It Started in Saltmarsh: Chapter Five
By Kirt Wackford
A Dungeons & Dragons campaign adaptation edited by Thomas Kelly and Greyhawkstories
5 Goodmonth, 570 (afternoon and evening)
[Avast! Spoilers ahead.]
“That one’s got to pay! He didn’t want to be a guest here last night, and he’s not eating for nothing today,” Ruth warned severely, nodding toward Barnabas as she set a luncheon out for the paying customers.
“Not to worry, Oh Fairest Flower of the Azure Sea,” Barnabus said with obviously feigned obsequiousness. “Bring me an ale with this luncheon and I shall pay for what I eat and drink with a song worth twice the amount.”
“We’ll pay with coin for what he eats,” Tyrius hastened to add.
Aurora hoped that Ruth might offer a more sober telling of the tale of the alchemist’s house than the version offered up by the children of Saltmarsh. Ignoring the whole exchange about whether or not Barnabus would pay for his food, she inquired, “Ruth, what can you tell us of the alchemist’s house? The children you chased off told us that it’s haunted?”
“Like as not it is haunted,” she admitted as she ladled up the broth into their bowls.
“Would it be meet to say the spirits haunting it are a threat to the town?” Aurora pursued eagerly.
“Hardly!” she said with a dismissive laugh. “It’s four miles east of the town which is a long way for a geist to go a-creeping. It’s not even likely any of the ragamuffins ye spoke with has ever actually laid eyes on the place. It is indeed a lonesome house, just off the old coast road and looking out to the sea.”
“We intend to exorcise the spirits that haunt it as a service to the people of Saltmarsh,” Tyrius explained as he counted out coin to pay for Barnabus’ food. “What can you tell us about it?”
Madam Ruth put down the ladle, a grave expression settling over her plump features. “Oh, I shouldn’t be poking my nose into things like that if I was ye. I can tell ye this. Until some twenty years ago, when I was yet in the flower of youth, an aged alchemist and magician did reside there, and he did indeed have a sinister reputation—as anyone who practices magic deserves, really. The townsfolk mostly shunned the house because of the occupation of the owner. He disappeared under unexplained circumstances—his body was never found. He simply stopped receiving the weekly lot of food he purchased from the sundries store here in Saltmarsh. After several missed pick-ups and missed payments, the Town Council ordered the house searched. Nothing was found—” she paused dramatically, fixing the diners a solemn look before continuing in a hushed tone, “though over the next few years, everyone in the search party, to a man, suffered ill luck and untimely ends…”
Larenthal shuddered and even Thokk seemed taken aback, but Barnabas laughed it off. “Oh my!” he exclaimed sarcastically with a roll of his eyes. “I’ve never had a stroke of ill luck in my life.”
“I don’t like ye, hobniz,” Ruth said matter-of-factly, “And I don’t mind telling ye that, neither.”
“Never mind him,” placated Aurora. “Madam Ruth, please tell us what else you know of the house.”
“Well, the place is now long-abandoned and in much disrepair. In recent years what passersby have spoken of it to me indeed do tell tale of ghastly shrieks and eerie lights from within it. Not even the bravest of the townsfolk would dare enter it now, and frankly, neither should ye all,” she said firmly. After a moment of thought, she added, “If it were restored, the house would make a fine country estate for some wealthy merchant or noble from Seaton, but that hasn’t happened. The town council would sell it if there was a buyer, for the town assumed title to the land and house after no heirs came a-calling. That they be unable to sell it for even a paltry fee speaks to its unsavory reputation.”
After lunch, the party organized and packed all of their gear and settled accounts with Ruth, who was sorry to see them go. She even offered to store for them whatever gear “would only get in their way” in their exploration of the cursed house. As they passed through the streets to the Full Moon, the urchins gathered again, begging to play more games for coin, and soon they had an even larger crowd of ragamuffins than before. By the time they left Saltmarsh proper, a full score of youths were in tow. However, the youngest of the lot did not last long for the journey once the town was no longer in sight. By the time the four miles had gone by, and the vague outline of the house appeared in the distance, only the oldest and boldest remained.
The house stood on the cliff top some seventy feet above the sea and eighty feet from the edge. The sound of waves relentlessly beating against the stones below gave the house a lonely, noble feeling. This was a fine house once, Aurora thought to herself. I can see why a spellcaster, such as myself, would choose to live here.
A six-foot-high stone wall, topped with rusty ironwork, surrounded the property, looking a bit out of place since there were no neighboring buildings. An ornate iron gate pierced the wall, and a weed-choked stone-and-earth drive led to the well-traveled coastal road.
The handful of youths remaining took one step forward for every two steps of the party of companions once the gate was in view. They watched the adventurers pass through the open gate, at which point two of them bolted and ran; three remained, hesitating, reluctant to miss the adventure.
Beyond the gate, the party saw an overgrown garden and the back of the house. The drive curved around the side and disappeared from view, for the front of the house, and presumably the main entrance, faced the sea. Moving cautiously through the garden, they came upon a stone well. No bucket was in sight but there did appear to be water at the bottom. From the garden, the party of adventurers could see a dozen windows and two doors on the back of the house, on the ground floor. A second bank of windows indicated a first floor above, and the steep roof hinted at a large but unlit attic. The windows had glass panes, a sure sign of the wealth of the original builder. The panes remained largely intact but so caked with dust, inside and out, that little could be seen through them. Each door had a window next to it, but only one of them opened on to the same room as the door did, and that one off of a back patio.
“Wait here,” Babshapka said to Aurora and the rest. His tone and manner invited no argument. The elf watched at the window a good while, then found the door to the patio unlocked, and slipped silently into what appeared to be a ground floor living room. The room was bare save for a pile of refuse in the corner, but had a stone hearth and an interior door to the main house. Cobwebs and rat droppings were everywhere. After allowing a second for his eyes to adjust, Babshapka continued deeper into the room, at which point a booming voice called out, “Welcome fools—welcome to your deaths!” Babshapka’s blood ran cold and he froze, but no further sound was forthcoming. The voice had come from the ceiling, and the force of it shook loose some plaster that fell to the floor. Even now a fine white powder drifted down from the ceiling. A magical ward. Nothing more, he told himself. He checked the hearth to see if it had been recently used, but he found it cold, with rat tracks in the ashes. With the end of his short sword he prodded at the refuse pile. Convinced that no immediate danger lurked in the room, he called for the others to enter. They carefully and methodically searched through all the rooms on the ground floor. The wood was rotten and there were several loose floorboards. Mold and water damage was abundant, but they found no indication of the alleged undead, or of life at all save for vermin. Aurora collected a few books from the library. A large spider in the drawing room inspired some excitement, and while the party was occupied with it, Barnabus made search of all the spots where he would hide valuables had it been his home. His efforts garnered him a precious ring which had been hidden up a chimney. As he secreted it on his person without mentioning it to the others, he shook his head. The tales are true, he said to himself. Magic items throw themselves at adventurers. Enormous centipedes made themselves a nuisance in the kitchen, but the would-be heroes were eager to employ their weapons and cantrips and left the creatures dismembered, smoking, and twitching. In the scullery, a narrow stair presumably descended to a basement, but the walls were so covered in mold that the party avoided it.
Having thoroughly searched the ground floor, the party ascended to the first floor. The grand staircase in the main entrance hall seemed untrustworthy, so they used the steeper but sounder kitchen stairs. At the top of the stairs was a landing that provided access to the rest of the house and a collapsed stairway to the attic. They explored the first floor; empty bedrooms and storage rooms in the northern wing (though Tyrius did find a scroll on which a spell was scribed), and empty bedrooms in the west wing. In one of these stood a wardrobe. Thokk snarled and popped it open, brandishing his axe, but as he did so, he was showered in mold spores.
Laughter turned serious as Larry warned them, “That’s a yellow mold! It can be deadly!”
Thokk’s eyes widened, and he began to try to brush the yellow spores from his flesh. “You just need to stay dry. It needs moisture to grow,” the dwarf said urgently. Larenthal ripped plaster off the walls, quickly ground it up into a course powder, and covered Thokk head-to-foot so that the half-orc appeared to be a ghost himself. Barnabas laughed openly at the hilarity of the powdered mostly-naked half-blood, and even Babshapka’s stoic face seemed almost on the edge of a smile.
The passage between the west and east wings posed a problem. A section of dangerous flooring made it inadvisable to traverse. “I would not want to leave half the house unexplored!” Aurora protested.
“We can jump across,” Tyrius said, taking the leap and landing safely beyond the sagged timbers. Thokk followed, clearing the distance easily. All the rest did as well, except for Larry, who remained hesitating on the other side.
“I don’t think I can make the leap,” he said glumly.
“We can’t leave you there,” Tyrius objected.
“No need,” Larry said as he pulled rope from his sack. He quickly devised a safety rope and pitons and made his way across with many groans from the floor but without incident.
The three bedrooms of the east wing proved more interesting. In the first room they explored, two more of the large spiders inspired some heroism. In the second, Babshapka pointed out some odd scratches, obviously recent, marking a window sill that looked out over the sea. The door to the third room was locked, but Barnabas found the key nearby on a sill.
“We’ll just see what’s in here!” he said excitedly as he turned the lock.
“Wait,” Tyrius warned, supposing there might be some lurking danger, but the warning came too late. Barnabus pushed the door open. Inside the room, gagged and bound and with a lump on her head, was a woman in her smallclothes!
Of course Tyrius was the first into the room and worked quickly to free the woman. He gave her his own cloak to cover her modesty. The floor in the room looked unsafe, so he ushered her back to the bedroom where the legs of the slain spiders still twitched. After they had given her water from a skin and granted her time to recover her bearings, Aurora asked, “Who are you, and who has so mistreated you?”
“I am Nadine Shakeshaft,” the woman said, putting a hand delicately to the bruise on her head. “And I am grateful to you.”
“From whence have you come, ma’am?” Tyrius asked.
“I hale from Seaton,” she said. “I am a mercenary, taking jobs to guard warehouses, ships, and caravans.” Her state of undress easily revealed that she had both the build and the hands for such work. “I was traveling from Seaton to Saltmarsh last evening, looking for work, but due to delays on the road could not reach Saltmarsh by dusk. As the sun was setting, I came upon this house and thought to take refuge, but I had only entered through the door to the scullery and gone into the kitchen when I was attacked from behind and knocked unconscious. I awoke, bound and gagged, sometime this morning. I heard you making your way through the house and imagined you to be my assailants, not my rescuers!”
“Who do you suppose…” Aurora asked.
“Thieves, like as not,” Barnabas remarked. “highwaymen or some such. Where are her things?”
“Yes, I had good leather armor, a metal helm, and a sword. They are missing along with my clothes.”
Babshapka drew a dagger and, with a silent nod, handed it to her hilt-first.
“We will be happy to safely escort you to Saltmarsh, but not until we are done searching the house,” Tyrius said. “Perhaps we will yet recover your belongings.”
“We are adventurers,” Larenthal said proudly. “And we are on an adventure.”
“I see,” she said in such a manner to make it clear that she did not in fact see what that meant. “I can perhaps stand watch, or perform some other duty, until your task is finished. For without my arms and armor, and with brigands about, I feel it prudent to have your company until I get to Saltmarsh.”
With the first floor clear, but now even more suspicious of a malign presence in the house, the party decided to head for the attic. The way up posed another obstacle in the form of a gap in a collapsed stairway. Nadine proved her worth quickly, for she was strong of body, and she helped the party members to navigate the gap, even boosting them up. But in the process of all that, Tyrius in his heavy armor slipped and fell, tumbling not only to the floor of the landing, but all the way down the stairs into the kitchen below, suffering a number of bruises along the way.
Eventually everyone was able to ascend into the attic, which was not but one open space underneath the sloping roof of the entire house. Their explorations stirred up a stirge nest and so began a desperate battle in cramped quarters. They had just managed to slay the last of fully a dozen of the bloodsuckers, with several of them wounded in the process, when a swarm of giant ants began flooding up the stairs from below.
Shouts of alarm filled the attic again. Larenthal found himself surrounded, and he panicked. He reached into the druidic arts taught to him by the old bear-man. He called upon his spellcraft and summoned up a wave of thunder which shook and rocked the whole house. It succeeded in killing the ants, but it also collapsed much of the floor of the attic under him. He was left dangling by his hands from some sagging crossbeams while the rest of the party stared helplessly. Tyrius attempted to rescue him, but the weight of the northern paladin in his armor finished the collapse of the floor, plummeting both of them to the first floor in a shower of splintered wood and a cloud of dust and plaster. No sooner had they hit the first floor landing when that, too, gave way, and they fell to the stone floor of the entryway below. Their limp bodies were half covered in debris. Sensing the urgency of the situation, Babshapka leapt through the open hole in the attic floor, tucked and rolled and landed safely on the first floor, then did the same thing to attain the ground floor. He cleared the debris from their bodies and checked his companions for breath and found they had survived the fall but barely. Binding up a wound or two, he checked for broken bones. They were not in immediate danger but were quite unconscious.
The Saltmarsh youths had, in the meantime, crept to the stone wall, and listened eagerly at the faint sounds of combat emerging occasionally from the house. At the peal of thunder and crash of timbers, however, all three of them turned and ran back to town.
The party of companions assembled in the entry hall. With both of their healers unconscious, they were in no state to continue with their adventure. Larry and Tyrius were, coincidentally, also the two heaviest members of the party. There was no way they would be able to transport them both all the way to Saltmarsh, even with the help of stout Nadine.
“We will not spend the night in this house!” Aurora said, angrily wiping away bitter tears. She was frightened for her injured companions and all of her bravado had vanished, but she would not let the others see it. She began to think that adventuring might not be so great after all. Spiders, centipedes, stirges, ants, and collapsing floors hardly delivered the glory she had imagined attaining on their first adventure, but those rather mundane hazards had proven deadly enough. The only consolation was the ring she found. Just before the incident with the stirges, she had discovered a ring in the attic. Certainly magical, she had told herself as she slipped it on her finger.
They left the house, withdrawing across the road and a hundred yards or so into the forest, and that being taxing enough carrying their fallen friends and all their gear besides. There they broke open the supplies they had carried to take their evening meal and set watch while they nursed their companions, waiting for them to regain consciousness.
The night was warm; the sky clear. They heard no sound but the distant wash of the waves and the hum of insects. Thokk and Nadine shared the first watch, and then Barnabus and Aurora, and finally Babshapka on his own—Aurora having carefully selected someone with darkvision to be on each shift. Barnabus flattered himself into believing that she had intentionally manipulated the watch to grant them time alone together. I guess my luck hasn’t run out after all! he congratulated himself. While he was distracted with more useless bids for her affection, neither of them noticed the supposedly sleeping Nadine slip off into the forest. She left behind Tyrius’ bundled cloak in her place on the ground, and her absence went undetected. Much like the urchin before, she too paid a visit to Master Merchant Murphey in Saltmarsh before returning by the light of the moons and taking her place back in camp tired but with no one the wiser.
Used with permission. Adapted for Greyhawkstories.com from the original article posted to Canonfire!2/23/2018;
Don’t miss chapter six of It Started in Saltmarsh: Sanballat’s Trap. Follow greyhawkstories.com for the next exciting chapter.