The day following, their preparations finished, the group left Ravengro behind and began their journey to Lepidstadt. Winding through a long mountain pass, then through swamplands and forest, the road to Lepidstadt would take four days and a hundred miles to traverse, the first of which passed without any incident. On the eve of the second day, they came upon a ring of gaudily-painted wagons by the side of the road, the words “The Crooked Kin – Ustalav’s Greatest Traveling Cabinet of Curiosities!” painted across the side in colorful letters.
From within the ring of wagons, the sobbing voice of a woman could be heard, and the party was understandably hesitant to approach. Tataco sent his new companion Sterbird on a scouting mission, and discovered that the crying woman was being comforted by a group of misshapen people in the center of the ring. Before they could act on this new information, one of the wagons opened and a tall man with pale skin, a jaunty top hat, red eyes, and long white hair to his waist approached them.
Introducing himself as Kaleb Hesse, the ringleader of this traveling band of performers, he described to the heroes his plight. One of the Crooked Kin’s three pinheads, never the brightest at the best of times, had wandered off into the swamp some hours ago and had not returned. The crying woman was another pinhead, her sister, and deathly worried about the missing one’s fate. Though some of them were fierce in appearance, none of the members of his traveling troupe were skilled in combat or tracking, and so he pleaded with the party to go into the swamp and find their missing member, promising a reward and the comfort of a wagon for the rest of their journey to Lepidstadt.
Yuuko readily agreed for all of them, despite some hesitation on the part of Parva, much to the scraping delight of Kaleb. He offered them a old shirt of hers to use in tracking the pinhead, and it was not long before Taco had found her tracks and followed them into the deep swamp. It was eerily quiet, and the tracks disappeared into a knee-deep bog of water when the group heard a woman’s scream from somewhere in the undergrowth ahead of them. A quick check by Sterbird revealed nothing visible from the air, and they began to move forward carefully when another scream came from the north, this one curiously inhuman. Again, from the south, and again from the west, the screams penetrated the shaking reeds with no obvious source until suddenly, with a sound like fabric being torn, a huge spider with a woman’s twisted face appeared out of thin air next to Dekhaim and snatched him up in her jaws.
She vanished again moments afterward, and Parva recognized that the creature was a Phase Spider, a semi-intelligent magical beast which spends most of its time on the Ethereal Plane bordering our own. The beast was not turning invisible, but rather plane-hopping at will. Knowing now about its poisonous bite, Parva did not hesitate in forcing a vial of antitoxin down Dekhaim’s throat. Hearing his description, Kendra cast a See Invisibility spell, which helpfully also allowed her to see into the Ethereal Plane, and was able to pinpoint the location of the monster for the rest of the group. However, as it was untouchable until returning to the material plane, the party was unable to act against it until it materialized once again, this time scooping up Parva and injecting him with virulent poison.
This time, the spider was too slow in returning to the other plane, and was severely wounded by Yuuko’s katana and a blazing arrow of divine light from Banjo’s mouth before she was able to retreat once again. Still under the direction of Kendra tracking its movements, the party readied attacks for when the creature would once again reappear, and reappear it did, biting Tataco and sending a wash of venom into his system. This time again, she was not able to get away, as weapons from every side bit into her and finally, with a bomb from Parva, her face was seared off and she dropped to the ground unmoving.
The terror was not yet over, however, as while Dekhaim had overcome the poison in his system, Parva and Tataco were still ailing. Indeed, thanks to the iron maiden’s curse which still hung over the half-elf ranger, Taco was succumbing frighteningly quickly to the venom’s constitution-sapping effects. Fighting off the effects in himself for the moment, Parva was able to force Tataco to drink his last vial of antivenom, even as Yuuko tended to him, bolstering his body’s natural immunity. Even with Dekhaim casting and recasting Lesser Restoration from his wand, bringing the ailing ranger’s constitution back up even as it fell, it seemed for a moment that he would fall victim to the poison and die there in the swamp. Barely, however, he pulled through, and by the time he had been brought back up to his usual health, Parva’s poison had also fled his system.
Still looking for the missing pinhead, the group split up and searched the swampy area around them, finding a fine wooden box with some keys, some other trinkets, a jar containing several cloves of garlic ass, and finally the prone body of the missing troupe member. Wrapping her in the shirt that Kaleb had given to them, they solemnly returned to the circle of wagons.
Ringmaster Hesse met them as they returned and accepted the news of his companion’s death with a grim, sober nod. Though her death was regrettable, he thanked the party for following through on their task, and gifted them with a fine wooden box containing a magical dagger, as well as a comfortable place in one of the wagons for the rest of the journey to Lepidstadt. Weary from their travels up to this point, the group happily accepted.
The next two days passed uneventfully, with Tataco finding a special place among the performers, playing the silver flute that he had looted from the prison. Kaleb took some time to bring the party up to speed on the current events in Lepidstadt, and why the Kin were in such a hurry to get there. The famous Beast of Lepidstadt, a monster which had plagued the surrounding countryside for centuries, had finally been caught. It was even now being held in the courthouse awaiting trial, and people from all over Ustalav were traveling to the city to see the beast in court and, ultimately, his execution. Such a festive time was fertile ground for performers such as themselves, and so they did not wish to miss out on such an opportunity.
As they reached the gates of Lepidstadt, Kaleb dropped the party off and informed them that he would be stationing the wagons outside the city walls. He left them with an open invitation to visit the Kin whenever they like, and a request for Tataco to come perform with them at some point during their stay.
After splitting off from the caravan, the group was quickly accosted by another man, this one with parted brown hair, a blazer showing the symbol of the University of Lepidstadt, and a handsome, smiling face. He greeted Parva personally as Doctor Rigeuer and passed him an envelope, a message from his colleague, before introducing himself as Wolfe Reynell, an old acquaintance of the Doctor’s. Before making his departure, he told the group that he had lodgings near the university, their location known to Parva, and to visit him if they needed anything throughout their stay.
Wasting no time as they entered the city, the party made straight for the University and dropped off the books with an aging librarian named Montagie Crowl. Mister Crowl gracefully accepted them and wrote for the group a receipt of sorts, but regretfully denied them their requests to see the Lepidstadt University Library. He related that the library was currently closed for remodeling, as that is where the Beast had been captured. It seems the Beast had somehow snuck into the building and stolen a fine statue known as the Seasage Effigy. Upon being found, he flew into a rage and destroyed much of the furniture and structure before finally being pacified and brought to the courthouse for holding.
After dropping off all of the books save for the Manual of the Esoteric Order, the group split ways, with Kendra and Yuuko staying at the university to handle the selling of the latter’s estate, while Parva, Dekhaim, Tataco and the animals went to find Judge Embreth Daramid’s house to deliver the final book and receive their reward. Judge Daramid’s home was a modest building near town square, and on the way there the small group saw a massive wicker man being constructed in the center of the city. It had a cage in the center, presumably for locking someone in to be burned to death, and huge groups of townspeople were happily going to and fro with wood, old furniture, and other kindling to place at the base. The whole town had a celebratory feeling about it much at odds with the capture and execution of a wanted criminal.
Daramid met them at the door of her home and, after looking them over, invited them inside for tea. Before cutting directly to business she asked that everyone introduce themselves, and sat quietly listening until Dekhaim spoke his name, at which point she started and dropped her tea saucer to the floor. Apparently taking offense at something Dekhaim had done, and accusing him of somehow staying young, she evicted him from the house, saying that he would have his share of the reward, but she wanted no mane with that name inside her home. Somewhat shocked and put off, Dekhaim accepted and left quietly with Banjo, returning to the University.
Apologizing for her outburst, Judge Daramid went straight to business with Parva and Tataco, accepting the damaged Manual from them and granting them a sack filled with 400 platinum pieces, 100 for each member of their group, as a reward. Before they left, and despite the now somewhat awkward air in the room, she asked them, particularly Parva, for another favor. Daramid worried that with the townspeople so zealous about his capture and execution, the Beast would not get a fair trial. The government of Lepidstadt had assigned to him the town’s worst lawyer, a bumbling man named Gustav Kaple, and was only going through the motions of a trial at all at Daramid’s insistence. She asked for Parva and his companions to serve as Barrister Kaple’s assistants, collecting evidence and helping present it to ensure that, no matter what else happens, the Beast receives a fair trial. Daramid further stressed that she did not know or much care whether the creature was innocent or guilty, but skirting of the law for personal revenge was unabidable for her. Finally, she asked Parva to leave her out of the investigation completely, for the sake of her political position, and offered to double his reward, another 400 platinum pieces. With his own interest in the Beast firmly piqued, and such a large sum of money on the table, Doctor Rigeuer quickly accepted the terms and bid Judge Daramid farewell.
Parva and Tataco then returned to Lepidstadt University to meet up with the rest of their companions, where, even now, Yuuko was having an encounter with a bustling, mustachioed man named Professor Thorpe. Thorpe claimed that someone had been through town not even a month ago looking desperately for someone who matched Yuuko’s name and description. He described the man as tall, with a bald head, Eastern features similar to hers, with tattoos down both of his arms and two swords at his waist, the same style as the one which she carried. Not having any personal interest in the matter, he soon bustled away, leaving Yuuko confused about the mysterious man who left town only two weeks ago.
Gathering up the rest of the group, Dekhaim decided to act upon the silver key which had been left to him in Lorrimor’s will. Following the numbers engraved on the key’s head, he soon found the room in a subbasement far from the activity and liveliness of the aboveground campus. The key slid soundlessly into the lock on the heavy steel door, and it swung open with an ominous creak. Dekhaim found himself standing on a raised dais with stairs leading down to a circular experimental space with a raised platform in the center. A square indentation in the center of the platform indicated that something may have fitted in the space, and discolorations on the ground around the walls spoke of heavy equipment long removed. On the opposite wall, the stone was discolored by a huge blast of black soot or ash, seemingly ingrained into the material itself. At the center of the blast, a human silhouette stood with arms outstretched, the only part of the wall not touched by the discoloration.
A quick search of the room revealed nothing else save a burnt leather journal, most of the pages ruined but with some passages still readable. Taking this evidence, the group relocked the room and went on their way, Dekhaim reading the journal voraciously.
With his business at the University done, Parva decided to go to the courthouse and meet the illustrious Barrister Kaple and, possibly, speak with the Beast. He met Kaple in the chambers which had been allotted to him in the courthouse, and the small, balding rat-faced man informed him that he had heard everything from Judge Daramid and welcomed his assistance.
Kaple went over the structure of the trial. The Beast was being charged with three major crimes. Firstly, the murder of 10 villagers in the swamp town of Morast to the northeast. Secondly, the kidnapping and subsequent murder of 8 children in Hergstag to the northwest. Finally, the arson of a mental institution known as Sanctuary, located on an island to the north, resulting in the death of the institution’s caretaker and the permanent blinding of his assistant. The trial would be held over a period of three days starting the day after tomorrow, each day focusing on one of the crimes. After evidence was presented and testimonies heard, the jury would pass a verdict and, at the end of the three days, make a final decision on the guilt or innocence of the Beast.
Parva asked to see the Beast and was led downstairs where, in a cage flanked by two Gaston-looking courthouse guards, a hulking figure sat bolted into a metal chair by no less than twelve padlocks and chains. The Beast did not react violently when Parva entered, but rather gave him a slow, sad look. They talked of many things, and the Doctor realized that the grimace that came over the monster’s face when he spoke of something traumatic was not rage, but rather the Beast trying to cry. Parva learned of a girl named Ellen who the beast was apparently friends with, though he did not dare delve too deep into that story, and also learned that the Beast had, by his own account, woken up in the library with no recollection of how he had gotten there. The ensuing rampage was merely a reaction to the guards trying to bring him down. Touched by the Beast’s sadness, and making the guards promise to treat him well, Parva returned to Kaple. The rat-faced barrister suggested that he use the next day to look for evidence supporting the beast’s innocence, preferably in Morast, as that is what the first day’s trial would focus on. Kaple further cautioned that it would be dangerous, and suggested that Parva bring along some muscle for his own safety. Meanwhile, he would continue interviewing eyewitnesses and search their testimonies for anything the prosecutors may have missed.
His head full of information and moving with purpose, Parva returned to the University.