8. Death Is Close

Another episode of Man Raised by Spiders, the coming-of-age story of Valentine Claudius Shelawn.

As they approach the farmhouse, Hector, the ranger, takes the lead. He’s pessimistic about finding open tracks. The lane is filthy and churned-up, and has been washed by repeated rains. The last predawn miles are particularly shitty; the group is confined to a trot, and uncomfortably aware of the possibility of ambush. Valentine knows the Drow won’t attack this close to daybreak, but he still subconsciously expects to be nailed with a crossbow bolt at any moment.

They reach the farmhouse at dawn, and Valentine dismounts gratefully. He’s not saddle-sore — yet — but he feels nauseated and lightheaded from the roan’s stiff trot. They’re able to leave the horses with a groom. As they walk over to the farmhouse, Valentine hears him swearing viciously at the roan: “Don’t nip me, cocksucker!”

Valentine turns to Hector with a pious air and whispers, “He never does that with me.”

“It’s because he feels sorry for you.”

Valentine nods. “He’s a compassionate animal once you get to know him.”

They gather around the kitchen table while someone fetches the magistrate. There’s coffee, toast and jam; Valentine drinks the coffee, but leaves the toast to cool on his plate — he can’t force himself to chew through his exhaustion and nausea.

The magistrate comes across as methodical, phlegmatic. He unrolls a diagram of the massacre site. “Welcome, gentlemen. I’ll tell you what I found. You can ask me questions, and let me know how you plan to proceed, what support you’ll need from us. Some of this will be familiar — I figure it doesn’t hurt to review the facts again. You won’t find any remains there. In this weather, and given the risk of poison, we had to get the bodies in the ground. The site is otherwise undisturbed.

“As far as we can tell, the travelers – 11 merchants and four hired guards — were preparing to take shelter at the old Lavyryx farm two miles from here. The main house has two stories with an attic and cellar, and there are five outbuildings: a barn, milking shed, tannery, forge and privy. The last three are basically lean-tos. The main house and barn are largely intact; the floor of the milking shed has partially collapsed. The travelers had stabled their mounts and draft horses in the barn, and were moving perishable supplies to the main house. The incident occurred just after sundown; a storm was moving in, and rain was starting to fall. Light was poor, and lightning was visible in the distance.

“I won’t speculate about how the fight went — you gentlemen would know better than I. However, I can tell you that the guards were killed with multiple crossbow bolts, while the merchants died from piercing and slashing wounds — rapier, short sword, possibly daggers. Most of the victims were concentrated in the farmhouse parlor, as you can see. They had arranged bedding, and were trying to get the chimney working and light a fire. Three were caught in the kitchen and pantry. In all cases, multiple wounds were inflicted, and the victims’ throats were slashed post mortem. As you may have heard, there’s evidence that poisoned weapons were used — all of the guards and three of the merchants showed a bluish discoloration of the skin and mucous membranes. The horses were released and stampeded. The attackers left the party’s merchandise and supplies untouched. I couldn’t find any sign of where the attackers went, but the rain was heavy by the time I arrived, and I’m no ranger.

“The attackers didn’t leave much behind. They took any crossbow bolts they could collect easily, and left no other weapons or ammunition. The attackers did use a crossbow bolt to pin above the fireplace mantle.” The magistrate places a piece of paper the size of an outstretched hand on the table: it’s a pen-and-ink sketch of a beholder. Valentine picks it up, examines it. The paper is a curiously heavy weave of Drow manufacture — probably made from rags and woody mushroom pulp. The image is stylized and spare, but unmistakable: a toothy, sharklike grin, a single, unblinking eye, a halo of oddly graceful tentacles, each tipped with an eyeball. Beneath it, there’s an inscription in Drow.

“Can you read it?” Brutus asks.

“Yeah. It says, ‘We see you.’ It’s a calling card. It’s not from any clan I know. Do you mind if I hold onto this until we get back to Liamelia? I need to think about it.”

Brutus shrugs, and Valentine pockets the sketch.

There are few questions — the party is eager to search the site for themselves. They avoid the lanes, and make good time traveling across fields and wooded commons. When they arrive, the farmhouse is bathed in sunlight, and a few militia members are keeping a casual watch, playing cards on a boulder in the farmhouse yard. They really are farmers with pitchforks. They have utility knives on their belts, and they’re armed, if you can call it that, with quarterstaves. Once he’s checked in with the farmers, Brutus gives instructions: “Hector, you start looking for tracks. I want the rest of the guys to stay away from the periphery so that they don’t disturb anything. Itys, Tarquin, you search the outbuildings: the barn, milking shed, tannery, forge and privy. See if anything was overlooked. Valentine, I want you with me. I’m going to check out the farmhouse.”

Brutus consults the magistrate’s drawing. They begin by inspecting the spots where the guards fell. Surprisingly little evidence remains after the rain; the scene appears serene and cheerful.

They enter the farmhouse next, skirting the parlor and kitchen, and heading directly for the stairs. The attic is stiflingly hot and humid, and empty except for a few odds and ends: fabric remnants serving as rodents’ nests, a stack of crumbling ledgers, a cane chair that needs mending. The dust is heavy; nothing has been disturbed here for years. The second floor is largely undisturbed, as well: cramped bedrooms long stripped of furniture and hangings, depressingly tiny servants’ quarters.

They descend to the main floor, turning back towards the kitchen and pantry. Brutus says, “There were three victims back here in the kitchen. They were either stowing supplies or looking for something — a tinderbox or lantern or whatever. One was stabbed from behind and fell in the pantry doorway. The other two were at the kitchen table. The Drow slashed their throats, left them where they fell. Probably went to join the party in the parlor.” The space is confined, and the walls are spattered with blood. The floor must have been soaked in it — it’s dried to a dull maroon, but still feels tacky under their boots. The smell is thick, but tolerable. There are just enough flies to remind them both why the magistrate decided to get the bodies in the ground.

The door leading to the farmyard was broken down during the attack, or had already fallen off its hinges. It’s lying at the bottom of a shallow set of steps. It would be painfully easy for three or four attackers to flatten themselves against the outside wall, then whip through the door and overwhelm their unarmed victims.

“Seen enough?” asks Brutus.

“Yeah.”

“Let’s enter the parlor from the farmyard,” says Brutus. “It’s how both the victims and the attackers came in.”

As they pass through a cheerful, overgrown herb garden, Valentine smells basil, wild strawberries. They enter the parlor through the front doorway. The fireplace is against the back wall — perhaps it shares a chimney with the kitchen stove? Valentine doesn’t understand these domestic details. The windows were broken out long ago, but the wallpaper, wainscoting and floorboards are all intact. The room is small, less than 200 square feet.

Bedrolls are arranged around the fireplace. A fire has been laid on the hearth, but not lit. The walls and hearth are drenched with blood. There are splatter marks on the whitewashed ceiling. The bedding is rucked up, as if from a struggle; it, too, is thoroughly drenched, stiff with blood. The flies are more active here, and louder.

“So, eight adults — six merchants, two of their wives traveling with them, probably preparing to bed down for the night. Merchandise stacked neatly on the left wall, away from the fireplace.”

“It must have been crowded.” Valentine asks, “How many attackers, do you think?”

“I know how many I would need. How would the Drow do it?”

“They’d post two guards each at the front and back, keep troops in reserve beyond the tree line. They’d send the minimum number in — no point in adding bodies if there’s no space to swing weapons. Say, three in back, five here. Three to do the work, one each to block the door and stairs. You’d work fast, start with anyone young and strong who might give you trouble. The elderly and children last. Once everyone is dead or unconscious, slash their throats to be sure. Were their any children?”

“No. One of the women was pregnant, just beginning to show.”

Valentine approaches the hearth, picking his way through the crusted bedding. He pulls out the calling card. The area above the mantle is split and peeling, but he can see a fresh gouge mark where the crossbow bolt may have been. He holds up the calling card, smooths it flat. “‘We see you.’”

“Creepy bastards.”

“Well, they don’t see us now. It’s daylight.”

They leave the parlor, sit down on the farmhouse steps. The farmers are still playing cards nearby. Valentine asks, “Do you mind if I leave something?”

“What do you have in mind?”

Valentine takes a pen and fresh sheet of paper from the map case. He manages to sketch out the image he wants: two crossed rapiers, basket hilts down. Behind them, the Ace of Spades. Underneath, a motto in Drow. He shows it to Brutus.

“What is it?”

“A calling card from Xyrec. The clan insignia and motto, with the Ace of Spades for a raiding party.”

“What does it say?”

“It doesn’t translate well. In Xyrec, you’re taught to close aggressively in combat, to use melee weapons and fight hand-to-hand. The motto is something like, ‘Death is Close.’”

“Why leave it?

“I’m not sure. Instinct. I don’t know the clan that did this. They came out of Physryk, which means they had safe passage from Zyrec. Drow alliances are fragile. This might give them something to think about when they’re planning their retreat.” He looks up at Brutus and laughs. “And there’s enough Drow in me that I see that murder scene and calling card, and I think, ‘You see me? Fuck you. I’ll look you in the eye and shank you. Death is close.’”

Brutus shakes his head. “You know the enemy. If you want to put it there, I won’t stop you.”

He doesn’t want to use a longbow arrow or his cloak pin to stick it above the mantle, so in the end Valentine sacrifices one of his Drow throwing daggers. When he comes out, Brutus says, “Let’s check the cellar for completeness. The entrance is through the pantry floor.”

They stand at the top of the stairs for a moment, wait for darkvision to kick in, then descend the steep pitch into a cool gloom. The cellar is tiny. The floor has partially caved in near the far wall towards the front of the house. There’s a row of empty bins to store vegetables, empty shelves for canned good storage. Brutus glances around, turns to head back up the stairs.

“Hang on a moment,” says Valentine. “Do you smell that?”

“What? It smells like dirt down here.”

There’s a draft coming from the caved-in area. Valentine crouches down, closes his eyes, inhales deeply. “That’s a cave vent. Caves respire — they breathe in and out. There are living caves beneath us.” His eyes snap open. “Brutus, how do we know the Drow left?”

“Because they’re not here.”

“But there’s no evidence that they left. No tracks leaving the area, no further sightings. They were gone instantly, before the source came here to investigate the noise. If 15-20 bloodstained warriors were loose in the countryside, people would notice. There’s a huge amount of limestone in the area. It’s wine-growing country, we’re in the foothills of a limestone mountain range. Are there known caves around here? Passages between homesteads, caves used to store smuggled goods, anything? Were there any concealed passageways or cellars here?”

“There haven’t been import and export duties here for decades — there’s no real smuggling trade. The locals would certainly notice if there was a Drow egress point here. What are you thinking?”

Valentine shakes his head. “I’m not sure. Cave entrances open up all the time. Usually they’re not big enough for humanoids to get in and out — you’d just see bats, wild cats, other critters. Really, it’s just that the smell reminded me: why travel aboveground, in the sunlight, if you can stay underground? For that matter, why attack an unarmed caravan?”

“Because the Drow are crazy.”

“No, they’re vicious when cornered. What if the caravan was blocking their retreat?”

“God, Valentine. Let’s discuss this aboveground. It’s time to debrief anyways.”

They use the barn for the debrief. “Let’s start with Hector,” says Brutus. “Any meaningful tracks?”

“I don’t have any leads. Conditions are poor for tracking. I was unable to find any sign that a large party gathered food or firewood, or that a group of people made camp at all. I see no physical sign that 15-20 people traversed the area. None of the locals recalls seeing or hearing anything after the attack. If we want to locate them, we’ll literally have to fan out and do a push broom search of the area, or wait for further reports to come in.”

Brutus nods. “Itys?”

“Nothing unusual in any of the outbuildings. Nothing has been disturbed. Looks like all the action was in the farmhouse and farmyard.”

Brutus says, “The farmhouse was as expected. The upper floors were undisturbed, the parlor, kitchen and pantry were as described. Valentine, do you want to describe what you found in the cellar?”

“The cellar floor was partially caved in, revealing a vent to a natural limestone cave. The vent was breathing, indicating the presence of a significant network of living caves in the area.” Valentine shakes his head as if to clear it. “How long before we have to leave for Liamelia?”

“Another three hours.”

“I think we should search this place for anything leading underground — hidden cellars, secure tunnels, cave entrances. See if the locals know anything about a network of tunnels. There’s a chance that the enemy is hidden nearby, or that there’s an entrance to the Underdark that allowed them to retreat entirely. I wouldn’t feel right leaving the area without checking.”

As Valentine speaks, the others feel increasingly uncomfortable. Brutus keeps thinking of that cool, dark, earth-smelling cellar, and Valentine’s clear sensual pleasure as he inhaled: “There are living caves beneath us.”

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