For this adventure a group of younger but promising members of the Odyssians are invited out for a weekend at the country estate of Sir Henry Ainsford, one of the older members of the club. Sir Henry is noted as a hunter and explorer, but he is getting on in years and spends most of his time at his estate outside of the town of Ashburn in Kent.
Sir Henry regularly invites Odyssians out for weekend visits, but this particular weekend is special, because he believes he has made a discovery of great scientific importance on the grounds of his estate. This means that he will make sure that Odyssians of particular interests will be in his group. He will invite archaeologists, paleontologists, physicians, historians and ethnologists in particular, plus an assortment of others who are interested. He will also invite his two oldest friends in the Odyssians, Professor Milton Morrisson of the Language and Ethnology faculty at Oxford and Admiral Sir Joseph Porter (retired). All he tells anyone in advance is that he has made a discovery which may revolutionize the history and science of human origins.
Sir Henry's ancestral manse is a 16th century monstrosity, somewhere inbetween a manor house and a castle, ornate and over decorated. It is located on the edge of the range of hills known as the North Downs. The trip from London to Ashburn by train takes around two hours. When they arrive in the town Sir Henry will have several carriages waiting to take them to Ashburn House.
When they arrive they are greeted by Sir Henry, who excuses himself and seems rather agitated. They will then get a short tour of the house, conducted by the major domo, Burton. Burton shows them the gun room and the trophy room (lions and tigers and bears, oh my!), the game room, several parlors and dining rooms, and eventually he shows each of them to their bedrooms. Each of the bedrooms is decorated in a different motif, reminiscent of different parts of the world. The American Room is decorated with trophies of caribou, beaver and bears. The East African room features lions and giraffes. The Egyptian room has crocodile and rhinoceros hide chair covers and the like. The Indian room has a beautiful tiger skin rug. The Amazon room has a giant stuffed anaconda on the wall. The Orient Room has elephant tusks and panda fur rugs. There are many more along the same lines.
After they've settled in, Burton will call them down for dinner. At the meal Sir Henry seems agitated, smokes a number of cigars, and barely touches his food. When asked about his discovery he is evasive and tells everyone to wait until after dinner. Once the meal is concluded, they retire to the Smoking Room, where a large, coffin-like box, about 2 by 5 feet is waiting on a table in the middle of the room. Cigars are handed out, and Sir Henry launches into a speech to the effect that he has travelled far and seen many things, but that he has made his greatest discovery literally in his own back yard.
He goes on to tell how one of his groundskeepers, a man named James Dearing, was mowing in a grove of ash trees on a hill behind the house, when he discovered a series of depressions in the ground, all very regularly spaced. He reported them to Sir Henry because he was suspicious that they might be deadfalls set by poachers. Sir Henry investigated, had one of the holes dug up, and in the hole they found -- at this point he opens the box -- a small, manlike skeleton buried in the fetal position, surrounded by garlands of what appeared to be extremely well preserved wild flowers. The skeleton he reveals is in rather good condition, completely bare, about 4 and a half feet tall. What makes it remarkable is that while generally manlike in appearance, it has an elongated lower jaw, pronounced cranial ridges and elongated upper and lower canines, all characteristics of great apes, rather than man.
Everyone crowds around, and Professor Morrison, and possibly others, declare that it must be a hoax. Someone is clearly trying to put something over on Sir Henry, taking the jaw of an ape and the body of a deformed human child and putting them together. But on closer examination it is clear that the jaw fits perfectly with the rest of the skull, and the skull clearly fits the spine, and all the bone appears to be of the same age. Professor Morrison can't be sure, but given the style of burial and the condition of the bones he believes that they predate the early Celtic settlement of the British Isles, and if it is not a hoax, he theorizes that this might be one of the 'Dark Folk', the aboriginal inhabitants of Britain who were wiped out by the Celts and survive only in legend.
As Morrison seems to have become convinced, Sir Henry becomes even more excited, and explains that there are 7 more burial shafts and that he intends to excavate them all in the next few days with the help of his fellow Odyssians. That said, he closes up the box, leads everyone out of the Smoking Room and locks the door. At this point some of the guests are probably tired and retire, and others go to the game room or to the Library for some recreation.
During the night several things will happen. One of the characters with a relatively high PSI will happen to peer out of his window late at night. Off in the distance he will see a round hill with a grove of grey ash on the top of it. The ash are swaying in the wind. Then he notices that none of the other trees in the garden or beyond seem to be swaying at all, and he gets the feeling that there's something almost conscious about the movements of the ash.
Another character will have a dream during the night. He will dream of a procession of thin, regal looking women bearing glowing spheres of light passing through his room, passing through the door as if it or they were immaterial, and moving on into the hallway.
When they awaken in the morning they notice that Professor Morrison doesn't join them for breakfast. Then Sir Joseph mentions that he was up late with Morrison drinking brandy in the library and that when he went to bed at 2am Morrison was still there reading. He suggests that Morrison might want to sleep late. Sir Henry is a bit non-plussed by this, but is ready to set out to the wilds of the backyard anyway.
Burton brings picks, rubbers and shovels after breakfast and everyone heads out to the burial site. It is a small clearing in the middle of an ash grove on top of a hill. The ashes are of a miniature variety, but healthy and well established, clearly well cared for. In the middle of the clearing is a 6 foot high, very worn menhir surrounded (after some searching) by eight depressions in the ground, spaced evenly in a circle, one of them recently filled in. The digging commences.
In each of the burial shafts they will find a skeleton similar to the one already found by Sir Henry. It is unlikely that anyone will dig in the shaft which the first skeleton was taken from, but if they do, they will find the mangled body of Professor Morrison there.
It will take most of the day to dig out the shafts. And at noon or so Burton will bring out tables and campaign chairs for a leisurely lunch at graveside.
Professor Morrison never joins them, and as they prepare to head back to the house, Sir Henry tells Burton to make sure the Professor is feeling well and have him meet them in the Smoking Room.
When the grisly trophies are gathered in the Smoking Room, Burton arrives with the announcement that Professor Morrison is missing, and not only that, but it is clear that he didn't pack up and leave, because his clothes are still there and his bed has not been slept in.
The last place the Professor was seen was in the Library, and a close inspection of the Library will reveal an open copy of Tacitus on the floor, some dots of blood around it, and the fact that the tiger skin rug which is normally there is missing.
The grove of ash trees is an ancient holy place. Each of the eight largest ash trees contains a powerful guardian spirit which can manifest as a young woman (as in the dream above) or can possess and animate non- living flesh (tiger skin rugs, etc). These Ash Maidens will attempt to get the skeletons back, or replace them with new sacrifices, like Professor Morrison.
If they go and dig out the original burial shaft, they will find Professor Morrison's body, mauled as if by a tiger, wrapped in the tiger skin rug from the Library, and garlanded with wild flowers. It may take them a while to figure out to do this, so let them stew and be mystified.
The spirits can only be placated by returning all the skeletons and maintaining absolute silence about their existence. In fact, if they go to re-bury the skeletons they will find that there are now ten holes instead of eight, eight for the skeletons, one for Professor Morrison and one for Sir Henry. The spirits will do all they can to make sure that hole is filled.
The powers of the spirits are limited. They can only operate in darkness. They cannot travel more than a mile from the grove. Each spirit can only animate one thing per night. Passing through solid objects is relatively strenuous for them, so they do it as little as possible.
Most likely, by the second night they will either be working on or not have solved the mystery. That night as they sleep, several things may happen.
Most likely one or more of the characters will be awakened by the sound of pounding and rending as an assortment of elk and gorillas and the like attempt to break into the Smoking Room.
Someone, or maybe even two of the characters, will find that the stuffed anaconda or bearskin rug or boarskin bedspread will come to life as they are drifting off to sleep and attempt to attack them and drag them out to the grove.
The same character who saw the ash swaying the night before will look out the window at midnight and think that he sees the ash transformed to women who then move in a procession towards the house.
Someone who is relatively susceptible to such things will be visited by two of the Ash Maidens who will attempt to seduce him, take him to the grove, manipulate his mind and will, essentially enslave him, and then send him back to the house to get the skeletons and Sir Henry for them.
Most likely not. The only way to save Sir Henry would be to keep the Ash Maidens and their animated creatures away from him throughout the second night and then get him away from Ashburn House immediately in the morning, never to return. In fact, in that situation the house would have to be permanently abandonned because the Ash Maidens would keep looking for sacrifices.
Alternatively, they could burn down the grove. This would be sick, cruel and immoral, but would get rid of the Ash Maidens until saplings which escaped the burning grew to maturity in several years, at which point the problem would reemerge.
Finally, they could offer someone else in sacrifice, but finding a willing victim is unlikely, and giving an unwilling sacrifice would be inappropriate.
Regardless of how they deal with the situation they will face moral dilemmas which will not be easily resolved, because the Ash Maidens should really be preserved as an invaluable paranormal resource, and though their demands of sacrifice are justified by their lights, it will be hard for reasonable people to go along with them.