Battle at the Manor

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.

Battle at the South Bridge

Toshio heads out to meet Shel. Because he had planned with the others to be in a group (if somewhat separated) he goes somewhat slowly. ‘That should give the others time to return the items they were stealing and still catch up.

Jethrik chuckles to himself. “They are safe for now.” Jethrik whispers to Keng, just as Toshio comes out the front door. The paladin is completely oblivious to the presence of the small gnome crouching in the shadows under the windows.

Jethrik whispers through his cantrip, “Toshio, I doubt if Keng will follow you, but I’ll try to shadow you.”

Without speaking, Toshio gives a thumbs-up sign in the dark to indicate that he understands.

Shalelu, Jharad, and Zeyala come to the parlor to the right of the living room that they only glimpsed before. This comfortable room contains richer appointments than the rest of the home, from velvet cushions to the elaborately carved legs of the tables and chairs. A large oil painting of Iola Kriegler dominates a single wall – a plaque on the frame identifies her name and role in the village’s history. The villager’s founder is depicted with moth like wings that spread over her two druidic advisors, depicted in the foreground. No magic is discerned in this room.

Jharad hands Zeyala a wand. Whispering he says, “We found what looks to be some kind of restorative wand. I suggest you hang on to it in case it weighs into our case against the mayor. And if we find a use for it due to hostilities from this town all the better. Now,” he continues, “I suggest we go collect Jethrik and Keng and catch up with Toshio. I fear things may get interesting fast this evening and I would like it better if we were all together when it does.”

Before Zeyala can reply, they hear the mayor open the door of his room and call out, “Did I just hear someone leave? Tonight is no night for wandering about.”

“I don’t like this,” whispers Zeyala and thrusts the wand back to Jharad.

Jharad shrugs and quickly pockets the wand. “Let’s go,” he says and leads them toward the front door. When they turn the corner and see the mayor coming down the hall from his room, Jharad moves to walk past him. Looking the man in the eyes as he does so he simply says, “And yet go after our friend we must. Him and I have had a disagreement and from the sounds of things I fear for his safety. I intend us all to return to the safety of your manor quickly.”

The mayor looks quite put out by this. He looks over Jharad, Shalelu, and Zeyala as they pass him and walk out the door and simply says, “Very well,” before abruptly turning back down the hall. He calls back, “I better not find any of my wine bottles missing!”

Once outside Jharad says in a low voice, “Let’s find Keng and Jethrik first.” This proves to be fairly easy as both Shalelu and Jharad immediately see Keng watching them from behind a nearby tree. Neither elf sees Jethrik, however.

Jharad walks them over to the tree where Keng is hiding. “Jethrik?” he asks in a whisper.

Keng swats another annoying mosquito and points down the road towards the bridge, “He is following the paladin.”

Nodding, Jharad says, “Shalelu please catch up with Jethrik. The three of us will stay far back but within sight of you and the gnome. Hopefully our not so silent feet will not give Toshio away.”

Down at the southern bridge, Toshio finds Shel waiting for him in a plain dress. She still looks very lovely under the light of the full moon. “I was so hoping you would come,” she says. She embraces him and kisses him on the cheek in her apparent relief.

“Hey now… I thought I told you that’ll get me into trouble. I’m glad you are safe, especially after what you told me and after hearing some of what your fellow villagers say may be going on around here. Did you have any trouble getting out?”

Shel does not let go of Toshio, instead she holds him tight and looking him in the eyes says, “Not at all. In fact, my parents came with me.”

Toshio hears the buzzing of stirges as four of them fly up from under the bridge, followed by two people dressed in filthy once-white robes, wearing elaborate mosquito (or stirge?) masks made of twigs and gourds, and bearing sickles.

“Alert the others,” Shalelu tells Jethrik as she sends two arrows in quick succession flying at the two cultists. The first arrow wounds one of them, the second arrow drops the other cultist.

Jethrik uses his cantrip to whisper to Jaharad, “It’s an ambush, hurry we have to save Tosh!”

Jharad moves down the road while quickly investing his personal arcane energy into his bow and then shoots the already wounded cultist. Now both cultists are down and writhing on the ground.

Shel releases Toshio and throws herself down at the side of her parents screaming “Ma! Pa!” in heartrending anguish. The two cultists remove their masks so they can breathe more easily and are holding their hands to their wounds. The stirges continue to buzz around and it seem as though they are getting ready to dive on Toshio.

Keng decides to hell with stealth and emits his battle roar and begins sprinting down the road towards Toshio and the cultists.

Toshio draws Whispering Shrike, ready to strike. “Call off those stirges and surrender!” he commands, fully ready to put Shel down if she doesn’t comply. He takes a swipe at one of the stirges as they circle around him, but the creatures are small and quick and hard to hit.

All four stirges land on Toshio, gripping him with their barbed legs and stabbing him with their proboscides. Within seconds, Toshio can feel himself weakening as they four creatures begin draining him of blood.

Because of her limited sight, Zeyala follows down the path after Keng as quickly as possible.

Shalelu, standing very still, sends three arrows in rapid succession winging towards Toshio. The first misses the stirge on his chest, but it speeds so close that Toshio feels the wind of it in passing. The second and third shots both hit their targets and two stirges fall off of Toshio.

Jharad continues moving down the road, loosing an arrow at one of the stirges and so dropping a third one.

Shel looks back at Toshio’s call and then sees the rapid and fierce precision of the elvish snipers. “Skeeter! Release!” she cries out, even she huddles on the ground behind her parents, afraid that she will be targeted next. Her parents, though, have no wish to remain, even to provide cover for their daughter. They get up stagger down the bank of the stream to take cover under the bridge. Shel scrambles after them, her hands covering her head as if that could ward off the deadly barrage loosed by the elves.

Keng reaches Toshio’s side just as the paladin wedges Whispering Shrike between himself and the last stirge and cuts it in twain with an explosive gout of his own blood that spills from its bloated blood sack.

Shel and her parents are now huddling under the bridge. “Please don’t kill us!” cries out Shel in a quavering voice. “We had to do it! We had to! I was going to be next! We had to find a replacement!”

As soon as Jharad reaches the scene at the bridge, as a rote action he passes his hand in front of him to discern if any of the masks or sickles are imbued with magic. He sees that they are not but that the blades of the sickles are coated in some kind of oily substance.

Jharad pulls out a small vial labeled ‘lesser restoration‘ from his pouch and also a wand from a pocket and offers them both to Zeyala. “Will either of these help him?”

“No time to fuss,” mumbles Zeyala to herself. “Yes,” says Zeyala. “Jharad, quickly give Toshio the potion. “You’ve identified the wand?  If it’s healing, let me use it on him.”

Remembering their previous discussion regarding the wand only a few minutes ago Jharad grins and hands the wand to Zeyala with a wink to Shalelu.

As Jharad un-stoppers the vial and hands it to Toshio he responds, “Yes it is of the healing sub-class of conjuration, but I am uncertain of any specifics beyond that.”

Keng, hardly breathing hard at all, looks at Toshio and says, “Saved yer ass again.”

“True enough. I know I can count on you, eh Keng?” replies Toshio.

Keng not sure how to take Toshio’s comments, replies, “I’m here ain’t I?”

Chuckling at Keng’s comment, Jharad proceeds to pull arrows out of the dead stirges.

The potion handed to him causes Toshio to feel fully restored within moments. “Thank you! That’s much better!”

Jharad scans in a full circle around them while Toshio deals with the cultists. To the southeast he sees the briefest glimmer of reddish-gold eyes watching them from the underbrush.

“Did you see it too?” whispers Shalelu. “We are being watched. I wonder if it is one of this cult’s foul creatures, or whatever it was that crossed the Lampblack ferry before us?”

Jharad motions for Keng to come over and join his conversation with Shalelu.

Jharad whispers to Keng, “Do not look nor react but Shalelu and I have noticed there is some sort of creature watching us from the underbrush roughly 150′ to our southeast. Shalelu believes it to be one of the cult’s foul creatures or something that crossed the Lampblack ferry before us. I agree. Let us do nothing right now and let the others finish. But keep on your guard Keng.”

Keng nods and runs his thumb along the edge of his axe hungrily. “It nears killing time and I am hungry for battle. Jharad, this entire village is a portal to hell. We couldn’t sneak across the fields ’cause it was full of nasty sticky webbing traps and we were stalked by some deadly creatures. We had to make a run for it and I hate to run but I had the wee gnome ta think about. I says it all centers round the mayor’s manor and we should go there and kill him and burn it to the ground!” Keng kicks some dirt around with his boot. “Probably should kill them too,” he motions towards the cultists.

To Shel’s family Toshio commands, “Come out here now and explain yourselves!” He notes that they haven’t actually surrendered yet, so stays ready.

“Do you promise not to kill us?” Shel calls out in a quavering voice.

“Hush girl, we’re not talking to him. Expect no mercy from these outlanders!” hisses her father, Saul.

The mother, Anya, just whimpers in fear.

Toshio steps on a dying stirge to end its suffering and responds to Shel, “If you surrender to us and do not try any more foolishness, you will not be harmed.”

Shel peeks her head up from under the bridge and looks around. “I’m coming out,” she says. Her parents try to grab her to pull her back in, but she shakes them off and emerges from beneath the bridge. With tears in her eyes, Shel explains to Toshio, “I am to be sacrificed this very night for the good of the village, to secure the protection and prosperity that only the Dream Tender has given us since the time of Iola. Please, one of you must go with me to take my place.” She falls to her knees sobbing.

“Yah, I don’t think I’m going to volunteer to be killed for your whacked out delusions. Then again, I don’t see why anyone else should either,” Jethrik grumbles in his small voice. “Who was going to kill you, anyway?” he asks the girl but she remains silent.

“You should have asked for help!” Toshio says. “Not try to force someone else to take your miserable place. You all have allowed a vile, evil being to dominate you. You should be ashamed of your choices! Now, tell me where the sacrifice was to take place, and who is involved. And be quick about it so Keng here doesn’t lose his patience – and he has very little to start with!”

“No one is going to sacrifice anyone,” says Zeyala.  ”Maybe if we were in Cheliax, but we have laws against that sort of thing. Now, are there more of you that question the mayor’s motives?”

Shel backs away and stutters, “The m…m…mayor? No, why… oh!” She looks back to the bridge, where her parents are unsteadily climbing back up the bank.

Saul falls to his knees, obviously in great pain. Anya also falls beside him in the dirt. Both still have the elves’ arrows in them. “Please, no. It would be worth all our lives to tell you anything. All we do, we do for Ravenmoor. We must…” he wheezes and stops talking.

Jharad rejoins the main group saying quietly, “Toshio you should be aware that there is a creature some 150′ to our southeast in the underbrush which is watching us intently. Whatever we are going to do we should do quickly.”

Turning back to the Lupescu family, Toshio demands, “Where was the sacrifice to be done?! Tell me, now! And if anything – anything at all – attacks us again, your safety will not be our concern.” He glances into the darkness toward the creature, although he knows he won’t see it. “You’d better start cooperating, and telling us what’s going on, or this night is likely to get a lot worse for you.” Toshio gives them just a few seconds to start talking.

They all look glumly at the ground. Saul says, “We will not betray Ravenmoor to strangers. Kill us if you must. We gladly give our blood to the Dream Tender.”

Out of patience with their petty, greedy brand of evil, Toshio says flatly to them “Go home and stay there. If you come out again tonight you’re likely to be killed.”

Confident that the mayor is behind all this – at the very least he’s a valid evil target to eliminate, and thus a good place to start in cleaning up this wretched town – Toshio turns to the others and says, “C’mon, Keng. Let’s go kill the mayor.

“Alright! About time!” says Keng.

Toshio continues, “Jharad, keep an eye on whatever that thing watching us is. Shalelu, watch Shel and her family. if they try anything but walking home while you’re in bow range, please shoot them.” With that, he starts heading back to the mayor’s manor.

Jharad replies flatly, “While I fully appreciate your enthusiasm Toshio I cannot more strongly urge that we all stay together this evening. I suggest we deal with that thing over there,” he gestures ever so slightly with his head towards the southeast darkness, “then visit the Mayor. Or vice versa if you think that better, but it will be a mistake to split us.”

“Agreed – definitely best to stay together. What should we do about the watcher?”

Shalelu says, “Whatever is out there, I don’t see it or hear it anymore. I could probably track it, but do we really want to spend hours wandering through the fields hunting some unknown beast? Lets see these ‘good’ people to their home and then call on the mayor. He has much to answer for.”

Jharad replies, “I like that plan. Toshio?”

“Sounds good. Let’s go.”

Jharad realizes that he is still holding an arrow drenched in stirge blood. With a curt grin he hands it to Shalelu saying, “I think this one is yours. Nice shooting.”

“Tch, not so great. I was aiming at Toshio,” Shalelu says with a grin as she takes the arrow and shakes the blood off.

“Saul. Anya,” says Zeyala. “Please let me tend to your wounds, or at least look at them.”

Quite subdued now, and at the further urging of Shel, Saul and Anya allow Zeyala to pull the arrows and tend to their wounds so that they do not bleed to death on the way back to their home.

The walk back to the trading post is uneventful. At the Lupescu’s trading post and home, Zeyala retrieves her spear from the barn and smithy and gives Saul a silver piece. “You quoted me a couple of coppers to sharpen my spear. I’ve come to collect it. Here’s a silver piece for your trouble.”

“Thank you milady,” says the wide-eyed Saul, who cannot believe that after trying to kidnap and sacrifice one of her companions that this outlander lady has tended to their wounds and paid for his earlier services.

Shel leads her parents inside the trading post to put further salves on their wounds and bandage them. Before closing the door she says to Toshio, “I am sorry that I tricked you. I was desperate.” To Zeyala she says, “We thank you for your kindness and honesty.” To them all she says, “You are certainly the strangest and strongest visitors to Ravenmoor we have ever seen. Maybe you can stand up to the mayor, but after you leave who will protect us from the wrath of the Slumberer?” Then she shuts the door.

Shalelu shrugs, “The Slumberer must be another of their names for Ghlaunder. I believe that Koya, a true priestess of Desna, should have a long talk with all of these people when this is over. Assuming we don’t need to raze the whole village.”

Guests of the Mayor

Mayor Kriegler stops by and invites Shalelu, Toshio, Jharad, and Zeyala to accompany him to his manor. Shalelu, however, tells him that they will come up to the manor shortly as they need to accompany Henrik and Zandu back to the caravan and bring some of the leftovers from the feast back to their other companions who await there.

“As you will,” says the mayor, “but don’t be too long about it. Skender will want to shut down the ferry for the night. Just come knock on the door and I’ll show you to your rooms.”

Shalelu, and the others make it back to the camp without incident, though Skender tells them he won’t wait too long before he blocks the pulley, so any who are returning to the village to stay at the mayor’s manor had better return shortly.

At the camp, the food they have brought back is shared with any who care to partake of the fresh greens, roasted pig (probably not the mutant sponge pig that exploded after it tried to fly away), fresh baked bread, black mushrooms, flayleaf salad, fried silkworms, smoked giant tick legs, and stirge blood sausage. Shalelu and Toshio then tell the others about what occurred at the feast. As he does so, Koya uses her divinely granted power to heal Toshio of any residual weakness from the stirge attack that morning and Keng of the bruises and soreness due to the boxing bout at the festival.

As Shalelu, Toshio, Jharad, Zeyala, Keng, and Jethrik leave the camp to head back across the river they hear a blood-curdling scream from the ferry. It sounds like it might be Skender. There is then a splash, followed by some gibbering (probably also Skender). By the time they all get back to the ferry the only thing they see in the light of the full moon is the flat-bottomed ferry bobbing in the middle of the river. The pulleys are still intact, and more importantly not locked. Skender is nowhere to be seen. The only sound now is the croaking of frogs and the buzz of mosquitos and larger things, probably stirges.

Toshio rushes over to the ropes and starts pulling the ferry over to them. “Keng, help me with this!” He gives a quick scan for evil as he pulls, not expecting to find anything within range.

As he pulls the ropes, he grunts out, “Well, I was going to meet Shel, and I still need to. I doubt she’s safe, with this twisted cult working its twisted magic tonight.”

Keng moves quickly to help Toshio and together they bring the ferry over to their side. They cannot see in the dark whether or not anything awaits them in the shack on the other side of the river. Toshio, however, senses no evil nearby. Nevertheless, Shalelu nocks an arrow and bids them all cross over swiftly.

Jharad too nocks an arrow, looking all around them. He stays quiet and crosses over with the group. He takes a position at the opposite corner of the raft from Shalelu, so as to have best coverage for the group. Quietly he says to Shaleu and the rest, “I will cover us from this corner.”

Zeyala draws her dagger and positions herself in the middle of the raft. She casts guidance on Toshio.

Keng works the ropes to free up the others to defend the ferry boat as they draw near to the other side.

Toshio has Whispering Shrike ready, and stands in the front of the boat. He wishes he’d had time to light a lamp or torch. He puts Shel out of his mind until the current crisis is over, but takes a moment to hope the rest of the night goes more smoothly.

Jethrik has his bow strung and an arrow nocked, more worried about stirges than humans at the moment. ‘Maybe I can pick one off as it flies in? Who knows?’ 

To their relief, nothing greets them at the other side of the ferry. They also see that there is no blood, though something seems to have crawled up out of the river and into the shack and then run up the path on the western side of the village. Shalelu scrutinizes this and then announces quietly that is was probably Skender. “He seems to have fallen into the water, gotten back to shore, and then run off leaving the ferry operational.” She shrugs. “What now?”

Jharad takes up a position to the left and slightly behind Toshio who is in the lead. “I suggest we all follow this road over to that bridge over there then north to the Mayor’s house. Keng and Jethrik can break off from us when the road turns north and continue out into the open field a ways then parallel us to the house setting up to observe from there.” Addressing the paladin, “Toshio, you can head back to the bridge after we all get to the mayor’s. Although I no longer think it best for you to go it alone.”

“I agree, but Shel will probably not appear if anyone is with me. Perhaps you could remain nearby, but out of sight?”

Shalelu says, “I agree. Keng and Jethrik, you should keep us in sight but stay back and off the path. You, Jethrik, will probably not be noticed but I worry about you Keng. You are not an easy person to overlook. Do your best though and camp somewhere in one of the fields under cover within sight and sound of the manor. Toshio, I will be happy to accompany you to your meeting with this girl. I am, after all an elven ranger of Crying Leaf. No simple villager, or even a not so simple one, is liable to see or hear me before it is too late.”

Toshio smiles in the dark. “Good idea.” He is pleased with that plan until he remembers whom he’s speaking to. His smile fades, and he turns to look elsewhere to hid it.

Keng nods his head, looks at Jethik and says, “Let’s fall back a bit and get ready to split off,” he then drops to the back of the group. He covers his head with his cloak, affects a slight limp and stoops down in a pathetic attempt not to stand out.

As they are walking down the road Keng whispers sotto voce to the gnome, but it is still impossible that the others not to hear his gruff growling voice, “Toshio’s on another quest to save a maiden? Great Mother of my iron balls! He needs to get laid. He is acting like a pent up crusader of Lastwall who can only think with his ass.”

Jharad smiles in the dark and replies quietly, “It is people’s perceptions, Keng. Pretty boy cannot help how others view him any more than you can help people thinking you a hulking brute. I believe it is your race’s short life spans. None of you like to take the time to get to know someone before forcing your own preconceived perceptions on them. It really is not his fault all the young troubled maidens fawn over the beautiful savior knight. Of course the fact that he keeps trying to actually save them all… that is the real issue.” He then lightly hits Toshio’s back with the tip of his bow to accentuate the jest.

“Ha ha” says Toshio dryly but with fair humor. “It’s not all of them I try to save – just the ones I find out about. Besides, it’s not like I’m going to choose to do nothing – what kind of paladin would I be? When there’s any chance I can help.”

“Well,” growl Keng, “you kin start by saving those worthy of being saved without you getting your friends killed in the process!”

“I don’t recall getting anyone on our side killed yet. Who’ve we lost, Keng?”

“Actually,” says Zeyala, “I don’t think his goal tonight is to save anyone. Too bad this is all probably a set up. Toshio could have been in for a good time.”

Toshio chuckles at Zeyala’s comment and says, “Yeah. Just my luck, eh?”

“Shhh!” Jethrik scolds. “You wouldn’t get past a dwarf with all this racket. Besides, the world could use more grateful maidens. It’s good karma and good for the prostate.”

Jharad grins but keeps quiet.

Keng blushes a deep brown and nods his head. He starts to tip toe…

Zeyala says quietly, “I don’t know if it wise for any of us to remain in the house when Toshio makes his rendezvous,” says Zeyala. “I’m sure the mayor is hoping to catch all four of us off guard. What will our predicament be if there are only two?”

Jharad replies, “Agreed, too many odd things have happened tonight. Let the four of us stay together outside and keep watch over Toshio. If he gets into trouble we can come out of hiding and help. With all the rumors and children’s nightmares about what happens this night it may be best to just observe for a while.”

Shalelu says, “Again I must point out that of us all, only I and Jethrik have any capability to move unseen and unheard. I think he and I should watch Toshio and the rest of you hide further back and await our signal. I think Jethrik mentioned he had a message spell. He could use that to call the rest of you over if you are needed.”

Toshio says, “I suppose that would be a good idea. But stay well back from Shalelu and Jethrik or you’re sure to give things away.”

After parting from the others to cross over to the mayor’s manor through the fields behind the cottages to the right of the path, Keng and Jethrik find that the uncultivated fields and the surrounding area are full of wild corn, weeds, flayleaf, and even fungus. This dense undergrowth actually reaches well over their heads at times, and it is infested with mosquitos. As they press on, they get to a place where the corn is covered in pallid fungus that almost seems to shine in the moonlight and beyond that what seems to be gossamer webbing that hangs like gauzy sheets on the corn and weeds ahead. It is about this time that Jethrik’s keen gnomish ears hear the sounds of something breathing heavily and moving through the stalks behind them.

Jethrik uses his message cantrip to alert Keng. “Something is stalking us,” he whispers pointing to Keng. Keng hears the whisper in his ear, though several yards away.

Keng stops and draws the gnome close to him. He listens with all his abilities and readies his great axe. Then he carefully begins moving back towards to the road and cottages to try and find a way around the webbing.

Jethrik tugs on Keng’s arm and shakes his head. “Not toward town, not ready to give up on sneaking yet.” he whispers.

Keng nods, “Which way then?”

Then Keng hears it too. Something is indeed moving behind them. It is probably only four or five yards back in the corn. It will clearly intercept them soon unless they push ahead through the webbing, unless it merely intends to follow them. Keng and Jethrik try heading east to get around the webs before their unknown stalker makes its move, but it doesn’t seem as though there is any end to them.

Keng grows frustrated that there appears no way around the webbing. Every instinct in him cries out to avoid the webbing. He sees their plans for stealth coming unraveled. He says to the gnome, “Get on my back and hold on tight. No matter what don’t let go. We may yet live to talk about this.” He hoists Jethrik into a piggyback position, and then turns in his tracks and charges towards the stalker with axe raised in high guard. Whatever it is ahead of them turns and flees. Keng and Jethrik catch a fleeting glimpse of some silvery-gray thing disappearing into the dense underbrush.

Keng listens to the thing disappear into the corn. “C’mon Jethrik, hang tight I’m gettin’ us outta here.” Keng cuts back towards the cottages and road. Once out of the tall corn he sets Jetrik down and they sneak past the cottages to the road and then heads towards the manor. There they find a place to hide and watch under a nearby tree.

Keng whispers to Jethrik, “I fracking hate this place.”

At the manor, Mayor Kreigler greets Shalelu, Toshio, Jharad, and Zeyala at the door. There is no sign of his brother Leonard. “Welcome, guests. Please come in,” says Mayor Kreigler. He ushers them into his living room. A large fireplace dominates this cozy and inviting room, warming simple but well-made couches and chairs. A small tabletop shrine contains a large candle, strips of dried flayleaf and several heavily charred Desna effigies woven from the flayleaf strips, just like those worn by the other villagers. To the left is a closed door, to the right is the entrance to a parlor through which can be seen a couch with velvet cushions. To the right of the fireplace is a hall leading to a dining room with a large circular table and sturdy, hand-carved chairs. To the left of the fireplace is another hall. The mayor leads them all down the latter hall. Right past the living room on the left is a small sitting room with three chairs overlooked by an upper balcony. In it is a bookshelf that seems much too large for the meager selection of two-dozen books it holds. Just past this is a kitchen with another locked door on the left, an entrance on the right wall to the dining room, and immediately to the right a stairway leading up to a balcony. The manor’s double-sided fireplace also serves this large kitchen as well as the living room.

“The rooms just before and just past the sitting room, belong to my brother and I. I would ask you to please respect our privacy and leave them alone. You are welcome to enjoy the rest of the house, though I must ask you to refrain from raiding my cabinets. I trust, though, that you had enough at the feast. Now let me show you your rooms.” He leads the way up the kitchen stairs to the balcony level that overlooks the sitting room, kitchen, and dining room and opens into a wide hallway lined with six identical doors. Starting from the right as one faces the doors (and thus the front of the house) he indicates that the first, third, fifth, and sixth rooms would probably prove most comfortable as they are the four rooms with windows. He opens the door of the first to show a room that is starkly appointed with a single framed bed covered in a thin quilt. A wooden washbasin rests against the wall near a pitcher of water. There are no locks on the doors.

“Mayor, your home is so spacious,” remarks Zeyala. ”It looks quite comfortable. Thank you for your hospitality.”

“Thank you, Mayor. It’s kind of you to let us stay,” says Toshio.

“You have my thanks as well,” says Shalelu.

“Think nothing of it. I am glad you like my humble abode. Now you must excuse me. I have work to do if I am going to see if I can collect more tax money. I may have to go out a bit as well, so it is likely I will not see you again until morning. So, may you all have pleasant dreams.” He smiles – or at least his lips curl into a smile, bows slightly, and then returns downstairs to his room, shutting the door and locking it behind him.

Jharad smiles and with an audible, “Hmmm,” starts looking around the manor. He starts by going downstairs to peruse the bookshelf in the sitting room.

The few books on the shelves or either about horticulture or they are outdated almanacs. ‘The mayor and his brother don’t seem to be ‘readers,’ muses Jharad. The only other thing on the shelves is a stack of papers bound between wooden slats.

“Any good reading, Jharad?” Asks Toshio, who had followed Jharad downstairs, as he gives the books a quick look, hoping to find one worth perusing for a few minutes in front of the fire (before he has to go).

Before answering, Jharad looks over the loose-leaf papers. ”These are rubbings of ancient Thassilonian writings, an empire that ruled the region we currently know as Varisia. Thassilon fell 10,000 years ago when the Starstone struck Golarion in the disaster known as Earthfall, but its ruins can be found all over Varisia. In fact Sandpoint is built near an old Thassilonian tower known as the Old Light, which is believed to be the remnant of an ancient lighthouse. I wish I could read the runes.”

Not being able to read Thassilonian, Jharad turns his attention to the bookshelf itself, looking to see if it may be hiding anything more interesting than knowledge of horticulture, but it is in fact no more than an under stocked bookshelf with no secret compartments or triggers for hidden doors. From the distribution of dust, it does not even look as though any other books had been kept there.

Zeyala, following to stay near to Toshio and Jharad says, “I hope I don’t become a liability. I’ll try to stay close. I’d prefer not to have anyone or thing sneaking up on me.”

Toshio responds, “I’ve never yet seen you as a liability, Zeyala. You may play at being blind, but you get around just fine and prove very useful at key moments.”

“It’s true,” admits Zeyala. “I have ‘sight’, so to speak. Things appear the same to me whether there is a bright sun, or a sliver of a moon. I see, but not the way you see. And beyond a short distance, everything blurs beyond recognition.”

“Stay close to us Zeyala, together we make a formidable team. I am sure that none of us see you as anything but helpful,” responds Jharad.

“Thank you for that boost of confidence, Jharad,” says Zeyala.

Shalelu joins them from finally and whispers, “I made a quick search of the upstairs rooms, but found nothing of interest. No sign that Elias had ever been here let alone of any foul play.” She shrugs.

Outside, Jethrik and Keng have finally arrived at the mayor’s manor and they take cover by a large oak tree in the yard. Jethrik explains how the message cantrip works. “Keng, to use my spell I have to see you… well sort of. So I will keep you in sight, or close to it. And it has a fairly short range, so I won’t go far. Stay here, stay hidden.”

Keng nods. “Do I actually talk when I want to answer or just think about something?”

“You only need to whisper in reply,” says the gnome, who then moves to a place where he has a good view inside the building.

Keng begins to shout but catches himself in time and barely whispers, “Okay gnome, but be careful that house be the gateway to hell.”

Back inside Toshio decides to walk through the manor starting with the upstairs rooms to casually look it over while checking for evil continuously, and particularly through closed doors in order to ascertain the location of the brother or any other threats. Just before he ascends the stairs, Toshio does sense the strong evil that is Mayor Kriegler in his locked room just to the left of the kitchen and past the sitting room. Zeyala follows after him.

Jharad says to Shalelu, “Lets check the kitchen, dining room, and I think that is a pantry through there.”

The kitchen is furnished with a table, a cutting board, and a closed cabinet. A large pot with thick sludge of boiled vegetable matter and a single bowl and spoon on the hearth are the only items to have seen recent use; the other pans and utensils on the cutting board carry a thin coating of dust.

Curious, Jharad opens the cabinet. Unfortunately it creaks rather loudly and the mayor calls out from his room, “Don’t even think about raiding my wine cabinet!” Inside the cabinet, there are indeed six old bottles of Galdurian wine on a small rack.

Jharad laughs and calls back, “Sorry my friend, I was only looking for something to drink.” Whispering to Shalelu, he says, “Lets move on.”

Shalelu nods in agreement and reaches up to ostentatiously close the cabinet. “Let’s open the others more softly, shall we?” She whispers back.

Upstairs, Toshio, Zeyala at his side, had been trying to find any evil presence in the upper rooms. Upon hearing the creaking door of the cabinet and the exchange of words between the mayor and Jharad, Toshio and Zeyala quickly (but not too noisily) come downstairs to find them. Toshio has an all-too-good an idea of what’s going on. When he reaches them, he says in an angry whisper, “What do you think you’re doing? We’re guests, whatever else may be going on! We’re not thieves now, are we?”

Shalelu replies with a smile, “Most certainly not, good sir. Let’s make ourselves comfortable elsewhere since we’ve been given the run of the house.” She leads the way into the dining room, but only Jharad follows.

Toshio, again with Zeyala at his side, proceeds to check for evil in the sitting room and then through the locked door of the bedroom to left of the living room as one enters. He senses nothing. He goes on to check the living room and parlor.

In the dining room, besides the table and chairs, Shalelu and Jharad find another cabinet along the far wall. This one doesn’t squeak when it opens, though Shalelu makes sure to open it ever so carefully. Inside they find a complete serving set of Sandpoint glassware. Jharad also points out a secret compartment.

Shalelu nods and whispers, “Yes, I saw it too. Shall we try to open it or wait until someone more skilled at finding traps is around to help us?” She scrutinizes the shelves again. “I don’t see any traps though. Do you?”

Jharad furrows his brow then smiles widely at Shalelu as he opens it. Inside is a wand. Seeing the wand gives Jharad an idea and he proceeds to outstretch his hand and slowly spinning in place attempts to detect the presence of any other magical auras in the room. He senses none and so turns his attention back to the wand, to find that it gives off a faint aura of magic. Closer discernment reveals to him that the aura belongs to that of the healing sub-school of the conjuration domain but he is unable to figure out exactly what kind of healing spell it is. Jharad removes and pockets the wand.

Shalelu and Jharad find that the pantry is not locked and inside shelves and cubbyholes line this well stocked pantry. Jarred preservers make up the bulk of the stores, but cured stirges, baskets of dehydrated black mushrooms, and smoked giant tick shanks hang from above. Jharad again waves his fingers and casts the spell to detect magic. This time his search reveals two potions that Jharad is able to discern as being potions that will neutralizing poison, also of the healing sub-school of conjuration. By their side are four vials labeled as antitoxins.

“I think I had better take these,” says Shalelu with a smile. “Best not to put all our eggs in one basket.” She then puts them in the pockets of her traveling clothes.

Having checked the living room, and the parlor, Toshio and Zeyala see that Shalelu and Jharad are now in the pantry and that Shalelu is pocketing something they found there. Seeing they’ve picked up some items not their own he looks at them in the way a disappointed father might and says, “Put those things back. You should be ashamed of yourselves. I have to go now. Don’t let me find out that you’ve been stealing anything when I get back. And don’t think I won’t check.” He turns to go, trusting that they’ve been shamed enough to do the right thing. The evening promises to get even weirder and more lethal, and he’s so annoyed with them that it doesn’t occur to him how condescending or ridiculous he may sound as he scolds them.

After Toshio turns to leave Shalelu looks at Jharad and grins. She shrugs but does not put anything back. “Lets look over the parlor briefly and then catch up with Toshio.”

Jharad chuckles in agreement with Shalelu and follows her.

“You two are as bad as Keng,” whispers Zeyala to the two elves. “Why do you all find it so difficult to obey the law? Keng busting in heads without regard to the rules or outcomes and you two helping yourselves.” Zeyala’s tone somewhat softens as she whispers, “Now, if you’re just holding onto those things until we get to the bottom of matters… well, that’s different…” Turning towards Toshio she says, “…in a manner of speaking, that is,” but he has already gone out the front door.

Jharad chuckles, leans in and kisses Zeyala on the cheek and then continues to look around.

The Founder’s Feast

Back at camp, Ameiko and Jethrik tell of the afternoon’s events to the others. Jharad shakes his head slightly at the recounting of their afternoon’s adventures. “Well, I still want to attend. I would hate to disappoint our host and avoid his trap all together.”

Shalelu nods in agreement. “I am eager to get to the bottom of this. Zeyala, I believe you are capable of purifying food and drink with the power granted you by Pharasma. We will need that, but try to cast it discretely so as not to offend our hosts.”

Zeyala is now ruing that she has left her spear with the village blacksmith, Saul Lupescu, but of course taking it back now would mean breaking into the smithy and carrying it with her from there would make it obvious she had done so.

Shalelu, Toshio, Jharad, Zeyala, Henric, and Zandu arrive at the festival just as the games are winding down. There are still some three-legged races going on. And the game of “falling stars” wherein villagers throw rusty starknives at bales of hay is still going on. The more athletic villagers are still taking turns leaping over what is now a raging bonfire. The bonfire is ten feet across and the flames at least three feet high. Cheers erupt now and again as one young man or another is singed by the fire’s “blessed flames” as they attempt the “dreamer’s leap.”

Zeyala maintains an air of contentment, but remains vigilant. “Curse my eyes, the games do seem fun,” says Zeyala.

Jharad steps up with a smile at those around the “falling starts” saying, “I will try my hand with Desna’s chosen weapon.”

The village smith, Saul, hands the starknives to Jharad, explaining with reverence that that they were originally carried by Iola Kriegler, the village’s founder. He then explains that hitting the closest bale garners two points, whereas the middle gives six, and the farthest will give ten points. From the chalk board nearby it can be seen that most contestants only got two or four points, sometimes six, and one actually got fourteen points with two hits on the middle bale and one hit on the closest.

Jharad’s throws are disappointing however. Though a trained warrior, Jharad only hits the middle bale of hay on his fourth throw, his first three having gone amiss. He tries for the closest and the farthest bales with his last two throws but both miss widely. He walks away with a laugh.

As they are strolling about the festival grounds, Ornigaard with his father in tow approach Toshio and his friends. “Hey pa, there he is” says the excited youngster who is pulling his father with one hand, and holding the now leashed Applesauce on his left shoulder with the other. “This is the one who found Applesauce and healed him!”

The boy’s father is a handsome farmer with a friendly smile who reaches out his hand to shake Toshio’s. “I’m much obliged on behalf of my son here stranger. M’name’s Vioric, Vioric Korzha. I understand there was a bit of confusion today at the ferry, but it sounds like it all turned out all right.” He looks at his son and the buzzing stirge perched on his shoulder. With a knowing nod he says, “Most city folks don’t understand these buggers. Lotsa folks here keep ‘em as pets. They’re really kinda friendly once you give them a chance.”

Toshio replies with his own smile as he shakes Vioric’s hand. “I’m glad it ended well, too. Most places consider stirges to be monstrous pests. I have to admit they seem dangerous. Do you feed them on your livestock?”

Jharad keeps a flat smile and says nothing.

“As a matter of fact we do,” replies Vioric. “If you are staying for the feast you’ll get to see what comes of that. It’s quite delicious. Say, if you all are not sitting with anyone else you’re welcome to eat with my family at our pavilion.”

“That’s very kind of you. We’re happy to accept.” Seeing that Vioric was about to return to the rest of his family, Toshio doesn’t press the conversation at the moment. “We’ll look for you at feasting time.”

As sundown approaches, the villagers light the bonfires lining the perimeter of the festival grounds, illuminating the area as the various preparations are drawn to the central tables, outspread quilts, and scattered benches. Vioric ushers Toshio and his friends over to his family’s pavilion. Vioric introduces them all to his wife and Ornigaard’s four siblings: two younger boys, and an older girl who is not quite into adolescence. Mayor Kriegler has been pointedly ignoring the strangers and has adjourned to his own pavilion and table by the central stage. There, he is joined by the elder council and winners of the festival’s contests.

The feast itself begins without fanfare, as steaming hot platters of the day’s labors are distributed among everyone by the families responsible for particular aspects of the meal. They proudly make their way to each table or pavilion, serving everyone as much as he or she can eat. Once all are served, Mayor Kriegler stands for a short benediction to bless the meal and give thanks to “the slumbering dreamer whose gossamer cloak protects us.” Among the usual fare of whole fresh greens, roasted pig, and fresh baked breads, the feast’s more unusual offerings include black mushrooms; a salad tossed with malted vinegar that includes what Jharad recognizes as the distinctive serrated leaves of the flayleaf plant, a mild intoxicant that is often smoked or used to make brownies; fried Mushfen silkworm pupae served on wooden platters with a small dish of ground caraway seeds and salt; steaming hot legs of giant ticks that have been smoked and then boiled (small two pronged forks are provided to help eat them); and finally Ravenmoor’s most popular delicacy, the specially prepared blood sacks of stirges known as Stirge Blood Sausage.

Jharad looks for Zeyala to bless the food before he begins eating. He also takes the opportunity to thank the family. “We appreciate you having us sit with you at your feast. Everything looks very delicious. I am especially interested in trying this salad, the particular leaves used look… intoxicating.”

After Zeyala quietly blesses the food, thus using her divine magic to purify it of any possible contamination, Jharad digs in, carefully trying the salad in very modest amount. He tries everything though, one bite at a time. He finds the black mushrooms delicious, the salad to have a bitter and biting flavor that is made up for by the mild euphoria it stirs up, the fried silkworms have a crunchy and chewy texture, the smoked tick legs are loamy and gamey, and the Stirge Blood Sausage are briny but disturbingly delicious.

Vioric says of the sausage, “As I said earlier, we let the stirges feed on oxen. When we make sausages, we pluck them off fresh, pinch their abdomens to keep the blood in and twist off the engorged blood sacks. These casings are stuffed with spices, grains, and rye berries and then boiled. They’re good eatin, I tell ya.”

Toshio avoids the mushrooms and mindful of Jharad’s hint he also scrupulously avoids the flayleaf salad. He follows Zeyala’s lead regarding the rest. “This is definitely a new dish for me” says Toshio, making conversation. “The tick legs eat a bit like crab, and the fried pupae have a nice crunch.”

Jharad smiles while eating the salad. “You should try this Toshio, it is quite nice.”

“Thank you, but I’d best not. Iomedae prefers clear-minded servants.”

Zeyala also avoids the mushrooms and flayleaf after Jharad’s warning. Additionally, she does not drink any of the beverages. She casually empties her cup to the ground and uses create water to fill it up. She advises her companions to do the same, so she can fill their empty cups.

Once everyone has had a chance to eat, Mayor Kriegler gains everyone’s attention by stepping up to the stage and clapping his hands as three families present their beautiful teenage daughters to the feasters. Each is dressed in white silk robes with intricately braided hair decorated with garlands of local flowers. One of the three is the girl Shel, who Shalelu, Keng, Toshio, Jethrik, and Zeyala had met previously outside the trading post. Each girl takes a turn visiting family pavilions and tables, and recounting the rehearsed story of Ravenmoor’s founding. The following is the story they tell:

“Many generations ago, Iola Kriegler, a priestess of the Dream Tender, led a group of pioneers from Magnimar to this wilderness where they could start a new life where they could live free and in peace. Sadly, the dream that was Ravenmoor almost ended before it could begin as it was ravaged by a supernatural blight. With the villagers close to starvation, Iola decided to undertake a vision quest to seek a solution to her village’s problems. Guided by visions sent by the Dormant Dreamer, Iola dared the dark forest of Churlwood and there she met a band of hermits who also revered the Slumberer. The hermits, impressed by Iola’s faith and great need, taught her the deep secrets of the Dream Tender. After many weeks, she came back with two of the hermits to save her village. Iola’s happy return brought prosperity back to Ravenmoor by luring the crops’ corruption to sleep on the soft wings of dreaming moths. Ever since, Iola’s descendants have guided us and led us in our devotions to the Dream Tender.”

After the complete story has been told in turn by the three girls, Mayor Kriegler consults with the village elders seated near him before declaring Shel Lupescu the Founder’s Feast Queen. He walks up on the stage and calls her up to present her with a wreath of woven vines and flowers. Shel and her parents, Saul and the overjoyed Anya, then makes the rounds of the feast to receive everyone’s congratulations in a flurry of excitement and anticipation. At that point the band returns to the stage and strikes up a merry tune. Shel slips away from her parents at that point and whispers in Toshio’s ear that she would really enjoy a dance with the handsomest knight to ever visit Ravenmoor.

“Thank you for the promotion. You are too kind,” Toshio replies. “Of couse I’d be delighted to accept. But you may need to teach me the local steps.”

Shel smiles charmingly and says, “I assume you must be a knight with all that armor and your sword. Who else could afford such things?” She shrugs. “Well knight or not, you’re still the handsomest visitor we’ve ever seen. Come on, I’ll be happy to show you our dances.”

Toshio joins Shel and has a good time dancing. As he is dancing, Toshio takes the opportunity to get a sense of the people around him. He feels the presence of evil people around but certainly only about a third of the villagers, which is roughly normal for any given community. Toshio knows that it is all too easy to slip into pettiness and selfish egotism, and that is all it takes for evil to take hold, though few become imbued with supernatural power or consciously ally themselves with the forces of darkness. So far only the mayor radiates strongly. His brother Leonard is absent though, so Toshio doesn’t get a chance to get a read on him. Shel, the girl he is now dancing with, and her parents who are standing nearby watching do give him a sense of evil, though of the petty mortal variety and they give off no auras. Toshio hides his disappointment at Shel’s family’s moral degeneration, and accepting it as roughly normal, he doesn’t let it spoil the dance.

“Everybody seems so happy. Is your village always so cheerful?” Toshio asks.

Shel laughs. “On festival days we are. It is a hard life out here, so we must take what enjoyment we can when we can. By the way, what is your name kind sir?” asks Shel.

“How careless of me not to introduce myself. My name is Izawa Toshio – usually just called Toshio. What do you do for fun here? If the caravan stays a day or so, what should we do or see if we get some spare time?”

She grins lasciviously and looks around before whispering, “Well Toshio, I can think of many fun things we can do tonight. Would you like to meet with me after this feast? I think I can get out of the house. We could meet back here. Everyone will already be gone, and I can bring a quilt with me to make things more comfortable.”

“Oh, I couldn’t do that. Iomedae wouldn’t approve, and I’m to stay at the mayor’s home tonight. But we can enjoy the dancing, no?” The short moments between his words and her next drag on interminably to Toshio.

Shel is crestfallen. “Oh. I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were already spoken for. Is that Iomedae you are sitting with,” she nods towards where Zeyala is still sitting. “I don’t wanna cause any trouble.”

“It’s no trouble,” replies Toshio with an understanding smile. “Iomedae is the goddess of righteous valor and justice, and I am in her service. That over there is Zeyala, and she serves a different goddess called Pharasma.”

Shel, a bit nervous now, says, “Uh, it has been fun dancing with you. Listen, uh, can we talk somewhere privately? You seem like an honorable person, and there are some things I’m wondering about – things about Desna and the other gods. Sometimes I wonder about what the mayor tells us. But I don’t want to be seen together, my family and the others would wonder what I was up to.”

They dance on a bit, and in response to her further query Toshio says, “You are wise to doubt the mayor. He is strongly evil. I will meet with you as you wish and hear your concerns. Where should we meet?”

“Evil? I had some questions about him, but… evil?” She shakes her head in disbelief but then ponders for a moment. “It might explain some things. The other girls in previous years who were chosen as the Founder’s Feast Queen all either died or left town within a year.” Now she seems genuinely scared. “I don’ wanna die, an’ I don’ wanna leave here. This is my home.” She swallows and gets a hold of herself. “Please, go down the path that leads south from the mayor’s house towards the other bridge. I’ll meet you there and tell you more about what I’ve seen. Please come alone, though. It would be too suspicious if you all left the mayor’s manor to walk around the village at night. One of you might be able to get by unnoticed, and I really only trust you.” She pulls away from Toshio. “I’ll meet you at the bridge in a couple of hours.” She turns and goes back to her parents, who are both frowning a bit to see her spending so much time with one of the strangers.

Toshio bows as the dance ends, saying, “Thank you for the dance. I look forward to our talk on the bridge.”

He makes his way back to the table of Ornigaard’s family. Aloud he says, “Nice girl. She dances well.” When he has the chance he says more quietly to Zeyala, ”It seems I have a date tonight. She’s going to tell me all about the village and what goes on here.” He leaves the details for later, when there are fewer ears around.

Back at the table, Ornigaard is telling stories about the “Night Creepers”, local bogeymen described as having stirge faces who stalk the town’s fields and streets during the night and snatch away kids willful enough to disobey their parents and stay out after dark. His younger brothers tries to top that with stories about the “water wolf” who carries off kids who swim out too far into the river and of “Old Man Wrinkles” who is said to be 200 years old and so wrinkled that he no longer has a face and has to drink blood like a stirge. The older sister, getting into the spirit of the game though it is clear she doesn’t quite believe these tall tales, tells of the “Dream Tender’s Moth” that flies over the buildings late at night after every Founder’s Feast looking for bad kids who misbehaved during the festival to carry off and turn into Night Creepers. Ornigaard and his younger brothers actually shudder when they hear this one, and the sister and the parents chuckle. The parents nod and explain to their guests that fear of these creatures is the reason the kids are so well behaved in town.

Once the Founder’s Feast is concluded and twilight slips into night, the villagers are quick to douse the bonfires and return home under the light of the full moon. Vioric explains that tradition holds that on the night after a Founder’s Feast, the Dream Tender is particularly active, so the villagers are eager to get home, burn the flayleaf woven butterfly fetishes of the Dream Tender that some are wearing, and fall into a deep sleep to enjoy the dreams their goddess brings.

“May you all have sweet dreams form the Dream Tender tonight,” bids Vioric as he ushers his family away.

The Founder’s Festival

Shalelu starts walking back down the path and says, “I have some ideas. The mayor said he would allow up to four of us to stay at his manor tonight and that he would pay us what he could of the back taxes in the morning. Obviously its some kind of trick or trap. I think we can turn the tables on him then, and hopefully we won’t have to do it in front of the entire village.”

“I like it,” replies Jharad with a smile. “But Sandru is right, let us head back to the others with this delightful news and detail out your plan.”

On the way back to the camp they learn from the crook-backed balding ferryman, whose name is Skender Cardzi, that when the festival starts he’ll leave the ferry to be self-operated by any who care to cross. “Though, I’ll be leavin’ a cup out for ye to pay. Honor system an’ all.” He goes on to warn them that at sundown after the feast he’ll return and lock the pulley on the village side. “So ye best get back acrost to yore camp by then. I’ll be openin’ it in the morn.”

At the camp, Sandru calls a meeting and informs Ameiko, Koya, and the teamsters that there will be a festival and feast that afternoon and evening and that he has put in an order for more supplies to be picked up in the morning. Then he tells them the bad news. “Unfortunately, Shalelu’s mission seems to have uncovered yet another hidden cult of demon worshippers who may have murdered the tax collector we are looking for. It seems that their Mayor Kriegler may be their high priest, but we are not sure nor do we know how widespread it is. I am hoping that we can get to the bottom of it without incurring the wrath of the whole village as the festival may be an innocent affair and we sure could use a feast and we definitely need to restock our provisions. Still, everyone had best be very careful. Here is what I propose: We will attend this festival and feast in shifts. The first shift will attend the first part of the festival when it starts in the midafternoon. That will consist of myself, Ameiko, Koya, Keng, Jethrik, Bevelek and Vankor. The second shift will be able to catch the end of the festival and attend the feast, though we will expect you to bring back food if you can for those of us back here in camp. That shift will consist of Shalelu, Toshio, Zeyala, Jharad, Henric, and Zandu. I understand that Shalelu, Toshio, Zeyala, and Jharad will be staying the night at the mayor’s home as his guest while the tax situation is sorted out. Still, I would ask you to escort Henric and Zandu back to the ferry before sundown and the closing of the ferry. Does anyone have any objections or changes to propose?” There being none, the plan is implemented.

So it is that Sandru leads the first shift back into the village. On the way to the festival grounds Koya insists on investigating the ruined church. What they find inside is a single crude idol of Desna, more akin to a gourd-faced and straw-stuffed scarecrow than a proper statue, sagging against the pulpit wall.

Koya shakes her head and makes a sound of disgust. “This place hasn’t been used in decades! This kind of neglect borders on blasphemy!”

There being nothing else to see in the church they continue on, stopping at the ring of black river stones and the amphitheater. Koya sees the effigy of Desna and it is plain from the look on her face that she is not pleased. She walks down the central aisle of the amphitheater past the slanted stone pews that interrupt the overgrown weeds. Coming up to the small raised dais she looks up at the stone altar and the image of Desna. Up close it can be seen that the life-sized wicker and corn-husk figure is depicted in a kneeling pose, her mossy wings spread wide and crawling with spiders. “Someone must answer for this,” she mutters.

At the festival grounds the whole village of a hundred and some people have all gathered. On the stage a local band are playing fiddles, hand drums and even an accordion. Some villagers are dancing, but others are setting up games that will be played throughout the rest of the afternoon. The villagers are dressed as before but the clothing seems a little less threadbare than one might expect, so they are probably all wearing their best clothes. It is noticeable that some among them have puckered scars on their arms or necks. Others have pinned to their clothing the same kind of butterfly-winged figure woven of dried plants that Anya in the trading post was wearing. She is of course there, as is her husband, Saul, and their daughter Shel (who is now wearing the white dress she had been sewing earlier). They also see the boy Ornigaard. The boy has his pet stirge, Applesauce, on a leash and perched on his shoulder. He is in the company of a handsome young farmer and his wife who are probably his parents. Four other kids are with them, probably brothers and sisters. He hasn’t spotted Sandru or the others yet. Ornigaard is also not the only one who is out walking (flying in some cases) a pet stirge. There are at least half a dozen others doing so as well. Mayor Kriegler is also present talking, laughing, and shaking hands. He spots Sandru and the others but only gives them a curt nod. The villagers immediately around them are friendly enough, they smile in greeting and a few even go so far as to welcome them to their Founder’s Festival.

Koya engages a few of them in conversation about Desna and asks about the ruined church. She is told, “The stones be a sight better place fer worship than a building, sinct’ ye can see the stars.” Koya admits that is true enough. She persists though in asking about the image at the stone ring and is told, “We ain’t got your shiny temple fixings out here – we make do with what we have, and I reckon the Dream Tender don’t mind none.”

After a few of such conversations, Koya says quietly to Sandru and the others, “They don’t see to think what they are doing is wrong. They have been greatly misled. Also, notice they never say the name of Desna. They only talk about the Dream Tender, the Slumberer, or the Dormant Dreamer. These can all refer to Ghlaunder but could fool the ignorant into thinking that Desna is meant.” She shakes her head. “Someone must restore the true faith to these people, but which of them is innocent and which are actively promoting Ghlaunder’s blasphemous corruption?”

As they wander the grounds they also see that four games or events are being set up. In a central open location between the tables and tents a bonfire is being set ablaze as young and old alike gather around. One elder invites one and all to take the Dreamer’s Leap if they dare.

At the outer edge of the fair a series of haystacks have been set up at intervals of 20 feet, 60 feet, and 100 feet. Saul Lupscu, the blacksmith and owner of the trading post, is opening up a wooden box out of which he takes six old and rusty starknives (the chosen weapon of Desna) to hand to those who wsh to test their skills at hurling them.

“Hmph, I could show them a thing or two,” mutters Koya.

In another area, several nicely carved wooden cages are wheeled into the central competition area. An old double-chinned villager removes the canvas cover to reveal eight ravens within the cages who immediately begins cawing aggressively at one another as if enraged. The villager announces that the eight ravens competing this afternoon are Clawfoot, Foolscap, Greediguts, Grizzle, Snaphaunce, Soot, Vinegar Tom, and Wormwort – all prime fighting birds and all eager to have a go at each other. Other villagers begin clamoring to place their bets.

Finally, there is a three-legged race already in progress at another end of the field.

Keng finds the entire ‘festival’ incredibly boring.  His mind wanders to the mayor and his thoughts turn to various killing scenarios.

They are going to have a crow fighting bout? That’s gross!’ Jethrik is alarmed by this and sticks around to see if the birds are really going to be harmed. He’s also put off by the pet stirges and that the villagers are evidently feeding them their own blood. On the other hand, he is a little annoyed by Koya and her carping about Desna. Yeah, he is nominally a worshiper, but c’mon. As the transgressions mount though, he gets more and more alarmed. Obviously this town is a thinly disguised cult of evil.

As Jethrik watches he sees that the ravens really are squared off against one another in a brief flurry of squawking, flapping wings, pecking, and slashing spurs. The fight ends with one of the ravens bleeding out on the ground with grievous wounds. All of this to the raucous cheering or booing of the surrounding men and boys, as well as a few of the women. As that fight ends, preparations begin for the next fight.

Sandru, Ameiko, and Koya have all seen displays like this before in their wanderings and do not care for it in the least, but know there is little they can do about such a widespread and popular “sport” so they wander off to see some of the other games. Koya seems particularly interested in the starknife throwing, so the three of them wander over there. Bevelek and Vankor, however, seem content to watch another match or two of the raven fights, and even seem as though they might put some money on one of the birds.

“Well boys,” says the double-chinned villager who first uncovered the birds and has been taking bets to Keng and Jethrik, “care to put down any silver on Snaphaunce or Vinegar Tom? 120 copper payout for Snaphaunce per gold, or 130 for Vinegar Tom. To bet on a kill its 160 or 180 copper for Snap or Vinegar.”

Jethrik looks at the remains of the losing bir.d “Not just now, I think I’ll look around first.”

Keng sneers back at the double-chinned villager, “Perhaps you would like a wager on something more sporting? How ’bout you and me square off, ya piece of trash! I bet I can tear yer head off and crap down your neck in less than one tick!”

“Keng!’ Jethrik laughs, “the sparring is for the birds, not you!” Patting the big half-orc on his forearm, Jethrik continues, “Let’s find you something to work off that excitement!”

Before Keng can reply, a large heavily muscled farmer whose breeches and hands are covered in muck pushes his way to the front of the crowd. “Yew want t’ take on somebody, well,” he points his thumb at his chest and curls his lip, “you kin take me on orc scum!”

“Now, now, let’s not go off half cocked.” Jethrik interjects. “Let’s ask the mayor how he feels about sparring, okay?”

“The mayor feels just fine about it,” says Mayor Kriegler himself as he appears from behind the crowd. “Yes, lets see if your Keng can take on Jeb here. He’s one of the strongest we’ve got. Of course, Keng, you will have to set aside your arms and armor.” The Mayor turns, hands up and open to the crowd, “And besides, who comes armed and armored to a festival anyway?” He laughs.

Jethrik looks a little demoralized when the mayor shows up. He shrugs… Well at least Keng won’t get in any more trouble.

Behind the mayor, Keng and Jethrik see Sandru, Ameiko, and Koya hurrying over with concerned looks.

“What’s going on here?” asks Ameiko.

Mayor Kriegler says to her, “We were just about to witness a little exhibition fight I think, between your caravan guard and our man Jeb here.”

Keng gently pushes the gnome behind him and says, “Well, well well, if it ain’t his lordship of lies hi’self. 500 coppers say I will pin this mud-encrusted piece of filth within five minutes. And, if I win he,” pointing at the double chinned farmer, “Lets those crows fly free.”

“I’ll take that bet,” says Mayor Kriegler. “Five gold that Jeb beats you senseless or pins you for ten seconds within five minutes. All others betting can do so through Erol,” he points to the double-chinned villager. “And if you can pin Jeb, you get the gold and we’ll free the ravens. Oh, but if you lose I not only get your gold but on your honor you must leave this village and never set foot in it again.”

“I’ll put my money on my friend here,” says Jethrik.

Ameiko rolls her eyes as the villagers step back to create a larger circle for Keng and Jeb to fight in. Erol takes bets from Jethrik and others, marking them down on a small slate he carries with him.

Sandru claps Keng on the shoulder, “Good luck friend.”

Bevelek and Vankor, meanwhile debate whether or not they should bet on Keng. They had been hearing a lot about Keng’s prowess on the journey north, but also of some incidents that cause them to doubt. Bevelek points out how effective Keng was against the goblins, skeletons and other creatures. Vankor retorts that those battles involved weapons but when it came to brawling, Keng didn’t get a knock out at the whorehouse and in Wolf’s Ear he got dumped into Lake Ember. Bevelek counters that the whorehouse fight apparently wasn’t allowed to play out, and that it is easy enough for a group of thugs to push someone off a wharf. They go back and forth like this for a while. In the end, however, they do put some coins down on Keng.

Once Keng and Jeb are ready, the former taking off his armor and setting aside his axe in the safekeeping of his companions, Erol walks out into the center of the ring of villagers and makes clear the rules. No hitting below the belt, and the winner will be declared as soon as one or the other is down and unable to get up, or pinned for more than 10 seconds. “Let the fight begin!” he cries, and scuttles away from the two brawny contestants. Keng immediately seizes the initiative and lands a solid blow that rocks Jeb back on his heels, but it is soon apparent that Jeb is not only nearly as strong as Keng but also faster on his feet and a good boxer. He lands a solid right hook on Keng, but the half-orc barbarian is able to take such punishment without even flinching. They spend a while jabbing, blocking, and dodging, and it can be seen that Jeb is able to use both fists very effectively with quick well co-ordinate strikes. Then they both land solid blows against each other. Unfortunately, Keng hits Jeb in a way that strains his wrist, but it is by no means enough to put him out of the fight. Covering up his embarrassment, Keng calls out, “Your mother birthed you from her ass, you piece of crap.” This gets some boos and cat-calls from the assembled villagers. Jeb is enraged but keeps his temper in check and sets Keng up with a feint, allowing him to land a painful left hook on Keng’s jaw. It is the kind of punch that would surely knock out a lesser fighter, but Keng is now enraged. His eyes flash red and with a mighty roar he hits Jeb with an uppercut that causes Jeb to fly backwards and land flat on his back in the muck. Jeb is knocked out cold, and Erol is forced to sullenly declare Keng the winner.

Keng takes a nearby bucket of water and pours it over his head, shakes out the excess water with great fever and then lets out a barbarous victory roar. He then flips a gold piece to Jethrik and says, “Make us a song of this fight for later!”

Mayor Kiegler walks over and drops five gold into Keng’s outstretched hand. He stiffly congratulates him on his prowess. Keng glares at the mayor and says, “Takin’ yer money is sweet indeed but it’s probably only painted tin.” He then bites one and is pleasantly surprised to find it feels real enough.

The mayor shakes his head at Keng’s appalling manners but chooses not to say anything. Instead, he turns and orders Erol to let the ravens loose. The ravens come out of their cages and fly away, but not very far. It is clear that they are too used to captivity and probably before sunset they will return to their various masters to be fed. Still, the raven fights are over for this festival and Keng gets many resentful looks as the crowd disperses to participate in other games or events.

Keng looks at the nearby ravens and adds, “Looks like they’re as bewitched as the rest of these villagers.”

Erol pays out the winners, starting with Jethrik, Bevelek, and Vankor. The latter two are grinning ear to ear and soon clapping Keng on the back and telling him that they both had total faith in him. Keng turns to Bevelek and Vankor and says, “Next evening entertainments on me at the next ‘real’ town!”

Sandru, Ameiko and Koya beside him comes up to Keng and says quietly so none of the villagers can overhear, “Keng, you are not winning us any friends here. Remember, we need to get supplies here. If they refuse to sell to us or they try to contaminate what supplies they do sell us I’ll know who to thank for getting us on their bad side. And before you say you don’t care because they’re all evil or something, just remember that we are not strong enough to take on a whole village, even with Shalelu with us.”

“I tried to stop the fight,” Jethrik mumbles meekly.

Surprisingly, Keng is somewhat contrite. He turns a muddy shade of greenish-brown and hangs his head. He mumbles, “My apologies Sandru, I will try harder.”

Ameiko, trying to be conciliatory adds, “We do congratulate you on your win, Keng. Just try to be more gracious to the villagers. Please? Our mission’s success depends on getting out of this village with the supplies we need and we need the good will of the villagers for that. I will not condone a raid, and that’s the only other way to get what we need if they refuse to sell.”

After the fight, the villagers quickly erect a low fence of timbers around the central competition green while a pair of brawny villagers, one of whom is the revived Jeb, bring a squealing, sickly-looking pig into the enclosure. To the cheers of a growing crowd, the men slather the increasingly agitated pig liberally in slippery grease before tying the end of the rope around its neck to a post.

“Jethrik you want to look around some more or go back to the wagons?” asks Keng, as Jethrik takes a moment to magically heal some of Keng’s bruises and his wrist.

Jethrik answers, “I will do the greased pig. Unless a kid or very short adult wants to do the three-legged race.”

Keng says to Jethrik, “That will be fun to watch! I will make sure no one cheats you.”

Erol, the double-chinned villager, proceeds to call out for volunteers to participate in the greased pig contest. Jethrik steps up, as do two other villagers whose names are Bodean and Cletus. Of the three of them, Cletus gets the drop on the others and grabs the pig as soon as Erol releases it. Jethrik and Bodean try to steal it away but neither have any luck. The pig, however, slips free. Cletus is quick, though, and grabs it again before it gets out of reach. Once more the other two fail to grab it away, as Cletus hugs the pig close and turns his back on them. He falls to the ground in the mud and pins the pig there. The pig, however, lets forth an awful squeal, trembles all over, and then slumps in Cletus’ arms, apparently having died of fright.

“Aw no,” says Cletus, “I didna mean to kill it.”

The crowd also seems a bit disheartened by this and their cheering ceases. Erol walks over to inspect the pig but just as he leans down to look more closely the pig starts squirming again, or rather its hide pulses as though something inside the pig is trying to burst out of it in all directions. Before Cletus can even let go of it the pig swiftly transforms into a twisted monstrosity. An additional pair of legs sprout from it body and its eyes turn pitch black with no visible whites, while a number of flytrap like jaws sprout from its back. One of these jaws is large enough to bite and snap at Cletus, and it promptly rips his throat out. Cletus collapses in a pool of his own blood, and from the gaping ruin of his neck a tangle of fungal growths begins to wrap itself around his corpse. The pig thing scrambles away from him and lets out a gurgling shriek that sounds disturbingly like a crying baby rather than a pig. It looks around with its beady black eyes, alert for threats or possibly looking to choose another victim. The villagers are plainly disgusted and shocked. To their credit they don’t panic and run away screaming, but back away carefully, with the menfolk covering the retreat of the women and children.

For their part, Ameiko has drawn her mithral rapier, Sandru has drawn his scimitar and readied his buckler, and Koya is holding her butterfly medallion in one hand and drawn a starknife with her left. The three of them are also trying to cover the retreat of the villagers but are ready to step in and help Jethrik if the pig-thing should go for him.

Ameiko is the first to spring into action. She sprints towards Jethrik and the pig abomination and somersaults over both of them, landing on her feet behind the pig she lunges with her rapier. The rapier shimmers with her arcane power and pierces the hindquarters of the abomination. This doesn’t seem to hurt it much though, but it does get its attention. The pig-thing wheels on Ameiko and its flytrap jaw reaches out and almost catches her leg, but she nimbly leaps back out of range. “The thing’s flesh is spongy,” Ameiko cries, “I’m not sure if we can really hurt it with weapons!”

Keng, having put his armor back on after the bout is again fully armed and armored. He bellows a war cry and evokes his rage, his eyes burning a fiery red. With a mighty jump he leaps towards the hellish pig-thing and attempts to smite it in two with his greataxe. He finds, however, that Ameiko was correct. His axe easily parts the spongy flesh of the pig-thing and it seems to gel back together after parted by the axe. Still the pig-thing staggers, and by its babyish caterwauling it is clear that Keng’s blow hurt it.

Seeing that Ameiko and Keng have attacked in earnest, Sandru shrugs and with a smile he too leaps at the pig-thing and with a twirl to gain momentum he brings his scimitar down upon it while it is distracted by Keng. His blow also parts the spongy flesh of the pig to less effect than would be expected, but the pig is clearly hurt, and it is clearly looking for a way to get past its attackers.

Jethrik attempts to kick dirt up into the pig-thing’s eyes and succeeds in blinding it for a moment.

Koya maneuvers around the fight, waiting to providing her healing touch to any who are hurt by the pig-thing.

Ameiko again stabs at it, but this time misses the creature, as it suddenly leaps off the ground and begins flying straight up into the sky in an attempt to escape the ring of blades surrounding it. As it flies up, Ameiko runs it through the belly. Keng swings and misses. Sandru’s scimitar does hit though, and this time the integrity of the thing has been compromised too much by piercings and hackings. It disintegrates in the air, causing Ameiko, Keng, Sandru, and Jethrik to jump back as putrid mutated fibrous pig parts rain down from the sky.

“Well, that was certainly disgusting,” says Ameiko as she flicks pig parts off her shoulder and shakes her hair.

“I agree,” says Sandru. “I’m starved, but I’ve suddenly lost my appetite. I think it’s time to excuse ourselves and send the others in here. We’ll warn them to stay away from the pork.”

“What was that thing and how do I avoid them?” asks Jethrik.

A nearby villager overhears Jethrik’s query and responds, “We get things like that around here now and then – there’s bad magic in the ground here that the Dream Tender normally protects us from, but now and then, animals get the badness in them.” He shrugs and then goes over to help some other villagers carry Cletus off, followed by his grieving kin and a very grim faced mayor.

Keng looks slightly sick from the hell-pig’s demise and he too has lost his appetite for pork. He grimaces and says to the group, “This entire place seems to be a gate to hell. I question the safety of any supplies we buy here. Better to forage on our own until we make the next village.”

“I am starting to agree with you, Keng,” says Sandru quietly.

On the way back to the camp, Keng grabs Jethrik by the coat and pulls him close to Sandru and in a low tone of voice so as not to be overheard says, “Sandru, I am worried about our party sleeping overnight at the mayor’s manor house. I fear it’s a trap. I do not trust him and this village at all. It is a thinly veiled portal to hell. With your permission, I would like to sneak back under cover of night and hide close enough to observe the manor house. I can be ready to help our friends escape if needed. What do you think?”

“That might be a good idea, Keng. Just make sure you are not seen, or it will be you who will need rescuing,” Sandru replies.

“You can sneak!?” Jethrik asks with genuine surprise. “I think I might be able to get closer. Besides, your night vision is excellent, but only for short distances. I can use my message cantrip to call for you when I see trouble.”

Keng says, “An excellent idea Jethrik!”

Desna and Ghlaunder

Sandru finally approves a relatively dry and clear spot to set up camp, and after the wagons are circled, a fire set up and started, and the horses taken care of there is some time to relax.

“We had better get Jethrik back to start on the evening meal,” says Koya.

“Yes,” agrees Sandru. “In fact, I had better go into the village to see if we can buy provisions. Excuse me for a moment.” He heads back into his wagon to get some coins from the strongbox.

Koya slaps at her neck. “Darn bugs. I’m sure this place is infested with mosquitos as well, if not worse things. We had better set up the mosquito nets before nightfall. It’s funny, but Desna has a particular loathing for mosquitos and suchlike because of Ghlaunder. Did you ever hear the story of Desna and Ghlaunder, Jharad? Well, it’s like this:

“Legends tell how Desna wandered the Ethereal Plane and discovered a strange cocoon that pulsed with magic. Curious about its contents, she broke it open and released a mosquito-like being called Ghlaunder, which immediately attacked her. She easily fended off its attacks but the resilient creature managed to escape before she could destroy it. Now Ghlaunder plagues the mortal world as a demigod of parasites and infection. Desna still hunts the godling and his cults in the hope of wiping them from the world or perhaps turning his power to a more positive end, just as leeches and certain ailments and maggots can cleanse infected wounds. The moral of this myth is that every life contains mistakes and bad choices, but it is better to live, make those mistakes, and accept the challenges they present than to hide away from the world and do nothing. (AP #2, pp. 70-71)

“Heh, well, this would certainly be the kind of place that Ghlaunder would like, don’t you think?”

Jharad laughs, “You always have the best stories Koya. I have missed them. And yes, that is exactly what I was thinking. This place certainly looks like it could be hosting such a cult. Or it could just be some back water village which sees very few travelers or caravans.”

Getting up and stretching he continues, “I think I will wander into town with Sandru and take a look around myself. Who knows what trouble Keng has stirred up by now?”

“Let’s go find out,” says Sandru with a smile. He gives some final instructions to the teamsters and asks Ameiko and Koya to please look after the camp and be on the alert until he and the others come back. “I’m worried that there may be more of those stirges around, and not the domesticated kind,” he says with a grimace.

Sandru and Jharad cross over in the ferry and see the sites of the village that the others did previously. When they get to the trading post no one is around, though they do hear the sound of the blacksmith at work within the barn.

“Well,” says Sandru indicating the trading post with a dubious look, “shall we go in and see if we can purchase some provisions?”

“Sounds good to me”

Inside the trading post, a prim looking woman in a drab earth-tone dress and white apron greets them. Pinned to her dress is a butterfly-winged figure woven of dried plants. The post itself is ill stocked and seems to contain mostly agricultural equipment: plows, scythes, flour sacks, flails, and the like. Most of the available space is otherwise taken up with tables and the building’s long counter, and the hearth hosting a large cauldron in which a thick creamy stew simmers.

The woman asks, “There were some other strangers in town who just passed through. They went on to see Mayor Kriegler. Are you looking for them?”

“We did all travel here together, but I’m not looking for the others now,” replies Sandru. “They have their own business. I’d like to talk to you about buying some provisions for the road. My name is Sandru Vhiski, I’m the master of the caravan camped on the other side of the Lampblack. This is my traveling companion, Jharalion Aeirandi, or Jharad for short.”

“A pleasure to meet you. I’m Anya Lupescu. Tell me what you need and I’ll see if I can get the order filled for you. Though I should tell you that today’s the monthly Founder’s Festival and Founder’s Feast. It will start in the fair ground just north of here in a couple of hours. Everyone will be there including myself and family, so it may not be possible to get everything together before tomorrow.”

“That’s quite all right. Tomorrow will be fine, though if we could get a bit of flower and some meat for tonight, that would be great.”

“Well, if you’re worried about supper for you and your people, then come to the festival and the feast.”

Sandru considers that, “Yes, maybe we will.” He turns to Jharad, “Oh, if you want to go in search of the others or just to look around, feel free. I’ll be fine here.”

Seeing that he is not needed, Jharad strolls back out into the square and heads north to see if he can find the path to the mayor’s house. At the fork in the road just past the square he sees a very angry Keng stomping his way towards him down the northeast fork.

Jharad stops and smiles wide at his friend approaching him. “So somebody has already upset you? You see, I think we need a new rule… you and I are not allowed to separate when meeting new people. Undoubtedly one of them will piss you off and more often than not meet the business end of your blade. And that really is not a favorable way to open up diplomacy.”

Keng begins to answer, stops, begins again and then takes a deep breath. “Our… ‘friends’ continue to perpetuate seeing the good in evil.”

“And which evil did they find this time? Him?” Jharad says pointing to the tall, lean man walking towards them with Zeyala, Toshio, Jethrik, and Shalelu.

Keng replies with an uncharacteristically detailed reply, “That’s the Mayor. He lied to us about some missing tax collector and his brother tried to hide him from us. The villagers we have met so far are all odd and the entire village is in a state of decay. Of course pretty boy and the blind bitch want to think the best of everyone and ignore the obvious. Even our elf friend seems oddly unreflective of things. You’re the wizard… use your Sight.”

Chuckling at Keng’s reliance on Jharad’s never-present omniscient sight Jharad replies, “Give me time to evaluate this then. I know it is difficult but have patience my friend. Lets join the others and see what is what.”

“Grrr,” grumbles Keng. “But keep fancy pants away from me.”

As the mayor and others walk down the path, Toshio asks, “What is the feast for?”

Mayor Kriegler replies, “As I said, it is the monthly Founder’s Festival and Feast. The day before the full moon we celebrate the founding of Ravenmoor by my ancestor, the priestess of Desna Iola Kriegler. If you attend, then you will hear the whole story. I don’t have time to recount it properly now. Oh,” he looks to the fork in the road where Jharad and Keng seem to be awaiting them. “I see your bully-boy has met up with another one of your group. There had better be no more trouble,” he says this pointedly to Shalelu.

Keng elbows Jharad and whispers, “See how he holds them in thrall? He is telling Shalelu what to do!”

Jharad smiles and elbows him back. “Quiet bully boy, my new master approaches.”

Zeyala purposely takes no notice of Jharad and Keng, and continues to work on the mayor. ”Well, this festival sounds fascinating,” says Zeyala. “Perhaps your priestess can do a dream reading or provide a blessing for our caravan.”

The mayor chuckles, “That would be quite impossible. Iola was my great great great grandmother and is no longer with us. I am the current scion of the Kriegler family and priest of Desna.”

As the mayor and the others walk by, Keng hisses, “See…!”

The Founder’s Festival begins in the midafternoon, which is a couple of hours away. The grounds are still being set up with small pavilions, tables, and picnic quilts. Unlit piles of wood for bonfires stand around the field’s perimeter, and an open space in the center is cleared and ringed with benches for the festival’s games and competitions. The mayor excuses himself to see to the preparations. He walks over to oversee the construction of a makeshift stage.

Jharad asks Shalelu, “So what happened with your tax collector?”

Toshio suggests, “Let’s get a bite to eat and a mug of ale while you tell him. Then let’s go back and give the others a chance to relax a bit. In case it wasn’t clear, that guy is as evil as darkness. I’m almost sorry we stopped Keng, but I think we need to know more before we start swinging blades anywhere.”

Somewhat mollified Keng nods to Toshio and says, “Aye I am thirsty and hungry.”

Shalelu answers Jharad, “Apparently he arrived, stayed the night, and was kicked out of the mayor’s house in the morning after he tried to raid the liquor cabinet. The mayor says he took the tax money with him. At least that’s the story the mayor gave. Oh, and I didn’t see a tavern or inn here, did you?”

“Well we know something’s not right,” says Zeyala. “And it wasn’t really us who stopped Keng. That mayor used holy magic that made it impossible for Keng to attack him. Think of this as the hunt, Keng,” adds Zeyala. “If you go swinging madly, there’s a good chance you’ll scare the prey and they might get away. Let’s do a bit of stalking, and go for the sure takedown. Can you agree to that?”

Keng’s eyes narrow with anticipation and he gives a feral smile.

Shalelu nods, “Zeyala is right, except given what Toshio just told us, perhaps it was unholy magic. Desna is not a goddess who would tolerate evil though, but then again his holy symbol looked to me more like a mosquito then a butterfly. So perhaps Desna is not the source of his power at all.”

Jharad gets a quizzical look on his face as if he has just solved a good riddle. “Recently I heard an interesting story regarding Desna and the demigod Ghlaunder,” he begins. He then relates the story told to him earlier by Koya about the demigod of parasites and infection. Pausing in thought Jharad continues after a moment, “I believe what we are dealing with here is a cult of Ghlaunder worshipers, of which it looks like the Mayor is their priest. I for one am more inclined to eradicate this infection rather than following Toshio’s usual path of patience and waiting for the evil to right itself under the tutelage of his good intentions.”

“That sounds like a lot of blood.” Jethrik frowns. “Surely not all of these people need be harmed. Maybe some even want to get away. Let’s find out who the ring leaders are before we take any action.”

“Agreed,” replies Jharad. “The tricky part will be to first discern who among these people are followers of the mayor. I think Toshio is best suited to that task. We really should warn everybody first, so lets collect Sandru and head back to the caravan.”

Coincidentally, Sandru walks up the path to the fenced in field and catches sight of them all. He seems quite pleased and says, “Well, looks like we’re back in business. I’ve arranged to get supplies tomorrow and it looks like we’re just in time for a celebration and more importantly a feast… Uh… what’s with the long faces?”

“We’re hoping we’re not going to be the main course at the feast,” deadpans Toshio.

Jharad smiles at Toshio’s comment and sums up the situation for Sandru, “The mayor looks to be the head priest of an evil mosquito god and it seems to have fallen on us to sort out the innocents in this town from his followers before killing them all. The evil mosquito god followers, not the innocents, in case that needed to be clarified.”

Raising his eyebrows, Sandru says, “Oh. I see.” He sighs, “These backwoods hillbilly demon cults get so tiresome. Well, let’s get back to the caravan and figure out what to do.”

The Mayor of Ravenmoor

Lamashan 12 Wealday full moon Hunter’s Moon

It is a grumpy and ragged crew that finally crosses a ford over to the west bank of the Lampblack River on the morning of Lamashan the 12th. The hungry and frightened teamsters stay with the caravan only because they have no choice, being out in the middle of the wilderness wherein they now know at least one werewolf is lurking. On the other shore the caravan abandons the main road that leads northwest to Roderic’s Cove and instead follow a little-used trail up along the river’s west bank into an increasingly dreary landscapes of bog land and bleak moors. The constant cawing of ravens make it evident that they are on the right track to Ravenmoor, though the trail often winds away from the river and soggy bog lands.

Toshio and Jharad ride ahead of the caravan to scout for possible dangers, while Shalelu on foot guards the rear of the caravan. As they are riding ahead, Jharad says to Toshio, “Well I for one am happy you did not turn into a puppy last night. How are you feeling this morning?”

“I’m feeling tip-top today” replies Toshio cheerfully. “It was a great relief to find I’m not cursed. But I do wonder what will become of Lisette. I hope she makes good choices.”

Just before noon the caravan comes in sight of Ravenmoor, just on the other side of the Lampblack. It is small, with less than a dozen buildings serving as the village center. There is only one two-story building in town, apart from the steeple of a ruined church, and it sits on a low hill overlooking the collection of sagging buildings on the river bank below. The town’s streets were probably made of packed dirt, but consist of nothing but mud at present. Moss grows on most buildings, covering soggy wooden shingles, and the constant buzz of insects fills the air. Most of the homes and outlying farms look ramshackle or even abandoned.

The trail takes them to two broken down shacks that flank the Lampblack, sheds to house a flat-bottomed ferry. Tightly drawn ropes cross the dark and sooty river, part of a cranked pulley system that draws the barge across the black water.

Toshio and Jharad ride up to the ferry, but before they arrive they hear the sound of a young boy’s voice calling out, “Aaaaaplesaaauce! Here boy! C’mere boy!” followed by some whistling, as if a child were seeking a missing puppy. This comes from the tall grass growing to the left of the road.

Jharad is lost in thought, remembering an elven maiden he once knew nicknamed Saucy-apple. That is when he hears a soft rustling in the grass at the right side of the road. As the boy continues to call and whistle, a one foot long rust colored insectoid creature with two pairs of bat-like wings, a tangle of thin legs, and a needle sharp proboscis flutters up out of the weeds to the right and makes a beeline for Toshio and lands on his head, attaching itself upside down to the back of his helmet.

“Bug!” shouts Toshio as he swats at the creature on his head with an armored glove and draws Whispering Shrike, ready to kill it at first opportunity.

In one swift move Jharad draws his longsword and swings it just inches above Toshio’s head, but the creature scuttles aside and the blade passes by without touching it.

A young boy (perhaps 8 years old) with a ragged mop of black hair, filthy home-spun clothes, and mud caking his hands and feet bursts from the grass onto the road. Seeing the bug like creature attached to Toshio’s head being punched and swiped at with a sword he cries out, “No! Don’t hurt him! He’s just a-scairt!”

At that point the stirge, for that is what Jharad realizes it is, whether it intended to all along or because it is being attacked, sinks its proboscis into Toshio’s neck and begins siphoning blood from him.

With the stirge sucking his blood, Toshio doesn’t care much that it may be a pet. He quickly but carefully places Whispering Shrike between himself and the bug (edge outward and back against himself) and cuts outward to kill it. He succeeds in pushing it off him, bloodily slicing open the thing’s belly in the process. It flops down to the ground, whereupon the boy wails. He cradles the now dying stirge in his arms sobbing loudly.

Toshio dismounts quickly and says “Hand it here. I may be able to heal it. But hold it firmly!” When the boy complies, Toshio, not wanting the boy to be distressed. heals the bug by laying his hands upon it to focus the healing power granted to him by Iomedae. After a couple moments the bug’s wounds are healed and it flutters its wings again to the joyful relief of the boy.

“Oh for fracks sake!” exclaims Keng.

‘Iomedae, please give me patience with Keng and the trials he brings!‘ prays Toshio silently.

Remaining on his horse, Jharad finds amusement in Toshio’s actions. “It is truly exhausting to see the effort you put into alleviating the pain of the masses.”

Toshio quips back, “If seeing it is exhausting, you should try it some time. Then you might know exhaustion.”

“That’s a dangerous pet you have, boy,” Toshio says sternly. “You’ll need to keep it under closer control so it doesn’t kill you or hurt someone else again.” Checking the boy’s hold on the thing, Toshio asks, “Have you got it securely now?”

The stirge is now nuzzling the boy’s neck in a friendly but disturbing fashion. As for the boy, he continues to cradle the thing but is now looking up in wonder and awe at Toshio, Jharad, and the rest of the caravan. He nods in the affirmative to Toshio’s question.

“Good,” replies Toshio. “What’s your name?”

“M’name is Ornigaard, m’lord.”

“Well, Ornigaard, what happened here? The place looks run down.”

Ornigaard just shrugs and mumbles, “Sorry mister, I have to git home and put Applesauce back in his cage.”

The boy turns and walks over to the ferry shed, out of which comes a crooked-backed, thin-haired man. He rubs his chin and gazes at the caravan. Ornigaard hops onto the ferry. The ferryman asks, “Well, any of you comin’ over, or can I start on gittin this young’un home?” It looks as though up to seven passengers at a time can cross over, so there is room for six more (in addition to Ornigaard and the ferryman). “It’ll be a silver piece from each o’ you. And don’t even think about trying to swim over.” He points to a bizarre looking skull nailed to the side of the shack. “Thar’s a wolf in the water what’ll eat yer guts, if’n you try.”

Ornigaard nods solemnly as if to confirm the ferryman’s warning. “It’ll even eat children’s guts!” he exclaims.

Shalelu walks up, saying, “Well, I have business in the village so I’ll be going over.” He turns to the others, “Anyone else?”

Sandru says, “I think we’ll just set up camp over here until you’re done and we’ve had a chance to see about resupplying ourselves. I’ll come over when camp is set.”

Ameiko, sounding reluctant, says, “Yes, we had better set up camp first, but you go ahead Shalelu. Maybe a couple of our guards can go with you until the rest of us have a chance to come over?”

Keng jumps down from the supply wagon and follows Shalelu, “M’lady, let me escort you for safety.”

Toshio offers, “Sandru, if you feel the area is safe enough, I’ll go to check out the village. But I don’t want to leave the caravan undefended…”

“As much as I love animals, I don’t mind some time away from the horses,” says Zeyala. “I’ll come along.”

Sandru replies, “No, that’s okay. You, Toshio, and Keng can accompany Shalelu. The rest of us will set up camp and join you later. Oh, and Jethrik too. I can see he wants to go with you but fears I will need him to set up camp.

 ’An outing with Keng and Shalelu - my favorite people. One of these days I’ll have to learn to rein in my curiosity,’ Toshio thinks to himself.

After paying the ferryman his silver and being pulled across, Shalelu, Keng, Zeyala, Jethrik, and Toshio see that there is a muddy track that branches north as the main street of the village, and east past a couple of cottages and then over a small footbridge across a tributary of the Lampblack before turning north again. Ornigaard runs off up the main street as soon as the ferry lands, though he does turn briefly to thank Toshio for saving his pet.

As they walk up the main street they see that the first building on the right is a weaver’s shop (if the crude image of a spinning wheel is any indication) and a little beyond that but on the left is a ruined church. The roof of the abandoned church has mostly caved in, and while the two-story steeple still stands, the bell that once hung within appears to be missing. The ruined church stands on the southwest corner of what passes for the village-square. Across from it is a tiny cottage and next to that a small building with a wide, overhanging roof that provides shade for a few benches and chairs out front. On these lounge a congregation of long-toothed elders who look at the newcomers with curiosity and even awe at the sight of Shalelu, Jethrik, and the others, but then a bit of alarm when they see Keng. The northeast corner of the square is the location of a building bearing a sign that proclaims it to be the town trading post, though the lack of business and activity certainly sets expectations of a poorly stocked store at best. A large barn is located just to the south of it. A beautiful young teenage girl with long blonde hair is sitting out front sewing up a fine but threadbare white dress. Within the barn are the sounds of a blacksmith toiling away. The girl looks up and smiles shyly, though her eyes also widen in awe when she sees that Shalelu is an elven woman and Jethrik a gnome, but her smile fades to worry when she catches sight of Keng.

“The people of this village are obviously not very familiar with those other than human. I suspect they don’t often see strangers at all for that matter,” observes Shalelu quietly.

To the girl, Shalelu says, “Hail young miss. I am here on business from Magnimar, while my companions require supplies for their caravan so they may proceed to Roderic’s Cove. Where might I find the mayor?”

“Oh! Y’all are lookin’ for Mayor Kriegler? He’s either at the festival grounds or up in his manor.” She gets up and points to the tall building on the low hill overlooking the town. “Just follow the street past our trading post and then you’ll have to turn left or right. Turn left for the fairgrounds or keep to the right and you’ll come to a bridge over the creek and then go on up to the manor.”

The hammering inside the barn stops at this point and a bald muscular man peeks out to see who the strangers are. “Who’s thet out thar, Shel?”

“I dunno pa, they here to see the mayor.”

The man nods, spits, and says to the strangers, “Well, you better hurry up then and catch him before the festival starts.” He quickly surveys the strangers and also shows curiosity in general, awe upon noting that Shalelu is elven, and apprehension at the sight of Keng. “You better git inside Shel. Get yourself ready.”

“Sure thing, pa,” says the girl, Shel. She puts her sewing kit away, folds up the dress and heads for the door of the trading post, where an older woman, probably her mother is staring out the window at the strangers. Shel turns back once more to the strangers to nod at them in farewell and then slips inside the trading post.

Keng rumbles in his chest and says in a low voice, “Festival? Where be all the celebrants then? This setting is oddly disturbing. Please be watchful.”

Before the girl’s father shuts the barn door again, Zeyala asks, “Blacksmith, we’re here for just a brief stop. Would you have time to restore the blade of my spear while I shop at the traders?”

“Well, for a few copper I’d happy to. I’m, Saul Lupescu, the owner of the trading post, but my wife, Anya, can see to yer needs in there.” He waves his hand for her to hand him the spear.

Shalelu arches her eyebrow at Zeyala, “You’re going shopping now? That is okay with me, but I am going to see if I can catch the mayor before this festival thing starts.”

“Ah, you said that you had business with the mayor,” returns Zeyala. “I assumed it was something private, but that seems to be incorrect. In that case, I’m happy to come along. Honestly, I didn’t really expect to find anything for myself at the traders. I was just looking to kill some time. I’d like to meet the mayor. Let’s shop later.”

Keng nods and replies, “I agree.”

Zeyala turns her attention back to the blacksmith. ”Here you go Saul,” she says as she hands over her longspear. ”I’ll return for it after we find the mayor.”

Walking past the trading post they see that in the field behind it is a large ring of black river stones and tall, stacked rock columns that encompass an open-air amphitheater built against a steeply sloped sandstone outcropping. Stone benches sit nearby, while a misshapen wicker and corn-husk figure with mossy canvas wings looms over an altar stone at the far side.

“No, this is wrong,” whispers Zeyala.  ”That figure most certainly is a representation of the goddess Desna, but it does not appear to be placed as a sign of worship. It is too crudely constructed with a complete lack of reverence… as if an effigy to be burned. I have a bad feeling about this.”

Toshio says, “Let’s see what the mayor has to say. Also, if something nefarious is going on, I’d prefer to address it with the others to back us up.”

“It could be some backwater misinterpretation of scripture,” acknowledges Zeyala. “But we should keep on our toes.”

Keng looks over at Toshio and asks, “Paladin, what do you sense?”

“There’s no evil in the effigy. I hope the locals are the same.”

“I’m more concerned what you’ll sense when we find the mayor,” add Zeyala.

Toshio rolls his eyes and hopes for the best.

Shalelu says, “Remember that I have been sent here to find a missing tax collector. I have no doubt that something nefarious is going on. The question is what it is and who is behind it.”

Moving along they come to a fork in the road. The northwest fork leads to a large field that has been fenced off, creating an area where tents, benches, and tables are being set by out by villagers for the day’s festival and celebration. The villagers seem to be in good spirits as they work. Their dress is neat and functional, with men wearing plain dun-colored tunics, buttoned vests, wide-brimmed straw hats, and unbleached canvas breeches held up by suspenders. Women dress modestly in simple, single-colored dresses in drab earth tones, with long sleeves, full skirts, and white aprons with little lace or adornment. There seem to be around a hundred of them, give or take a score.

Just beyond the fenced in pasture on the banks of the Lampblack is a mill. Built of darkly stained river rock and soggy timber, this old structure leans precariously toward the Lampblack, its wooden wheel rotating in the slow-moving waters.

The northeast fork of the path leads across a small wooden bridge across a stream that flows through the village down to where it empties into the Lampblack just south of the ferry. On the other side of the bridge the path forks again, with the southern fork paralleling the stream and flanked by more cottages, pastures, and fields, while another fork heads east up to the manor of Mayor Kriegler. This clapboard, saltbox-style house is the largest home in town. Built on a barren hill, the building has a two-story facade that slopes down to a single-story rear with the large, protruding chimney of a centrally placed hearth. The house seems inviting, and much better maintained than Ravenmoor’s other buildings.

Before they reach the door, a surly-looking young man abandons his yard work to confront Shalelu and her companions. “What d’yew want here, strangers?” He grips the sickle he was using to weed with tightly, but does keep it down by his side for the moment.

Shalelu calmly responds, “I am Shalelu Andosana, a ranger of Crying Leaf. I am here as an emissary from Magnimar and I need to speak with Mayor Kriegler. Is he here?”

The surly man replies, “Well, that would be my older brother. But thars a festival today,” he gestures towards the field in the distance where the tents are being raised, “so he’s got no time fer the like of you. You best run along. Come back some other day if you’ve got any legitimate business.” The man then spits in the grass and glares at Shalelu waiting for she and her companions to turn and leave.

“I can assure you sir, that my companions are not nearly fun nor interesting enough for illegitimate business.” Jethrik quips, “And yet, our business really shouldn’t wait. We are horribly behind schedule as it is, and we have no interest in prevailing upon you on your festival day. Much better, I think that we speak to the the mayor and move on. Did you say your brother is over in the field organizing things? How would we recognize him?”

“I didn’t say where he was, I told y’all to get lost.”

“Surely he can spare a moment,” says Zeyala coyly. “A minute or two just?”

Kriegler’s brother suddenly seems a bit embarrassed to be spoken to in such a gentle way by a beautiful lady. He grimaces and says, “Look, my brother is just too busy right now. Maybe once the festival is over he can find time fer you. Just come back tomorrow.”

Just then, the front door of the manor opens and a tall, lean man with a severe bearing, a keen stare, and an imposing mien steps out. He waves at the group and steps over with a smile on his face. His younger brother quickly grows silent and steps aside. “Hello, folks, I’m Mayor Andretti Kriegler. I apologize for my brother Leonard if he came off as rude.” He gives his brother a sharp glance. “He can be a bit overzealous in looking out for me at times. I was just about to head down to the festival grounds to see to the last minute preparations for our monthly Founder’s Festival. You’re more than welcome to attend, and we’d love to have you for the traditional Founder’s Feast that follows. If you don’t mind, walk with me to the grounds and let me know what brings you to our humble village. I promise to do whatever is in my power to help you in whatever way you need.”

Shalelu says, “Thank you Mayor Kriegler. No harm done in regard to your brother. I certainly understood the need to look out for one’s family. As I was telling your brother Leonard, I am Shalelu Andosana, a ranger of Crying Leaf, and I am here on behalf of Magnimar. I am also traveling with a caravan heading for Roderic’s Cove that is in need of supplies. This is Toshio, Keng, Jethrik, and Zeyala who are members of the caravan.”

“Pleased to meet you all,” says the mayor. “Please come this way.” As they are walking he asks, “So, Shalelu, what is your business from Magnimar?”

“I am here on behalf of Jeminda Anikee, a civil servant in Magnimar. She discovered that this village owes 500 gold pieces in back taxes and sent her brother-in-law Elias Kyle here some weeks ago to collect it. He has not been heard of since, and so I have been sent to find out what happened to him and to collect the back taxes.”

Mayor Kriegler scowls a bit when he hears this. “I am sorry about this unfortunate situation. I will admit that Ravenmoor hasn’t paid taxes for some time, as Magnimar hasn’t seen fit to send any tax collectors for several years. If they had, I assure you, we would have paid in full. Elias did make it here a month ago and wasted no time making a fool of himself – ordering townsfolk around and making unreasonable demands when he should have just come to me. When he finally did, I assured him that we would pay the taxes in full but we just needed a bit of time to scrape the funds together. I invited him to stay and enjoy that month’s festival, but Kyle had little interest in what he called ‘backwoods hootenannies.’ He did take up my offer of board, though, and went to bed early.” Mayor Kriegler pauses, and looks off to the festival grounds. He wipes some dust from his breeches and continues, “The next morning, I paid Kyle the taxes in a locked coffer, and he left town just before dawn. I presumed he headed back to Magnimar.”

Toshio scratches his ear (on the side the villagers won’t see) with his middle finger in the “bird” position while looking at the mayor. ‘Gotta make a better signal!‘ he thinks to himself.

Keng takes his axe handle in both hands and is about to lunge at the mayor, when the mayor jumps away and holds out a silver medallion bearing what might be a very stylized butterfly upon it. With his free left hand he touches his breast and cries out, “Grant me sanctuary O Dream Tender!”

“Keng!” shouts Zeyala. “Stop! What the hell are you doing?!”

Despite Zeyala’s plea, Keng attempts to use the axe handle to shove the mayor back against a tree but finds himself unable to move against him. In every other way, he is free, but he can’t bring himself to use force against Mayor Kriegler. Nevertheless, he growls menacingly, “Yer fuckin’ lyin’ ya piece of backwoods shit. Ya get one chance to speak the truth before you lose yer head ferever.”

Mayor Kriegler points to Shalelu and says, “You had better call off your guard dog!” He shakes his head in disgust. “Are you people really emisarries from Magnimar?”

“We come under no false pretenses,” says Zeyala.  ”I can only apologize for our companion’s hasty reaction. The road to Ravenmoor has proven challenging. To say it has not affected our dispositions would be false.”

Shalelu pulls Keng back and whispers in his ear, “Please show some restraint until we get to the bottom of this. Your time will come.”

“He lies,” growls Keng. “Pretty words are lost on such trash.”

Toshio says to the surly half-orc barbarian, “Keng, you are disrupting Shalelu’s mission to learn of the tax collector. We can learn more about the town after that.”

“He lies,” roars Keng. “Paladin are you deaf as well as dumb?  Are you willing to dismiss every evil as simply well intended and fixable if you pray to your woman?  He said no tax collector had arrived and if they had he would pay, and then he said in the same breath one had arrived and had been paid. I will cut out his tongue and lop off his head if he doesn’t start talking now.”

“Which I’m sure he will begin doing the moment you settle down and let him speak without being threatened by your axe!”

“As I said… paladin… he better start talking.  And the next thing out of mouth will be the truth or it will be the last thing out of his mouth.”

Toshio just holds his finger to his lips, indicating for Keng to be quiet.

Keng glowers at Toshio but holds his tongue. Keng thinks to himself, ‘Next time pretty boy holds his finger up to me, I will cut it off.’

Probably because of all the shouting, several villagers are looking out of their cottages. A few are even coming up the street towards them, sickles in hand. Coming down the hill from the estate is Leonard who is gesturing to the villagers to come help the mayor. Leonard and the villagers will certainly reach them in less than a minute.

In the meantime, Mayor Kriegler says in a frosty tone to Keng, “You are confused and were not listening to me. I said that for the past several years no tax collectors had come here. Elias was the first in a long while, and he was just as abusive of my hospitality as you seem to be. The truth is that when I returned from the feast I found him raiding my liquor cabinet. I was quite angry and so I gathered the funds at once and sent him on his way.”

Shalelu says, “Well, that may be, but he never returned to Magnimar.”

Mayor Kriegler replies, “Honestly, I’m not surprised to learn that. I’ve heard rumors that he lit out for Riddleport, in which case I fear the taxes are as good as gone. The fact remains that we still owe a payment, but I’m afraid we don’t have the full payments available to pay the taxes again. I’ll extend to you the same offer I extended to Elias, though – enjoy the festival and tonight’s feast, up to four of you can stay in my home, and I’ll see what I can scrape together from what remains of the town’s funds to pay at least part of what we owe. He,” pointing to Keng, “can return to guarding the caravan. I will not host ruffians in my home. Perhaps at a later date Magnimar might send you north to Riddleport to find out what became of that scoundrel. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must be on my way to help prepare for the afternoon’s festivities.”

“He’s dirty,” snorts Keng.  ”And, that ain’t what he said.”

“Good gods, Keng,” says Zeyala.  ”Holster your axe before you get us all thrown in prison, or worse. Lop off heads first, ask questions later may be the rule in the wild-lands, but Ravenwood and it’s people are protected by the laws of Magnimar. You should count your blessings that you’re being sent back to the caravan and not being marched off to the stockade in chains. Yes,” she continues. “If you won’t listen to me, at least heed Shalelu.”

“By the Nine Hells! You are all a bunch of bleeding hearts. I weary of your company and excuses. Good luck with the ‘farmers.’ “ Keng turns and heads back to the wagons.

Toshio wonders if he made a bad call in letting Keng go. Still, with a paladin’s goals of rooting out evil at its source and eliminating oppression, he feels he should understand the full extent of this situation – and he certainly doesn’t understand it at present – before he starts slashing anyone, lest he be no better than a chaotic barbarian.

The mayor watches Keng leave and then turns and waves off Leonard and the others. He crosses the bridge himself but takes the path towards the fair grounds.

Zeyala follows along and attempts to placate the mayor. “Oh Mayor Kriegler,” says Zeyala. “You know how these savages can be. They come down from the mountains and think they can control everyone with a club and growl. Think of Keng as a civilian in training.”

The mayor cracks a smile and glances at Zeyala, though he doesn’t slacken his pace. “Well, just keep him away from me and we’ll do fine. As for the other business, we can discuss it back at my home after the feast.”

Moonstruck

Lamashan 5 Wealday

The next morning after they bury Lisette’s parents Jharad comes back to Sandru and says, “I can produce the acid you require to test these arrows now. Please proceed with your test for I would like to know why these failed.”

Using Jharad’s magically conjured acid, the test reveals that the silver arrows are not in fact silver, but an alloy of nickel, copper, and zinc. “Damn,” mutters Sandru. “Probably the werewolves in the area have found a way to slip this fake silver into the surrounding markets. Very clever of them! It also means there are probably others involved in a conspiracy. Well, we can’t worry about that now. Perhaps when we get back to Galduria we can alert the local authorities.”

The journey to Ravenmoor is a difficult one. In normal times, it would take only two days, but with the Cinder Road washed away, and everyone in the caravan including the horses suffering from weariness and hunger it takes eight days before they arrive. Shalelu is able to help by providing some game meat, and Jethrik finds in Lisette an able assistant who is able to help him make the most of their meager provisions. This helps, but not enough to fully restore anyone’s strength or spirits. Shalelu is also able to find some wolf’s bane, which Koya stores in a jar in her wagon in case it is needed.

While riding alongside Koya in her wagon, Zeyala enjoys the cool breeze on her face. ”Koya,” she says. ”It has been a treat watching you do your Harrow readings. I am but a simpler healer, but I hope one day my skills go beyond simple cures to true divination. I have learned so much from you, especially during this current leg of our journey. While we were in Magnimar, I picked this scarf out for you.” Zeyala hands Koya the alabaster silk scarf with gold accents.

“Why thank you dearie. It’s beautiful. I’ll start wearing it now in fact.” Koya wraps the scarf around her neck and for the next few days happily shows it off to everyone and tells them that it was a gift from Zeyala in Magnimar.

Shalelu joins the watch rotation that night. She takes her position atop Koya’s wagon so she can survey the surrounding area, her composite longbow at the ready. Keng and Toshio guard Sandru’s wagon, taking turns patrolling the area around the camp, while Henric and Zandu also take turns patrolling but otherwise stay by the second supply wagon or the horse train respectively.

At one point, while Keng is patrolling the area around the camp she calls down to him. “Keng, I am sorry there has been no time to talk with you. As I said last night, I am pleased to see you, and in such good company. In Sandpoint I heard from Sheriff that you saved Vachedi, his jailer, from a fire at great risk to your own life. You are a credit to your kind Keng.”

Keng looks up at her and almost mutters something about elves having big ears thinking she overheard him talking to Jharad, but then he remembers how Shalelu saved his mother and helped him when he was younger learn to fend for himself in the wilds.  He shakes his head slowly his bone beads ticking in the night. He looks at her again and says, “Thank you m’lady. It is good to see you as well. It has been years since I have seen you.” He digs in his belt pouch and takes out the small leather satchel containing the survival kit. “I had something made for you with my earnings.” He scuffs the ground, and then climbs lightly upon the wagon wheel and hands it to her. He is somewhat embarrassed to give a gift to her.

Shalelu accepts the gift with gladness. She scrutinizes the embossed leather pouch and opens it to see the tinder, flint, and fishing line inside. “That was very thoughtful of you Keng. I look forward to hunting with you again. It has been too long.” She leans over to give Keng a quick but friendly embrace. Keng turns a deeper shade of green in embarrassment, but his human side feels a warmth of gladness. He mutters, “Well m’lady it is a small token and… ” he mutters off, “I must be about my rounds. There be were-beasts around!” He drops to the ground and scurries off like his feet are on fire.

Lamashan 6 Oathday, Ascendance Day, waxing moon

The second day out on their renewed journey after the flood is Lamashan the 6th. Toshio joins the others early in the day and says, (even more cheerfully than usual), “Today is a day to celebrate! It is Ascendance Day, the day Iomedae passed the Test of the Starstone and ascended into heaven to be, for a time, the divine herald of Aroden. Now since our supplies are short we can’t really raise a glass to Iomedae’s ascension. Still, I’d like to buy you all a round so we can do so – just as soon as we reach a tavern. Better a late celebration than never, eh?”

“Tastes great and less filling,” grins Keng. ”Thanks.”

After breakfast, Lisette says to Toshio, when the others are busy getting the caravan ready to go, “I would be happy to have a drink with you to celebrate Iomedae’s ascendance.”

“I’d be happy to have you with us when we celebrate.”

Lisette’s eyes glance down at the silver fang pendant that Toshio is wearing. “I was wondering about these. I noticed that Jharad, Jethrik, and Zeyala also wear them. What do they mean? I hope you don’t mind my asking.”

Toshio replies, “Before setting out on this trip, I went to Magnimar. The others came along and it was convenient to travel together. When we arrived, we each went our separate ways on our own business. Some strange things had been happening there, and my order asked me to see if I could help. I tried, and while doing so discovered that a vampire was involved. Things were looking particularly grim when my friends showed up and rescued not only me, but others that had been caught up in events as well. It was quite a lucky chance that they came by just at that time. I’m certain that without their help I would have been killed. Anyway, to commemorate the events and to show my appreciation I got each of them a pendant like this. Keng declined his (I still have it, in case he changes his mind), so I bought him ale instead. He liked that better.”

Lisette looks a little taken aback by this story, then she looks around making sure Keng is not nearby. “There doesn’t seem to be much that Keng does like aside from drinking and fighting. He especially seems to dislike you and I know he wants to kill me. He seems to like the elf though, and that is very strange! I thought orcs especially hated elves.”

Before Toshio can reply, a thought strikes her and she blurts out, “Wait! What happened to the vampire? You said the others rescued you, so you got away but the vampire is still around? Will it come after you?”

“No. It seems the vampire reconsidered the fight. She turned into a mist and fled. One of our acquaintances helped us find its lair, though, and the city guard got involved. They were much tougher than we were, and the vampire was destroyed.”

“Oh. Wow!”

“As for Keng and Jharad, yes, it’s an unusual friendship. But it seems to work for both of them. They both have similar values, although Jharad controls himself much better. Keng needs that kind of camaraderie, and Jharad seems to like having a big, strong, protective puppy following him.”

Lisette giggles at this, which is heartening to see as she had been so quiet and withdrawn, perfectly understandable given recent events. Then Sandru calls out for her to help with some chore or other. “Excuse me, Sir Toshio, it seems I am needed.” She runs off but looks back at Toshio briefly with a warm smile.

Seeing Toshio alone, Ameiko approaches. “You have quite a devoted admirer there, Sir Toshio.” Ameiko would never usually say “sir” to him, so it is quite evident to Toshio that she is teasing him a bit by addressing him the way the former tavern wench does.

“Oh, stop that!” he says, without really meaning it. “‘Sir Toshio,’ indeed.” Ameiko’s playfulness brings a smile to his face. “And how are you this fine morning, my lady? Is the trip meeting your expectations so far?”

“My lady!” Ameiko snorts. “I’m well enough, given that we have barely enough food to get by.” She shrugs.

Toshio nods toward where Lisette went and says, “I’m glad she can laugh again, but actually it’s that devotion I’m worried about. I may be over-reaching myself in saying this – but I hope she doesn’t try to make this a romantic relationship. That was never my intention, but I think she may have other ideas.”

Ameiko takes on a more serious expression and speaks in a lower voice, “That is exactly what I wanted to warn you about. It is clear to everyone that she is in love with you. It is not hard to see why. Be careful with her.”

Toshio gives a little groan, not eager to deal with Lisette on that level. “But what am I to do? How do I be careful of something like that?”

Ameiko was just walking away, but she turns back and says, “Just… I don’t know… Don’t lead her on. Let her know that you can never be available to her. You have your holy mission and cannot be tied down to any woman. Iomedae is the only woman for you, right? Just don’t break her heart, Toshio.” Ameiko swallows a lump in her throat and turns away again to see about some other chores that need doing as the caravan prepares to depart.

“Thanks, Ameiko” he calls as she goes.

To himself he mutters, “Well, that didn’t go as well as it could have, did it?”

Not wanting to examine the choices he suspects will come, he goes to find some way to keep himself useful and busy.

Lamashan 10 Moonday, waxing moon, Harvest Feast

Lamashan the 1oth is the day of the Harvest Feast, when peasants throughout the Inner Sea celebrate the harvest and the end of fieldwork for the year. Still hungry and on the road, the members of Sandru’s caravan allow the day to pass without comment.

Lamashan 11 Toilday, first night of the full moon

On the 11th of Lamashan, Lisette reminds Toshio that it will be the first night of the full moon, in fact the Hunter’s Moon. She asks him if he still feels he should take precautions that night. Toshio is not his usual cheerful self. Lisette’s reminder wasn’t necessary, but the concern is appreciated. “Thank you, Lisette. I’ll certainly take precautions. I’d best go talk to Sandru about those.”

Toshio climbs up next to Sandru, who is driving his wagon. “Sandru, tonight is the night we find out if I have the werewolf’s curse. I think I should be bound and kept alone in a wagon. Also, everyone should be armed with silver, just in case. Will you help me with this?”

Sandru’s expression is grave. He nods and says, “Yes, I think that would be best. Let’s use my wagon. I don’t suppose anyone has any manacles? If not, I guess rope will have to do.”

“Also, I’d like Ameiko to stay well away until we know it’s safe.”

“I think all of us should stay well away from the wagon while you’re in it until we know that it’s safe.”

“I suppose I should ask Lisette when the curse will come, if I have it.”

“Yes, that sounds like a good idea. Let’s go talk to her.”

Lisette tells them that usually those afflicted by the curse transform as soon as the moon’s rays shine in the sky. “I will stay by your side if you wish. I would be in no danger if you should change. Also, if you change I might be able to calm the beast or lead it away from the others if it should escape the bonds.”

Toshio sighs inwardly, imagining the jibes from the others he’ll endure for being alone with Lisette all night – but he hopes that will be the worst result from the evening.

“Thank you, Lisette. Are you sure there will be no danger to you?”

She shrugs. “How could there be? If you change and escape the bonds, your bite can’t infect me, as I am already a werewolf. Also, only silver can harm us when we change, not even the claws or teeth of another werewolf can do much damage, though the afflicted are a little easier to hurt than those of us born to it. Finally, as an elder wolf I will be able to talk to the beast if it emerges and guide it, at least somewhat. We are fierce creatures who respect only strength and the power to destroy, but I could lead the beast away to hunt elsewhere if I am not able to establish dominance.”

Not sure about all of this Toshio wavers a bit. “… Okay.” Then, brightening and smiling to Lisette he adds, “Well, now you can be the one to help me. It will be good to know you’re there in case I need you.”

Toshio finishes with Sandru, saying, “I’ll go tell the others.”

Rather than calling another “conference,” he seeks each wherever they are. His message is this: “Tonight we will find out if I have the curse of the werewolf. I will spend the night locked in one of the wagons. Sandru is going to bind me – just in case, and Lisette will be with me. If I am cursed, there is little chance that I will be able to harm her, and a good chance that she’ll be able to guide me away from the caravan. Even so, I recommend everyone have ready what silver weapons are available.”

Jharad nods to Toshio showing that he understands. “I would trust in the medicine which has been prepared for you, Toshio. But do not worry, we will make sure that no harm comes to the others should things turn rough.”

When informed of the plan, Keng snorts, “Who needs silver, when my axe will lop off a head just as easily.”

As twilight nears, Toshio retires into the wagon with Lisette, Ameiko, Sandru, Jharad, and Zeyala.

Keng sits on the ground outside the wagon’s door holding his axe lightly over his shoulder in a relaxed high guard position. He is ready to strike if Toshio comes out changed.

Jethrik sits by Keng with spell components ready. He tries to affect an air of nonchalance, smoking his pipe and sketching out a scene for his farce. However, he keeps an eye out for the rising moon and trouble in the wagon.

Jharad does nothing more than pat Toshio on the back with a quirky smile. Toshio returns the smile, saying, “Thank you. It’ll turn out okay,” with perhaps more confidence than he really feels.

Jharad leaves the wagon to stand over by Jethrik and Keng. Every now and then he magically alters the sketch for his own amusement, always returning it to its original state after a moment of giggling. He is poised, however, to react quickly should Toshio indeed fall prey to the werewolves curse.

Before leaving the wagon, Zeyala says, “Toshio, I will pray for you. That is all I can do.” She kisses him lightly on the cheek and takes up her spot for the first watch.

During the first watch, Zeyala says to Koya, “I know we must be vigilant. Why could we not be closer to a city where we might find a priest to remove this curse?”

Koya shakes her head. “The gods seem to have plans for our paladin. It is possible that they are testing him, forging him with mighty blows to be the instrument of their will upon Golarion. We should pray that they also show him mercy.”

Ameiko and Sandru see to the binding of Toshio. Sandru realizes that it will not be as simple as tying Toshio’s hands and feet, since they will transform into the thin limbs and paws of a wolf if he indeed afflicted, and so the ropes will simply fall away. In the end, he simply ties a noose with a slipknot around Toshio’s neck and secures it to the wagon.

“If you do change, then at least you’ll have to spend a few moments biting through the rope. That will give us enough time to… well… do whatever needs to be done,” says Sandru grimly.

“I will lead him away if he should change. Have no fear about that,” says Lisette to assure them. “You had both better go. The moon will crest the horizon soon.”

With a last worried look, Ameiko and Sandru leave the wagon. Toshio just says, “Good luck” to them. Outside, they look apprehensively at the horizon, where the moon will soon rise, even before the sun begins to set.

The teamsters look around and begin murmuring among each other. They sense that there has been some unease about Toshio and Lisette since the wolves attacked a week before. It is clear that they have noticed that only Toshio and Lisette are no longer in view.

Inside the wagon, Lisette says to Toshio, “The sun and moon will soon share the same sky.” She laughs, but it is a mirthless one. She turns to him and moves closer. “Are you the sun to my moon? Or are you now bound to the moon as I am?” She moves even closer to Toshio until they are almost touching. “If you do change, that will mean you will be cut off from the grace of Iomedae and the heavenly powers. They will cast you away like any master would a crippled servant. Why don’t we run off then, together? I will show you a new life, a freer life.” This last she says practically whispering in his ear. Toshio can feel her sweet breath upon his cheek and feels a slight, though unwanted (?) thrill. She grips his knee and gazes into his eyes awaiting his response.

Listening to Lisette, Toshio weighs his response. Her closeness is quite suggestive and he can’t help but think of what might be if he let it. But he remembers being cut off from the light of Iomedae once before, and doesn’t want to experience that again. Taking a deep breath, he responds, “I can be neither sun nor moon to you. I am pleased to have helped you start a better life, even though it costs us both dearly, and may soon prove more costly still. But ‘you and I’ cannot be. Not long term. If I have no curse I must leave you and continue to serve Iomedae. If tonight proves me cursed I must seek to remove the curse and seek atonement. If that works I must return to Iomedae’s service. If that doesn’t work I will end the curse myself. I appreciate what you are offering and what it means for you, but it cannot be with me. While I can, I will continue to help you. But it won’t end with us together except as friends when our paths cross. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I can’t offer more.”

Lisette backs away, clearly upset and embarrassed. “So, am I nothing more than an object of pity for you? Just another soul to save? Tell me, is it that you are married to Iomedae, or are you really waiting for another?” She looks away in the direction Ameiko took away from the wagon.

Toshio follows Lisette’s gaze toward Ameiko. He sighs in annoyance and frustration with the situation before answering. “I am committed, not married, to Iomedae’s ways.

“As for Ameiko, our families have a long history together. My family has served hers for generations. Now? I travel with and serve her as my family has served her family, but I’m not waiting for her.” Toshio hopes this is true of himself, and that his semi-evasion goes unnoticed. He’s still not sure where his relationship with Ameiko may lead, but he does know he doesn’t want to be cut off from Iomedae’s light again.

“You are not an object of pity to me,” he continues. “I saw that you sought a better life and thought you should have that chance, so I tried to help. Please forgive me if I’ve wronged you in that.”

“You don’t have to lie to me. I see the way you look at her. There is more there than just a wish to serve. Or maybe you are lying to yourself too.” Lisette backs away and covers her eyes for a moment. “I am sorry, Sir Toshio. You have been kind to me. More than I deserve. I am just a commoner after all, I should have nothing to do with great lords and ladies, elven mages and huntresses, bards and barbarians from the Cinderlands. I think you have all done all you need or can do.” She looks up again, but this time not at Toshio but outside the wagon. “The moon is coming! Its call is in my blood! Would you see me as I really am, Sir Toshio?” Even as she asks, fur begins to sprout all over her body, her mouth elongates into a fanged snout, her ears lengthen and become pointed. She grows taller and more muscled, causing her dress to tear and fall away. At the same time, Toshio is aware that he himself is not changing. An inner sense of peace and protection wells up in him, and Toshio knows that by the grace of the goddess he need no longer fear illness or disease, whether natural or supernatural – assuming that the transformed Lisette does not tear him into pieces in the next few moments.

The wolf-beast growls at him and attempts to speak. It is Lisette’s voice but deep, rough, and slurred as it is coming from a throat and mouth no longer suited to human speech. “How could you love this?!” She howls in anguish and slams the side of the wagon with a mighty claw. Yet for all this, Toshio senses no evil in her, and he realizes that her rage is directed at herself and not at him, at least for the moment.

Jethrik jumps up saying, “I don’t think Toshio is making that noise.”

“Not good!” shouts Sandru as he whips out his scimitar and puts himself between the horse train and his wagon.

Shalelu nocks a silver arrow and positions herself near the lead horse of Sandru’s wagon, ready to shoot at any werewolf that might emerge.

Ameiko draws her mithral rapier and rushes to Sandru’s side, calling out, “Toshio! Are you okay? What’s happening?”

The four teamsters jump up and though they draw their maces, they quickly back away from Sandru’s wagon.

Keng springs to his feet and stands next to the front seat of the wagon with his axe raised above his head ready to strike.

Before Toshio can say a word or anyone else can move, the wolf-like Lisette leaps out of the back of the wagon, transforming in mid-leap into her full wolf form and runs off into the nearby trees.

Koya says to Zeyala, “She ran off! Lisette has transformed and run off! I pray Toshio is alright!”

Zeyala moves towards the others with arms outstretched. “Blessings upon my friends,” she chants.

And so she’s gone,’ Toshio thinks as Lisette disappears. Toshio can only imagine what mental or emotional turmoil Lisette lives with. He hurriedly removes the binding from his neck. As he fumbles with the rope he calls loudly, “Don’t hurt her!”

Ameiko and Sandru hurry into the wagon and see that Toshio is okay. Shalelu, hurries over to where Lisette disappeared and stares into the dark forest. “Do you think she’s left for good?”

Jharad smirks and lets out a loud guffaw. Producing an orange from thin air he holds it up to cover the rising moon and says to nobody in particular, “If only.” He then peels and eats the fruit.

Jethrik asks, “I’d say we should try to chase her, but what would we do if we caught her? Where will she go and what will she do now? And who’s going to wash all the pots?”

Koya says, “Best to let her be. I have noticed that she prefers to run from her problems. She may indeed return, but as friend or foe?”

“I doubt she’ll be back. I’m sure she’ll be okay – she’s got a strong sense of self-preservation. I just hope she doesn’t regress into evil.”