That night, they dreamed they had returned home from their crusade, greeted with a hero’s welcome to their home town. All cares were lost, to be back with friends and family, drinking, laughing. Children danced around the maypole, young girls with flowers braided in their hair chased each other about, and tables had been laid out in the clearing with colorful banners hung in their honor. The whole town had come out. They smelled the delightful, pungent smell of grapes and wine, and they sat outside in the sun, enjoying the company of those they love.
Then something out in the forest beyond the clearing caught their attention. It was the shadowed form of a little boy, watching from just beyond the edge of the forest. But the eyes…
They turn to ask their friends about it, and see them, filling their flagons with the blood of hanging corpses of dogs.
They awoke with a start at the first bell. It took a moment for them to remember where they were – the storage barn for the vineyard at the hermitage, where they had decided to spend the night.
The events of the last few days came rushing back again: the haunted priory at Hanburg, the devil-taken town of Asparn, the grisly autopsy of Brother Drogo, and the manhunt for a dying child in the old Celtic graveyard which turned the hunters into the hunted…
The bell pealed again, loud and insistent, far louder than back at the Civitas, and they were impossible to ignore. Dragging themselves out of slumber, they peered out the great wooden doors at the hermitage beyond.
It was as if the previous night hadn’t happened. The hermits were going about their daily routines – one man was feeding the pigs from a sack of corn, and another was carrying water from the well. With a loud crack, a third chopped the first in a pile of firewood using an awl. The peasants were already out in the fields.
But all was gray, especially after the cheery scene from their dreams. The sky was overcast, quiet but threatening rain. It was cold.
Closing the door again, they turn to each other in the dim light to decide how to proceed. They decide to wait a bit and speak to Brother Christian after he’s had a chance to awaken and set his hermitage in order for the day. While they waited, Hugo gave Gisla a quick lesson on how to use her new sword, just in case she needed it, and while her companions were so occupied, Bjork saw to her morning prayers.
When the hermitage was calmer, they approached and knocked on the door. Brother Addo came to the door, and when they asked to speak to Brother Christian, he nodded, invited them in, and went to fetch him.
When he emerged, it was clear he had been through a rough night. He looked dishevelled and weary, with great bags under his eyes. He looked like he hadn’t slept all night.
He led them out to the woodcutting area outside, and confirmed this in the ensuing conversation. He had stayed up all night consulting his library in the hopes of some passage shedding light on their situation. Unfortunately, he had nothing to share but his disdain for the vile, apocryphal texts he was perusing. He had acquired them in Persia, while traveling with a muslim scholar he had met named Abdul Alhazred, and their blasphemies were many, but he was beginning to think there was more truth to them than he had ever feared.
The irregulars explained that they were at a loss as to how to proceed, for it seemed like there were more mysteries to deal with than could be attacked. With his calm demeanor and thoughtful analysis, Brother Christian helped them narrow down their options. In particular, he admonished them not to put much stock in omens and portents, and to instead proceed on what they know, using facts and logic.
Ultimately, they decided that their first task would be to retrieve the body of Brother Erik from the woods, both to give him a decent Christian burial, but also to search for clues in daylight as to what had happened. Brother Christian admonished them not to go into the woods alone, to take some worthies with them. The obvious choice were militiamen from the civitas, but the group was not sure they trusted Lord Brant, and so Brother Christian suggested the foresters from the camp west of town; they were men of strength and also knew their way around the forest, unlike the militiamen.
As they concluded their conversation, Bjork offered to assist Brother Christian in his library should he need it, but Brother Christian demurred, saying that he wouldn’t wish reading pages from the Kitab Al-Azif on his worst enemy, and bid them farewell.
Brother Christian returned to the hermitage, and the group headed back to the wine storage building to collect their horses. Suddenly, they heard the sound of something rustling in the bushes nearby, and with a dash, ran into the forest, where they caught a peasant boy with a pig looking terrified of them. The boy called for his mother and father as Bjork tried to calm the boy down, and quickly got him calm enough for him to reveal why he ran: he had seen one of the White Women! Pointing into the woods, the boy gestured where he had seen her, and Bjork released the boy, telling him to run to his parents.
Hugo drew his sword and bounded headfirst into the woods, with Bjork and Gisla running quickly after him. They quickly found the place where the White Woman had been seen, but it was strange, for no such thing awaited them. They found only a human handprint in the moss, the size of an adult’s. Slowly, they traced a set of tracks that led from the handprint directly into the forest. They went several hundred yards, and ended in a series of strange tracks in the ground that looked like canvas bags were dragged back and forth.
Hugo suspected there may be something buried there, and began digging, while Bjork looked up to the skies and treetops, remembering the fate of the two dogs. They found nothing, but were quickly overcome by a throbbing, blinding pain that stabbed from behind their eyes The headache was searing, and they decided that the woods were likely unsafe, and they ran back to the hermitage.
Thankfully, the headache subsided, and they climbed on their horses and headed for Laa.
On the road, Hugo shared with his companions what he knew about the Kitab Al-Azif that Brother Christian had mentioned, that it was a book better known by it’s Latin title: Necronomicon. Worse, the “mad arab” Alhazred was its author, and Brother Christian claimed to have traveled with him. From what Hugo knew of the book, wise men sought it out only to burn it without even opening it, so dreadful were its contents. Even the most pious men had been known to turn away from the church upon reading it, and Brother Christian had already said that he was having trouble reconciling what he had seen on his travels in Persia with his love for God.
Suddenly, the one person they thought they could count on – Brother Christian – was seeming more sinister than any.
Still, they deemed the idea to use the foresters to retrieve Brother Erik to be sound. Upon reaching the clearing where Laa stood, they decided to avoid Laa altogether and head for the forester’s camp. Heading down the western path, they plunged again into the woods. Soon, they arrived at the forester’s camp, a small man-made clearing piled high with stacks of hewn logs. In the center of the clearing were a cluster of conical wooden lodges covered with moss and pelts. All around the camp, near the base of the trees, were carved strange little symbols which they later learned were to keep the White Women at bay by giving them a place to hide from the Dark Merchant.
Once there, they recruited a burly, strong man by the name of Aistulf, who in turn tapped Berenfrid and Erhard to accompany them into the woods to retreive the body of Brother Erik. Which Aistulf was ready to help, the rest of the camp seemed skittish on the idea, and only Aistulf’s prodding dragged them along.
On the return trip towards Laa, the group heard a strange buzzing sound, which they soon discovered to be hibernating bees in the wood, which were kept by the foresters for honey and wax. But they noticed that the sound of bees was quite different than the buzzing sound they’d heard before…
Once back at Laa, the group headed past the Slavic homestead and out into the old graveyard. Aistulf looked everywhere with his axe, while Berenfrid and Erhard looked ready to fly at any moment.
As they entered the old Slavic graveyard, they found things much the way they had been left. Brother Erik’s body still lay crumpled on the far side of one of the biers, and the grisly sight of the decapitated dogs remained.
Aistulf heaved the body onto the back of Gisla’s horse, then proceeded to help them look for clues. They found sets of tracks that helped shed some light on what had happened; the boy had entered the clearing and walked over to one of the biers. There, a struggle had happened, for there were some stones displaced and blood on the ground. From there, a pair of booted footprints ran towards another bier where Brother Erik had been struck down.
It had started to drizzle, and already the marks in the ground were eroding away, so they decided to leave, much to the relief of Aistulf’s two comrades. They made it out of the woods with little problem, and the foresters took their leave.
Though curious as to Jan’s condition, they decided to leave the homestead in peace and return to Laa. There, they went to the church to turn over the body of Brother Erik to Priest Zutto, but the man wasn’t there. As they banged on the door again, Brun, from the inn across the street, peeked her head out the door and came over, asking what news they had to share, but this was cut off as she came face to face with the corpse of Brother Erik. After only a little conversation, the group asked Brun to stable their horses, and she nodded, taking the horses away to their stables.
Indeed, the priest was nowhere to be seen, so the group placed Brother Erik on the same table they had examined Brother Drogo. Gisla did a quick perusal of the body, but found only the sword stroke, and they left the building just as Brun had finished stabling the horses.
“Zutto hasn’t been here all day. He’s been in counsel with Lord Brant,” she told them, and they decided that perhaps they needed to be in on this meeting. They went to the internal gate and asked for an audience with Lord Brant. As they stood there in the rain, one of the guards ran to the tower-house to ask, and came back. “Raise the portcullis,” he said.
As they walked into Brant’s throne room, they found him not on his throne, but sitting at a table with Zutto off to one side, talking quietly. They’d clearly been talking a long while, and Lord Brant invited them to tell what news they had.
There, after informing Zutto that they had brought Brother Erik’s body to his church, they discussed with Brant and Zutto the events of the previous days. The landlord and his advisor were understandably upset and at a loss what to do, for clearly, their community was under attack by dark forces beyond mortal capability.
Naturally, the conversation turned to the pagans and their magic. Zutto declared that there were no more of the pagan cult in their community, and that the location of the pagan shrine, somewhere deep in the forest to the northwest, had been lost forever when Brant had the remaining pagans executed in the town square.
While they talked, it seemed that Lord Brant had a warlike anger towards the Magyars, and was unwilling to listen to reasonable arguments about their possible innocence in the strange events at hand. When the topic of the prisoner came up, this became especially heated, when discussion turned to the idea that the Magyars were delving into black magic.
As a result, Bjork became wary of Brant’s motives, feeling that perhaps their mission was not in Brant’s best interests, that Brant wanted to solidify power by keeping the people scared and the group of warrior-monks who might upset his power base from gaining a foothold.
They took their leave, more suspicious than ever, and pondered what to do next. As it was getting on towards noon, Gisla suggested they retire to the inn for a while to have a meal, dry off, and discuss things. Once inside, they were greeted by Brun and Burgolf, and they sat down for a midday meal. Brun came over, eager to hear whether the child had been found. She was disappointed to hear that the boy had not been found, and told the group that she was going to go help watch the children at the homesteads that night.
They asked her about Lord Brant, and she told them he was a good leader, and explained that his extreme reaction about the Magyars was likely due to his wife and daughter dying in a Magyar attack a few years ago. The group was unsure whether this information exonerated Brant, but it seemed to explain his ire in the throne room earlier.
They asked Brun more, and she began speaking of the history of the civitas, the routing of the pagans, the disappearances which happen regularly around the ends of May and November, and the tales people tell about them. When Burgolf heard what she was speaking of, he snapped at her, and told her to be quiet, then instructed her to go fetch some well water. This uncharacteristic behavior by Burgolf, in turn, raised suspicions, but again, was there something there, or was it just that everyone was on edge after the events of the previous night?
Bjork decided to go speak with Brun a little longer, and snuck out when Burgolf wasn’t looking, and had a brief counsel with her, but she was unable to discern why Burgolf was so keen on ending that conversation. When she slipped back in, Burgolf questioned Bjork as to where she had been, and although she offered a plausible destination (to see if Zutto had returned to prepare the body of Brother Erik), Burgolf was clearly unconvinced. Still, he let the matter drop, and let the group finish their meal.
But when they left and began walking through the civitas in the rain for some privacy, they had become wary of Burgolf as well, worrying about an attack in the night if they stay at the inn, deciding that perhaps they needed to post a watch when they sleep from now on.
As they were walking, they saw Brun ride out of the stables and out the gates, on her way to the homesteads.
Walking in the rain, the group found the privacy they needed to discuss their impressions. In the rain, the streets were largely deserted, and the sound of the rain cloaked their conversation in noise. They went over their impressions, suspicions, and theories, but were quickly realizing that they had little evidence for any of their hypotheses, and that it was very dangerous to follow up any of their leads. They considered going back to Asparn to look for clues, but deemed that too dangerous. They considered going to look for the ruined pagan temple in the woods for clues, but dismissed that, as well. They considered trying to make contact with the Magyar, but deemed that dangerous as well. They didn’t trust Brant or Zutto, because of their insistence on the influence of the Magyar and their apparent need to retain the status quo. They didn’t trust Brother Christian, because of his associations with the Mad Arab and his book. It seemed like they were at a dead end.
Just then, Brun came riding back into the civitas, panting. “Help! You have to come! Brother Kyril has returned!”
The three ran up to her, asking what was wrong. “Brother Kyril said he saw the foresters kill Dragan! That they strung him up and sacrificed him! There’s a group of angry slavs marching towards the forester’s camp right now! We have to warn them!”
Rushing for their horses, the group started to saddle up. Hugo said that if they hurried, they might be able to talk them out of it. And that’s when Brun said the most startling thing: “No, Brother Kyril said you were their spies, and to kill you, too!”