Our party milled around in the hallway, attempting to decide on a course of action before dinner. Kromaw looked bored, leaning against the wall with one hand scratching his backside and the other digging between his teeth for random scraps of meat. The rest of us engaged in a quiet but heated discussion, eventually resulting in a decision to speak with Aschaffenberg. Upon knocking at his door it opened only a crack, exposing a sliver of Vern’s face. He shooed us away, claiming insistently that the lord was indisposed and would see us at dinner.
Splitting up to investigate in small groups, I headed downstairs with Aleron and Kromaw, while Durion and Jorn decided to remain on the upper floor and see the doctor. Walking down the stairs with Alaron behind me and Kromaw lumbering down after, we entered the main hallway. Kromaw, distracted by the smells emanating from the kitchen, stopped, turned, and entered the door, presumably to bother the cook for a taste. After entering the main hall, Aleron and I noticed voices and a general bustling in the dining room, and continued that way to enter. While I made my way there, Jorn and Durion cut away and disappeared into the room between the study and sitting room – judging by the large bookshelves, it appeared to be a library of some significant substance.
A particularly attractive female that I’d not seen before was setting silverware, while Konrad and Gunnar (who had taken some coin from me at dice only a short while ago) were distributing various plates and glasses, with Gregor overseeing and barking out orders with a general air of annoyance. Aleron questioned the group about the various cuts of meat to be served, only to be assured unanimously that the venison was quite excellent, and must be sampled. However, Aleron took it upon himself to nearly give us away by blurting out to the group “so, I hear the goose is good!” I noticed Gregor jerk slightly, almost in panic as he turned his head towards Aleron, then transitioning to a seething glare with his remaining good eye. Oblivious to the glowering stare, Aleron directed Gregor to change his order to the goose. Obviously forcing a pinched smile, Gregor answered “of course, of course, it shall be done.”
I decided to speak with the servants for a moment, allowing Aleron and Kromaw to continue their investigation as they headed for the manor’s central courtyard. While I proceeded to regale my new friend Hanna with tales of drinking and dancing to be found in Estalia, I noticed through the open hall door both Durion and Jorn come down the stairs, and proceed into one of the rooms off of the hallway. Judging by the tall, closely packed bookshelf, this could only be a fairly well-appointed library. I managed to catch the eyes of the dark-haired, attractive serving girl – she blushed and glanced away, but this only encouraged me by providing a challenge. As I approached her, she quickly set down the silverware she was adjusting and turned towards me. I introduced myself, and began to charm her most vigorously. At first,; it was “yes, my lord” this, and “no, my lord” that, but before long her formality began to fall away as she grew more comfortable. Soon, she gained the confidence to meet my eyes and begin to respond to my advances, somewhat to the dismay of the other two servants. Jealousy, perhaps? Only to be expected.
Regardless, Hanna hung on my every word, quite clearly enjoying the attention. The other servants began to give her dirty looks as they labored with the table setting, but we gave them no heed as we were quite clearly taking care of matters of higher importance. Hearing raised voices, a scuffling, and a crash, I turned to see a dark-haired male servant standing in the hallway, a look of shock on his face, as Gertie sprawled on the floor with broken wine glasses strewn about her. Gregor furiously stalked out of the dining room to begin berating Gertie viciously for her clumsiness while the male servant looked on in fear. Finishing his shouting binge with the warning “and don’t let it happen again,” Gregor stomped into the kitchen and slammed the door behind him. I was quite appalled – he had been exceedingly insulting at a pretty girl I had designs upon, and I felt compelled to act.
Excusing myself from Hanna (and earning a pouting frown as a result) I walked to Gertie’s side and helped her regain her feet. “That was not acceptable,” I said to her, “for a man does not raise his voice at a beautiful woman… unless she truly earns it.” She returned my statement with gratitude, only to be surprised when I offered to improve Gregor’s attitude by inserting roughly three feet of tempered steel through the gizzard. Stammering, she thanked me for the offer, but refused. I could tell that her gentle heart wished no revenge upon Gregor, even though a thorough puncturing would have been most beneficial to everyone forced to work with him.
Patting her on the behind and sending her on her way to fetch fresh glasses, I began to return to the dining room, only to be joined by Durion and Jorn who accompanied me after exiting the library. Apparently they had found some interesting doings upstairs, as the doctor had left a book describing his treatment schedule, which happened to very closely coincide with periods of lethargy and unconsciousness amongst the staff. Further, they had managed to pilfer a pair of books from the library. One appeared to be a fairly uninteresting book on plant life, with the saving grace that it described the herb that caused the abnormal stench in the upper floor. It seemed to be useful for causing drowiness, wich fit perfectly with the symptoms of several of the staff.
The other was an outlawed treatise on dealing with the worship of Chaos. As these books were burned as a matter of course across the realms of man, it was very surprising and unnerving to find one not only in such good condition, but brazenly displayed in this nobleman’s library. It seemed that the books were kept company by an elderly man, Otto, who strangely enough drew pictures of disturbingly misshapen animals in a journal that he guarded most closely. While Jorn and Durion were unable to draw information from their conversation with him, he was indeed a character that needed to be watched closely. The strange quirks of the lodge’s staff were beginning to add up to a troubling amount.
We were unable to speak further, as Gregor began summoning the staff and guests to dinner loudly. The various servants began transiting the hallway to the kitchen to fetch the courses, while Kromaw issued forth with new gobs of smeared food decorating his many-colored tunic and pants, smacking his chops. Vern and Aschaffenburg finally made an appearance, and made their way to their seats. I followed, placing myself at Aschaffenberg’s right side in order to be within speaking distance, as I had a great many questions to ask. We were joined at the table by a sturdy looking fellow with a glorious mutton chop beard, who was introduced as the captain of the manor guard, Anders Blucher. Also seated across the table from our group was Doctor Seger, frequently glancing at Jorn and Durion with narrowed eyes. Vern sat to Aschaffenberg’s left, and seating himself further down was a rough looking bald man in what appeared to be out of place at the table, wearing hunting clothes and (of all things) a dog collar, who was addressed as Olver.
Piles of fragrant meat were delivered by the shuffling pair of servants, Gertie and Todd staggering under huge plates of meat. The others flitted around the table, to and from the kitchen, to refill various glasses, goblets, bread baskets and the like. As our table was steadily laden with various cuts of venison and a pair of beautifully roasted geese, several of us began to fill our plates and start our meals. In the meantime, I engaged Aschaffenberg in conversation.
“Quite the spread I must say; did you take any of these magnificent beasts yourself,” I asked.
“No, no, not I. I haven’t done much in the way of hunting the last several years. It was the Hunt Master, Olver, he’s quite skilled indeed.”
At this, I addressed Olver, as he finished a portion of goose. “How is it that you managed to find so many prime deer with the beasts prowling the forest recently? I imagine they must scare away what they don’t catch.”
“Well,” he replied gruffly, “it were no big deal, although we did have a run-in here and there with the things.”
“We had a run-in ourselves with the things earlier – even without being outnumbered they caused quite a bit of trouble. You don’t find them to be a problem?”
“Well… no, sure enough they don’t go down too easy, but we dealt with them alright I guess,” Olver responded dismissively.
At this point, we were interrupted by a chorus of hounds baying, no doubt from the kennel in the courtyard, which continued for a matter of minutes and showed no sign of ceasing. Aschaffenberg cast a glance at Olver, and gestured towards the manor’s front hall. With a nod and a scowl, Olver pushed himself away from the table and muttered “save me some venison – and plenty,” to the captain as he rushed down the hall towards the front door. We continued to eat and converse, although the noises Kromaw caused as he annihilated haunch after haunch of venison occasionally drowned out our words.
There was so much meat that even Kromaw struggled to finish his helping. SItting on a barrel in the corner, he dropped a large hunk of gristle without finishing it – a strange occurrence indeed. In fact, he almost appeared a bit sluggish, his massive gut rumbling loudly as he began to digest the tremendous gobs of flesh he’d devoured in the last few minutes. Washing down one last fist-sized chunk with a bucket of ale, he issued a massive belch and slumped against the wall, eyes unfocused. Such a quick reaction to a full stomach – or was it? Looking around, it seemed that many who had venison on their plates were affected similarly. Jorn seemed to be put off by his portion of venison, having only a few small bites before filling himself with a few slices of buttered bread, remaining relatively alert. Captain Blucher’s head rested on his elbow, his breathing slow and even. Heiko, the coachman at the far end of the table, leaned back, his mouth gaping as he snored in his seat.
Aschaffenberg himself seemed to be afflicted by a sudden fatigue. As he pushed his plate away finally, he raised one last goblet of wine and drained it in one gulp. “Seems
I’ve drunk a bit much, I think. Must be time to retire, what? I’ll be heading up to my room – I’m sure the servants will continue to see to everyone’s need, please continue,” he said, with a slightly slurred voice. At that, he rose ponderously to his feet and began to shuffle out of the dining room. “I do say, though, any of our guests tonight who would like to join me for a drink is most welcome,” he stated, waving at our group. Deciding that we’d had enough, we began to rise as well, and followed Aschaffenberg as he trudged up the stairs, puffing for breath with a hand on the wall to steady himself.
Entering his room and seating himself on his heavily cushioned chair, we stood around him with grave expressions. “So, what have you uncovered this evening,” he inquired, his eyes drooping as he languidly poured a goblet of brandy. While he drank, he motioned us to all grab a glass and join him. However, we decided that we had learned enough to cause him great concern. Aleron informed him that we had found some very suspicious goings-on that seemed to be orchestrated by the doctor, and that most likely the venison had been dosed with a sleeping agent that the doctor had been brewing and using on the staff. At Aschaffenberg’s confounded look, we began to ask him if he suspected any reason the doctor would have to drug anyone, and who he might have noticed suffering from this affliction in particular.
Aschaffenberg’s head lolled as he muttered his responses to our questions. “Wha… what’s that you say now? Poisoned? You don’t… you don’t say. Prepos… posterous. Now look here,” he blurted out, stumbling unsteadily to his feet. Lumbering to the bed, he flopped down, the glass in his outstretched hand slowly tilting as its contents began to drain onto the carpet. “You see… it’s… can’t…unh,” he grunted at us. A loud snore tore forth from his mouth which hung open loosely, a stream of drool slowly issuing from the corner. It seemed that Aschaffenberg would be no further help tonight. Sharing frowning glares, we issued from the chamber, and went downstairs to check on the rest of the staff.
Just outside the door, however, Alaron happened upon Konrad and Gunnar just at the top of the stairs, leaning against the wall and apparently loafing while snickering to each other. Frustrated, and furious at their oblivious attitude, Alaron grabbed Konrad and forced him against the wall, one hand gripping Konrad’s tunic and the other clenched into a fist; Gunnar took the opportunity to edge down the stairs. “You! What have you done, what do you know about the poison! Tell me now, or you’ll be sorry,” he shouted. Konrad appeared completely bewildered. “Wha… nothing, nothing at all, what poison,” he answered with a quavering voice. The look of fear was quite convincing, and with a sneer, Alaron let Konrad loose, upon which Konrad bolted back down the stairs.
Needing to somehow acquire more information, we all headed down to the ground floor. Returning to the dining room, we were confronted by a chorus of snores. Gunnar was loafing, with a large leg of goose in one hand and a wine glass in the other, while Hanna gathered silverware; Konrad sat on a stool at the side of the room, a mug in his hand shaking with nerves as he glared at us. Alaron and Jorn caught Gunnar’s eye, and cornered him, pelting him with questions to little avail as far as I could tell.
I decided it was an excellent time for me and Hanna to become better acquainted. She had no problem abandoning her halfhearted attempt at cleaning up, preferring, of course, my attentions. At first our conversation went along quite smoothly. I could tell Hanna was impressed with my smooth demeanor and witty banter. She obviously enjoyed the attention as well – it seemed that the pickings amongst the males at the lodge here were slim indeed, and she now gorged herself on my company as a ravenous animal upon a choice piece of meat. Now that there was no pressure for time, I was able to thoroughly ensnare her in a cocoon of complements and flirtatious teasing.
Inviting her into the sitting room to continue our discussion, I noticed her blush slightly, but she agreed to follow me. Allowing her to enter and seat herself, I closed the door and positioned myself beside her, and continued to speak with her easily, asking about her doings at the lodge. However, as we spoke, I noticed a change in the room from when I had been here earlier. The heavy drapes which were closed earlier were now open, with a square of wall showing no dust, indicating that something had been removed. I asked what it could be. Hesitant at first, she finally admitted that there was usually a painting there. And her eyes lit up! Her voice trembling, she described the painting with such fervor that I was quite taken aback. Words burst forth from her in a torrent about a glorious, beautiful eye, and she could not be stopped. Allowing her to gush at length, she finally regained her calm… but she had dampened my appraisal of her. I was now intensely suspicious, for her description of the painting had taken on the tone of speech normally reserved by zealots and madmen.
I suggested to Hanna that perhaps we could take a walk around the manor’s grounds and search for the painting she seemed so fond of. She began to fidget nervously, her eyes darting as her face steadily grew redder. Could she think I had offered to find somewhere secluded for a tryst? Quite possibly; I have been known to have that effect on women, and they mustn’t be to blamed, for it is only natural for females throughout the nations of man to fall under the spell of Maximilien’s magnetism. However, I had other ideas – I did indeed wish to find whatever was missing from the wall, and Hanna seemed at first quite agreeable to the suggestion. I stood up, helped her to her feet, and guided her to the door.
Leaving the room with her, I was caught flat-footed when she suddenly bolted, skirt flapping and heels flashing as she fled down the hall towards the kitchen door. Quickly bursting into a run myself, I was thrown off of balance and fell to my knees when the carpet slipped from under me, losing valuable time. Upon regaining my footing I attained maximum speed, and slammed the closing kitchen door back open, only to reveal a completely empty room. Thinking that she must have continued to the back of the house, I nearly left the room, only to glance towards a pantry door that was ajar and slowly closing. Skidding to a stop, I approached cautiously. Peeking through the door, I heard faint footsteps and a scraping sound, which quickly ceased. Easing myself down the stairs, I turned the corner to find… just a drab storage room. Barrels stood stacked in the corner, a wine rack against the far wall – or at least a rack of the sour swill that people of the Empire called wine, at least. And just at the base, a pair of scrape marks! I would have to fetch the others…
Climbing the steps back to the kitchen quietly, I quietly hurried back towards the dining room, only to find Aleron and Durion speaking with each other in the main hall. They stood with ashen faces, Durion frowning with arms folded as Aleron gestured wildly. “That gods-damned chanting was unnatural, there’s no way any of us needs to go down there without the rest of us,” Aleron said. “We need to get the others together and investigate in force. Where the hell did did all of them go?”
As Aleron finished speaking, they both noticed me approaching. Joining them, we found that we had a great deal to share with each other. I was not the only one who had found a secret part of the lodge. Aleron had searched Aschaffenberg’s chamber, only to find a secret entrance in his fireplace to the lodge’s cellar. Upon entering the cellar, he had crept down a twisting and poorly lit hall. As he had moved deeper into the cellar, he had noticed what sounded like chanting – an unsettling, hair-raising cadence that had no business taking place under a hunting lodge. Deciding not to take unnecessary risks on his own, he had made the prudent choice to return for reinforcements.
Relating to them my finding in the wine cellar, it seemed that we had found separate entrances to the same underground level. As we spoke, Kromaw and Jorn returned from their investigation of the lodge’s grounds. They had found that the few able-bodied guards remaining in the guardhouse had been unconscious much as the servants in the dining room. Someone had delivered drugged refreshments to them without arousing their suspicions, leaving the remainder of the staff to move around unnoticed. Realizing that almost nobody left above ground was still awake, we decided that we needed answers – quickly. Hanna, Gertie, the doctor, Gregor and several other servants were absent with no explanation. Could they perhaps be the source of the chanting? It was time to find out.
We decided that the cellar entrance through the pantry was our best bet, as Kromaw would not fit through the narrow tunnel in Aschaffenberg’s fireplace. Marching through the kitchen and down into the pantry, we gathered around the wine rack, and began tryign to find out how to move it. After a few moments of prodding, we began to get frustrated, when Kromaw simply grabbed it with both hands and heaved, tearing it away from the wall with a crunching shriek of shattering wood and bending metal. “Kromaw open,” he hollered, leaving us staring wide-eyed at the demonstration of strength. Noting that the absent wine rack now revealed a large opening in the wall bordered by shards of wood and twisted metal hinges, we agreed that the passage was now indeed open.
Arranging ourselves in the pantry with Kromaw at the forefront, we filed down the cellar steps. Durion followed, Aleron and Jorn behind, with myself at the end of the party. Keeping an eye behind us as we crept down the hall, we shuffled along into the decreasing light, encountering first a left then a right turn in the passage. Darkness engulfed us, only to be pierced by a dim, flickering torchlight ahead of us. Peering down the hallway, we heard a
continuous chanting, rising and falling, several voices in unison. I could not make out the words, but they sounded harsh, foul, and caused a feeling of unease. However, we were prepared, and were not unnerved.
Steeling ourselves, we drew our various weapons quietly and prepared for battle…