After leaving the Lupescus and when they are away from any houses Toshio says, “Let’s walk back into the manor normally. When we find the mayor, we’ll draw weapons and attack quickly, but let’s try not to give him any extra time to prepare himself.”
The walk to the mayor’s is also without incident. When they get there the manor is dark, and it seems that no one is inside, or perhaps they are waiting in the darkness to ambush any who might come inside.
Jethrik volunteers. “I can sneak up on the house. Maybe I’ll be able if anyone is inside ready to attack. I doubt if I can get in without giving myself away though.”
Keng looks at the gnome and says, “No one should go anywhere alone tonight. The fun is just starting.” He continues to Jharad, “I wonder if that creature you saw observing us is the mayor? Perhaps he’s a ‘shifter’ too?” He tilts his head, “And that area over there,” he points, “where Jethrik and I got stalked… I bet that’s their secret evil lair!” Keng is quite proud of piecing this all together and gives a great feral grin sowing all his teeth and fangs.
Jharad chuckles, “I think Keng has figured it out. What do you think Toshio, where to?”
Toshio replies, “Remember that shifter in the swamp? It’s hard enough to know whom you’re dealing with. Shifters just make it that much harder to trust anyone. I think we should check the manor first. If there’s nothing there, we can head back into the village. There’s sure to be someone else going to the sacrifice.”
A low rumble utters from Keng’s body, those close to him can viscerally feel it. He wants to rip off Toshio’s head for dismissing his idea so easily, his eyes begin to turn a light pink, but he manages to hang on to the thin edge of control and takes a breath. He spits out, “Check the manor for the obvious? Didn’t you bunch already look through it while Jethrik and I stumbled on the evil lair? Back to the village where we just came from? What new occurrences would you find there? In case you hadn’t noticed, we are being stalked from the fringes by the gods know what monsters and that field over there is protected by a large span of webbing. Pretty Boy, do you need a sign to lead you to the trouble or do you simply seek fresh maidens to waste your deluded efforts on?!”
“This is Desna’s issue, not mine. Ask her priestess where we should go next,” replies Toshio in exasperation.
“Keng,” says Zeyala. “When we left the manor, only moments ago, the mayor was still inside. Now, if you tell us that you saw him make his escape, we can depart now. If not, then logic and tactics tell us to start here. Shalelu, do you see any fresh tracks besides ours leading away from the manor?” asks Zeyala.
Shalelu considers. “The mayor’s been walking all over town today and so have many others. All the tracks are too fresh to tell who is going where and when. As Zeyala says, the mayor was in the manor with us when you, Keng, and Jethrik were trying to cross that field. So the mayor couldn’t be the stalker, or at least not the one stalking you that first time. However, his brother Leonard was not in the manor, so it’s possible that he was the stalker that time or even the second time when we confronted the Lupescus at the bridge. And of course the mayor could have left the manor after us and stalked us. It seems to me that Keng is right – we should check out that field or whatever house or cottage is in front of it. However, since we are here, we could go in and search the mayor’s room and his brother’s room. We might find more… uh… evidence to confiscate.” He smiles at Toshio and Zeyala. “And perhaps there is something in there that might reveal more about what we are dealing with.”
Keng, quite agitated, cries out, “By Gorum’s Balls! We argue endlessly how many gnomes can dance in the garden!” He strides up the manor house’s door and kicks it in. “Knock, knock your lordship,” he yells, “Keng is here to collect.”
“I guess that settles it,” says Zeyala. “Keng, let’s throw open some shutters so the others can see. Jethrik, can you cast light for Toshio? I imagine we should take a look through the mayor’s room and probably his brother’s… unless anyone has other notions,” her tone raising slightly as if to imply a question.
Jharad, humored by the situation, smiles and walks in after Keng. He opens the shutters and lets the light of the full moon stream into the living room.
Jharad says to everyone from the living room, “Okay nobody here. Keng please stop and come over here now.” It is not quite a command, but yet is more serious of tone than Keng has heard from his friend.
When Keng comes over, in as best a commanding voice that Jharad can muster he says, “It looks like Toshio is deferring leadership to Zeyala who is integral to our group but frankly blind and thus a bad choice. So this is what we are going to do. Everyone ready up, we are entering the webbed field Keng and Jethrik ran through. First we will investigate the house there and then the fields themselves. I want a loose formation of Keng and Toshio up front, myself and Shalelu behind and fanned out a bit providing ranged support. Then I want Zeyala and Jethrik in tight between the four of us providing support. Jethrik, you will be the eyes to our rear. Everyone understand the plan?”
Keng nods his head, but then lightly elbows the elf and says, “Could I break down the door to the mayor’s room first? Maybe he has something good we can steal in there?”
“In here, I am quite fine,” says Zeyala. “I can make my way around as well as Keng. But yes, once we’re back outside, I expect I’ll be following someone. As for leadership, I happily defer. It’s just that once Keng starts busting down doors, it was best just to mold a plan that goes along with that.”
She turns to Keng and says, “However, I’d appreciate just a bit of warning before you smash in the next door. I’d like the opportunity to move back, lest a fireball explodes or an arrow comes flying out. Thank in advance, I’m sure.” She ends with a slight, curtsey.
“Yes,” agrees Toshio finally. “But first let’s find a lantern or torch. Not all of us see well in the dark.”
“I wish I had some trick for opening that door, but I am at a loss.” Jethrik frowns. He then takes out a copper piece and shines it until it begins to glow with light. He flicks it to Toshio.
Jharad goes with Keng to deal with the mayor’s door, detecting magic in the room as Keng kicks it down.
“Nobody is home,” says Toshio. Look where you will, but let’s go find the cultists quickly.” Toshio steps into the living room and looks around, listening for anything that might indicate a gathering.
Shalelu searches Leonard’s room but finds nothing much of interest but a single bunk bed, dresser, and a chair. The top bunk is made but does not seem to have been used for a while. The quilt on the bottom bunk has a pungent odor that Shalelu can’t place, beneath which are silk sheets stained by a dried brown fluid.
After a couple of minutes, Keng succeeds in kicking down the door to the mayor’s room. Inside is a large bed, dresser, wardrobe, and washbasin. An elaborately embroidered quilt on the bed depicts Iola’s sojourn through the swamp and the introduction of druidic advisors to the village. The quilt shows the three of them teaching the villagers to cultivate flayleaf and offering the fruits of their labors to a symbolic butterfly. Jharad and Keng find nothing else of interest in there however.
Something occurs to Toshio and he says, “When Shel doesn’t show up to be sacrificed they’ll come to get her. We should return to their home to catch them when they arrive.” He calls to the others, “Are you ready to go yet?”
When Jharad walks outside he responds to Toshio, “Again, we should confront this head on and that appears to be in the fields. Unless you are taking command again then we will form up as I said and go there.”
“Hey, can we burn this place down before we leave?” asks Keng. “Might help to draw the evil ones out. Might be better to fight them in the open rather than in that infernal web infested moldy corn field.”
“Please Keng. No fires,” returns Zeyala.
“Are we going to have this issue in every village we pass?” asks Toshio with evident exasperation. “To the field of webs, then. For once I agree with Keng – we don’t have time to debate this to conclusion.”
And truly they do not, for even as Toshio is speaking the keen ears of the elves and Jethrik, the gnome, hear the sounds of people creeping up on them from both sides of the manor. The cultists, dressed like Saul and Anya were before in dirty robes and mosquito masks and bearing sickles, bear down on them in two groups of four.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Shalelu lets fly three arrows that take down two of the cultists running at them from their right.
Jharad, whose sword was already in hand, charges the remaining two on their right and cuts one so severely that he falls against the wall of the manor and drops his sickle. Not dead, but out of the fight.
The last cultist confronting Jharad takes a swing at him with his sickle, but doesn’t even come close to hitting him. It is obvious that these cultists are no warriors.
The four cultists on the left try to rush at them, but Jethrik casts his grease spell and three of them slip and fall before they are even able to get two steps. The fourth cultists bends to help one of his comrades get up.
With her pale eyes shining in the moonlight, Zeyala shouts, “Our foes will tremble when they stand before Pharasma!” Upon saying this, her comrades are all filled with even greater confidence that they will prevail against the mayor and the cult of Ghlaunder.
Keng hurls himself at the cultists to the left and cleaves the closest almost in half with his axe before he is able to get back to his feet.
Toshio is right behind Keng but not yet close enough to slash at any with Whispering Shrike.
Shalelu puts away her bow and draws her masterwork shortsword. “I will waste no more arrows on these vermin,” she exclaims.
Jharad swings again and takes down the last of the four cultists to the right, leaving him to writhe on the ground in pain as he bleeds out.
Jethrik draws his rapier and joins Keng and Toshio.
Of the last three cultists to the left, the one pulls the other out of the slippery area and they both run to the south, followed closely by the last who crawls out of the slippery area, jumps to his feet and runs after them.
“After them!” yells Toshio. “They’ll lead us to the mayor.”
“Shouldn’t we form up or something?” asks Keng. “You don’t want to go in there without a plan!”
“Let’s just find out where it is, first! C’mon!” says Toshio, starting after the fleeing cultists.
Jharad immediately begins running after the cultists, taking up the rear. He sheathes his sword in preference for his bow and nocks one of the fake-silvered arrows.
Keng grabs Tohsio’s arm and cries, “Toshio, are you mad?” He drags them to a screeching halt in a cloud of dust. “Don’t be a fool to rush in there. The gnome and I were there and its a trap. As unusual as it sounds coming from me, let’s take a moment and consider our choices.”
Jethrik, having sheathed his rapier and drawn his bow, catches up to them and speaks up, “Keng’s right. There’s something big in there. Let’s get a plan together and let the ranger find the cultists later.”
“Tell us what you saw,” says Toshio. “Are you certain that is where they’ll be? Because if not, our chance is running away right now!”
Shalelu reaches them also and says, “Jethrik’s right. These fresh tracks will be easy to follow, esp. through those weeds and stalks that they’ve just trampled. I think… There it is again! No, it’s gone now.” She points southeast of their position. “The watcher is out there, I saw its eyes and then it turned away and disappeared again among the weeds.”
“Why can’t we burn the field first? Let the rats flee right into my axe,” Keng is oddly fearful of re-entering the field.
Jharad says to Toshio, but addressing everyone, “I say we move together and in the formation I suggested earlier. Toshio, are you calling this or am I?”
Toshio responds, “Jharad, now is not the time for your march for power! Anyone else want to nominate themselves as leader? No? Okay then. Jharad, your formation was a good idea, and we’ll use it. Now Jharad, shut up and let Keng and Jethrik tell us what they’ve seen.”
Keng looks awkwardly between Jharad and Toshio. He grimaces and answers Toshio but looks at Jharad, “Impenetrable webbing all around – sticky and tough. No way through it. With a creature stalking us. We barely managed to escape back to the road. We go in there we ain’t coming out. We should light a fire and burn the bastards out. Make them come to us!”
With a gesture and a smile. Jharad indicates to Keng that he should address Toshio.
Shalelu points out that it is too damp to easily start a fire.
“Begging your pardon milady,” Keng says trying his best to be polite, “Couldn’t you do that bird thing and fly above to scout a way in this evil maze?” Keng looks as embarrassed as a child addressing Shalelu who he considers far above his own rank.
“Oh don’t milady me,” says Shalelu with a smile. “I wish I could turn myself into a bird, but that was a spell cast upon me by Eilif.”
Keng shrugs his shoulders, “That’s all I’ve got then.”
Toshio notes, “Well, if that’s where the villagers are going, they are getting in somehow without getting stuck in a web. Let’s catch some or at least track some and find out how they’re doing it. Other ideas?”
Jethrik shifts nervously, “I’ve never heard of a fly charging a web, but I’ll go along with whatever you guys want.”
Heading in the direction the fleeing cultists took, Toshio uses the lighted coin given him by Jethrik, not counting on stealth at all. He looks for any sign of the cultists, especially for something that might give them a clue about how to get through the webs. “If we don’t find a good way through the webs, maybe we should wait. It occurs to me that nighttime may not be the best time to confront a twisted moth/stirge demigod or its servants. Their power may be greater than in daylight.”
Keng nods his head vigorously. But scowls with his axe in the low ready position so as to slice the first thing he meets in twain. He mumbles, “Come get some.”
Toshio keeps Whispering Shrike drawn and ready. He’s nearly as twitchy as Keng and ready to cut first and then decide if questions are appropriate.
Jharad has an arrow nocked and bow raised although his demeanor is quite calm. He looks over at Shalelu and gives her a wink in response to the obvious nervousness of the boys in front of them then returns his gaze the scene in front of them.