After finishing their business at Schloss Caromarc and saying their goodbyes to both the Count and his creation, the party once again traveled the road back to Lepidstadt. Their journey was not to be uneventful, however, as only halfway there they found themselves suddenly in a deep wood, the sun all but blotted out from the sky and an ominous darkness surrounding them.
With a crash like the crunching of giant bones, an enormous shape pushed its way through the trees and showed itself before them. Notcho Chiiz had found them. Banjo was undeterred by the other bear, and quickly ran up to shield the party, his sun medallion shining golden light. Uncowed, Notcho merely laughed as an amulet around his neck, previously hidden in the fur, began to exude an almost palpable liquid darkness, which clashed and pushed the Holy One’s light back, the two caught in an intense struggle of wills.
Growling a command, the undead bear lord turned back to his own battle while a series of large ursine zombies crawled from the woods to match the rest of the party. Large and ferocious though they were, they turned out to be no match for the combined might of the Holy One’s companions. Parva’s bombs flared and seared undead flesh as limbs were shorn by Yuuko’s katana. Dekhaim rose above the melee, transformed into a huge bear himself, and grappled with one of the undead monstrosities, sustaining heavy wounds but eventually putting down his opponent with a fearsome strike. Tataco’s arrows shot true, finding marks in eyes and rotting flanks, his expertise in fighting undead bears unmatched.
Despite the party’s success, however, the battle between Banjo and Notcho was leaning ever further in the latter’s favor, his stygian darkness threatening to swallow the smaller bear whole. But lo! From Banjo’s backpack crawled an unexpected figure, Mantidora clambering onto his back and raising her face to confront the monstrosity before her. Her hair stood on end and crackled with energy as Banjo’s power combined with her own, their light growing stronger and forcing back the encroaching darkness in a sudden flare. Suddenly overcome, Notcho took a tremulous step back and, sensing his fear, Mantidora struck. The baby manticore grew even as she flew through the air, reaching the strong, sleek proportions of a healthy adult even as her teeth sank deep into Notcho’s neck, tearing free a raw chunk of rotting flesh. What would have been a fatal injury to any normal bear merely shook the undead lord, and he pulled back, shouting curses even as he disappeared into the trees which had produced him. The party gave chase, unwilling to let their enemy free now that he was on the defensive, but alas, the spell was broken, the forest quickly thinning and light returning to the afternoon sky. All around them were empty plains, with no sign of Notcho Chiiz.
Back in Lepidstadt, the party’s first priority was to speak with Judge Daramid, who welcomed them solemly, even allowing Dekhaim into her home with a stiff nod. They spoke of many things, and talk eventually turned to the Whispering Way, and the cult’s next move. According to the evidence both sides had collected, the Way’s next destination was the Shudderwood to the south and, it being the only bastion of civilization in the werewolf-infested forest, likely the Ascanor Lodge. Daramid had used her connections to grant them each a blank invitation to the lodge, which she distributed, then informed them that another member of the Order would be joining them, none other than Wolfe Reynell. Though no explicit promises or rewards were given, Daramid did imply that should they be successful in this mission as the Order’s agents, she may be able to grant the party memberships themselves.
With those matters finished, the majority of the party departed for their own business, leaving Dekhaim and Daramid alone, only Wolfe there as a chaperone. What they spoke of is not to be known, but both parties left unsatisfied.
Meanwhile, Parva had returned to the University, hoping to speak to Doctor Kruse about the upcoming expedition. The aged professor was waiting for him, and, to Parva’s surprise, fully endorsed his leaving for the Shudderwood, Judge Daramid having come to speak to him on the matter some time before. Kruse was unworried as, while Parva was gone, a promising student, Laci Pierson would be taking over his class, a statement which sent chills down Parva’s spine. Worried over this turn of events, but unwilling to take action on it at the moment, Doctor Rigeuer returned home.
Arriving at his door, Parva found it unlocked and, even more worrisome, the interior entirely in disarray. With Sterbird at his back, he carefully and stealthily moved inside, searching about for any signs of intruders, but whoever had been there seemed to have already left. As he entered his bedroom, however, the doctor espied a flurry of movement beneath his bed. Parva took several moments to gather his courage then, with a flourish, pulled the covers off, revealing, underneath… nothing. One of the boards did seem to be tampered with, however, and after pulling it up he discovered a hole leading deep underground.
Understandably distressed by this discovery, Parva pondered what to do next even as Sterbird sent out an empathic call to Tataco. Soon, the entire party had gathered in Parva’s cramped quarters, much to the annoyance of the professor. With everyone there, however, they soon resolved to follow the hole down, and Parva drank one of his personal mutagens, granting him the ability to burrow through the earth and widen the small tunnel to human proportions.
After some time of digging, the hole opened into a natural cave, a small river running through the center and down into the darkness. Dekhaim studied the scene, and discovered small tracks leading from the hole off to their left, in the direction opposite the water’s flow. For some short time the party moved stealthily forward, before encountering flickering firelight around the next corner, outlining a pair of twisted figures against the opposite wall.
Drinking a draught to make himself invisible, Parva moved to investigate, coming upon a scene more bizarre than he could ever have expected. In the center of the room sat a squat metal chair, the kind used in torture rooms. Strapped into it was no man, however, but a rat, squeaking feebly as two goblins paced around it, shouting questions and threatening it with burning irons should it not reveal the location of “the cheese”.
Deciding to have a bit of fun, Parva grabbed the irons out of the goblins’ hands, and proclaimed himself to be a ghost. The goblins immediately pressed their foreheads to the floor and grovelled, asking forgiveness of the “rat god” and telling of a “rat king” who had made them do such things all in the name of cheese. It quickly became apparent that the two creatures were both harmless and incredibly stupid, and after a brief discussion, they bolted, shouting “Cheese it!”, and running down the corridors.
Still invisible, and with the rest of the party stealthing behind him, Parva followed them, eventually ending up in a ramshackle court, at the head of which sat a larger goblin bedecked in the skulls and bones of numerous rats. The two goblins from before were grovelling in front of him, telling the tale of the rat god, and Parva saw his opportunity, “floating” forth and demanding obedience. The king was resistant at first, begging forgiveness but keeping his dignity, until Dekhaim transformed himself into a giant rat and crawled forth, emitting from his mouth a ball of magical flame. Tataco used his new ventriloquism ability (gained through less than wholesome acts performed for a wizard) to speak as though a voice was issuing from the fire itself. At this, the rat king grovelled and begged, promising them his daughter, Sniff, as tribute. Since the party had been looking for a Sniff ever since acquiring a Scratch, they happily agreed, and the goblin princess rode out of the tunnels on Ratheim’s furry back.
Upon arriving topside once again, Sniff revealed that it was she who had been in Parva’s house, reading his books and using his equipment to learn more of Alchemy, a subject which she found fascinating. Seeing this as a stroke of good luck, the party delivered her to Scratch forthwith, who was all to happy to take in such a lovely young lady and show her the ins and outs of ice cream.
This did not, however, explain why Parva’s door had been unlocked. Feeling as though his sanctuary had been violated, and still worried over the Laci issue, he stayed at Wolfe’s for the night.
The next morning, the group gathered and, accompanied by Wolfe, departed for the Shudderwood. The first day of their journey was uneventful until dusk, at which point they came across a fracas happening further down the road. A lone warrior, gripping a heavy shield in both hands, was facing off against two headless knights and a spectral being, the cloaked shapes of two Way cultists evident behind them. Though it was a challenging battle, the party dispatched both of the Dullahans, while a pair of magical arrows from Tataco’s bow destroyed the spectre. The cultists, without their undead escort, were even easier prey, and soon they both lay dead on the ground outside the woods.
The man who had fought alongside them introduced himself as Barna Darkwall, a veteran member of the Lepidstadt city watch who had learned of the Way and decided to track them down. He had not known entirely what he was getting into, however, and was caught in an ambush intended for the party. Barna seemed a competent fighter, and shared their same goals, so the group agreed to travel together for the time being. Together, they made camp, and resolved to enter the Shudderwood proper the next day.
The path through the wood was dark and winding, the boughs overhead blocking out all but the faintest hints of sunlight. So it was that, when a hunched figure carrying two lanterns appeared on the path approaching them, the party saw it from some distance and sent ahead Taco and Wolfe to scout. Parva accompanied them, drinking a potion of invisibility, and the three moved to observe the newcomer. The creature carrying the lanterns was small, hunched, and wizened, small strands of white hair dangling from his otherwise bald head and cracked lips pulled back to reveal rows of sharp teeth. Across its back was a long board, balanced by unknown means, from either end of which hung the light sources in question. Accompanying the hunched man was a taller figure, his entire body covered in expensive and exotic silks, and with a piece of parchment hanging from the front of his hat to cover his face.
Using his powers of ventriloquism, Tataco spoke from the creature’s ass, and began a conversation with it. Though it seemed unworried that they were there, the hunched man described three people following him, accurately listing the characteristics of Taco and Parva, speaking of the latter as “pretending to be a half-elf”, as well mentioning a third which he couldn’t quite get a read on.
Disturbed, Taco and Parva returned to the party just as the wizened man and his escort arrived. It became quickly obvious, thanks to Kendra and Yuuko’s knowledge on such matters, that the thing’s companion was a Jiang-shi, a dangerous variation of vampire from the Far East. The creature itself appeared to be a Korred, a small fey with connection to boulders and trees, albeit a very corrupted one.
The creature did not show any hostility, instead remarking on the fact that Yuuko wasn’t from around these parts and stating that he was here looking for something. He only spoke a few sentences, however, before she attacked on principle. As the paladin rushed forward, katana raised, a shadowy figure wearing a plague doctor’s mask appeared from the darkness and attacked the vampire from behind. Shockingly, the Jiang-shi contorted, meeting and parrying the blow before landing a gash on Dr. D’s side, sending him leaping back into the darkness.
Taco and Parva reappeared to join the fray, followed shortly after by Wolfe. Even with the whole party surrounding them, it quickly became apparent that these were no ordinary enemies. None of the fighters could land a hit on the Jiang-shi, who moved with an unearthly grace, perfectly still one moment and dodging an expertly-aimed attack with a painful twist of his body the next. As for the Korred’s part, both Yuuko and Barna were landing hits on him, but it was akin to striking a rock, and the hunched man showed no signs of being bothered by the onslaught.
All the while, the Korred kept speaking, talking to Tataco, who was then projecting his voice through Sterbird. From their conversation, the party learned that the creature was here seeking something called the “Carrion Crown”, an artifact of great power.
The Jiang-shi landed a blow on Yuuko, grabbing her and lifting her into the air before the Korred placated him, saying that the group might still be of some use and not to hurt them. Still ignoring their blows, he grabbed his companion’s hand and began casting a spell to teleport them both away when Barna saw his opening. With a mighty swing, he brought his spiked shield down on the small man’s face, one of the spikes on its surface driving deep into the creature’s eye and boring a hole into his skull.
The immense damage from Darkwall’s attack caused the Korred to stutter, losing his spell, and he stood, staring with his one eye at his attacker for a short time. Sensing danger, Kendra used the opportunity to rush forward and cast a Stoneskin spell on Barna just before the Jiang-shi moved to attack. The vampire’s fists moved too quickly to track, landing a series of crushing blows on Darkwall before grabbing him and pulling him toward the creature’s face. With a raspy inhalation, it seemed to suck the very breath from Barna’s lips, but still unbowed even after such a vicious assault, the fighter resisted the pull, and the Jiang-shi dropped him unceremoniously to the ground. Apparently satisfied, the Korred grabbed his companions hand and, this time casting too quickly to be interrupted, teleported both of them away.