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The Skin Trade, part 3

by Marco Dalmonte


Bad News Runs Fast

Early in the morning the Thuriman family is awakened by somebody who repeatedly knocks at the main door. It's Mikhail, one of Achen's friends and fellow guards. He has come to warn Achen that the "skinner" (as the constables nicknamed him) hit again (Achen previously asked him to keep him informed without telling his sister Antares). Obviously the PCs will overhear their conversation, no matter what precautions the two men take (either they spy on them or Achen decides to tell them the news in case he has decided to help his sister), getting the opportunity to follow Achen to the crime scene (he dons his uniform immediately after and runs to the place together with Mikhail). To the PCs' shock, it turns out that the two are going to Aretus Mansion. Bulging inside the house will prompt the guards who stand there to halt the party and ask many questions about their presence in the house. Fortunately the PCs can overcome this obstacle in two ways: either Lord Aretus spots the two male PC friends of his daughters and calls them to assist him, sharing his grim news with them, or Achen certifies for the PCs' presence and brings them with him to the upper floor, where the victim still lies.

Eventually, the PCs discover that one of the two Aretus twins, namely Cassandra, has been skinned to death after being chained to her bed: the same modus operandi of the previous murder. Again, there are no signs of burglary in the house or in her bedroom, and in this case it seems the young Cassandra hasn't even had the chance of fighting against her aggressor, for the chamber is immaculate, apart from the blood soaked bed. Cassandra has been chained to the four corners of the bed with silver manacles which look exactly the same as those found in Lizzieni House and his murderer has skinned her slowly after cutting her tongue away. The most macabre thing is that she was probably alive and awake during the process, seeing everything that was happening to her body reflected in the great mirror positioned on top of her tester bed. The windows as well as the door were closed when her twin entered the room and found her sister's corpse the morning after, and there were no footprints on the room's carpet. Also even though her sister, Angela, slept in the room nearby, she didn't hear any kind of noise the night before. The girl is now deeply shocked and lies babbling in her bed: the house maiden is trying to make her rest and relax, but she's been unsuccessful so far. If the PCs examine the corpse more closely, they can spot (Int check at -3) that the manacles have left deep scars in the ankles and wrists as if they had literally fused the skin and tendons exposing the bones. Yet, the manacles feel cold at touch...

Lord Aretus will obviously ask the PC whom Angela seemed to sympathise with to try and becalm his daughter. If the PC is convincing and gentle enough, after a while Angela seems to relax a bit and then falls asleep holding the PC's hand in her own in a tight grip (which will obviously oblige the PC to remain next to her until she awakens again). When she awakens (1d4+1 hours later), if the PC is still by her side, she will feel a bit more relieved though still distressed for her sister's death. If the PC is able to question her about what she heard or saw the night before, she tells him that she only remembers having a horrible nightmare, where a creature made of shadow was chasing her all around a foggy place. She remembers well only two features of the monster: his eyes, which were devoid of life and glittered like two tiny silver coins, and his hands, which seemed to hold a set of deadly knives. Then she heard the voice of her sister calling her and the creature disappeared ending the nightmare, although she didn't wake up at that time.

After searching the crime scene without finding any enlightening clues, the PCs are asked to leave by Lord Aretus, with the only exception of Angela's friend. He will be able to leave the house only after she wakes up, with the promise that he will be there again before dusk.

What Next?

At this point, the PCs will be almost clueless, although they might have some suspects. The murderer has obviously used magical means to enter and to escape, so they could look for a wizard who lives in town. Unfortunately, no mages dwell in town, as the guards can confirm, and none have been reported in the nearby countryside. Soon this turns out to be a dead end. Also, the PCs still lack the of the motive of the murders. The two victims have nothing in common -aside from being good looking- and don't live near to each other.

The only possible sources of information for Antares remain Chief Urqvart and probably Bartholomeo Diaz, the only two known people who have access to confidential information. If hard pressed (or good paid in Diaz' case), this time they reveal that the guards are following a precise track: Rutger Helander is back in town (and this should bring back bad memories to Antares -see her background). Somebody saw him walking near his old house only two weeks ago and reported it to the guards after the first murder. Urqvart says that he has probably been freed because he expiated for his crime in all these years and now suspects he is back in town to finish what he became so long ago: "a madman remains a madman no matter the passing years." Antares knows well Rutger's story, for it is because of him that his father died.

Shadows Of The Past

About 20 years ago (more or less -adapt it to fit to your "Antares" history, if you are using a PC from your campaign), when Antares was only a six-years-old child, young children began to disappear from the town without leaving a trace. The town guards, and Antares' father among them, investigated on the case but couldn't find any concrete evidence explaining the disappearances and the fate of the children (all around the age of 6-7 and living in the poor side of the town). This all changed when Hanna Helander disappeared, and his older brother, Rutger, was found with his face, arms and clothes dripping with blood. Rutger (who at that time was 12) told the guards that he and his sister were walking through the woods when a big animal leaped out of the scrubs and grabbed his sister, taking her away in the woods in its jaws. The boy told the guards that the animal was a big grey wolf whose eyes gleamed with a fiery light. The constable didn't believe him, however. Rutger wasn't considered "normal" by his neighbours and the people who knew him. He was a brooding boy who liked to stay and play with younger children and who had a morbid attachment to his sister. He was the son of the slaughterhouse guardian and his family was not a real model of purity (his father was a drunkard and a violent man). To many, Rutger seemed "mentally disturbed enough for and physically capable of" kidnapping six years old children for unspeakable motives, so the authorities blamed him for all the kidnappings. Rutger never admitted the guilt but he refused to talk anymore. And since he couldn't prove where he was at the time of the other children's disappearances (he had the habit of going in the woods and hide there for long periods of time), he was found guilty of the charges. However, since he was still quite young and there were no real proofs of the children's fate, the judge (a diplomat of the Regional Court) revoked the death sentence and sentenced him to twenty years of convict labours in another part of the country.

The only one who never believed that Rutger was guilty was Antares' father. And indeed, one week after Rutger Helander had been sent away another girl disappeared. The guards didn't relate the event to the previous kidnappings, mainly because in this case the girl was a teenager, but Cort Thuriman was sure the cases were connected. One night he went out to meet somebody after receiving a mysterious scroll, and the morning after his corpse was found by the guards near the slaughterhouse. Apparently he had been mauled by feral beasts, probably a pack of wild dogs (since there hadn't been wolves around the city in forty years) attracted by the smell of blood in the slaughterhouse. The guards stopped all the investigations and classified the case as incident.

Chasing The Shadows

The first thing Antares should do is to find out if Rutger is really responsible for these deaths and what are his motives, and the first place to search is Helander House, an old one storey shackle near the now closed slaughterhouse. Traces of recent visits can be found here, but they have probably been left by guards searching for Rutger as well, so they may be misleading. There is nothing of importance in this run down building. After some thinking however (Int check at -3), Antares could remember that Rutger used to spend his time in the woods nearby, and once he told her (he used to play with younger children, so Antares and his brother knew him) that he had a secret hideout, inviting her to join him there (she was just about to follow him when his brother came and dragged her away, but not before threatening to beat him had he dared speak again with Antares). He referred to it as "the place where the rock has the colour of shadow". This is the only clue left to the party, so they could start looking for such a place immediately, but it won't be easy to find it with only these indications. (Antares could unlock the mystery with an Int check at -8: if passed, she might remember that there is an old tower called Blackstone up the forested hill, near Armon Manor. If Antares doesn't solve the mystery, they have only 10% chance of discovering Blackstone for each hour they explore the hill -or at DM's call.)

Outside Blackstone

If the PCs are able to find somehow Blackstone at this point of the adventure (never underestimate the resources of the PCs!), they will be able to enter the fenced perimeter without much difficulty. Blackstone Tower (a circular tower) stands inside the Armons' holdings and it's the only building of the Old House still untouched by time (the attached house is an old ruined and burnt down complex with few walls not yet crumbled). Blackstone is roughly 40' high (diameter of 25') and is made of imposing volcanic stone blocks, carefully polished and still smooth and solid even though the entire building has been left untended for many years. It is surrounded by tall trees (mostly birches and pines) but has a clear opening above itself through which the sky is perfectly visible. It seems to have no entrances and no windows at first sight.

If the PCs try to climb it to reach the top, they discover quickly that the outside walls are oily and too slippery even for a thief (all normal means of climbing are prevented), probably due to the nature of the rock or to some magical properties of the tower (which radiates magic if examined with a Detect Magic spell). If they are able to fly or levitate to the top, they discover that the roof is still intact and impenetrable (they could use a Disintegrate or a Dimension Door to enter, but it is better if the party hasn't got such spells).

At this point, the PCs have three options: either search for a hidden door that gives access to the tower; or wait here hoping to catch Rutger Helander; or head home where they'll plan what to do next.

The Secret Entrance

It takes a PC about 1 turn to look for secret passages in a 10'x10' area and he has only 1 on d6 chances of finding it. Considering that the area to reconnoitre is about 100'x70', it would take 70 turns to a single man to explore it all (about 11 hours and a half), with only 1 on d6 to find it (1-2 for elves): a great deal of luck is thus involved. Of course, if there is more than one PC searching the area, the time diminishes, but it is still very unlikely that the PCs find the secret entrance located under the ruins of the Old House (concealed under a smashed barrel there is a hatch that gives access to a tunnel which leads to the basement of Blackstone tower. Here a winding staircase leads up to the three floors of the tower). So, unless the DM WANTS the PCs to find the secret door or they have some magical means of detecting secret passageways, they won't be able to discover it and will eventually be forced to return home.

Waiting For Rutger

Rutger Helander is already inside Blackstone Tower when the PCs arrive and will exit only when the night falls. If the PCs wait long enough (about until midnight), they will be able to see Rutger exiting from the secret entrance with a strange cloak wrapped around his neck and disappear in the woods (Int check at -6 will reveals that he is naked and the "cloak" is instead a human skin! But there is something weird about it, because it seems to be shifting shape from a human skin to a furry pelt under the moonbeams...). Now the PCs can choose either to follow Rutger into the woods or to enter his hideout and discover what lies inside the tower.

If they chase him, they soon loose his tracks. If one of the PC has the Tracking skill, he can notice with a successful check that his footprints at some point are replaced by wolfish footprints. However, no matter what they do to chase him, he will always be able to elude them and possibly to attack them in wolf form if they seem vulnerable enough, using hit and run tactics to divide them and catch them off guard. If he feels he's risking his life, he disappears into the night ad later returns to the hideout.

If the PCs enter the secret passage, they have the chance to explore Blackstone freely (go to the section "Inside Blackstone" below).


Night By Aretus Mansion

If the PC who befriended Angela goes to her house before dusk, as Lord Aretus and Angela previously asked, he is invited to stay for the night by Lord Aretus on behalf of Angela's sake. The girl has repeatedly stated that she feels unprotected and that only with the PC at her side she feels safe and is able to sleep without nightmares, so his father humbly asks the PC (and his friends if they accompany him) to stay for the night. While he is there dining with the Aretus they receive the visit of Johann Armon who asks Augustus Aretus to speak with him privately; however, this time Augustus invites him to speak openly in front of both Angela and the PC(s). Armon says that he has heard of Cassandra's death and is there to convey his deepest sympathy to the whole family and also to offer his assistance and protection to them. He says that they could be safer in Armon Manor, where he has better wards and defences against any intruder. Lord Aretus is about to reply but Angela surprisingly intervenes saying that she now feels safer than ever because the PC is there to protect her. At this, Armon frowns and coldly accepts the answer, biding everyone good night (with a last stern look towards Angela and his "protector").

It should be obvious to Angela's friend that he MUST remain for the night to protect the girl, and Lord Aretus will arrange for the PC to sleep just outside Angela's room, in the hallway, in order to be ready for any possible accident. However, this night will be a calm one in Aretus Mansion.

Inside Blackstone

Once found the secret entrance located in the Old House ruins, the PCs descend into a small earthen tunnel (7' high and 3' narrow) that leads to the tower basement. Here, in the middle of a circular cave made of the same volcanic stone of the tower, the PCs find a winding staircase that leads them through the four levels of the tower.

* First Level: cobwebs and dust abound everywhere inside the tower. Only ruined wooden furniture can be found in this level: a wrecked table, some chairs and some empty chests. No trace of vermin can be found (a common feature of the whole town), but in the dust on the floor there are clear footprints: somebody with a Tracking skill examining them (skill check) could be able to understand that there are two kinds of human footprints. There are some chandeliers with candles nailed to the walls and no windows. There is also a sort of bed prepared with sacks and some leaves on the floor, and next to it a few rations in a backpack. Near the rough bed there are also some poor ragged clothes (a linen blouse stained with blood, a pair of trousers and leather shoes -all belonging to Rutger). The winding staircase leads the PCs to the second level.

* Second Level: what could have been a library occupies the second floor of the tower. Many books and scrolls lie sparse on the floor, on a small table and on some shelves still attached to the wall. Many of these books appear to be badly burnt, others crumble to dust when they are touched but some are readable. Also, if the PCs look closely they can see there are old signs of burning inside the room and even the iron staircase has been damaged: it seems the fire originated in the above room (Int check). The books in this room are written in many different languages: some deal with the history of the country where the town is located, others deal with legends about shapeshifters and their powers and others talk about outer planes and conjurations of outer planar creatures in general. There is a book concealed in a secret niche in this room: only an elf could find it searching the room in the common way. The book (which dates back to AC 445) is written in old Minrothaddan and describes the exact ritual to conjure and bind a creature called "Skinner" from a remote outer plane. It takes a minimum of eight hours to read the whole book and to understand how to do it right (it can be summoned by anyone, even by non spellcasters, provided the right items are used and the appropriate words are spoken).

* Third Level: this room has suffered badly from a fire in the past and everything here has been charred or reduced to ashes. Once it was an alchemical laboratory but some 150 years ago Adrian Armon, Johann's uncle, caused a big explosion while experimenting some new potions and nearly blew up the tower (he didn't survive), which was then abandoned by the other members of the family who had already moved to the New House. There is nothing of importance here.

* Fourth Level: there are 10 mirrors standing 6' tall attached to the wall of this room. Each one is fixed inside a carved arch which is decorated with many symbols (the PCs can observe that the pattern of symbols is the same on all arches). On top of the chamber, attached to the ceiling, there is a large crystal globe that reflects all around the room the moonlight penetrating from a few holes in the roof, filling the chamber with a supernatural silver light. There are also hooks protruding from the wall above each mirror, but nothing else is present. The floor is stained with blood near two of the mirrors and a disgusting animal smell lingers in the air.

If the PCs wait for Rutger to return, they will wait in vain: Rutger won't return this night nor the following nights, and when the PCs exit and return to the town they will discover why. However, there is a chance that while they are waiting, they hear some noises coming from the ground level (a thief or somebody with Hear Noises can notice them). If they run downstairs immediately to see what's happening, they can spot an animal figure running in the dark tunnel towards the exit (if they hesitate, they won't see anyone). They can chase it, but will not be able to reach it since they are more encumbered and will eventually loose the animal in the darkest woods. At this point, they can only return home and maybe share their discoveries with Wilhelm or Achen, hoping they can shed some light on the matter.

DMs Note: the figure who runs away is Stephan Armon changed into a wolf. He knows of Rutger's hideout and uses it as well. But when he arrived after his last foray in the woods, he smelled strangers inside the tower.. many strangers. When he heard them coming down he chose to escape and hid in the woods to elude his pursuers. He will return to the tower only when he is sure they have gone away or they have split, maybe assailing them one by one (DM's call, but it should be avoided for now).