Shadow of the Demon Lord @ Gamezilla RPG night

A Day in the Woods
"For a day in the woods, pack food for a week." - Trusty Almanac

From the personal journal Sister Hüvje, priest of the New God and minister to the town of Chuton.

I am changing. I can feel it moving and pulsing under my skin, that alien energy, powerful and strange. It has been growing in me ever since I first started having that damned nightmare after the Forgiveness Festival. God, was that only a week ago? It feels like months! How could so much change so quickly?

The silver chalice whispers to me. I should be frightened of it and the immense power that courses through it, but somehow the whispers feel comforting, like a hidden confederate giving me instructions. What was that play I saw in Sixton all those years ago, about the ugly poet who helped a fair but artless man win his love by feeding him romantic poetry from a nearby hiding place? I am reminded of that, but instead of romantic sonnets, these secrets are about power, and transformation, and renewal.

I should explain how we came to find the chalice in the first place, or at least as much as I know for sure. So much is conjecture or guesswork, but I know that the inquisitor, the cruel one – well, the one who is most obviously cruel without the pretence of politeness – was clearly lying to us. We saw the proof for ourselves in that abandoned village chapel.

I am getting ahead of myself again. First, the Inquisition came.

When a herd is harried and wounded it is only a matter of time before the scavengers start sniffing around, and today they arrived. We’d had some forewarning – somebody found a letter on the body of that witchfinder down in Grantham, containing the chilling revelation that those bloodthirsty zealots of the Swords of Astrid were coming to cleanse our poor town in the only way those kinds of people know how.

We had three options, all of them bad: run away, throwing 200 people into the wilderness to survive by their wits in a rapidly darkening world; stand and fight, and most likely see everyone we love cut down by the Inquisition’s soldiers; or stand and talk, trusting in the uncertain fortune of the parley to convince these pious savages to let our town live.

Well, as my old captain used to say, if you can’t be wise, be bold. We elected to talk.

Of course, the unvarnished truth would never do. These kinds of folk are satisfied only when they can see a neat resolution before them, and that was something we could not offer. The evil woman who had instigated the attack on our poor town had fled soon after we tracked her to Oldoak. We were sure our efforts had crippled her effectiveness, robbing her of her a powerful ally and of vital tools, but still, she remained at large, perhaps north of us in Crossings, but nobody could say for certain.

Such a messy answer would not be good enough for these rigid thinkers whose eyes see only virtue or corruption with no subtle shading between. We had to convince them that our supernatural trial was over and their presence was no longer required.

First, though, we had to assure them they were welcome, even needed. The Mayor sent a pre-emptive letter to the Swords, requesting their assistance and asking them to come to Chuton at their earliest convenience. It was a risky move that guaranteed our preparation time would be terribly short, but nothing makes a zealot more suspicious than the impression they are not wanted.

Next, we had to concoct a convincing story. As any good liar knows, lies should only ever be a garnish atop a hearty meal of truth. We all agreed that Rusty would make a convenient scapegoat. He was definitely guilty of some involvement with the evil folk who had passed through our town, and those tiny corpses in his cellar were enough to condemn him on their own. Only a slight blurring of the truth would cast him as our primary villain, and what with him being dead there was little chance he might contradict us.

The rest was almost entirely the truth: we were attacked unexpectedly by demons, and many innocents died. We had formed squads to tackle different parts of the conspiracy and almost all had met with complete success, with all of the weird hovering bones that seemed to sustain the spell destroyed or rendered harmless.

(On that topic, I had an uncomfortable chat with Tonk about the bone he had fetched from the graveyard which he has now taken to wearing as a decoration in his hair. He offered to hide it, but I implored him to destroy it. When he continued to argue, I told him very plainly that if the Inquisition were to realise what that bone was, I would have no hesitation to sacrifice his life to keep the town safe. I fear I was somewhat short with him.)

The continued presence of the weird demonic ghosts at the standing stones in the forest was a blessing of sorts: it gave us the chance to ask for the inquisitors’ help. Few things will put a suspicious visitor off-guard than the four magical words “thank God you’re here”. Conveniently, if they were to destroy those strange spirits, it would be a neat end to the affair and they could go on their way knowing evil was vanquished.

It was as good a plan as we could manage, bolstered by a few hung bodies and burned alchemical supplies. I hated to desecrate the remains of our fallen townsfolk in such a way, but we knew the inquisitors would be more likely to trust us if they thought that we, too, were willing to summarily execute those we thought were infected by malign forces. When these unwelcome guests move on, our honoured dead will be given the funeral rites they deserve.

Many among us decided to flee to the woods. Some were visibly touched by Fey magic – an elf and a faun among them – and others were followers of the old faith who had heard horrifying (and quite possibly true) stories of Inquisition barbarity toward those who still observe the old ways. To all who stayed I gave tokens of the New God to wear and tied the white armband of the missionary on each of them. Bzzzantine even converted, officially becoming a member of the church of the New God, though it was the only one who accepted my offer.

Finally the inquisitors came, five of them (that damned number again – not four or six, oh no, it had to be five). They wore those stupid skull masks that are meant to be intimidating but just make them look like cheap street performers. We made our greeting, respectful without straying into obsequiousness, giving no sign that we were anything other than ecstatic to see their stupid masked faces. A platoon of soldiers came with them, the muscle to carry out any butchery they decide is necessary. Common soldiers, perhaps a little more devout than most, but not crusaders by any means. They certainly accepted the drink we offered them readily enough. Blunt tools, then, directed in all things by the five inquisitors.

Their leader – a woman, I think, but the mask made me unsure – came forward to greet us with a sweet and false friendliness that almost covered her bloodthirsty glee. With me being the appointed priest of Chuton now, the job fell to me to greet her. I could see the twinkle of insanity through the eyeholes of her mask. This was clearly a dangerous person, and I knew I had to be careful.

She invited me to demonstrate my “purity” and of course, inquisitors being what they are, this meant blood and pain. From her robes she drew a long silver needle, much like a wealthy lady’s hatpin but plainer in design. I tried not to start with shock as she drove it cleanly through her own hand. Leaving it in place, she held it up for me to see, and a thin trickle of blood began to trace its way slowly down toward her wrist.

Once she was sure I was deeply impressed by her violent insanity, she drew the pin out and passed it to me with a dainty dip of her head. It was my turn. Fuck it, I thought. Chuton needs me, and I’ve suffered worse. Without hesitation I took the head of the needle in my right hand and stabbed the tip into and through my left. The thin skin on the back of my hand formed a small conical tent as the sharp metal pierced it from beneath. I focused on the crazy eyes peeking through the white mask in front of me and willed the pain away, forcing myself to feel nothing. Somewhere, far away, I was aware of a sharp burning, but I refused to claim it as my own.

When the inquisitor nodded her approval, I smoothly pulled the metal sliver from my hand and passed it back to her. I couldn’t tell if she was disappointed, angry, or excited. For all I know, she was all three at once.

I spoke for a while with all of the inquisitors. They seemed to accept our story readily enough, and regarded the hanging bodies and burning pyres with what appeared to be satisfaction. They expressed gratitude for our hospitality and said – honestly or not, I have no idea – that they were pleased with what they had found and were glad not to have had to put us all to the sword immediately.

However, to prove our loyalty they had tasks for us to perform, and these would certainly not be easy. That was when I was told of the silver chalice, a powerful relic of the New God, which had been stolen by beastmen only hours before. I tried to tell myself that I longed for a simple opponent – what do I know of gremlins and boggarts? – but I suspect now that even the mention of the chalice called to me. Was that a test, perhaps? Did this inquisitor know that I would be drawn to this task? God, it is impossible to tell coincidence from fate these days.

Only two joined me. Tonk the goblin, he of the ill-gotten bone, had until recently been a farmer but had burned his farm as a sign of purification to impress the coming Inquisition. I think it was a moment of transition for him, a sign that he has given away farming entirely and now studies the arcane as his sole pursuit. The other was Nessa, a dwarven bowyer only recently come to Chuton. She is short, even among dwarves, but there is power in her small frame, as I was to see.

The inquisitor ordered us to follow her, and without so much as a glance behind she was away, striding away down the eastern road, past the inn and out of town. The three of us hurried to keep up, but not too much: we hung back far enough to allow for private whispered conversation. That was how we walked out of town, the robed zealot leading on and the three of us following perhaps twenty yards behind.

The afternoon light was taking on a hint of gold by the time she abruptly stopped, facing away from the road and into the forest. A meagre trail was visible through the undergrowth, probably made by deer or wild swine moving between good grazing and fresh water. If people ever used it, there was no sign, but we were interrupted by the priestess.

She told us that two horsemen, one of whom was a captain of the inquisitorial troops, and four infantry had left the road in pursuit of beastmen. They had been walking ahead of the main group, bearing a holy relic of the church: a silver chalice made with a serpent wrapping around the stem and biting the tip of its tail. Even then her explanation was strange – the men had been attacked, and somehow the chalice had been stolen, so they had pursued the creatures into the woods. It would only be later that we would learn that her entire story was a lie.

Once the background was given, she gave her ultimatum: find out what had happened to her men and fetch the chalice for her, or else the village would be destroyed. If we ran away, if we came back without our prize, or if God found us wanting and allowed us all to die, then Chuton would burn for our failure. With that chilling decree still echoing in the air, she turned on her heel and started back toward town. Nobody said anything until we watched her vanish around the bend.

Tonk broke the silence. “I thought the New God was opposed to cruelty,” he stated plainly. I winced, feeling attacked, though there was no obvious personal rebuke in his words.

“The Swords see things differently,” I replied. “I am not a fan of their views.”

Nessa, meanwhile, had been examining the ground. “Two horses, four men on foot, just as she said,” the dwarf told us, then hesitated. “But… that’s it. No other tracks. Unless beastmen can fly, I am at a loss to explain these tracks.” The sun was grazing the tops of the trees in the west, so there was no time to waste trying to solve the mystery. We had to fetch that chalice, or more lives than our own would be forfeit.

The bowyer proved to be a capable tracker, and we made good time along the faint track. Soon we heard the chattering of rushing water and realised we were nearing a bend in the river, upstream of where it made a long curve toward the south, looping around Chuton and heading southeast toward the sea. As the water grew louder, we saw that we were approaching a clearing in the trees, and soon we were at the edge of an open space maybe thirty yards across.

What should have been a pretty spot fit for a picnic was instead a place of abject horror. A battle had taken place here, and for the first time Nessa could clearly see strange clawed footprints unlike any she had seen before, mixed among those of horses and men. Apart from the crushed grass and disturbed earth, two other remnants of the battle remained. First, the corpse of a man in a familiar uniform dangled from a tree on the far side of the clearing, a sharply broken-off tree branch stabbed brutally through the back of his head and out the other side, obliterating his face. As the breeze blew, his toes rasped across the branch below.

Worse than that, though, was the horse. It lay in the centre of the clearing, its large abdomen ripped open like a gutted fish. Broken ribs stood vertical like garden pickets, and even from this distance we could see that the poor beast was still alive. Its lungs were visible, growing and shrinking with its panicked breaths, and its great heart was pounding, exposed to the air.

I have always loved animals and I cannot bear to see them treated cruelly, so the sight of this poor beast left in what was obviously a deliberate state of agony was almost too much to bear. I longed to run to it, to ease its pain, and if I couldn’t heal it then I wanted to ease its departure from this world. Common sense held me back: this could be a trap. The arcane forces laying siege to Chuton had demonstrated the will and capability to twist the dead to its cause, and I involuntarily thought again of the Bailey farm. We needed to be careful.

Tonk told us to wait for his signal and vanished into the trees. It was spooky how quickly and silently he went. I tried to shut out the agonised grunts of the vivisected horse, but it was no good. I’m too damned soft-hearted for this kind of thing, and my cheeks were wet with tears. After what felt like several minutes my resolve broke and I strode into the clearing, traps be damned.

Carefully and quietly I approached the horse. People forget how large and powerful they are until they are frightened or hurt, and then the sheer size and strength of the things becomes terrifyingly apparent. Despite its horrible wounds, one kick could easily break my leg and bring our little expedition to an abrupt end, so I walked where it could see me, and held out my hand for it to smell, speaking softly and soothingly as I came. I haven’t ridden a horse for over a decade, but some things stay with you, and the horse sniffed my hand and allowed me to stroke its blood-flecked muzzle.

There was no conscious choice involved, no decision to channel the divine power that has taken up residence inside me. My compassion for this poor tortured animal seemed to liquefy, flowing warmly from my heart, down my arm, and into the horse. I couldn’t see its stomach from where I was crouched, but I knew that it had healed, at least partially. I could sense the change.

Nessa placed her hand on my shoulder. “That was a kind thing you did, but it hasn’t worked, at least not enough.” I could hear the sadness in her voice – apparently she too was a lover of animals. “You’ve soothed its pain a touch. We need to end it for good, now.” She knelt beside me in the blood soaked grass and stroked the horse’s neck, and as I spoke softly and reassuringly to it, she slipped her dagger cleanly into the base of its skull. I watched its eyes as the life faded from them and they went glassy and still.

Tonk had reappeared from the trees, and was looking up at the grotesquely suspended soldier. He had a shrewd look on his narrow face, so I left the horse’s side and walked over to join him.

“That was a waste of magic, you know,” he said mildly. He always spoke nonchalantly, like he was discussing the weather or next year’s crops, and there was no anger in his words. “It was just a horse.”

“Life is life,” I replied curtly. “Suffering is suffering, and compassion is compassion.” I looked up at the soles of the soldier’s boots. “Nothing done out of kindness is ever truly wasted.”

“Do those folks back in Chuton think that?” Tonk replied, scratching his nose and keeping his gaze on the dead soldier. “Doesn’t seem like kindness is a language they speak.”

I tried to think of a response to this, but everything that came to mind seemed weak, nothing but excuses, and before I could respond Tonk spoke again.

“Reckon you could lift me up?”

My eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Why?”

“No reason, just want to see if I can touch this fellow’s boot.”

Fury burned inside my ribs, and I had to fight to keep my reply civil. “You will not desecrate this body.”

Tonk finally looked at me then, and there was confusion in his eyes. “What is desecration, then?” he asked, and there was finally a touch of annoyance in his mild voice. He gestured upward, but kept his eyes locked on me. “That up there isn’t a man, not any more. It’s meat. It’s a tool that I know how to use.” He tilted his head toward Nessa. “There’s only three of us here, and it’s getting dark awfully quickly. A fourth body would be-”

“No!” I snapped. It had almost been a shout, but even in my anger I wasn’t foolish enough to advertise our presence to anything that might be lurking in the woods. “With all the horrible dead things we’ve seen, you want to create another? No, I won’t allow it.”

The goblin rolled his eyes and shook his head mockingly. “Sentimental,” he muttered.

I cocked an eyebrow. “Oh yes? And what happens if we meet some of these Inquisition soldiers while their friend is strolling alongside us with a hole punched through his face? I’ll tell you what happens: we get cut down and Chuton gets burned. We prove them right and everyone dies.”

Tonk pursed his lips in thought for a moment, then nodded. “See, that is a sensible argument. Far more persuasive than sentimentality.” Without another word he turned and walked across the clearing, apparently ready to move on. I was struck off-balance by his sudden acquiescence, and it took me several seconds to re-gather my thoughts. Nessa had been standing on the river bank, peering downstream, and now she strolled over.

“Stone building ahead, about half a mile,” she said. “Old waterwheel, a mill I think. Looks like a town, maybe, or what’s left of one.”

“A town?” I glanced at Tonk. “Have you ever heard of a town here?” I hadn’t, but Tonk has lived here far longer than me.

The goblin shook his pointed head. “None that I know of.”

The three of us exchanged uneasy glances. Only a permanent town would have a stone mill – a simple logging camp would build everything from timber – but how could there be a town here none of us had heard of, only a couple of hours’ walk from Chuton? The whole situation felt very strange. Casting a nervous eye up at the reddening sky, we set off quietly along the trail, certain that our destination was close.

As we walked, Nessa gave us more strange news. “There were no marks on the tree,” she explained. “No claws, no ropes. Looks like that soldier flew up there.”

“Or was thrown,” I muttered.

“Lifted, perhaps?” Tonk helpfully added.

All three options sounded equally awful, and we continued our trek in uncomfortable silence. If we had kept up our conversation, we might not have heard the soft sounds of something moving to our left, well beyond the tree line and out of sight. I tried not to vary my walking pace – I didn’t want to give away any sign that we had heard – but I turned to Nessa, intending to ask if she had heard it too. There was no need to speak, however: her hand was gripping the hilt of her axe, and her knuckles were white.

That was how we went for almost half a mile, walking in tense silence as we expected an attacker to come crashing out of the trees at any moment, but nothing came. Whatever was crunching through the undergrowth either hadn’t heard us or didn’t care, and it slowly moved away from us until it was lost in the splashing of the river and the rustle of wind through the trees. I still don’t know what it was – for all I know it was a deer, though Nessa swears it had two feet. Part of me wondered if the inquisitor had followed us, intending to watch our progress for herself, but it seemed to bizarre to believe, even for her. Knowing now what we would later find in the chapel, such weird behaviour seems slightly less far-fetched.

Finally, the skeletal remains of a village came into view amid the green. The buildings were old, and while they had clearly once been sturdily built from unworked local river stones and simple mortar, time had done its inevitable work. The hut closest to the trail had partially collapsed, and we could see that almost half of its roof had fallen in, taking part of the wall with it. Creeping closer, we could clearly see that many years of weather had stripped the mortar from between the stones. Even the walls that still stood would no doubt topple at the slightest impact.

Unpleasant sounds were echoing through the long-dead settlement, and they seemed to be coming from the far side of the hut we had been examining. Risking a structural collapse, we picked our way gingerly through the interior of the hut and out the gaping hole in the opposite, then carefully crept along the building next door. The noises were louder now, and were obviously bestial in nature. I was reminded of stray dogs fighting and snarling over discarded bones out the back of a butcher’s shop.

Hardly daring to breathe, we slipped through a narrow gap in the wall of the second hut, then tiptoed across the rubble-strewn floor and around a pile of stinking garbage to where daylight was showing through gaps in the mortar. Being careful not to put any pressure on the fragile stonework, we put our eyes up to the tiny gaps to see what was outside.

The scene was confusing and took a moment to sink in. There was a road beyond the hut, a proper, honest-to-God road, in almost as good a condition as the road we’d followed out of Chuton that very day. Parked on either side were two large caravans with canopies and curtains of rich purple cloth. No horses or oxen were visible, so it was not obvious how they had come to be there, but they were in good condition and did not seem to have been there long.

Two creatures were rummaging through piles of scattered goods that had evidently been thrown out of the caravans, and it was from them that the disturbing noises were coming. They were so revoltingly misshapen that at first my mind simply couldn’t process what I was seeing. It was as if an insane taxidermist had stitched together random animals parts – a goat here, a dog there, a bird over here, and a lizard down there – and formed them into a very loose approximation of humanoid form. There was no sense or symmetry to their bodies: one had a partially broken deer antler rising from one side of its head, while the other side seemed to have a curled ram’s horn instead.

It appeared we had found our beastmen, but were there only two? Could more of them have been hiding among the half dozen ruined buildings that made up this tiny ghost town? We came up with a plan to find out. After a brief whispered conference, it was decided that I probably had the best throwing arm, so it was my job to enact the plan. Lucky me.

I crept back outside through the hole in the wall, realising as I went that the pile of garbage we had stepped across earlier was actually a crude nest. It seemed that these revolting things weren’t just visitors but had made this village their home. I picked up a few palm-sized rocks and moved as close to the corner of the building as I dared, then let fly with one of my missiles. The rock struck a solid blow on the wall of the nearest hut across the road, and I could actually see the structure shudder. Our grotesque new friends didn’t seem to have heard, so I risked a second throw, and the result was far more spectacular than I had expected. The wall tipped inward, and as it fell the roof toppled in on top of it and the two neighbouring walls tumbled outwards. The entire hut collapsed like a house of cards, creating a terrific crash that must have been audible even all the way back at the blood-soaked clearing.

The beastmen’s reaction was immediate. Their snuffling and snarling instantly ceased, and after a moment of silence they both howled. It was a truly awful noise, like a blending of the baying of a hound, the scream of a panicked horse, and the roar of a lion. My nerve deserted me and I hurried back inside the hut to rejoin my companions.

“Whatever happens, stay beside me,” I hissed, and Tonk and Nessa nodded. I closed my eyes, held the silver Ouroboros pendant hanging around my neck in one hand, and began to… well, not pray, really. I suppose I began to actively hope. Maybe that’s all praying is. I fervently hoped that the three of us could be hidden from sight and protected from harm, and the growing warmth in my hand indicated that my hopes had manifested. I heard Nessa gasp in wonder, and I opened my eyes.

We were surrounded by a glassy dome, maybe four or five yards across. It was transparent and colourless, but everything outside the dome shimmered as if through a heat haze. I instinctively knew I had to maintain my focus to keep it in existence, so I tried ignore the warped shapes of, not two, but four beastmen as they loped into the derelict hut. I knew they couldn’t see us, but as their hideous muzzles turned up into the air and quivered, I realised with horror that they could smell us. One of them moved forward cautiously then yelped as its foreclaw touched the invisible dome, blue sparks leaping from the point of contact.

“Now!” Nessa shouted, and she and Tonk heaved their shoulders against the walls of the hut. The strangest thing occurred: the walls toppled, and the roof caved in, but none of it penetrated the dome. Instead I watched it skitter and bounce, forming a perfect hemisphere of tumbling debris. Horrible yelps from nearby made it clear that the creatures had not been so lucky.

Sure enough, the dust began to settle and we could see that two of the beastmen were buried under the rubble, bloody and unmoving. One of the others was howling pitifully, clutching a bloody gash on its malformed shoulder. Only one remained unscathed, and suddenly our chances of survival looked much more favourable.

Tonk must have made the same calculation as me, and it made him foolhardy. He cast a spell of magically increased speed and ducked out through the dome and between piles of debris, appearing as little more than a blur. As he dashed past the wounded beastman and through the hole in the wall, it suddenly lashed out instinctively at the unexpected movement. Despite the creature’s injury and Tonk’s unnatural speed I saw cloth rip and blood splash before he stumbled out of sight, and the monster snarled and pelted out of the hole behind him.

The uninjured beastman hurried over to the gap in the wall to watch its companion go, and that was when Nessa struck. She leapt through the shimmering dome, dodged around the rubble, and swung her axe overhead and down. As I said before, her strength was greater than it looked: her blade split that misshapen head in two, and the momentum carried it down into the furry body. Without a sound the thing tumbled lifelessly to the floor, killed with a single stroke.

With the coast clear, I began to extricate myself from the rubble. I moved slowly, maintaining my concentration so that the dome would hold its position and wouldn’t vanish and drop half a ton of tiles and stones on my head. Once I was standing safely beside the now blood-streaked Nessa I cut the connection inside my mind. It felt like dropping a weight I had been carrying, and the dome popped out of existence, allowing the rest of the rubble to crash to the floor.

Nessa and I went to the opening in the wall that Tonk had fled through and were startled to see that the final beastman was only a few yards away. It seemed confused, like it couldn’t find its quarry, and I readied my staff to attack it. At that moment, I head Tonk’s voice shout something arcane. There was a weird shifting in the air, like part of the world was being forcefully rearranged, and then the beastman just exploded. I can’t really explain it. There was a momentary warping of the air around it, like the sky reflected in the surface of a lake, and then the shaggy body just burst, showering Nessa and me in a fountain of gore. I was so shocked by the unexpected carnage that I stood there mutely, feeling hot blood trickle down my neck and under my collar.

As I stood there staring, Tonk sauntered over, edging carefully around the steaming pool of chunky scarlet liquid. “What’s the difference?” he asked, and I stared at him dumbly. “I mean, was that desecration? If so, why was that okay?”

I wanted to tell him that whatever unnatural forces he had just tapped into to cause such violent carnage were not even remotely okay, but my words refused to come.

Tonk pushed on. “Surely the desecration of the living is more objectionable than the transformation of the dead, and yet-”

“Enough,” Nessa said with quiet authority. “Leave her alone, will you?”

I didn’t say anything, but I was immensely grateful.

Worried about the pink and purple sky and aware that night was frighteningly close, we rushed through the rest of our tasks. We searched the caravans and found no survivors or corpses, just ransacked belongings. They had clearly belonged to somebody of considerable wealth, and in retrospect I wish we could have searched more thoroughly and maybe brought back some valuables to add to Chuton’s reduced coffers.

All that was left then was the larger building down the southern end of the village. It was just a rough stone cylinder, and it wasn’t until we were almost at the door that I recognised it as a chapel, much more intact that the rest of the village. It was a simple church for simple folk, and I was somewhat surprised to recognise that it was dedicated to the New God. There was no sign of the Ouroboros serpent that I carried, but hanging from the lintel was the crude wooden figure of a woman with nails driven through it. While I prefer to centre my thoughts about the eternal wheel, some of the New Faith are drawn to the horrific martyrdom of Saint Astrid, run through with a dozen swords. I wrinkled my nose in distaste as we passed underneath and into the darkness.

It was indeed a small and simple chapel, a raised altar at one end was topped by a wooden lectern, and the seating was just rows of wooden stools, many of them now broken. I heard Nessa make a noise of revulsion, and I turned to ask what was wrong, but the words never left my lips: along the walls to our left and right were piles of dismembered corpses. They were so horribly mangled I could not guess at the number, but it seemed to be a dozen or more. Some wore the tattered remains of inquisition soldier uniforms, but others seemed to be in civilian clothes. There were even animals, though I struggled to discern if they were horses, oxen, deer, or something else.

The dwarf sighed with disgust and said she needed to search the bodies, hoping to find the captain’s body so she could fetch an insignia and prove we had found him. I nodded and moved to the lectern. Sheltered inside away from the weather, the wooden structure seemed well-preserved but was coated in a thick layer of dust.

I don’t know exactly what I expected, maybe a search for a hidden compartment or some kind of locked strongbox. It seemed almost unbelievable when I simply stepped onto the altar, peered around behind the lectern, and saw the large silver chalice just sitting there on the shelf. It was exactly as described – pure silver, large and heavy-looking, with a serpent wrapped around the stem, biting the tip of its own tail – except for one small but vital detail. It too was coated in a thick layer of dust, just like everything else on the altar.

“Interesting,” said Tonk at my shoulder, and I jumped. I hadn’t heard him approach. “Why is it covered in dust? Looks like its been here for years.”

Nessa came to join us, pocketing the insignia from the captain’s shoulder and wiping blood off her hands. She nodded. “Yes, many years. Decades, I’d say.”

I fought to control my breathing. “She lied,” I snarled, fury prickling at my insides.

“Only one way to know for sure,” Tonk said. He held out a hand, palm first, and I felt a tingle of power from him. As it ebbed away, he gasped. “Powerful. Yes, this is definitely a powerful relic. It has to be what we were sent here to find.”

I bent forward and hesitated for only a moment before grasping the chalice around its serpentine stem. It felt like cold metal, nothing more, and yet… was there a whispering in the back of my head? A vibration, perhaps? I thought it was just my imagination, overwrought by the day’s horrors.

Nessa, meanwhile, was distracted. “Oh, what the hell is that?” she groaned. I looked away from my prize to where she was pointing. Our eyes had begun to get used to the darkness inside the chapel, and details were starting to become clearer. What had looked like nothing special when we had come in, just part of the general debris of a ruined village, had resolved itself into another nest. It looked much like the nests we had seen in the huts, but it was huge, a filthy crater of dry grass, animal skins, and God only knows what else.

“We have to go,” Nessa whispered. “Now!”

Our quest was complete and, for our part at least, Chuton was safe, so I am not ashamed to admit that all three of us turned tail and ran. The sky was a deep violet, and in the shadows of the trees it was barely bright enough to be called twilight. I was terrified by the thought of meeting something that could see in the dark and sniff out our scent while we were blinded by full darkness, and that fear kept us running even after we would otherwise have rested. My imagination was drawing connections between the corpse in the tree and the enormous nest, and the idea of meeting one of those grotesque, blasphemous things expanded to giant size, strong enough to toss a grown man like child’s doll, impale it on a branch like a sausage on a fork… It pushed me almost to the brink of panic.

We were in the clearing, running past the corpse of the horse, when the noise erupted behind us. God, I hope to never again hear anything like it. It seemed as if Hell itself had been emptied onto the Earth. It was a cacophony of almost normal-sounding bestial howls and bleats, but mixed with the screams of an asylum packed full of the deranged and a thunderous booming and grunting, like… I’m sorry, words can’t even come close to capturing the otherworldly hideousness of that sound. It was fury and hatred and insanity distilled into noise, and I cannot imagine hearing anything more horrible.

Nothing seemed to give chase, thankfully, and we regained the road and hurried back into town, not daring to slow down the entire way. My lungs were burning when we entered the farmlands east of Chuton, but it wasn’t until we were passing the boarded-up Rusty Crown inn that we dared slow to a walk. I could feel sweat trickling from my hairline, tracing its way around the partially dried blood and tissue on my face.

The three of us parted without a word, presumably all going to our own homes. I retired to the presbytery, filled the wooden bath, and scrubbed myself clean. The town was quiet, but as I bathed I could hear soft voices and the occasional nervous laugh filtering in from outside. Chuton still lived, then. The Inquisition had not yet slaughtered everyone I cared about. It seemed a cold comfort, and I combed revolting chunks out of my soapy hair angrily, thinking about the inquisitor’s lies.

I dried myself, put on my nightclothes, and then simply sat for a time. I don’t remember picking it up, so I was a little surprised to find the chalice cradled in my arms like a sleeping baby. I’m sure now that it isn’t my imagination: there is power in this object, something with intelligence and knowledge, and it is speaking to me in words I can almost hear. I just need to listen more closely to its soft whispers. Keeping the chalice close, I lit a candle, took out my journal and some ink, and wrote this account. Now that it is done I suppose I should eat, but I have no appetite.

For now, I suppose I will sleep. This thing is too precious to leave unguarded, so I will keep it with me. In the morning, I will no doubt be expected to hand it over to the liar who sent me to fetch it, and I don’t know if I will be able to. The story seems clear enough now: she knew or suspected that the chalice was in that lost village, and must also have known it was guarded by beastmen, so she sent her troops to fetch it. When they didn’t return, she sent us to complete their mission.

She is clearly evil. How can I entrust something so holy to such a person?

I must sleep. Talk to me in my dreams, sweet silver serpent. Tell me what I must do.

The Fires Burn
What happens upon the return to Chuton

A funeral procession marches to Chuton. Rattling down the road from Grantham comes a band of weary travellers, carrying with them the body of Carver, the coffin maker. Their march is heavy. Who would have thought the coffin maker would be so soon in need of a coffin? Nothing makes sense any more.

Slowly, they are joined by more travellers. From the west, the east, the north. Tales are swapped and hurried explanations given. There was a cup taken from beastmen, a death at the hands of a bizarre beast, a clockwork found in a tower and a terrible pact which has Henri worried.

With a sense of dawning dread, those marching towards Chuton understand that a bargain has been made.

In the distance, thick black smoke begins to rise from the village.

The marchers break into a run.

Something terrible is happening.

Henri's personal journal entry 429
Will this be my last?

I should have fled. I’m not talking about hiding out in the forest while the inquisitor’s men came to town, I should have saved my soul and ran far away from Chuton.

The town came together to discuss how they would outwit the coming Swords of Astrid and accompanying soldiers. Mayor Izzy offered up a suggestion that we split into groups with some working to engage with the men of the inquisition and a small group should hide out in the forests. Even though the town had come to understand that I am a gentle being, there were concerns that the swords of Astrid would be quick to judge me based on my appearance and likely put me to death.

As much as I felt the New God would watch out for me, the realisation of the situation bore weight and I joined the elf, Vert the tavernkeep, Jack of the woods, an older orc I was unfamiliar with, and that untrustworthy little orc child Raya who followed me to Ashbourne previously. I should have fled.

As we started into the woods I immediately sensed Red Leaf’s presence. It was only two days ago I had been in these woods and their presence hadn’t crossed over the river but now it was all around. They had reclaimed the Soldier Forest so quickly.

With no real destination in mind, we started walking through the forest, trying to keep low and out of sight. I don’t know if it was Jack’s little yappy dog that gave us away, but we were found out by a group of three of the Swords of Astrid. The elf, older orc and I seemed to be the only ones that were spotted as the others hid among the trees and low bushy scrub.

The Swords of Astrid all looked the same, just as they had the last time I witnessed them, with their large fit bodies, shaved heads, robes, and obviously itching for an altercation by caring ominous spikey chained mace weapons. They asked us about where we had come from and if we knew anything about the happenings in Chuton. I didn’t speak much, only to state that I was there as a servant to the Elf, which would normally be a believable story. The orc on the other hand wasn’t too clever and started talking about being in Chuton and after saying a bit too much, raised the ire of the lead Sword.

The next thing I knew, the nasty little orc girl comes rushing out of her hiding place to bash one of the Swords of Astrid. In turn Vert shot out with a crossbow bolt just missing the one who was doing all the talking, and Jack dashed at the other but should have kept in hiding as he was not connecting at all with his stick.

I’ve been learning about and following the New God for the past few years and I feel that I have turned my back on all the teachings Father Bert provided. In an instant, I failed the wisdom of the prophet and I drew upon the power of the shadow and an inky wispy black dart shot out of my hand and struck the face of my religious brother causing blood to trickle down his neck and clouded his perception.

The young orc girl was knocked to the ground, and the older orc stepped in between her and the Brother she was attacking, and the older orc was able to swiftly send his opponent’s soul towards its next life. The Elf cast an odd charm onto the Brother that was fighting with Jack which made him a bit discombobulated… when I say fighting, it was more like a choreographed encounter in a pantomime I once saw, as neither Jack nor the Brother he was engaged with seemed to connect.

I’m not sure who finished his life, but the Brother I had lashed out at and subsequently struck with a sling stone was on the ground. The last remaining Sword of Astrid called out in prayer and a beam of glory struck down from the sky incinerating him and blasted Vert and Jack away from him. I felt a searing pain as the fires of Astrid licked my forehead and I remember thinking at that time, ‘what have I done.’

I subsequently learned that the older orc was a priest of the old faith as he healed himself and the young orc child, whom which he has formed some sort of racial bond with. Jack called on the power of the forest and he also healed himself as the fires of Astrid seemed to have burned him quite badly.

I heard some sounds in the distance and was in a bit of a panic. I’m not sure if it was me that suggested it, I mean, it could have been as I was totally out of my wits. Even writing this now I am shaking with fear as I do not know what impacts the outcome of our next actions may cause. Not on a physical level, as there is no way anyone will ever know, but I am worried that my soul is stained.

Anyway, we placed the bodies of the fallen under some vines that were the same as those we found in Ashbourne. Vines that I know are a manifestation from Red Leaf. As we placed the vines over the bodies, we offered them up to Red Leaf to show that we were not there to do harm, and in turn the vines started to entwine around the fallen Swords of Astrid. The Elf called forth a clamouring sound and loud chanting to draw the attention of those searching through the woods so that they would find the bodies and think that the vines had decimated their fellow brothers. We ran off following a large vine deeper into the woods.

There was a loud commotion in the distance where we had left the bodies and later found that the apostolates who stumbled upon them were slaughtered by Red Leaf.

We travelled until coming to a clearing and the Elf noticed some prints in the ground of what he described only as a creature of lore and that if it was what he thought, then we did not want to go after it as it would surely mean our end. We all agreed to not follow the path and started to head back towards Chuton.

The sun seemed to be swallowed by the forest and darkness washed over us all. We decided it best if we camped out until the morning. During my watch, someone started to approach our encampment so I opened my mind trying to sense thoughts of anyone around and I could feel that the entire surrounds were alive as one mind. The ‘person’ approaching ended up being one of the Swords of Astrid we previously encountered, although it was dead and had been animated by Red Leaf with vines ripping through its body giving it a semblance of movement. I stirred my companions from their sleep and we spoke with the vestige of Red Leaf. In return for our safety and for that of the villagers of Chuton we agreed to act as a guardian of sorts.

I can’t believe that I was put in a position where I felt I had to bargain with one of the Fey as I knew that if I did not, my body would be torn asunder like the zealots who happened across the bodies of the Swords of Astrid we dispatched.

This morning when I went to a pool of water to fill my flask, I pulled back my cowl and peered down to see where the flames of Astrid had touched my forehead to make sure I was ok as I still had a bit of pain. I thought maybe the New God had marked me with a blessing, as in the reflection of myself I didn’t see a burn mark, I saw a circular symbol of the snake eating its own tail. I became elated as I took it as a sign that maybe those who we defeated in the forest were not pious or worthy of the New God’s love and that I had done a righteous thing. However, staring at it further the symbol looked broken, almost as if the head of the serpent has been cut off.

I should have fled.

Stone and Powder
Alaric volunteers to destroy a nest of gremlins

From the journal of Alaric Clay:

After our partial success in Oldoak, I spent some time in my workshop with the alchemical notes and supplies I had recovered from the demonologist (as I suspect her to be). Such an opportunity to study the art is rare outside the schools of Lij, and hopefully my newfound knowledge will help counter any further use of alchemy against us. I can now determine the nature of virtually any substance, and have added a powerful corrosive to my arsenal of attacks.

When the letter from the Witchfinder was first circulated, I had hoped to reason with the Swords of Astrid – after all, I had discovered direct evidence that the woman we fought and her companions were responsible for the shadow that fell on Chuton! But others in the town convinced me that they do not listen to reason alone, and value piety above all (more reasons to distrust the Cult of the New God). For that reason, I voted to try and outwit them – hopefully making an ally of these powerful zealots against the Shadow.

I spoke with Sister Hüvje and offered to aid her in parleying with the inquisitors; having spent time in Sixton and being around many devotees of the Cult, I understood the basics well enough to pretend to be pious. I hope Hüvje did not take offence when I declined to actually convert, but while she represents the best of the Cult, I am still suspicious.

We went over our plans and preparations, and when the inquisitors arrived, they were greeted by banners, food and ale, and signs of recent purification. As it happened, I had little to add to the Sister’s words; she spoke well on behalf of all of us. The inquisitors – whose masks unsettled me more than any faceless clockwork’s visage – seemed pleasantly surprised and entirely taken in. But in the manner of all zealots, they demanded more evidence of our piety. They each had tasks they wished us to perform in service to the Cult; one, a Brother Lancel, spoke of a tower infested with Gremlins which had been “bothering” a nearby township, demanding we bring back their corpses. We once had a Gremlin in our study workshop in Sixton and, having no love for the creatures, I immediately volunteered. I was pleased that Branka wished to come with me.

We set off, in the end also accompanied by the gnome Coal Sparkmore and Blys, who I noticed had learned some magic of her own since we last crossed paths. We found our way to the zone of the Gremlin’s influence easily enough: broken machinery and vehicles littered the ground, and Blys stepped on a bear trap blighted by their foul fae magic. I deduced she should be safe enough as it was more a danger to the rest of us, but somehow Blys’ luck ran foul and when the thing exploded, she was wounded in the thigh.

That’s when I heard their foul laughter. They took such delight in suffering! I am not sure of cosmic good or evil, not when it comes to the fae, but that laughter killed any sympathy I will ever have for Gremlins. I unleashed a magic dart but it only wounded one of them; Branka had more success using her chain to pull down the branch on which they sat, and they ran off into the undergrowth, forcing us to follow. Sure enough, they led us to their tower, surrounded by the remains of devices they had stolen and destroyed. It was so…wasteful. Without any purpose! Just wanton destruction.

Some of my memories of the encounter are hazy, but the scars in my chest ensure I’ll never forget it. We were almost flattened by a collapsing carriage wedged into the tower entrance; crushed by rotting floorboards, which I barely detected their magic spreading through in time to warn my companions; and beset by their hexes and curses, which they cast on both myself and Blys. But Branka managed to strangle one with her beard, another had its skull crushed by my magic wrench, Blys lured one towards her with magic and then burned it in a lantern, and even Coal struck a few and kept the rest of us standing long enough to finish them all off – though not before two of them shot me in the chest with a blunderbuss. It’s not something I will ever forget, though I had my vengeance.

Inside their tower, though, is where I found the newest addition to Chuton: a humanoid clockwork, with blank face and hidden compartments in its arms. It had clearly been affected by the Gremlin’s aura, and I used Technomancy to repair its chassis, but I admit that after Bzzzantine‘s actions I hesitated to awaken it. But every soul deserves a proper chance to live, and so I turned its key. The poor thing seemed barely aware of its surroundings – perhaps because of a lingering effect of the Gremlins – and I had to guide it out of the tower as we left, the interior burning from a pile of refuse Coal and Branka had prepared to smoke the Gremlins out, ignited by the exploding lantern. As we headed back to Chuton, I collected various useful components from the destroyed machinery around us, building up a bag of artificer’s parts from which I am sure I can construct many useful devices.

The clockwork still has not spoken, though it seemed more aware and less erratic as we travelled further from the tower. I will study it’s construction, continuing to effect repairs wherever possible, and perhaps, in time, it will share something of its life with us – or perhaps, like Bzzzantine, it has no memory of the time before I turned its key. At least it has hands, and not just weapons, with which to explore its environment. I pray to the gods – perhaps even the Cog God of the clockworks – that this time I have not awakened a naïve killer…

Excerpts of the metaphysical & sylvan meanderings of a Sister Hüvje, a cleric of the New God, and Tonk, a goblin necromancy-enthusiasT
as witnessed by Nessa the Dwarf


TONK: Did you hear that Nessa? The inquisitor takes the village hostage, and threatens to raze homes and slaughter families if we don’t retrieve the chalice. And they say that cruelty is not the way of the New God. Religion and Hypocrisy. That is a marriage that no god will tear apart.

HÜVJE: But she means well, Tonk. The Inquisitor truly believes that she acts in accordance to her faith. Her ethics.

TONK: That’s the thing with religion. Every inquisitor, their man and their boar believe their own selfish take on faith is the correct interpretation of the ineffable will of the gods.

HÜVJE: The will of God is like the sparse beam of sunlights reflecting off patches of brush in this glade. We mortals can only glimpse the Divine when it is reflected, in patches, fractured, never whole. Like the canopy of brambles obscuring the sky, our minds are limited and unable to see or comprehend heaven in its entirety. It is left to us to glean the workings of the divine from peeks and fragments of our cosmic Lord.

TONK: Sister, a fine analogy. But it is not holy sunbeams that give us hints of the working of the universe. These hints are not divine in nature. It is shadows of the hidden and unexplored rules of nature, of life and death, that hint the universal laws. Their origin is entirely natural, not from a made-up god. Reason and not faith are the key to unlocking truth.


TONK (excited) : Hüvje, if you can lift me up – I could reach that body. I can…….retrieve it.

HÜVJE (suspicious): Do you mean to desecrate this corpse, goblin?

TONK: Desecration. That is an expression of your faith. It is meaningless in my vocabulary. I mean to animate that corpse, if you want to know.

HÜVJE (angry): I will not permit these heinous deed. The body of a dead man will not be desecrated in my presence!

TONK (visibly annoyed): I respect your faith Sister, but don’t be arrogant to assume we all share your values. Remember that we are trying to achieve the same goals here. If you believe it is sacred, fine. It is but a tool to me. An inanimate object that I can shape and command. A resource to use on our quest.

HÜVJE (frustrated): Assume we meet other Swords of Astrid. And they see the corpse of one of their comrades, with a gaping hole in its head, walking among us. What do you think they will do? React? They will burn Chuton to the ground for heresy!

TONK (grudgingly swayed): Now you are using reason and not faith to argue. I accept your reasoning. Let us press forth.


Tonk steps out Hüvje’s protective spell, becoming visible to the beastman. With preternatural alacrity, the goblin breaks and runs, with one of the foes clawing at the tiny figure, opening a large gash on the goblin’s back. Tonk stops and turns, and the beastman continues chase. Without taking stock of the bleeding, he mutters under his breath, and weaves a spell. Space seems to distort around the beastman, with limbs, skin and bones exchanging places in an instant. The Division spell is as effective as it is immediate – the beastman explodes in a mist of blood, gore and bone. Nessa and Hüvje are left speechless.

TONK (paused, ragged breathing): Apologies Sister. I meant to have asked. There is no rule in desecrating the living body of a man, correct?

HÜVJE: (….)

TONK: See Nessa? Pulverizing a poor living creature with sorcery, that has no guilt other than acting on its own instincts – God is fine with that. The church will bless you and offer a mass in your favour you. Now, taking a corpse. A slab of meat, and performing animating magic on it – no no no. Slap on your hands. Off to hell with you, heretic. I’ll let you work out the logic in that.


The three companions, deep in thought, exhausted, covered in sweat and blood walk back in silence. No word is spoken for hours. Tonk, bleeding, ragged, struggles to keep pace. Sister Hüvje, pauses, and motions for the goblin to stop. She takes out an embroided hankerchief, and tenderly cleans the wounds Tonk suffered from the beasts. She mutters a prayer, and channels divine healing, her hands aglow with a faint golden light. Tonk and Hüvje exchange no communication, but the goblin nods gently, in acceptance of the act and the person. Hüvje nods back, and turns and walks the rest of the way, in silence as before. Nessa sighs, smiles, and leads the way home.

I fight for the forest

The forest is my home, I fight for the forest.

When the inquisitors came for Chuton, those of us unlikely to pass as “righteous” in their gaze took to the trees. But the trees had changed, vines trailing on the ground. This was Redleaf, he had come to my home, changed my home. Was this still my home?

The Swords of Astrid came upon us, asking questions of us. Urrgghh!! proclaimed himself of the old gods, and having come from Chuton. The interrogation was going as all go, heading towards our damnation. Had Raya not leapt upon them first, I would have sought them out with my sacred club soon after.

The fight was hard, I faltered, I fumbled, I failed. My companions saved me as the inquisitors tore down upon us with iron and flame. This forest is not my home, I could not fight for the forest.

We offered the bodies of these zealots to the vines we’d encountered – the enemy of our enemy may yet be our ally – and led others towards them. We heard fighting and shouts. Redleaf would feed well, the inquisition would never make it to Chuton. Night came faster than it should, and we laid up camp.

And then finally a meeting with Redleaf himself. This forest – my forest – was now his. We appealed for him to help remove our enemies, and in return we would offer him guardianship and liberty. My companions followed somewhat reluctantly, but I pledged my wardenship willingly.

After all, the forest is my home, and I fight for the forest.

Darkness Breeds
"Darkness breeds dark deeds." - Farmer's Almanac

From the personal journal Sister Hüvje, priest of the New God and minister to the town of Chuton.

I don’t know why the silly little proverbs that I used to read in my aunt’s almanac keep coming into my mind. Shallow platitudes for the most part, and I haven’t read them in nigh on twenty years, but somehow they creep into the back of my mind when I’m distracted.

It was that accursed town that planted that silly adage about darkness breeding darkness in my thoughts. Even in the middle of the day, its sky was like slate, and the dim streets seemed drained of all colour. It was a strange ghost of a town, like the remnant of something that had died years before.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Izzy, our kind and good mayor, spent two days after the horrors of the night of the Forgiveness Festival talking to everybody in town and piecing together what had happened. I don’t know how he separated those rare nuggets of fact from the piles of rumour and gossip, but he finally felt he had some answers and called the town together for a meeting.

First, though, there needed to be a funeral and, with me now being the village priest, it was my job to conduct it. I wish I could have run away, hidden under my bedclothes like a child frightened by the thunder, anything but see all those pale faces looking to me for hope. I wanted to scream at them that I was just as frightened and exhausted as they all were, but somehow the duties of a priest kept me centred. My mouth remained clenched shut and its corners pointed resolutely upward in a frozen smile. My cheeks ache, sometimes, from keeping that stupid smile on my face.

Summoning all my calm resolve, I spoke about the Baileys, of Stenk and Terry, of poor Father Bert, and the two dozen other innocents who perished that night. I was about to speak about the dead halflings when Vert piped up and said I’d forgotten Rusty. I nearly shouted at him. We don’t know how much blame we may place on the late publican, but there is no doubt that he was deep into those evil goings-on, right up to his grimy neck. To utter that villain’s name during our solemn memorial… No, I simply ignored him and moved on.

Finally I pleaded with the townsfolk to display unity in this terrible time. It is far too easy to fall into squabbling and suspicion and discord, but if we should turn on each other we will be doing the demons’ work for them. We have followers of gods new and old in our town, but we are more alike than different. I told the congregation just that, and thankfully I saw more nods than scowls.

Izzy then explained that five different strangers had been seen about the town. Five. Of course it was five. Five demonic summoning charms, five sites of evil and murder, and now five strangers of dark aspect. Some malign power is playing with us, I am certain.

Only one caught my interest: a well-dressed but sour-tempered woman who had been seen dragging a large wheeled trunk from the Rusty Crown the day before the attack. Weird, arcane maggots crawled in the earth wherever she dragged it, which would make tracking her movements easy but unnerving.

She had been heading south from the inn, toward the Bailey Farm, and I wondered if she had been responsible for the unholy slaughter that had occurred there. I decided to find this woman and ask her myself.

I joined a group made up of Tonk the farmer, who is an odd but generally agreeable goblin, Bzzzantine the erratic little flying machine, the earnest young inventor Alaric Clay, and a companion from my previous expedition: Branka the Farrier. I made a point to return her borrowed hammer to her, since she had obviously been so reluctant to lend it out in the first place. Not that I was fool enough to go unarmed: I had purchased a sturdy fighting staff from the general store.

The sickening trail of eldritch maggots passed the Baileys and turned east, following the road to Oldoak. I was surprised when Alaric told me Oldoak has a depot for the steam-powered rail – I had no idea the trains came out this far. When I first came to Chuton I had walked the entire way.

As we made our way to Oldoak I became glad that I had fortuitously bought a walking staff. As we walked, the young artificer explained that the town had been on the brink of financial ruin and its leadership had taken on the rail depot as an act of desperation. The money from travellers would pour in, they were assured, and the town would thrive again. I would soon discover that the reality was altogether different.

We met only a few others during our long, slow trudge to Oldoak. A foolish dandy was heading to Chuton, believing himself to be on the road to the city. Luckily for his wife and small child I convinced him to turn around. Weirdly, he had been given the wrong directions by a well-dressed woman with a wheeled case not an hour before. Clearly our quarry had a vicious sense of humour, and also was not far ahead. The dandy also mentioned something very strange: the reason he and his family were walking was because the trains were not running, and in fact had stopped abruptly on the night all the bells had tolled. Hearing that made my heart flutter weirdly, though I am not sure why.

Our next encounter was with a terrifyingly huge wild boar that sat snorting and rumbling in the middle of the road. It was fearsome-looking, but turned out to be completely tame and very friendly, behaving more like a dog than a wild pig. Tonk befriended it with some dry biscuits, and later seemed genuinely sad when we gave it back to the swineherd we met a little further down the road. He was a pleasant man who clearly doted on his animals, and he was greatly relieved to have the boar returned to him. He repaid the favour by instructing us to mention his name – Giovanni – at the hotel in Oldoak in order to secure a night of free accommodation. He also confirmed the fop’s earlier story about the stopped trains, saying that a town-wide strike had brought the system to a standstill, stranding hundreds of passengers.

One part of his story shocked me more than anything else, however. The reason he and his boars had become separated was that a now very familiar woman had passed him on the road. Perhaps she had been frightened by his admittedly intimidating animals – or maybe on intuition she was trying to cause trouble for any who might be following her from Chuton – but she had pulled a pistol from the folds of her dress and fired it wildly. Imagine having so much wealth that you could afford to waste gunpowder like that! None of the pigs had been hurt, but the sudden noise had startled and scattered them. Poor Giovanni had spent hours rounding them up, though thankfully our biscuit-loving friend was the last of them.

After that there was nothing between us and Oldoak, except for rather a lot of road, and we arrived an hour after sunset. The town itself was very small, barely more than one street, but what little there was of it was impressive at a distance. The hotel we had been recommended by the swineherd was enormous, easily the tallest I have seen outside the big cities. When I first saw it on the horizon I took it for an oddly blocky church steeple.

The railway was everywhere. Sprawling across the landscape was a plethora of mechanical wonders – elevated bridges made from vast amounts of cast iron, cavernous storage and maintenance buildings that could have swallowed up my little church in Chuton, complex hoppers and cargo interchanges, and things whose function I couldn’t even guess at.

I turned to my companions to share my wonder, but I found them scowling. “So inefficient,” Alaric said, shaking his head.

Branka agreed. “I’m hardly a rail engineer, but even I can see they’ve made a complete cabbage of this place.” She pointed a stubby finger. “See here? This roundhouse is right between the main rail interchange and the car storage. Bloody fools have to run the locomotives from the roundhouse, get their cars connected, then either pass back through the roundhouse or go all the way around.” She shook her shaggy head. “Designed by a bunch of puddings, this place.”

The dwarf and the artificer exchanged mocking shouts of surprise and disparaging jokes as we trudged through town. I understood little of their jibes, and Tonk and I exchanged bemused expressions while our companions ranted about poorly-designed rail infrastructure.

Gradually, I began to get an inkling of just how much trouble Oldoak was in. The final leg of our journey was up the main street to the hotel, and even in the darkness I could see how decrepit the shopfronts were. Clearly they had once been gleaming modern constructions of steel and copper, fitted with enormously expensive glass windows and electric lighting. Now, however, everything was in decay. All of the metal I could see was mottled brown and green, and the few functional lights were flickering and buzzing. At least a quarter of the shops were boarded up, many with hastily painted “out of business” signs on them.

Even the hotel looked worse close up. The ridiculously extravagant “HOTEL” sign in electrically-lit wrought iron, which had clearly once cost a king’s ransom, was spotted with rust. The H was hanging at a dramatic angle and swung lazily with the breeze, emitting an alarming metallic screech every time it moved. I started to imagine the harm it would cause when it inevitably fell, but the horrible mental images made me shake my head and try to think of something else.

We disagreed on what to do next: I felt that we should hurry to the rail yard in case the woman we sought was trying to make her escape, but Tonk was sure she would be in the hotel since it was already so late. We agreed to split up, with the goblin going to see if she’d checked in while the rest of us investigated the trains.

As we approached the passenger station, we saw just how desperate things had become. No fewer than four trains were stranded, each of them packed with desperate passengers. The air inside those cars must have been unbearably stale, but most stayed put, bloody-mindedly assuming that everything would be back to normal soon. Never underestimate the human ability to assume someone else will fix everything.

The ticket vendor was an ancient crone, mostly blind with maybe three teeth left in her head, but she was a garrulous sort and gave us lots of good information. We learned that the rail controller had walked off the job without any explanation when the bells had tolled, and even now was locked inside his room at the hotel, refusing to come out. Without him there to keep things working, the staff beneath him had gone on strike. Almost everyone in the entire complex had stopped work, from the drivers and engineers right down to the luggage handlers and dining car waiters. The old woman was frightened for her town, and worried that even another day or two of rail strike could finish it for good.

All thought was suddenly gone from my head as a sense of overwhelming wrongness rushed over me. The whole world became icy cold and utterly silent, and I knew that something terribly alien was nearby. I turned, and there was a cloaked and hooded figure shuffling past us, hunched down almost double, its proportions strange and the fabric of its clothing sticking out in odd places. I got the weirdest impression that I was seeing a pile of dismembered body parts covered with a blanket, moving under its own power.

It vanished into the railyard, and the paralysing fear it had caused in me subsided. “Did you see that thing?” I muttered to the group, and they said they had. Somebody suggested we follow it, but I was filled with panic at the idea. At that moment I would rather have kicked a sleeping bear.

We spent a few minutes discussing what to do next, and we were about to turn back and head to the hotel when I saw something startling. A rail worker – evidently one of very few who was still on duty – had emerged from between two trains carrying a large metal object. He called out happily to a friend, saying he was going to sell it and get rich, and I realised with horror that he was carrying a motionless Bzzzantine. I hadn’t even seen the little clockwork troublemaker go, but he must have decided to follow the robed figure on his own and got knocked out for his trouble.

I’m not proud to say it, but I know how to manipulate men. A pretty face and a shapely body, even when hidden in a priest’s robes, can make a slow-witted man do silly things, and the man carrying my friend’s motionless body did not look like a genius. I put in place by biggest, sweetest smile and stepped forward.

“Oooh, what’s that!” I said, trying to sound friendly.

The rail worker grinned back. “I found it! Must be worth a fortune!”

“Wonderful! May I see?” I leaned in without asking permission and tilted my head so that my hair would fall back and expose my neck. The man’s breath audibly caught in his throat, and I knew I had a moment of distraction to act. “What does this do?” I said in a sugary, girlish voice, and I gave the key in Bzzzantine’s back a hard twist.

Immediately the little creature leapt to life and buzzed into the air. “Wait!” the man shouted dumbly, trying to grab the buzzing clockwork, but it was too late. Bzzzantine’s little wings carried it up, over the roof of the ticket office, and out of sight.

“Whoops!” I said, and tittered like a schoolgirl, but I was forgotten: the worker was staring up into the sky, looking bereft. “Sorry!” I added, patting him on the arm, then I turned and left. It was hardly my most dignified moment, but our companion was safe.

We caught up with the little metal troublemaker halfway to the hotel, and coincidentally found Tonk coming to meet us. We all compared notes. Before he had been captured and forcibly unwound, Bzzzantine had seen a sumptuous-looking train car up the back of the yard, connected to a gleaming, state of the art locomotive. Tonk said this must be the private train of the woman we were chasing, and I was again startled by our quarry’s apparently great wealth. Tonk had learned that she was staying in room 66, on the sixth floor, and her key was not on the rack behind the counter. She was almost certainly inside.

Thinking quickly, we returned to the hotel and introduced ourselves to the pimply youth behind the counter. He smiled when we mentioned Giovanni and made a joke about pigs, but to his credit he offered us two rooms. We asked for 65 and 67, and he handed the keys over. We rode the mechanical lift up to the sixth floor and I’m told I had a funny turn in the cramped carriage, but I have no recollection of it.

In room 65 we could hear water running in the bathroom it shared with room 66, and unsurprisingly the door between the two rooms was firmly locked. We had a brief conference and decided to split up: Bzzzantine and Tonk would stay upstairs, one in each of our rented rooms, while I along with the other two of us would pay a visit to the controller of the railway station, who we had been told held lodgings on the first floor.

In retrospect, I am certain we were overheard. Perhaps the woman we had come to find had been sitting with her ear to the bathroom door, listening to our every word. It would certainly explain what happened next.

When we arrived on the first floor, we immediately knew there was a problem: the door of room 11 was ajar. We knocked and announced ourselves, but as we feared there was no answer. Inside, the controller’s quarters were a shambles. Either somebody wanted desperately to find some small hidden object, or else they had simply wanted to destroy everything in the place. Honestly, I could believe either.

However, we did find an intact photograph of a smiling, moustachioed man in a uniform, lifting a laughing child in his arms. The background appeared to be some kind of funfair. I stared at it for a long time – the very concept of something as innocent as a funfair seemed utterly alien after the past few days. Still, I kept the photo.

Suddenly Alaric shouted. I turned to look, and he was recoiling in horror, doubling up and sinking to the floor. “Five floors below!” he croaked through quivering lips. “Five floors below and I CAN STILL FEEL HER!

I knew the lad was sensitive to arcane energies, and I was filled with dread at his reaction. What kind of magic was so powerful that he could be overwhelmed by the power of it so far below? We had to get back upstairs!

As we rushed from the ransacked suite and approached the elevator, the door to the stairwell crashed open, and there was Tonk. “A bat!” the goblin shrieked. “She turned into a bat!” There was no time to wait for the elevator attendant to come to our floor, so we hurried back up the stairs. The door to room 66 stood wide open, and Bzzzantine hovered in the doorway.

“People don’t usually turn into bats, do they?” the inquisitive little machine asked. “It’s just that the lady we’re following did, and I don’t think that’s normal.” It had only been activated for a few weeks, after Alaric had found it lifeless in a ditch, and it had so far recovered almost none of its earlier memories. As such, some simple things were still puzzling to it.

“No,” I reassured it. “Most people are stuck with the one shape.” I slipped through the doorway and into room 66.

The little metal thing’s head bobbed enthusiastically as I passed. “Ha! I thought that was the case! Humans rarely fly, and NEVER turn into bats!”

A quick search told us everything we needed to know. A moustachioed man who may have had a kind face and a sweet smile when he had been alive was hung upside down over the bath, his throat cut and the porcelain tub filled to almost a foot deep with deep crimson blood. The woman’s wheeled case had been left behind, its lid open to reveal rows and rows of weird vials, jars, and alchemical tools. The window was wide open, and the wind whistled softly through it. Faintly, in the distance, we could hear the sound of a steam engine hissing.

“The train!” Tonk shouted, and the icy feeling in my belly told me the goblin was right. Our quarry had flown to her train, and within minutes she would be away and out of our reach for good.

Once again we were pelting down the metal stairs of the hotel. When we reached the street I heard Alaric and Tonk muttering incantations and, moments later, Alaric and Branka shot off into the growing darkness like corks from shaken-up beer bottles. Clearly it was some kind of magic that distorted space or time, but the rest of us were stuck running at non-magical speed toward the station.

Tonk, Bzzzantine and I darted between dark carriages and engines, toward the back of the train yard, listening to distant shouts that might have been our two hasty friends. As we rounded the last turn we were greeted by a bizarre sight. A tall woman with an imperious bearing and wearing a finely tailored dress – certainly the one we had come to find – was standing astride the disconnected coupling between the gleaming engine and the single luxuriously appointed carriage. Three of the robed figures were grappling with her, and I heard a faint voice shout something like “You can’t leave us!” It appeared that our enemies were engaged in a fortuitously-timed disagreement. (Later, on the walk home, I found out it was Branka’s doing. She had called out to the weird robed things, telling them the woman was betraying them and they should stop her leaving. Miraculously, it had worked.)

There was a deafening crack like a thunderbolt, and a visible globe of shimmering force expanded out from the woman’s hands. Two of the figures were thrown backwards, and I saw for the first time what was under the robes: instead of flesh, their bodies were strange mechanical contraptions, and in place of a head they had a glittering, smoky orb like the crystal ball of a tacky fortune teller. One landed clumsily and started staggering upright, but the other was smashed, whatever magic animating it dissipated. The third, however, hung on gamely, refusing to let go of her sleeve.

That was when I realised, with horror, that the locomotive was moving. It was still slow, but was picking up speed. I was about to cry out for someone to do something to stop it, but Alaric was way ahead of me. As he sprinted beside the huffing engine, I was startled to see a glittering, metallic object fly from his outstretched hand. Whatever it was, it worked: the engine’s brakes locked on and it immediately screamed to a halt, sparks jumping from its wheels. The woman matched the din from the engine, letting out an inhuman screech of fury.

The noise seemed to penetrate my bones, and in that moment of clarity I knew that this foe was beyond us. We were just idiot villagers, fighting against an immense evil force we could never have any hope of defeating. Branka had raised her warhammer above her head, bellowing some kind of dwarven battle cry, and I had a terrible premonition: her blow would miss, and then this terrible woman would strike her dead while I could do nothing but helplessly watch

I don’t know what made me do it, but I grasped my Ouroboros medallion hanging around my neck, the symbol of my faith, and held it up before me. There was no cunning plan, I just needed her to be distracted so she wouldn’t murder my dwarven friend.

“Stand down, you witch!” I screamed. “You’re not going anywhere! You will stay here and face divine justice!” I didn’t even think what I was saying – the words just tumbled out.

That’s when it happened. A dazzling beam of golden light, like a sliver of sunlight, leaped from my medallion and shot like an arrow at that evil woman. The sleeve of her dress immediately burst into flames, and I saw a flash of genuine fear in her dark eyes. Apparently she was just as shocked as I was that these idiot villagers had some tricks to teach her. For just a moment, my doubt vanished and hope pounded in my chest.

And then, she was gone. I struggle to describe it. She cried out something hideous, a grotesque mockery of a prayer, and the name of whatever being she prayed to hurt my ears and made my teeth ache. Then, I can’t be sure, but I think she bit off her own finger. I might be mistaken – it was dark and I was very shaken – but that is what I seemed to see. In the next instant there was a flash of fire, perhaps like a great mouth gaping open, and then… nothing. The woman we had come so far to apprehend was gone without a trace.

We were filled with conflicting emotions in the aftermath. We were frustrated that the murderer had escaped, but at the same time I felt that we had miraculously survived an encounter with something terribly dark and dangerous. Many others, such as the poor railway controller, had not bee as fortunate as us.

As we tried to make sense of what had happened, the lone surviving robed thing asked to parley. In a very strange voice, soft and high-pitched like a tin whistle, it reminded us that it had tried to stop the woman escaping and asked for our mercy. We swore it would come to no harm as long as it did not try to harm us, and it led us inside the luxurious carriage.

It had been a very strange day, but what we saw inside was stranger than anything I had seen before. In a large porcelain bath there lay an incredibly ancient man, completely submerged in a purple liquid that shimmered faintly with arcane energies. The old man never moved while the crystal-headed thing spoke to my companions, and I was completely baffled by the conversation. Alaric explained later that somehow the man in the bath was projecting his intelligence into the construct, and it was his voice we were hearing it speak with.

He was a powerful wizard who had mastered the mysteries of time itself, and he had reluctantly helped the witch prepare her spells and rituals. He suggested that she had forced him to aid her, but I suspected he was also curious, an eternal academic always keen to gain more knowledge, even if that knowledge were of things dark and forbidden. After a private conversation with Branka, the old man, along with the liquid and the bath, vanished in a crackling aura of purple light. The remaining artificial body lost its magic and smashed on the floor.

Meanwhile Alaric had been examining the papers and equipment in the carriage, and he reported something terrible but not unexpected: this woman was definitely responsible for the attack on Chuton. It was possible she’d had other accomplices, but the young artificer said that the evidence proved beyond a shadow of doubt that she was at the centre of it. Sadly, nothing indicated why she would do such a thing, only how. The mystery of why she would attack an innocent rural village was the remain just that, a mystery.

There is little else to tell. On our way out of town, it was clear that Oldoak was beyond saving, and within weeks it would be a ghost town. Some final thread had been severed, and around us folks were looting shops, loading their belongings onto carts and barrows, or simply indulging in petty vandalism. If I ever return to Oldoak, I expect to find it silent, empty, and dead.

Save the sprouts

When the Swords of Astrid came to town, I was as frightened as anyone. There was talk of interrogation and burning and other terrifying things. We tried to welcome them, but they didn’t look too welcome.

They demanded that we prove our loyalty, and gave us three choices:

  • Bring back their holy chalice.
  • Bring back the heads of some dangerous fey.
  • Find out why the sprouts of Grantham had turned black.

I don’t know about you, but I like sprouts.

Besides, just a little while ago, I’d saved the cheeses of Meriview, and that had turned out OK.

Some of the better people of Chuton had been to Grantham recently. It hadn’t gone well. There had been a fire. There had been an inquisitor. People had died, by all accounts.

But nothing that would destroy good healthy sprouts.

Owen Blacksmith and Bzzzantine said that they would come along with me (Porky). The coffin maker came, too, which I took as a bad omen – but she had a cart, so what choice did we have. I never did get her name.

A bad season for sprouts

When we got to Grantham, we found it was true. Every sprout, black as black. When you touched them, they went ‘poof’ and all you were left with was a fine black dust. We needed to find out who had dropped a Grantham on these poor little sprouts, and fast!

The mayor seemed distracted and distraught. It may have had something to do with the fact that she had participated in the burning of the village schoolteacher and her whole family, perhaps. But that wasn’t what was important right now. We needed to save the sprouts!

It turned out that one of the younger members of the town had taken umbrage at the murder of his beloved, the schoolteacher’s daughter.

The teacher’s black-eyed daughter,
Bess, the teacher’s daughter.

Taken umbrage in the form of a pitchfork to the neck of Bess’ lover, Hank, as it turned out. So claimed Frank, Hank’s brother, and all the town backed him up. They’d all seen Hank die, and they’d all seen young Wilbur run off into the woods. And then they’d all seen their precious sprouts turn black.

They’d all seen it, but they hadn’t done anything to stop it.

With the help of a dog called ‘Dog’, we tracked Wilbur into the woods. The woods were scary, but lovely. The dappled light made it seem like there were four of me – I felt like there was a little crowd of ‘me’, all protecting me.

Dog went mad and I smelt blood. We thought that we’d found young Wilbur, but it was only a goat ripped in two, with it’s entrails eaten out. The culprit had hauled the goat into a tree and eaten it up there, so we started looking in the trees.

Sure enough, Dog found Wilbur in a tree, all trussed up like a Solstice ornament. Hanging there, just waiting for someone to come and try to rescue him. Only a madman would have done something like that, or someone setting a trap.

Or both, as it turned out. The thing that attacked us was mad. More than that, it was chaotic. It’s head was where it’s belly should be, and it had too many arms and legs. It kept rocking backwards and forwards, and doing crazy cartwheels. I was scared witless, I don’t mind telling you.

Luckily, all that cartwheeling had made it dizzy, so when Bzzzantine hit it, it fell over. In my witless state, I ran forward and jumped on it, in some crazy attempt to hold it down. I did hold it down, but it didn’t do any good. It just turned around and around and around, like Bzzzantine’s buzz saw, and ripped the poor coffin maker’s throat out. I never did get her name.

Finally, it was dead. The sprouts were saved! Young Wilbur claimed that Frank had made a pact with this crazy demon thing to hunt him down, and the sprouts were blighted because of it. Frank, of course, claimed that wasn’t true, but the fact that the sprouts were turning green again seemed to give the lie to that statement.

However, that wasn’t our business. We left Grantham to sort out what to do with star-crossed Wilbur and Frank. We had a dead crazy thing, a dead coffin maker (I never did get her name) and a very large box of luscious green sprouts in the back of the cart.

I hope those nasty Swords of Astrid are gone by the time we get back to Chuton.

- Porky

The village plan
We have chosen to outwit the Crusaders.

Heroes of Chuton!

The path forward has been made clear. To fight is suicide but we will not flee and give up all we love! Instead, we will outwit the Crusaders.

As with each answer to the choice we were faced, there is danger. The Swords of Astrid are fanatics. They are staunch enemies of deviltry and If our ruse fails, they will not hesitate to put us all to the sword.

We cannot fail, and for that reason, it is important we outline the details of our plan.

If we are to contact the Fey and request their aid, I would have us decide on it now. There are certain preparations and rituals holy to the old faith that must be performed before we approach.

There are many other paths that can be taken. Whatever your plans are, outline them here. We must band together and choose a plan of action, otherwise, we will all be lost.

Speak quickly, the Crusaders are coming, and we are running out of time.


Thanks for voting everybody! Please share your ideas before Sunday midday so that we can adequately prepare for the adventure. We need to know the nature of your clever ruses! – The GMs


The tales of woe from our most recent adventures have begun flooding in. From the boot filled adventures of Chrissie hunting Viktus, to the terrifying encounter with wicked fey by Henri and the Lion to Alaric’s Mechanical Misfortune at the railway , we are beset from all sides by tales of torment!

But the whispers of dark forces in Crossings, and wicked things in the forest must wait for a time. Retrieved from the body of Viktus was a commandment to the crusaders of the New God. Chuton has been marked! All citizens are to be put to fire and sword!

The town is in uproar, within the chaos, voices cry out “What now?”

How will you as a community face this threat?

1. NEGOTIATE: “We have nothing to hide. Our town is known for our tolerance, it is the basis of everything we have worked for. We should meet and talk with them, and share all of the information you have gathered. I am sure the Inquisitor will lend his power to our investigation against this terrible evil, once he is assured that we are doing the New God’s work.” – Izzy the Mayor

2. FIGHT: “Talk? With the Swords of Astrid? I’ve tried, they are fanatics! They only understand violence, so that’s what we should give them. Gather arms! Build barricades! They cannot take us. I did not serve in the Empire’s war to bow down before a zealous sect of the church. They are bullies who are used to roughing up farmers, we’ll show them how real warriors fight!” – Waylon the Teamster

3. OUTWIT: “Meet them in pitched battle? Or worse still, appeal to their reason? Foolish! Listen to Blys, and Henri, and the Lion. We need to outwit them. We can fool them that we have dealt with the problem ourselves, we’ll create new evidence, and even set the fey Red Leaf against them. We have books and learning to guide us. We are smarter than these zealots!” – Mrs Ellis, the Librarian

4. EXODUS: “They do not know reason. Their intent is clear, they will attack at once. We must flee with all our goods. They are coming from the south, we must load up our wagons and roll north. Let’s go to Crossings, it is a free city of all creeds, they cannot touch us there. Yes, yes, I know the road there goes through the Barrows, but we have strength in numbers, and our brave heroes to defend us. Merchant caravans travel that road all the time, I’ve done it myself. We must hurry!” – Gert the Grocer

5. HIDE: “The haunted road through the Barrows, are you mad? Listen to what Jack of the Woods says! We must flee west to the forest, travel light, just take what we need. We can build a hidden camp there, the fey will surely help us, we have lived alongside them… I had a dream in which Chuton was empty, but flowers were blooming all around. The Inquisitors dare not enter the woods. Once we are safe, our heroes can venture forth, find the real cause of the demonic plague, and prove our innocence and our piety.” – Mae the Herbalist

It is up to the heroes of Chuton to decide on the wisest course. Cast your vote now, before all is lost!


Please state your choice using one of the five options listed above in CAPITALS in a comment below before midnight Friday 26 May.



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