Legends of Celesia: Kingmaker Reborn (updated 10/6)


Adéline Châteaufoy hated being here.

The meeting room, known as the Crown Board Room, that the halfling matriarch found herself in was perhaps too opulent for her tastes, but she could appreciate the artistry in the architecture. No, it was the company she was currently with that turned her stomach.

Adéline was seated near the end of the long oval table where each Lord-Executor of the Lurindor territories, including herself, was seated. Her seating was not unexpected. As the leader of the territory that held out the longest from submitting to a unified Lurindor rule (on multiple occasions in Lurindor's long history), it was natural that she was ostracized as she was. Only the tenacity of her clan and the beleaguered halflings of Valderêve allowed the Rochefort territory a seat on Lurindor's Executive Cabinet.

Directly seated across from Adéline was Angrid Harkûr, the dwarven matriarch of Dol Harkûr and leader of the Harkûr Trade Guild. The dwarven city's desire for minimal interaction with the rest of Lurindor and absolute stance on neutrality landed her almost in the same position as Adéline. Although the two agreed on many things, Adéline could not rely on the dwarves as true allies. She knew, and understood, that Angrid would not hesitate to side against her if it meant the continued prosperity of Dol Harkûr.

Seated to her left was Giovanni Biancardi. Adéline actually did not mind Giovanni. Although still another human overlord over her people in the territory of Foycomté, Giovanni was known to actually embrace halfling lifestyle of simple prosperity. However, although he treats the halflings under his rule better than the others, Adéline had no doubt the man was just a profit-driven as the others.

Across from him was Bianca Dinovio of Santo Venito. From what Adéline could discern from her policies, it appeared that Bianca cared for the prosperity of the people living in her demesne just as much she cared for the prosperity of her own house. A nice sentiment if true, but halflings still did not get the same opportunities as others. Adéline suspected it was just a policy that happy customers and buying customers.

Now Enzio Montari, there was the scum that was the poster boy of everything Adéline stood against: a manipulative bastard that openly abuses her fellow halflings in Valdargent, running them practically as slaves in the silver mines, all in the name of profit. He was an enemy for sure.

Maria Sotillini of Mariporta was also a potential enemy. The old woman was tough and uncompromising. She was a true patriot and supporter of the current system. And she had the strongest fighting force in Lurindor at her beck and call.

Adéline knew that Dario Teredoro of Ferrocittà was greedy and ambitious. There had been many rumours of him managing to twist deals and contracts into unfairly favouring himself. Still, perhaps that greed may be of service to her, if she was careful.

Meanwhile, there was Cyrano Varano who controlled the demesne of Blébonté. Adéline knew that the man considered himself a true aristocrat, claiming relations to one of Lurindor's past noble families. While not cruel to his subjects, he had a reputation of being incredibly vain and self-centered, considering the mostly halfling population of Blébonté as his own personal subjects.

And then there was Florenza Regalia. Unlike the others, she controlled no territory. Instead, she was the chief executor of the Trade Regulation Authority, the closest thing that Lurindor has to law and order. As much as the vaunted TRA claims that it is completely neutral, it was no secret that the organization played the game of corporate politics just as much as the others.

Finally, there was the man who Adéline would considered as her primary foe: Niccolo Sovrani. He was not a man to be underestimated. After he had somehow engineered a flawless takeover of the remaining Amiatti assets, Sovrani had become the most powerful man in Lurindor.

And at the head of the table was an empty seat of the Crown-Executor of Lurindor. Once held by Vittoria Amiatti, Sovrani had the good graces to resist sitting there himself, at least until the legal issues to his claiming control of Lurindor were settled.

"The board had gone over your proposal, Lady Adéline," Sovrani declared. "It's certainly very ambitious, and equally interesting. Are you sure these are the terms you wish to agree with? "

"Indeed," Varano drawled. "As I understand it, Rochefort will be footing the entire bill, while the rest of us reap the profits."

"Rochefort will be satisfied with those terms," Adéline replied smoothly.

"What's the catch here, Châteaufoy?" Teredoro asked pointedly. "No one in Lurindor is that generous, not even you."

"No catch, Lord Teredoro. The profits may not be apparent nor immediate, but the endeavour is successful, the benefits of Rochefort will certainly outweigh the costs. All we desire is complete non-interference from Lurindor in how the endeavour is managed."

"You're up to something, aren't you, Rochefort?" Sotillini accused, glaring at Adéline.

The halfling woman kept her cool. "Everyone is always up to something in Lurindor," she retorted. "Question is, how can you profit from it?" She turned to Sovrani, the question more directed to him.

Niccolo smirked a little. "Despite our questions, the board is close to agreeing to your proposal. There is but one more thing you can do to get us to agree. I think you know what that is."

Adéline knew, just as she knew that despite what he said, only getting Sovrani's agreement would be necessary. She was apprehensive at the thought of it happening, but was comforted by the thought that if all went well, it would not matter.

"It is agreed then," Adéline declared. "The Executive Board will agree to the Viridian Marches project.

"And Rochefort will fully support the Sovrani claim to the Emerald Crown."

"Be it so known that the bearers of this charter has been charged by the Châteaufoy Trade House, acting upon the greater good and authority vested within them by the office of the Interim-Executor of the Emerald Crown, has granted the right of exploration and travel within the wilderness region known as the Evergreen Plains. Exploration should be limited to an area south of Onestrio's Trade Post down to the Greenbelt River, between the edges of the Draketooth Forest to the west, and the edge of the Old Arborfane Forest to the east. The carrier of this charter should also strive against banditry and other unlawful behavior to be encountered. The punishment for unrepentant banditry remains, as always, execution by sword or rope. So witnessed on this 1st day of Asmolan, 108th year of the Age of Reckoning, under watchful eye of the Lord-Executor of Rochefort and authority granted by Lord Niccolo Sovrani, current Interim-Executor of the Emerald Crown."
— Lady Adéline Châteaufoy, addressing the assembly of expedition volunteers at Châteaufoy Manor, Rochefort, Asmolan 1st, 108 6A

It was the 108th year of the Sixth Age, the Age of Reckoning.

Under the rule of the Amiatti Conglomerate, the merchant nation of Lurindor swiftly recovered from the devastation of the Tyrant's World War from over a century ago. However, ten years ago, the entire Amiatti family and their immediate retainers all disappeared overnight. The second most powerful Trade House, the Sovrani Syndicate, deftly swooped in, and acquired the now-abandoned Amiatti assets. Now controlling two Great Trade Regions, the young Lord-Executor of the Syndicate, Niccolo Sovrani, claimed the position of Interim-Crown-Executor of Lurindor while the courts of Lurindor's Trade Regulation Authority finalized his acquisition.

In light of Sovrani's efforts to consolidate his control of the nation, the Châteaufoy Trade House embarked on a new endeavour, one that they hoped would secure a prosperous future for the second-class halfling population of Lurindor. To this end, the halfling overseers of the trade territory of Rochefort announced to the public that they would sponsor four expeditions to explore, and eventually colonize, the untamed lands of the Viridian Marches.

For thousands of years, the lands bordering the south of Rochefort have exchanged hands between a multitude of disparate parties; the Châteaufoy endeavour would be but one of the latest attempts to claim this land rife with opportunities. Four groups answered the call to adventure.

The Crimson Falcon Company was a notable mercenary company in Lurindor, but of late, its founder and leader, Adrianna Falcone, felt the need to establish a legacy far more grounded than a group of soldiers-for-hire. Over a hundred soldiers strong, plus support personnel, with over two decades of combat experience, the Crimson Falcons were the best equipped expedition to tame the wild Ursan Highlands, and its numerous Storm Bear tribes.

Given the charter to the neighbouring Drakethorn Glades, the Drelevo Trade Company would be in prime position to control valuable trade routes to rich, foreign nations. Its leader, the young Rafael Drelevo, had only recently inherited the company from his recently deceased father, and seemed eager to establish himself outside of Lurindor. With his company's assets, paired with those of his new wife, Drelevo was perhaps the best supplied expedition of the four.

The Duloup expedition had perhaps the most significant local support. Theodore Duloup was someone the halfling inhabitants of Lurindor desperately needed: one of their own who broke past the system to gain fame and fortune on his own. With many years of adventures under his belt, Duloup had amassed wealth, skills, and strong companions at his side. Now, the halfling adventurer felt the need to settle down, and do something productive with his fortune. At the behest of his cousin Adéline, Duloup had volunteered to tame the Thalamech Uplands, and expand the halflings' sphere of influence in the region. All he had to do was pacify the native centaur tribes that caused so much trouble along the southern border of Rochefort lands.

The last of the four expeditions was not much of an expedition at all. Unlike the others, they numbered only four, supplied with just the gear they had on them. They would explore the Evergreen Plains, and end the burgeoning bandit kingdom that threatened Rochefort's trade. As the region with the least valuable resources, and the most dangers, few held any expectations of success from the Evergreen Company, as this group of four would be known.

Arina Seta Onda was a young human, abandoned by her family for the misfortune that surrounded her. Her calamity carried with her to the family that took her in, the halfling Montplaisir merchant house, for they met their end in a massive fire. Having lost her love in the blaze, Arina volunteered for the expedition. Heeding the whispers of her constant, mysterious companion Mister Angelcakes, it would be in this untamed land where she will be reunited with her Marcelette, either in life or death.

For the caelephilim Davona Sawali, it was the prospect of battling bandits that prompted her to sign up. Ever since her mother was killed by bandits when their family fled from the southern totalitarian Ashaki Empire, Davona burned with vengeance against outlaws. Wanting to follow in her late mother's footsteps and become a paladin of Kaï-den, Davona joined the Rochefort City Guard, becoming its youngest member, while she studied and trained at the local Temple of Kaï-den. Having passed the Trials, Davona resigned from the Guard, and eagerly volunteered to be part of the Evergreen Company.

The kitsune Cethin had seemingly joined the group on a whim. He never seemed to take things seriously. The fact that he could occasionally be seen whispering to a ring on his finger only added to his aura of oddness. Nonetheless, the mischievous kitsune easily got along well with his new companions.

The mysterious Jupus Thane was the most secretive of the group. The gnome's dourness seemed to go hand in hand with the faint sewer scent wafting from his presence. Few knew of what skills Jupus was capable of, even his new companions, but they did know at least that the gnome had a large dire rat as his constant companion. Said rat was presently waiting just outside of the Châteaufoy Manor, much to Jupus' annoyance.

Normally, such a ragtag band of disparate individuals of their like would be instantly dismissed for such a grand endeavour. However, there were no suitable volunteers forthcoming to tame the dangerous region that bordered most of the Rochefort southern border. There was, however, one major point in their favour in Lady Adéline’s opinion, and that was that the four young volunteers held no ties to any of the other major trade houses. House Châteaufoy would have the opportunity to become the main influence should the Evergreen Company succeed in forming a colony.

After the ceremony, the four new companions would have the chance to discuss their situation at the after party. With drinks in hand, the four of them had gathered.

“So,” Arina started after a moment of awkward silence, “quite the motley crew we are.”

Jupus grunted. “Aye. About the only thing that binds us is the perilous fate that awaits all of us.”

“You can rest assured that I’ll watch each of your backs, no matter the danger,” Davona offered.

Cethin chuckled. “At least one of us seems eager for this venture,” the kitsune said before taking a swig of his wine.

Arina raised an eyebrow at him. “You seem quite chipper yourself.”

The kitsune smirked. “Danger or no, adventure is adventure. In fact, the more dangerous, the more exciting.”

Arina and Jupus shared a worried look. The former aristocrat sighed, and raised her glass. “Here’s to adventure, then.”

The other raised their glasses as well, but their toast was rudely interrupted by a sneering voice.

"I had wondered who would be foolish enough to agree to the Evergreen expedition. If this is your whole party, you might as well stay home," a smug Rafael Drelevo stated.

The Evergreen Company, despite only just being formed, would not let such a statement rest unanswered.

"Thanks for the advice, naughty word, but the only thing I'd ever consider taking from you is haircut tips," Arina had bluntly retorted.

Drelevo laughed at that. "Don't worry, I'll be done with Drakethorn soon enough to take care of your charge for you. No need to pressure yourselves into succeeding."

While Arina and Drelevo sparred words, Cethin snuck around to stand behind the young merchant. Using his natural abilities, he quickly shifted into Drelevo's appearance. He then proceeded to silently make funny faces at Drelevo as himself. Drelevo was blissfully unaware of the entire mockery, though some onlookers had to do a double take at the spectacle.

Alerted by the growing laughter around them, Drelevo became aware of a presence behind him. He turned around, only to come face to face with Cethin, who quickly reverted to his natural vulpinoid form. Drelevo had to resist from jumping.

"Hey fox, go back to your owner," he mumbled to cover his shock as he walked off. Cethin couldn't help but grin. He could swear that he felt his ring and patron, Tuck Tootle, laughing along.

However, not all of their encounters were antagonistic. Soon after they were relieved of Drelevo’s presence, the halfling adventurer Theodore Duloup approached them.

"I saw your little talk with Drelevo there, and it was quite amusing," he said with a friendly smile. "Ignore that spoiled brat. Sale gosse was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. I have to commend you all for your bravery. In general, the Evergreen has few riches and too many problems for almost anyone to profit from. I imagine that's why you four have this opportunity, no one else wanted it."

"Well, hardly feels like an opportunity," Arina said. "It feels more like scraps thrown to a few desperate souls."

Duloup chuckled. "I understand, but you’d be amazed at what riches you can make out of mere scraps if you’re desperate enough. Believe me, I would know.”

The halfling gave the four new companions each a critical look. “Tell you what, I’d like to invite you to talk to my quartermaster outside. I'll arrange for him to give you a pair of healing potions to each of you. Do you have horses? I'll give you a horse each, fully saddled."

The party was taken aback at the generosity. Their colourful past made them suspicious. "You are too kind, sir," Davona said. "But I must ask, why the sudden generosity?"

"You simply remind me of my first days of braving the unknown. I know how hard it is, and I hope this gesture of good will will be remembered."

"Do you want something in exchange?" Arina asked.

"Consider this a small investment, and a token of friendship," the experienced adventurer told them. "Besides, I'd rather have you as a close ally beside that fop."

And so, the Evergreen Company departed from Rochefort, having made a friend of one party, a rival with another, and being completely dismissed by the last.

The Evergreen Company's destination was a small trade post known as "Onestrio's". It laid directly south of Rochefort, about two days’ ride by horse. Owned and operated by the married couple Onestrio and Sabina Lucelli, it had served as the main trade post for regional hunters and trappers to sell their goods and purchase supplies.

Onestrio had been satisfied with what he had created; independence away from the burdens of the urban lifestyle, but not so far out of reach to not feel its benefits. However, over the past six months, such trade had been replaced with extortion. The bandits of the Evergreen Plains had finally expanded their predation to this far north.

“Finally, it’s been weeks since I sent that request!” the burly, bearded tradesman bellowed upon the Company’s arrival, much to their confusion.

“I thought our charter came from House Châteaufoy?” Davona said.

Onestrio became equally confused. “What are you talking about? The guard request was in my name!”

“Oh!” Arina realized. “I believe there is a misunderstanding, sir. We are not guards for hire. We are the Evergreen Company, chartered to explore and colonize the Evergreen Plains.”

She presented Onestrio with their charter. The tradesman’s confusion turned into visible annoyance and frustration as he read through it.

“Blast and curses!” the man exclaimed, throwing his hands into the air in frustration. “I ask for guards to protect honest and independent trade, and those daft misers up north instead make plans to take over?!”

“Yeesh, calm down there, buddy,” Cethin muttered.

As the man stomped around the trade post’s yard, a homely woman came hurryingly out from the main building. She addressed the party first.

“Please excuse my husband Onestio’s composure,” she said, giving the party a small bow. “He has been under much duress in recent times. I am his wife, Sabina, and I bid you welcome to our trade post.”

Letting her husband work off his frustration, Sabina invited the Company to sit for a meal, and informed them of the current situation in the area.

Over a bowl of hearty soup, Sabina explained to the newcomers that a few years ago, a powerful man known only as the Stag Lord rose to power, and beat all the bandits of the Evergreen Plains into serving under him. Although the bandits had left them alone for a while, six months ago, bandits of the Stag Lord came to the trading post to take their goods and money. Since then, they have always arrived during the first week of each month to claim their tribute from the couple.

The Company agreed with each other that halting this extortion should be their first task, with Davona particularly eager to finally face down these brigands. They quickly gathered the details from the Lucellis, and learned the names of two of the bandit group's leaders: Ravenna, who was the Stag Lord's lieutenant in this area, and her second-in-command, Vico. They had started their extortion racket on the trade post over six months ago, suddenly showing up with a dozen other outlaws. That number remained the same when they returned the following month. However, in the third and fourth months, only eight bandits returned, with only Vico in charge, and eventually that number lowered to six for the last two months. Onestrio suspected that the bandits had become lax with how easy their pickings were.

Over the next couple of days, the Evergreen Company made plans on a welcome party for the bandits. After familiarizing themselves with the trade post's layout and the surrounding area, the Company had only to wait a couple of days before they caught sight of half a dozen riders approaching at a leisurely pace from the south. The men were each heavily armed, and could not be mistaken for a hunter or trapper. These were certainly the bandits, and their casual approach bespoke of their lack of wariness.

The riders strode through the gate and into the trade post's inner yard. Only Onestrio could be seen, bent down fixing the wheel of a cart. The bandits dismounted, and a rough-looking man with a goatee, wearing a distinctive green cloak, strode ahead of them.

"Onestrio! Time for our usual business!" Vico called out. Onestrio stood up, and glared at the man, but Vico only smirked. "Come on, now. Don't make that face! Just show us the goods, and we don't have to play."

Vico's men chuckled. Onestrio grumbled, but led them to the storehouse. Two of the bandits sat down at the nearby long table, while the rest followed Vico to help carry the goods. Onestrio opened the door to the storehouse and stepped a few feet back to the side.

"Speaking of play, where's that pretty little wife of yours? We could use a little pick-me-up before we head back!" Vico remarked as he headed into the storehouse. His men laughed at that.

That was when the Evergreen Company sprang in action.

Cethin, who laid flat on the rampart's upper walkway, and Jupus, similarly posed atop the stable's roof, loosed their crossbow bolts and arrows at the bandits. From behind the stables emerged Davona, who ran to the gates and began pushing them closed.

At the same time, Arina leapt from behind the cart, and struck her rapier at the nearest bandit. She would occupy them while Davona sealed the only available exit. The Evergreen Company had no intention of letting any criminal escape.

"What the Seven Hells?!" one of the bandits cried out.

"It's an ambu–ack!" another shouted before being cut off by Cethin's bolt striking him in the chest.

Vico came stomping out of the storehouse. "What the Abyss is happening out here?!" the bandit leader shouted. He did not get far, as Jupus' trick arrow unfurled mid-air, and wrapped around Vico's legs. The bandit fell face first into the dirt.

The battle was now in full swing. The bandits recovered from their surprise, and drew their longbows, while Vico struggled to free himself from the trip arrow.

After securing the gates, Davona equipped her shield and drew her sword, and charged at the bandits. However, her targets saw her, and fired their bows first. Davona's armor protected her from much of the damage, but one arrow slipped through her armor's gaps into her shoulder, badly crippling it. The paladin fought through the intense pain, and continued her attack, cutting through the scrambling bandits.

Davona was struck by another painful blow as another deeply pierced her other shoulder. She could feel herself fading, but sheer determination kept her on her feet, still in the fight.

The bandits scrambled around the trading post yard, firing their longbows at their attackers. However, with blood streaming down from her splint mail, Davona charged at them, slashing and harrying. One by one, bandits were cut down. One of them panicked, and tried to flee, but took a crossbow bolt in the back by Cethin.

The battle was not completely one-sided. Vico proved why he was the leader as he quickly recovered from his fall, and succeeded in firing several well-aimed arrows into Jupus. However, the Evergreen Company was relentless. They closed in onto Vico, and cut him down. When the dust settled, all of the bandits were on the ground, unconscious and bleeding out.

"So, we're all good now, right?" Davona gasped. She was wobbly on her feet, and her lower half of her body was drenched with her own blood. "Great, I'm just going to fall unconscious now." And the paladin collapsed to the ground.

"I don't know about you folk, but I feel great!" Cethin quipped, walking around the cart from where he took cover. The kitsune was untouched.

Jupus just shook his head as he gingerly climbed down from the stable's roof. He held back any smart remark as he accepted Cethin's healing magic. He then proceeded to stabilize the bandits. He almost lost the last one, fumbling around with the man's wounds. Fortunately for the bandit, he managed to stabilize on his own.

With his hands drenched with the man's blood, Jupus would then comment, not quite so confidently, "Er, yeah, I totally did that," Jupus said, his hands drenched with the man's blood.

The Evergreen Company had won the battle, the first of many to come. It was a satisfying start to their endeavour, but none of them could imagine the web of plots they just stepped into.
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House of the Sun, Rochefort
Three months ago

"I still can't believe she passed the trials."

Sir Thoros Brighthammer shrugged at the halfling priestess. "She displayed the gift, and has the potential," he said.

Sunmother Isabelle Beauciel shook her head. "She barely passed any of the theoretical tests. I have never before encountered a paladin who forgot so much of our holy scriptures."

"It's rare, but some of the anointed work more on instinct than knowledge."

"That's what worries me," the Sunmother said. "She carries a darkness within her. A strong desire for revenge."

"Then she will be tested," the senior paladin declared. "She has proven herself to have the potential to carry the light for now. Whether or not Dame Davona passes through whatever crucible that awaits her, stronger or broken, is between her and God."

Onestrio's Trading Post
Windsday, Asmolan 2nd, 108

After what felt like an eternity of painful sleep, Vico woke to a pleasant sense of warmth. The feeling was dashed upon seeing the strangers who defeated his band standing over him, while he sat on the ground bound by rope.

"Listen, cooperate with us, and things will go easier for you," Davona told him.

Vico decided to cooperate. After all, the party defeated them, but kept them alive when anyone else would have just killed them. Maybe he can get out of this alive. It wasn't as if he had any particularly strong loyalty to the Stag Lord…

The information flowed from his mouth quite easily. The leader of this band explained that the bandits work in cells, with information cut off from each other. Even in his own cell, where he was pretty much the second-in-command, Vico did not have a clear idea of how many bandits were in it. Only Ravenna, one of the Stag Lord's lieutenants and leader of his cell, knew.

Vico did know that there were at least eight other bandits in his cell aside from himself and the ones he brought with him. He also told them that cells have a large amount of freedom and low oversight. As long as each cell brought back their goods at the end of the month, they were free to do as they pleased. In fact, Ravenna was not expecting his group back any time soon.

"Ok, let's hold a trial for him and the others," Davona said.

Vico was surprised by that. He did not expect them to bother with such mercy. At least they won't kill them right away. He might have a chance to convince them to let him live.

"So," Davona continued, "he was helpful, but he has been robbing this place for months. So, I think it's only fair that we leave it up to his victim to choose his sentence." And she turned to Onestrio.

Vico was shocked. By the look on Onestrio's face, so was he. And yet, the party's charter granted them full freedom to pass judgement however they wished. If any of the other Evergreen members had any reservations taking such a path, they kept such thoughts to themselves.

Onestrio was taken aback at being given the final say, but, still brimming with anger, simply said: "Kill them. Kill'em all."

Davona drew her blade, and approached Vico, now filled with dread. "I would say that it gives me no pleasure to do this… but that would be a lie."

"Hey! wait a min-urk," was all Vico managed to say before Davona coldly slid her sword through his heart.

As Vico died, so did something within Davona. The caelephilim felt a terrible sense of tearing in her heart, and all that was left was a void. She did not understand what it was. All she could do was bear it as she watched the bandit leader's last breath escape his body.

While Davona stood still and wrestled with the turmoil within her, Cehtin went to Onestrio. With inexplicable motive, the kitsune placed a sword in the man's hand.

"It was your judgement that led to this," the kitsune told him. "If you make a decision, you should be the one to see it through with your own hands." Onestrio, shocked by how quickly the party killed Vico, let himself be led to one of the unconscious and bound bandits.

"Well? You've made your decision, what are you waiting for?" Cethin asked him.

Onestrio stared down at the bandit, thankfully still unconscious. Then, almost without thought, he thrust the blade through the bandit's throat. The bandit gurgled, and blood sprayed out of the wound, some splattering onto Onestrio. The impact of wet, warm blood shocked the tradesman back to his senses. He dropped the sword, stumbled to the side, and threw up.

"Hey, don't go too far, there are still a few more left," Cethin called after him.

"Just… just finish them off, please," Onestrio mumbled, as he stumbled back to the house, where a worried Sabina waited for him. The kitsune watched the tradesman leave with an enigmatic look on his face.

The rest of the party shrugged, and Jupus and Arina went into the storehouse and slit the throats of the remaining bandits. They then piled their corpses outside of the trading post, and set ablaze in a pyre.

That night, Davona could not rest.

She tossed and turned uncomfortably in her cot. She felt like she was burning up, and a sheen of sweat coated her body. For as long as she could remember, since the death of her mother, she could feel the warm embrace of a comforting presence. On those lonely nights, that presence made her feel that the world was safe.

But now, that presence was gone. All that was left was emptiness, a pit of fear and despair long since unfamiliar to her. No rest would come to Davona this night, nor any other night any time soon.

She suspected, with dread, what she was suffering from, but she did not understand why. Admittedly, her grasp of Kaïdenite teachings was never the most firm, but she had believed that she had made the right call. They held a trial, did they not? And they were bandits, scum of the earth. Was that not more than what they deserved?

Yet, there was now a hollowness in her. One now filled with doubt.

No rest would come to Davona that night.

The next day, a group of new travelers arrived at the Trading Post.

At the head of the group were four men of different races, two humans, a dwarf, and a halfling, but they were well-armed, and wore armor and clothing with matching colors. Another human man followed them, dressed in hunter's garb, but of expensive quality. Finally, a dour-looking rock gnome, unarmed, trailed behind them.

The gates of the trade post were still closed, on account of Onestrio still worried about the rest of the bandits. On the rampart, the tradesman called out to the group to identify themselves.

The lead soldier, a middle-aged but still fit man, replied. "Lorenzo Dinovio, of the Rochefort Freelancer Guild! I come with three other guards to fulfill the contract of one Onestrio Lucelli. We are also accompanied by two travelers originating from Rochefort."

Lorenzo lifts up the contract in the air, one that bears Onestrio's signature and seal. Recognizing it, Onestrio descends to open the gates. Before doing so, he asks the Evergreen Company to be present in the main yard. "Just in case," he said.

Fortunately, such precaution was unnecessary. Onestrio confirmed the writ and the Rochefort Freelancer license upon them being presented by Lorenzo. Onestrio welcomed them into the tradepost, though not without some harsh words.

"I hope your skills are better than your timing. You're a day late to miss out all the action," the tradesman grumbled.

If the mercenary was offended by the comment, he hid it well underneath a disciplined composure. "It seems so. I noticed the burnt corpses outside."

"Yes, the work of these skilled travelers," Onestrio said, motioning to the Evergreen Company standing in the middle of the yard. Lorenzo thought he heard a tinge of trepidation in the man's voice.

Lorenzo nodded to the adventurers. "Fine work," he simply stated. "And what brought you here at this auspicious time?"

Arina stepped forward, and produced the charter. "By the right granted by the Trade Lords of Lurindor, our Evergreen Company is tasked to explore and pacify the Evergreen Plains with the goal to establish a nation here under our rule. I am Arina Seta Ondo, and these are my companions."

Arina proceeded to introduce the other members of the Company one by one. She then explained how they dealt with the bandits harassing the trade post. Onestrio was looking at the ground by the end of the recounting.

"Thank you for your actions," Lorenzo said at the end. Turning to Onestrio, he apologized for not arriving in a more timely manner. Apparently, there was some mix up in the paperwork at the guild that delayed the request from falling into his hands, to which Onestrio vocally cursed out.

"As for you ladies and sirs," Lorenzo said, turning to the Company. "Now that we are here, we will fulfill our duty in guarding the tradepost, and you can freely fulfill your charter without worry."

"A welcomed change. Looking forward to working with you, Mister Lorenzo," Arina said as the two shook hands.

Right after Lorenzo led his men away to get settled in, the fancy hunter, a tall bald man with a thick bushy mustache approached the Company.

"Hullo!" he greeted them enthusiastically. "I am Gaspasi Montilligri, of the Monster Hunter Association of Lurindor. I believe you fine folk and I will have much to discuss. Please allow me to settle in, and I'll come speak with you before your next venture."

Without even pausing for a reply, Gaspasi headed into the main building, leaving the Company somewhat baffled. Davona thought the name of Gaspasi's association sounded familiar to her, but in her fugue state she did not think too deeply on it nor bring it up. All she really wanted was to curl up in bed.

The Company were collectively startled when they heard a cough right next to them. They had to look down (well, except for Jupus) to finally notice the last of the newcomers. He was a gnome with grey and blueish skin, with wild white hair. He was topless and barefoot, wearing only trousers. Although scrawny and long limbed, his less than fully clothed state revealed a compact, muscular body.

"Minchdoya," the rock gnome simply said.

The members of the Company glanced at each other. "Is… that some form of greeting?" Arina hesitantly asked.

"My name," the gnome replied without much emotion.

"Ah, well, well met, Minchdoya," Jupus told him.

Minchdoya nodded, then hobbled further into the tradepost. The Company shrugged, then went about their business. Who were they to call out odd characters?

Davona had gone to bed early, so it was only with the three other members of the Company did Gaspasi speak to about his offer.

"The MHAL is interested in sponsoring hunts for renown beasts and monsters in the Viridian Marches," he told them. "It is what the Association is all about. If there are any who could accomplish such feats in the Association's name, our prestige will increase, and we would handsomely reward such brave folk."

"And you're suggesting that we take up these hunts?" Arina asked.

"Only if you so wish it, my lady. The reward goes to the first to make the kill, but I have the feeling that your group will likely have the best opportunity to do so."

While not particularly enthused about hunting, the Evergreen Company had no issue with taking part with the hunt should the opportunity come across their path. Gaspasi informed them of four creatures of significant repute in the Evergreen Plains: a powerful hodag, the turtle menace known as Old Crackjaw, the dangerous dire boar Tuskgutter, and of a powerful tatzlwyrm.

The next day, Lorenzo was found setting up a bulletin board in the trading post, and pinned posters to it. He explained to the party that several requests were made by the Châteaufoy Trade House in regards to some problems in the Evergreen Plains.

First, the Trade House put up a reward to significantly curb the amount of bandit activity in the Evergreen. If any persons manage to bring proof that they had defeated over two dozen bandits, they would receive a reward of 800 gold lurins.

Secondly, there was a tribe of kobolds in the Evegreen Plains known as the Sootscales. They were never much of a problem before, but recently, something had stirred them up. The Châteaufoy Trade House would reward any party that manage to pacify the kobolds by any means necessary.

"Hey, is your company willing to take on other jobs while you're out there?" Lorenzo asked Arina.

"We are," Arina replied. "You have something in mind?"

"Aye. There's this former merc that I knew, goes by the name Fredo Stasi." Lorenzo spat on the ground at his name.

"Long story short, I worked with Fredo on a job a while back, but the scumbag stole the whole company's pay at the end. Last I heard, he fled south. Since then, I heard of stories about the bandits down here, and their descriptions matched Stasi: light tone skin, grey beard shaved head, and more tellingly, part of his right ear cut off. Courtesy of yours truly before he escaped."

"Now, due to my duties, I can't go gallivanting on my own personal hunt out there. Merc honour and all that. But merc honour also demands payback against those who break it. I have a reward for you if you manage to bring Stasi back, and a little extra if he's still alive to face justice himself."

The Evergreen Company agreed to keep an eye out for Stasi. If he had joined the Stag Lord's bandits, then they will be killing two birds with one stone.

Afterwards, Lorenzo met up with his men. The three had set up some semi-permanent shelters within the trading post.

"Welcome back, boss," Roark the dwarf said. "Camp's set. Cozy enough 'til we build something more permanent."

"Good job," Lorenzo told them as he put away his tools.

"Saw you talking to the explorers, sir," Marcel the halfling said while tending to their supper over the fire. "What were they like?"

Lorenzo took a moment to consider his response. "They're an eclectic bunch. Pretty much what you'd expect from adventurers. But they seem skilled and capable. Took care of those bandits easily enough it seemed."

The middle-aged human Vecchio harrumphed. "Pretty grisly business, that. They're the 'take-no-prisoner' type of folk?"

"Well… from what Onestrio told me, they did take them prisoner. Initially." The mercenary leader sat down near the fire. "Seemed that they held a quick trial for them. Well, I say trial, but it seemed they just let Onestrio decide their fates."

"Let me guess," the grizzled veteran said, "he called for their heads."

Lorenzo nodded. "Aye, and Davona, the bright girl that's currently bed-ridden, killed the man in an instant."

Roark shook his head. "Some trial," he muttered.

"After that, they finished off the rest while they were unconscious," Lorenzo continued. He leaned in close to the others, and lowered his voice. "Apparently, the fox-man convinced Onestrio to finish off one of the bandits. Some sort of life lesson for the man or something, since he was the one who made the judgement."

Marcel was aghast at that. "I-I don't understand. I had heard that their charter gave them full authority over the law in the region. Why would they do this?"

Lorenzo shrugged. He was around long enough to have seen a lot of things. "Like I said, eclectic. Just stay out of their way as long as they don't interfere with our duties, and you'll be fine."

"World's a harsh place, kid," Vecchio told the young halfling.

"Anyways, they've only just started, so we'll see soon enough what they'll make of this region." And Lorenzo knew that if it was not good, at least they can get back to Lurindor in no time.

Before the end of the day, Onestrio approached the party. The burly man seemed haggard. He had bags underneath his eyes, and Arina suspected he had not gotten much sleep. Jupus thought he caught a whiff of alcohol off of him.

"Pardons, ladies and sirs, but I have a request to make of you." Onestrio seems ill-at-ease, and was frequently checking his surroundings, though he seemed to actively avoid looking at Cethin.

"Go ahead and speak, Onestrio," Arina prompted him.

"It's… it's about my wife's wedding ring," Onestrio began. "She's hiding it, but I know her too well. Y'see, when that bitch Ravenna first came, she took Sabina's wedding ring from her. I tried to stop her, but the bitch swung her axe at me, nearly slicing me leg off."

Onestrio looked down at the ground for a moment. Perhaps out of shame? Cethin wondered.

The moment passed, and the tradesman continued. "I'm asking, since you'll be going up against them, could you keep an eye out for my wife's ring? I don't have much to give, but I can give you a line of credit that can be exchanged for goods. Say, a thousand gold coins worth?"

Eager at the prospect of free goods, the party happily agreed to retrieve the ring, which Onestrio described as a simple gold ring with his and Sabina's initials engraved on the inside.

After agreeing to the terms, Onestrio turned to leave, then paused. Not quite looking at the Company, he muttered "Thank you" under his breath.

In an ironic twist, the priest could hardly believe the sight before him. The outpost looked exactly how Joram Kaerny, servant of Deianeira, saw it in his dreams. Upon entering the outpost, he was met with the Evergreen Company who was keeping watch for any more bandit sightings. minus Davona who remained bed-ridden. Joram quickly introduced himself as a traveling priest of the Frontier Goddess.

"I had heard of the new expedition efforts in the region, and as a servant of the Frontier Goddess, I wish to offer my services," he claimed.

The three present Company members glanced at each other before responding. "It's good fortune, then, that you showed up as you did. One of our companions is in need of spiritual aid," Arina replied.

Joram was led to Davona. On the way, the Company asked him about where he hailed from, and what prompted him to travel all this way on his own.

"I come from a small village out east, in the lands of Valendar," Joram told them. "As to why, well, you can say I was hit with a glimpse of divine inspiration."

While Joram examined Davona, the other three Company members quietly discussed the newcomer while keeping a close eye on him. Each of them had their own reasons to be on guard of any newcomer, even beyond the current situation with the bandits. And each of them felt there was something suspicious about Father Joram, and how he responded to their questions. They did not get a hostile feeling from him, but he was definitely hiding something.

Joram finished examining Davona. "Your friend's suffering is spiritual in nature, not physical, although the former is causing the latter. She will need to confront the trauma that has led her to this state, and may need counseling for it."

After exiting the room, the Company confronted Joram. "We know you're not telling us everything," Jupus told him.

"You can't trick a trickster. You might as well come clean," Cethin added.

"We can tell that you mean us no harm, but you must understand, we cannot have any doubt in this situation," Arina said more diplomatically.

Already uncomfortable with trying to deceive people, Joram decided to come clean. He actually was a priest of Deianeira, but one that was almost excommunicated from the church. In his home village, there were several murders that were believed to be perpetrated by a werewolf, and Joram led the lynch mob that hanged their primary suspect.

When it later turned out that the murders were done by a pack of worgs, the church investigated Joram, and found him at fault. Only the fact that the former suspect was actually a spy for a band of raiders that were planning to attack the village saved Joram from full excommunication. Instead, he was exiled to wander the lands in search for redemption over his overzealous actions.

"I was, and still am, ashamed of my actions; it is not something I wished to speak about. But I spoke true when I said I was led here by divine inspiration," he said. "On the first night after entering Lurindor, I had a dream. It was one of an abandoned temple of Deianeira, in ruins and overgrown within a forest. A large and angry bear guarded it. Since having that dream, I have felt a pull towards the Evergreen Plains. I believed that my Lady was showing me a way to redeem myself. However, once I arrived at the Plains, I no longer have those dreams nor do I feel any pull. I suspect that my Lady is now testing me."

"What will you do now, then?" Arina asked.

"Unfortunately, these lands are dangerous, and I am no longer a spry young man. I had hoped to ask for your help, to keep an eye out for that ruined temple. Not without compensation, of course!" Joram quickly added. "While you search for the temple, I offer my services as a healer and pastor freely to you and the folk of this outpost, and even after you find the temple. To start, I can help counsel your companion."

The Company did not take long to mull it over; it was a good deal and they sensed no further deception from the man. They agreed to help Joram find his ruined temple. In response, Joram closed his eyes, almost coming to tears. He bowed before the Company.

"Thank you. And I promise you I will do everything to help your friend recover."

In the evening, the Company sat at the long table, being served supper by Sabina.

"I apologize for the meal, good ladies and sirs," she said.

"What for?" Jupus inquired.

"Well, I'm afraid that you'll find tonight's meal, and those in the foreseeable future, somewhat lackluster in taste. You see, we've run out of exotic goods to flavour them. Normally, it wouldn't be a problem, but with the bandits around…"

Sabina shook her head, and continued serving supper, but the Company sensed her hesitation. They prompted her to speak freely.

"Well, y'see, one of the great goods around these parts are these moon radishes. Got a unique taste to them, and they don't grow too far away, but it's gotten too dangerous now to collect them. I know you folks have bigger matters to deal with, but those radishes have a great value themselves, and if you manage to bring some back, I can guarantee a sizable store credit for every bushel that you bring back!”

The Company, eager for some tasty meals and increasing their store credit, happily agreed.

The next day, the Evergreen Company felt ready to start exploring the region.

"Davona? You still look ill," Arina remarked to the caelephilim. "Are you sure you are up for exploring the wilds?"

The caelephilim shook her head and waved away the noblewoman's concern. "Not fully, but I should be fully recovered by the time we are well on the road."

"You want to talk about it?" Jupus asked.

"No," was the curt reply.

Not really caring anyway in the first place, Jupus let the matter lie. From the side, Cethin looked on with some amusement. He suspected what was going on, but kept silent. To him, seeing how things will unfold from afar was far more interesting.

"You're going out?" The Evergreen Company turned around. Behind them was the rock gnome Minchdoya. The members of the company exchanged looks with each other all the while the blue-skinned gnome regarded them all with a tilted head.

"Yes," Arina told him. "We've been tasked to survey and pacify the lands of the Evergreen Plains."

"Then Minchdoya will join you. My purpose does not end here," the gnome stated as a matter-of-factly. "Look, I've written down what I have learned about this land from the others."

Minchdoya presented a tattered cloth parchment with scribblings written in a foreign language unfamiliar to the rest of the party. The party looked at the parchment, then at each other.

Davona looked confused. Cethin was entertained. Jupus shrugged. Sighing, Arina turned to Minchdoya. "Very well, you may join us on our venture, assuming you can take care of yourself."

The gnome bobbed his head up and down. "Oh, yes, I carry no weapons, for I am one myself."

With a new companion in tow, the Evergreen Company spent the first couple of days exploring and surveying in peace. However, on the third day, they noticed movement in the distance.

The movement was heading towards them. As it came closer, the Company could make out a figure. Whoever it was was not alone. Other figures followed behind. A chase was afoot.
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Donato did not know where he was running to. It was a wide open plain, not a feature in sight.

But the trapper had to run. If he stopped, he was dead.

His heart was pounding, His breath was ragged. He dared not look behind him, but he could hear the jeers and laughter of his hunters.

That was when he saw them. Just as Donato was about to give up and resign himself to his fate, he saw five riders come over the horizon. He did not know who they were. They could be bandits as well, or worse. But Seven Hells, what did he have to lose at this point?

"Help!" he cried out to them. "Help! I'm being chased by bandits!"

The Evergreen Company heard the call for help. Without words, they all agreed. It was time to get to work.

Master Minchdoya was the first to move on his pony. "What's going on here?" the gnome called out. "Why don't we all just relax?"

"Please help!" Donato shouted as he ran closer to the terranefblin. The bandits chasing him fired arrows at him. Fortunately for Donato, one arrow only narrowly missed him, while a second one glanced off his leather armour.

Arina rode up next to Minchdoya, and drew her sword. "It appears that they do not wish to parley, Master," she said. "We should be prepared for the worse."

Minchdoya shook his head sadly. "If only people could realise the goodness within them."

The rest of the party caught up with them. Donato ran up into their midst, dodging the sword swings of the bandits nipping at his heels.

"Quickly!" Davona called out to him. "Get behind us and we can provide you cover!"

One of the bandits called out to the party. "Hey! Back off! This is our prey!"

"And praying is what you'll be doing when I'm done with you!" Davona shouted back. It seemed that the prospect of fighting bandits lifted her spirits somewhat.

Riding up to the bandits, Minchdoya dismounted, then smoothly slipped through the guard of the nearest bandits, and twisted the man's greatsword out his hands, and into his own.

The bandit was flabbergasted at the move. "Hey! My sword!"

"I'll give this back to you when you decide to play nice," the monk scolded the man as if he was a child. Davona let out a shout of laughter at the sight.

Meanwhile, Arina rode past Minchdoya, intent on neutralizing the archers at the back. Guiding her horse with her knees, she charged at one of them, holding her rapier with both hands. She thrusted her blade, but unaccustomed to fighting on horseback, missed her target. Undeterred, Arina eyed several of the bandits, and called upon dark energy from an old friend upon them.

While Cethin began using his witch powers to weaken the bandits, Davona dismounted in front of the bandits to engage them in melee. Meanwhile, Jupus stretched out his hand to Donato. "Get on!" he called out.

Donato desperately reached out, and grabbed Jupus' hand. However, just as he did so, Donato's luck ran out. One of the bandits slashed deep in Donato's back. The man yelled out in pain, then collapsed to the ground, the pain rendering him unconscious. "Damn you!" Jupus called out.

The disarmed bandit facing Minchdoya hopped back to get some distance. Don't think I'm harmless yet, you small, blue freak! The bandit pulled out a flask of alchemist fire and lobbed it at the party. Luckily for the Company, the bandit's aim was poor, and the flask missed its target. The only damage was a few burns from the fiery explosion.

Moving like water, Minchdoya slipped through the guard of another bandit. With a twist of the arm, the monk pulled the bandit's greatsword out of his grip. "And same goes for you!" the monk scolded, as he tossed the swords away.

Arina dismounted from her horse. One of the bandits tried to shoot an arrow at her, but fumbled and spilled out all of his arrows onto the ground. Taking a cue from Minchdoya, Arina danced in front of the archer in front of her, and with a flick of her rapier, knocked the longbow out of his hands. With one disarmed, and the other having lost his ammunition, both archers opted to draw their longswords.

Arina smirked. Invoking the dark power of Mr. Angelcakes, she wracked several bandits with the pain she felt within. She followed up by executing the sword technique known as left-hand strike. From the bandit's perspective, it appears that Arina was stabbing at two places at once. Confused, the bandit's defence faltered badly, allowing Arina to stab him deeply.

As Davona dueled the last remaining armed bandit, Jupus tried to hide himself from the bandits' sight to attack them by surprise. Unfortunately, it did not seem to work. The disarmed bandits stepped back to lob alchemist fire at the party. However, their aim was poor, and only managed to light burn the party.

Running out of options, the bandits began fearing for their lives as they found themselves being disarmed and beaten on without being able to return the damage on their attackers. What started out as a simple hunt turned out to be far more dangerous than what the bandits would like.

"Who are these guys?!" one of them cried out in panic. "This is nuts! I gotta get outta here!" As the first bandit started to run, it seemed to trigger the others into running as well.

"Wait! Your got your pointies!" Minchdoya cried out, running after them while carrying their swords.

Arina continued to pour pain on her claimed targets. They had no idea where this pain was coming from, and it frightened them. Arina exchanged blows with the bandit in front of her as he tried to run away. Cethin tried to cast his spells on them, but none seemed to take. All the kitsune could do was use his witch powers to weaken the bandits.

No longer having her hands full with bandits, Davona rushed to the downed Donato. "I've seen too many losses to the hands of bandits," she muttered as she took a potion of cure wounds from her bag, and fed it to the man. She then stood watch over him as he recovered.

Jupus remounted his pony, and drew one of his trick arrows. He took aim at one of the fleeing bandits, and let the arrow fly. The arrow split midway in the air, and wrapped itself around the legs of his target. The bandit tumbled down into the grass.

Minchdoya ran up to him, and then dropped the swords on the bandit. "Here, you forgot these!" Jupus caught up to them on his pony. The bandit managed to untangle himself, and grabbed one of the swords. He held it up before him, eyeing the two Evergreen Company members nervously. "Not going to take the other one?" Minchdoya asked, eyeing the man menacingly while Jupus took aim.

"You're knocked down, your friends are running," Jupus told him. "Any further action would be… foolish."

The bandit gulped. "Okay, okay! I surrender!" he cried out, dropping the sword. Jupus dismounted, and began tying him up.

Meanwhile, Cethin tried to shoot at one of the bandits, but the string of his crossbow broke! The bandit charged at him. "Get out of my way, you furry freak!" he cried out as he swung his great sword at the kitsune witch. The blow hit Cethin with full force, and the witch spat out blood. Fortunately, for him, the bandit was more concerned with running than finishing his opponent, and ran past him.

Further back, Arina continued to wrack pain on her claimed foes, knocking out another bandit. She then managed to take another one down using her sword techniques. She continued to harry the fleeing bandits, weakening them further and further.

Minchdoya also ran up to one of the fleeing bandits. "Why don't you stay a while and listen?" he taunted, and then swung his leg at the bandit's, causing him to trip and fall. The gnome then delivered one punch, and knocked the man out.

"Gods damn you all!" the last bandit shouted, and tried to swing his sword at Arina. The harbinger deftly dodged the attack, and with a quick stab, took down the last bandit.

The party then gathered up the bandits, stabilizing the injured ones and healing their own wounds. With all five alive, they tied them up after stripping them of their equipment and valuables. Next to Davona, Donato recovered well enough to speak after receiving healing from Cethin.

"Thank you all," he told the party. He explained that he was a local trapper. These bandits found him, and as usual, demanded that he hand over all of his goods. However, this time, the bandits fell into several of his traps, and that angered them to no end. Fortunately, the traps gave Donato enough time to run. And luckily enough, he managed to find the party.

"It was our pleasure to help," Arina told him. "We are the Evergreen Company, and we are here to explore and tame the region, as indicated by this charter issued by the Châteaufoy Trade House. As a local in the region, we would love for you to share any knowledge you have of the region."

"Certainly!" Donato said. "After what you did for me, that would be the least I could do."

Donato pointed out on their map the location of Biaggio's hut, a hermit that collects herbs and creates potions. Many of the locals buy and trade potions and herbs with him. The man was old and eccentric, but Donato assured them that his potions were good.

Donato also confirmed the location of the moon radish patch, as well as the location of a large fangberry thicket. Fangberries were famous in the region for their sweet taste, but dangerously large and sharp thorns on the bushes branches.

"Have you heard of any abandoned temples? Particularly of Deianeira?" Cethin asked him.

"Not specifically, but I have heard stories of Deianeiran pilgrims traveling to and from the Gnarlwood forest to the west of the trade post," Donato told them. The party also asked him about some of the infamous beasts in the region, but Donato told them that while he has heard of them, he makes sure to avoid them at all cost.

Jupus turned to one of the still conscious bandits. "How about you? Have you heard of any temples?"

The bandit spat at Jupus' feet. "I ain't telling you nothing."

"So, we once again find ourselves with a group of bandit prisoners," Arina said.

"I vote that we do not execute them," Minchdoya said. Arina voiced her agreement.

Cethin had other ideas. Casting an evil eye on the bandit, the kitsune witch attempted to cast an interrogation spell. However, the spell failed to take hold. Fortunately for Cethin, Davona did not recognize the spell. Arina did, but honestly, she was unconcerned for the moral implications of using such cruel magic.

However, Davona did propose they hold off on any questioning until they bring back the bandits back to the trade post. "It'll be easier there, and we don't know if there are more bandits nearby."

The rest of the party agreed, and they made their way back to the trade post. It was late at night when they arrived, but the new guards recognized them and brought them in. "Looks like you caught another haul," Roark the dwarf commented, seeing the tied up bandits in tow.

Onestrio came out of his house. The party noticed that he looked a bit tipsy, but the trade post owner welcomed them, and brought Donato inside for some much needed warmth and comfort. They heard him call for Sabina to warm up some food while he went to prepare a bed for the trapper.

The Evergreen Company talked among themselves about what to do with the bandits.

"We could hand them over to Lorenzo for judgment," Arina suggested.

"Absolutely not!" Jupus interjected. The memories of the cold slaying of their previous prisoners came back fresh in his mind. "We are not going to foist these off to someone else. We need to be the ones taking responsibility for them."

"Not to Onestrio, I agree," Arina replied. "We made a bad decision back then, but Lorenzo is something like the best representative of law and order here."

"I agree with Jupus completely," Davona added. She had been oddly quiet throughout the trip back to the trade post. The emptiness she felt within her that plagued her since the execution of Vico's bandits weighed heavily on her mind. She had decided that perhaps it was time to change her way of thinking. "We were the ones given authority over this land, it's time we take responsibility for it."

"Jail time, then?" Cethin suggested.

"That works for me," Jupus said. "We can negotiate with Onestrio to use the storehouse as a jail, and have the guards watch over them."

"Hopefully he'll agree. Especially now that he seems to be drinking," Arina said, eyeing back to where Onestrio went.

"Let's use the gear we got off the bandits to barter with him," Cethin proposed. "And maybe we can have the bandits work for him."

"That's what I've been saying before, but no, everyone ignored that," Jupus muttered.

"Well, the issue before was that we didn't have the guards to watch over them to make sure they do the work," Arina explained. "It could work now. Maybe."

The Evergreen Company sought out Onestrio, and asked him if they could use the storehouse as a makeshift prison for their prisoners. In exchange, they would give him almost all of the gear they got off the bandits. Onestrio accepted; the goods that the party gave him was more than enough to hold them for a while.

The Company also talked to Lorenzo about keeping watch on the prisoners. Lorenzo said that he and his men would be fine, but it might help to get more guards. The costs will have to come out of the Company's own funds, however. The party agreed, and it seemed that the goods that they gave to Onestrio would be enough to hire two more guards for a while.

The Company then talked with their bandit prisoners.

"You are all our prisoners now," Davona told them. "However, you have the chance to repent for your criminal actions by working here. You can choose to do honest work, and maybe earn a wage. Or you can refuse, and we would have to deal with you personally."

The bandits were glaring, and unconvinced. Davona observed them for a moment, and remained silent. She was thinking about what she would have to do with them. She still remembered those frightened eyes as she plunged her sword into Vico's heart, and the coldness and loss that accompanied it. The unexpected guilt she felt afterwards continued to haunt her. There had to be a better way.

"Oh! I've got an idea," Jupus interjected. He pulled the group close into a huddle. "We're eventually going to found our own kingdom, right? How about we promise them a parcel of land to call their own if they do as we say, and maintain good behaviour?"

The party all nodded. That sounded like a good incentive, and something they can easily do. Davona returned to the prisoners with this proposal.

"Listen," Davona said in a much softer tone. "You don't have to continue down this path. It'll only have you end up in a cold cell, or worse. You can live a more honest life, and it won't be without rewards. My companions and I will eventually claim this land for our own. Should you agree to our terms, make a good effort and maintain good behaviour, we would reward you with your freedom, and a plot of land to call your own."

Master Minchdoya, who had been quiet, also tried to convince the bandits to agree. "Come, think of the fresh air. And the lack of beheadings."

The bandits were not stupid. They knew a good deal when they heard one, and tentatively agreed. Cethin talked with Lorenzo about providing a small wage to the bandits' work. "Provided they remain on good behaviour," he added.

"Well, it's a bit unorthodox," Lorenzo commented, scratching his head. "But if you provide the funds, I'll take care of it."

The rest of the party also went along with that idea. They all provided one gold piece each for the initial funds, to be divided one copper a day provided they do good work. Considering all the amenities the bandit prisoners were already getting, this was fairly generous. Cethin explained this offer to the bandits. It was met with some surprise, but not complete acceptance.

Jupus walked up to them. "Gentlemen, I understand that you are all suspicious about our offer. Please understand that we want to settle this region, and we can use your help," he said. "So you can help us and reap the rewards. Or you can end up like the last bunch."

"Uh, no, no! No need to go there!" one of the bandits exclaimed.

Jupus smiled. "Then, there you go. Remain on good terms with us, and you will be rewarded."

The party thought that this was a good first step, but did not get the sense that the bandits were fully committed. They asked Donato to bring a request on their behalf for more mercenary guards and made sure Lorenzo and his men were well-equipped.

After getting some food and some rest, the party readied themselves the next morning to continue their exploration. They first made sure that the prisoners were secured, and that the guards were equipped to deal with them. While they were doing so, Cethin approached Joram, asking him to learn more about religious knowledge.

"I'd be happy to help!" Joram said. "However, most of my knowledge is mostly focused on Deianeira. I hope you don't mind."

"Not at all!" Cethin replied. "I'm open to learning any religion."

"Perfect then. Any time you spend here, I'd be happy to impart my knowledge to you."

The Company then set off towards the southeast direction from the tradepost. Their goal was to reach the moon radish patch, and explore the area on the way. Their path took them along the western edge of the Old Arborfane forest, a massive forest that formed the eastern border of the Evergreen Plains.

As they traveled along its edges, Cethin could sense old magic emanating from it. It made the fur on the back of his neck straighten and tense. Even the rest of the party felt like there was a presence from the forest observing them. However, they could not perceive anyone, or anything, through the thick brush. However, to Master Minchdoya, the feeling felt like an old home. He almost even cracked a smile at the feeling.

They did not know much about the Old Arborfane forest, but Cethin did remember his old coven had some knowledge of it. He knew that the Old Arborfane was ancient, and contained many dangerous magicks. He quickly suggested to the rest of the group to stay away from the place.

The Company continued to travel and explore for the next several days. At night, they sometimes heard roars from the direction of the forest, even though they were camped some miles away. Finally, though, they reached the moon radish patch.

To their surprise however, they heard some shrill moanings from the middle of the patch. Cautiously approaching, they found four small, reptilian humanoids with dog-like features lying on the backs, moaning in pain and pleasure. They were kobolds, and their bellies seemed distended. They could see several baskets full of mood radishes next to them.

"Uh, hello?" Arina called out.

The four kobolds leapt up in surprise, yipping in their kobold tongue. They grabbed their spears, and pointed them at the party menacingly.

"Um, we mean you no harm!" Arina called out again, but the kobolds continued to yip and yap. It seemed neither group could understand each other. Minchdoya ignored them, and started gathering moon radishes. However, the kobolds took that as an aggressive act, and charged the party!

The Company sighed, and readied their weapons. So much for diplomacy.
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12 years ago
City of Foycomté

"It's a lovely garden, if a little… rustic," Cyrano Varano observed. He stood at the balcony's railing, looking over the gardens of the Biancardi estate. He swirled the wine in his glass before taking another sip. Even the wine was rustic to his tastes, being a local halfling brand.

"It does me no surprise to hear you say that, Cyro," Giovanni Biancardi said with mirth. The chief executor of the Biancardi Trade League joined his guest on the balcony, a glass of wine in his hand as well. Both were enjoying a moment of peace and quiet after a long day of fierce negotiation between their two trade houses. "They may be simple folk with simple pleasure, but sometimes we need a bit of simplicity in our high-stress, hectic lives, wouldn't you say?"

Cyrano scoffed. "Men of our stature and lineage should have no issues dealing with the day-to-day concerns of wielding power. I hope for your sake that your indulgences don't make you soft." He looked pointedly at the man.

Biancardi shrugged. It was true, since becoming the overseer of Foycomté, he had gained a few extra pounds. And his manor had come to have the scent of halfling weed as a common odour. "I believe today's talks more than adequately demonstrated that my business remains more than sharp enough."

Varano had to admit that he spoke truthfully. Giovanni had lost none of his edge, and Varano had to think hard on certain concessions to conclude their latest business deal. "Still, imagine what you could accomplish if you fully embraced nobilism. You have the talent and resources to firmly establish your aristocracy."

Nobilism was a new movement that had emerged among the Lurindor elite some fifty years prior. It embraced a romantic view of nobility in the past. The philosophy espoused that the natural order for a prosperous society was to have certain people elevated above others due to their breeding, education, and manners. This group of people should be given the resources and privileges in order for them to lead the rest of society into a brighter future. Proponents of the movement claim the philosophy will help elevate society as a whole. Its critics accuse it as just another excuse for the rich to keep staying rich off the backs of the less fortunate.

Biancardi waved the notion away. "Those ideas went away with the Rastolis, my friend, and are outdated in this day and age. No, Cyrano, these days you need to be flexible, and open to new ideas if you want to seize every opportunity that comes your way."

"Trust me, Gio, the teachings of nobilism are what is needed to push Lurindor even further."

"If you think your noble ideals are so great, then you should be able to take some halfling off the street, and raise them into a successful aristocrat!"

"Perhaps I should, if that is what it will take."

"Ha! Cyrano, I like these halflings well enough, but be realistic, they are a simple folk meant for simple lives."

"A wager then? Find a halfling child of your choice, and I will take them into my own house, and raise them to be a true aristocrat!"

A twinkle appeared in Biancardi's eye. He was always eager for some gambling. "Done!"

Varano and Biancardi finalized the details of the bet, and placed their wagers. At the end of the night, a plan was hatched that would affect the lives of more than just one halfling.

Present day

Dante Varano was not always called so. Once, he was just an orphan boy named Anatole. All that changed when Lord-Executor Cyrano Varano himself selected him after examining all of the other children in their poor orphanage. "You. With me." were the first word the man spoke to him.

The next decade or so of Dante's life was hard. He never knew why the man had adopted him into his house. Apparently, it was fairly controversial within his social circles. It was not as if the man cared for the boy; Varano always treated him coldly and harshly, employing painful punishments for his mistakes. And yet, at the same time, Varano provided him with the very best education, training, and resources, raising him to be a gentleman among his peers. He even gave the boy his household's name, although it seems more like a symbol of ownership than paternal kindness. His "father"'s true children did not make life easy for him for that.

It was a harsh upbringing, but Dante was determined not to give up, if only to spite his "family". He took in everything he was taught, and worked hard to excel at everything. But he needed to escape. His life in the Varano household, as their "halfling show pet", was suffocating him. He did not know how long he could last in this life.

Dante's chance came when a friend reached out to him. They told him of the Chêteaufoy's attempt to colonize the Viridian Marches, told him that one of the parties was significantly understrength, and that they could use someone of his skills. It was a chance to escape the grip of the Varano's, to use his skills to make something of his own instead of his owners. And so one night, Dante Varano slipped out of the Varano's estate, and traveled all the way south.

In Rochefort, he got the details of the Evergreen party's task. At Onestrio's Trading Post, he caught up on the party's accomplishments and last direction. Thankfully, the party were spending a lot of time exploring, allowing Dante to catch up to them. He finally caught up to them at the moon radish patch he was told about back at the trading post. There, he saw the party about to confront four kobold warriors. Seeing his chance to make a good impression, Dante rushed in to join the fight.

Evergreen Plains
Starday, Asmolan 12th, 108 6A

The scene in the moon radish patch was actually quite laughable. Five well armed adventurers faced off four small kobolds who appeared to be too full of delicious radishes. Arina and Davona readied their blades. Jupus nocked an arrow in his bow. Cethin loaded his crossbow. And Minchdoya…

Minchdoya suddenly heard laughter. His own laughter.

It was distant and faint, but recognizable. It came from the east. From the… forest?

It was impossible, but he knew his own laughter. It completely captured his attention. Ignoring everything, the terranefblin started walking towards the east, as if entranced.

His companions were puzzled, but before they could deal with him, their battle with the kobolds had already begun. Suddenly, a well-dressed halfling swordsman came out of nowhere to engage the kobolds from another angle.

Davona charged in, and delivered a devastating overhead chop at one of the kobolds. Arina followed in, and dodged a spear jab. "Ho there!" she called out of the halfling. "Have you come to assist us?"

"Indeed, my lady!" the halfling replied. "My name is Dante Varano, and I-urk!" Dante's introduction was interrupted as one of the kobolds charged and jabbed his spear into the halfling's gut. So much for the dashing entrance!

Cethin tried to fire his crossbow, but as he pulled the trigger, he tripped. The bolt flew, and instead hit his fox. The witch's familiar yip in pain, and gives his master a glare. "Sorry!" the kitsune says sheepishly.

Jupus fired his bow. His aim was true, but his small arrow bounced harmlessly off the kobold's rusty scale mail. Jupus rolled his eyes and muttered under his breath. Of course his tiny arrows would do nothing.

Arina concentrated, and Mr. Angelcakes shared her pain onto several of her opponents. The kobold struck by Davona wailed and dropped his spear. He began groveling into the ground, whimpering in pain and fright. Davona passed over him to deliver another devastating blow to another kobold. Cethin followed with an ear-piercing scream, audible only to his target, causing the kobold to flinch in pain and become dazed.

Arina then executed a left-hand strike, and two swords flashed together, with the one real strike skewering the kobold. On the other side of the fight, Dante twirled with panache to narrowly dodge a spear thrust to his face. He then countered by executing several devastating feints, intimidating his opponent.

One by one, the kobolds dropped the spears from pain and fear. Arina's dark forces continued to inflict pain on them, knocking several of them out. Finally, all but one kobold was unconscious, and the last surrendered in a particularly groveling fashion.

Satisfied with the outcome, and not desiring anymore bloodshed, the Evergreen Company proceeded to stabilize the unconscious kobolds while keeping an eye on the last conscious one. Fortunately, that kobold remained groveling, weeping in fear. As they did so, they also turned their attention to the newcomer. He, too, received some of Cethin's healing.

"Thanks for aid, sir, but who might you be, and what brings you all the way out here?" Arina asked the halfling.

"Ahem. Yes, please allow me to re-introduce myself. My name is Dante Varano at your service," the halfling replied with a courtly bow. Despite the wound being healed, he still winced. "Quite literally, actually. I wish to join your expedition, and become part of the effort to establish a new colony here."

The Evegreen Company members did not seem to know what to make of Dante's request. They were a bit skeptical. "We just need to make sure you're not some crazed bandit or anything," Arina told him.

"Oh I assure, I'm certainly not!"

Oddly enough, Cethin had heard about a story about the Varano family adopting a halfling child. He had heard it while the Nine-tail Coven traveled through Lurindor. Apparently, it was a pretty scandalous story for a while. "Hey, Arina, this guy seems legit," he said.

"Well, if you are willing to help clear the Evergreen of its bandit problem, you're more than welcome to join us," Arina told him.

"Perfect! Thank you, I shall not be a burden for the group," Dante replied with a fancy bow.

"Hey, at least he ain't as weird like Minchdoya over there," Cethin remarked, pointing his thumb at the returning deep gnome, who looked more morose than usual.

The party then turned their attention to the groveling kobold at their feet. "It's too bad none of us can speak kobold," Cethin remarked.

Dante cleared his throat. "Actually… I might be able to speak with them. I can speak a few dragon tongues that they may understand," he told them. The Draconic tongues were ancient languages used heavily as the basis of arcane writings, so it was part of his intense education. He still felt the stings on his body when he made mistakes.

"Just joined and already contributing to the party! I'm starting to like the new guy!" Cethin quipped.

Using Dante as an interpreter, the party consoled the kobold, and told him that they were not going to kill him or his fellows. In fact, they demonstrated their good will by healing them. The kobold was very relieved, and proceeded to kiss their feet. They learned that the kobold, named Rikrak, belonged to the Sootscale tribe, and he and his companions were ordered to bring back some moon radishes for their tribe, but they stayed to gorge on them for a while.

The Company assured Rikrak that they did not want to have troubles with the kobolds, and that they would like to speak with the Sootscale leader. Rikrak took some convincing, but after seeing the party heal his companions (named Zorzik, Rurik, and Drazdik), and believing them when they said to let them go with their baskets of radishes, Rikrak told them that their tribe lived in a cave among the hills near the centre of the Evergreen Plains. He told them to speak to Chief Sootscale. Rirak then proceeded to kiss their feet once again. The Company assured Rikrak that they also want to help the kobolds deal with the bandits.

While Rikrak went to tend to his friends, the party discussed among themselves. They decided that the kobolds might make useful allies, and that a diplomatic approach might be the way to go. They then proceeded to collect their own share of radishes.

"You gotta teach me how to speak draconic," Cethin eagerly asked Dante.

"Certainly!" replied the hafling.

"Yes, more learning!"

They finished healing up the remaining kobolds to full health. Rikrak explained to them the mercy the Evergreen Company had given them. They collected their baskets of radishes, and said their goodbyes. Rikrak in particular said he looked forward to their visit to their tribe in the future.

After collecting their moon radishes, the Evergreen Company made camp. The next day, they continued their exploration of the Evergreen plain.

Two days after their encounter with the kobolds at the moon radish patch, the party discover an abnormally large pack of thylacines chasing a human woman in leather. What was even more odd, noticed by Cethin, was that thylacines were nocturnal hunters, and it was the middle of the day.

"This way!" Davona called out. "We'll provide you cover!"

The woman whipped her head towards the party. She changed direction to them, waving at them. The thylacines were nipping at her heels, and the party could see that she was already sporting several bite marks.

The party charged toward the oncoming thylacines, getting between the woman and the pack. Dismounting from their horses and ponies, the Evergreen Company engaged the thylacines and diverted their aggression from the woman to themselves. Cethin remained on his horse, but reached out to the woman.

"Get on, hurry!" he called out to her, and the woman grabbed his arm, and climbed up onto his horse.

While Cethin pulled his horse away, Minchdoya rolled off his pony right into the middle of the pack. He put up his guard and tried to draw the thylacines' aggression towards himself, allowing the others to attack from the sides. Davona waded into the pack, slashing away at the beasts, followed by Arina and Dante with their rapiers. Jupus stayed back, picking off the beasts with his bow. He was particularly pleased to see his small arrows draw blood from his targets ("Finally," he muttered).

Cethin quickly incanted a cure wounds spell on the woman. She thanked him. The kitsune dismounted and passed the woman his crossbow and bolts. "Here, take these."

"Thank you, I'll do what I can," the woman replied, loading the crossbow.

Several thylacines became badly wounded, and ran off yipping in pain. Minchdoya tried to keep up his defence, but there were too many of the beasts around him, and one of them clamped down hard on his forearm. Its teeth sank deep into the deep gnome's flesh. The pain was too much for Minchdoya, and the gnome fell unconscious.

The rest of the party doubled their efforts in the fight. Fortunately, the remaining thylacines were few enough for the Company to make quick work of them. The beasts were killed or driven off before they could pile onto the fallen gnome. The Evergreen Company breathed a sigh of relief, and proceeded to heal their wounds.
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Evergreen Plains
Moonday, Asmolan 14th, 108 6A

The woman that the Evergreen Company rescued introduced herself as Gaetana, one of the local hunters.

"You have my thanks," she told them sincerely. "Had you not shown up, I surely would have been torn to shreds by those thylacines."

"Don't thylacines normally hunt at night?" Cethin inquired.

Gaetana nodded to him. "Indeed. I've never seen this many active at once during the day. I suspect the increased number of bandits in the region has something to do with it."

"Let us take you back to Onestrio's," Davona offered. "It's not likely safe to travel alone."

"I would be grateful for the escort," the hunter replied.

Davona turned to Arina. "There's no need for all of us to go. I can help some of us while the rest continue our exploration."

Arina nods in agreement. "Good idea. Cethin, Jupus, and I will continue surveying the area, while you, Dante, and Minchdoya escort Gaetana back. After a few days of exploration, we'll return to Onestrio's and regroup with you then."

After parting ways, Arina, Jupus, and Cethin spent the next several days exploring the Plains. They eventually came across a grisly sight.

Jupus whistled. "Now that's gruesome."

Before the trio was a large field littered with sun-bleached bones. Cethin bent down, and sifted through them.

"Animals bones, of various sizes," the kitsune informed them. "Oh wait, this one looks human. And a few over there, too." He stood up, and dusted his hands off his pants. "But aside from the bones, there doesn't appear to be much else in this 'bone valley'."

"Good name," Arina remarked. "Let me note that down on the map."

As she began writing down on their map, the ground rumbled right in front of them. Before the Company could react, an enormous spider, as large as a pony, erupted from the earth! It emitted a trilling hiss as it bared its fangs dripping with viscous fluids.

The giant spider latched onto Arina, and sank its fangs deep into her abdomen, injecting strength-sapping poison. She turned pale from the sudden loss of both strength and blood.

"Gods, get it off me!" she cried out. Cethin and Jupus exploded into action to aid their companion. Cethin began casting a spell, and Jupus nocked his bow.

The spider reacted swiftly. It released Arina, and ducked beneath the Cethin's ray of enfeeblement and Jupus' initial shot from his bow. It skittered across the field towards its next target, and snapped its fangs at Cethin. The kitsune fell backwards, but managed to avoid getting hurt.

The Evergreen Company of them circled the enormous spider. Even Arina, who clutched her bleeding side, had her sword drawn. It felt much heavier than usual, and sagged downwards. The girl fought to ignore the pain and the weariness permeating her body.

Despite the spider's size, it proved to be annoyingly nimble, and the Company had a hard time landing their attacks on it. At the same time, neither did the spider have much luck inflicting further harm on the companions. The Company whittled the large vermin down hit by hit. Even Arina, bleeding heavily, was able to deliver some good hits.

After defeating the giant spider, Cethin tended to Arina's wounds, although the spider's poison was still affecting her. The poor girl could barely stand in her own armor. While she rested to regain her strength, the party went on to investigate the spider's lair. In it they found the remains of a man. On him was a silver amulet shaped like a stag's head, and a crudely drawn map with a red 'X' marked on it. Cross-referencing the crude map with their more professionally drawn map led them to believe that the red 'X' points to one of the southern parts of the Gnarlwood forest.

"Think there's any relation to the Stag Lord?" Cethin asked.

"Hmm, very likely. Best hang onto it," Jupus said.

Arina recovered from the spider's poison quickly enough, and the party continued their exploration for the next several days. They did not encounter anything dangerous, but something new did happen to them each day. Ever since they came to this part of the Evergreen Plains, after defeating the giant spider, the three were suffering harmless, but annoying pranks every day.

The morning after the spider attack, they had put on their boots, only to painfully discover that little bones from the spider's nest were hidden within them.

Another time, they woke to find themselves covered in leaves sticky with honey.

And another time, their hair and clothing were temporarily shaded with an obscene collection of colours.

"What the Seven Hells is going on?" an exasperated Jupus asked.

"Probably fairies, nothing too much to worry about," Cethin nonchalantly answered while checking out his newly coloured fur.

Jupus was boggled. "You know what this is about? Why didn't you say anything?"

"Well, you didn't ask?"

One night, the party heard wolves growling all around them. Their sounds grew louder and louder as if they were closing in on them. As the party started packing up, the wolf sounds reached a crescendo. Then, a loud fart sound erupted. As the party realized that it was another prank, they could hear faint musical laughter.

"This is getting really old!" Jupus yelled out into the night in the Sylvan tongue. A faint fart noise was his only response.

An amused Cethin provided more details on prankster fey. Considering how easily these fairies set up their pranks on the watchful adventurers, they may have powers that would make it very difficult to confront head-on. The only real solution that was available was to leave gifts for them. Traditionally, fairies would stop their pranks upon befriending them. For a moment, Arina and Jupus thought they heard faint laughter coming from Cethin's ring.

From then on, the party left out gifts of potions, gold, and jewelry each night in hopes to stop the pranks.

Jupus left out mostly bread and cheese. Cethin pointed out that those were not very useful gifts to fey, that they liked sweet things. "It's fine," Jupus said.

On another morning, the three found their weapons missing. After a brief search, they discovered that the weapons were each hidden in a different person's belongings.

"How did they do this without us noticing?!" an exasperated Jupus exclaimed. "This is unacceptable, we can't let people mess with us this way."

The party continued their exploration in the direction of the fangberry thicket that Donato pointed out to them when they rescued him. Aside from a chance encounter with a giant snake, which they killed easily, their journey was uneventful, though they still suffered daily pranks. It appears their gifts were not sufficient in impressing the fey. And they still could not detect them even after setting up watches.

The thicket was nestled in a low valley between two small hills. It was also covered by a gossamer blanket of webs. As the party approached, they saw plenty of fangberries, but also plenty of sharp thorns on their branches. The three waded into the thicket to collect the berries. While doing so, they received many cuts and scratches from the thorns.

"Ouch! I hope Onestrio appreciates these berries," Arina said as she cut herself again while grabbing another handful of berries.

"Wait, Onestrio? He didn't ask us for any berries," Jupus said. "You sure it wasn't Sabina?"

"No, she wanted moon radishes, which the others should have brought back with them. Wait, then how did we know about this place?"

"Wasn't it that trapper Donato? But he just told us about this place. I don't recall him asking us to collect any fangberries."

"You mean to say we're getting all cut up for berries no one even asked us to get?" Arina moaned and facepalmed. A streak of blood from her cut hand left a trail on her face.

"Maybe it had something to do with that Biaggio fella, the potion-maker. Something about adding flavour to the potions? Ouch!"

"Hey guys…" said Cethin fairly weakly. "I got… my share of the… berries…"

The kitsune witch held up a small satchel filled with fangberries, but he was swaying on his feet. The others could see that his fur was matted with streaks of his own blood.

Their attention was turned to a growing sound of chittering. Peering closely, they saw a carpet of thumb-size spiders emerge from the thicket, heading straight towards them!

"Nyaarh!" Jupus uttered as the swarm of spiders crawled all over him, being the closest. The gnome could feel their tiny little legs crawling all over him. Fortunately, their bites did not yet get through his armor and clothing.

Cethin stretched out his hand, and invoked burning hands onto the swarm. He burned a few off, but the swarm just seemed to keep growing. The party took one look at that, went "Nope!", and bugged out of the area on their horses and ponies as soon as they could.

The Company rode in the northeast direction. After a day's ride, they made camp, and planned to resume their exploration in the morning. During the night, they thought to use their fangberries as an offering to the still unseen fey. However, in the morning, their piles of fangberries were still there. However, they appeared to have been washed clean, and piled neatly on leaves.

"Oh, they're just naughty word with us now," Jupus muttered.

Continuing their exploration, the party arrived at what was marked as Biaggio's hut on their map. It was a crude hut made of mud with a grassy roof. A light inside the window and smoke from a chimney indicated that it was occupied. Dismounting, the party approached and knocked on the door.

"Eh? Who's there? What you want?" a screechy old man's voice called out from within.

"Sir? We're the Evergreen Company, and we heard we might acquire potions here," Arina replied.

"Eh, business? Alrighty, be right there!" The door to the hut opened, revealing an old human man dressed in ragged clothing. His white hair and beard were scraggly and unkempt. "Name's Biaggio, whatcha need?"

The party introduced themselves to Biaggio. "Well, we seem to be tailed by some fey causing pranks on us. We were wondering if you might have anything that we can use to appease them, like baked sweets, or sugar water," Arina asked.

Biaggio chuckled. "Problems with fairies, eh? Yeah, they like to do that to newcomers around here. Well, I do know they like potions. Which I got plenty of. For sale."

The party members gave each other a look. "Of… course. By the way, we have these fangberries with us. Would you happen to need them?"

Biaggio's eyes perked up. "Hey, fangberries! Perfect timing, supply's been running out. I use 'em in my potions. Gives 'em a sweet flavour. How much you got there?"

"About three handfuls, all cleaned and washed."

"Ooh, nice and clean! Usually I just dump 'em in as is. Hmm, tell you what. You give me these shares, and about four more to fill up my supply, and I'll give y'all a 25% discount on all potions for da month."

"Hmm, well a month-long discount doesn't seem long," Arina said.

"Well, don't need to be a one-time thing. Every month, you give me seven handfuls of fangberries, you get the discount."

While the party agreed to this deal, Cethin had an idea, and snuck off. Out of sight from everyone, Cethin used his natural kitsune abilities to make himself look like Onestrio. He then came back, and everyone thought that he really was a tradesman.

"Onestrio! Surprised to see you here," Arina said. "Wait, where did Cethin go?"

"Oh, don't worry, I passed him on my way here," Cethin-as-Onestrio said. "He said he had to hurry back to the trade post for something."

Turning to Biaggio, the disguised kitsune said, "Hey there, Biaggio! Here to pick up some potions!"

"Eh, Onestrio? Surprised to see you here. Usually I bring'em to you," Biaggio said, peering closely at Cethin. However, he seemed to believe that this was the genuine Onestrio.

"Yeah, I had some free time, and needed the walk. So, got my supply?"

"Sure! Got the gold?"

Cethin froze. "Uh… not on me. Sabina should've brought it to you."

"Nope? And you sent your wife out alone with the gold? That's odd of ya."

Feeling a bit sweaty, Cethin backed off. "Oh, you're right. Must've misremembered. Nevermind then, I'll head back and wait for the usual shipment back at the trade post. See you!" And Cethin-as-Onestrio shuffled off in a hurry.

A few minutes later, a normal looking Cethin came back and rejoined the group.

"Cethin? I thought Onestrio said you headed back to the trade post?" Arina asked.

"Uh, yeah. Remembered it wasn't really that important, so… yeah."

The party let the matter drop. Arina bought a fangberry-flavoured potion from Biaggio. With night falling, the party made camp, and Arina left out the potion as a gift to the still unseen fey.

Her generosity would not go unrewarded. During the middle of the night, both Jupus and Cethin found their slumber interrupted as they were awoken by a sharp prick in their backsides. Upon closer examination, the cause turned out to be thorns from the fangberry thicket. Jupus swatted it away with annoyance, yet still shouted out into the night "This won't get to me!"

Nearby, Arina enjoyed a very comfortable night's rest.
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Onestrio's Trade Post

Davona, Minchdoya, and Dante escorted Gaetana back to Onestrio's. After making sure that Gaetana was given a place to rest, Lorenzo approached them. He informed them that during their absence, one of their prisoners attempted to escape.

"It was one of the younger ones," Lorenzo said. "Goes by the name of Guido. He tried to slip out the gate while no one was watching. Fortunately, the new guards you hired had just arrived. Dumb kid ran right into them, and they gave him a quick beating before we put him in chains and locked him in the shed."

Nearby, the new guards nodded to the members of the Evergreen Company. There were three of them: a human woman and two halfling, one a man and the other a woman. They introduced themselves as Vittoria, Bastien, and Dorianne, respectively. The Evergreen would pay for their services for the next 3-4 months with the credit they earned with Onestrio's trade post after giving Sabina the moon radishes she requested.

Vittoria sought out Dante. On her way here, she was asked to deliver a message to him. Dante read the letter, and a look of concern crossed his face.

"I'm afraid my short time with you must already come to an end," he regretfully told Davona. "Some personal affairs back home were left more unfinished than I had originally thought. I must head back… home."

"Yes, we must all leave," Minchdoya said. "We are being called. And we must go and answer."

Davona and Dante each gave each other a look. When they turned back to the deep gnome, he was already gone. They both agreed that was a thing, and that they should move on.

Davona decided that she would join Dante on his way back to Lurindor. However, she intended it to be a short trip. After parting ways with the halfling at Rochefort, Davona went to the House of the Sun, the small temple of her patron deity, Kaï-den. She sought out the priestess of the temple, Sunmother Isabelle.

In private, Davona spoke to the Sunmother of her troubles. She explained the sense of loss she felt, that light within her felt dim. The Sunmother inquired as to when did this occur, and Davona explained everything involving Vico and his bandits, and how the Evergreen Company dealt with. Upon hearing the story, the Sunmother closed her eyes, and let out a breath.

"I fear that your actions have displeased our Lord, and ran contrary to the tenets of paladinhood," the Sunmother explained. "The holy grace that was bestowed upon you at the end of your training has been taken away."

Davona was stunned. "But… why? I don't understand what I did wrong!"

"My child, you were merciless against your charges, and offered no chance of redemption to them. You abdicated your responsibility as a knight of justice to one who was not fit to deliver sound judgment. And worst of all, you had no remorse over your actions, nor understood why any of them were wrong."

"But they were bandits, and we were given the authority to deal with them as we thought best. We were within our remit! My oath—!"

Isabelle held up her hand to interrupt her. "I am well aware of your oath, Dame Davona. Vengeance is not forbidden by our Lord, but it is a dark path that must be tread carefully. Just because something is within your authority to do so does not mean that it must be done. As a paladin, you are held to the highest standards of morality and ethics. Any warrior can mete out vengeance, but a paladin must always be virtuous. You must temper your oath with compassion, patience, and understanding. And vengeance may take many forms, not all of them violent."

Davona looked to the floor, despondent. "…what must I do to regain our Lord's favour?" she asked quietly.

Isabelle was quiet for a moment. She stared hard at the young caelephilim. She had hoped that Davona would have been wise enough to avoid such a fate, but sadly, she was not surprised that it had happened. Still, there was still hope that she could come through this stronger than ever before.

"We will pray, child. Pray for forgiveness, and for the wisdom to guide us through this trial." Isabelle gave the girl a small smile. "I will perform the Sacrament of Atonement with you, and then, you will be given a task, a mission to complete to truly prove that you have atoned for your sins."

Davona looked up. Her eyes looked uncertain. "What must I do?"

"Dame Davona, to truly prove yourself worthy of regaining Kaï-den's grace, I task you with this: seek out a number of true bandits three times those that were killed in that incident, and peacefully convince them of their own free will to abandon their sinful ways, to live an honest life, and to join our Lord's faith."

Davona was stunned. She had sworn an oath of vengeance against bandits such as those that killed her mother. And now she had to make peace with them? To bring them into the fold? Even after one of them tried to escape after being shown mercy? It was not fair!

But what was the alternative? The hollowness within her ached. She had known the blissfulness of divine grace, and although she was taught that it came from Kaï-den, it always felt motherly to her. She longed to feel it again.

Davona nodded to the Sunmother, and quietly agreed to the task and atonement. The ritual was performed later in the day, and Davona was recognized as being penitent in the eyes of God and the Church, and on the path to redemption. She spent the next few days at the temple, where the Sunmother helped retrain her to succeed in her task.

"Worry not, child. We recognize the difficulty in your holy mission, and we will not abandon you to it alone."

After Davona returned to Onestrio's, she knew that she still had a long way to go to be eloquent enough to properly rehabilitate the bandit prisoners they had. She decided for now to focus on saving up on resources to help make the livelihood of their prisoners more comfortable. She used her training as a city guard to help train and escort people coming through the trade post in exchange for coin. During this time, she tried to get to know the bandit prisoners in their custody, as much as it disgusted her.

"You seem to be in better spirits now, Davona," Arina observed upon the rest of the Company's return to the trading post.

The young caelephilim shrugged. "I'm not at a hundred percent, but I received some guidance that will helpfully get me there."

Davona proceeded to explain to her companions about her task. Fortunately for her, the rest of the Company were supportive.

"That works with the current plan. Good to know we've got holy backing to go along with it," Jupus remarked.

"Then it's agreed, we'll adopt this as our official policy when dealing with prisoners," Arina said.

Davona's shoulders visibly relaxed as she let out a deep breath, as though she blew all the stress out of her. The support of her companions was a great relief.

Cethin had an amused look on his face, looking forward to seeing how all of this would unfold.

The Evergreen Company formed a plan to properly rehabilitate these bandits into productive members of society. They spent the next several days working at the trade post to raise funds and gather resources. Once done, under their supervision, their prisoners began constructing a large garden and livestock pen.

After their completion, the prisoners would now spend their time learning to grow crops and raise animals, activities the Company hoped would foster positive attitudes in them. Joram provided Deianeiran teachings to help them learn, and to nurture their spirit.

After making sure the prisoners were now immersed in their new activities, the Evergreen Company left their supervision to their guards and Father Joram. The Company returned to their exploration, starting at the northeastern tip of the Gnarlwood Forest.

Their expedition was cut short. At night, the Company was ambushed by four giant hissing centipedes, each the size of an adult human. Caught off guard by the centipedes' hypnotic hissing, the Company was badly mauled by the enormous vermin. The centipedes were able to coil around their bodies, crushing them, and biting into their flesh with venom-drenched mandibles.

Badly wounded, and on the brink of death, things looked grim for the Company until unseen aid came to them. The chittering of the centipedes was overcome by melodic, sylvan singing. Some of the Company's wounds were healed.

The surrounding vegetation bloomed to entangle the centipedes in return. A grig, a tiny fairy with the upper body of a small elf woman and the lower body of a cricket, appeared out of thin air, revealing her to be the source of the sudden support. The Company escaped the centipedes' mandibles, regrouped, and killed them off one by one.

After the battle, the Company looked around for their mysterious fairy saviours, but they once again vanished from sight. After collecingt doses of centipede poison from the corpses, the Company returned to Onestrio's. There, Joram healed the damage the centipedes' poison did to them.

A day later, the Company set out once again. They continued to explore Gnarlwood for several days. Despite the fairies getting involved in the fight with the centipedes, they still chose to remain hidden and play pranks on the Company on a daily basis. The Company weathered them stoically.

The Company later found a glade where someone had set up over three dozen bear traps. From examining the area, the Company concluded that these traps could not possibly be set for bears. Instead, they could be for people, as the glade showed signs of travel. Wishing to get to the bottom of this, the company set up a hiding spot, set off one of the traps, and waited to see if anyone would show up.
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In the Gnarlwood forest, the Evergreen Company set off a bear trap, then hurried back to the blind to see who would show up to investigate the sound.

"And now we wait," Jupus whispered.

Hours passed.

"Don't think anyone's coming," Cethin remarked. The kitsune was lounging in the back. Jupus, from his tense, crouched position, shot him a glare. He then grunted and stood out of the blind.

"I'll go scout around, see if anyone's actually around," the gnome told the others. Jupus was gone for about half an hour, checking out the surrounding area. He found that any tracks that were not from local wildlife were at least a week old. He came back and told the others.

The Company decided to move on, but not before disarming and gathering all the traps so that no one would fall into them. Cethin volunteered to bring them back to Onestrio's for safe keeping.

The rest of the party continued their exploration of the Gnarlwood. Several days later, they came across a body crushed by logs.

"Well, this is an odd sight," Arina remarked.

"Looks like he was trying to set up a deadfall trap," Jupus said, taking a closer look. "For a big prey, too. You wouldn't need logs this big for normal game."

"Big enough for a man, maybe?" Davona asked.

"Would be just about right. Looks like he's been dead for about a week," Jupus said pointedly.

Davona turned her head to him. "Why would that be peculiar?"

"Well, we were just an area littered with traps set over a week ago," Jupus told her with an eyebrow raised.

"What about a week a-ooooh!"

"Hey, check this out." Jupus lifted up the rope. "See these markings? This wasn't a natural break. Something sharp cut through this rope."

"So, we got a man here setting up a man-sized trap, who got killed by his own trap, and it looks like the cause was foul play," Arina mused.

"You think he was the one who set up all those bear traps?" Davona asked.

"I remember seeing him pass through the trade post. Bart, Barry, or something. Didn't seem like a sociable guy. I remember his scowling a lot at anyone and everyone," Jupus recalled.

"Let's clear this up, and make sure no one else gets caught up in this," Arina said.

"I'll bury the man," Davona said. "Whatever he was doing, he deserves at least that much."

While clearing the trap, the Company found a masterwork hand axe stuck in a nearby tree stump. The party retrieved it, hoping it could help identify who this man was. Afterwards, Davona buried the body and performed funeral rites for him.

Later that night, the fairies were up to their old tricks again. While eating their supper, the campfire sparked, and a column of smoke rose from it. The smoke morphed into the shape of the dead man. It made threatening gestures, and spoke: "OoOoh! I was a mean man! I deserved my fate! BewaAaAare!"

The Company were nonplussed, and called out to the faeries in the night that they could knock it off. The smoke-ghost then gave a very rude hand gesture to Davona and Jupus, and a friendly wink to Arina before dissipating.

"Geez, what is with these fairies?" Arina muttered.

"Well, I don't think they want us dead. They did save us after all," Davona offered.

"True. But it could be just them keeping their favourite playthings still around."

"Maybe they were the ones who killed that guy," Jupus wondered.

"What makes you think that," Arina asked.

"Well, remember what the illusion said. He was a bad man who deserved his death. If that man really was a miser who was setting traps for travelers, I wouldn't be surprised if the fairies did something about him."

No sure answers came to the party that night, but they were relieved from any further fairy pranks. The morning was another matter though, as Jupus and Davona found themselves smearing their faces with bright pink paint that was smeared on their hands. With a sigh, they easily washed it off.

The Company's exploration hit another impasse. Once again, they were beset by the dangerous fauna of the Evergreen Plains, this time by a giant wasp the size of a horse! The wasp's stinger was filled with poison, and was as large as a longsword, and just as strong.

It was a tough fight for the Evergreen Company, and Arina and Davona were badly poisoned and wounded. If not for the smoke arrow that Jupus had struck the wasp with, they would not likely have survived the encounter. Fortunately, the smoke arrow landed stuck into the wasp's carapace, right underneath its head. The smoke confused the beast, making it miss certain attacks, attacks that would have surely killed Arina and Davona. After killing the beast, Jupus extracted the wasp's stinger as a trophy.

The Evergreen Company limped back to Onestrio's, making a restful stop at Biaggio's hut. Once back at the trading post, Joram quickly rushed to their aid. The priest drew forth the grace of Deianeira to repair the damage to their bodies that the poison did. During that time, the Company discussed their current troubles.

"naughty word, no wonder no one else volunteered to explore this place," Jupus grumbled, working out the pains in his back.

"If this keeps up, we'll be dead within the week," Davona moaned.

Arina nodded. She took a moment to think. "Perhaps it's time to call for help."

"Help? From who?" Jupus asked. "This expedition had so little hope of success that they had to settle with just us."

"Actually, I do know someone we can call on!" Davona perked up. "My brother, well, step-brother, finished with his studies. He would have been with us at the start otherwise."

Arina and Jupus exchanged glances. "We didn't even know you had family," the young woman said.

Davona shrugged. "I guess we're not the types to share."

Both Arina and Jupus could only nod. Davona was not the only one who kept quiet on their personal lives.

"Hey, speaking of not sharing, where did Cethin go?" Jupus asked.

The rest of the group looked around, noticing for the first time that they were missing a member. No doubt the kitsune witch was up to new mischief.

Nearby, a newly arrived human man of average looks dragged along over three dozen bear traps. He then proceeded to work a makeshift bar within the trading post. For the next several days, he would serve drinks to the local hunters and trappers that passed through.

He would not be the last of new arrivals to the trading post.

The kitsune had come far, and given up so much. She had abandoned her vows. Her father was dead or deposed, and her family was deposed of their position. Ayaki Kashiki, daughter of the Lord of Iku, had no home to go back to. She was ronin.

For everything to be worth it, her brother had to be here.

Ever since she learned the truth, she vowed to undo the crime committed against her family. She had tracked the coven of witches that kidnapped her brother Yasu as a baby to Lurindor. From them, she had learned of a male kitsune who joined an expedition to colonize the Viridian Marches. It was a long shot, but she had to make sure.

Ayaki rode into the trading post. The laborers tending to the garden and hatchery at the entrance looked up to watch her pass by. She wondered about that. The guards around them seemed more keen on watching them instead of outsiders.

She knew she would make a scene. Although a ronin, Ayaki maintained her equipment as a true samurai of Xifangsaifu.

The trading post was more active than she expected. Although not hectic, there were a number of people coming and going. Her eyes, and nose, were drawn to a man serving drinks behind a makeshift bar. Local trappers and hunters came and went, staying for a quick drink and a quick chat.

It was an odd sight to find a bartender this far out. But then again, commoner priorities were foreign to her. These poor folk probably needed a bar more to escape the dreariness of everyday life.

Still, bartenders usually know what was going on in the local area. Judging from the stares she was getting, Ayaki thought it should be easy to find another kitsune in this place. She approached the bartender.

The bartender was looking down at the makeshift counter, cleaning a glass. He glanced up for a second at Ayaki, and she swore that he raised an eyebrow before resuming a nonchalant expression.

"Can I get you anything, miss?" he drawled.

"Green tea, if you have any," Ayaki replied. She leaned on the counter. The bartender's scent was peculiar. "Say, I'm looking for someone around these parts. A kitsune…"

The malephilim nonchalantly sauntered into the trading post. This type of establishment was familiar to her. Rishoi Ha'Re, in her short career as a retrieval expert, had visited many places such as this. She just hoped the message she received was true. It was a long shot, but solving the disappearance of Marcelette Montplaisir would clean a stain on her professional reputation.

Arina saw her, and came to greet her. The young woman was courteous, and met her with a polite smile. Rishoi nodded in return. Arina had never held any resentment towards the mercenary for failing to find Marcelette. Rishoi suspected that part of her knew it would be impossible. But for Rishoi's professional pride, it was unacceptable.

It was her first failure. Prior to the Marcelette case, Rishoi had successfully retrieved several runaways and kidnapped heirs to the rich and powerful. Since then, Rishoi was filled with doubt in her abilities. She had not taken another job since then, spending her time reexamining her skills.

"Thank you for coming so soon," Arina told her, inviting her to sit down at one of the long tables.

"Of course," Rishoi replied. "Your case was one of my biggest regrets. Is it true? You have some sort of lead?"

Arina seemed sheepish. "…of sorts. A… source of mine informed me that Marcelette may be somewhere in the Viridian Marches. That's why I'm on this expedition."

Arina leaned in closer to the malephilim, and continued speaking in hushed tones. Rishoi suspected that she did not want the locals to overhear. "We've… encountered some tough obstacles recently. And the region is too large to search in a short amount of time. I need help. Someone I can trust. Will you help?"

Rishoi had to think about it before she responded. It was a long shot, looking for a needle in a haystack. And who was Arina's source? None of Rishoi's investigations revealed any clue about Marcelette being in the Marches. Arina had made no mention of this source beforehand, and seemed cagey talking about him or her. Rishoi's instincts wanted to question the noblewoman about it, but she doubted Arina would be so forthcoming. At least for now.

However, the truth of the matter was that Rishoi had no other leads. And if she stayed here long enough, she may be able to get Arina to talk about her source. And this might be a good opportunity to improve her skills and get her out of this funk.

Rishoi looked straight into Arina's eyes. "I'm in."

Technically, Argus Rosencrantz DeMontblanc was free from any obligation with the dissolution of his former employers' merchant house. Yet his sense of duty, and memories of the young boy he served and protected, compelled him to answer the call. He was surprised when he received his message, but relieved that his former charge was making something of himself.

After he had been discharged from this duty, Argus founded his own mercenary company. For a while, the Iron Watchtower succeeded in several jobs. Argus had even found a perfect partner in his second-in-command.

The dream came to a sudden and tragic end. One of their own, a trusted lieutenant, betrayed the company. Framed for crimes they did not commit, the Iron Watchtower was eliminated in a final battle. Argus' partner died in his arms as their fortress burned down around them. Yet Argus somehow survived.

And so, when a request for aid from his former employer arrived, he packed and set off immediately. If he could help his former charge, then maybe he can redeem his service to his old employers. He failed to aid them avoid their fate, he would not fail again.

Entering the trading post, he saw him. It was not hard, he was the only gnome there, but even then, Argus had to take a moment to be sure. He had last seen him only as a child, but now he had grown into a young man. He looked hardier, more experienced. But it was definitely him.

Argus marched up to him, ignoring the stares from any onlookers. "Mister Jan—"

Jupus whipped his head around at the voice, his eyes wide opened. "Shhhhhhhh!" he hissed loudly, a finger on his lips at the new arrival.

He looked around nervously to see if anyone heard the large man. With a hesitant laugh, Jupus pushed Argus around the main house where no one could see them.

The rest of the Company wondered what that was all about, but they each had their own secrets, so they would not push for an explanation. At least, for now. They heard only a hushed, but active, conversation. After a few minutes, the two returned. Jupus introduced Argus to the others.

"He's an old acquaintance of mine. I believe his skill at arms will aid us in our expedition," the gnome explained.

The large man gave the Company a sharp nod. "Indeed. Mister... Jupus has explained what has been going on. I would be happy to join you and help."

Thus Argus Rosencrantz DeMontblanc joined the Evergreen Company.

Sky Suleiman was happy to have finally left Lurindor. The sylph spellcaster would have left much sooner, but certain affairs forced him to limit his movements. It was a harrowing few months, always looking over his shoulder. He was immensely relieved to receive the missive from his step-sister. It was all the excuse he needed to go.

Arriving at the trade post, Sky was greeted by Davona with an embrace. "Sky, I am so relieved to see you again."

"Thanks, sis. It's good to see you, too. It's about time you called for me!"

"I know, but things have been… difficult. I didn't want to bring you into any more danger, with… you-know-what going on, but we need your help down here."

Sky was surprised. It was always difficult for his sister to admit needing help. He looked at her closely. There was something… off about her. When he last saw her, after she was ordained by the Church of Kaï-den, there was such a brightness about her. Now, that brightness was missing. And when he looked into her eyes, there was a cold, but familiar anger in them.

"What happened?" the arcanist asked softly.

In hushed tones, Davona explained what happened, how she lost her paladinhood and the grace of Kaï-den. Of what she had to do to make amends. Of the struggle within her between her commitment to the tenets of Kaï-den, and her thirst for vengeance.

Sky listened to it all, and embraced his sister once more. She was always the stronger one, but it seems that this land and its challenges have taken a heavy toll on her.

"I'm here now, sis," Sky told her. "I'll do whatever I can to help you. Whatever danger is out there, we're going to face it. Together."

After some introductions, the newcomers were formally inducted into the Evergreen Company, witnessed by the other occupants of the trade post. The Company formed themselves into two teams, with the original members as team one, and the newcomers in team two. The actual names and team splits were still up for discussion.

As team one needed time to recover, team two opted to continue the surveying, and get their first taste of what was in store for them in this new land. They resumed team one's exploration of the Gnarlwood, minus Ayaki who still had some things to look for around the trade post.

Making their first camp, their campfire was immediately doused by water appearing out of thin air. It only happened a few first times, and Sky only managed to detect a glimpse of illusionary magic. They wondered what was going on.

Back at Onestrio's, the members of team one wondered if they had forgotten to tell their new companions about something.

That night, team two's first real encounter in the forest was a rot grub the size of a small pony. The giant vermin successfully ambushed them while they slept, even catching Argus off guard while he kept watch.

The rot grub managed to wrap itself around Argus, and gnawed on his armor. The large man was nonplussed; the grub's mandibles were not even making a dent. With a sharp shout, Argus woke up Rishoi and Sky.

"Hey, mind finishing this off?" Argus asked. He was gripping the grub by what would have been the scruff with one hand. Held in place, the other two blasted the giant grub to pieces with magic and bullets.

"That was easy," Sky remarked.

"If that's the type of danger we'll be facing out here, I wonder why they needed us," Rishoi said.

"Well, we are working folk, after all," Argus said. "No disrespect to the others, but the rough, wild lands may be too much for our upper-crust society companions."

The others chuckled, although Sky did so a bit more nervously.

The next day, the party discovered a hidden cache of goods. Some valuables, a magic wand, and a worn out spellbook that still had several readable spells. So far, this exploration was looking up for team two!
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Session 8
Vandarkaï 27th, 108 6A
Onestrio's Trading Post

"I need a bed."

Jupus looked to Arina questioningly.

"We've been sleeping on the ground every night while we're traveling," Arina continued while she stretched to get rid of the creak in her back. "If we get to sleep at the trading post, I'd at least like it to be in a decent bed."

Jupus was not feeling very sympathetic to the former noblewoman. He had long since gotten used to sleeping without a bed. At least out here, there was no naughty word lying underneath him. Still…

"Well, this place is getting pretty crowded," the gnome mused. "We should start expanding. Maybe a bunkhouse? I imagine our prisoners would really appreciate having more than a pile of hay to sleep on. And Onestrio would appreciate being able to enter his storehouse without an armed escort."

"Splendid idea! Let's start getting the resources needed for this." Arina was already calculating what resources and how much of them they would need.

Davona was ambivalent about the idea.As far as she was concerned, they deserved less than a storehouse. Like a shallow grave.

However, she knew those thoughts were contrary to her path of redemption. As much as it galled her, she knew that more comfortable lodging had a higher chance of convincing their prisoners that the Company was going to keep their work as long as the former bandits did. With reluctance, she joined her companions in this endeavour.

Meanwhile, Cethin had been keeping himself scarce, appearing only in his guise as Rob the bartender. The other kitsune unnerved him. Her story of a long lost brother, switched at birth, matched exactly the story his guardian had recounted to him as a child.

Was his coven, the Nine-Tail Coven, the witches that were promised land in Iku? Everything lined up too closely for it to be coincidence. So, if Cethin really was this Ayaki's lost brother Yasu, what did that mean for him?

Tuck Tootle, the "king" of the mockingfey and Cethin's fairy patron, was of no help. As usual, Tootle responded to Cethin's inquiries with mocking jibes, ostensibly to stimulate insight. Or so Cethin hoped that was the intention.

If he was to be completely honest, an act he gifted only to himself, the whole story was entirely in character for his coven. He had seen his former family engage in numerous sneak deals that turned the tables over the other party; many that he himself had a hand in. What happened to the House of Iku was entirely in line with what they had done to those who failed to uphold their side of any bargain with his coven.

Perhaps it was selfish, and Cethin was happy to own up to his own selfishness, it was a whole different feeling when he was the one on the receiving end of Ninte-Tail trickery. On the other hand, the mischievous kitsune had to admit it was quite the feat.

Cethin resisted the urge to growl out his frustration. He never had to think this seriously before! Seriously, how do the other three deal with their drama? Thinking about it, Cethin concluded that the answer was 'not well'. Fortunately, a distraction soon arrived.

As he was cleaning some glasses, Onestrio walked up to his bar. "Welcome back, Rob! How about a beer?"

'Rob' took one look at Onestrio. The man had a slight unsteadiness in his stance. His eyes were a bit bloodshot. A faint smell of alcohol was already on his breath. Rob made a decision.

"I think you've already had enough, Onestrio," said the bartender. "You should take a break."

Onestrio was taken aback. He slammed his open palm down onto the bar counter. "Now listen here! What kind of bar doesn't serve drinks? And don't forget whose outpost this is!"

The barkeep took a deep breath, and then looked Onestrio straight in the eye. In his most suave voice, he told the other man, "Sir, think about it. You're the owner and caretaker of this now prosperous tradepost. But you need to keep a clear head and steady hand to keep it that way. I'd be happy to serve you a drink, free of charge, even, but only once you've shaken off the effects of your last drink."

Onestrio was still unhappy, but mollified now. The respectful tone and compliments about his life's work agreed with him. The man grunted, then walked off.

Rob thought he had gotten through to the man, but a little while later, he spotted Onestrio behind his house. From the corner of his eye, Rob saw the man uncap a flask, and drank from it deeply.

Sighing, he shook his head and walked off. The shapeshifted kitsune felt a heavy feeling inside him. Great, was that supposed to be guilt? No, that would be nonsense. But maybe there was a hint of regret regarding some certain past actions...

He came across the priest Joram, who was counselling several of the former bandits on how rewarding hard work can be. Hmm, perhaps some sage advice would be in order. Not for himself, of course...

Once Joram was done speaking with the prisoners, the bartender approached the cleric of Deianeira. He told him about Onestrio and his drinking, and his own attempt to cut him off.

"Something's obviously troubling him," Rob ended his explanation to the priest.

Joram nodded solemnly. "Thank you for telling me this, and for trying to help him. I will speak with Onestrio whenever I can, and try to relieve what ails him."

Rob nodded, and hoped it would be enough. For both their sakes.

Ayaki had grown frustrated. She knew that the other kitsune, her long-lost brother, was here somewhere. She had, quite literally, caught his scent at this trading post. But for the life of her, she could not find him!

Finally, she decided to go join the other newcomers currently in the wild. She had committed her services to the Evergreen Company's mission for the time being in exchange for residing at Onestrio's, and ronin or not, she would honour her pledge. Besides, hacking away at monstrous beasts was one way to work out her frustrations, and perhaps she would pick up a new trail.

The ronin had caught up to Argus, Sky, and Rishoi quite quickly thanks to her mighty steed, the horse Thunder. Team two had no need to obscure their tracks, so it was also quite easy for Ayaki to follow their trail.

Upon meeting up, she and the others exchanged friendly, but curt, greetings. They still hardly knew each other, after all, joined together due to the goals of others. The four of them then continued the exploration of the Gnarlwood.

That night, Ayaki got her first taste of the dangers of the wilderness. She had volunteered to take the first watch while the others slept. All was quiet in the night until her sharp senses noticed the grass around her shift. Before she could react, the grass seemingly erupted around her!

No, not grass. Thick and long vines lashed out from the vegetation that hid them, and wrapped around Ayaki. The vines were incredibly strong, and began crushing and choking the girl. With horror, Ayaki recognized the danger from her studies. They had made camp amidst an assassin vine!

A dangerous carnivorous plant, assassin vines were much more active in acquiring their nutrients. They generally used their camouflage to wait in ambush for unsuspecting prey travelling pass, but it was not unknown for them to actually crawl and wander in search for food.

No! I've heard enough stories to know where this is going to go! Ayaki panicked. The murderous plant was crushing the kitsune ronin to death.

Ayaki refused to die so early in her life. She had too much to do. She had to find her brother, restore the honour of her clan, and reclaim her inheritance. With incredible resolve, the young woman was able to grab and loosen the vine around her throat.

"Wake up!" she cried out in a hoarse voice. It was enough to rouse the veteran adventures.

But before her new companions could react, all of the grass and roots around them suddenly grew in length, and started writhing around them. A gift from the assassin vine. The enlarged plantlife started entangling the new members of the Evergreen Company.

"What the Seven Hells?!" Rishoi spat out. She drew her revolver and started firing at the mass of vines.

Argus rolled out of his bedroll. Thanks to his strength, he easily broke free of the entangling grass, and grabbed his earth breaker. He felt very naked without wearing his armour. Nonetheless, he shuffled up to the assassin vine, and started swinging his deadly maul into it.

Sky sat up in his bedroll. He was amazed at the way this killer plant moved, but that amazement was tempered by how dangerously it was mangling Ayaki. Sky knew better than to get close to it, lest he suffered the same fate as his new companion. In fact, he had something to help with that.

Reaching into his pack, the sylph pulled out some alchemical grease and started applying it all over his body. The enlarged grass around him easily slipped off his greased form.

Now fully roused, and pumped full of adrenaline, the new Evergreen company smashed and shot at murderous plant. However, it was Ayaki's slash with her wakizashi that delivered the killing blow. She was unceremoniously dropped to the ground as the vine died. The vegetation around them returned to their normal size and behaviour.

"Damn, Ayaki, I thought you were done for!" Sky exclaimed as he rushed to provide her with some celestial healing.

"Good job, girl," Rishoi said approvingly.

The kitsune ronin could only groan. While taking care of Ayaki, Sky collected some of the assassin vine's juices into a vial. This could be useful…

The next morning, Rishoi and Argus were woken by getting slapped in the face by the two halves of the assassin vine. Severely annoyed, Rishoi threw it away in the air, and shot it. There was some faint clapping from the trees. The applause was not appreciated by the irate bounty hunter.

On the other hand, Argus awoke groggily to the slap. Looking at it, he only muttered "What is this?", then rolled over and got a bit more sleep.

Another prank was that Ayaki's and Sky's horses changed colours. Ayaki's horse was pink with red hair, and Sky's was blue with rainbow-coloured hair. Unlike the other two members of their party, Ayaki and Sky were amused.

"I'm not even mad," Ayaki said. Sky even used his own magic to keep the illusion up after the feys' original illusion had faded.

Another time, Rishoi sat down, and a loud farting noise was heard. "You know what, enough's enough," she said, and she started firing wildly into the trees. Tiny laughter could be heard, ending with another fart noise in Rasho's direction.

"Not helpful," Ayaki muttered at Rishoi.

Several days later, the Evergreen Company encountered a naturally made shelter of fallen trees and branches. What was not natural was the area around it.

The ground had been torn up, covered in plenty of debris of broken branches, overturned stones, and more dreadfully, the remains of dead animals. Including those of men.

Animal tracks were immediately apparent. It was hard to miss the massive hoof tracks heavily pressed into the ground. They were large enough to easily crush even Argus' head.

The beast that made these tracks was hard to miss. The first sign of its presence, even before it emerged from the shadows of the fallen trees, was its scent. The smell was potently rank and musky, smelling of animal waste and rotten food. It reached the noses of the Company while they were nearly a hundred feet away from the den.

A deep, thundering growl emerged from the shadows within the den. It was followed by the hulking figure of a gigantic boar, dwarfing in size even Ayaki's own powerful steed. Its thick hide was covered in many scars. A pair of enormous, jagged tusks protruded from its maw, each as large as Argus' torso.

The beast huffed and snorted ferociously, stamping its hooves in the ground as its bloodshot eyes stared daggers at the party.

"This must be Tuskgutter," Rishoi said.

Sky immediately cast a spell. Tuskgutter squealed and snorted as he slipped onto the grease coated ground beneath his hooves. Ayaki and Argus charged forth on horseback towards the down beast.

Rishoi fired her pistol, but missed horribly. "Damn it! C'mon Rishoi! Get your head in the game!" the malephilim muttered to herself angrily.

Ayaki's katana swung true, and sliced deeply into the beast's side. Tuskgutter roared in pain. Argus lifted his earth breaker over the beast, but the boar swirled around and gored Argus' horse. The former housecarl slammed hard into the ground, but he narrowly dodged his horse's falling corpse.

As Rishoi continued firing, Sky summoned a celestial eagle over Tuskgutter. Although the bird did little damage against the boar's thick hide, it served as a useful distraction. Enough so that Argus could get back up on his feet and slam his maul into boar!

Argus and Tuskgutter tussled fiercely with each other. Ayaki saw an opening. She swung her katana again, and sliced through the boar's gut. Tuskgutter reared up and squealed in pain.

Another opening appeared. Ayaki swung again and missed, but Argus slammed his earth breaker down onto the Tuskgutter's head, cracking it open. In that one blow, the fearsome Tuskgutter of the Evergreen died.

Now that the giant boar was dead, the party skinned his body, harvested his meat, and severed his head to bring back. However, Argus lost his horse in the fight, so their travel speed slowed down.

The party set their direction to leave the forest, but surveyed the unexplored portions that were on their way. They returned to Onestrio's trading post a few days later. They turned in Tuskgutter's head to Gaspasi, the representative of the Monster Hunter Association of Lurindor.

"Marvelous!" he exclaimed. "You slew Tuskgutter! Please, recount to me the tale of your hunt of this fearsome beast."

The Company told him the story, and the old gentleman rewarded them with an enchanted longbow.

"This is Hide Piercer," Gaspasi told them. "It came to fame in the hands of the huntress Silvani Laralli. She graciously donated to the Association upon her retirement. May it serve you just as well."

The Company agreed that Ayaki should wield the bow. She was the only among them that was properly trained in using bows thanks to her samurai upbringing.

In addition to the bow, Gaspasi offered each of them an invitation to join the Association, which they all accepted. Sky, being already a member of the MHAL, was rewarded with having a successful one-star hunt added to his record.

The second Evergreen Company team reunited with the original members, and updated them on their discoveries. Once done, the group as a whole prepared for their next expedition.
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Session 9
When the away team returned to Onestrio's tradepost, they switched out party members. Arina and Cethin were itching to get back out exploring, and they left with Argus and Sky.

At the tradepost, Ayaki and Davona spent some time looking over the prisoners currently engaged in building their new accomodations. To encourage them on their rehabilitation, Ayaki gave them a passionate speech about how their hard work will make their lives better.

"I know that this is not the type of work that you came out here for, but know this. Your decision to take this path will reward you. Together, all of you, along with all of us, are building a better future here for everyone here. You are taking part in building something great, and you should all feel proud of that."

The kitsune ronin had a way with words. She had learned well from her father. A stab of sorrow once more followed that memory, but discipline was another thing Ayaki had learned. Any visible sign of sadness was well hidden.

Instead, Ayaki projected a voice full of confidence. Accompanying her words were sharp and precise gestures and poses, captivating attention at key moments in her speech.

The ronin princess had succeeded. The former bandits were visibly enraptured throughout her speech. When they resumed their work, it was with higher spirits and enthusiasm, and their productivity noticeably increased.

Davona looked in on Guido in particular, and gladly found that the young man made no further attempts to escape. Joram approached Ayaki and told her that her speech inspired him as well. He promised to help guide the prisoners on their rehabilitation.

Ayaki thanked him. It was a small act in the grand scheme of things, but perhaps this was the way forward to honour her father.

Out in the wilds, Sky and Argus woke up one morning to find their inventory laid out before them, rearranged in an absurd order. It was quite a mess, actually. Arina explained to her confused companions that there were fairies following them, and that they likely did this prank on the newcomers.

"Why didn't you tell us sooner that you have invisible pursuers?!" Sky exclaimed, frantically scanning around him left and right.

"You needn't worry, they've been quite friendly," Arina assured the sylph. "They even saved our lives one time, including Davona's."

"That's not very reassuring, but I am grateful to them for aiding my sister." Sky took out a potion of healing out of his pack, and left it out for the fairies.

Sky and Argus continued to be victims of harmless pranks, like getting their water swapped out with potions of reduce person, which thankfully lasted only a minute, and their gear hidden nearby and replaced with illusions. On another day, Arina and Cethin noticed signs stuck to Argus' and Sky's backs, with the former saying "I'm a big blockhead" and the latter saying "Full of hot air". Arina discreetly removed them before either of them noticed. Perhaps the worst was the two waking up to droppings hitting their faces from a flock of birds passing by. It seemed like it would take them some time to appease the little pranksters.

The Company delved further into the Gnarlwood. If their tracking was accurate, they were heading near the centre of the forest. Their trek was becoming more and more difficult. The brush had grown more tall and wild in this area. The trees were much older here, and their branches were long and gnarly. A significant overgrowth of brambles was the greatest obstacle in their way.

However, before they fully realised it, the Company suddenly found themselves no longer hacking through brambles. Instead, the gnarled branches opened up to reveal an amazing sight.

In front of the Company was a large clearing, but it was far from empty. At its centre was an exquisitely carved stone pool.A statue of a leaping elk, now covered in grime and moss, was erected at its centre. However, the pool's water was murky, and covered in patches of filth.

Behind the pool was a structure composed of a circle of trees enveloped by decoratively carved walls and roof of stone and timber. A giant, stone-carved elk's head hung above the entrance, supported by the branches of the neighbouring trees. The head drooped downwards, and its long and exquisite antlers reached down to the ground to frame the entrance. The entire structure was wrapped in thick layers of vines and moss.

This was no doubt the lost Deianeiran Temple of the Elk, for it matched Father Joram's description almost perfectly.

The tranquillity of the site was broken by the sudden roar from within the temple's structure. With heavy stomping steps, an enormous bear emerged. Its eyes were bloodshot, and thick saliva drooled out of its maw of large fangs.

Arina stepped forward, and called out to the beast in the most soothing manner she could. "Please, calm yourself, we mean you no harm!"

However, the beast was clearly overcome with a berserker rage. With a mighty roar that shook the trees, the bear charged out of the temple and towards the Company.

"Guess it's not in the mood to play!" Argus exclaimed.

The large man charged ahead of Arina, and met the bear head on. With a mighty swing, his earthbreaker slammed into the beast's chest, knocking the wind out of its charge.

Argus' action gave the rest of the team time to spread out and surround the bear. Hanging back a bit further away than the others, Cethin began reciting an encouraging limerick.

"Trekking through forest with brambles in our hair,"

Sky slicked the ground underneath the beast by conjuring a large puddle of magical grease. The bear slipped, and both Argus and Arina seized the opportunity to strike at it with deadly accuracy.

"We found an old temple guarded by a mad bear!"

The wounds and blood merely drove the bear further. The massive beast surged forward, and ripped into Argus with both of its claws. Tightening its grip of the man's torso, the bear lurched up, and sank its bloodthirsty maw into Argus' shoulder. Argus roared in pain as blood gushed out freely from his wounds.

"Claws splash our blood onto ground,"

Arina reacted immediately. She mentally called out to Mister Angelcakes, and she felt a familiar, painful sorrow flow through her. Droplets of Argus' spraying blood suddenly froze, seized midair by an unseen force. They exploded into a fine, red mist, then suddenly flew to envelop the bear. The beast roared as Arina's sorrow transformed into pain into it.

"But we will win this round,"

Arina followed up by executing shattered mirror's left-hand strike. She stabbed the bear once, then multiple mirrors appeared all around the beast. Within them, Arina's reflections all stabbed at the same point, the bear's heart. Blood sprayed out, and the bear bellowed out in pain. It collapsed to the ground in a pool of its own blood.

"And Evergreen Company are victors with flair!"

Upon its death, the grizzly let out an almost human sigh of relief. It then reverted to the shape of an old human man with a look of peace on his face, then rapidly decomposed to dust. The temple suddenly grew more vibrant as a breeze of fresh air swept through. The water in the pool was magically cleared of its algae.

"Amazing..." Arina whispered at the magical renewal around them.

"I think... the Lady of Frontiers has purified this place," Cethin surmised. "I believe we can tell Father Joram that this temple can once more be used for its sacred role."

Meanwhile, Sky was particularly drawn to the now-clear pool. He turned to the badly wounded Argus.

"Argus, try taking a drink of water from here," he told the bleeding mercenary.

Argus shrugged, then immediately regretted it as pain shot through his wounds. Yeah, he could definitely use a fresh drink right about now. Cupping his hands together, he scooped up some of the water from the temple's pool, and gulped it down. The wave of refreshment that filled his body was expected, but the warmth of healing magic that followed was a pleasant surprise. Argus checked, and yes, his wounds were not as bad as before.

"I suspected as much," Sky mused.

"Wait, you had me drink this without being sure of its effects?" Argus gave the wizard an accusing look.

"I concluded that your build is sufficient to ward off any potential ill effects. If you'll excuse me, I'm going to examine the temple's interior." Sky turned away, and quickly scurried away to escape the mercenary's glares.

The away team made camp within the temple. When they awoke, they found that their fairy tricksters had made a visit, but no tricks were played upon them this time. Instead, the only sign of their presence was a newly placed offering of forest fruits and sweets upon the altar of the goddess.

Back at Onestrio's, one of the guards assigned as lookout cried out, "Riders! Riders incoming!"

Ayaki and Davona rushed up the rampart. Lorenzo told them that they were not expecting any group this large. They had their working prisoners take shelter in the supply shed, and had the gates closed.

The new arrivals rode up into view. There were seven of them, armed and armoured. A dark skinned woman was leading them.

"Beware, this might be Vico's lieutenant, Ravenna!" Davona warned in hushed tones. She drew her sword, and Rishoi drew her revolver.

"Well, what's all this then?" the leader of the riders shouted. "Where's Onestrio?"

"Who are you, and what is your business here?" Ayaki shouted back from atop the rampart.

"My business is with Onestrio! Now bring his fat ass out here!"

Ducking out of sight, Ayaki used her kitsune powers to disguise herself as Onestrio. Jupus told the real Onestrio and his wife to hide back into their house, then he and Rishoi moved to hide nearby. As Onestrio, Ayaki opened the gates.

"So Onestrio! What's this business of closing your gates to the Stag Lord? And where is Vico?" Ravenna bellowed, then she paused. "Wait, who's that hiding over there?" Rishoi cursed as she was spotted.

"Looks like the fat trader grew a spine, boys!" Ravenna shouted as she drew her handaxes. "Let's teach'em a lesson!"

With deception no longer necessary, Davona came charging out, eager to deal pain to these outlaws. As she delivered a deep cut to Ravenna, Jupus conjured a ball of fire in one hand, and threw it at her, giving the bandit leader a nasty burn. Ravenna snarled, but her attention was taken up by the aggressive Davona.

Rishoi took aim at another bandit, and fired using the variable flux technique. There was a crack of thunder as the electrified bullet pierced its target's gut. The malephilim bounty hunter continued to provide cover fire for her new companions, including shooting a sword out of one of the bandit's hands.

The bandits in the rear, armed with longbows, returned fire, and Davona was badly hit. The forward line of bandit riders began closing around her. By rushing out so forward at the enemy, Davona left herself greatly exposed to enemy attacks. Although her armour was tough, enough arrows, axes, and swords found enough gaps to make her bleed heavily. The bandit who had his sword shot out of his hands scooped it up, and swung it down upon Davona's sword arm. Although it did not cut through the armour, Davona gasped as she felt the bone break, and collapsed to the ground, passing out from the pain.

Ayaki, having dropped her guise as Onestrio, charged out to support Davona. "You dare defy the heir of Iku?" she roared out, swinging her large katana, cutting a bandit across the chest. Despite her bravado, she was put on the backfoot with the bandits' retaliation. A swing of an enemy greatsword nearly lopped off her head, but she narrowly raised her hand to deflect it. She saved her neck, but at the expense of her hand, now mangled.

Over her shoulder, Jupus fired an arrow with deadly accuracy into one of the other bandits. He then rushed ahead to join Ayaki. "Lorenzo, Vittoria! We need your help up here!" he shouted on the way, and then pulled power from nature to heal Ayaki as she battled the bandits. The two hired guards left their post guarding the prisoners, and joined the fight at the tradepost's entrance.

One of the bandits in the rear returned fire, but at Rishoi, piercing her hand with an arrow. The malephilim cursed, and switched hands on her revolver. She fired back, taking out the bandit.

Lorenzo and Vittoria now joined the melee. With a deadly swing, the experienced mercenary decapitated one of the bandits. This allowed Ayaki to fall back. With a whistle, she called her trusty steed Thunder to her. As she mounted, Joram ran over to her, and called upon Deianeira's power to heal some of her wounds.

Jupus hustled over to Rishoi's position, and bestowed some nature healing of his own upon her. Reinvigorated, Rishoi fired strikes the hourglass at Ravenna, hitting her in the gut, and the bandit let out a string of curses. Ayaki then charged at her upon her thundering steed, and gave the bandit leader a nasty, bleeding cut.

The curses kept spewing out of the bandit's mouth. "Don't think you can get away with defying the Stag Lord!" Ravenna spat.

"You talk a big game, but you're going to die like a dog," Rishoi retorted. The malephelim charged her gun with supernatural fire, and shot the bandit. The burning bullet slammed into her chest, and Ravenna fell to the ground, unmoving.

The three remaining bandits glanced at each other once their leader went down. Having not expected this kind of resistance, and already hurt to varying degrees, they all had the same idea. As one, they turned their horses around, and galloped away from the battle as fast as possible.

The Company let them go. They were in no condition to chase after them until Joram and Jupus administered healing magic to the wounded. But one thing was for sure, today was their victory.
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Session 10

The Evergreen Company away team continued their exploration of the Gnarlwood. Arina caught a glimpse of something out of the ordinary amidst the foliage. She then felt a cold, but familiar presence, brush beside her cheeks. Her old friend, Mister Angelcakes, helped sharpen her eyesight, allowing her to recognize the oddity that caught her attention: the upper tip of a bow.

"Beware, ambush!" she cried out. Now alerted, the Company noticed a total of five figures hiding amidst the foliage and trees, all aiming longbows at them.

"They see us, boys! Take them down!" cried out one of the attackers.

Argus reacted first. He urged his horse forward at the nearest attacker. Just as he came up to him, the mercenary hopped off his horse, and used the momentum to slam his earthbreaker at the archer's chest. There was a sickening crunch of bone as the bandit crashed against the tree he was hiding behind.

Cethin began reciting poetry, enhanced with bardic magic, that viciously mocked their attackers which encouraged his own team. Sky conjured a snowball, and thanks to Cethin's encouragement, accurately threw it in one of the archer's face. The sylph wizard followed up with the cold by firing rays of frost at their attackers.

Arina aimed towards another attacker. She flashed out of her saddle in a crimson blur, and appeared behind her target. Her blade was already, its tip reddened with blood. The archer looked down in disbelief at her wet and reddening chest to realized that she was already stabbed.

The ambushers returned fire, hitting Arina, but missing the others. Arina briefly saw red, and called upon Mister Angelcakes. All of the archers were wracked with sudden pain from her imaginary friend's sudden embrace. The young woman then stretched her open hand out, then suddenly closed it into a fist. The ambushers screamed as a mist of minute, droplets of blood were ripped out fo them into the air. The individual strands of crimson mist then coalesced into one, then flew into Arina's wound, which then healed.

Cethin began to play riff on his lute in the direction of another ambusher. As the notes left his lute, they formed into sharp, glassy shards in the air. They shot forth at Cethin's target, shredding into his skin.

On the other side of the fight, Argus jerked back as an arrow finally slipped through his psionic armor, and hit flesh as opposed to all the others plinking off of him.

"Finally!" roared the archer.

"Nice, but you only get one," Argus rumbled as he stomped towards his attacker. He made good on his promise, and smashed his opponent's head into wet, bloody chunks.

Nearby, Arina finishes off another attacker. She initiates shattered mirror's left-hand strike, and a hundred little mirrors manifest around the bewildered archer, each mirroring Arina's rapier in her grip. When she thrusts her rapier at her opponent, so to do her reflections emerge form the phantom mirrors, impaling him from many different directions. He colappsed to the ground with a hundred bleeding holes.

"Oh gods, they're monsters!" cried out one of the remaining archers. He turned and ran, but came just in range of Argus. The towering man swung his earthbreaker in the way, and crumpled in the man's chest, sending him crashing to the ground.

The last attacked tried to flee as well, but Cethin swapped out his lute for a loaded crossbow. He fired, and the bolt pierced through the man's neck, from the back and out the front of his throat. The man tumbled into a roll, and fell still.

All of the attacked were now dead. A quick inspection of the bodies revealed a silver amulet in the shape of a stag's head. This confirmed what the team suspected, that these were more of the Stag Lord's minions.

"Well, at least these attacks allow us to thin out their numbers," Argus said. They collected anything of value from them, and disposed of the bodies, then made camp for the night.

The next morning, Argus and Sky woke up to a bizarre, and somewhat gruesome, scenario. They found themselves surrounded by the bodies of the slain bandits, with their cold, dead hands placed on inappropriate parts of themselves. The two prank victims finally gave in, and grumbly offered a small fortune to the hidden fairy pranksters. They finally seemed to have appeased them, as there were no subsequent pranks in the following days.

Almost a week of exploring the Gnarlwood past since the attack. It was mostly uneventful, except for a fight with a pair of giant mantises. Giant, carnivorous insects were a common hazard in the wild. Thankfully, well-armed adventurers like the Evergreen Company were present enough to cut their numbers down to manageable levels. The team made sure to do their part that day.

that was all the excitement in the past several days until the away team found a set of tracks. They followed them further south in the forest. They discovered that the tracks led them to an encampment of treehouses. "House" was a bit of an exaggeration, they were mostly platforms with a roof and maybe a wall or two, built ten, twenty, thirty feet up, using the trees as supports. Ladders connected them to the ground, and rope bridges connected them to each other.

All seemed quiet in the camp, and there was no movement to their approach. Arina climbed up to explore one of the treehouses, while the rest of the team spread out to investigate the camp grounds.

"Attack!" an unseen voice suddenly shouted.

Bandits emerged from their hiding spots. Some were up in the treehouses, and there was another group on the ground. The Company made ready to fight once more.
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