Spoiler: Chapter 19: Marked
The party acquires transport up the coast aboard a somewhat-less-than-perfectly-lawful transport vessel, as those tend to have the fastest transport times. Captain Ian asks the party to stay in their cabins for the duration of the trip, especially during the night.
Seeker furrows his brow and opens his mouth to inquire as to why, but Flynn holds up a hand.
“Don’t ask,” Flynn advises. Then, to Captain Ian, he recommends: “Don’t tell.”
Aelron feels vaguely offended, but doesn't know why.
With that matter settled, the voyage passes quickly and quietly. A few days later, the ship reaches the mouth of the easternmost river, the border over which the Huroc are supposed to have crossed (be crossing? Cross at some point soon? Who can tell with these augurs...), and most of the party is set ashore on the riverbank. As Flynn, Miaoyu, Seeker and Aelron are climbing into the launch, Olaf begs off.
“I’m going to head along the coast with Captain Ian a bit further,” Olaf says. “There are a number of Dhar settlements along here. I’m going to see if they’ve heard anything.” When Seeker begins to sputter worried sentence fragments, Olaf hastens to reassure him: “I should be fine; Dhar take guest rights very seriously.” Olaf's player was out of town for a business meeting this week, and thus Olaf himself was otherwise engaged.
Once ashore, the remainder of the party tries to determine which direction to head. Miaoyu attempts to use Locate Object to find Huroc holy symbols or war banners, Gilgadar is unable to assist. (“Reply hazy, try again later.”) After a few minutes spent thinking in circles trying to guess where the Huroc might be, the party finally decides to move up the river until they get results. If the Huroc HAVE reached the river, their path should be very clear and easy to find. If they have not, that should be reasonably easy to determine as well, and will indicate that a more easterly search is needed.
During Seeker’s watch the first evening, he hears a low, rumbling sound, originating back towards the river—almost as if something was making waves. That, though, doesn’t make much sense: waves, at least anything like ocean waves, don't naturally occur in rivers. Seeker wakes Aelron, but he can’t hear what Seeker describes and can’t tell him more than what Seeker has already surmised.
Come morning, the party continues north and vaguely east until they reach a very small town. Built well away from the river around a spire of rock, the town is quiet, slow-paced, and watched over only by the decaying remnants of a stone keep that gravity will, one of these days, seduce off the top of the rock spire. The party decides to take a look around and Flynn gets to chatting with one of the older townspeople.
“Anything interesting happen around these parts?” he asks.
The old man shrugs. “We’ll, it’s been pretty peaceful since the Aurbeski last came and destroyed our town and reduced everything to a pile of hot ashes. I haven’t seen anyone burn to death all year, so it must be a pretty good year.”
All of Flynn’s other inquiries give him the same general jist of quietness, with varying degrees of bitter wariness.
Eventually Flynn rejoins the party, the rest of whom were simply loitering nearby, as nothing resembling a public tavern could be found. “Is anyone other than me thinking we’ve been fed a load of hogwash about this prophecy?” he asks sourly.
“For what it’s worth,” Miaoyu says, “Gilgadar told me there was a prophecy.”
Flynn nods thoughtfully, and Seeker mutters to her, “Thank you for being honest.” Miaoyu gives him an awkward nod.
The party decides to go to the keep for a better view of the area. Up close, it's easy to see that the 'mortar' used in the construction of this building wasn't worthy of the name; gaps in the stonework allow clear view inside in obviously unintended ways, and it looks like sneezing inside the building might knock one or two stones out of the wall. Aelron raps on the door and after a moment a hatch slides back and the mayor, an elderly man, peers out at them.
“Hello,” Aelron says. “We’re passing through on the way to investigating a possible Huroc invasion. Have you—”
“Haven’t heard nothin’,” the mayor says.
“In that case,” Aelron says before the mayor can slide the hatch closed again, “can we go to the top of the tower and get a better look at the surrounding area?”
The man grunts his approval and opens the door for the party, leading them up to the tower. “Now if you don’t mind,” he says, “I’m going back to my dinner.”
Seeker casts a spell on the party to enhance the range of their eyesight; Aelron's Vision of Color enhances detail, and Miaoyu and Flynn begin surveying the area. Aelron, whose Spot mod is less than stellar (certainly lower than Miaoyu and Flynn's specialization of Awareness) whips up a quick elementalist ritual to 'grow' the stones of the tower into one another and reinforce its structure.
Eventually, Flynn and Miaoyu make out two pillars of smoke in the distance. Because the smoke is white rather than black, they surmise that it’s campfire rather than fires from pillaging, but it appears as if the Huroc have two camps—large ones, too—assuming these fires are from the Huroc at all.
Seeker and Flynn go about trying to spread word of a possible Huroc invasion. Seeker takes the theatrical route, standing in the town square, shouting about everyone’s inevitable doom. Flynn tries the more subtle approach, simply spreading rumors as he sees fit. Regardless, though, neither of them seem to impress the locals.
The party stays the night in town, finding spare rooms individually in the homes of townsfolk, and resumes their journey in the morning, heading directly east toward the pillars of smoke. Well, toward where the pillars WERE anyway. The journey is quiet without Olaf along, conversation reduced to terse scouting reports from Flynn and Miaoyu, quiet musings and occasional snippets of song from Aelron, and occasional sermons from Seeker.
As they walk, Flynn notices a strange pattern in a strand of trees. All around them, there is fairly dense tree cover; it's not quite a true forest, but little enough light penetrates the tree canopy that when a pure column of it falls in any one place it seems... odd. In the center of the pool of light is an empty circle of toadstools and short, apparently well-trimmed grass.
Miaoyu snaps her fingers as she sees it, grimacing as she tries to pin down her own memory. “Oh, I don’t quite remember what that is, but it’s definitely a fey thing,” she grumbles.
“It’s a pixie dancing ring,” Aelron supplies with a smile. “Moderately powerful arcane site with, as you say, definite fey leanings. Direct exposure to its magics without proper preparation—such as by stepping into the circle unwarded—can have any number of strange effects. I recommend we avoid it.”
And avoid it the party does, carefully stepping around it and leaving it behind.
The campsite is quiet that night, though occasionally the chatter of what sounds like tiny voices can be heard off in the shadows.
About an hour into the next day's march, Seeker's healer sense tingles: someone has placed a disease marker, a divine beacon that any confirmed Larlonite can sense. It's nearby, roughly one mile to the north of their path. No one argues with a change of course, and Seeker leads the way unerringly to a small farm.
The farm is a fairly simple affair: two small tilled fields, two small log cabins meant for human habitaion, and what looks to be a barn. There is the suggestion of a pasture on the far side of the barn and houses, fading into the treeline a few tens of meters away. Something's off, though. The fields look as though they haven't been worked in weeks; weeds grow rampant around their edges and even among the crops; there are no animals to be seen or heard, either in the pasture or the barn; there is no smoke from the chimney of either building, and there are no audible voices or signs of recent humanoid movement. The place looks deserted.
To Flynn and Miaoyu, that just screams “trap”.
Miaoyu slips off from the rest of the group, finding a nice clump of hedge from which she can watch unobtrusively and provide covering fire if necessary. Flynn, with Aelron and Seeker kept firmly and definitely behind him, goes up to the door of the nearest hut and knocks, stepping quickly aside in case the door is trapped. For a long moment, nothing happens. Flynn knocks again, harder this time, and faintly, he and Seeker can make out a raspy almost-voice on the other side of the door.
“We’re coming in,” Flynn calls out. Keeping up against the side of the building, he pushes the door open. Seeker, standing well back from the building, peers inside.
The structure has all the common features of a home: a fireplace, a dining table, and a bed. There's a quivering lump under the covers, occasionally emitting low, pathetic-sounding moans and wheezes. Seeker steps inside and moves to the bed, Flynn following, Aelron taking up position at the door. Seeker keeps up a steady stream of murmured comforting words (“We're here to help, everything will be all right,” etc.) as he places his hand on the lump of blankets and casts Phoarduk’s orison. Whatever is under there, it’s alive, which means this is less and less likely to be a trap with each passing second. Seeker pulls back the covers and finds a human male in his late teens. He casts Diagonsis and finds that, in addition to dehydration, malnourishment, and a variety of more mild conditions, the boy is plagued. He casts Restoration and clears the plague from the boy's system. He signals the all clear to Flynn, then settles in to tend to his patient. Flynn and Miaoyu move toward the second building while Aelron remains behind to keep an eye on Seeker..
The door to the second cabin is locked, but it's not exactly Fort Knox. Flynn kicks the door until the bolt snaps out of its housing, and cautiously swings the door inward. The place is empty. It looks like this might have been a building simply used for storage of tools and supplies, but if so there aren't any stockpiled here now.
Flynn moves on to the final structure, a small barn. The sickly reek of rotting flesh over stale hay fills the stagnant air of the barn, rising from the maggot-ridden corpses of a couple of cows and a goat. Behind the barn, Miaoyu finds seven graves, all marked with simple, whitewashed stones. These graves all look extremely recent.
The party regroups and Seeker does a quick Diagnosis on himself and his friends, just in case... and it's a good thing he did, because they're all plagued now. He decides to hold off on curing the plague until they're away from the farmstead, as it seems to be airborne and he doesn't want everyone to just catch it again. Miaoyu does a quick search of the first cabin for any valuables that the boy may want when he recovers; she finds a small purse behind a loose brick in the fireplace, but little else aside from that. When she's done and Flynn has carried the patient out of the hut, Miaoyu puts each building to the torch and Aelron uses ritual magic to ensure that the fires rage hot enough to extinguish any remnant of the plague, but don't spread to the nearby trees and trigger a conflagration.
Once they've put a reasonable distance between themselves and the farm, the party turns to Seeker. He casts Restoration on himself, Miaoyu, and Aelron—but as the spell to cleanse Aelron ends, he collapses, unconscious. Higher level divine spells draw from reserve hit points, and once those are gone, they draw from actual hit points. Despite being the thicker-skinned of the casters in the party, Seeker doesn't have many hit points, and each of those castings took 3d6 from him. And he rolled high every time. He's in the negatives, and out for the count.
Aelron, the party's backup healer, does a quick inspection. “He seems fine. Normal pulse, normal breathing, all that. No actual damage I can see. Possible minor head trauma from collapsing like that, but he's got a thick skull. He just needs to rest and get his strength back. It's happened before to divine casters and I'm sure it will happen again.”
“Well,” Flynn says resignedly, “I’ll just be over there.” He points at a cluster of trees a few tens of meters away and makes a solitary camp there. He carves a plague marker into one of the trees and settles in for the night.
“I’ll keep scouting,” Miaoyu says. “I’ll go out about a day and a half toward those smoke columns and then head back here.” She starts off, but then thinks better of something and turns back to Aelron. “I'm not taking Lajiao out into the unknown with me. Look after her?” Aelron nods absently, still trying to get Seeker's unconscious 8-foot bulk rolled onto his bedroll, and Miaoyu sets Lajiao down and points her toward Aelron. “Stay with him, okay? I'll be back in a couple of days.”
“Baaaaa,” Lajiao affirms warily, and with that, Miaoyu is off.
She makes relatively good time with the remainder of her afternoon, and finds a relatively good spot for a campsite, a cleft in a rock face with a decent view of the smoke columns. From this height she can see that the columns are rising from a pair of glowing camps: one an amorphous blob of firelight, the other a more patterned, precisely arranged set of glows slightly further away. She ALSO sees a column of black smoke rising from between the two camps before the sun sets. Fighting between the camps? Fire that got out of hand? Impossible to say at this distance. The night passes fairly uneventfully; Miaoyu hears what she thinks may be wolves, but they don’t come near her ‘camp’.
The next day, Seeker has recovered enough to perform basic tasks, but he and Aelron agree he needs at least one more day of rest before he can tend to Flynn. They spend their day tending to the young plague victim, helping him keep up a slow and steady intake of food and water.
Miaoyu, meanwhile, has approached enough to actually see the Huroc (or what she hopes is the Huroc, anyway... or maybe she doesn't, because that is an AWFUL lot of people out there). They appear to be moving in two distinct groups: one, the leading group, a vast, amorphous, disorganized mob of humanity, and the other, trailing them at a slightly more sedate pace, a regimented force marching in three columns. At the limit of her time and not confident enough to take a closer look, Miaoyu simply marks their location and direction of movement onto her map before turning around and heading back towards her companions.
That night is much more eventful than the last. Seeker hears a high-pitched giggling followed by a rhyme that basically comes down to, “You’re a walking disease magnet! Why don’t you infect someone else?” One failed will save later, Aelron wakes to Seeker shouting himself hoarse, hurling insults in Pack and Drouganti and every other language he knows at some unknown fey critter in the darkness at the edge of camp. Aelron sighs, gets up, talks Seeker down slowly, and takes over the watch.
At that same moment many miles away, Miaoyu wakes to find some sort of animal with glowing, yellow eyes towering over her. In a flash, she draws a dagger and stabs it just below the eye. It lets out a yowl and hurries off, deciding that this particular prey is too much effort. Miaoyu wipes her blade off and goes back to—oh, who are we kidding? She isn't going to sleep until she sees the rest of her party.
The next day, Miaoyu rejoins the group, and Seeker professes to feeling a bit better.
“I think I can heal Flynn now,” he says. “Then we can get going. If we hurry we can make the rendezvous with the ship and Olaf.”
“Forget the ship,” Aelron insists. “We need to make sure we end this plague here and now WITHOUT getting you killed. Wait one more night. Then you can take care of Flynn and we’ll know you can handle the journey.” Aelron is adamant because his player knows—as does everyone at the table—that Seeker is still in range of dying outright if he rolls high on his 3d6 to cast Restoration. Explaining to Olaf why they had to leave Seeker's corpse in the middle of a forest a hundred miles from anywhere sounds like ZERO fun to Aelron.
And so the party waits another night, and Flynn is asked to make a fortitutde save. Fortunately, he succeeds, which the party later learns means that he avoids Toughness drain. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean he’s not suffering ill effects. He spends the night shivering and vomiting, with no chance to rest. Still he’s had it much worse—like that time he was hung. This is no big deal, right?
The next day, Seeker has regained enough reserve hit points to be safe in Aelron's estimation and rushes to cast Restoration on Flynn, who thanks him meekly. Aelron burns out the area in which Flynn sat and stewed, and everyone is back in camp, cleansed of plague. Unfortunately Seeker is unconscious again, however, and the party must rest for yet another day, seriously putting their chances of reaching the ship in jeopardy.
To make matters worse, the rescued plague victim's condition is not improving. Even if the party had a full-blown hospital ready to hand, they'd have a hard time saving him; as it is, he probably won't survive a journey to anyplace with medical facilities more advanced than “walk it off, you big wuss”. To put in game terms, he failed enough Fort saves to reduce his Toughness to a two, which means his Toughness modifier is negative. His base HP at this point is -2, which means he technically CAN'T reach a stable point. While it would be theoretically possible to heal the toughness damage, it would require a ritual the caliber of which was used to cure Baroness Hangtree, and they just don't have the proper magical foci with them for such an endeavor.
“What about a makeshift ritual?” Miaoyu suggests. “Can you use what we have here just to stabilize him until we can reach Brand?”
The party rifles through their things, but components are in the lacking. Aelron scratches his head. “The only thing I can think of is transferring vitality from one of us to him. But....” He trails off and shakes his head. “That's not really solving the problem.”
“And that faerie circle?” Miaoyu asks. “Do they ever do anything good?”
Aelron shrugs. “Sometimes faeries take people away to their realms. They might be able to do something for him. I say might.”
“It may be our only choice,” Seeker muses.
“I hate to say it,” Flynn interjects, “but I don’t think we’re talking about saving him anymore. Hurting one of us, or giving him to faeries? I think the best we can do is just make him comfortable.”
The camp is quiet for a moment. “Let’s head out,” Seeker says.
Seeker carries the boy in his arms until they reach the small village with its newly-strengthened keep. Seeker searches around for anyone who would be willing to put him up for his final days. Eventually, a local Femtan offers to take him in. Seeker hands her the purse Miaoyu found in the fireplace.
“Take this. It’s not much, but we found it in his home. We had hoped to give it to him to help him start over. It seems fitting for you to have it.”
The Femtan thanks Seeker and Flynn describes the gravestones that Miaoyu found in the farmstead so the boy can be buried per family tradition.
With that taken care of, Miaoyu and Seeker, as the fastest of the party (a full ten feet per round faster than Flynn and Aelron), rush to the rendezvous point in hopes of making it in time to keep Captain Ian and Olaf from leaving without them.