"The villagers mentioned that there's a small religious cult settled to the East, but then they started warning me not to go there," DicingDevil told the group, who were gathered just to the North of the village. "Now they won't get off my case about it, they keep saying that those guys engage in ritual sacrifice to devils and that I should never talk about them. As you can see, some of them are following me around to make sure we don't go East. I guess we'll have to leave Westwards, then see if we can find our way to the East later."
There was a small commotion from four villagers gathered at the village's edge, watching the party closely to make sure that they weren't going East.
"Didn't realise that this village was the PMRC," Crucis said.
"Sounds like they have bad blood with the guys out East," Starfighter said. "But if the cult puts some sort of religious value on the panther remains, it could be a good place to sell or exchange some of our loot."
"Yes, so we'll try and make our way there later. But for now let's head West to avoid scrutiny, there might be some NPCs North-West of here. We can also look at the white mansion, hopefully without incident. Modrea, take Vladimir and Konstantin, and stay in the village — as long as some members of our party remain safe we can come back after respawn, if necessary."
DicingDevil walked back to the village to thank the villagers, then led the party on a path West of the village. They walked slowly and deliberately, to allay fears that they might try to make a break Eastwards. As the villagers relaxed, the party quickened their pace, and found that the path veered past the large, white mansion where two of the party's scouts had died.
Having just glimpsed it earlier, the party were surprised to see how large the mansion was. Its walls stretched out to the North and West, divided into three large, rectangular hubs which were linked by tunnel-like hallways. It occupied about as much space as a modest football field, and part of it seemed to have crumbled away into ruins towards the North. In this relatively unsettled area, which mostly contained animals and occasional villages, a mansion of this size was atypical.
A large tracery was carved elegantly into the shape of rose petals on the left side of the building, between both floors of the building. Crucis guessed that this was the location of a stairway.
"Whoever built this must have been wealthy, there might still be some expensive rare items in there," Akshel said. "We should look."
"Yes, definitely. Not many players have been here yet, so we might get some early rewards. But we should look out for whatever killed the scouts," Starfighter replied with a nod.
"Yes, let's not just rush in," DicingDevil said.
Scanning the doorway, he saw that there were light scratch-marks across the walls where furniture had been dragged, and a few hooks still hanging from the walls where thieves had taken paintings from the abandoned mansion. However, there were no signs of movement from inside, and the ground floor was quiet.
He turned back and addressed the group. "Our scouts earlier were killed, so there might be something threatening in there. We can use our prisoner as a shield, place him in front and let him enter rooms first to check for dangers. He can bait out anything dangerous, before it attacks us."
Akshel and Starfighter stood over the prisoner, Franciscus, and placed a thick rope around his neck as a leash. He was slumped against the ground, tied up carefully after having been dragged across the ground on the way here. They carefully loosened the ropes around his legs, allowing him to walk but only in stiff, short steps. Yanking the rope, they had him stand up straight as Akshel pointed a sword aggressively at the back of his neck. Feeling the prod of Akshel's sword, Franciscus hobbled forwards towards the entrance of the mansion. Although his face was muzzled, he was clearly scowling.
DicingDevil cautiously approached the open doorway, where the door had seemingly been stolen, but there were no signs of movement from the ground floor. As Franciscus walked into the entrance hallway and was shoved by Akshel into a larger room to the right, there was no response from anything in the mansion. The entryway, at least, seemed to be safe.
As the party entered, Crucis noticed some shattered fragments of wood around the right corner next to the doorway. Kneeling down, he found that some fragments had carefully-carved edges which lined up. Some of them seemed to form a long, rod-like shape when lined up, and a few others were clearly part of a spherical construction.
"Looks like someone broke a sitar over here," he told Starfighter, who had also come to investigate.
"There's some deep scratches in the wall above it. You reckon they confused it for a guitar, smashed up the sitar against the wall?" Starfighter replied.
"Possible. You never know when people will be possessed by the spirit of rock 'n' roll."
Standing up, Crucis joined the rest of the group in a large living room to the right of the entrance hallway. Though spacious, it had been almost stripped bare of furniture by thieves, and by now was mostly empty. What furniture remained was a set of heavily-damaged drawers and bookcases, reduced to a skeletal husk by thieves hastily plundering most valuable or useful material. The walls still had hooks and rusted nails where paintings had been hung. On the left side of the room, the walls had caved in and a thick, chalky wall of rubble blocked the way.
In spite of the building's decrepit condition, it was clear that it had once been a decorous mansion. Though this living room was now stripped bare, its spacious design and the ornate, wooden spirals hung like dragons across the roof bore witness to its history.
After searching the living room thoroughly, the party didn't find any items left behind. However, Akshel noticed a locked door hidden behind one large bookcase, with a keyhole. There were no signs of a key to open it with.
"Nothing here, but I'm not surprised," DicingDevil said. "Still, there's a keyhole here, in a game like this that means there's probably a key somewhere. But we can't explore any further on this floor, because of the rubble. How do we get to the next floor?"
"There might be a stairway on the left side," Crucis said.
"That would work. Let's check."
Returning to the entrance hallway, they found the entrance to a small room on the left side. The door blended seamlessly into the wall, but Starfighter found it by pressing his hand carefully across the wall until it creaked open. This small room contained a wooden staircase leading upwards.
There were faint traces of marble across the staircase, but most had seemingly been chipped off and stolen. As the group climbed the staircase one by one, it creaked but remained firm. Faint light filtered in through the rose-shaped tracings on the wall, but since it was dark Crucis climbed carefully and tried to find firm footholds in the age-worn stairs.
Above that staircase, there was a small, black spiral staircase leading to the second floor. This one seemed more firm, and the group made their way up quickly.
They emerged into a large hallway on the second floor, with rooms on either side. Crucis noticed that a few pieces of furniture were still intact, including a large, ornate desk in a small room to the left. He guessed that it was probably a study.
"Not much was stolen here, but the thieves might have been avoiding it for a reason," Crucis observed. "We should be careful."
"Yes, that's true," DicingDevil said. "Let's check the rooms one by one. Let the prisoner go in first."
Starfighter pushed Franciscus into the small study to the left, while Akshel prodded the prisoner onwards with a blade to the back of the neck. As Franciscus stumbled around the room, there was no sign of any danger.
The rest of the group walked in cautiously. There was still not much left in the room, but at the back of one desk drawer Akshel found a crumpled piece of paper. It contained a few words of writing:
|"The greatness of the Esyu family will live on. In these times of war, we have found an oasis of peace in this richly-adorned mansion. Yet our son has impressed with his conduct in the wars. War or peace? We do not have to choose, greatness is thrust upon us from all directions. We are the very model of the modern aristocrat..."|
The rest of the page was torn off, and could not be found.
As Akshel looked carefully through the desk drawers, Crucis collected the remains of a marble windowframe, and DicingDevil joined in. The glass window itself was heavily cracked, but the windowframe still contained some valuable materials, and Crucis made sure to collect them. Grisier also managed to find a few small gems strewn behind a small bookcase on the right side of the room.
"This floor looks more promising. Let's try to cover it quickly. Crucis and Akshel, stay in here and try to find anything else in the room. Especially any keys or information. I'll check the smaller rooms further down the hallway, then we can meet up again to explore the larger ones," DicingDevil said.
Starfighter drew his sword, and roughly used it to herd Franciscus out of the room. The rest of the group followed.
Scavenging behind the desk, Crucis found a few small scraps of paper. Most of them were not in English, or didn't say anything important, but one stood out for being connected to the other piece of paper which Akshel had found earlier. The pen-marks on the piece of paper were heavily smudged, but with some effort Akshel and Crucis deciphered some of it: 'Our son, Graceus*, has returned covered in glory from the war. A worthy heir...' The scrap of paper had seemingly been drenched in tears earlier, which smudged the ink and made it impossible to figure out how the sentence continued.
Some of the drawers in a corner of the room had gold lining across the inner edges, and Crucis and Akshel carefully gathered this gold until DicingDevil called them to meet in the hallway.
"We checked the other two small rooms, but didn't find much. There was a note saying that someone named Graceus was hoarding great wealth, but the family needed it to pay their debts," DicingDevil said. "His room is the large one on the right, we should probably begin with that."
"We found some information about a 'Graceus,' apparently it was the son who went off to war," Crucis said.
"I see. If he's known for combat, do you reckon this could be dangerous?"
"That's quite possible."
"Alright. Grisier and Danemy are currently investigating the mostly-empty library further down the hall, apparently it has a small fountain where Grisier can collect water for spells if needed. I'd like to wait for them, but it's nearing evening and there's still a few other things to do in the hunting area. We'll look at Graceus' room, but if any enemy turns up then stall and wait for the rest of our party to show up."
Akshel drew his sword and pushed Franciscus into the room. By now, Franciscus' face was soaked with tears. After a few seconds, there were no signs of danger, so DicingDevil entered followed by the rest of the group.
To the left of the room was a large, skeletal bedframe. Strands of violet fabric hung around the walls of the room, mostly torn off by now. Curtains of this fabric had seemingly been hung across the white walls of this room a long time ago, marking it as quite an extravagant room. There were a few small badges and emblems still sitting in the drawers at the back of the room, seemingly awarded as a result of the war. The players scooped these up, guessing that they might still fetch a decent price in gold.
As the players spread out to search the room, they were surprised by a loud, high-pitched sound from just behind the room. Although the back wall was thick with shadow, after looking carefully DicingDevil found a door to a smaller room hidden in the right corner of this room.
He cautiously led the group through, making sure to shove Franciscus in first. However, Franciscus seemed to shiver and slow down as he entered the room.
On the ground of this small, empty room was a corpse. It looked like a middle-aged man, with patches of blond hair, and small text above it indicated that he had been at level 64 when he died. Most of his chest and legs had rotted away, but his face still wore a firm, determined expression with jutting-out eyebrows and a small mouth. From a small medallion placed just above the corpse's waist, Crucis guessed that this was the remains of Graceus Esyu.
Apart from this corpse, the room had a few cupboards and drawers across the left side, with flashes of gold and gemstone decorating it. It was quiet for a moment, as the group cautiously observed the corpse.
However, soon there was a loud fluttering noise from behind a small, locked door on the right side of this room, like the sound of a curtain being tossed against a wall by the wind. This was followed by the soft sound of footsteps approaching.