more followed. Soon, by luck or some act of the Gods, the three cloaked figures were the only living souls at the tent.
The one in the center threw back his hood, revealing a slender male face with fine black hair that obscured his left eye – while the other shone a violent orange. His slightly pointed ears twitched as they were exposed to the crisp, cool air. Turning to the smallest of the three – who was a few heads shorter than the other two – he remarked in a friendly tone, “You’re getting better at that. If I were a half-wit commoner, I wouldn’t have known it was you.”
“And it would have been even less obvious if we weren’t walking around in these black, Tryll-damned robes,” The short one replied, “Are we trying to announce ourselves everywhere we go?” The halfling, too, shed his hood. His short, light hair bristled with life at the touch of the wind. His normally gleeful features turned to a slight scorn at his friend’s comment. The implication of his ineptness was not lost on the halfling.
The last one, throwing back his hood as well, spoke with confidence, “It’s the King’s idea. We’re supposed to be building a reputation around the city.” Apprehension could be seen in the man’s handsome face. His coarse, dark hair only just hung over his eyes.
The three of them ceased further conversation as they stood, open-mouthed at the spectacle in the tent before them. A man – they assumed by his stature, though they couldn’t know for sure – was swinging himself across various beams, poles, and ropes that made up a sort of arena. The stranger’s dexterous acrobatics display left the companions speechless. Once, as they saw him fall with nothing in reach, his hands very literally shot out – detaching themselves from his arms – trailing rope. His hands grabbed a bar and the rope pulled taut, eventually retracting and reuniting his hands with his arms. It must have been a few minutes before the man – it was indeed a man – landed before the three. He stood, an eerie grin spread across his face, as if expecting a cacophony of applause and shouts to greet him. The excitement almost immediately drained at the sight of so few onlookers, replaced with confusion. The smile, however, remained glued to his expression. It was an all-purpose smile; it could serve to show any emotion desired, be it happy, sad, or violent. The man looked around, as if expecting the crowd to pour out from nowhere. No such event occurred.
It was the point-eared man who first approached the acrobat, offering him a pouch containing twenty pieces of gold – more than the average man made in a day. The acrobat took the gold and pocketed it swiftly.
“Thank you, sir,” The acrobat said with energy, proffering his hand to the point-eared man, “May I ask you your name?”
The point-eared man reluctantly took the acrobat’s hand, feeling that it indeed was made of metal. He responded with caution as well, “Cecil,” he lied. It was his policy not to give out his real name to targets the king had asked him to investigate.
The other two approached now, withdrawing their own money to offer the acrobat. The other man handed over sack of thirty gold pieces, much to the delight of the acrobat. The halfling, reaching deep into the folds of his cloak, produced a large bag containing two hundred gold pieces, and laid it at the acrobat’s feet. Eyes lit up all around. The halfling’s companions looked at him critically, while the acrobat was overcome at the sight of the gold.
“I cannot begin to thank you enough, sirs,” His exuberance should have been a welcome emotion to the companions, but it had a cold quality that none of them could place, “May I ask you your names, as well?”
“Remington Steel,” The second man responded without hesitation. Delight could be seen in his face at the deliberate lie. The acrobat seemed to notice this as well, but paid it no attention.
The halfling, frustrated at his companions, proudly and confidently gave the acrobat his name, “Mingus. It is a pleasure to meet –” But before his sentence could be finished, a great horn sounded down at the end of the street. It announced the beginning of the main attraction for the night. “I’m sorry,” The halfling said apologetically, “I must go. Safe travels!”
The three left the tent for the square reserved for the great festivities. As they walked, the point-eared one said scathingly, “Way to make me seem fucking stingy, guys.”
“It’s your own fault, Haywood,” Mingus replied curtly, “You had the entire King’s treasury at your disposal, and you gave him a daily wage.” There was something about that man that disturbed Haywood. The metal hands briefly came to mind, not least because Haywood’s own left forearm had recently been replaced with a similar graft. Lingering on the thought, he turned to the other man with them. “Did you see that man’s hands, Riley?” He questioned.
“Mmm. They must have been made of mithril,” Riley answered, the gears in his mind turning “Anything else would have been too heavy for him to do those stunts. Like your adamantine one.” He rapped Haywood’s arm, which gave a dull clang. Riley had made Haywood’s arm himself, being one of the best steam engineers in the city. “Though,” He continued, “I could tell by one look at them that those hands weren’t made by anyone in the city. I know all the styles around here, and his are completely different.”
“I can’t see why the King would want us to investigate him. Other than the hands, the man seemed perfectly normal,” Haywood whined to the others, before adding hastily, “For a circus freak, anyway.”
The three stopped near the edge of the huge mass of citizenry that was packed into the main square. There was a large stage at the center of the square. Some sort of play had just begun.
Mingus’s ears perked up when the music started. He recognized the tune clearly. He began to exclaim to his companions, “I know this! I’ve heard this play dozens of times before – I even played the music for it a while back!” Haywood and Riley silenced him in a short second, however. “You’ll spoil the ending,” They reprimanded.
As Mingus pondered the play for a moment, a grim realization came over him: The play itself was a direct attack on the Darinian refugees. It was about the corrupt people of a corrupt city doing corrupted things. It ended with a giant worm coming to destroy the city and the entirety of its people.
With this knowledge in mind, Mingus watched the play critically. The actors were drunkenly staggering about the stage, performing sexual acts and making general fools of themselves. It was a disgrace.
As the play neared its end, instead of a great worm coming to devour the corrupt people, five ghoulish figures dashed out from behind the curtain with ravenous looks in their eyes and blood on their mouths. Mingus was disgusted at this. He thought it had been possible that the play’s similarities to the sacking of Darinia were merely coincidental. But by replacing the worm with undead, the attack on the refugees was blatant. The crowd was stirring; a few fights were breaking out between the Adamant and Darinian citizenry. Mingus had been marveling at the realism of the blood and gore as the ghouls fell upon the actors. It took him a moment to realize that it wasn’t false at all. The ghouls were real. After finishing off one of the actors, one of the ghouls turned to the audience and jumped on a withered old man in noble’s robes, tearing at the man’s face with dagger-like, yellowed teeth.
The companions leapt into action immediately. Throwing off their cloaks, they pushed past the crowd, rushing towards the stage at full speed. Mingus, as the smallest of them, was able to make his way there before the other two. He swiftly drew his sword and jumped onto the stage, throwing a wild swing that went wide. By the time the other two arrived, he found himself surrounded by two of the ghouls. Riley, who was just behind Haywood, withdrew his two repeater crossbows from his sides. He loosed a bolt from each at the ghoul who had jumped into the crowd. They made contact; causing purple pus to seep from the wounds, but neither dropped the creature.
Haywood flung himself onto the stage at the final two ghouls, who, having been feasting noisily on the dead actors, turned to face him. He rushed upon them, his large climbing pick held above his head. He brought it down in a mighty blow that sunk deep into one of the ghoul’s heads, tearing it off and sending more purple gunk flying across the stage floor. The second one snarled at him menacingly. Mingus had just managed to run one of the two ghouls through, sending it to the ground. He freed his blade from the corpse and swung at the second one. The ghoul dodged and swung at Mingus with its clawed hands, which did not connect. Haywood felled the second ghoul he had assaulted with another two-handed blow from his pick. Covered in purple muck, he turned to see the ghoul in the crowd go down under a hail of bolts from Riley. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mingus. Haywood watched in horror as the last ghoul swiped and Mingus’s sword flew from his grasp. The ghoul towered over him, poised to strike him down. Haywood called out and began rushing to his friend’s aid – but he knew he wouldn’t make it in time. But the ghoul stopped in its tracks. It swayed for a moment before toppling over – turning to dust as it hit the ground. In the ghoul’s place stood a gaunt old man with deep set wrinkles. He wore a long black robe and brandished a holy symbol of Lunusia. He stepped forward towards the three companions, who were now gathered together on the stage.
Haywood looked around at the once-full square. Some were still fleeing, but the square was now mostly empty. He scanned the corpses for any sign of life – with no luck. The actors had all fallen under the attack, while the noble was the only onlooker who had been killed.
“Thank you,” Mingus said, trying to be polite while still retaining some measure of dignity.
“Please don’t mention it,” The old man said, looking at the carnage, “I might be the cause of this, after all.” The three looked incredulously at the old man before he added hastily, “Follow me. Perhaps you can help.” He led them to his house. It was a particularly grand house, built in the style of the old nobles of Adamas. The door had been ripped off their hinges, as if forced outwards.
“Those ghouls…” Riley began, before the old man cut him off.
“They came from my family’s crypt below the house. I was in my study when I heard the front door break,” The old man was very calm and composed for one in such a position, “I sealed off the cellar. As it stands, those five were the only ones to get out.”
The three companions nodded and followed the man into the house.
In the cellar, next to a pipe of some sort of fine wine, the old man pulled up a trap door. “Here,” He said, breathing heavily, “Is the Montressor family crypt.” Haywood was the first to descend into the darkness. He always took point when he got the chance. He was the most combat-oriented of the three. He preferred a direct approach, where Riley and Mingus were more subtle in their tactics. He dropped down into a small hallway. It was about five feet or so wide, which gave him plenty of room to maneuver. He saw well even in this dark, thanks to his elven blood.
There was no sign of life as they walked, and eventually they came upon a large red door. Montressor sidled past them, producing a large red key from his pocket. Twisting the key, the door slid open noiselessly.
There were small alcoves in the next portion of hallway – six of them in all. As they neared the first one, Haywood called back to Montressor, “Are the remains of your ancestors important enough to risk our lives on?”
“I suppose not, but I would prefer –” He was cut off by the sound of a skull being crushed by a rather large pick.
Haywood hefted his pick back up, and it was covered in purple ichor. He swiveled around to see a ghoul rise from its resting place in the alcove which he occupied, while two more rose in the alcove opposite. He was sure there were even more in the alcoves further down.
Quickly dispatching the ghoul next to him, Haywood quickly turned to face the two in the opposite alcove. They charged him. While one was felled by a well-placed bolt by Riley, the other grazed his leather armor with its putrid claws. Mingus quickly joined the fray, felling the second ghoul with his sword. Haywood heard the sound of scuffling feet down the hallway. He called to the others to form a pincer movement. Montresor and he would stand in the two alcoves, while Mingus and Riley would stand further back in the hallway. That way, Riley could fire bolts over Mingus’s head, while any ghouls that got close to them would be downed by Montressor and Haywood before they could attack.
The plan went over flawlessly. At the end of a few minutes, they had piled up corpses four feet in height.
They climbed over the macabre mound, with some obvious discomfort on the part of Montressor – more than likely he recognized some of the faces.
A side hallway led off to a large wooden door, which they followed. As Haywood began to push open the door, Montressor cautioned him, “This was my Uncle Strom’s resting place,” His voice showed his nervousness, “He was… a large man – well versed in the art of battle.”
Haywood made no motion to answer, and instead entered the room.