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.
"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.
"Shit, 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!