OOC: Thanks, once again, to Shim.
The party decided to dispose of the Jester staff before leaving, not being keen to have such a powerful artefact lying around. On their way, they were accosted by a strange beggar, a man accursed with bendy legs, an overly-wide mouth, and a voice apparently ruined by years of rough liquor. He asked if they could spare anything for a man down on his luck.
The party gave him gold, and he grovelled before asking for “one more favour”. The hobbits, he claimed, beat him and took his walking stick, and he wondered if the party could supply one – “know what I mean?” A bit of verbal fencing ensued, as the party cynically offered him a spear (“not a man of violence”), a headless spear (“wouldn’t want to deprive you of a valuable tool”), or suggested that he could buy one with the gold Jack gave him. The beggar became a bit more direct and, when Jack asked if he was thinking of such a thing as, say, a bejewelled Jester staff, said that would be just the thing. After some further banter, he abandoned his attempt and hopped off, muttering that if the party won’t see fit to return “what’s rightfully ours”, there would be trouble. Vana questioned the theology of a god of Chaos claiming rights of ownership, which logic Jack respectfully rebuffed with the point “that the thing about gods is, even if you’re right, they can still punch your teeth in”.
The temple of the Smith proposed to reforge the staff into something better. The staff as it existed was a very strange item; each component was lovingly-made with fine craftsmanship, but the whole ensemble was bizarrely tasteless. The Smith priests removed the various gemstones and handed them to Vana, as a token of thanks for the party’s efforts.
After some basic shopping, the group looked for an opportunity to hire on as guards. Vana managed to unearth a group of dwarven merchants travelling upriver. The merchants, out of respect for Vana, insisted that the party come along gratis, and were eager to show off their own excellent wares. After much hesitation, the party purchased a fine dwarven halberd for Jack and a spear for Oswyn, so well-crafted that a trace of magic coursed through them. The company’s armourer put them through their paces to ensure the balance and length was correct.
The boat quickly brought the group to the town of Steerbrook, with a favourable wind bringing the journey to a mere three days. Here, they found parts of the docks had been closed off; there were rudimentary barricades blocking off the northern part of the town, and guards were dissuading anyone from docking there. The dwarves were concerned, and planned to move on quickly, since the town didn’t seem keen to extend much hospitality. The party decided to see what the trouble was, in case they could help or in case it involved them. Vana approached a militia member, who apologised for the bother; “you should be able to go about your business in the south side undisturbed”. Apparently there’d been a nasty case of illness in the northern quarter, which rumours were saying might even be the Flux. What the guard could say was that “when people die of this, they don’t stop walking around, if you know what I mean.”
Vana took an immediate interest. The friars of the Messenger were the only clerics nearby, but they had only been able to man barricades so far, to keep any undead from breaking through, and to tend to refugees in the local Messenger temple, which thankfully was in the south side of the town. Passing through the streets, the party noted that the south side seemed to be the more affluent part of town compared to what they’d seen of the north side. Most of the survivors from the north side came from the regions near the river, the exception being a dishevelled man called Mack, the town drunk, who muttered about witnessing a a flare of light and clouds of smoke billowing out of the well on the north side some days ago.
On asking about suspicious local characters the party learned about a chap called Mazmul, a kind of hedge wizard who lived in an old brewery, who some months ago had hired in some assistants – a woman said to be an alchemist and a group of disreputable hobbits. They apparently disappeared about a week ago – shortly before the outbreak began – and there’s no accounting for where they have gone.
The townsfolk provided some good directions, even a crude map, showing a few alternate routes to the brewery in case of roads being blocked by undead. There were believed to be dozens of undead shuffling around, but they didn’t seem to be acting under the direction of any controlling intelligence.
Scabbard headed off silently to scout ahead. He managed to lead the group to the old brewery without drawing any zombie attention. The brewery still had an old shop sign hanging from it, though it now bore the words “Mazmul, fortune teller and sorcerer”. Jack tried the front door, which was locked – but not for long thanks to Scabbard. The party found that the brewery main floor had been cleaned out of brewing apparatus, and was now full of alchemical equipment. Stairs led up and down. An eerie silence reigned.
Oswyn lit a lantern, strapped his shield on his back, and led the way downstairs. In the basement there were racks where barrels used to stand, now empty, lining the bare stone walls – not much to see at first glance. Vana, however, hit on the idea of examining the racks themselves, and noted that one had been pushed oddly aside. The wall nearby proved to open up into stairs going further down. From below, the sounds of running water could be heard.
The party decided to leave it for now and check upstairs. Here they found several beds, which were a little disused but had clearly been slept in within a few days. The hobbits’ room had bunk beds and a lingering smell of pipeweed and other narcotics. Under one bunk there were sketches of two human beings energetically copulating; one labelled “Mazbal” and the other “Vazlee”. The drawings were crude, as drawn by an untalented child or a hobbit of average artistic ability – perhaps while peeking through the keyhole of another room. In Mazmul’s room there was a steady leak from the roof and a spellbook on the table; this is a strong sign that the wizard was in trouble, since no magic-user would leave their spellbook unattended for days on end as clearly happened here. In the last room were traces of female occupancy, and more notably, the stink of bat guano and sulphur. Having heard Vaclav mention the idea in the bat-ridden dungeon, Scabbard remembered that these components could be used in explosives, both magical and alchemical – a worrying sign.
The party returned to the basement to examine the secret stairs. Vana could tell at a glance that they were recently constructed. The stairs opened out into a chamber, which was about three feet deep in flowing water. There was an oil lamp near the doorway, which had burnt itself out. A passageway extended south and began to curve westwards out of sight. The ceiling had obviously been enlarged to allow people to follow the river to the south. There were pickaxes propped by the stairway, and a couple of stepladders to allow the hobbits to work high enough to let humans through. The water seemed clean and fresh. Scabbard tasted it, and suspected poison; it did not escape the party that the river seemed to be going in the direction of the well from which Mack had seen an explosion occur.
Chambers had been excavated to the right and left. Peering through one entryway, Oswyn found barrels (which proved to hold gunpowder), a record book, empty wine bottles and rotting provisions. Mazmul’s handwriting proved to be awful, but there was mention of warded stone doors that he was attempting to breach. There was a glancing reference to “secrets of the balance”, but that is all Vana could decipher.
Approaching the other archway and sticking his head round, Oswyn shined his lantern directly into the faces of three rotting, staring hobbits. “Eh, that’s not right!” he cried, stepping back out sharply, but they followed, groaning loudly. Downstream, there was a sudden sound of splashing; something else had become aware of their presence…