Cataclysm — Chapter One

Two Weeks Later. . .

“What in the hell is this?” Brick Decklard grumbled as he steered his horse down the long dirt trail that led to the Balkanan monastery. This was the first thing he had said since meeting his new duergar partner, Skorplar Sed’Stym, outside of the Leaky Giant Tavern earlier this morning. A large group of people had gathered outside of the monastery’s main gate. Many of them holding anti ASF signs, all of them chanting. “BAN THE ASF! BAN THE ASF!”

“The briefing mentioned a strong MAP presence in the area, sir.” Skorplar followed Brick on his own horse. His response bookended by the honorific address when speaking to a superior officer, as dictated by his Aloka Security Force training. Brick said nothing as he cast a look of disdain in Skorplar’s direction. Whether it was meant for the new recruit himself, or for the MAP protesters, Skorplar couldn’t tell.

“Fucking MAP scum. If the ASF wasn’t so good at keeping everybody safe, these idiots would’ve succumbed to natural selection a long time ago!” The anger in Brick’s voice crescendoed as the two officers drew closer to the crowd. He leaped from his horse and stalked towards the protesters. “Who the hell is in charge here?!” Brick’s steel blue eyes shot daggers at the crowd as he surveilled their faces for any sign of violent hostility.

“Officer Brick Decklard. Your reputation precedes you.” The crowd parted and Jaylen Jolsby approached Brick. His left arm was in a sling, held in place across the front of his body. With his right, he held one of the anti ASF signs. Instead of standing for Aloka Security Force, the acronym had been changed to Antagonistic Slaughtering for Fun.

Brick spoke through a condescending sneer, “Then you’ll know what a stickler I am about breaking up an unlawful gathering like this one. Deliberately interrupting ASF operations with the intent to maliciously cause unrest and further endanger the people of Balkana. Not to mention atrocious acts of libel!” He motioned to the many signs being held throughout the crowd.

Skorplar had climbed down from his own horse, tying his and Brick’s to a nearby hitching post, and took a spot standing to the left of his partner. He made a light clanking sound when he crossed his arms, his metal gauntlets knocking against the plate armor that covered his chest. Brick’s impressive tirade of offenses had his rapt attention.

“I’ve heard it all before Decklard. It may be easy for you to enforce your unjust laws in Lagalos or on Infernum Isle, but you’ll find the ASF won’t get any support in Balkana.” Jaylen and his fellow MAP members stood their ground, unafraid of Brick’s threat of dispersal. Jaylen looked surprised as he noticed Skorplar’s dismount and arrival. He took in the officer’s short stature and full helm that covered his face, save for a large “T” shape cut into the front of it that revealed white eyes and the ash coloured skin of a bulbous nose. “A duergar in the ASF? What, are they trying to “diversify” and pander to the public? Do you even know who they partnered you with? He use to hunt your kind for sport! How can you be a part of this savage organization?”

At the mention of his own kind, Skorplar’s eyes menacingly narrowed. With jaw clenched he said, “The ideals of the ASF and its officers align with my own. We pledge to keep the people of Aloka safe from any and all threats, no matter the form they take, no matter the costs.”

“Oh bravo, bravo! Touching performance, straight out of the new recruit handbook!” mocked Jaylen. “Give the man a round of applause!” The protesters began to laugh and several of them clapped their hands together in amusement. Brick could barely suppress his own grin at the disrespect the duergar was receiving. Skorplar turned to the veteran officer, looking for some kind of guidance on how to handle the escalating situation.

Composing himself, Brick shouted above the laughter, “Enough! Under the supreme authority of the Aloka Security Force, I order you to disperse, NOW!”

“Supreme Authority?! There aren’t any monsters here for you to murder, Decklard! The ASF isn’t welcome in Balkana, no matter what royal decree comes out of Jaipul! BAN THE ASF! BAN THE ASF!” Jaylen brandished his sign and urged the crowd to start their protest chant again. Without hesitation, Brick’s right arm shot up and behind him, pulling his three foot long greatsword from the sheath strapped to his back. Continuing the fluid motion, Brick brought his left hand up to wield the sword in both hands as he swung the massive blade downward, easily slicing Jaylen’s sign in half. Sword now transferred solely to his left hand, the momentum of the swing still carrying the blade through its full arc, Brick stepped forward and reached out with his right, grabbing Jaylen by the collar as he reared his head back for a headbutt.

CRUNCH. “AAHHH!” Jaylen let out a yelp and reeled backwards as Brick let go of his collar. Jaylen’s nose was now a mangled mess of blood.

“I said DISPERSE!” roared Brick, as he sheathed his greatsword and motioned for Skorplar to follow him as he walked towards the monastery. Brick’s blonde turned white hair and crows feet around the eyes gave him an aged appearance, but he still moved like a man in his prime. Skorplar had not even had the time to fully ready his own weapon before Brick had sheathed his. Not having cleared the length of the handle, he let his battleaxe slide back into the leather loop that fastened it to his waist and walked past the crowd, joining Brick at the gates of the monastery.

Two of the protesters had helped Jaylen to his feet, mindful of his already injured shoulder. “You see?! You see what the ASF’s standard operations are? Physical Intimidation! Complete disregard for those they pledge to protect!” Several of the protesters had abandoned their signs, their bravado quickly turning to fearfulness of physical harm. Jaylen grabbed a new sign from the discarded ones and began to stir up the chant again. “Ban the ASF! Ban the ASF!”

Brick ignored these renewed chants and tried to open the gates, but found that they would not budge. “Damnit.” He angrily pounded on the wooden barrier.

“Sir, what about the remaining protesters? They’re still causing a disturbance,” asked Skorplar.

“They’ve already started to give up. Their spirit is broken, for today. But they’ll be back. Not the first MAP protest I’ve come across, and you can bet it won’t be the last. Take note rookie, you let something like that get out of hand, you’ll never get it back under control. You get violent before they get violent. They can get just as vicious as any monster scum you’ll come up against. What kind of field experience do you have?”

“This is my first assignment, sir. No first hand monster encounters, just the simulations in training at The Academy. And you, sir? That protester seemed to know who you were. And what you’ve done. . .” Skorplar trailed off, doing his best to hide the true intention of his question.

Brick nodded in understanding. “I was in the top ten elite officers to come out of Infernum Isle in my rookie year. Seen a lot of combat, and killed a lot of monsters.” He jerked a thumb behind him to showcase the hilt of his sword that stuck up over his right shoulder. It was ornately decorated with dozens of small gold, silver and copper shapes that had been fire gilded onto the handle.

“Each one for a type of monster encountered and destroyed. And, yes, that includes duergar. Back before your kind became Sentient Sanctioned. I did my job. I did my job damn well and never complained one bit about the carnage and death I see every time I close my eyes.” He pointed back to the dwindling protesters, their chants slowly tapering off as more of them abandoned their cause.

“If any of those coddled fuckers got a glimpse of the awful shit that haunts my nightmares, they’d board up every door and window in their homes. Never to step foot outside again in fear of something nasty, full of sharp teeth and jagged claws, tearing them to pieces.” Brick’s exposition had taken on a solemn, matter of fact tone and his eyes lost focus, staring at nothing as he appeared to get lost in some odious memory from battles past fought.

The sound of the gate unlocking brought Brick back to the present. It swung inward, revealing an elderly monk clad in a green robe. “Welcome,” he said as he stepped aside to let the two officers enter the monastery. Brick turned to look at the protesters once more, only to see Jaylen and the two guys that helped him up turning away from the monastery, the final three to depart. Brick smiled cruelly at a job well done. The monk closed the door behind them as they stepped inside, setting a large wooden bar into two brackets on either side of the door, mounted on the stone walls, locking the main gate once more.

“I am Prior Alden, well met.” The green robed man balled his right fist in his left hand and raised them to his chest, giving his head a slight bow as he greeted them. “Please, follow me.” He opened a second set of doors and led them into a large, mostly vacant, rectangular room. To the officer’s left and right, the room extended forty feet in either direction. Rough, square windows had been cut out of the thick stone walls that ran perpendicular to the door they just entered.

Thirty feet ahead were three more doors, one directly in front of them, one to their left, and one to their right. The latter two were partially blocked from view by a set of rigid stone columns, as gray and unadorned as the rest of the room. They stretched thirty feet into the air, providing the only support to keep the heavy, clay tiled roof from crashing down around them.

Tah’lia Fendsmith came bursting through the center door. Her wide dwarven frame barely finding passage through the narrow doorway. She was closely followed by a man and an elven woman, both wearing identical green robes to the elderly monk that opened the gate for Brick and Skorplar.

“Yes, yes, that’ll do for any additional storage we may need. Living quarters! Yes, of course, living quarters. People need sleep, need a place to rest.” Tah’lia swiveled to her right and approached one of the three doors, flinging it open and poking her head inside. “Aha! Empty! Good! Bedrolls in there, a little tight, but space enough, excellent, excellent! Now where the hell are those other officers?” She turned back to her robed companions, noticing Brick and Skorplar’s arrival for the first time. “Oh! Ask and ye shall receive! You’re late! Ah, no matter, no matter, you’re here now.” Tah’lia extended her arm to shake hands. “Officer Decklard, Officer Sed’Stym, a pleasure to be working with you.”

“And just who would you be?” Brick asked as he ignored the dwarf’s outstretched hand.

“Sir, this is Loremaster Tah’lia Fendsmith. She’s suppose to lend us her expertise in our investigation. It was all in the report, sir.” Skorplar shook Tah’lia’s hand as he explained.

With that same look of disdain in his eyes, Brick said, “Perfect. You’re ASF and you allowed that little show out there to continue without intervening?”

“Little show?” she asked. “Oh! Of course, the fellow in the sling and his friends outside. Pleasant group really.What was his name again Lulseem?”

The man that had followed Tah’lia through the center door took a small step forward as he answered, “That would be Jaylen Jolsby. He’s an incredibly outspoken member of MAP in Balkana.” As he spoke, the movement of his jaw served to highlight a large patch of newly formed scar tissue that ran from his chin up the left side of his face to where the bottom of his ear should have been. The lower third of it had been severed, leaving more pink, raw looking scar tissue. “Officers, well met. I am Abbot Lulseem. Welcome to the Balkanan Monastery,” Lulseem greeted them with the same clasped right hand and bow that Alden had. Both of his hands appeared to have been badly burned, but were not wrapped in any kind of bandaging.

Tah’lia first pointed to the ASF symbol branded into the shoulder of her pristine leather armor, then to the same symbol etched into the breastplate of both Skorplar’s polished plate armor and Brick’s scraped and well worn scale armor,

“Of course I’m ASF. Got the same insignia on my armor that you two do! But crowd control is no job for a Loremaster, we’re much too valuable.” She stated the latter very matter of factly, as if commenting on the basic need for oxygen to stay alive. “I doubt they’d listen to me anyways. Lulseem says they’ve been out there everyday for the last week.”

“Ever since the royal decree that the ASF would be establishing a presence in Balkana,” added Lulseem. “We’ve kept the main gate locked for fear of vandalism.”

“I’m here to set up the new headquarters and lend minimal assistance to you two, while you do your assigned job of finding what, or who, is taking children around here. Neither of which remotely involve dealing with MAP” Tah’lia slipped back into her rapid question and answer way of speaking as she vocalized her mental checklist, “Now where was I? Living quarters! No, already sorted that. Bookshelves! Yes. Here. Here. And over there,” She absentmindedly walked away from Brick and Skorplar, as she began circling the rectangular room.

Silent to this point, the elven woman finally spoke. “I am Prioress Eldana, well met.” She also greeted them with a bow, clearly the standard greeting among the monks. Her movements had a notable grace and fluidity that elves were known for, but her voice and facial features were cold and unwelcoming. “In my twenty year tenure at this monastery, never before have those gates been barred.”

“Eldana, please, we’ve spoken about this numerous times. It is a cautionary measure to secure the monastery and ourselves,” Lulseem interjected with a tired repetitiveness.

Eldana’s upper lip showed the hint of an angry snarl, but she spoke with a learned restraint, “The people of Balkana pose no threat to us, it is them that bring trouble,” she pointed at the ASF officers accusatorily. “This monastery has always been a place of sanctuary and tranquility for those that seek it. Their continued presence here disrupts that and undermines our teachings. You should be as disturbed by this hostile takeover as I am”

Brick was immediately dismissive of Eldana’s concerns, “Ma’am, I’ve made my career on following orders, going where I’m told to go, and doing what I’m told to do. Nothing you say will deter me from performing my duties as an ASF officer.”

“They’re here to help Eldana, somebody has to do something about the missing children,” reasoned Lulseem. “Those parents are looking for answers and guidance right now. This is the way we lend our aid.”

“It’s not like we have any real choice in the matter,” Eldana replied, venomously. “Or the choice of our newly appointed Abbot.”

Lulseem ignored her last comment and made no further attempt to argue with Eldana. Instead he inquired, “Tah’lia, when exactly does the caravan arrive?”

“Not soon enough! In two days they should be here with the supplies and personnel to staff and operate a fully functioning ASF headquarters. Six more officers, weapons, armor, training equipment for new recruits, blah blah blah. But most importantly, a beautifully extensive library of monster lore and statistics! Such fascinating information!” Tah’lia beamed with pleasure at the thought of riffling through the tomes and journals of past ASF officer’s recountings of monster encounters. “An exact copy of the library can be found in every ASF headquarters across Aloka. And I’ve set up nearly a third of them myself!”

“Impressive,” Lulseem gave her a smile. “I look forward to seeing it. We will do all that we can to ensure they get settled in smoothly.” He turned to the elven Prioress. “Eldana, I expect you to be more welcoming once they arrive.”

Eldana’s snarl became even more discernible, her practiced emotional control pushed to its limit, “Officers, it’s time for our morning training. Alden, would you please fetch Timothy?” The elder monk nodded and disappeared through the third, unopened door on the right. “Lulseem, care to join us, or do you have other responsibilities?”

“Yes, of course,” Lulseem confirmed. Having accomplished his task, Alden returned to the main room with another monk in tow. The young man rubbed sleep from his eyes, mouth opened wide in a yawn.

“Hey,” Timothy mumbled. His breath stank of alcohol from the prior night.

“Ahem,” Eldana cleared her throat in an expectant manner.

Hands clasped, head bowed, Timothy greeted them again, “Right, sorry. I am Sub-Prior Timothy, well met.”

“Enough introductions, let’s begin,” Eldana’s patience was growing thin as she motioned for Brick and Skorplar to back away. The officers noticed for the first time that the stone floor was marked with worn, discoloured patches, arranged in uniform, straight lines between the two support columns. Signs of past residents, when the monastery’s numbers swelled. The Balkanan monks each stepped onto one of the worn patches of floor, forming the four points of a square. Eldana and Timothy in front, Alden and Lulseem behind. The officers watched as the monks began practicing their martial arts. Eldana executed her movements with perfect form as she stood with knees bent, arms slowly, but forcefully, extending out in front of her with her fingers pointed upwards, performing a palm strike.

The other monks followed her movements as they became faster and more involved, until the four of them were performing a flurry of kicks, palm strikes and blocks. Brick studied each of them, his penchant for tactical assessment as ingrained as the monk’s routine. Despite his age, Alden had no problem keeping up with the speed and duration of the movements as the four of them repeated their routine over and over again, as if stuck in some kind of time loop. Timothy clearly lacked any aptitude but was able to mimic Eldana’s movements nonetheless.

Lulseem’s routine stuck out the most, out of sync with the other three monks. Where one movement flowed into the next, as if they were performing a well choreographed dance, Lulseem’s had a sporadic, uncontrolled motion. He threw punches instead of palm strikes, with far fewer kicks. His face slowly twisted into a furious knot instead of the focused and serene look that fell across the other monk’s faces.

Brick turned to Skorplar, “Let’s go, I’ve seen enough. We have work to do.” Skorplar nodded and followed him to the main gate.

As Brick was raising the wooden bar keeping the main gate locked, Lulseem frantically burst through the inner door. “Lock it! I’ll, I’ll lock it behind you.” He quickly tried to compose himself, forcing a smile in a failed attempt to hide his fear.

Brick raised an eyebrow and exchanged a quizzical look with Skorplar. “Uh, thanks,” Brick said as the officers exited the monastery. “What the hell has you so spooked?”

Brick had barely asked his question before Lulseem slammed the gate shut. His reply was the sound of the wooden bar clanking into place across the entryway of the monastery.

“Seems like those monks know how to handle themselves just fine. Think he’s just being overly cautious sir?”

“Not sure.” Brick said nothing more on the subject as he stared at the closed gate for a second longer, then turned to Skorplar. “Let’s start with interviewing the parents of the missing children.”

“Well, the report just gives their names and the names of their missing children. How are we going to find any of them sir?”

The officers stepped over abandoned protester signs and got onto their horses, further trampling the signs as they led the animals back down the road they had arrived on. “Small town like this, you start looking in the only place you can find some entertainment. And a stiff drink.”

At ten in the morning, The Leaky Giant Tavern was all but empty, except for one man slumped over in a booth at the back of the room, and a stout, moustached man to their right, standing behind a long bar lined with stools.

He gave Brick and Skorplar a nod, eyeing their ASF insignia, “Mornin’ officers, heard you guys would be around town now. Name’s Barlo. Care for a drink?”

“Another time. We’re looking for some people,” Brick paused and looked to Skorplar.

Skorplar pulled out a small notebook and flipped through the pages. Finding what he was looking for, he handed the notebook to Barlo so he could read the list of names.

Barlo paused his habitual wiping of the glass he was holding and looked at the list. The rag he was using looked like it had gone at least a decade without being laundered. “Sure, I know these folks, everybody in Balkana does now. But you’re in luck. Gerald Talbot is sitting right over there.”

“A little early for patrons, isn’t it?” Brick asked.

“Ha! Early? Gerry ain’t ever been early in his whole damn life. He hasn’t left yet from last night!” Barlo chuckled as he said this, but there was clearly sympathy in his voice. “The poor guy has damn well lived here since his boy was taken. ‘Bout four weeks back now. I don’t have the heart to kick him out, so I let him sleep it off in one of the booths. And let him run up a pretty tab too!” He let out another chorus of chuckles and gave the officers a wink.

Brick forced a smile, “Thanks.” He turned to Skorplar, “Alright rookie, take the lead on this one.”

“Not a problem sir.” Skorplar was eager to prove himself to his superior. He slid his battle axe out of its leather holder and dropped it onto the table of the booth with a loud THUD.

Gerald sat up, startled from sleep as Skorplar slid into the other side of the booth and snapped his fingers in front of Gerald’s face. “Hey! Focus! Focus!”

“Come on now, that’s not necessary,” Barlo objected to the abuse of his patron and bar furniture. Brick held up an authoritative hand to silence Barlo’s complaints. Out of curiousity, he supported his partner’s methods.

“Wha- what the?” dazed and confused, Gerald grabbed the edge of the table to steady himself. His sudden movement had caused the room to start spinning. “Who the hell are you?” he grumbled, still half drunk from the previous night.

“ASF. Officer Sed’Stym. I’m here about your son, Henry.”

This seemed to give Gerald some clarity, his son’s name much more effective at getting his attention than fingers snapping in his face. “Henry?! Did you find him? Where is he?!”

“No Mr. Talbot, we haven’t found your son. I need you to tell me about the day he went missing.”

Gerald seemed to deflate, sinking back into the seat of the booth. “He didn’t go missing, he was taken! Taken right in front of me, yelling for me to save him. I-,” Gerald stammered, tears welling in his eyes, “I couldn’t save him.”

“What took him Talbot? I need answers if you ever want your kid back alive.” Skorplar was growing impatient with Gerald’s whimpering.

“I don’t know what it was! It’s face. It just wasn’t there! No nose, no mouth, just those eyes. Glowing red eyes, even in the middle of the day!”

Skorplar scribbled notes in his notebook as Gerald recounted the events of that day.

“We had gone horseback riding, Henry loves horses, and we were on our way back to Hadley’s to return them. That thing must’ve snuck up on us, didn’t have any warning before Henry was yelling for me. I looked behind me, right into those damn eyes, as it got a hold of my boy. Then my horse was screaming as it bucked me off and collapsed. I hit the ground and everything went black. I woke up to see my boy being dragged into the woods. It just happened so fast, how could I have stopped that thing? How?!” Gerald pleaded for an answer that would assuage his guilt.

Skorplar offered no such answer, just more questions. “Who is Hadley? What exactly happened to your horse? And where did the incident occur?”

Gerald started to sob, his answers getting less and less coherent, “The horse was dead, it’s blood was everywhere! Spike things sticking out of it’s neck. Henry! I’m so sorry Henry!” Gerald sunk his face into his hands, tears now streaming down his cheeks, unabated.

“Ok, ok, I think that’s enough now,” interrupted Barlo. He walked over to the booth with a mug of mead and set it down on the table in front of Gerald, minding Skorplar’s battle axe. “Alright now buddy, take it easy. Drink up.” He patted Gerald on the back.

“I’m not finished here barkeep,” Skorplar menacingly grabbed the handle of his battle axe with both hands, but did not raise it off the table. “I’ve half a mind to bring you up on charges of maliciously undermining ASF operations and further endangering the people of Balkana!” Skorplar poorly mimicked Brick’s previous threat of obstruction.

Barlo held up his hands defensively, “Hold on there officer, I have no intention of maliciously anything. I can just see that Gerald here won’t be much more help to you right now.”

“MAP won’t listen, damn ASF won’t listen. Nobody listening,” Gerald mumbled softly into his mug.

Brick stepped in, “Holster your damn weapon Sed’Stym, this man has had enough. But maybe you can fill in a few of the blanks, Barlo.”

“Well sure, I’ve heard Gerry’s story a couple of times. Maybe we can step into the back and continue our conversation there?” Barlo tilted his head at Gerald, wanting to get out of earshot of him. Brick nodded and Barlo led the officers through a door behind the bar, into the tavern’s kitchen. There were dirty pots and pans stacked up in a sink that overflowed with greasy water. The room had no windows, the only other way in or out was a door in the back corner.

“What else can you tell us about what happened to Henry?” asked Brick.

“Well, not much. But to answer your partner’s questions, I think Henry was taken just as they were leaving the town limits, somewhere on Lillywood Lane. If you follow that road you’ll get to Hadley’s Horse Rentals. That’s where Gerry and his boy got the horses from. Shelby Hadley is a bit cantankerous, but she shouldn’t give you much resistance. Oh, and you’ll get to the Elmsmund farm further down that road too. Noticed they were on that list of yours.”

“And the other names? Where can we find them?”

“I only know the Yellnos’ personally. A nice couple, they stop in every so often. They just live two blocks down, got a front yard full of yellow daisies, you can’t miss it. Can’t help you with the others I’m afraid. Only know them from the gossip around town about the disappearances.”

Skorplar had his axe back in it’s holder, freeing his hands to scribble in his notebook again. “What did Talbot mean about MAP not listening to him?”

Barlo looked confused, “What?”

“What are you talking about Sed’Stym?” Brick looked as perplexed as Barlo did.

“Talbot said, ‘MAP won’t listen’. It was quiet, but I know I heard it,” Skorplar explained to both of them. “Do you have any idea what he could have meant by that?”

Barlo thought to himself for a second, not answering right away. “I guess, well I guess he could’ve meant the town meeting we had a couple weeks ago. The MAP fellows threw it together, right here in the bar. Gerald was there talking about the thing that took his son. Was damn heartbreaking to watch.” Barlo had his hands on his hips, slowly shaking his head back and forth.

“A meeting, why? What could they have had to protest then?” Brick asked mockingly.

“No protest, they were organizing a search party to try and find the missing children. Obviously, they were not successful. I hope the ASF has more luck.”

“If those kids aren’t dead or eaten, we’ll find them,” Skorplar promised him.

“Your reassurances need work officer,” Barlo let out his third bout of chuckles of the morning. “That door right there takes you out behind the tavern. If you could leave that way, I think that would be best for Gerald out there. Not sure if he’s calmed down quite yet. And like I said, the Yellnos’ are two blocks down, daisies in the front.”

“We appreciate your cooperation. If we have any additional questions for you, we’ll be back,” Brick said, as Barlo opened the back door for the officers.

“Of course. I’ll be here, always am,” Barlo said with a smile as he waved goodbye and closed the rear entrance to the Leaky Giant. Brick and Skorplar followed Barlo’s directions and headed to the Yellnos’ house.

“A fine catch on the MAP info. But I’ll handle the next interview Sed’Stym,” Brick said capriciously.

“I was just following my training, sir! Interrogation 101. ‘Subject is to be considered hostile until otherwise assessed’. ‘Assert immediate control, never allowing the subject to gain any form of advantage’. ‘Do not hesitate to use force when necessary to maintain control’,” Skorplar recited from the ASF manual verbatim for the second time that morning.

“We’re interviewing these people Sed’Stym, not interrogating them.”

“What’s the difference, sir?”

Brick smirked as he gave his answer, “The difference is, the subject doesn’t know they’re being interrogated.” Mostly hidden by his helm, Skorplar returned Brick’s smirk with a toothy grin as the two officers approached a small house with an even smaller front yard that was completed covered by bright yellow daisies. The only part in the yellow sea of flowers was a small stone walkway that lead to the front door. Before Brick had a chance to knock, the door flung open and a young woman had wrapped him in a frantic embrace.

“Thank Torm you’re here! I prayed to Him to send help!” she exclaimed, tears flowing from her already red and puffy eyes.

Surprised, Brick gently grabbed her shoulders and pushed her off of him. “Morning Ma’am. I’m Officer Decklard, this is Officer Sed’Stym. We just need to ask you a few questions.”

“Alec! Alec, the ASF is here! They’re going to bring our Bethany back!” The woman yelled into the house to her husband as she motioned for them to step inside. She led Brick and Skorplar through a small hallway, into a living room. A man, similar in age to the woman, appeared through an open door that lead to a kitchen at the back of the house.

With an outstretched hand, he introduced himself, “Officers, I’m so glad you’re here. I’m Alec Yellnos, this is my wife Susan. Please, take a seat.” He motioned to a set of worn couches in the corner of the room.

“Thank you.” Brick and Skorplar sat down, the couch sagging in the middle under their weight. Skorplar had his notebook in hand, ready to document the conversation. “Can you go over the day your daughter disappeared?” Brick inquired.

Alec nodded. “Six weeks ago, we were at the bi-monthly farmers market. She was playing with the other children.”

Brick interrupted, “Farmers market?”

“Farmers and merchants from across Pledge come to sell their wares and trade with one another,” Susan chimed in. She had managed to calm herself down, staunching her tears with a dampened handkerchief.

“And it’s common for the kids to be just running around? Sounds like it would be a busy place,” Brick theorized.

“Balkana has always been a safe place, nothing like this has ever happened before. But once Beth was taken, the abductions just never stopped.” Susan was doing her best to stay composed, but her emotions swelled to the surface again. “Please get our Beth back! Please make Balkana safe again for our little girl!”

Alec gripped his wife’s hand to comfort her. “I’m sure they’ll do their very best honey. And I’m sure they need all of the information that we can give them.” Brick nodded in agreement as Alec continued, “The kids were playing, running around like normal. But then there were screams, something had scared them. We and the other parents sprinted towards the direction of their yelling. The kids came running at us, crying, finding their parents. But Beth never came.”

“She was the only one that was taken? Did any of the other children see what happened or get injured in any way?”Brick asked.

Alec thought for a second, “I don’t recall any of the other kids being hurt at all. But all of them said they saw a ‘red eyed monster’. That’s all any of the other parents could get out of them. What took our daughter Officer Decklard? What’s out there?”

Brick reassured the couple, “That’s what we’re here to find out Mr. Yellnos. Just one more question, were you two in attendance at the town meeting held at the Leaky Giant two weeks ago?”

Susan’s soft sobbing quickly subsided, turning to anger at the mention of MAP, “We were there. Those MAP people don’t care about our Beth, they only pretend to!”

“They organized a search party, did they not? But were unsuccessful?” questioned Brick.

“They searched for less than one day! After that terrible man Jaylen promised to our faces that MAP would search day after day until they found our kids. He didn’t even show up that morning to help lead the search. I went to his house every day for five days straight before he answered the door. All he did was tell me to go away and slam it in my face!” Susan squeezed the handkerchief in her hand as she spoke, now the recipient of her anger instead of sadness.

“Could you give my partner here directions to Jaylen’s residence. I think we’ll need to pay him a visit ourselves,” Brick asked as he stood up to leave, Skorplar following suit. Their armor clinking and clanking.

Susan gave directions to Skorplar and hugged both of the officers. “Thank Torm for the ASF! You truly are a blessing.”

“Thank you for your time Mr. and Mrs. Yellnos. We’ll be sure to contact you the second we have any information about your daughter,” Brick awkwardly shrugged out of Susan’s hug and the officer’s departed, heading back towards the Leaky Giant.

“We’re going to go back to the tavern and get the horses, then head to this Hadley person’s place,” explained Brick.

“Have you seen anything that resembles these descriptions before, sir?” asked Skorplar as he flipped through his notes.

Brick shook his head, “Seen a few things with red eyes, sure. But no face? Seems wrong somehow. If Hadley can tell us how her horse died, we might get some usable information.”

The officers completed the short walk back to the Leaky Giant and fetched their horses from out front. With a squeeze of their legs and a hip thrust of their saddles, they spurred their mounts forward to Lillywood Lane at a slow walk.

From the road, the Hadley property looked impressively large. A chest high wooden fence ran along the edge of Lillywood Lane, then cut back towards an expansive, empty field and stopped at the treeline of an encroaching forest, marking the property line. A large sign hung above the dirt road leading up to the main house, it said ‘Hadley’s Horse Rentals’ in swirling cursive letters. A smaller sign hung under that one, it’s capital block letters read ‘CLOSED’.

“Looks like Hadley has the day off,” commented Skorplar as the officers turned their horses towards the house. Another line of fencing behind the house separated the entryway from the rest of the property. On the other side of that fence sat a large red barn, fifty feet from the back of the house.

“Good, Hadley won’t be too busy to answer a few questions then.” Reaching the front door of the house, Brick and Skorplar dismounted, leaving their horses tied to the fence to the right of the house. “Just so we’re clear, I’ll handle the interviews unless otherwise said.”

Skorplar nodded in understanding and Brick ascended a small flight of steps to the house’s porch. Pulling a screen door open, the main door behind it rattled in its frame as Brick knocked with a heavy hand. KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK. No answer. KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK.

“Ms. Hadley? It’s the ASF, we’d like to ask you a few questions,” Brick announced loudly to be heard from inside of the house. He still received no answer. “Take a look around back.” Skorplar disappeared around the corner of the house as Brick put his face and hands to the glass of the front window to peer inside. The drapes were drawn, save for a sliver of an opening. Brick could see the shadowy outlines of furniture, a table, a couch, but no signs of movement. He gripped the knob of the front door, giving it a twist, to find it locked.

“Sir! The back door is open!” Skorplar yelled for his partner. Brick joined Skorplar at the back of the house. He was peering inside, but had not crossed the threshold. “Ms. Hadley? This is the ASF!” There was no answer to Skorplar’s calls either. Skorplar stepped inside, crossing the threshold into a small kitchen. In the center of the room was a table with a bowl of uneaten soup. A thick, moldy film had formed a layer on the surface. “I don’t think anybody’s here.”

Brick’s eyes narrowed, “Something’s wrong. Look at the field, not a damn horse in sight. Check the rest of the house, I’m going to look in the barn. Stay alert.” He drew his greatsword and headed through the gate that led to the back half of the property.

Skorplar took out his own weapon and cautiously continued through the house. Through the kitchen, he crept into the living room. The only light coming in from a slight part in the curtains of the front window and the minimal sunlight that washed in from the open back door. Born with darkvision due to his duergar heritage, Skorplar was used to operating in darkness from his childhood growing up in the Mulkland Mountains.

The furniture was functional and understated, contrasted by the ornate horse paraphernalia that decorated the room. Porcelain figurines covered side tables. Paintings of horses covered every square inch of wall. A bust of a horse head sat on a mantel above a small fireplace, a small plaque at the bottom of it read ‘Chauncey’.

To Skorplar’s left was a closed door at the base of a flight of stairs that lead to a second story. He approached the door to secure the ground floor before ascending. Heart racing, battle axe raised in one hand, Skorplar flung the door open with his other, uncovering a storage closet full of boxes. He let out a low sigh of relief.

“Get a hold of yourself Skorplar,” he whispered as he closed the closet. With two hands back on his axe, he slowly moved up the stairs. Any attempts at being stealthy were foiled by the soft clink, clink, clink of his plate armor, the sound deafening in the eerie silence of the dark house. He had made it halfway up the stairs when he heard a loud, distressed whinny from the front of the house. Immediately forgetting about searching upstairs, Skorplar stomped back down to the first floor to the front window, and cast the heavy drapes aside. Their horses weren’t in sight, they were no longer tied up where they left them. One of the horses let out another high pitched squeal from the left side of the house, just outside of Skorplar’s field of vision. He grabbed the front door handle and pulled hard, finding it locked, needing to pull back the sliding bolt that secured it. He burst onto the porch, the screen door flung open and smacked against the side of the house with a loud BANG! He vaulted down the porch steps and turned to his left. Skorplar could only see one horse. Its powerful haunches blocked his view of whatever had a hold of the horse’s reins and was dragging it towards the treeline. The horse’s muscles flexed and strained as it unsuccessfully fought against the forced momentum exerted upon the animal.

For the first time since arriving at the farm, Skorplar noticed the menacing presence the surrounding forest seemed to exert, with its twisted and gnarled trees, brambles grown without being kept in check. A strong sensation of corrupted nature caused him to hesitate, only briefly, before charging forward at the still unseen attacker. “RrrraaaAAAAHHHHH!”

Sed’Stym!”

The horse and mystery assailant had reached the treeline as a bright spray of red shot out from the horse’s throat, causing the animal to crumple to the ground. The attacker had already disappeared into the undergrowth, the only thing visible were unnaturally long arms covered in some kind of spiked armor that resembled the brown, thorny brambles that had choked out most of the forest greenery. They had a hold of the now dead horse and was dragging it into the bushes with it. Skorplar closed the gap surprisingly quickly in his plate armor and raised his battle axe above his head. Aiming to strike at the center of whatever creature the arms belonged to.

As Skorplar started the arc of his mighty axe swing, he heard a whistling sound right before something hit his left shoulder. It was a glancing blow, but found purchase enough to skew his strike’s trajectory, jerking his axe to the left and chopping through the creature’s exposed right arm instead of hitting center mass. Without a sound, the creature let go of the horse and retreated into the forest.

The barn door was slightly ajar as Brick used one foot to swing it open even further, keeping both hands on his heavy greatsword. The smell hit him before he even stepped inside. Hay and horse excrement was infused with the vile pungency of putrefying flesh and the acidic, metallic stench of blood. Brick gagged and took a step back, hesitating long enough to steel his resolve and investigate the source of the noxious fetor.

The barn had briefly served as a slaughter house. The penetrating sunlight from the open door revealed large pools of dark, red-brown blood that stained the barn floor and walls. Brick squatted down and touched two fingertips to the nearest stain, “Completely dry, must’ve happened a while ago.” Almost missing it in the dim light, Brick spotted a partial footprint at the edge of the blood pool.

Standing back up, he continued further into the barn, weapon still at the ready, following the footprints. He checked every horse stall as he progressed, finding nothing but more dried blood and unidentifiable chunks of black, putrefying flesh. As he neared the back of the barn, the blood on the floor changed from the circular pooling and dotted splatters to long, straight streaks. “Drag marks leading out,” Brick said to himself.

The back of the barn had an identical door to the one Brick entered. He pushed it open with a kick, allowing more sunlight to pour into the barn. This door seemed heavier, resisting for a second, before scraping through a thick crust of dried blood and clanging against a small hammer used for nailing on horseshoes that laid in the grass. A large pool had gathered at the threshold, obscuring the bloody drag marks and the footprints. Brick could see that the drag marks continued on, past the blood pool, turning the grass a deep carmine. They lead away from the barn and open field, straight for the treeline.

The back of the barn door, now fully opened and exposed to the midday sun, had been punctured by a wooden spike of some kind. Sticking out roughly a thumb length, it was coated in the same red-brown that stained the barn floors. From the protrusion, a blood drip had run the length of the door, clearly the source of the blood pool at the threshold. Curiously, Brick stepped over the blood pool, onto the grass, and closed the barn door, revealing the bloated body of a gray haired woman. The spike had entered through her left eye with enough force to throw her backwards and pin her to the barn door.

“Shit. Ms. Hadley I presume,” sighed Brick. His brief commiseration over the demise of Ms. Hadley was cut even shorter as he heard a horse’s cry from the direction of the house. “What the hell?” Brick walked around the outside of the barn, enjoying the reprieve from its rotted insides, and reached the gate to enter the front portion of the property. He could see the house’s back door was still open, but no Skorplar in sight.

RrrraaaAAAAHHHHH!”

“Sed’Stym!” Brick yelled as he heard his partner’s battle cry from the other side of the house. He sprinted around the left side of the building, spotted Skorplar at the treeline, and ran over to him. “Sed’Stym! What the hell is going on?!”

Breathing hard from his adrenaline rush, Skorplar exclaimed, “Something got the horses sir! Killed them and dragged them into the forest! I had it dead to rights until something hit me from the forest.” He looked around the grass at his feet and picked up a long wooden spike. Brick took it from him and examined it. One of its tips had splintered from the impact with Skorplar’s armored shoulder. It was roughly one and a half feet long, and hollow, but still felt surprisingly rigid.

“Damnit. Whatever shot this at you got Ms. Hadley. Put one of these right through her head. Got her horses too, the barn’s a damn mess,” Brick explained. “Looks like it happened at least a week ago, maybe more. Hadley’s body was already starting to rot. Did you see what it was?”

He shook his head. Unable to avoid it, Skorplar stepped in the freshly spilled blood at the treeline next to the horse’s body, and searched for the severed limb he hit with his axe swing. “It was already hidden in the undergrowth by the time I caught up to it. I missed it’s body, but I got one of the thing’s arms. It pulled the horse’s body like it didn’t weigh a thing. Ah, here it is.” Skorplar pulled out a twisted length of wood covered in thorny brambles. “Shit, I must have missed it sir.”

“Forget that Sed’Stym. If these things are still in the area this long after their kill, there might be something they still want. We need to get to the Elmsmund farm. Now. We might already be too late.” Skorplar nodded and he and Brick moved expeditiously down Lillywood Lane.

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