Rise of the Runelords

Runelord Reflections 2 (Day 3)

Hunting, Feasting, Undead Slaying

Day 3 (3.6.15)

The Sisterhood of Steel

The day broke magnificently, the cool autumn breeze giving the town a fresh, invigorating feel. Which was fortunate, since coming up with a name everyone could agree upon had taken long into the night, and I’d consumed perhaps too much of Ameiko’s excellent spirits. After breaking our fast on biscuits and bacon, the Sisterhood of Steel was ready for action.

Coming up with a name, something to symbolize the ad-hoc unit of guardians we were suddenly in the position to represent… it was important. I knew that from my time in Hyperborea, and to a lesser extent Magnimar. A name to catch the interest of those who might be in a position to offer us something. I wasn’t sure exactly what, but the future lay ripe with possibilities after our fortuitously witnessed performance the previous evening. I adamantly refused anything incorporating “flowers” or other girly shit, and Rakonia made it clear the name needed to be pronounceable after some of Vega’s more outlandish suggestions. She had a point; try saying Antianeirai.

The nuances were important; it was, after all, the informal title that people would use to identify us. The Sisterhood of Steel… the name rang with a certain strength, as well as the inherent feeling of camaraderie evoked by the implied nearly-familial relationship between its members. I had become fixated on using mercy in the name, but I had to agree that hearing the Mercykillers were arriving in town might not have the intended awe-inspiring effect.

I’d expected to start the day with a sense of purpose, but yawned and blinked blearily as we stepped out into the streets, feeling uncomfortably full. Damn it, these free breakfasts were starting to get to me. Aside from the full belly, everything felt pretty normal. The sun, well above the rooftops of the flat little city, promised another day of comfortable warmth. But as the cool breeze washed over us, I couldn’t help remembering that winter was coming.

After standing around in the street for a moment, the six of us shrugged shoulders and went off in different directions. As the town awoke and went about its business, I took the opportunity to meet the people as I walked through the streets, exchanging pleasantries and wishing them health after the assault the night before, and hinted at future vengence to those who looked more angry than shocked.. I knew full well that everyone recognized us, it being a small town and us being strangers, armed and sometimes armored. They reacted with the expected gratitude, and I found my spirits rising at the prospects of a friendly populace.

Suddenly, something was whispering in my ear. I jerked my head around, my long hair whipping a man walking nearby right in the eyes. He let out a startled cry I pretended to ignore, searching for the invisible whisperer.

Then I heard it again.

I turned to the man who had a palm pressed to his right eye, looking at me warily. “Did you hear that?” I paused, he looked at me in confusion. The whispering started again. “There! That!”

With one wide, frightful eye, he nodded slowly, his face suddenly pale. So I’m not going crazy, I thought with relief. That hadn’t been the first time I’d heard voices.

“-disturbed the burial ground. Meet us at the cemetery behind the church, I’ll keep Abstalar from going in.” I frowned, taking a minute to remember Abstalar Zantus was the High Priest of Sandpoint, and had led the dedication ceremonies the the day before.

I looked around, seeing the church rise up just down the road a few hundred feet. The town wasn’t that big. I made my way there, striding purposefully as I saw a couple other figures approach the area.

The whispering voice turned out to have been Vega, who waved at us through the wrought iron gate. Her arcane magics had been mainly expressed with bolts of force she’d hurled unerringly at her foes, and although she called herself an arcanist rather than a wizard or sorcerer, the distinction, I confess, was lost on me. “Over here,” she called out in her real voice, and we entered the church grounds, heading towards the rows of stone marking the town’s dead.

At the edge of the graveyard, a small stone building stood, worn but looking well-made. Moss clung to the rough stonework, and a pair of double doors lay slightly ajar, a black slice of the room’s shadowed interior revealed.

“What-” I started, but Rainbow made a shushing noise, holding up her hand as she chanted under her breath. Her eyes narrowed in recognition.

“I can sense the taint of undeath in there,” she confirmed. I stared, then nodded in appreciation. Undead creatures, within a tomb, inside a cemetery… who would have thought?

“It was the former High Priest’s tomb,” Vega explained quietly, “and Abstalar found it open this morning. I thought I should get in touch with you, first.”

“How did he die?” Zeyara asked suddenly.

Vega appeared to think about it for a moment. “He was slain when the church burned down.”

“Five years ago, during the time of trouble,” I added unnecessarily, feeling the urge to contribute and wanting to prove I was following along..

“Do we know how the church burned down?” the fetchling inquired, glancing around. I shrugged, not remembering.

“Maybe we could continue this discussion later,” Rainbow chided, stepping up to the doorway she’d not taken her eyes off. Vega spoke a few words and with a gesture the doors parted fully. Eerily, six yellow-white skeletons stood, the hollow pits of their eyes seeming to stare at us with evil intent. I’d never seen true necromancy before, and the early afternoon suddenly felt quite cold, sending a shiver down my back. Rainbow stepped forward into the darkness towards them until I grabbed her shoulder, holding her back. “Wait-” I cautioned, worried about the diminutive woman being cut down by a swarm of undead.

“It’s fine,” the waist-high shaman assured, and unleashed a wave of energy, pulsing into the room. I watched as the coruscating light washed over the creatures inside the dim crypt, the skeletal bodies falling apart before my eyes. Zeyara, Skalmold and Rakonia entered to the sound of crushing bone, ending with the unmistakable crunching sound of axe sinking into bone. From the scattered remains that greeted us, the physical method was no less effective.

So much for the undead menace.

“It can’t be!” a familiar voice shouted from the doorway, reminding me of long-winded speeches and boring, incessant droning.

We turned to the priest, explaining that these were animated dead and that we were most certainly not desecrating the hallowed dead of the town, but he was staring at the central sarcophagus in shock and horror. I turned, noting how its heavy stone lid had been pulled back, and looking within was greeted by the sight of nothing.

“He’s gone! Ezakien Tobyn is gone!”

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I half listened as the more inquisitive members of the group grilled Abstalar. Ezakien had been the former High Priest who’d died five years back. He’d adopted a young aasimar, some girl who’d had celestial blood somewhere in her ancestry. Demanding efreeti in one’s bloodline could be annoying enough; I can’t imagine what having a nosy angel as a relative must be like.

The five-year-dead High Priest was nowhere to be found; his skeleton either taken or turned into one of the monstrosities that had waited within the tomb. Abstalar suspected it was the former, some kind of unholy desecration of the good man’s final resting place.

Shaken, the current HIgh Priest of Sandpoint took his leave, heading back towards the newly consecrated church, bidding us to inform the sheriff of what we’d found.

I frowned as the others quickly picked up on the idea, and soon we were making our way towards the constabulary. Law enforcement could be a pain in the ass, but at the moment we were on the up and up, with the added bonus of the previous evening’s heroics to bolster his opinion of us. If unable to avoid such figures, I preferred to befriend them, as friendship went a long way towards turning a blind eye to lesser offenses.

Sheriff Belor Hemlock was an imposing man, his towering frame clad in well-worn boiled leather armor, a mark of office displayed from a cord hanging around his neck. He watched us with what looked like unfriendly suspicion, but what I soon realized was his only expression, a kind of intense sternness. “You’re saying that the goblin assault was in fact a diversion, distracting us from the mysterious desecration of a prominent citizen’s grave?”

“Pretty much. And don’t forget the use of necromancy amongst the crimes,” Rakonia reminded helpfully. If possible, the sheriff’s eyes grew even grimmer. At the news, not the dwarf’s odd, closely-shorn hair. The unkempt ranger had spent some time in the area, and the two had a working relationship from her days scouting the countryside.

A brief discussion led to the conclusion to bring the news further up the social ladder, this time to the mayor herself.

“What’s her name again?” I asked.

I got a dirty look from the otherwise stern-faced lawman. “Mayor Deverin. Mayor Kendra Deverin.”

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“Your town is a lot more exciting that I had been led to believe. It’s been an interesting visit so far.”

The mayor looked slightly uncomfortable. “Yes, usually, it’s a very quiet place.”

I nodded. “That’s what we keep hearing…” Smiling at her slightly flustered expression, I continued, trying to get to the point without sounding too mercenary. “As it happens, the Sisterhood of Steel,” I paused, waving an arm to encompass my companions, “is looking for a place to make themselves useful.” Make ourselves useful: my favorite euphemism for mercenary work, fighting for payment.

“Ah. Well. We’ll have to see what the future holds. For the time being…” and she launched into her pitch about helping out and getting on friendly terms with the townsfolk as prerequisites for any future association.

Rakonia ticked off several points regarding the goblins, spicing it up with speculation based on her previous encounters with the foe. Her passionate hatred of the things was a selling point.

As I watched Mayor Deverin’s eyes widen incredulously at the frothing dwarf’s ever-more-violent descriptions of what she wanted to do to the green-skinned monsters, Sheriff Belor interrupted with an uncomfortably fake cough. “Yes, well, seeing as how the little brutes are working together, this represents a direct threat to the city. With the numbers of those tribes, united, Sandpoint is in serious danger.” He stared at the mayor grimly. “I need to get to Magnimar, get a detachment of guards to help secure the city. Until this menace is dealt with…” He shook his head slowly.

“What happened last night could happen again,” the mayor finished, brow creased with worry.

“Probably worse,” I mentioned, drawing everyone’s gaze. “Since this attack was clearly just a diversion.” I knew that because others had pointed that out earlier. “And whoever was behind it, well, they got what they wanted,” I continued, drawing a baleful look from the sheriff, “so at least part of their nefarious plan is well on its way to fruition.”

In the silence that followed, Zeyara stepped in. “It is clear that the goblin tribes need to be dealt with, as well as their human or humanoid ally,” she proclaimed cooly, the most obvious thing in the world.

“Yes, we would offer a sizeable reward for the destruction of the enemy goblin tribes-”

“What about individual goblins? Can we work out some, I don’t know, bounty or something?” I asked, struck by the extreme justice of my idea.

Kendra Dreven’s crafty eyes narrowed in surprise. “Why yes, now that you mention it, there is a bounty on goblins. Belor-” she began, shooting the sheriff an inquiring glance.

“Five gold for a pair of ears.”

“Ears?” Rainbow asked, mildly shocked.

“Pair?” I asked, disheartened. Each would have been better.

Zeyara causally withdrew a long string from underneath her shirt, dozens of small, pointy ears sewn into a rather disturbing necklace. But instead of seeing savage war trophies, I was looking at pure, gleaming gold, and that changes one’s perspective on the sight of severed body parts. When she held it out to the mayor, Kendra gave her a queasy shake of her head, pointing instead at the sheriff. Dutifully, the powerful man accepted the grisly trophies with admirable stoicism.

Mayor Deverin seemed to come to a decision, her face resuming its mildly friendly expression. “With Belor gone-” It took me a second to remember Belor was Sheriff Hemlock, “-the town will be without its strongest protector.” The sheriff’s frown, if anything, increased in its seriousness at the praise, his apparent equivalent to blushing. “Sandpoint would be most grateful to you if you’d lend us your talents while the sheriff brings back the soldiers.”

I frowned at the mention of lend, but the others were quick to assure the mayor that of course we’d help the town out. Belor Hemlock left immediately for the metropolis of Magnimar, the largest city in hundreds of miles, along the coastline sixty miles south of Sandpoint.

Where I’d just come from, actually.

There were advantages, I thought to myself, as the mayor called for certain documents to be drawn up, affixing her seal to orders giving us temporary entry into the Sandpoint milita. Someone started to ask about obtaining some official sanction to give orders and command the local troops, but I hastily waved the idea away. That wasn’t how we were going to get people to do what we wanted.

But we would get them to do what we want. Of that, I had little doubt.

With an objective that kept us in town for the near future, we left Mayor Deverin’s office with a modest sack of gold for our performance the day before, along with a sizeable bounty collected on goblin ears.

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Hitting the streets again, I set to work convincing everyone we should take Aldern Foxglove up on his offer of a boar hunt in the Tickwood Forest, seeing as how we were about to become confined to town for the foreseeable future on guard duty.

It was easier than I’d anticipated. Even Vega decided to come along, a large point in favor of the idea being the promise of riding horses Aldern had mentioned the group of us. Horses that I fully intended for us to keep. Travel was much more pleasant atop a horse than trudging along the road. Once your thighs get use to it, anyway. They do need a good deal of food, but seeing as how the horse carries its food, your food, and you yourself… overall its a pretty good deal.

Finding ourselves near the Feathered Serpent, a shop specializing in magical items, we picked up a wand that promised healing properties. After the deadly melee of the goblin assault, we’d pooled our money to purchase something to keep us alive. Rainbow held on to the wand, looking more like a miniature walking stick in her tiny hands.

We made our way back to the Rusty Dragon Inn, where Aldern was staying while in town. Ameiko would be getting the place ready for the afternoon crowds when we arrived, and I was determined to sidled up to her with a proposition.

However, we were greeted with the sounds of raised voices. Shouting, even. It was in a strange, sing-song language nobody understood but Vega recognizes as Tian.

The place that Ameiko Kijitsu’s family was supposedly from.

We burst through the front doors into a full on family fight. An aging man shook his fist at a furious-looking Ameiko, shouting incomprehensibly. Ameiko, shaking her head angrily to clear it of the white-streaked bangs, set aside the food she’d been preparing and very carefully laid down the knife she’d been using to chop vegetables.

The old man said something else, his voice cutting even across the language boundary. I saw Ameiko’s face go pale, and her assistant bowed her head in apparent shock. The man stood his ground, a look that almost dared her to do something in response.

With a shout of fury, Ameiko lashed out, the skillet in her hand ringing a glancing blow off her father’s skull. The man staggered backwards, dazed, and I saw the look of regret enter the woman’s expression, and couldn’t help feeling the slightest bit disappointed.

“Is there a problem here, Ameiko?” I asked sweetly, letting my fierce grin directed at the man speak for itself. “Is this guy bothering you?” I knew who he was, but sometimes it makes sense to play dumb.

“I-” she began, stopping to collect her thoughts.

The old man used the silence to address us. “Not your business!” he roared. “You go back, where you come from, stay out of our town. This trouble come with you!”

“Now wait a sec,” I said, annoyed. “We helped save your butts from the goblin raiders that were otherwise rampaging through your town last night.”

“I go now.” Frowning, the old man turned to leave, muttering to himself. I looked inquiringly at Ameiko, a raised eyebrow as if to say “Should we stop him?”

Vega followed the man into the street, calling out something along the lines of “And don’t come back!”

Ameiko disappeared into the kitchen, shoulders shaking with emotion, and I waited a minute before heading back to comfort her in the best way I could think of.

“We’d like you to make us some food for the road,” I explained, ticking off the compliments one by one. “You’re cooking is the best in town. You’re an adventurer yourself so you know what it’s like out there, what to make and how to make it last on the journey…” I could see her warming up to the idea, and let the thought marinate over some early autumn cider.

“I can make you a couple weeks worth of trail rations, and only for, say, half price…” she paused, perhaps seeing the wounded look in my eye. “Screw it, free of charge,” she stated, and I grinned widely at her generosity. I started to thank her, but she was already planning out the meals in her head, and disappeared into the kitchen without another word.

The others had found Aldern Foxglove, and the dandy, a term I don’t use lightly, was positively beaming at the attention. His grin got even wider as I sat down at the table beside him. “So, Aldern, we’ve decided to take you up on your generous offer.”

“You have?” he asked, slightly breathless and utterly delighted. I almost winced at his eagerness.

“Yes, it sounds like it would be a great time. I haven’t been hunting around here.”

“I have-” Rakonia began, no doubt ready to burst into another one of her how-I-killed-a-certain-animal-then-ate-it stories.

“There was mention of horses,” Zeyara interrupted slyly.

“For boar hunting,” I added helpfully.

“Oh, yes, of course!” the man agreed, adjusting his ridiculously frilled collar. “One simply cannot hunt boar without the proper equipment, a horse being an essential part.” He nodded, trying to look knowledgeable.

I smiled, but inwardly I’d begun to have my doubts. These doubts were amplified into concerns upon really listening to the name of the forest that we were entering: the Tickwood.

As we left, I glanced back at Ameiko. Daddy issues. Hmm.

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A short shopping spree followed. Six riding horses were acquired, or rather five and a pony for Rainbow. Aldern went out of his way to be generous, and others were quick to take him up on his offer to equip us for the hunt.

“I’d like a bow,” Rakonia said.

“Er, well, yes, that could be arranged…”

“A composite bow?”

“Er, I suppose-”

“Masterwork?”

“Unfortunately, I don’t have a great deal of, um, funds on hand. This was more of a clear-my-head trip; most of what I had was given in donation to the new church. The rest, to you, and to pay for the horses. Perhaps, if you were to visit me in Magnimar…”

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Two hours later and we had to abandon the horses.

The animals were sound of body and hoof, but aside from that little could be said of their merits. They were certainly not the pristine and beautifully muscled creatures I’d seen on occasion during my years in Hyperborea, when the knights would ride through on the way to one of their joint exercises with the centaur cavalry.

The problem was the forest. Tickwood sounded disturbingly specific about its menace, and as we approached Aldern gave us the details. It was, indeed, host to an infestation of giant, blood-sucking ticks. “But not to worry, they haven’t been a problem for years,” he assured us offhandedly. Even hundreds of yards away I was already scanning the treetops for signs of humungous bugs, my flesh crawling at the thought.

The forest was old, the trees large and spaced well apart from one another, but between them undergrowth made the way difficult for horses. After a few minutes blustering through the woods, we turned back and hobbled our mounts well beyond the edge of the trees. Silently, I hoped that when we returned they wouldn’t have become a meal for giant ticks. Or wolves. Or goblins…

The forest was dim, light dappling across the soft loam of its floor as we crept through, snaking our way past brambles and especially dense thickets of plantlife. I quickly felt lost, and concentrated solely on keeping an eye on at least one of the others at all times, wishing I’d brought my precious compass along. Until I remembered the ticks with a burst of fear and glanced up, expecting the worst.

Nothing dropped down on my face.

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An hour that felt more like four later, Rakonia paused ahead of us. Rainbow, hesitant to partake in the taking of an animal life, had nevertheless been caught up in the thrill of the hunt, and waved us on excitedly. Ahead, rooting through an exposed patch of muddy earth, a pair of large, bristly pigs snuffled and grunted.

Vega’s voice whispered in our ears. “They’re eating truffles!”

Listening to their contented grunting, I noticed, first, the size of the creatures. Quite large; pigs were large, too, but pigs didn’t have the second thing I noticed. The short, curved tusks that sprouted from their mouths, curling up and away out of their lower jaws, looked deadly even at this distance.

I had the stupid goblin bow in my hand, thinking of taking down one of the pigs at a distance. A hundred feet away, the grunting suddenly stopped, and I drew as my companions took aim, loosing a ragged volley of bolts and arrows at the beasts, none of which landed on target.

Enraged, the boars stood up and faced us as I dropped my bow and picked up the naginata, seeing others continue to shoot, except for Skalmold, who advanced further than me but kept her temper and resisted the urge to rush headlong at the beasts.

The first of the pigs rushed forward, straight at the blonde barbarian. Skalmold swung the great hammer that was her weapon of choice, dubbed an Earthbreaker. The beast avoided the blow, and lashed out violently with its razor-sharp tusks, and I watched with horror as the hardened warrior fell backwards, holding the ruins of her stomach in with one arm.

Moving forward, I speared the boar that had felled Skalmold, allowing Zeyara the opportunity to stab it from behind. Rakonia fended off the other beast that lashed out at the dwarf in a frenzy, Vega unleashing bolts into the creature at close range. Rainbow rushed in, healing the wounded with a wave of life-giving energy, and the remaining boar died abruptly from a terminal case of axe-through-the-skull.

With varying degrees of shakiness, we let out sighs of relief, using the new wand we’d purchased with our profits from the goblin assault to heal the paler-than-usual Skalmold. “Boars put up quite a fight,” someone commented.

“If that’s the worst these woods have to throw at us-” I began cockily, before an icy chill of dread ran down my spine. I looked up, into the canopy above.

Immense, chitinous monstrosities scrabbled in the treetops, gathering themselves as if to leap.

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“Above us!”

“Ticks!”

“They’re huge!”

“Disgusting!”

Everyone reacted instantly to the warning, each in a distinctly different way as the five horrific creatures began to move. Vega had been off on her own investigating the site for truffles, but after seeing one of the enormous monsters directly above her, hastened back to the group.

One of the ticks scuttled down a tree directly above the Aldern, the gawping nobleman standing there uselessly as the monstrosities advanced. As large as a good-sized dog, the creature’s movement was alien and unnerving, its spindly limbs and terrible . “Stay behind me!” I warned, slicing into the approaching creature as it came around the thick trunk, shifting back to interpose myself between him and the next closest.

Vega was hurtling magical energy bolts, Rakonia was slashing viciously with her axe, but it was Skalmold who was making the best of things, laying about with her hammer and smashing the hard-shelled creatures as if swatting flies.

I lashed out at the tick closest to me and the nobleman, the blade turned aside by the creature’s hard exoskeleton. Panicking, I felt the creature latch on, digging in to my shoulder with its horrid mouth, all serrations and barbs. I wrestled against its clamboring limbs, feeling it beginning to drain the blood from my limb with a rising sense of panic. Blasts of magical energy slammed into the monstrosity, and with gasping breaths I hurled the inert corpse away from me with disgust, examining my arm only for an instant before looking away.

Skalmold was cleaning the last of the creatures’ ichor off of the face of her great hammer, and Rainbow once again used her connections to the spirit world to rejuvenate the flesh of her allies. The flesh of my arm reknit, but the memory remained.

Scanning the canopy above us revealed no more imminent threats, and we looked at one another for a moment before Aldern broke the silence.

“That was amazing…” he breathed. He looked at me with unmistakable adoration. “You saved me.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “Now, what to do about these boar?”

His eyes widened in surprise, recalling the purpose of our being here in the first place. “Of course! Well, I suppose we… hmm. I’ve always had serv-, er, experts, to do this kind of thing for me.” I studied him carefully, hoping for his sake he hadn’t been implying we were his servants. More like babysitters. Or bodyguards-

“First thing is to bleed ‘em,” stated Rakonia bluntly, and went about putting word into deed. The rest of us watched, some sickly fascinated, others merely sickened or fascinated. I watched with amazement as the fluid gushed out of the creature’s slit throat, dangling from the ropes that suspended it head-down from an immense branch overhead. Mostly, though, I was curious about the skinning. Vega recruited Zeyara to hunt for truffles, and with some friendly help the group soon had a large quantity of the sought-after mushrooms.

Luckily, nothing was drawn to the smell of all the blood, or if it was it stayed out of sight. Before the creatures were fully drained, it was decided we should make haste out of the forest as soon as the creatures’ guts had been carefully ripped out and tossed aside. Nobody was eager to encounter any more giant insectile blood-suckers. I still felt drained, and the image of those terrible jaws was something I feared would haunt my nightmares for days to come.

We dragged the carcasses back to the edge of the wood, finding our horses right where we’d left them, unharmed and unstolen. Skinning the boars was messier than I’d thought, and required lots of patience and effort: apparently skin didn’t just rip off nicely like the rind of an orange. More like an apple; you have to cut it out.

Aldern Foxglove kept the two boar-heads as trophies, particularly enamored with the one split open by Rakonia’s waraxe.

“So, Lord Foxglove, now seems the right time to discuss the bodyguard duties we’ve been performing for you all afternoon.” Zeyara’s alien yellow-green eyes stared at the nobleman craftily.

He looked at her, again with that startled expression, before turning to me for some reason. I shrugged. “It was more like dangerous work than the leisurely hunting trip you made it out to be.”

“Oh… If I in any way misled you,” he began with an earnest expression, pausing to look at the others. “Any of you, you have my utmost apologies. I was told the ticks were no longer a problem-”

“Who told you that?” demanded Zeyara.

“Uh, a man, at the tavern. He was telling me… told me about… hmm. He was rather into his cups, come to think of it-”

“We appreciate your generosity,” I interrupted. “The horses and the food are most welcome.” I paused, making it clear I was waiting for him to acknowledge my graciousness.

“The pleasure is-” he began belatedly, but I had already started talking again.

“The Sisterhood of Steel is there for their friends. I hope you’ll remember us, in the future. We’re on the lookout now for an organization, or possibly a family, to partner with. If you happen to know of anyone willing to risk a small investment for a potentially great reward, I’d be very, very grateful if you’d let us know.”

I eyed the others, particularly Rakonia, and shook my head once. Aldern stuttered for a few moments. “I, that is, it is possible that I could be of some service to you ladies,” he stated in a rush, eyes locked on me. It was starting to get uncomfortable.

It was time to get back to Sandpoint. “We’ll work something out. I’m sure we’ll be in touch “ He gave me a lopsided grin when I said that. “You sure you don’t need an escort?” I asked for the third time, not quite trusting his judgement.

Aldern Foxglove turned in his saddle, viewing the road that stretched out along the coast ahead of him. “Positive. Thanks for all the help. For saving me and Puddles last night.” He grinned, pulling his small dog out from its riding sack where it has spent most of the day. The dog was surprisingly well-behaved and above all silent, and therefore its presence was ignorable and unnecessary to mention. Until now. “And the trophies!” he exclaimed, patting the sacks hanging from his steed.

We bid farewell to the strange, seemingly inept and possibly enamored nobleman, turning our newly acquired horses back to town.

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As the sun set, the Rusty Dragon sprang into life. Guests from across the town of Sandpoint began to arrive, some looking eager, others apprehensive until their eyes fell upon what awaited inside.

A fire blazed merrily in the large hearth that lay to our backs, the windows thrown open to the refreshing evening winds off the ocean. The hundreds of pounds of wild pork that we’d provided had incited a frenzy of preparation once we informed Ameiko of our intention.

Invitations were sent out to all of the people of the city who’d lost relatives or loved ones in the goblin attack, as well as those injured or the rare few who had acted with mention-worthy valor. Once everyone had arrived and the heaping plates of various slices of pig were placed upon the tables, we took turns addressing the crowd.

“To friends!”

“To the fallen!”

“To REVENGE against those who have wronged us!”

By the third toast, everyone had loosened up and I spent the next hour flitting from table to table and group to group, sharing a few moments with each. You never knew who’d turn out to be important at some point in the future.

Early on, we received a message that the town’s premier scout had returned to town.

“Shelay-who?” I asked.

“Shelalu Andosana. The sheriff mentioned her, said she might-”

The pleasant buzzing in my ears droned out the rest, and we excused ourselves to meet with the illustrious ranger. Other than the fact she was an elf, I remember little else about her, mostly information that Sheriff Belor had already given us. There was some strange eye contact between the elven scout and Zeyara, but aside from that the trip was wasted.

Getting back to the inn, I began making up for lost time. Two hours after the dinner began, half of the room emptied, but the volume and drinking had not diminished significantly, at least from what I could tell. I was playing a game that involved throwing small knives at a series of concentric circles on the wall, and was finally confident I’d made the perfect toss when something rudely jerked at my arm.

“The Iss woman is here,” Zeyara mentioned. I regarded her blankly, mid-chew. “She’s the one we visited last night. With the husband who angrily called her away.” Now I remembered. Carefully, I swallowed.

“Whose son kept staring at you like he’s in love with you,” Rakonia added helpfully.

“He’s in love with Rainbow, if anyone. More his size, anyway.” I ignored Rainbow’s offended look. “Where is she?” I asked pointlessly, realizing that the sobbing sound that I’d become aware of had drawn everyone else’s attention. I followed their eyes to Megan Iss who was looking around the room with equal measures of despair and panic, if you can imagine such a thing.

As we approached, her eyes lit up with manic intensity, begging us between excruciatingly frequent sobs and gasps. Her story was garbled, but involved some kind of bad girl that her husband had disappeared with. Not her son, who we’d met, nor her young daughter, both of whom were presumably still in the house. Which, according to her, meant danger.

It sounded like rambling, honestly, but we decided to check it out in an abundance of caution.

Approaching her house, the woman stopped. “No further, I can’t… can’t go back-”

“Alright, alright,” I said patronizingly, hands raised and palms out in the universal ‘calm down!’ signal. Frustratingly, the woman edged backward and fled, leaving me suspicious.

“Uh, the door’s locked.”

I groaned. Glancing around, people were beginning to stare, mostly thanks to Megan’s overly-dramatic exit. Not the ideal time for Zeyara to whip out her lockpicking tools. Rakonia headed back towards the inn, trailing after the matriarch of the Iss family. One who, we hoped, had a key.

Several awkward and unpleasant minutes of waiting later, the dwarf returned bearing the only thing that made the delay worth it. The door clicked open, and we tiptoed inside, not silent but trying not to be too obvious, at least.

Legs poked out from underneath a table; approaching, we discovered the unmoving form of her son, whose name escapes me to this day. A quick examination by Rainbow revealed the boy to be near death, an apparent victim of multiple bites across his legs and thighs. Rakonia identified the wounds, apparently, because she said “Those were made by a fox.”

“Werefox!” Skalmold whispered with superstitious dread, her long blond hair seeming to bristle at the notion of moon-touched beasts. I myself contemplated an old story I’d heard regarding something called a kitsune, and idly wondered if there was a connection between such a creature and the exotic Kaijitsu family from a far away land…

Rakonia and Rainbow contemplated what to do with the boy, but time was of the essence so I tossed a tablecloth on top of him and beckoned the others onward.

In a bedroom upstairs, we found the patriarch of the Iss family. Dead. His body looked to have been bitten hundreds of times, great chunks of flesh missing from the corpse, some of which lay scattered about the bed on which he lay.

A soft voice, possibly a giggle, penetrated the thin walls of the room. Carefully, we crept back into the hallway and up a steep flight of stairs that no doubt led to the attic. My fiery gaze can see even in complete darkness, so I confidently ascended the stairs with Zeyara, Rakonia and Skalmold into the blackness above.

What I saw was a little girl, talking quietly to herself, sitting beside some small objects, possibly toys. Alone, in the dark. It was eerie. The others barely had time to clear the stairs when a horrific feeling of misery swept across me, a sorrow and loss so profound that I’d not felt its like since my family-caravan’s untimely demise.

The others, too, registered shock, especially the blonde barbarian who, unlike the fetchling or dwarf, couldn’t see in the dark. A small, childlike shape seemed for form out of the deepest recesses of the room, it’s hideous shape seen only for a moment before it was hurtling toward us.

Wrestling the sadness that gripped me into something more like anger, with slashing fury my blade cut sweeping arcs through the air. Backed up by the hammering blows of Skalmold, Zeyara’s darting sword and the chopping axe of Rakonia, we assaulted the foul creature. Once it was within reach, the unnaturalness of the creature became even more evident; it’s head appeared to be nothing more than the skull of a fox.

A large fox, but still. I sighed, wondering what it would be like to meet a kitsune. Maybe some day…

Our blows were deftly avoided or simply rang of the creature’s undead form harmlessly. Vega and Rainbow appeared at the stairs, and the arcanist unleashed some kind of magical attack on the creature. “Attack it now!” she encouraged, and the battle turned as a few solid blows finally connected. Snarling, if a creature without lips or the ability to breath can be said to snarl, the thing which we later identified as an Attic Whisperer took off running, straight towards the human and halfling at the rear by the stairs.

Three separate weapons intercepted them, near-simultaneous hits from a massive axe, a huge hammer, and my razor-edged naginata cut and smashed the thing to pieces. Literally.

The Attic Whisperer’s painful wandering and eternal torment were ended. Unfortunately, the little Iss girl seemed to wake up out of her fugue and began screaming hysterically.

I’ve heard it’s bad to violently shake kids, so instead I picked her up and we left the house, Rakonia and Skalmold retrieving the girl’s unconscious and possibly dead brother on the way. Luckily for him, he had survived thanks to Rainbow’s tender mercies, and we brought both kids back to their mother, Megan.

After assuring the Iss family that the menace was dead, we informed them of the demise of their father, or husband in Megan’s case. They took it surprisingly hard. The man hadn’t made much of an impression, honestly.

I quickly grew weary of the tears and thankful sobbing. Bidding everyone a more peaceful evening, I headed off to bed.

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