Amas & Oras

In Which Booze Goes Missing and Hayden Totally Didn't Do It

The party sets the same watches — Hayden and Zephyr, Strelok and Polena, Aeric and Sheila. Hayden steals Strelok’s booze, while Zephyr tries to translate a page with a particularly gruesome diagram detailing the face split. Hayden begins singing; Zephyr, taking note of his drinking, sighs and puts the book away so that she can devote more attention to the watch. She finds this watch tedious.

Strelok gets up for his watch, and something feels off; lighter, perhaps. He checks his coin purse first; finding nothing wrong, he checks the booze. The once full container sloshes. Strelok glares at Hayden, who tells him that Aeric drank it. Damn bluff ranks. Hayden then chides Strelok for thinking about drinking when he’s supposed to be on watch.

Strelok tries to wake Polena, who asks sleepily if he might do the watch without her, then prompty falls back asleep. Strelok tries to wake her, and she asks why he’s being so mean. Strelok relents, but is rather annoyed by his loss of both booze and time spent with a pretty girl. He stays awake by trying out fencing moves he saw in Aeric and Hayden’s duel.

Strelok’s watch ends. He wakes Aeric with a kick in the shin, mentioning the stolen booze. Aeric apologizes, but says he has no recollection of it. Strelok said it is fine; maybe it wasn’t even Aeric. Aeric asks why he thinks it is him. Strelok tells him Hayden had told him, and Aeric reminds Strelok that he was sleeping during the first shift… while Hayden was awake. Suspicious! Strelok apologizes for kicking Aeric in the shin, and goes to wake Sheila.

Aeric tends to the birds as Sheila stretches and does her morning routine. When the sun begins to rise, she starts getting her gear together; the crashing noises wake the rest of the party. They arise with varying levels of annoyance.

The birds are lively today. Strelok interacts with his bird and finds him feisty, but playful rather than mean or irritated. Aeric gets impatient. Polena seems to be lagging, so Strelok goes to help her pack up. She seems very tired, and says she feels like she hasn’t slept at all. Strelok assures her that she did. She asks why he didn’t wake her for watch; hearing that he had tried, she hopes he isn’t mad. He promises that he isn’t.

We set off. We have about two hours of travel through woods before reaching the desert, where we will cross to reach the Forest. It is uneventful, and we reach the desert by eight. It has been overcast all morning, but the humidity has increased; strange, since we are approaching a desert environment. We see several dust plumes in the distance, but their cause is unknown. We can also see a marine haze where the Forest is.

As we travel, the air gets drier, and the day gets hotter. Heat ripples are soon seen on the horizon. Strelok dismounts from his bird to ease its burden, and it warbles appreciatively, gently head butting and nuzzling at the treat pouch Strelok wears. Even after given a treat, he persists, poking more roughly. Strelok smacks the beak a little and says, “no.” The bird hisses and walks away. Strelok pets him, but is ignored.

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Translations, Duels, and Split Personalities
Hayden may have self esteem issues.

Aeric tells Strelok that someone missed him while he was gone; Strelok has no idea who he means. After a short exchange of Aeric being amazed and sarcastic and Strelok being clueless, the latter ends with the impression that they were talking about his bird. Hayden is cracking up.

Polena soon comes out and tells Strelok she was scared without him, which he finds surprising. She doesn’t want him to leave her alone again. Strelok: “You mean if I left, you’d want to come with me?” Polena: “…No.” (She explains she’s on assignment, although she thinks Sheila hates her.) Strelok says he wouldn’t leave without her, and puts a hand on her shoulder; she turns bright red and says she thinks she hears Sheila calling. She runs over to Sheila and offers to help with her armor.

Strelok goes over to his bird, who is fussy. He is displeased that Aeric invaded his personal space and Strelok was gone. Strelok gives apology scritches, but is still getting the evil eye. Strelok offers meat, and all is well between the two. The prepare to head out.

Hayden asks where we are headed. Since this isn’t the village on the map we were heading towards, that is still our destination. Strelok and Sheila discuss the upcoming desert crossing.

Meanwhile, Zephyr has made a breakthrough in her cypher, and has translated a passage:
“Slug of death and leech of life
Body one with he the blight
Split from health and body sound
Fears the lead not mages bound
Twenty and twelve the beasts hide
Nights and days sust supplied
To et darkness, flesh and hope
alive”

On the same page is a diagram of the stages
1. Humanoid torso and head
2. Humanoid torso and head with lines on face where split occurs
3. Face split, parasitic creature emerging

Aeric speaks with Sheila about the mission, expressing his concern about our trip to the village: he feels it a waste of time.

Hayden asks about why WE were sent, when there are all those men on the wall. Well, the men being sent from the wall weren’t coming back. Aeric suggests that those guarding the wall are usually those not fit for polite society, or else those who had displeased a superior. Zephyr adds that their ability to use force to repel attackers has no bearing on their ability to figure out WHY the attacks are increasing. Strelok points out that we have experience in this sort of thing, and have proven ourselves. Hayden still wonders why it has to be us. Zephyr believes he may have self esteem issues. Still, says Hayden, perhaps this is too good - and strange- to be true. Well, replies Strelok, we’ll detonate that bridge when we come to it. (it’s funny cuz we totes did that).

We see some non-violent wildlife as we travel, which is a good sign. As night falls, we find a clearing almost enclosed by a canopy entwined with vines. It is enclosed on two sides, with a third easily defensible. We decide to camp. Zephyr immediately sits down with the book, encouraged with the progress she has made. Strelok offers to take middle watch with Polena; she seems slightly hesitant, and he promises that he won’t leave. “No, you won’t,” she says. Hayden and Zephyr take first watch, although Zephyr studies the book as much as she can while still being on the lookout (Pallas assists). The watch passes uneventfully. Strelok and Polena begin their watch in silence. Polena looks at her notes, and manages to make a tiny light in her palm. She gets nervous and quickly covers it. Strelok says she is doing well; Polena is still somewhat ashamed of using this sort of magic. She asks that Strelok not tell Sheila. He agrees, but says that using something to help people isn’t bad. Power itself isn’t bad, either; how one uses it is what is important. Polena reveals that she doesn’t want to upset the church because she has no where else to go; “no one else would take me”. Later in the conversation, she expresses her desire to be able to protect herself. “As a cleric, I’m good at helping people, but I’m not very good at helping myself.”

Strelok brings up what she said about not having anywhere else to go, and says his family has a cabin; he awkwardly tells her she can always go there. Polena asks about his family, and he says they’re not around any more. Polena says hers left, too. Her parents told her and her brother that they were taking the harvest to the city, and they never came back. The next year, her brother left to find them, but after awhile Polena went after them all, since she was very low on food. There she met the clerics of Iomadae, who “saved her” and taught her so much. Strelok shares that his brother also left, but we recently discovered that he was alive. Polena says she is sure his brother is looking for him; Strelok is skeptical. He adds that he’s not sure he wants his brother to find him.

By the end of the shift, Polena had almost gotten the light spell down. Strelok tries to explain that he’s not a bad person for not wanting his brother back, and explains the details of the situation, and how his brother prioritized revenge over his family. He still cares about his brother, though.

Sheila has already arisen. She reflects that while Aeric can make good company, he does not respect her meditation at the beginning of the morning. He is rather noisy getting up. This particular morning, he asks her what she is doing “while you’re sitting there, looking all calm and stuff.” He wants to know why she meditates. Sheila notices he seems to be carrying himself differently this morning. More relaxed, fluid, not wearing all his armor. And then he starts being crude, saying that he thought Sheila needed time to “file away” interesting dreams. He saunters off.

Later, Sheila asks what’s up, since he seems different. Aeric asks, have you ever wanted to just… push someone’s buttons? No, Sheila says, not really. Aeric continues to be flippant and suggestive. Then he becomes impatient, asking when we should wake up everyone. Specifically, “want to wake people up with pointies”? Sheila says that he seems to have the excitement for it, so he can do it. Aeric cheerfully pulls out his rapier and starts kicking people. He begins with Hayden. Next, Strelok awakes with his face being pressed into the ground as he is prodded. Aeric takes the threat to his foot as a joke, and says we should all get up and “kill some stuff”.

He goes to the birds, who eye him in a confused manner. As the rest of us get up and get ready, he announces he will get breakfast, and hops onto his bird. “Good riddance”, Hayden says. The rest of the party is ready to depart with no sign of Aeric. Sheila and Hayden discuss the possibility that the forest drove him insane (Sheila in a logical manner, Hayden in a gleeful one). Hayden talks about how this is actually a godsend— “this could be a religious experience for me!” Sheila suggests Strelok start tracking him, with the rest of the party going on ahead. Strelok says Aeric should be able to find us, and we don’t want to split the party further. Since he went in almost the direction we are traveling, we set out, but plan to search for him if there is no sign by noon. Polena seems concerned.

About two and a half hours later, running sounds headed towards us are heard. We stop, preparing for a fight in case it is a foe. Strelok’s bird shifts and makes a trilling sound, which is soon answered at a higher pitch; Aeric’s bird. Aeric rides the bird into sight, carrying the dressed remains of a large scorpion. He gives the tail and intact venom glands to Zephyr. He enlists Strelok to help him get the meat off. Sadly, he didn’t bring back the claws, which have the best of the meat. Strelok gives a quick lesson on the best parts of a scorpion.

Aeric goes to talk with Sheila, and seems to abruptly be back to normal. He says it should be about a day and a half until we reach the village. He and Sheila advise an early morning when we cross the desert. He then asks to go over the maps with Zephyr, who agrees.

After a few more hours of travel, Polena catches up to Sheila. She asks if swords are evil (returning to the conversation about magic, which Strelok had compared to a sword). No; in helping people, they are not evil. The conclusion is that Iomadae would want people to use their gifts to help people. Polena thanks Sheila and runs off.

Around 4pm, Aeric pauses and suggests we stop for the day to rest the birds and mages in preparation of our day in the desert; we can cross here. (The village we are heading to is about a day and a half into the desert; our next destination is a city that is almost at the inner Forest, which would take four days to get to across the desert.) Sheila suggests Strelok climb a tree to try to see what is around them. Having trouble, Hayden bounds up the tree. Strelok drops to the ground, embarrassed. Polena is giggling, but trying to hide it. Sheila is not trying to hide her chuckling.

Hayden’s view is almost unblocked. The desert extends out to the west. The Forest seems like a living green wall. There is a mist of spores around it. There are a few dust devils elsewhere in the desert, and some things he can’t make out. Further, he sees the lines of a city. There are also large, lumbering forms here and there in the desert. Something suddenly seems to rise up above the forest, and disappears into the clouds. It is immense. Looking back towards the village, the large lumbering dots appear to be close to it. Hayden comes down and reports what he saw. Aeric adds that while getting breakfast, he did a bit of scouting, and saw the tracks of some large insect-like creature. It looked almost identical to the trail of a ladybeetle he’d seen in his youth. There seemed to be at least two such trails.

Preparing to camp, Aeric invites Hayden to spar. Sheila expresses interest in watching, and is asked to act as judge. Zephyr wants to watch as well; although she had long since stopped making notes of Hayden’s apparent psychology, aside from events not fitting with past behavior, she has a passing interest in Aeric’s personality change that day. She soon remembers that there are things to study that she finds far more interesting than people, and goes back to her book. Strelok comes over to Zephyr and asks if she noticed Aeric’s personality change. He wonders if it might be “Marcus” showing through. They both believe it is important to keep an eye on him. When asked about possession, Zephyr does not think it likely. Strelok then approaches Sheila to have the same conversation. They don’t think it was just a matter of him becoming comfortable with the group. Sheila reminds Strelok that Aeric has been a bit stressed about the forest and the trek in general.

Meanwhile, Aeric has cleared a large circle and made an outline with twigs and leaves and such. They fight with sticks rather than swords. Hayden confirms with him that there won’t be magic or anything other than the sticks. As they begin, Aeric tenses, and waits. Hayden circles. Zephyr reads. Phallic imagery ensues. A few blows are exchanged. Hayden pretends to stumble at one point, and Aeric falls for the trick, earning himself a direct hit to the solar plexus/zyphoid process region. He calls a timeout, winded. Hayden’s serious, almost solemn demeanor suddenly changes with a higher stance, somewhat bouncing steps, and a cheerful expression. Aeric also smiles, and rises. He quickly rushes, getting in two hits before bring the stick to Hayden’s throat. Aeric says he’s seen this stance change; it was a favorite of his teacher (who “appreciated the cocky ones”). He backs up as Hayden nods, yielding, and gets into a starting position once more. This time, Hayden uses his cloak to entangle, a successful manuever. A hit to the ulnar nerve numbs Aeric’s arm. Aeric is very amused by this, and flops the arm around. “Hey… hey, come here…” He lightly smacks Hayden with the numb arm. “Hehehe.” He thanks Hayden for the duel, complimenting his skill.

Sheila offers to help with Aeric’s arm, but he declines. Talk turns to what we might expect during the next day’s trek. Aeric says, well, it’s what we always dreamed of, isn’t it? He seems to drift into his own world for a moment. “it’s been a long time since we’ve met like that. I hope we’ll both be prepared.” He wanders off, as Hayden has a flash of childhood memory of play-dueling with rancher boys. Hayden asks Strelok if he’d like a go; he declines, although expresses the belief that, if he could hit Hayden, he (Strelok) would win; landing a hit would be uncertain. His magic seems an unfair advantage. Hayden replies by saying that magic can still miss.

Strelok requests Hayden show him how to disarm, or perhaps other techniques. He would like to deliver bounties without killing people. Hayden agrees, provided we don’t all die tomorrow.

[In character but not in-game: Hayden protests not having someone on watch who converses; Zephyr says he never tries, and that she would be an excellent conversationalist… if he talked about something interesting…. Hayden says he feels the same way about her.]

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Today's session was a bit corpsey.

Polena snuggles up to Strelok with a warning glare along the lines of “you’d better not let anything happen to me!!”

Aeric seems antsy. Sheila inquires, and he says that being out here for two days and being attacked twice… is it going to be like this the whole time? Sheila pointed out that he was told the stories, and he replies that he thought them exaggerated.

After awhile, Aeric asks Sheila, “did you hear that noise…?” She listens and detects a faint buzzing sound coming from the north (the direction we are traveling). She decides to wait to see if it gets closer, as it is very faint. Strelok notices it as well. It stays faint, not getting any louder or closer. Strelok decides to climb a tree and try to spot the source of the sound. He is unable to get high enough to see above the trees.

Around 8, Sheila starts sharpening her sword; the screeching sound wakes everyone up. Sigh.

Sheila and Strelok discuss the Night Callers, and the possibility of an attack. Polena interrupts to ask about the buzzing sound. She is reassured that it has not come any closer. However, as we begin to travel North, it becomes louder. After 15 minutes, the faint buzz has become a roaring hum. Sounds like the flight of thousands of insects. A scouting party? A hive? An attack force? Pallas informs Zephyr of a rotting scent as we travel; if it is a group of insects, perhaps they are feeding. Aeric suggests Strelok go scout it out. Hayden goes along.

Strelok and Hayden come across a large pit formed from the root wells of several fallen trees. At the base are thousands of flying bugs, ranging from tiny to baseball-sized fliers, and beetles up to the size of a basketball. They are devouring two humanoids — one adult sized, one quite a bit smaller. Appear to be benign insects feeding on carrion. Something is glinting amongst the bugs, but everything else is being eaten. Hayden carefully makes his way down — the pit is about 14 feet deep. He has to walk on top of the bugs (both crunchy and squishy. Yum,). He daintily (and queasily) makes his way the eight or so feet to the glinting object. It appears to be some sort of disc. The adult seems to have been holding it, so it is… juicy. He shakes the flesh free and sees it is a copper disk, strangely warm. He gets the fuck out of the pit.

Examining it once out of the pit: Copper, thin unadorned band around outside, line of engraving with a twisty symbol in the middle. Disk is about 5in diameter. They are reminded of the disk found in the Veil. Strelok can tell that it is magical. Hayden “tries to use it” (fiddling, trying to writing engraving, etc). Strelok tries to dissuade him from this course of action. Using Detect Magic, Strelok determines that there is conjuration magic within the disk, of moderate strength. Hayden becomes concerned that they will accidentally conjure more bugs.

The silver disk we got in the Veil has different writing and is far larger. They bring the new disk to Zephyr, who sighs, thinking about how long the book is taking her to figure out. Hayden warns that it is dangerous— decomposing bodies, eaten by bugs! Polena looks ill, but is curious about the disk. Taking it, she notes the “pretty flower” on it, and tries to shine it with her sleeve before handing it back. Meanwhile, Zephyr attempts to explain ecosystems and decomposers to Hayden, who will have none of it. Strelok offers to help Zephyr study the disk. Sheila considers going to view the bodies while Polena picks at a string on her sleeve. She asks Hayden to fix it; it was pulled loose when she rubbed the disk with her sleeve. Looking at the disk, there is a shallow square notch in the bottom of the disk. Strelok decides to look at the bodies and see if there are any items that might fit within the notch. We all go along. As Strelok tries to descend into the pit, he fumbles with the rope and falls on his back within the mass of bugs. Sheila follows him, while Zephyr stays at the top and examines the disk. Hayden also watches from the top. Strelok notes a squished basket-ball sized beetle he had fallen on, the innards of which are now plastered to his leg. Polena and Aeric hang back away from the edge of the pit.

Sheila and Strelok reach the bodies without vomiting. Hooray! As Strelok looks for items, Sheila tries to determine how the humanoids came to be in this situation. She notices that the bodies are positioned: the adult seems to have fallen with one arm raised out (the hand the disk was in). The other arm is pinned beneath the smaller body, as if it was being held. On the smaller body, a shirt bears the symbol of Pelor (sun god).

Strelok looks for bags or other possessions that they might have been carrying— did they have supplies? Or does it seem they were unprepared for travel? Were they from the caravan? He also tries to determine the cause of death.

Sheila notices that the symbol isn’t proper… the rays of the sun have been altered so that the sun has three rays. The altered symbol is unfamiliar, but Sheila knows of pagan-type religions that commonly use sun imagery.

Strelok finds a pouch on the adult. It has a knife, trail rations, and a small gold and ruby ring (no magic detected). The amount of trail rations looked to be enough for the adult and child for two days. No broken bones. Turning the bodies over so that they are face up, he finds that the eyes have been gouged out, and several teeth are missing or fragmented, as if something was smashed into it. The tongue and soft palate are missing. On the man’s outstretched hand, Strelok notices an odd bone structure: the base knuckle of the middle finger is lumpy. Splitting the skin with the knife, Strelok finds metal; he retrieves a sliver of gold, about 3 inches, with a small flat-cut diamond in the center. It looks like it may fit in the notch of the disk.

Sharing information, Strelok notes that there are no broken bones, which is surprising if they fell into the pit. He looks around the edges of the pit, and sees burrows that might be used as foot- and hand-holds. Sheila suspects that the people are native; perhaps they lived here. Strelok shows the group the gold sliver.

Meanwhile, Zephyr has determined that the writing on the disk is Sylvan; knowing that language, she reads: “plants share, plants save, friend of plants ’til end of days.” Given that the sliver of gold was buried under the adult’s skin for a long time, Strelok suspects he was protecting the disk. He studies it further: bringing the sliver of gold close to the disk, it grows hot. Strelok sense feelings from the disk: perhaps it is something to be used as protection, or something used to guide, or perhaps to harm.

Strelok wants to study it further, but Hayden, convinced it is about plants rather than bugs, wants to try it out. Sheila points out that there are very dangerous plants; Zephyr is annoyed because she was just telling Hayden about such things yesterday, but he paid no attention. Hayden is fiddling with the sliver, and when it gets close to the middle finger (where it was in the man), his hands lock up and grow hot. His finger splits open, and absorbs the sliver before sealing. It feels hot, and he feels a magnetic-like pull between his finger and the disk. Hayden protests this new development, and Sheila sighs. “You have to fiddle with everything, don’t you?” Strelok agrees to Hayden’s early plan to test it out, handing him the disk while the rest of the party goes and hides behind the trees. Hayden is feeling indignant and defensive (“I didn’t even do anything wrong this time!”). He aligns the sliver in his finger with the notch on the disk: thorn-covered vines erupt and engulf him, but the thorns do not break his skin… and they move with him. He moves experimentally. He has a suit of thorny vine armor. “Now I know what Pallas feels like! …..How do I turn it off?” He takes the disk into the other hand, and the vines retract into the disk with a metallic ringing noise. Strelok offers to take the new suit off Hayden’s hands if he doesn’t want it. Hayden expresses the feeling of being violated by Mother Nature.

Strelok asks Zephyr for the silver disk, which she has been carrying, and they use mage hand to get it to him (so that there is no blinding) He examines it for a similar notch. He finds none, but the structure of the disks is definitely similar. Strelok takes out his map and makes a mark at our location, then tries to remember the location of the other in the veil, and makes a mark there.

The war birds have gorged on bugs, and are quite pleased. We continue our travels. The rest of the day is uneventful, but we are all tense. Polena is QUIET. OMG.

As night approaches, Aeric mentions not seeing any good places to camp in the last few hours, and suggests we scout for one. Strelok offers to go, and Aeric accompanies him. He wants to make sure they find a defensible location. He is getting along much better with his bird. The two ride ahead of the party, and soon find the remains of a village. It is not marked on the map, and may in fact have only been a single farm; the buildings are overgrown, so it is hard to tell. Construction looks like it was within the last 100 years. The overgrown plants are all shrubs, not tall trees, indicating that there was cleared land here. There are pear trees and a cherry tree, plus a vegetable garden. Aeric rides back to the group while Strelok investigates and collects food. He confirms that the building is abandoned.

Meanwhile, Hayden asks about the pagan symbols. “Does this mean I’m part of some weird religion?” A conversation ensues, and Aeric’s arrival is a startling interruption; Hayden feels an strong urge to grab the disk with the hand in which the sliver is embedded. Aeric leads the party to the farm, and they arrive as Strelok is cooking a stew. Hayden is very pleased that there is a roof under which to sleep that night (and four walls surrounding, no less!) Polena is even more excited by this prospect. “Do we… do we… get to be… not outside?!”

The barn (the only building with a surviving root) is filled with hay. It is dry, although it does have a number of rodent and flea inhabitants. The door even locks. The birds are let in to eat the rodents; they are at first reluctant, as the ceiling is low, but they are happy about the prospect of food… however, they hit their heads every time they rear their heads back to swallow prey. As the stew cooks just outside, they become more interested in the pot. Strelok slowly shuts the door, and they coo sadly, but go back to hunting rodents.

Hayden is wary about the fact that this used to be a farm, but was abandoned. It is pointed out that this was built in the last 100 years; the wall went up 20 years ago. They may have left then, or before when insects became a threat.

The birds are given the left over stew, because we like them and are done eating. Hayden and Zephyr takes the first watch; Hayden climbs up on the roof of the barn, which, luckily, supports his weight. With Pallas assisting in keeping watch, Zephyr has time to study the book. Hayden explores the emotions which have triggered the urge to activate the disk (mainly defensiveness, insecurity for when he was startled; apprehension the first time it was activated.). Focussing on those feelings, he is aware of the pull between the sliver and disk; however, unlike when he was caught in the emotions, he doesn’t feel a strong need to activate it.

The second watch is Polena and Strelok, The birds suddenly begin to stir within the barn, and Strelok goes on alert. He sees a large, shadowy figure slink into the clearing. It is mammalian and predatory. It avoids the light of the outdoor fire, but sniffs at the windows of the barn on the dark side. Strelok watches from the roof of the barn, with Polena beside him. He notes that the creature moves in an odd way; too smoothly, it seems. It darts back into the underbrush, and the birds begin to settle; however, it soon comes back with a slightly-larger companion. Strelok sees a glimpse of bright gold fur. They appear to have eight legs. Strelok notices that they move similarly to the badgers back home. Suddenly one tackles the other, and they tumble into the underbrush. The birds shift and wiffle uncomfortably. Strelok summons a ball of light, and there is silence for a moment…. and then the creatures pounce on the ball and play with it. They are aurumvoraxes. Polena giggles as watches them play. Strelok wants to follow them back to their nest. Polena objects to being left alone, so he goes to wake Aeric. Strelok wants to go to the nest to find precious metal hoards. Aeric grudgingly agrees to take watch for half of what Strelok snags.

Strelok follows them to a nearby river, where another similarly sized aurumvorax waits with a larger one, presumably an adult whereas the others are adolescents (albeit unusually large ones). Strelok leaves a trail of coins, returns to the river, and uses another light spell to attract them; the three smaller ones try to chase, but the larger barks, stopping the others in their tracks. They all return, and when morning comes, they retreat into a cave. Strelok waits until dawn, then uses stealth and invisibility to crawl into the hole after them. Suddenly he rounds a corner and finds them. One of the young ones looks in his direction and sniffs, but is distracted by a playful sibling. He sneaks by the sleepy kits.

After traveling about an hour, using a dimmed light spell, Strelok sees faint glimmers ahead. The walls seem to be glittering with quartz and and pyrite, even coins… in the walls and ceilings. The deeper he travels, the shinier it gets. Soon he finds piles of uncut gems. There are more and more coins, and finally he reaches a room blocked by discarded metalwork. There are a few buried magical items that he can detect. Digging with the flat of his axe, Strelok finds a few handfuls of gems and jewelry, 3 platinum, 45 gold, and some magic items: 3 magic rings, a crown/circlet, a left glove, 2 amulets. Strelok leaves, passing by a puddle of snoozing aurumvorax cuteness. Returning to camp, Strelok splits his find with Aeric.

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Stuff happened but we're watching DBZa now so I can't be distracted by titles right now.

Polena and Aeric are not too pleased about a creature slipping past Strelok and Sheila’s notice, but it is agreed that this would have been difficult to spot.

Hayden asks Sheila about her time on the wall. Sheila says her first year was routine. She was stationed in an area much less prone to attack, where the forest and wasteland are further from the wall. Zephyr knows from study that there was less spread of forest in that area due to a lack of nutrients in the soil. Sheila relates one battle which she missed, being in a hunting party. Other members of the garrison were heading off some of the bugs spotted from the wall’s watchtowers. They were charging the wall. A number of good men were lost, and the survivors don’t talk about it much; many suffering rather obviously from PTSD.

Hayden asks Strelok what dangerous creatures he’s faced… specifically, “biggest, most fearsome”. Zephyr points out that those are separate categories, as the most fearsome was surely the plague worms, while the largest were the Charybdis. Hayden says he was just asking for stories, since he’s bored. Zephyr launches into a lecture regarding the mating habits of leviathan and why they are a keystone species.

We reach the forest (safe type, not across the wastelands; we left a path of travel going through an area full of dead trees and fallen logs). We continue to travel north. Going into the forest enough to find an easy path (no fallen trees and dead underbrush), we lose sight of the *F*orest; however, we can occasionally climb trees to get our bearings.

Side note: sometimes Aeric will lapse into a more Marcus-style of speech.

Information on the forest we are currently traveling in: Zephyr warns of oozes and puddings which often occupy this type of forest. There are likely varieties of predator birds, and dangerous plants (Hayden: “Dangerous plants? What’s it going to do, photosynthesize?”) Sheila tells of experiences with giant dragonflies and fleas, swarms of things, etc. (Hayden: “So basically, if we hear a buzzing sound, something is going to come kill us and lay eggs on our chest”. He casts ghost sound to make a buzzing sound behind Polena. She screams and runs away… luckily, in the right direction.)

Suddenly Polena falls silent. We rush after her and discover she has fallen into the well of a tree, and is covered in nasty spiderwebs. Polena is screaming and flailing, and Strelok dismounts to jump in after her. Zephyr looks in interest, but sighs as she realizes they are only common garden spiders. Strelok tosses her out of the hole, and Zephyr reassures her that the spiders are completely harmless. Then she begins excitedly describing some not-so-harmless species we might find in the other *F*orest. She is shooed away and Strelok calms Polena down for a second time.

That evening, we come across a clearing as the sun begins to set. It is a little too perfect, and several party members are suspicious. We find signs that the clearing has recently been used as a campsite (Strelok estimates between 6 days and 2 weeks). Additional searching turns up two footprints, not belonging to the same individual. Humanoid, one adult sized with some sort of covering, the other smaller and barefoot. Possibly rangers? Polena suggests they are perhaps refugees.

Strelok makes a fire. Aeric pointedly offers to take the last shift, and asks if EITHER Strelok OR Sheila would like to join. Strelok and Polena take first watch, Zephyr and Hayden take the second. There are many strange noises in the night. Zephyr IDs some of the whooping sounds as giant bats, and their outlines are occasionally seen against the night sky. There are also many insect noises. The bats shouldn’t be a threat, and they are going after the bugs, so we leave them be.

As their watch begins, Strelok tries to awkwardly start a conversation with Polena. He lets her know that Hayden was just playing around, and she was in no real danger. She has figured this out, but was too embarrassed to admit it. He offers to teach her prestidigitation, and she accepts. He begins by showing her a few 0-level spells and helps her learn them. They wake Hayden and Zephyr. Pallas wanders off in search of insects of the regular-sized variety to munch on.

As Aeric and Sheila are being awoken, Zephyr notices that all the sounds from insects and bats are gone. She points it out to the other three awake party members; Hayden expresses appreciation for the silence. Zephyr ignores him and wakes up Strelok, who shakes Polena’s shoulder and heads to the edge of the clearing. Seeing nothing, he goes a short way into the woods. He hears a faint cry, which sounds like a voice: “Hello? Can you help me?” Strelok returns to camp to get Hayden, and Zephyr has Pallas accompany them as they stealthily attempt to find the voice.

At first they find nothing, and Hayden asks Strelok if he is fucking around; as Strelok is pointing out that he has never done that at any point during their travels together, the voice is heard again. Pallas begins hissing from his spot on Strelok’s shoulder. Strelok pats him and says, yes, I know its a trap. Pallas dances around. Strelok points in one direction; Pallas quiets. Strelok rotates slowly; Pallas stays silent. after completing a circle, Pallas hisses again and climbs up the side of Strelok’s head… they look up and see hundreds of dark bird shapes. “Hello?”

“Hello,” Hayden responds, to which Strelok gestures angrily in a “don’t DO that” sort of way. A few of the birds near Hayden startle, and suddenly they hear “Hello? Hello? Can you help me?” coming from all around. Some circle above, others land on nearer branches. A bird turns its head, revealing a large gaping hole where its eye should be. “Hello? Can you help me?” Strelok and Hayden run the fuck away. The birds follow to roost in the trees around the clearing. Zephyr recognizes them as Night Callers: a little on the shy side, but will “fuck your shit up”. They can imitate humans they hear; it seems they recently heard a child asking for help. They will attack anything they believe they can kill, but strongly favor humanoids. After hearing that they mimic humans, Hayden starts singing a raunchy tavern song. No response.

There are at least thirty, perhaps as many as forty five. They are nocturnal creatures who live in forests, so probably would not extend into the desert to follow us. Zephyr suspects there are too many people here for them to feel safe to attack. The axe beaks are very agitated, clearly angry. The Night Callers seem to be an apex predator, so making a sound of a common predator isn’t a viable strategy.

Strelok is highly in favor of attacking and taking out at least some of them in order to discourage them from following us, perhaps collected more. Hayden requests from Zephyr a bottle of flammable oil or alcohol. Watching him attempt to make a Molotov, she asks if he wouldn’t prefer a bottle of alchemist’s fire. He does indeed prefer that, and chucks it at the birds while using ghost sound to make a roaring noise. The birds in the targeted tree are killed, and the tree catches fire… which starts spreading. Zephyr sighs and casts Storm of Ice. Thanks to the roar, most of the birds are flying away.

It is light out, but most of the party didn’t get as much sleep as they needed; Zephyr predicts at least an hour before the creatures who fled the Night Callers return, and Sheila and Aeric take the watch.

View
Beyond the Wall
In which Hayden gets et

[Hayden’s POV]
As the party enters the forest through the gate, the handsome and dashing Hayden makes several witty remarks regarding the dubious nature of the guards’ effectiveness.

After the better part of a day’s travel, they come to the edge of the wastes.

Zephyr and Aeric bitch at each other for a while about what our actual purpose is and which way to go.

Sheila mercifully takes over and summarizes Zephyr’s ramblings into something resembling coherent concepts and gives Aeric a direction to head.

As the party begins to move out, a rumbling is heard, shaking the ground for a few moments before falling silent.

They begin to head towards the nearest settlement marked on the map (a city to the north).

[NOT Hayden’s POV]
We travel along the forest line (the normal forest by the wall). As we travel, we see giant shadows in the distance, and occasionally feel tremors. About an hour before sunset, Aeric calls back that he’s found a campsite. Thanks to fallen logs, we can make camp several feet above ground. We arrange 2 person shifts. No clouds; nebula is bright enough to see clear across the wastes. More dust clouds in the distance, followed by slight tremors. But closest one is ¾ of a mile away; luckily, next are further off. Mid shift saw four dark shadows far away. First watch, hear Polena squeal; huge blue lizard has hold of her foot, trying to drag her off. Aeric stabs in the eye region, and it releases Polena. We can see six legs on first half of its body as it backs away. It hisses, and we see sparks in its mouth. It turns out that Polena swears.

Hayden is swallowed, Sheila slices the creature open to get him out, he is pissy because he could have done a lot of damage from the inside (even though more than half his hit points were gone by that point). Zephyr IDs the creature as a Behir. Strelok took several legs, which were cooked for the party. He left the horn of the Behir in the trees to be retrieved upon our return.

View
Giant, Murderous Peeps
Also, Zephyr outlines what we should do in the Forest. No one will remember.

Closer to wall, more trees. Wall looks patchwork, made with whatever was on hand. Abandoned crane-like pulley systems from when wall was put up. Wall built 22 years before (this part, at least). Each country along forest contributed to section of wall in their territory. Never completed, but important parts (touching countries) were.

Map info… Feneros: all farmlands taken over by the “wastes” of the forest (areas where nutrients sucked out; dust bowl, dead). Most citizens left (diff country or to coast); remaining are squabbling, petty noblemen fighting over useless land. Wall patchy here, so Insects get through.

Beyond the Wall, 16 miles to the wasteland which surrounds the forest. 4 days casual ride to cross wastelands.

We are traveling south. Arrive at stockade as evening falls. Sharpened log fence, a few out buildings (large warehouse, stables); quiet. Probably 100-200 men stationed. We are hailed by two guards as we approach the fence. Sheila introduces herself and tells them we are here to investigate the recent surge of activity on the forest side of the wall. Polena is impressed, never having seen the wall or any sort of barracks. One of the guards (Lord Hale) actually trained with Strong; he is now the leader of the garrison. He clearly doesn’t like Strong, and is perhaps a bit bitter over his assignment. Zephyr asks about reports of insects pushing against walls. No attacks here; scouts have noticed burrowers closer to wall than would like… on hot days, stink of spores almost unbearable.

Meanwhile, Strelok reaches the bird ranch. The owner shows him their stock… currently only unbroken yearlings available. Strelok says he wants a big, strong Terror Bird… the owner is skeptical about his ability to handle one, or even to survive the attempt. Strelok feels confident that he can train it. The owner shows him “Jake”, who is “a handful” and “difficult”… but “will treat you well if you treat him well”. The owner again tries to convince Strelok to get an Ax-beak, but he sticks with his choice. Jake is rope broken, at least. The owner (Frank) helps acquaint Strelok with Jake. Strelok will ride the Ax-Beak and lead Jake; the two birds seem to get along.

Back at the stockade, Hale offers to arrange sleeping accommodations and dinner. We get two rooms, one table with four chairs in each, 4 bunks each, each bunk with an empty chest. Shared bathroom between the two rooms. The Captain who shows us the rooms warns of fleas in the straw bedding and goes off to find clean blankets. Polena meeps, and Hayden pokes the straw. He requests Zephyr do something with her alchemy, and she makes an insecticide. The captain returns with blankets and says there is stew for us in the kitchens.

Darkness falls while Strelok is still on the road. He makes camp for the night and tries to hunt. He catches some rabbits for the birds, but they are unsatisfied. He offers trail rations, but they simply peck at them. He eventually is able to get 3 more rabbits. The birds eat and settle down to nest. They look like giant, murderous peeps.

In the morning, those of us at the stockade are awoken by roosters. Zephyr gets up and finds the yard has turned to mud from the rain. She locates Lord Hale eating breakfast in the command yurt. He is a tall, broad-figured man with red hair turning silver, and an incredibly bushy mustache. She is offered breakfast. After, she asks about the burrowers he mentioned the day before, as well as other forest creatures. Burrowers are several varieties of insect — centipedes (fast), beetles (pincers), littler things with nasty bites, feisty… not so much those that they worry about; “tank beetles”, big as “all hell”, takes 2-3 ballista shots just to penetrate carapace. Will collide with wall with enough force that it shakes. Not here, but at posts further north. Wastelands spreading faster than ever; 50 miles away 10 years ago, now about 15. Soil stability in stockade already being lost, hence all the mud this morning. “Only a matter of time; this wall’s not going to stop them.” Zephyr asks if any event marked a change, or if the Forest has always been gaining pace? The latter; like a runaway train. Places of interest? Some abandoned cities, not really explainable… will have his men plot a rough map. Rumors… say the whole forest is run by a giant tree in the middle. Molds in the dark parts of the forest where trees are too dense to let in light. Bugs seem to like it. Seeing more and more of the “pit trees”, big trees (not as big as middle) where trunk opens into a pit. Bugs like them. Easy to fall into, have lost men, horses, even whole parties; pit full of something caustic.

>Zephyr’s In Forest To Do: Investigate big tree? Sadly, VERY far away…, pit trees (try to get sample of contents), look for signs of mating and reproduction like old egg cases (theory that it may just be population increasing exponentially due to lack of predators, but lack of predators would probably have been constant for past 1250 years… can’t really figure out lifespan without years of study), investigate mold. Strange abandoned cities.

Zephyr goes back to the group to share what she learned. Discuss what she wants to research… much would take years to find out, we have to do the best we can; “We have much research to do—” Hayden: “WE?” Zephyr: “Why are you here?!”

Aeric interjects: he’s also heard rumors of abandoned cities; says to Hayden: “I know what that means, and I’m pretty sure you do too.” Zephyr tells them about the rough map she will be getting. It is mentioned that the magical components in the jungle may have kept them from deteriorating… or at least, what is magical would not have deteriorated. Hayden is now interested, due to the possible loot. Zephyr concludes that, given limitations of time and distance, the best things to investigate are abandoned cities, molds, and the pit trees. Hayden says sane people would stay AWAY from the bugs and caustic materials, and it is pointed out that if we wanted to stay away, we would have stayed in Danuul. Aeric points out that those same people aren’t looking to become filthy rich; Zephyr is exasperated by this mode of motivation.

Other prep: Zephyr finds scouting party, inquires about food in the forest. Very limited knowledge, but know some edibles, and some things that are deadly. There are some (but few) birds, very few mammals… perhaps none. The Ax-Beaks can forage for themselves. Zephyr asks if there are any detect poison scrolls she might take; no, they’ve been out of for months. Sheila can cast it, but it would be nice to have a backup in case of separation. Zephyr says she will talk with Strong and have him supply them with sufficient detect poison scrolls, and she herself will take notes in the forest to share with them upon her return.

Strelok arrives. He hails a guard and requests food and water for the birds. Zephyr fills Strelok in, and they discuss, which pleases Zephyr greatly. Meanwhile, Sheila talks to some of the guards about their post; her own post was quite similar. Some ask about the rumored “blight” in Oras; others ask about the general goings-on from their hometowns or countries.

Strelok and Hayden go hunting in a woodland near the stockade (safe side of the wall). Aeric decides to tag along. Bonding! (Not so much.) Hayden unfortunately has essentially no survival skills. They find a bear. And then a goat screamed, and Cody called Skyler a bastard. Anyway, Strelok tries to hold completely still, and Hayden contemplates trying to backstab it. He approaches the bear, having epic stealth skills. He hides behind a tree and stabs it through the neck. A second hit kills it. (Strelok sees nothing from his position, but hears a “woo!”) Aeric got a deer. The meat goes into a bag of holding. Aeric is a bit put out that Hayden got a bear, and all he got was a deer. Strelok later goes in search of tubers and other edibles.

Meanwhile, Sheila has been talking to the soldiers about Oras; a group soon gathers around her. She tells them just the basics about the creatures, but gives detail about symptoms to look for. The mood becomes somber as the soldiers learn that the rumors are in fact truth.

Polena is freaking out.

We prepare to embark the next morning.

~
Landscape on other side of wall is basically identical at this point. The soldiers atop the wall call down to us to wish us luck, and give us a pattern to sound thrice with whatever is available to us.

View
Traveling with the Caravan

Sheila mentions that the Ax-Beaks would be useful in the forests, since the horses won’t be. Hayden makes a comment about them being large beasts that show no emotion except murderous rage… Polena eeps and looks worried. Aeric is up with the merchant, and it looks as though money is exchanging hands. Sheila goes up to them, and finds that Aeric has bought a young Ax-Beak. They are 4k apiece. We discuss whether or not to get them. Sheila and Zephyr see no need, and Polena is terrified of them. Pallas crawls into the cage with the birds to investigate. They look at him in an unconcerned manner.

So we are now traveling with the caravan. A man turns his horse and rides back to greet us. He inquires whether we are heading towards the wall. He says they welcome the company and added safety. He introduces himself as Art. The caravan is in search of new territory. Strelok offers Art his protective services in return for a small stipend or food for the journey. Art says they don’t have any way to pay, and already offered to share what food they could.

Aeric’s bird is walking alongside his horse. The horse is not at all happy. Sheila asks Hayden how he’s doing. Bored, traveling with yokels, the pompous windbag…. Sheila asked if he’d made any progress. Hayden said he took her advice, and Aeric took that as an opportunity to come bother him (referring to the suggestion of swordwork as meditation). Sheila asks if Aeric was JUST a nuisance, or if Hayden gained something from his advice. Hayden admits that he did; “[Aeric] knows what he’s doing. That actually makes it worse.”

Meanwhile, Aeric approaches Zephyr and mentions that we’d be passing by the college city of Merc{…?}; he asks if she had any opinion on the headmaster, who is of serpantfolk. Making small talk. Zephyr says she assumes he’s qualified. {Cyrus Sevenscale?}. Aeric chuckles. Zephyr has no interest in small talk, however, so Aeric soon moves on.

Strelok approaches Art, and asks about their search for new lands. Art says they are headed to Eriws {sp?} where there is work in the timber industry.
Strelok: Where are you from?
Art: A ways to the east.
Strelok: Vuresca? Ferrin?
Art: Yeah, off to the east.
Strelok wishes them luck and rides back to speak to Hayden. He says he thinks there is something shady about Art. Hayden thinks Art seems like normal country bumpkin. Strelok mentions Art’s reluctance to name their origin. Hayden says, so, he’s running from the law. Whatevs. Strelok says he may be wrong. “May be seeing work where there isn’t.”

The overall caravan seems antisocial, perhaps suspicious of us, but otherwise nothing seems unusual.

Strelok mentions that he hasn’t had work for awhile, and the last job… wasn’t really worth it. Except the warehouse. He asks Hayden if he got goods (laugh for answer). Strelok shows him the giant diamond necklace, asks how much Hayden thinks it is worth; if Hayden fences it for him, they can split the profit. And, uh, not mention it to Sheila. Hayden mentions that a diamond that large is rare, and thus hard to sell; usual practice is to cut it into smaller gems and sell them. Strelok has no problem with that.

Night falls, and we set up camp. Strelok overhears a child asking their parents, “are these the people who are going to save us?” The child is told, no, and is shushed. Strelok decides that he will try to speak to the child alone. The child is about six, and is sitting by a fire alone when Strelok approaches. He is clutching a teddy bear and pouting. Strelok asks what bear’s name is; Henry. “Are you going to take him away?”
Strelok: Actually, Henry told me you are looking for someone to save you.
Child: Henry doesn’t talk.
Strelok: Oh, well, maybe it was someone else… maybe you?
Child: I didn’t say that…
Strelok: Too bad. I’m a pretty good hero.
Child (eyes widen): Really?
Strelok: Yup. I can do magic and everything.

The boy hesitates, and says he shouldn’t talk to strangers; but he ends up asking if Strelok will kill the scary monsters that are going to come kill them. That’s why they had to leave, according to his mother. Strelok asks where they are from; the child replies, “Far away”.
Strelok: From over the ocean?
Child: …ocean?
Strelok: Did you ride a boat?
Child: Oh, yes. Mommy got sick.

Strelok asks if mother still sick; she is not. Strelok tells the child to let him know if he sees any monsters. The child agrees, and expresses gratitude that Strelok is there to save them. Ok.

Strelok leaves the boy and goes to Hayden, who has heard only Strelok’s side of the conversation. Strelok tells him that the caravan broke the quarantine. Hayden asks if any are infected. They seem not to be, since symptoms should have shown by now. But larger implications are that others could have gotten through the quarantine. And if these people got this far inland, others could have gotten as far into the country and spread. We haven’t heard anything yet… and it spread so fast last time. They discuss further. These people might have been among the last to leave before the quarantine was enacted. Strelok expresses a concern that, with all the wagons covered, they may be hiding infected relatives. Strelok also wonders if they should tell Sheila, since she might turn the people in, and they’re only trying to survive. They finally decide that they should tell her.

Polena is with Sheila, panicking about the birds. Sheila tries to calm her. Aeric has been spending the evening attempted to manage both horse and bird, who do not want to be anywhere near each other. The peasants giggle at him a bit. After initially taking satisfaction, Strelok feels guilt at being petty, and offers to help with the bird, since he won’t have his for awhile. Unfortunately, his horse responds even less well than Aeric’s. He hands Sheila his horse, saying she earned it, and walks off with the bird before she can protest. Aeric is grateful. and they agree that Strelok will keep the bird until they get to the wall and Aeric can stable his horse. Strelok needs to practice before he gets the larger model.

Just before bedding down, Hayden and Strelok tell Sheila and Zephyr what they’d learned. Sheila says they need to find out if there are any infected as soon as possible; however, we agree to just keep a careful watch for now, and Sheila will attempt to get some information the next day. Strelok makes sure to mention that the information is from a six-year-old, and inferred at that. Sheila detects no evil. She asks Zephyr if any of the images in the book help. No; the drawings show the creatures in various stages of development; for example, a largely intact human face with a small split, larger splits, etc. They pictures show developments in the creature beyond what we had encountered, indicating we had seen only jueveniles. In the last stages, the host body seems impossibly small to hold such vast amount of worm…

Strelok: “Wait, pictures? What pictures?” He asks about the book, and why Zephyr hadn’t told them this before. Then he turns to Pallas and demands why the hedgehog didn’t tell him either. Pallas looks simultaneously offended and bashful, and slinks behind Zephyr. Zephyr says she’s been keeping Sheila updated, but until she has some of the translation, there was little to share. Having just finished translating the note left in the alley, Zephyr was only just starting on the book.

Aeric approaches and asks “are we having a meeting?” Strelok looks at Sheila and makes a shrugging gesture, asking if Aeric should be told. “You hired him…” Sheila briefly says that it seems the people of the caravan were running from the creatures on the other continent. Aeric: Oh! Got through the quarantine, good for them! They seem well enough. Strelok agrees that we would notice symptoms, and Aeric inquires whether we are familiar with the creatures.

Strelok asks how good Aeric is at sneaking; says they should perhaps investigate wagons. Aeric agrees if Strelok feels it is necessary; remembering what we encountered in Oras, Strelok says he does. Sheila, on the other hand, plans to ask Art directly in the morning.

[Side note: from what Z knows of creatures from her own observations and information she got from Strong, and based on length of journey, symptoms should have shown by now, so we should be in clear. However, the creatures/contagion may have mutated or developed so that symptoms didn’t show up until later stage. ] Strelok: “to be on same page… I will kill every person here, women and children included, if it will stop this from spreading from here.” Aeric seems a bit surprised by this vehemence. He says he trusts he’ll be kept informed; Sheila says yes. Meanwhile, Aeric plans to go speak to Art and offer to help with watches. Strelok says he’ll go as well.

So, time for bed. Polena asks to camp with Sheila, because the bird Strelok has is scary. Sheila points out that it is in its own area; Polena protests that “it’s right over there!” (it is in fact at least 40 ft away). Polena promises to be quiet, and begs. Sheila says Polena will have to get used to the bird. She declines sharing a tent, but reluctantly says that Polena can put her tent next to Sheila’s own “if you are quiet”. Polena apparently hoped not to be alone.
Polena: I can go ask Hayden if I can share his tent…
Sheila: …whatever works for you.
Polena: Ok, I’ll go ask him!

Meanwhile, Aeric and Strelok are discussing shifts with Art. Strelok volunteers the entire party to help with overnight shifts, letting the caravan group rest. Strelok returns to Hayden and says he’s arranged an opportunity for them to look around without anyone spotting them. (He also asks Hayden what he thinks about him asking Polena to share his shift, to have time with her.) Strelok leaves to find Polena. Polena comes up to Hayden and says Sheila said she could spend the night with him because she is scared of the bird… Hayden replies, “why of course!” Polena soon starts her rapid-fire chatting.

Sheila approaches and is told about taking shifts. Strelok returns. Zephyr is there also. We all ended up by the fire, that’s the important part. Anyway. Strelok asks Polena to share his shift so he can show her arcane magic stuff. She says she was planning to share Hayden’s shift… since Strelok’s got that bird… Strelok says he will leave it tied up. Polena asks Sheila if she is allowed to do this, as she had been taught not to do arcane magic. Sheila points out that that arcane magic saved all of their lives on the boat to Amas. Hayden makes sparkles and says that magic is neat stuff, but Polena still wavers. Sheila tells her that she needs to stay on her path, but can also learn arcane magic if it doesn’t make her stray from that path. Strelok adds that it is how you use the magic that matters, and points out that we use ours to help people. Polena agrees to join him for his watch.

Sheila takes the last, early dawn, shift. Aeric will join her. Polena and Strelok get the mid shift, Zephyr and Hayden take the first. Aeric returns, saying he has scoped out the layout of the camp. He shares the info.

Hayden taunts Pallas during the first watch. Pallas bites him. Zephyr works on the book as much as she can. The watch is otherwise boring and uneventful. Second watch, Polena says she’s still really sleepy and doesn’t want to get up, but Strelok reminds her that she’s going to be learning arcane magic and urges her up. Polena struggles with the lesson; she has sorcery while Strelok has wizardry, arcane magic doesn’t come easily to her, and she’s spent most of her life attempting to suppress it. Aeric is cheerful on the last watch, and makes small talk. In the morning, Strelok admits being distracted by a girl, and is irritated that Hayden didn’t go snooping, thinking being distracted by a hedgehog is not as acceptable an excuse. Sheila still detects no evil.

Sheila finds Art grilling up meat for the morning meal. She reports that nothing eventful occurred during the watches. He says they’d found this road to be quiet. Sheila asks how long the caravan had been traveling on this road, and is told it has been nearly six weeks, from the coast (it would have taken this long if they were wandering a bit aimlessly in search of land, or if they walked the entire way rather than utilizing the trains and ferries). Sheila asks about life back where they came from. Farmers… the land was no longer hospitible. Sheila asks if the crops were not growing. Art replies that demand fell, and trails off… Hayden, arriving just then in search of food, adds: “also the monsters coming out of faces.” Art says “Uh, yes…. that would be bad…” and shifts uncomfortably. Sheila glares at Hayden.

Art asks how long we are planning to travel with them. Sheila: You seemed eager for extra company, have we done something to overstay our welcome? (vague answer about people belonging where they belong). Sheila questions the abruptness of this attitude change, and Art cites Hayden’s sudden monster comments. Sheila and Hayden say they understand fleeing from such monsters; after all, our party did. Art says they harbor no infected people. He says we are welcome to travel with caravan if plan to assist; if we plan to inhibit, whether by accusing of harboring infected or otherwise…. Sheila says we will not hinder them. Art says we can travel with their caravan, but they will be resuming the watches. He says quietly that if we were indeed familiar with the creatures, we would not tolerate their presence, implying that they would have or already had dispatched any infected. Detect motive supports this, and supports theory that they had in fact dealt with it on their own.

Hayden and Sheila return to the party and share what had happened with Strelok and Zephyr. We decide to leave the caravan and head to the wall, which we should reach by the next day. Strelok says he will be going to get his Terror Bird and will meet us at the wall. We pack up and set out. Strelok borrows Aeric’s bird and money to buy a saddle for Aeric’s bird (Aeric gives him 2 platinum).

View
Aeric Interacts with the Party. There is Also a Catfish. And Later, There Are Birds.

We set of for the wall. There are various forts stationed along the wall, as well as guard stations. Having been stationed at the wall previously, Sheila knows the area somewhat, and suggests a specific fort destination. We take a ferry down the river for the first leg of the journey. During the first few hours, Hayden gets increasingly restless, and eventually pulls Sheila aside to relate what he remembers about “Marcus” from his childhood (whether real or imagined), and describes his interactions with Marcus in the city. Unfortunately, Sheila has no proof of Aeric’s deception, and must figure out how much of Hayden’s story is true.

Meanwhile, Strelok is mainly oblivious to everything except Polena, who is paying a lot of attention to Aeric. Strelok sulks. Zephyr continues to study the note, and makes progress in her cypher, but can’t yet make sense of the message. She has been keeping Sheila updated with her progress.

After consideration, Sheila talks to Hayden and suggests that he try to remember more of his past (as he seems to have blocked out much of his childhood), and to make connections with those memories with his present knowledge, to determine how much of his memories are true and how much they may be skewed by a child’s perspective. Hayden says that finding Marcus and what little he has said about their past has called everything Hayden thought he knew into question. Sheila offers to set up a zone of truth so that the two men can discuss things, but Hayden insists that it didn’t work the last time; he cites Aeric’s statement of not staying up late gambling, combined with the wooden die Aeric gave him that had been used by Marcus. She suggests meditation, perhaps in the form of sword training. Hayden doesn’t understand this idea. Finally, Hayden translates what she is trying to tell him as “just don’t think about it”. Sheila doesn’t quite agree with this method, but if it works for him, for now… fine.

After several more hours, Sheila realizes she hasn’t seen Polena since they disembarked… which is odd. She finds her at the bow, deep in conversation with Aeric. Sheila greets them. Aeric returns the greeting: “Hail, Paladin!” Sheila tells him he doesn’t always have to be so formal, and he replies that he is only being polite; “you have worked hard to earn your status”. Aeric says they were discussing getting over fears of the unknown. Polena gushes about how brave the two of them are, and how she wants to be just like them. Sheila asks Polena for a few moment’s alone with Aeric to discuss plans, and Polena cheerfully goes to find Strelok. Sheila expresses a desire to know more about Aeric’s life and history. He says he came from humble origins, and left home at an early with big dreams of being an adventurer; it turned out not to be as glamorous as he’d thought, but it was a good life and he enjoyed it. Sheila asks what those “humble origins” were. Aeric says he is the son of a butcher, from {general area Hayden is from}. Sheila asks if he was familiar with a noble in that area by the name of Julian. Aeric thinks for a minute, and says it rings a bell. He says that he and his father traveled to many estates in their work. He vaguely remembers an estate that might have matched that name, but at age 12, the estate dissolved or something… he didn’t know the details. He himself didn’t interact with the nobles, except for the children, whom he would play with when he wasn’t helping his father. Sheila asks about his first adventures, and Aeric fondly relates his memories of his early adventuring. He seems to be completely genuine.

Polena finds Strelok drinking and fishing. She asks what he’s trying to catch; whatver bites, he responses. She asks if he is hungry, and offers to share her rations, but he says he’s just fishing to pass the time. “Oh… is this a man thing?” “…Yeah.”
Strelok: So. New guy.
Polena: Yeah.
Strelok: Yeah.
Polena: He’s so brave.
Strelok: I bet. (pause) Very handsome.
Polena: You think so?
Strelok: It’s hard not to think so.
(long pause)
Polena: …ok, well have fun!

Zephyr continues her work, occasionally going above deck to pace. When stuck, she talks with Pallas to help work things out… he doesn’t really contribute much, but it is helpful to bounce ideas off him, and he is patient and willing to listen.

The ferry ride lasts two days. On both mornings, when Sheila gets up to train, Aeric is already out to practice forms above deck. His footwork is excellent.

Hayden also practices his sword work during the trip. Aeric comes across him, and gives him pointers. Hayden is annoyed, but actually finds his advice is helpful. Which is especially annoying.

Strelok catches the biggest catfish he’s ever seen. It takes him and two sailors to pull it aboard. They suggest he throw it back, though, as they tend to taste horrible. He considers waiting to show it to Polena, but decides to just throw it back, as it isn’t injured. Aw.

Zephyr finishes the cypher for the message… and {insert info here later… something vague and flowerly, that refers to shop, not nec book.}

Our ferry ride is two days long. We are in Southern Vuresca (hills, farmland).

We dock and start of on the horses we brought with us. We travel west towards the fort. Southern Vuresca’s terrain is hilly and mostly farmland. It is around September, crisp but still bright and sunny during the day. The terrain is not difficult, and our travel easy. There are scattered farmhouses, and few actual towns. As we travel, Aeric continues interactions with the group: giving Hayden pointers, inspiring Polena, exchanging stories of past adventures with Sheila… he tries to talk to Strelok, notices he broods a lot, and eventually just leaves him alone. He asks Zephyr about the book, so she is actually willing (and in fact eager) to talk to him about it. He takes a great liking to Pallas, which pleases Zephyr (having recently been insulted by a certain merchant’s daughter and by Polena’s uncomfortable reaction to spending time with Pallas), although until she knows him better she doesn’t want him taking Pallas out alone. Stranger danger and all that.

Third day into land travel: we encounter a caravan also traveling towards the wall. We travel together for the added protection, although it slows our pace. Aeric notes that with the slower pace, there’ll be more time for him to give Hayden tips. Hooray! Hayden conceals his annoyance at this. It is a six-wagon caravan with a few smaller carts, as well as a caged cart containing a large flock of flightless birds. They are Ax-Beaks, which are mounts favored by soldiers at the wall for use in scouting missions, as they travel more easily through forested terrain than horses. Strelok has been looking for one of these, and there are several in the lot for sale. Strelok asks if they have any Terror Birds, a larger variation; they don’t, but they direct Strelok to where he can get one.

View
Bounty Adventures, Exploding Barrels, and Character Development

Hayden goes to see a man about a something. (He is no longer here. He pulls a batman).

Zephyr jitters while Sheila and Strelok decide not to upgrade the bracelet to include Aeric. Sheila asks Zephyr when she last slept. Zephyr says she would have to check her notes. Sheila attunes Strelok to one of the charms on the bracelet… the charm now takes on the appearance of Strelok’s face. Strelok then leaves to find pickpockets, and tells Sheila not to let Polena follow.

Strelok returns to the warehouse he found the previous night. The window that he broke the night before has been covered with cloth as a temporary fix and stapled into place. He listens for sounds from within, but hears nothing. He dives into the cloth and through the window frame. Luckily, the warehouse is empty. He attempts to put the cloth back, but some staples are rather mangled. Oh well. The loot is not really sorted… the shiniest things go in one pile, regardless of actual worth. There is a chest that seems to be the dumping container for purses, as it containers both currency and pocket lint-type material. Under one pile of stuff, Strelok discovers a trap door. Moving the pile, he opens to door to find a dark tunnel. He uses a light cantrip and reveals that the bottom is ~8ft down. A ladder is built into the wall below the door. Strelok follows the tunnel until it intersects with other tunnels. He guesses that this is the way the pickpockets get around the city unnoticed. He returns to the warehouse and goes through what appears to be their “crap pile”, which contains 2 finely crafted yet simple long swords, a composite long bow, and a fine, sharply fashioned glaive-style polearm. He also finds a set of 6 iron-like rods ~1 ft long each. Strelok is able to determine that they are magical, and he takes them as well. Then he goes to the shiny pile and finds the single most valuable item: a platinum necklace encrusted in fine jewels, set with a diamond the size of his eyeball. Woohoo! He bundles up his loot and sticks it between some boxes near the window. He returns to the money chest and scatters coins in two paths, one leading to the front door, and another to the trap door (which is left open, with coin scattered to the bottom). He then hides atop a tall stack of crates and waits.

Meanwhile, Sheila goes to train, and Zephyr takes a “power nap” before heading back to the mysterious shop.

After ~2.5 hours, Strelok hears voices approaching. They sound muffled and distant, unlike the voices he has occasionally heard passing outside the warehouse; the voices are coming from beneath the trap door. A male and female voice are arguing. Eventually Strelok makes out that the female is angry at the male for not getting a fair share, or something. They burst carelessly through the trap door. Female: half-elf, a little older than Polena, a little younger than Strelok. Male: half something-or-other, ~25. Both have daggers at their waists, girl also has a long sword. They don’t notice the scattered coin. They continue arguing about the male cutting the female out of a deal/heist/whatnot. The male looks vaguely familiar, perhaps from a poster, although not one that Strelok is currently carrying. He is carrying a wanted poster for the girl, however. They empty loot from their pockets and head back towards the tunnel. The girl notices the coin on the ground and absently kicks it towards the coin chest(s). Strelok moves down the pile and reaches the ground, when suddenly the two thieves turn. Strelok hides behind the pile, but they approach his position. Strelok draws his sword, and confidentally walks out towards them. He tosses the girl’s wanted poster at their feet. He gives them options: resist, I’ll beat you up, take you in; or come willingly. Female’s body language becomes flirtatious, and she suggests a third option: I have more money than they are offering, we can deal. Strelok points out that he can turn her in AND take what she has… She approaches, but Strelok takes out a pistol and fires at her feet. She becomes pouty, turns to her companion and whines. Companion his draws dagger and rushes Strelok. They fight while the girl runs to the trap door. Guy gets skewered to floor by sword through the calf. He pleads for his life and gives info freely: the tunnels run throughout the city, he is not sure how many thieves in group… Olivia (girl who got away) and a big orc-ish guy, also little guy he only met once (“maybe human? younger than you…”). He pleads for his life some more. Strelok knocks him out and bandages the guy’s leg.

Meanwhile, Zephyr wakes up. Pallas complains that he is starving. Zephyr feeds him and heads out, planning to return to the mysterious shop. She has trouble finding it at first, but after an hour reaches the place where she could have sworn the shop was… the neighboring shops (molded leather armor, parasols) are right there… but there is an alley where the brick and mortar store had been. She goes down the alley. No magic detected, but on one wall there is a series of scrawled pictures that looks like writing; likely a message. It is in an unfamiliar language. It has elements of elvish, maybe draconic. Zephyr transcribes it for further study. Beneath the writing is a series of dots and an X; perhaps a map? Looking around the alley, she notices a number of barrels in random places, and sees that they correspond to the dots. She approaches the barrel marked by an X on the wall, and opens it. It explodes. Oops. Inside is a necklace… a fireball necklace type IV, which she had been hoping to buy when she returned to the shop. There is also a small piece of paper with a message written in the same loping, unfamiliar scrawl as the message on the wall. It is short; only a few words. Zephyr races off to the library.

Meanwhile, Sheila has a successful afternoon of training. She meets a talented paladin who is somewhat full of himself. They duel, and he turns out to be less charming from the ground. Macho-ness fizzles after repeated trouncing. Sheila gives an inspiring speech about humility.

Strelok follows the tracks of female thief through the tunnels. As he tracks, he gets quite twisted around. She shouldn’t be this fast— he should have caught up to her. He tries to figure out where he is beneath the city, and thinks he is beneath the merchant’s district. There seems to be no pattern to the girl’s “scamperings”; she has gone in loops, doubled back at times, and generally seems to be trying to lose him. Keeping at it, eventually Strelok hears footsteps up ahead. He races to catch up to her, and finally catches sight of her at a crossroads. She squeals and runs down a pathway. He tackles her. She turns out the sexual charm again. Strelok is somewhat annoyed by this, partially because he is tempted. He successfully manages to “keep it in his pants”. He hauls her up and off towards the warehouse. Unfortunately, as the girl predicts, Strelok is lost. And naturally, she is no help. He tries to reason with her, she tries getting teary. Strelok proposes a deal: info for freedom… in addition to the way out, he wants to know how many members are in group, their names, and where they hang out. She can even take a small portion of money from the warehouse. She acts insulted by the “small portion”, but he tells her that he’ll eventually find his way out without her help, and will be much less willing to be lenient at that time. The girl agrees, except that she won’t give up everyone in the group… just the ones she isn’t fond of. As long as those people include the leaders, Strelok says this is acceptable. She lists nine names and gives very basic descriptions. Three are matches to posters Strelok is currently carrying. The male back in the warehouse is Todd. Everyone drops stuff off at the warehouse; the only other place they hang out is a club. She is at first reluctant to say what club, concerned that he will “ruin it”, but Strelok advises that she be long gone by then anyway. The club is called the Black Scorpion, and is in the trade sector.

She leads him back to the warehouse. Strelok unties her, allows her to take some money, and suggests she leave town. She sticks out her tongue and leaves. It is around 5pm.

Meanwhile: Hayden had vanished off to his room at the inn, where inner turmoil/agonizing/character development took place. After about an hour, he emerges (Zephyr napping, Strelok tracking, Sheila training). He gets some coffee and goes looking for a fencing school. He finds an artistic, hoity-toity fencing academy. Their “drop in” hour is 5-6. In the meantime, Hayden walks around the city and just watches people. Although no one is paying attention to him, he is not tempted to steal anything. He is seeing things with a new perspective; seeing people as opposed to a vehicle for something he wants (such as their purse).

Night falls; it is dinner time. Sheila returns to the inn, where Polena is on her third leg of lamb. She only got up a few hours ago. She is eager to meet the mercenary, and solemnly asks if he is very handsome. Sheila says he “is rugged around the edges, but… sure”. Polena squees. She asks if Zephyr left. She digs in her pocket and brings out Pallas, who she says she found in her hair. “He’s kinda pokey… I guess I’ll just hang onto him for awhile…” Polena asks if they can go sight-seeing the next day, since Sheila has declared it a “free day”. She excitedly tells Sheila about the things she saw while out with Strelok.

Strelok heads to the Black Scorpion, taking his bundle of loot and the unconscious pickpocket (Todd). He stops by a weapons shop and asks for a weapon that won’t do much permanent damage; he leaves the loot for selling, takes only a wooden sword, and says he’ll return the next day for the rest of the money.

Hayden goes back to the academy. He has never actually had formal training; he knows dirty tricks and what looks good. He has decided he’d like to learn properly. After the drop-in lesson, he has gained a better understanding of footing, and has learned how to properly hold his sword.

Strelok reaches the Black Scorpion after about an hour. Todd wakes up on the way, and Strelok makes him walk (under threat of being hit again or shot; Todd gives him no trouble). At the Scorpion, Strelok pushes Todd in front of him and tells him to lie down on the ground. He looks confused, so Strelok smacks his leg with the flat of his blade; Todd squeals and falls onto the floor. Strelok calls out the names Olivia gave him. He offers two options: come peacefully, or “join your friend on the ground and I’ll drag you in”. Silence falls. The bartender raises an eyebrow. “What are you doing here, son?” Strelok tells him he is collecting bounties. “I don’t think you’re going to find what you’re looking for here.” Strelok looks around, sees a few people who MIGHT fit the description… he pokes Todd, and asks if his friends hang out here.
Todd: Yeah…
Strelok: Well, where are they?
Todd: They, uh…. they only come on thursdays.
Strelok: Do you want me to add another hole to your leg?
Todd: Aw, come on, man, can’t you just let me go?!
Strelok: Make it worth my while.
Todd: Loot?
Strelok: No, your friends.
Todd: I don’t have any frieeeeeeends waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah no one likes me (etc.)

Strelok sighs and sits down on the floor with Todd. He remarks that it has been a long, unfulfilling day, and he is hungry. “Me too,” adds Todd. Strelok takes him to the bar and orders food for them both. He unties Todd with a warning: “if you stab me, I’ll stab you worse.” Todd says that sounds good, and scarfs down food as Strelok considers his options. He tells Todd to get out of here. “Really?” Yes, Strelok says; you are so pathetic… yeah. Just go. He suggests Todd take up farm work. “Like, with cows and stuff?” “…Yeah. Like cows and stuff.”

Sheila and Hayden meet up as each returns to the inn. Sheila asks Hayden what he’s been up to; he says “learning things”. She inquires about what he’s been learning. “Apparently these [rapiers] are a lot more useful than I first thought them to be. So how was your churching and preaching and stuff going?” Sheila presses him on what he learned, so they go outside and Hayden demonstrates. Strelok returns to find them apparently locked in combat. “What is it about today….?” Strelok talks about free money in a vague and confusing manner, but Hayden is immediately curious. Strelok says he should get back to the warehouse before it is cleaned out, and asks Hayden to help him go get stuff. Polena comes out of the inn and remarks about how pretty it is. “It’s a pickpocket’s lair!” Strelok says he’s planning to take some of the loot, turn over the rest (gestures to Sheila). Polena thinks this is an excellant idea, since it’s from bad people anyway, and they wouldn’t have to ask the church for more money… Sheila reminds her that it was originally from good people, and Polena loses some enthusiasm. But there isn’t much chance of returning the goods except for the larger or more unique items. Sheila says she’ll see if there is a list of stolen items reported, but doesn’t otherwise object. Strelok goes back to Van, says he doesn’t have the money for the special gun. He asks for a less special gun, one he can afford. Van is dissappointed, but sells him a gun. Strelok gives him blueprints for a gun he would like Van to make for him, to be paid for when the party returns to the town. Van becomes less grumpy and looks at the blueprints with interest.

Hayden goes straight to the warehouse, having gotten directions from Strelok (who suggested not jumping through the canvas window). He sifts out most of the crap, and gets a lot of swag. He returns to the inn. Zephyr is also returning, having been kicked out of the library when they closed. He reminds her about the hankerchief, but she says she hasn’t had the time, mentioning the potion making and translation work. Polena greets Zephyr and brings out Pallas, saying she found him in her hair… nesting… is he supposed to do that…? After handing over Pallas, Polena nurses a finger than may or may not have been bitten earlier.

Hayden’s loot: 423 copper, 572 silver, 412 gold, 74 plat; lint; ~30lb of fine jewelry. Nothing magical.

The next day, we do last minute shopping. Zephyr’s studies: Note definitely ancient elvish, have developed the beginnings of a cypher, not complete enough to decode. Not same the language as book. Examining hankerchief: herbal compound, some local plants, some she doesn’t recognize. Able to determine that the compound causes mild hallucinogenic state, puts drinker under state of being highly suggestable/influencable.

Hayden disguises himself as a noble. He fills his pouch with copper and walks around trade sector (seediest part of town) in a carefree manner. Someone soon tries to swipe his purse, and Hayden grabs them. It is 15-year-old awkward boy, but talented… his attempted theft would have worked on a normal person. He looks very surprised to be caught. Based on the state of his clothing and cleanliness, he is probably stealing to feed himself. Hayden asks his name. The boy stammers about not knowing… er… “Of course you know what you’re doing”, Hayden says, and again asks the boys name. It is Shawn. Hayden asks: “Why are you doing this?” Shawn says that he is mighty hungry… Hayden advises that most people who have enough to share don’t want to… Shawn asks if he is willing to share; Hayden says, currently, sure. He holds up a gold piece, tells him the location of a shelter, and tells him to drop Sheila’s name if anyone gives him trouble. “You’ve got skill, just be careful what you do with it.”

The party goes to bed having done all the final preparations. We leave the next morning.

Next morning: breakfast! Polena is annoyingly chipper and talkative, and eager to meet the mercenary. We bond each party member to the bracelet. At 8am sharp the mercenary arrives, as previously agreed. Polena comes into the inn and says he needs help with his stuff. She babbles about how handsome he is, and how he has a pony, etc. The rest of us go out to meet him. First impression: big, friendly, charming, handsome set of half plate. And by the way, it’s Marcus. Hayden is not pleased, the rest of us are confused. Hayden calls him out as a cheat, while Aeric denies this and seems not to know Hayden. Aeric offers to demonstrate his skill; Hayden replies that he is not doubting skill, he is doubting honesty. Aeric points out that he was given 4000 plat upfront… there was no reason for him to come here if he were dishonest. Sheila casts Zone of Truth, and asks what’s going on. Aeric denies what Hayden is saying, says he fully intends to fulfill his obligations. Hayden asks his name; “I go by Aeric Ed’aar”. He said he wasn’t familiar with “Marcus”. He also claims not to have been out gambling at night. Hayden thinks the Zone of Truth spell is not working… or that one of the two of them are crazy. Hayden strongly suspects that he himself is crazy, in fact. We all decide to set out, but we are somewhat wary. Aeric discretely slips Hayden one of the wooden die that he— Marcus— used the night at the bar.

View
Pining like a Spruce for a Fir

It is midafternoon. Hayden has been looking for bounty posters, and has found several. Wanted dead: ringleader of a group responsible for a train heist (Ernest Birch), and a bandit lord known to attack caravans leaving Ilirra towards the south (Ben Galloway). Offering 15k gp and 11k gp, respectively.

Hayden is bothered by his encounter with Marcus, having the feeling that they’d met before.

Meanwhile, Sheila has some alone time, and decides to go to the church for prayer and meditation. Pallas catches up to her on the way and makes a nuisance of himself by trying to nest in the silk drapery at the alter Sheila is praying at. She makes a bed out of a spare shirt for him. She does her training routine and attends closing prayers. She returns to the inn around dinner time.

Polena tries to quietly get ready to leave, but is super clumsy, and wakes up Strelok. Strelok pretends to still be asleep until she leaves. Polena meets Sheila downstairs for dinner, where Hayden and Strelok join them. Zephyr, busy with potion making, forgets about dinner. Strelok requests some of the wanted posters Polena got, she leaves to get them, Hayden makes a joke about putting a wanted poster on Polena, and Sheila smacks him. When he has the posters, Strelok peruses them to see if there are any likely persons that he could probably find within 24 hours. Sheila asks if Hayden has evening plans. He nods and makes an affirmative noise, but says nothing. Suspicious!

Sheila asks if Polena is ready to go find Quinten. Hayden asks who this person is and what’s going on, so Sheila explains the instructions she received from Strong. Hayden tags along, since his tasks are best done later in the evening. Polena leads the way to the Stork. It is extremely busy and “smells of working men and cheap ale”. Hayden picks someone’s pocket and uses the money to get a drink or ten. Polena seems a bit overwhelmed by the crowd. She takes out Quinten’s poster and points over at a man surrounded by a large group of people. Polena disappears into the crowd. A boistrous voice is coming from the center of the group. It is from a man who resembles the picture on the poster. He is currently boasting about this and that in an arrogant fashion.
Sheila: Most heroes don’t toot their own horn.
Q: Never met a hero like me! Have you seen my poster?

Polena looks disappointed. Not nearly as handsome and dashing as the poster, is rather short, thinning hair. Quinten asks if Sheila needs his services, Hayden makes a raunchy joke, and Quinten responds in kind. Polena: You’re not a real mercenary, are you? Quinten: Uh….I’m the best mercenary in this town!

Sheila asks for proof of this claim, and Quinten mentions that he is SIR Quinten, the GALLANT, and he won’t have anyone question his credentials yadda yadda yadda. Then he realizes she is from the church, says he finds it “cute” (women with swords)… Sheila
S: Proof? Q: SIR quinten ?, the gallant, won’t have anyone question his credentials. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. Realizes she’s from the church, Sheila grabs him by jaw and throws him at the door. His once adoring crowd laughs. Polena is distressed, and requests that they leave. They walk over Quinten. As they are leaving, they hear the bartender chuckling. “Looking for a REAL mercenary?” He overheard the bit about going to forest, and knows a mercenary that might be willing to go…. Hayden bribes him to get the name (with the money pickpocketed earlier): Aeric…. (Sheila adds a gp) Aeric Ed’aar. Can find him at an inn in the north district, although he retires early; may still be up. Inn is called the Mug and Barrel. He doesn’t come cheap, but he is worth it. “Tell him Frank sent you”. It is 9ish. Hayden, Sheila, and Polena head to the inn. They arrive shortly after 9:30. Quiet place, sparsely furnished, bar area has only two patrons. The barkeep says Aeric has retired for the night. He is seen briefly with the morning sun, and then not again until afternoon. Best to come back in the morning. Polena is disappointed, wanting to find their mercenary… she’s not very good at mornings, but she’ll try to get up. Sheila decides to head back to the inn; Polena asks Hayden if she can tag along with him. Hayden suggests that Strelok might be looking forward to her company… “Do you really think so?” Polena goes in search for Strelok, and Hayden heads off.

Strelok is on the trail of some pickpocketing street thugs, when suddenly…. Polena pops out and greets him loudly and cheerily. “Are you happy to see me? Hayden said you wanted to see me… and something about a pine tree, I dunno.” Strelok tells her that, actually, he’s doing something a little dangerous, so she might not want to come… but Polena insists that she is a great helper. Strelok says that if things get bad, she needs to run. Polena: “Will you protect me?” Strelok: “………yes…..”

Strelok explains what he’s doing (hunting for pick pockets). Polena helpfully inspects EVERYTHING. Despite Polena’s help, Strelok is able to gather some clues and follow a trail. He doesn’t run into any of the pickpockets, although the trail is concentrated around several empty buildings. One seems to be a warehouse, the other an office. Strelok asks Polena if she can pick locks. Nope. Strelok covers his sword pommel with his cloak and breaks a window. No one comes running. Strelok widens the hole and slips through. Polena attempts to crawl in after, but Strelok motions for her to wait, and then unlocks the door for her. Investigation type activities occur. There is a back door, no cellar, lots of boxes stacked around. Polena suddenly yells, STRELOK LOOK WHAT I FOUND! Strelok suggests whispering. Polena has found a crate full of gold pieces and jewelry. Strelok looks in other crates and finds many of them contain valuables. Some seem to be frieght such as iron ore bars, leather straps for making armor, thises and thats. Strelok decides to try to follow tracks leading from the warehouse. He follows the tracks to an area with bars, and goes to see if he can see any familiar faces (since he has the wanted posters with sketches or descriptions). Polena follows. She seems to be lagging a bit. She suddenly gives a large yawn. She admits to being tired. Strelok decides to stake out the bars tomorrow and take her back to the inn, although it frustrates him. She hugs his arm on the way back to the inn and rests her head on his shoulder as he tries awkwardly to walk at her pace. She starts falling asleep, so he picks her up. She snores and drools. He resists the urge to touch the boobage as he puts her to bed, and goes downstairs. He draws a map and plans his stakeout.

Hayden heads to the underground bar where he met Marcus. They ask for his chip, so he gets one from the bar. The buy in is higher tonight. Marcus is in the same seat, again surrounded by girls, again playing the dice game, again in the middle of a cheering crowd. Extra excitement: there is a high roller in town, and they are going head to head. Again Marcus has the infuriating amused look. Most of the other players at the table have folded. Hayden watches the dice. It seems as though Marcus has his own set of dice that he switches out when it is his turn using slight of hand. Marcus is also watching Hayden. Hayden winks, and Marcus waves. Hayden orders a drink, surrepticiously drips some into a handkerchief, doesn’t actually drink any. The game soon ends. Hayden congratulates Marcus loudly, but suggests that perhaps the crowd is tired of seeing him win again and again. The crowd hushes. Obviously this is his game and he does well; let’s see something new; a different game! Hayden proposes a card game. Marcus smiles and agrees, offering him a chair beside him. Quietly, Marcus asks “…have we met before?”

The cards do not appear to be stacked. Hayden plays straight to see how Marcus does. He loses the first hand (but the previous game was very close; Marcus is careful not to win every round). However, the game involves bluffing, and Hayden has a ridiculously high bluff skill, even when he doesn’t cheat at all. As time goes on, Marcus loses again and again. He looks unperturbed, perhaps even amused. Once when Marcus folds and puts down his cards, Hayden sees he has a pair of Aces…. finally, Marcus says “tonight wasn’t my night”, hands out more cash, and thanks Hayden for the challenge. As crowd disperses, Marcus says, “I think I remember you… did I… pick on you when I was young?” Hayden vaguely remembers a butcher’s son a few years older than him who was not very nice. Marcus tries to recall a name, but finally says, nah, couldn’t have been you. (Guessed Roland… Hayden seemed to react.) Marcus leaves with ladies, returns to same inn, to which Hayden follows. This time, Hayden goes to back door, waits. No one comes. Finally checks the room’s window… room empty, window open. ARG! Hayden recognizes one of the girls, though: a merchant’s daughter he had noticed himself. Merchant sold fine magical items. Hayden decides to go to the shop. Takes most of the night to find it; sees a dark figure leaving. Catches up to figure in an alley. Figure admiring rings on his hands; wearing a tiara. Marcus: “Oh! You found me again! You’re good! You want some of these?” (offers rings). “Here, you can be the princess.” (Puts tiara on Hayden’s head).

Hayden says, you do remember, don’t you? Marcus pretends not to; Hayden draws his sword. Marcus: “you’re still very feisty”.

(Approximate conversation transcript)
M: I’m only here to play games. What do you want?
H: What did you want? Just to make someone cry?
M: Isn’t that what you want?
H: No.
M: Good for you.
M: Ah, it was Nowlan! I used to come to that estate you lived on, with my dad, and we’d slaughter the cattle for you. You were a little shit! We used to have some great times—
H: Enough! advance (finds he can’t just stab Marcus… who is not holding a weapon. Wonders why. That conscience thing, maybe.)
M: You apparently have some stuff to work out… but, you know how to find me. You’re good at it. So… come find me! Going to sleep now. Toodles!

Hayden eventually returns to inn. He arrives near dawn. Sheila is getting up and leaving; she encounters Hayden, who is muttering about a fucking conscience. Sheila: “Rough night?” He quickly puts up his mask and says, “same old same old, made a ton of money”. Sheila: “what were you muttering about?” Hayden: “Muttering…?” (Dodges by asking if she’s eaten yet, calling a waitress). Sheila knows he’s dodging, but needs to leave to meet Aeric.

Sheila returns to the Mug and Barrel to see Aeric Ed’aar. Inn is just as empty. The same bartender is there, and says Aeric has just risen; he points to a more private area of the dining room. Man sitting there is perhaps as handsome as Quinten’s poster. Clothing looks normal, but closer inspection reveals fancy embroidering. He looks up as Sheila approaches; mischievious twinkle in his eye. “Hail, Paladin! I was told Frank sent you”. Sheila says looking for someone for a quest. He sizes her up. Calls her lovely, but not in an inappropriate way. Discuss the quest a bit; heard from Frank that we were going to the forest. He says he is interested, but is not cheap. Estimate? “Well, since Frank sent you, and I haven’t worked with someone so lovely in quite awhile… for the whole trip… 4000 platinum” (40k gp). Most upfront, as it is a long and dangerous trek. Sheila asks that he comes with her to the church. Aeric suddenly looks tired, but agrees. He asks if they have a deal; Sheila agrees.

As they go to the church, Sheila asks about scar on his face. Childhood accident with a threshing machine. Looks worse than it was (trails off)….

At church, Sheila presents him to treasurer, says this is the person that will fulfil the obligations set by Strong. 4000 platinum?! The treasurer wants to see orders! …Oh. Apologies. Only has 1000 platinum, they will have to go to the city treasury for the rest. Next few hours spent w/ Aeric getting supplies. He is a little arrogant, but still a gentleman. When Sheila tells him about party, Aeric gets an amused smile, says “they sound wonderful”. They part ways to get supplies and Sheila’s bracelet. Aeric says he cannot leave for two days, as he has personal business he must conclude, but he can be reached at the inn at that time. Sheila returns to the inn for lunch.

Strelok is awoken by a loud, grumbly snore from Polena. Clothes reveal tiny, tiny, tiny amount of cleavage. OMG. He goes downstairs to get food. Zephyr stumbles down as well, having finished potions but not yet slept, eager to look at the book she got the previous day. Hayden is there playing darts. Strelok relates events of the previous night. Zephyr jitters and has more caffeine. Sheila says she found our mercenary, and he’ll be ready to go in two days, when we will meet him for the first time. Zephyr asks if he is anything like the other guy, and Sheila says no, this one is actually respectful. Strelok: “That will be something new! You didn’t pay him entirely up front, did you?” (Sheila becomes very interested in her cup). Strelok sighs. “Next time, I’m going with you.”

Hayden sees Zephyr, gives her the handkerchief, asks her to examine stain on it. Z does not find this odd at all. Hayden is struggling with what to do next regarding Marcus. Confront him diplomatically, physically, or assassinate, or…

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