With the immediate danger over, the adventurers took in the dusty balcony at the top of the red marble staircase. Oil lamps were mounted on the oak-paneled walls, which were carved with woodland scenes of trees, falling leaves, and tiny critters. Malenthor looked more closely at the carvings, expecting more of the macabre. In the paneling, the drow found hidden images of tiny corpses hanging from the trees and worms bursting up from the ground. He shook his head ruefully. “I don’t know what I expected.”
“This place is nuts. I like it!” said Balthazar. “The unexpected is always the way to go.”
“Always?” asked the monk.
“Well, sure. Who the hell wants boring and predictable?”
Malenthor shrugged. “Those who wish to live longer, perhaps.”
“I guess. If that’s your thing.” Balthazar gave the drow a “What’s his deal?” kind of look.
“All I really mean is that ‘always’ doing the unexpected may not be the best idea.”
“But how do you know, really? If you always do the predictable, you will never get a new result!”
Malenthor smiled at the dragonborn. “You spoke in absolutes. I suggested moderation.”
“Caution, perhaps,” Lillian said, studying the carved panels herself. “There is a secret door here,” she added, placing her hand upon the wall and giving a little push. The door opened easily to reveal a cobweb-filled wooden staircase leading up.
“Oh, nice find!” said Balthazar. “Do we want to clear this floor, or head on up?”
“This floor, I think,” said the monk. “The wayward parents may require a lesson.” Lillian nodded in agreement.
“Can’t argue with that. And maybe they can tell us where we are.”
Malenthor nodded. “Indeed.”
Several doors exited the balcony, and the adventurers selected the nearest to their left to investigate first. Dust and cobwebs shrouded an elegantly appointed bedroom. Double doors with panes of stained glass graced the north wall. The chamber contained a large bed, two end tables, and an empty wardrobe. Mounted on the wall next to the wardrobe was a full-length mirror with an ornate wooden frame carved to look like ivy and berries. It seemed a bit colder there than it had been on the balcony.
Balthazar led the way in, moving to inspect the fancy double doors. He found eyeballs among the berries, and wasted no time in pushing the large doors open. They opened out to an external balcony overlooking the front of the house – or would have, if the mists had not closed in so closely around the Durst’s home. The dragonborn moved to the next room, reaching for the door adjacent to the double doors. He stopped when the room suddenly grew even colder. The adventurers all looked over their shoulders to see a terrified, skeletally thin young woman manifest and attack!
Balthazar advanced on the spirit and brought the hammer up from his side and through the spectral form. Fortunately, the ghost had enough substance for the metal weapon to harm it. Seeing the cleric’s mundane weapon do some harm to the specter, the drow advanced to attack as well. The spirit side-stepped his spear thrust, and he hesitated to strike the ghost with his foot, but only for a second. He felt the chill of the grave crawl up his leg as he kicked clean through the spirit. He frowned at the unpleasant sensation.
Lillian muttered a quick incantation and gestured toward the specter. Her ray of frost harmed the ghost but not as much as the sorcerer had hoped it would. However, with its essence diminished by the spell, the spirit reached for the tiefling. The life-draining touch caused Lillian to crumple to the floor unconscious and gasping for breath.
Malenthor raised an eyebrow as the tiefling dropped. “Unexpected.” Balthazar sneered and breathed lightning, hoping it would have a greater effect than his hammer. As with the sorcerer’s spell, the spirit’s essence was weakened, but it still persisted. The monk tilted his head to the side, cracking his neck, and redoubling his efforts against the ghost. His spear impaled the spirit, but still it didn’t discorporate, so he spun in place and spin-kicked it the head. As his foot tore through its face, the specter faded away into nothingness. The drow released a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. “Does she live?” he asked Balthazar of Lillian.
The cleric kneeled beside the fallen sorcerer. “She does. I should be able to bring her around. Nice dancing there.”
“I’m just glad we were able to harm the creature at all. Perhaps we have sufficient control of our ki.”
After a few minutes, Lillian regained consciousness and carefully sat up. “Ugh, what in the planes was that horrid creature?”
“She was a nasty bitch, all right. Damn undead have no place under our sky. Although it occurs to me that we might not even be under the same sky we were yesterday.”
“No, if anything indicated by the books in the library is even remotely accurate, then we are indeed not in a familiar realm.”
“Awesome! I can’t wait to see more of this place.”
“I’m sure that’s true,” said Malenthor.
Lillian shook her head. “You say that. However, I believe before we go traipsing about we should probably solidify our footing within the immediate location first.”
“What does that mean?” the monk asked politely.
“She’s sayin’ she’s scared,” said Balthazar.
Lillian turned a cool gaze on the dragonborn. “What I mean to say is we haven’t gotten our bearings before running into the first house of danger. Therefore, before we make any grand adventuring plans we should probably wrap this up and get our bearings within the immediate locale.” She kept her silver eyes on Balthazar for a moment longer before turning to cast a disarming smile toward Malenthor.
“I see,” the drow said without seeing.
“Understood,” said the cleric. “Tiptoe slowly and daintily.” He then stood and pretended to tiptoe slowly and sneakily into the next room.
The adjoining nursery contained a crib covered with a hanging black shroud. Malenthor eyed the crib uncertainly over Balthazar’s shoulder.
“Ooh! The stillborn might be here,” said the dragonborn.
“Yes. Yes, it might,” said the drow.
“Oh, yes…” said Lillian. She appeared a little uneasy at the thought.
“Two gold pieces says it’s the living dead too,” Balthazar added.
“No bet,” said Malenthor.
Lillian likewise shook her head. “I don’t make bets I see myself losing… handily.”
“Hmmph…. That’s no fun,” Balthazar said as he pulled the shroud away, revealing a tightly wrapped, baby-sized bundle lying in the crib. Without pause, the cleric picked up the bundle and unwrapped it, finding nothing within the blanket.
“Pleasantly unexpected,” said Malenthor. “Perhaps there is something to your philosophy.”
“I definitely didn’t see that coming,” said Balthazar. “Moving on, I guess.”
They returned to the inner balcony and opened the door on the north wall. Dusty shelves lined the walls of the small storage room. A few of the shelves had folded sheets, blankets, and old bars of soap on them. A cobweb-covered broom leaned against the far wall, and as the dragonborn stepped inside, the broom suddenly flew into the air and attacked!
Lillian was mildly startled and stepped away from the room, and gestured toward the lively cleaning implement, narrowly missing it with a ray of frost. Malenthor stepped up and tried to pin the broom to the wall with a spear thrust. When that failed, he kicked it hard enough to send a few splinters flying. Balthazar tried to strike it with his hammer, but the room was too narrow for him to get a good swing on it. Then the broom darted forward, punching the dragonborn in the chest solidly. He growled as thunder exploded through the broom reducing it to matchsticks.
“Mr. Balthazar, you are undoubtedly good at what you do,” said Lillian.
“That’s Stronmaus looking out for me,” said the cleric. “He doesn’t like his priests to be harmed. Speaking of which, I should probably do something about these wounds.” He muttered a prayer and was struck by a bolt of lightning from above, followed by a loud thunder clap. A few moments later, his wounds faded.
“Hm,” said Malenthor. “Remind me to avoid being wounded. That looks … painful.”
“Not at all,” said Balthazar. “It’s a nice jolt to shake off the cobwebs.”
Lillian smirked at the display. “I assure you, it’s harmless.” Malenthor looked skeptical.
With the flying broom neutralized, they searched the storage room, finding only mundane linens and cleaning products. Lillian grabbed a bar of soap and tucked it into her purse along with some of the linen cloths. The drow exchanged a questioning glance with Balthazar while the tiefling raided the closet, and then the three moved on.
The next dark room contained a wooden tub with clawed feet, a small iron stove with a kettle resting atop it, and a barrel under a spigot in the east wall. A cistern on the roof used to collect rainwater, which was borne down a pipe to the spigot; however, the plumbing no longer worked.
“What will be coming to life here…?” Lillian wondered aloud.
“Good question. Ladies first?” Malenthor said with a smile. Balthazar snorted in amusement. Despite the sorcerer’s foreboding, they did not come under attack in the bathroom. The monk turned to consider the double doors, which had dusty panes of stained glass set into them. Designs in the glass resembled windmills. Malenthor knocked twice and waited a moment, but there was no response. Nodding to the others, the drow tried the doors, which swung open with a creak.
The dusty, cobweb-filled master bedroom had burgundy drapes covering the windows. Furnishings included a four-poster bed with embroidered curtains and tattered gossamer veils, a matching pair of empty wardrobes, a vanity with a wood-framed mirror and jewelry box, and a padded chair. A rotting tiger-skin rug lay on the floor in front of the fireplace, which had a dust-covered portrait of Gustav and Elisabeth Durst hanging above it. A web-filled parlor in the southwest corner contained a table and two chairs. Resting on the dusty tablecloth was an empty porcelain bowl and a matching jug. A door facing the foot of the bed had a full-length mirror mounted upon it.
“Be wary,” said Malenthor as the party moved in to investigate. “Another ghost may spring upon us.”
Lillian frowned. “Yes, let’s avoid that circumstance.”
The mirror door opened to reveal an empty, dust-choked closet. Another door in the parlor led to an outside balcony. Then the monk moved to inspect the desk. The jewelry box on the vanity was made of silver with gold filigree. Inside the box he found a gold ring with a tiny diamond, and a thin platinum necklace with a topaz pendant. “Wasted wealth,” the drow lamented.
The tiefling came over to see what he’d found. “Oh, I could use this diamond. Does anyone mind if I take it? Naturally it will count for part of my share of this find?”
“As you like,” said Malenthor.
“I don’t care,” said Balthazar. “I’d only give it away to some lovely anyway.”
“Do you have much luck with the ladies? Or is it men?” The monk’s curiosity sounded genuine.
“Ha! In Mulhorand you never really know. But I have an eye for the ladies. The women in this land are so … juicy.”
“You make them sound like food.”
“Not food, no. But it’s not at all wrong to say I drink up every moment I spend with them.”
Malenthor nodded and changed the subject as their search of the room – and by extension, the floor – turned up nothing further. “I now doubt that the parents live. Which makes me question the nature of the children below.”
“Or the nature of the monster?” said Balthazar.
The question gave the monk pause. “I hadn’t considered that yet.”
“Or the nature of this place even,” added Lillian.
“Illusion?” said Malenthor. “If so, a convincing one.”
“Either way, this place is a fun house of horrors,” said Balthazar. “I can’t wait to see what’s next.”
He led the others back to the hidden stairs, which they ascended to a bare hall choked with dust and cobwebs. They moved to the nearest door and went on inside. The dust-choked room contained a slender bed, a nightstand, a small iron stove, a writing desk with a stool, an empty wardrobe, and a rocking chair. A smiling doll in a lacy yellow dress sat in the northern window box, cobwebs draping it like a wedding veil.
“One of the girls’ rooms, I guess.” Balthazar said as he looked around.
Lillian focused on the doll for a moment and said, “What a pretty-looking doll.” Malenthor eyed the toy askance, and then the tiefling received the same treatment. “I’ll bet the little girl misses it…” the tiefling added, sounding sad.
“You are probably right,” said Balthazar. “Why don’t you return it to her?” He casually picked up the doll and tossed it at Lillian.
She caught it gingerly with both hands and cradles it gently, nothing that it smelled faintly of lavender. “Yeah, I think I will,” she said, gently placing it in her satchel.
“Hm,” said the monk, returning to the hall and crossing to the next visible door. It was locked, but a large iron key hung from a peg right next to the door handle.
“This should be interesting,” said Balthazar, grabbing the key and trying it in the door.
The lock squeaked loudly as the key turned the tumblers into place, and the door opened. The room beyond contained a bricked-up window flanked by two dusty, wood-framed beds sized for children. Closer to the door was a toy chest with windmills painted on its sides and a dollhouse that was a perfect replica of the dreary edifice in which they stood. These furnishings were draped in cobwebs. Lying in the middle of the floor were two small skeletons wearing tattered but familiar clothing. The smaller of the two cradled a stuffed doll that they also recognized.
The tiefling’s expression was absolutely horrified, and she uttered a curse in Infernal. She slowly removed the doll from her satchel with two fingers and gingerly tossed it toward one of the beds before trying to clean her hands on her skirt.
“Oh, thank you Stronmaus,” said Balthazar eagerly. “Thank you for this gift. You never cease to fill my life with fucked up situations, and I will forever thank you for it.”
“Um,” said Malenthor, glancing at the dragonborn with a “check-out-this-motherfucker-here” expression.
“Huh? OH! Yes, terribly horrible what happened to these poor children. I will do my god proud by putting it right.”
“Why are we still here doing this again may I ask?” said Lillian.
“I would like closure,” said the monk.
“Definitely,” agreed Balthazar. “Also I have to see how this ends.”
“Let’s … just find the path to the basement,” said Malenthor.
“There’s a secret door in the attic,” Rose Durst said as she and her brother appeared, floating over their skeletons. They were much more ghostly than the children they had seen outside.
Lillian uttered another curse in Infernal, and Malenthor blinked – as much surprise as he had shown since the party stepped out of the streets of Westgate. “Is this not the attic?” he asked.
Rose nodded and pointed at the dollhouse. “You can see it there.”
The adventurers approached the dollhouse and saw that it was, indeed, a perfect replica of Durst House. They spotted all of the house’s secret doors, including one in room across the hall from the children’s room that led to a spiral staircase descending through the entire house.
Balthazar’s demeanor became slightly more professional, and he bowed to the children before beginning some sort of ritual (or maybe blessing?) on the bones. The ritual itself was incredibly odd and unfamiliar. Thorn hid behind Rose, but watched the dragonborn, fascinated.
Malenthor spared the foreign cleric a brief glance over his shoulder then turns toward the child-ghosts. “I am sorry for your fate. You deserved better.”
“Thank you,” said Rose. “They locked us in here to protect us from the monster in the basement … then they forgot about us.”
Lillian’s shoulders slumped a bit hearing that and turns back to the children. “The monster is still here then?”
The ghost-girl nodded at the tiefling. “Oh, yes.”
“I’m sure you weren’t forgotten, children,” said Lillian, turning back to the model house to look at the path to the secret door.
“If we slay the monster, do you think you can find rest?” asked Malenthor.
Rose looked over at him uncertainly. “Maybe? I don’t know. We’ve been here so long.”
Balthazar finished his ritual. “Either way. You deserve to see this thing get demolished … whatever it is.”
“We shall see,” said the drow, turning to lead the way to the secret stair.
“Please don’t go,” Thorn said as the party started to leave.
Malenthor paused and turned toward the boy, then crouched down to be eye level with the small ghost. “With luck, this will bring you peace, lad. It is the best we can offer, I’m afraid.” Thorn reached out toward the monk, tears in his eyes. Malenthor reached out to embrace the dead boy, uncertain if such a thing was even possible. Even for a drow, it was about the strangest feeling he had ever experienced.
Lillian watched the exchange and felt her stomach go cold and drop into a pit. Rose looked pleadingly at the tiefling for a long moment. “I’m sorry child,” the sorcerer muttered to herself before looking back at her companions. “That.… That is why we’re still here.” Malenthor glances at her briefly, but didn’t say anything.
The adventurers carefully made their way out of the children’s room and over to the storage room that hid the secret stair to the basement. The dusty chamber was packed with old furniture (chairs, coat racks, standing mirrors, dress mannequins, and the like), all draped in dusty white sheets. Near an iron stove, underneath one of the sheets, was an unlocked wooden trunk. The secret door was obvious since they had seen it on the dollhouse.
“And you thought it was bad luck that we were pulled into this place,” said Balthazar. “Knowing now that you just had that experience, could you say that you would rather have just finished the bounty tonight as planned? We grow from stepping outside of our safe place.” Balthazar once again begins to praise Stronmaus.
“Perhaps, but usually we have more say in the matter,” said Malenthor.
“Well, let me answer that after we survive this monster,” said Lillian. The monk nodded at that.
Balthazar opened the trunk, which contained skeletal remains, wrapped in a tattered bedsheet stained with dry blood. They were reminded of the specter they had fought on the third floor of the house. “Murdered,” the cleric said decisively. “Poor woman never had a chance. No wonder she was so pissed off.”
“This is a place of nightmares,” said the tiefling. “How have this town’s folk not come to finish this?”
“Perhaps this is the norm,” said the monk. “We’ve yet to meet the neighbors.”
“Right?” said Balthazar. “I can’t wait to see what’s in the next house.”
“Then where in the hells are we?” Lillian muttered.
The narrow spiral staircase made of creaky wood was contained within a five-foot-wide shaft of mortared stone that started in the attic and descended fifty feet to the dungeon level, passing through the lower levels of the house as it made its descent. Thick cobwebs filled the shaft and reduced visibility in the staircase to five feet.
At the bottom, a narrow tunnel stretched southward before branching east and west. The dungeon level underneath Durst House was carved out of earth, clay, and rock. The tunnels were four feet wide by seven feet high with timber braces at five-foot intervals. They saw centuries-old human footprints in the earthen floor leading every which way. They could hear an eerie, incessant chant echoing throughout, but they couldn’t make out where it was coming from, or what was being said. Balthazar’s cantrip provided the only light.
“Are you sure you can’t see in the dark?” Malenthor asked the dragonborn. “I prefer not to broadcast our approach.”
“I can’t see in the dark, no. But I can douse it and just follow along if you like.”
“Probably best not,” the drow said reluctantly.
“I don’t mind the dark, but having one of us staggering blind is not useful,” Lillian said in a hushed tone.
Off to the south, they found two crypts hewn from the earth. The slabs meant to seal each were propped up and out of the way. The east slab was blank, and the west one had “Walter Durst” engraved on it.
They left the crypts and headed east then north, coming to a larger open chamber, the eight-foot roof supported by wooden beams and cross-braces. A wooden table and four chairs stood at the east end of the room, and to the west were four alcoves containing moldy straw pallets. The party searched the room, but finding nothing of note, crossed through a hall to the north that emptied into another large chamber.
A four-foot-diameter well shaft with a three-foot-high stone lip descended thirty feet to a water-filled cistern. A wooden bucket hung from a rope-and-pulley mechanism bolted to the crossbeams above the well. Five side rooms once served as quarters for senior cultists. Each contained a wood-framed bed with a moldy straw mattress and a wooden chest to hold personal belongings. Each chest was secured with a rusty iron padlock. They spent some time collecting long forgotten coin and valuables, including a silvered shortsword. Malenthor smiled and picks up the sword. “This, I can use,” he said, sheathing the weapon and belting it to his hip.
Balthazar led the others out of the southern exit in the southeast corner. When they came to a three-way junction, he noted a distinct absence of footprints in the corridor to the west. “Footprints stop here,” said the dragonborn. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“None of this does,” said Lillian.
“Suspicious,” agreed the monk. “Trapped floor, maybe?” Examining the floor, they found a section of rotted wooden planks covered by a thin layer of dirt. “Let’s not go that way,” said Malenthor. “Yet.” Balthazar shrugged and continued south
They came to a room containing a plain wooden table flanked by long benches. Moldy humanoid bones lay strewn on the dirt floor. In the middle of the south wall was a darkened alcove. “How horrible,” said Balthazar. “Leaving their bones all over the floor like that. What slobs.”
“Too soon to become numb to the horror yet,” said Malenthor, approaching the darkened alcove.
When he reached it, a man-sized serpent slithered out of the darkness. It reared up and unfurled four barbed tentacles to reveal its hungry, snapping beak as it lurched at him!
“Nope!” cried Lillian. “NOPE!”