It was not long after the trial completed that the party decided to leave for Hergstag. Much further out than Morast or Sanctuary, it would take them between three and four hours to follow the snaking road northwest, or an equal amount of time to cut across the wilderness. So, departing at 2 o’clock, it was just nearing sundown when they came out of the woods, down a grassy hill, and upon the abandoned village.
From their original vantage, the party could see that Hergstag was composed of several farming houses and barns grouped together in loose clusters, surrounded by fields of overgrown, weed-infested corn. Hoping to search the town quickly and return home before too late, the group split into three. Parva and Sterbird would take the north, with Tataco following silently behind. Yuuko and Kendra set out through the center of the village, while Dekhaim and Banjo looped around south, skirting the base of the high hill that loomed over Hergstag. After investigating the houses and fields on their path, they would turn inwards, and all meet at the small smattering of houses that passed for the village’s town square.
It was Parva and Sterbird who made the first discovery. Not long into their rounds, they came out of the tangled, corn-choked fields and onto a road stretching from the town center eastward. There, in the center of the path, was what originally appeared to be a scarecrow covered in rags, but upon closer inspection was revealed to be the desiccated, dried corpse of a man. His leg was caught in a bear trap, securely fastened to the ground, but beyond that he had no injuries. His face, however, was contorted in an expression of grim, abject fear. Somewhat disturbed by his find, but not one to pass up an opportunity, Parva set about looting the man, finding a fine necklace, some gold, and a set of high-quality thieves’ tools which hinted at his purpose in the village.
Meanwhile, Banjo and Dekhaim had come across a small lake formed by the river that runs through Hergstag. There, under the tangled boughs of several willow trees, a ramshackle hut had been built, bordering on the water’s edge. The construction was badly burned and falling apart in places, the spent torches scattered on the ground around it hinting at the cause for its demise. Searching around the rubble and burnt grass, Dekhaim came up with nothing except a small, leatherbound volume, badly charred but still readable, packed with pages of poems. Stashing it away, he continued westward.
Yuuko and Kendra had cut through the center of town, and after working their way through the mess of cornstalks, found themselves before an old temple, the walls crumbling but the cracked symbol of Desna still visible on its walls. Before the church was a small plot given to gravestones, many of them faded and old, but six of them much more recent. Each of these graves had the same date on them, eight months ago corresponding with the time of the Beast’s alleged attacks on Hergstag, and the dirt around them had been more recently disturbed. Maarten, Gaard, Allen, Karin, Ellsa, and Rachel; the names of the six children supposedly killed by the beast and now spelled out on headstones before the church. Further investigation of the temple turned up a basin holding a small pool of still-holy water, from which Kendra filled five vials.
The sun had just set when Kendra and Yuuko left the temple, and Parva was coming up on one of the many abandoned houses which dotted the fields. It was obvious, even from a distance, that the structure had been looted. The door hung ajar, the windows gaping and empty, and only darkness was visible inside. As the doctor approached, however, he caught sight of a small, pale figure moving quickly past a window inside the house. Understandably hesitant, he stopped, urging Sterbird to scout before moving ahead.
As the red hawk took off toward the building, Parva looked warily around him, just in time to see a child-sized, ghostly figure step out of the cornstalks and pass its hand through him. Bone-frosting chill rushed through him as the doctor came eye to socket with the tiny wraith, feeling as though a portion of his very soul had been stolen away. From his hiding place among the undergrowth, Tataco leaped into action, pulling a haunt siphon from his pack and activating it. There was a rush of air as some of the spirit’s essence was sucked away, but it proceeded undaunted, advancing on Parva.
For his part, Rigeuer backed away, bringing forth a vial of holy water. His recent studies into undead had revealed more effective methods for using the substance as a weapon, and the fruit of his research came to light as Parva hurled the flask at the wraith. It shattered on impact with the ground, spraying the spirit with blessed liquid. Though it was now showing obvious signs of injury, the child continued to advance, swiping at Parva and missing him by millimeters.
Back among the cornstalks, Tataco readied one of his arrows, magically-enhanced to be particularly effective against the incorporeal, and let it fly, punching a hole in the spirit. Then, with a flourish, Parva produced a haunt siphon of his own, turning the mechanism and opening it. With a screech and an unearthly wail, the wraith was drawn into the device, which clicked shut with satisfying finality in Parva’s hand and began to glow. Smiling, the doctor added the ghost to his collection.
Back at the temple, Yuuko and Kendra had run into a ghost of their own. Similar in size and behavior to the one which had attacked Parva, Kanzaki spotted the wraith before it leaped out of the bushes to ambush them. Kendra wisely stepped behind her as the creature charged Yuuko, landing a hit, but failing to deal any damage. She then unleashed a flurry of her own from her katana, and, with Kendra casting spells to disrupt the spirit’s ethereal form, made short work of the ghost, cutting it in twain and dispersing it back into the aether.
Meanwhile, Dekhaim was approaching a house in the southwestern portion of Hergstag. Even from a distance, he could see that this building was different from the others. Its windows were securely boarded shut, the door steadfast and blocked in a similar fashion. While the other houses were abandoned and cleared out, a peek through this one’s windows revealed all of the furniture and trappings in their rightful positions. Deciding not to act on it until he informed the others, Dekhaim and Banjo began heading back east, intending to visit one other house before swinging back to the town center.
They were not spared the visit of a wraith, and it was not long before the ghostly child swept forth from the underbrush, passing its hand through Dekhaim and stealing his essence. The druid was undaunted, however, and, raising his staff high, caused an emanation of light powerful as the sun to burst forth from the tip. With a dramatic shriek, the wraith was rent asunder by the light, burned into nothingness in an instant. His staff still shining brightly in the darkness, Dekhaim continued on his way.
Parva, Sterbird, and Tataco were having a similar experience at the last house on their route. Like the others, this one was empty, any valuables or furniture looted from it long ago. Also like the others, this house sheltered a wraith, which passed silently into the surrounding foliage before attacking Parva. This time, the child’s ghostly hand truly sapped some of the doctor’s essence, and he felt himself drained and feeling oddly cold after the attack. Lacking in supplies and a way to effectively combat his incorporeal opponent, Parva floundered until, suddenly, Tataco burst forth from the cornfield, bearing a lit torch. Sensing his opportunity, Rigeuer pooled all of his intellect, proclaiming to the wraith that dawn was coming, the sunrise was upon them, and that it needed to flee with great haste. So convincing was Parva’s speech that the child shrieked and sped away, flying with unnatural speed to the ominous hill south of town.
Some short time later, the party reunited in the town square. Dekhaim and Yuuko had also encountered a subsequent wraith, but each one had fled. One, after being slashed by Yuuko’s magical katana, and the other after merely encountering Dekhaim, whose staff still glowed brightly with the power of the sun.
The group came to several deductions after sharing the information they had discovered. Firstly, that the amount of wraiths matched the number of dead children, making it likely that they were the remains of those unfortunates themselves. In addition, each member who had seen a wraith flee had all seen them fly directly toward the hill south of town. Kendra deduced that these smaller wraiths had to have been created by a greater spirit, which likely made its lair in that hill, and so the party began their trek up the slope.
At the top of the rise, a lone scarecrow stood crucified upon an effigy of rotting wood, its pumpkin head grinning leerily with a sheep’s jaw attached haphazardly to the bottom. Beneath the figure, hidden from the casual eye, was the entrance to a small cave, the opening barely five feet across. Sensing that this was the lair of their foe, the group assembled and ventured inside, Yuuko and Banjo taking the head while Dekhaim wrapped his staff in a roll of cloth to block the blinding light it still emitted.
A spacious cave opened before them inside the barrow, empty save for the skeletons of several children piled loosely in the center of the chamber. No sooner had the last member of the group entered, however, than they found their route of escape cut off. With a rushing sound and a ghostly wail, three wraith children swept into the entrance after them, followed by a maleficent figure that swarmed and bubbled with thousands of eyes shrouded in living darkness. That may have been the end for those at the back of the party, were it not for Dekhaim, who whipped the cloth off his staff. Glorious sunlight washed through the cave, casting everything in bleak contrast as the four wraiths screamed and clutched at the air with nowhere to hide. Seconds later, they were gone, wholly obliterated by the rays of the sun.
After checking the skeletons and determining them to belong to four of the six children, three boys and one girl, the party regrouped and decided to look into the strangely untouched house Dekhaim had found before returning to Lepidstadt. As before, the windows and doors were securely barred but, seeing no other means of entry, it was easy for Yuuko to pull the planks free from their foundations. Inside, everything was as Dekhaim described. Eerily well-preserved and fully stocked, as though the family who lived here fully intended to come back after everything blew over. Despite its condition, however, the party found little of note here, save that upstairs there was a small girls’ room, the window locked and secure and the bed still made. Though they felt as though they did not yet have all the clues, the hour was growing ever later, and so group began their return to the city.
The next day, fully refreshed, the party came back together and continued their investigations, this time focusing on finding any information they could from the citizens of Lepidstadt. While visiting the temple of Pharasma for healing after their recent excursion, Parva managed to charm a few priestesses into telling him that everyone from Hergstag had either died or moved out of Lepidstadt, on to other things. Everyone, save for Garrow, Starle, and Flicht, three sisters who owned a windmill on the western edge of town. Their wounds now healed, the party next made their way there.
Garrow, Starle, and Flicht were three middle-aged women who, according to their testimony, had lived in Hergstag for their entire lives. They had been present when the Beast came into town, holding Ellsa’s body and, as they claimed, laughing, and had participated when the mob subsequently drove him out of town. Garrow also affirmed that they had found the corpses of each of the children and gave them a proper burial, which Yuuko quickly picked up on as a lie.
Further questioning revealed the truth. The townspeople of Hergstag had only found two of the children, Ellsa and Karin. Ellsa had been brought back by the Beast, but Karin had died in her own home two days after he had been driven out of town. It turned out that Karin’s father had always intended to return to Hergstag, and so her house was the very same, very untouched and obviously unbroken one they had examined the day prior. So it was that when Garrow proclaimed that the Beast must have returned to kill Karin specifically, the party had their doubts.
Not wanting to deal with the biased, somewhat dim-witted sisters anymore, the group split until the trial, and Parva went to speak once again to the Beast. There, Taerien himself filled in the remaining pieces of the story. The Beast had been living in a small hut near the river, the same hut Dekhaim had found, and had befriended Ellsa, one of the children from the village. She would come by every day and read him poetry from the old book found in the wreckage. Soon, however, a “bad man” appeared and started killing the children one by one, leading them to his lair on top of the hill and draining all the life from them. Taerien had tried to fight the “bad man”, but his fists couldn’t connect with the wraith’s ghostly form, and he had no choice but to watch in horror as, one by one, the children were killed.
Ellsa had been killed by the wraith right in front of him, and the Beast, feeling a sense of responsibility, had picked up her body and returned it to the village, crying. The villagers had mistaken his crying for laughing, due to the odd configuration of his tear ducts and facial features, and had angrily chased him out of town. Even now, Taerien was very emotional about the subject.
Some time later, the third trial of the Beast was beginning. Things at first seemed stacked well against the defendant, but with the evidence they had gathered and a series of impassioned speeches from Parva, the truth was brought to light. Eventually, it became clear to everyone that the Beast was indeed responsible for none of the crimes they had attributed to him, and a strong sense of guilt washed over the courtroom.
It was with great ceremony that the Herald of the Court unlocked the Beast’s shackles, and he jubilantly made his way to the defense, pulling Parva, Yuuko, and Kendra into a big hug and calling them his “best friends in whole world”. Taerien revealed that he had been created by a man known as Count Caromarc, and invited his new friends to visit him at Schloss Caromarc in the mountains in a few days, to which everyone happily agreed. After he had left, to the cheering of the crowd, Judge Daramid came by and asked the party to meet her at her residence as soon as possible.
With Dekhaim cleverly disguised by a magic potion he obtained from a shady source, the group met with Judge Daramid. She first gave out the promised reward of 400 platinum pieces as payment, then asked the group for one last favor. One of her colleagues and a member of her organization, one Count Caromarc, had not been in contact for too long, and she was worried about his well-being. Daramid had methods of determining he was still alive, as she claimed, but he had not made his usual reports, and she was concerned that the enemies of their organization, jealous of his choice ass, had gotten him. Thus it was that the judge asked the party to investigate Schloss Caromarc as soon as they were able, to ensure Caromarc was safe and alive. She could not offer platinum this time, but would give them more information and the gratitude of her organization should they succeed. Hesitantly, the group agreed, and began preparations for their journey into the mountains.