A day’s travel after encountering Miage-nyudo and his entourage, the party once again ran into trouble, this time just before coming upon Ascanor Lodge. A sudden crashing through the underbrush, and Taco’s hurried report, heralded the arrival of no less than twelve werewolves in hybrid form. Their leader shouted a proclamation against “Mordinacht”, claiming the unknown person would never have the throne of Shudderwood, before the pack launched into an all-out attack on the travellers.
Though Taco tried to confuse them with his ventriloquism trick, he was unsuccessful, the leader dismissing it simply as “Lozarov’s trickery”. Though a heated battle erupted between the two forces, the party was well able to hold their own against the Shapechangers, with Barna taking the brunt of the assault while the others unleashed their own storm of attacks. Dekhaim, in bear form, proved particularly adept at using his spells to sow chaos in the werewolf ranks, scattering them with explosions of rot and eventually forcing many of them to attack one of their own.
Soon, the battle was over, with only a single werewolf left alive, but paralyzed, its spine all but ripped out by a vicious attack from Sterbird. The party interrogated the remaining wolf, but was unable to learn anything of real value, save that this clan, the Vollensag, were highly opposed to someone named Mordinacht taking the throne. At their prisoner’s behest, the rest of the party moved onward while Barna stayed behind to give him a brief warrior’s death.
Shortly after dealing with the werewolf attack, the group came upon a clearing with a body strung haphazardly to the tree in the center. Though his skin was pale and a clump of flowers Parva identified as Wolfbane was shoved in his mouth, the most probable cause of death was the silver knife embedded in his chest, implying that the man was once a werewolf or, at least, that his attackers thought he was. While searching around the clearing, Barna triggered a trap, unleashing a hail of crossbow bolts which bounced harmlessly off his armor. Meanwhile, Dekhaim discovered a bloodied envelope containing an invitation to Ascanor Lodge for someone named Etchmoor Dravin, presumably the unfortunate man strung to the tree.
Leaving the clearing behind, the party moved onward, finally arriving at the lodge the following day. Though they presented their Order-issued invitations to the head porter, a squinty halfling with spectacles, he refused them entrance, stating that their appearances and battle-ready attire made them ill suited for a stay at the Lodge. In addition, though they all had invitations, there was none for Barna, whom they had picked up on the way. Tataco quickly came to the rescue, however, stating that they were all performers, and playing a song on his silver flute far better than anything the party had heard him produce before. Similarly enchanted, the porter happily offered them entrance, opening the gates and allowing them into the Lodge.
On the other side, a crowd of nobles and their servants had gathered to gossip about the new arrivals, but were quickly interrupted by a procession of hunters on their way out the gates. The leader of the procession, or at least the most exuberant member, introduced himself as Duristan Silvio Ariesir, and the other, more gruff hunter, as Delgros Kroitzcer. Though initially cold and dismissive, Duristan’s attitude immediately changed when he realized the group was composed of real adventurers, and he practically begged them to come along on his werewolf hunt. Somewhat taken aback, the party refused, and the rest of the procession left even as the porter returned. Offering apologies and mugs of hot coffee, the halfling led them to the lodge’s second floor to meet its caretaker, whom he introduced as Estovion Lozarov. An aging man with grey hair pulled back in a ponytail, Lozarov greeted them and offered them the use of two of the libraries on the second floor before excusing himself and heading further upward to his personal study.
The porter apologized for the inconvenience, but stated that the lodge only had one room to rent, as they were not expecting guests, and that anyone not staying in said room would have to make their own arrangements. So it was that Parva and Wolfe took the single room, while Taco stayed in the stables with Mantidora, Banjo, Sterbird, and Dekhaim, while Yuuko and Kendra took up space in the servant’s quarters.
The next day, the group took up places around the breakfast table and met with the rest of the residents of Ascanor Lodge. To be more precise, all but Taco sat at the table, while the ranger seamlessly slipped into the hustle and bustle of servants, going so far as to cook and serve food for the other members of his party. Shortly after most of the residents had arrived, a tall, bald man with an eyepatch arrived, whom Yuuko immediately recognized as the mysterious “Kojiro” who had been asking about her. The two went into discussion and it was revealed that Kojiro had also been a survivor of the undead attack which wiped out Yuuko’s village. The two agreed not to bother the other patrons by speaking of such things at dinner, but Kojiro invited the other to his room later, saying he had something he wanted to show her.
Meanwhile, the other party members surveyed the room, noting that Delgros and Duristan, returned from their hunt, seemed somewhat morose, each not meeting the other’s eyes. An older nobleman named Cilas Graydon caught Parva while he was eating and asked if he had seen or heard of his friend, Etchmoor Dravin, who was supposed to have arrived several days ago. Remembering the bloodied envelope with Dravin’s invitation, but choosing to say nothing, the Doctor deflected his questions, saying he had heard nothing of the sort.
As breakfast wound down and the patrons returned to their own business, the party was left alone in the dining room as Estovion arrived for a late meal. The group made some small chat with him, then moved on to the real reason for their presence at the Lodge, their investigation of the Whispering Way. When Lozarov claimed ignorance of any “cults” or “strange activity” on the premises lately, they proceeded to ask him directly, but again he denied any knowledge of the Way or its activities. As Estovion excused himself and left for his study, Dekhaim noticed a small ass left underneath his plate, upon which was written “Your investigations place you in grave peril, friends.”
Later, Yuuko arrived at Kojiro’s room, and was welcomed in by the tall Eastern man. She noted that while descriptions had told of him having two katana, only one hung on his hip, the other presumably the one which was displayed prominently over the hearth in a shining golden sheath. Kojiro spoke to Yuuko of many things, saying that after the village had been destroyed he had escaped and trained with a sect of monks, becoming a professional undead hunter. Upon hearing that Yuuko had been seen in Ustalav, he had come to the country, hoping to tie up those last loose ends still connecting him to his past. After hearing his story, Yuuko tried to excuse herself, but Kojiro suddenly became more intense, refusing to let her leave.
His true intentions were soon revealed, as he drew his katana and advanced on Yuuko, claiming that he must kill her to finally sever all ties with his past and leave behind the powerless young boy he once was. Though she did not want to harm him, she had little chance but to defend herself as they exchanged blows. Kojiro was a skilled swordsman, but it quickly became apparent that Yuuko had the upper hand. Before anyone was seriously injured, Barna, drawn by the sound of fighting, burst into the room, interposing himself between the fighters and incapacitating Kojiro. Though he made as if to stab himself as a last act of anger, the katana fell limply from his fingers and he collapsed, unable to continue. It was then that Yuuko heard a whispering from beneath his clothes, and, as Barna carried him to the bed, discovered an amulet in the shape of a gagged skull. It was revealed that Kojiro had kept the amulet after killing a group of Way cultists, thinking it would be a good trophy, but it had had some ill effect on his psyche, causing him to act in such irrational ways and attempt to take Yuuko’s life. As Yuuko crushed the pendant, Kojiro fell into a deep slumber, but not before telling her to take the sword on the mantle, as he was no longer worthy.
As she placed her hand on the sword, a pleasant female voice spoke from within her mind, introducing itself as Wings of Heaven, a legendary sword wielded by the champions of Shizuru and dedicated to the eradication of undead. In addition, the scabbard held a tiny pipe-fox, which wound its way around Yuuko, happy to have a new companion.
As all of this was happening, Tataco was out in the yard speaking with Delgros. From the grizzled hunter, he learned that the werewolves were currently in a battle of ascension for the throne of Shudderwood. The Vollensag, who had until recently held leadership over all the other tribes, were in chaos after their leader had been killed. Mordinacht, leader of another tribe, was now poised to take the throne, and many believed him to be responsible for the other’s death, possibly with the aid of humans, a great taboo in werewolf culture. The tribes had apparently now all gone to the Stairs of the Moon, a temple to the south held sacred by the werewolves, to determine the new ruler once and for all.
While Tataco was speaking with Delgros, he also noticed something strange. Wolfe, speaking with a lovely young woman they had not yet met, heading to the tower in the northwestern corner of the Lodge, one suspiciously guarded by a group of heavily armed professionals. Excusing himself, the ranger created a distraction and snuck into the tower after them, eventually spying on Wolfe in the second floor of the tower as his fortune was read by the woman. She told that though he held great influence, he also had a great secret, and would have a hand in many things to come. The young woman also invited him to participate in some of the tower’s “other” services, but he politely declined, instead thanking her and taking his leave.
After Wolfe had returned, Tataco entered the room brazenly. Though she was surprised to see an uninvited guest, the woman, who introduced herself as Madame Ivanja, found Taco rather handsome, and so invited him to stay. Tataco agreed to have his own fortune read, but politely refused the “other” services she offered. The card Ivanja drew for Taco was The Carnival, and she explained that he would need to face a powerful force yet unknown in the near future, one that was acting behind the scenes and causing all of his other trials. The struggle with this force would have great impact on Ustalav and the world as a whole, but Taco and his companions would have significant influence on its result. Impressed by his reading, Ivanja offered Taco a discount on any pleasures he may or may not wish to experience, but again he politely refused, and returned to the rest of the party.