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The Skin Tradeby Marco Dalmonte
This adventure is based on George R.R. Martin's short story The Skin Trade (see: Night Visions 5; copyright Dark Harvest Inc., 1988). The adventure is set in Darokin, in the town of Hendry. If this location is not good for a specific campaign then the town may be any one located near a river and some hills covered with light woods. The town must not be an important or rich settlement: rather it should be a low middle class settlement, probably declined in importance in the last decades. The town mostly subsists on logging and small trade, though it once also exported furs and precious metals. The Skin Trade deals with the PCs' investigation of a series of gruesome deaths. The PCs will have to discover the whole truth in a brief time (a week or less), mainly through the use of good sense and their wits rather than raw force.
The whole explanation of the events described in the adventure has purposefully been written at the end of it in order to give to the DMs too the opportunity to savour the mystery surrounding the story and to make their own guesses about what's going on (taking the players' point of view to spot possible inconsistencies).
Remember to read carefully the description of each character involved in the story (provided at the end of the adventure) before playing out the adventure: it will help you to better understand what's going on and what are the motivations of the characters to appropriately play the NPCs. This adventure has been designed for 4 to 8 characters of level 4-6 (it has already been play-tested by a group of 8 PCs of 6th level).
Setting Up the Adventure
The adventure revolves around two main characters: Wilhelm Feuerbach and Antares Thuriman. The PCs can either be friends of one or the other, but the best option is that one of the PCs play the role of Antares (with his/her background designed in order to fit this adventure), or at least be a very close friend/relative of her.
[Note that from now on it is assumed that the PCs are friends of Antares and so the adventure is centred on her. The DM could also play the adventure using Willie's point of view with some reworking, although it could spoil much of the mystery by doing so.]
The party comes to town in order to visit their long missed friend (or in case one of them is Antares, in order to visit her family) and the DM must be able to persuade them to stay there for at least a couple of days (in Mystara, the exact season or month is not important, but it must be near the half of the month, possibly on the 12th or 13th day -full moon cycle).
During the following days, the party meets some old acquaintances in town (either Antares' friends or their own), among them: Achen Thuriman (Antares' brother), Isabel Thuriman (Antares' mother), Joseph Urqvarth (old friend of the Thuriman family), Mischa (Achen's friend and guardsman) and Cassandra and Angela Aretus (daughters of a rich merchant), probably while shopping in town or at night in a good tavern. Have the PCs socialise with them and try also to have the most attractive/charismatic male PCs impress the Aretus twins, possibly starting a love story.
One morning (once the PCs have familiarised with the town, but no more than 3 days after their arrival) a man named Wilhelm (an old friend of Antares who has heard of her arrival in town but had not shown up yet) comes to Antares' house and asks her a personal favour. He's a rather small man (5'4" tall) with long brown hair worn in a ponytail, green eyes and a lean figure. He wears a long dark brown surcoat over a simple white blouse and black leather pants and boots. Apart from a couple of pouches at his belt and a small dagger, he carries nothing other. Willie seems distressed and tells her in private (he doesn't know nor trust the other members of the party) that he suspects something horrible happened to a dear friend of him, Giovanna Lizzieni, the night before. He knows Antares is "a trustworthy and resourceful person, a girl who has always helped her friends" and so he asks her to discover if the guards have found out anything about her friend. Antares can do this without problem, for her brother, Achen, is one of the towns guards, like her father was. Willie also explains her that he cannot ask the guards directly because he is "not really in touch with them" and they could blame him for whatever happened to Giovanna.
In fact, they were close friends and the night before they should have met, but Willie had other businesses to attend and so he didn't come to the meeting. When he went to her house the next morning, he found guards roaming everywhere, and he sensed there was something wrong: so, after thinking a bit, he came to Antares to seek her help. He cannot possibly reveal where he was yesterday night, so he has virtually no alibi (should he need one). Willie doesn't know (or pretends to) what happened to Giovanna, but he thinks she's dead (though he doesn't say it explicitly). He really pleas Antares for her help, reminding her of all the favours she owes him (invent something), and invites her to be discreet even with her brother or any other person she will talk with: his name must not be revealed. If Antares accepts, then it's up to her to inform the other members of the party (she should enlist their aid, of course): the adventure has just begun.
Starting The Investigation
Antares has various sources of information she can exploit (in case Antares is a PC, the DM should tell this to her):
* Achen Thuriman: she can ask her brother about Giovanna. Achen is a Sergeant, so he has some power over the guards and can obtain the information she's seeking. However, since he is not directly implied in the investigations, he should come up with a plausible reason for questioning his fellows over this matter. And he also wants to know why Antares is so interested in a person she doesn't even know. Achen will try to discover why Antares wants that information (call it professional distortion) before giving it away, and will then become himself intrigued by the case.
* Joseph Urqvart: the current Chief of the Guards was the best friend of Antares' father and will be more than happy to receive Antares' visit. He's a nice man in his forties and if Antares presses him, he will tell her that Giovanna was murdered and "mutilated". This word will arouse strange feelings in Antares (see her background), but the Chief will reassure her that there are no similarities with her father's death. However, he refuses to tell more about the murder and invites her to ignore the case, since they have already a good track to follow. He also invites her to dinner with his family to lower the possible tension created by his reticence (he really cares for Antares and her family, anyway). If Antares goes to the dinner, Chief Urqvart will spend most of the evening talking about the past times and her father, and will gently pilot the conversation away from any possible reference to the Lizzieni murder.
* Bartholomeo Diaz: Antares can remember this guy only with an Intelligence Check. This is a famous personality among the town lowlife, a renowned burglar and thief who often helped his father in the past to find dangerous criminals and to jail rival thieves. Bartholomeo visited Antares' mother a couple of times after her father's death and helped her overcome the grief for the loss of the husband (see his description). Antares never really liked this man, but she knows she can get precious information, and could come to him as a last resource. Bartholomeo listens to her questions and promises he will obtain the information regarding the murder (when it happened and how, possibly with the suspects) in a matter of hours... for an appropriate price. Bartholomeo also knows that Rutger Helander has been spotted in town only a couple of days ago, but he won't tell this to Antares unless she specifically asks it.
* Lizzieni House: Giovanna lived in a small one storey house in the low-class part of the town. Attached to her house there is another quite decrepit dwelling where an old lady live. Lizzieni House is currently closed and the guards leave it after midday, so if the party wants to enter and inspect it they can do it without problems, provided they act stealthily. Inside they will find: a dining room with an old hand loom in one corner, a small kitchen/pantry, and the sleeping room. The rooms are all poorly furnished except for the sleeping room, where there is a large carved mirror on top of a toilet table with some make-ups, and a chest full of female dresses, some of them really nice and handmade by Giovanna. The sleeping room is a total mess and there are spots of blood all around the room, in particular near the bed (clear result of a fight against her aggressor). No other evidences can be found here.
* Sorensen House: this is the house of Giovanna's old neighbour. The woman, Christa Sorensen (78 years old), was a friend of Giovanna's parents and after the accident (see Giovanna's background) she helped the girl live on as if she was her true daughter. She often tended the girl during the day and helped with her waving job. If questioned, she looks to be really prostrated by the terrible event and talks with distress of Giovanna's death (she won't refuse to talk, however, especially if the party shows to be kind and interested in finding out the culprit). She tells them that the night before she cooked Giovanna the dinner as usual and left her in the dining room, where she was still working at a dress. Giovanna seemed happier in the last two weeks, and even younger, as if something had finally given back to her the lost youth. She suspects that the girl had a lover, and she had in fact seen many times the shadow of a man entering the house during the last days, always long after dawn. She discovered the corpse the morning after, when she entered Giovanna's house after the girl hadn't replied to her calls. The door was locked as usual, but she had her own keys and when she entered the sleeping room she witnessed the horrid scene (see description of the Death scene below). Shocked, she cried out many times and ran outside, where she found a guardsman and told him of the murder. She admit she didn't hear anything the night before, but then she is quite deaf given her old age...
* Other neighbours: the other building left of Lizzieni House is a grocery store that was closed when the murder happened (its owner lives on the other side of the street). All of the people living in the nearby houses remember Giovanna as a kind unlucky person, but they didn't see nor hear anything the night of the deed. Some of them remember seeing a person visiting Giovanna after dark, if asked, but they are not sure they saw this person the night of the murder.
* Morgue/Cemetery: the town morgue is inside the cemetery and Giovanna's corpse has already been put inside a coffin. The funeral will be held the morning after (DAY 2), so if the party is really desperate (or daring enough), they can bribe the local undertaker, Jebediah Sprigg, to let them give a quick look at the corpse. Jebediah is a renowned drunkard and can be persuaded easily. Alternatively, the party could use some magic to sneak into the obituary and inspect the corpse. Whichever the case, at first sight the corpse appear completely skinned from toes to head. A more scrupulous observation (or an Int check at -3) will reveal however that there are clear marks of burnings around the wrists and ankles. However, the bed didn't show any traces of burnings. No other particular evidence here.
Death Scene Description
The party can get this information either by Christa Sorensen, Achen Thuriman or Bartholomeo Diaz. The more detailed and precious descriptions will be the last two, while the old lady could forget something (DM's role-play). The guards' report reads as follows:
"Upon entering the house, no clear sign of fight or burglary was noticed. The main door was open but the neighbour, Christa Sorensen, had previously stated that she had opened it with her own keys. The door of the sleeping room was also open (left open by C. S. after running outside) and it revealed the horrible scene inside. The whole bed was soaked with blood, with stains of blood also covering the north and west walls. A clear trail of blood also went from the toilet table near the east wall to the bed (the girl was probably sitting in front of the toilet table when her murderer stabbed her for the first time) and a crashed lantern was also found near the toilet table. A wheelchair was found wrecked near the closed window in the south wall of the room, with the ripped dress of the victim (identified by C. S.) near the crashed wheelchair, not completely covered with blood.
The mutilated corpse of the victim, Giovanna Lizzieni (25 years old), was found on the bed. It was completely skinned, with her bowels and bones exposed but still in place. To notice that she was chained to the corners of the bed (ankles and wrists) with silvered manacle of unknown manufacture. At first sight the corpse presented no signs of broken bones nor any other harm caused by lethal weapons. After searching the house, the skin was still missing, and no trace of blood was discovered outside the sleeping room.
It is believed that the murderer used some kind of small knife or blade to skin the victim so thoroughly, and then probably put the skin inside a container (waterproof sack or large box) to take it without leaving trails. It is also believed that he washed his boots with the water held in a small toilet basin before leaving the sleeping room, in order not to leave tracks. The identity of the murderer is still unknown, but there are reasons to believe the criminal knew the victim, since there are no signs of housebreaking."
DM Notes: the players should notice that there are three strange things in this scene.
First of all, since Giovanna was paralytic (she couldn't use her legs, that's why she had the wheelchair found inside the room), why has the murderer chained to the bed both her wrists AND ANKLES? He has surely noticed she couldn't walk when he entered the room (or maybe he knew it ever since, if he is a friend of her), so why the chains at the legs? Second point: how could a paralytic girl oppose his murderer so fiercely as the evidences found inside the room show (blood spilled all around the room and many signs of wrestling)?
Third and last point: why has the murderer used such a particular item to bind the girl (silver manacles) without removing them once he quit the scene? Did he do it on purpose to leave behind a clear mark for the guards to find? Does this mean the PCs have just discovered the first victim of a serial killer?