An Imperial soldier shares a rumor about the late Maggie Dead Eyes with Nureddin Wolf-Father at the The Knife and Adder. Word is that she was in Blackmarch because she was running away from trouble: she made bouncy-bouncy with some high-ranking soldier boy while on a secret mission in Bitterwood, then got into a spat and tried to blow his face off. Uncharacteristically, she failed to kill him so she lit out for the frontier until the trouble blew over. Whether that had anything to do with her attacking Elanesse…can’t rightly say.
Khash is getting good and soused with his new drinking buddies when a greyhound races up to the tavern and frantically begs Nureddin (whose unique is that he can talk to dogs) to help his master Ulysses Underhome. He’s in some sort of dire trouble with gnolls.
The party slowly and reluctantly makes their way to Underhome’s mansion in High Town, where they find a crowd of city watch and onlookers surrounding it. The house is encircled by an eight foot high thicket of unwholesome-looking spiny vegetation. Also, sickly, flickering yellow light can be seen in the windows. The guardsmen haven’t been able to get through the thicket, but surprise! It parts easily for the adventurers, who make their way in through the servant’s gate. They hear yipping and cackling from the front yard. Yep. Them’s gnolls, all right.
Nureddin tries to sneak up on them and (fumble) winds up face to face with a gnoll savage. Oops.
Unnervingly, not only are the three gnolls expecting Hochnor Half-Hand and his crew, they seem wayyyy more familiar with his background than they have a right to be. They make jokes about how he sacrificed his fingers to get information. (“Hey, Hochnor! If you give me yer thumb, I’ll tell ya where the bathroom is!”) But the gnolls have a bigger surprise, one they credit to Maksim Gold Finder: they’ve forced a spiky wooden crown onto Underhome’s head, and as the party watches, it sprouts tall wooden spider-legs and lashing thorny vines. Thurash Many-Rocks, Smasher of Elves unexpectedly joins the heroes, and the battle’s on.
The battle is long and hard fought, with Thurash repeatedly brought back from death’s door by Khash. It turns out it’s a lot easier to hit the barely-conscious Ulysses Underhome than it is to target the wooden crown or its appendages, and there’s some disagreement over whether the party should give a shit. Thurash certainly does: he grabs Khash and hisses in his ear, “You can’t let him die! Save him!” Eh?
At a critical moment in the battle the thorny thicket disintegrates, giving the watch a chance to join the battle and the crowd to get a good look at what happens next. The last surviving gnoll yells something about how Maksim Gold Finder will kill them all and runs into the house — which Elanesse (fumble) accidentally sets on fire. Nureddin yells to the guards to kill Underhome because he’s possessed. Khssh yells for them not to kill Underhome, Thurash attacks Nureddin, and a confused guard decides he should do what the ranger said and shoots Underhome with a crossbow. Critical hit! The demon-thing falls apart.
The dying Underhome asks Khash — cleric of the goddess of hearth and home — to purify his defiled house “for my son” and heir, who lives in Glitterhaegen. With his last breath he whispers, “The Howler in the Woods is coming.”
After a brief melee Thurash and Nureddin stand down, but it’s clear this conversation is far from ended. As he limps away, Thurash — who’s a spy for the Orc Lord, remember — says in a low voice to Khash, “We have to fix some things.”
Hochnor races into the house after the gnoll, and (fumble) catches fire from Elanesse’s wayward spell. He and Nureddin catch up with the creature on the second floor, where it’s blocked by Gar, a paladin of the Crusader who saw the end of the fight and came in through the back door to cut off the gnoll’s escape. The three make short work of the vile monster.
Khash sends a messenger to summon Hildegard, Archbishop of the Black March to help him purify the house from demonic influence. When she arrives, she’s deeply disturbed to learn that Underhome is dead. Elanesse uses breath of the white dragon to put out the fire, and the clerics enter the house while she loots the gnolls’ bodies of their filthy, filthy equipment.
When Elanesse picks up the wooden demon crown, she has a vivid, frightening flash of memory: she’s strapped to an altar while hooded figures perform a ritual over her. The walls and floors are painted with symbols of the Diabolist. One of the figures pushes his hood back to reveal he’s made of liks of silver chain. Elanesse recalls Kyell’s confused message from the Elf Queen to either “wear the silver chain,” or “beware the silver chain.” She now suspects the correct message was “beware.” She uses burning hands to incinerate the crown.
Entering the master bedroom, the adventurers plus Hildegard and her retinue of priests find a demonic portal to the woods. Khash realizes he can perform a ritual to close it, but (fumble) vomits ale all over the floor when he speaks up.
Gar, Nureddin and the wolf Lomo walk through the portal and find themselves in the woods a couple of miles from Foothold, and pretty close to the lumber camp of Nikolai Tree Feller. As they trek back to town, Gar tells Nureddin that he likes how the ranger handled that half-orc back there. He might have an opportunity for Nureddin to kill some orcs and make some money along the way.
Khash and the other clerics perform the ritual, Hochnor and Elanesse head back to their respective lodgings, and eventually everyone gets their first sound sleep in days.
They’ll need it. Because as they rest, that one crossbow bolt fired by a confused city watchman in the heat of battle is sending shockwaves through the Empire all the way to Axis, and the palace of the Emperor.