Abby went outside and followed Gloriana to the horses, but hung back silently at a respectful distance. Rahab, Lem, and Kara took some minutes to search the farmhouse. They found no other ghouls, only more butchery. In the master bedroom was a member of the Hambley farmstead, disemboweled and splayed profanely upon the bed in a tangled mess of linens, blood, and viscera. Rahab found a loose floorboard concealing a medium-sized, stout wooden chest; Lem located a rusty key on the corpse abed. Putting latter to former, the halfling opened the box and he and Rahab gazed upon numerous pouches of worn leather, each brimming with silver coins.
Kara peered over their shoulders. “A lifetime of farming money.”
“It avails them not,” Rahab said brusquely, then closed the box and locked it. The conjurer hefted it to his shoulder and the three ventured back outside, strode past the still burning barn sending a column of smoke into the night sky. Rahab helped Kara lash the chest to her horse.
Their patrol finally ended sometime close to the second bell of morning. They found another farmhand, a boy of some sixteen or so summers, lashed to posts, fevered and delirious. They untied him and placed him on Gloriana’s horse and they made their way slowly in the darkness and autumn chill back toward Sandpoint. They were quiet on the journey back, and Gloriana was distant. Horan and the farmhand moaned occasionally in their sickness. Lem fought against surges of nausea and something more, some lingering blight that stabbed at his consciousness like a needle made of bone. The discomfort in his body paled against the disquiet in his mind. He had begun to hear voices that were not his own, distant whispers like echoes in an underground cavern, ancient and hungry and keen to devour all flesh.
And the whispers were beginning to sound good.
It was just before dawn when the adventurers finally made their way slowly onto the southern dirt streets of Sandpoint, their horses wearily trudging north toward the cathedral. An acolyte was sweeping the front steps as they reined up and began to dismount with difficulty. Abby carried Horan bodily forward. Lem staggered stiffly behind. Gloriana and Rahab draped an arm of the farmhand around their shoulders and guided him toward the door. The acolyte did not tarry, but drew open the great portal and his sandaled feet echoed on the flagstones inside as he raced away to retrieve Father Zantus.
The priest appeared moments later as the party gently lowered their unconscious burdens to the chill stone of the cathedral floor.
“Great Dreamer preserve us,” Zantus murmured grimly, then dispatched the acolyte to bring water. The priest looked at Gloriana. “The fever?”
Gloriana nodded silently. Her eyes were sunken and red.
Kara stepped forward. “This farmer is Horan, of Greenfield Farm, and this hand we do not know, for he has never awoken. And this,” Kara indicated the halfling, “is Lem Gardener, our friend, who also has the illness. Rahab was struck, but not bitten.”
Zantus approached the wizard and grabbed his face, drawing him close to peer intently into the eyes. A moment later the priest nodded reassuringly. “You have no illness. Now, for the others, I have this,” and he released Rahab, turning to draw forth three slim glass vials stoppered in cork and filled with a pale pink liquid. He uncorked the potions and handed two to Kara, while he poured the third into Horan’s slack mouth, then closed the jaw with his hand to induce the swallow reflex. He repeated the same procedure with the young farmhand. The third vial he received back from Kara and handed to Lem. The gardener drank the contents down; it was bitter and clung obstinately to the tongue like honey slow to drain, but within a few moments there was a warmth brewing in his belly against the chill in his joints.1 The restorative flushed Lem’s cheeks and neck and the ache dissipated. The halfling stood in the quiet cool of the cathedral and listened for a long time, but there was no malign whisper anymore, no splinter of hunger pricking his thoughts.
The elixirs had similarly cured the farmhand and Horan. Roused from the stupor of impending undeath they stood blinking uncertainly at their mysterious surroundings. Zantus spent a few minutes speaking with each and directed one of the acolytes to guide them to nearby benches where the could take some rest.
The priest returned to the others. “You look exhausted.”
It was pointless to reply. Zantus spoke again. “I am very concerned. I gave rites over those two murdered the other day. I traveled with you to Habe’s Sanatorium to heal the bodyguard of this same affliction, and now you return from the southern farmlands with reports of ghouls slain in great numbers and three new victims of disease. This is most severe. What is happening?”
“Something terrible,” Gloriana said, her voice wretched and tired.
Zantus paused, started to say something, then shook his head. “You should get some rest. I will look after these two for now.”
The five filed out of the cathedral and made their way back to The White Deer Inn. They lodged their horses and secured a ground floor room for Lem, then retired each to their own quarters and slept until well after noon. The gardener’s rest was particularly welcome, for he found his dreams untroubled by nightmare, his sleep unbroken by pain.2
They awoke sporadically, and eventually gathered at dinner, which they took in quiet repose at The White Deer instead of their usual dining place at The Rusty Dragon. The meal was simple: Clear broth soup, hearty bread, raw onion and cucumber slices, red wine. Lem’s complexion was much improved. The rich color of living skin had returned, and his eyes had flushed themselves of the milky accumulations. The bite at his shoulder had scarred pale and clean, and he would bear the reminder of the ghoul attack on the geography of his flesh to the end of his days.
They spoke little during the meal and did not linger when finished, but returned to their rooms for more sleep; where Lem felt renewed, Gloriana languished in remorse. She was awake at the fourth morning bell and further rest eluded her. Draping her shoulders in silken scarves, she padded softly downstairs, moved behind the bar, and searched the kitchen for a boiled egg and piece of fruit. She saw Kara enter the room. The alchemist approached and took up a proffered pear. The women ate in silence for a while, returning to the main room and drawing chairs near the fire. Kara threw some new logs onto the dimmed embers and rekindled the blaze.
“There is some coin from the Hambley farm,” the elf remarked quietly. “A significant quantity in silver.”
“I will take three-hundred to send away with Horan and the lad,” Gloriana said after a while. “It is no compensation for their losses, but perhaps it will help in some small measure.” She shook her head, not truly believing the gesture meant anything. The knowledge of what had happened in the harvested fields lay perched on her conscience like a vulture on carrion, great black wings framing piercing, beady eyes the color of blood-soaked amber.
An hour later Horan and the youth from the fields received from Gloriana several pouches of silver to help them in the village until such time as they could return to the southern reaches beyond the Ashen Rise, to farmsteads dark and cold, to lands where drifting winds whistled gloomy among cut grain stalks and over the bodies of farm folk nevermore to till the land.
Gloriana sat with Father Zantus.
“Thank you for tending to Lem, and Horan, and the lad.”
“Desna gives dream to us all, and upon all her starlight shines in the darkest hours. Yet I see in you great turmoil, my child,” the priest reflected solemnly, his eyes kind and sad.
“I made a grave mistake,” Gloriana said glumly, her voice low.
“You witnessed terrible things in the fields, and during these past days, have you not?”
The honey-haired oracle nodded.
“How often we see such,” the priest continued. “How great the weight of fell events resting upon our brows. Tell me, my child: Have you ever known a life to proceed without mistake?”
Gloriana regarded Zantus acutely. His gaze matched her own.
“You cannot undo what has passed, neither deeds by your hand nor those by the design of others,” the older man continued. “The span of your dreams must include such things, but the measure of your life is not in what you would undo, but in what you do henceforward.”
Gloriana bowed her head against renewed tears.
“Trust in our Resplendent Goddess of Fortune, my child. What luck is unwritten we cannot yet know. Do you wish to say? It may help you in your course.”
Gloriana shook her head in uncertainty.
“At least let us join in prayer to entreat Desna’s absolution,” Zantus replied, “for whatever sin lies heavy on your soul. Then I bid you go forth in the knowledge that your work has been to the good. Undead on the doorstep of the village, already preying upon the farmlands, and you risked your life to venture against them. Not many would exhibit such strength, my child.”
Gloriana looked up and brushed at her eyes. She did not feel absolved. The burden of what happened in the fields would not so easily disperse. Nevertheless, she followed Zantus into the cathedral. She listened quietly as the priest raised his voice in approbation to The Song of the Spheres, invoking succor on Gloriana’s behalf. Acolytes struck crystal chimes with silver rods and incense was burned. As the priest intoned, the golden-haired woman’s unsettled thoughts drifted in despair, and she silently begged forgiveness, perhaps of Desna, perhaps of her people’s spirits, perhaps of the woman under the moonlight.
When the prayers were over and she made ready to leave, Gloriana felt more resolved, if not relieved. “I must report to the sheriff.”
Zantus walked her to the cathedral door. “Would you like me to accompany you in support?”
The oracle considered as she drew a long breath for courage. “No, thank you, Father Zantus. I will collect the others.”
“Very well. Return if you are in need. Goddess go with you, my child.”
As she strode into the autumn morning, Gloriana felt a new weariness mixed with an anger that had been subtly brewing in recent days. Making her way along the dirt streets in search of her companions, she wanted to grab hold of the whole village by the shoulders and shout in its collective face: Listen to me! Will you finally listen? I am not your “child!” I am not your “lady!” I am not your “hero!” I am Gloriana Gildentress, and be damned with the rest!
Her fists clenched and her stride increased. Something in her expression changed, and villagers normally cheered at sight of her grew solemn and reserved as she marched by with potent purpose.
They gathered at The White Deer and began the walk to Hemlock’s office.
“I have decided to tell the sheriff what happened to the farm woman,” Gloriana remarked sadly.
“I would advise against that,” Kara said.
“As would I,” Rahab concurred. Abby remained silent and Lem did not know what Gloriana was talking about.
“Something must be done. She needs to be treated according to the traditions of her people,” Gloriana insisted.
“Her people have fled or are dead,” Kara reasoned, “except for Horan and he is unlikely to return until the region is safe. What is there to do? The very farmlands are empty now. It is fortunate the harvest has already passed and winter approaches. Farmers may come back, Glori, but the land south of the Ashen Rise will be at pains to repopulate until such time as we can eliminate the ghoul threat.”
“We killed an innocent!” Gloriana could barely speak the words.
Rahab frowned at the term. “Technically, Abby killed her. At most, you are merely accessory. Regardless, we know nothing of her character. To describe her as ‘innocent’ is purest presump—”
“Rahab—” Gloriana stepped toward the conjurer, eyes afire.
“No, Gloriana!” The wizard’s voice suddenly rose, and he angrily confronted her in return challenge. Villagers on the street turned to look. “In the accounting of the cosmos, will it be your wounded sentiment that pays for all? More than twenty farm folk we met and destroyed, corpse-eaters all, and she another in the making! Would she have even reached the village? What would have happened when she could no longer contain the hunger? Now she suffers neither the agony of the disease nor the ravening of undeath nor the crushing labor of life scrabbled from the land! She is finally at peace and Abby did what she had to do!” Rahab’s jaw clenched in anger.
“Should we have left Grayst? Or Horan? Or Lem? Should we have shot them?” demanded Gloriana in growing ire, fear, and doubt.
Lem folded his arms: “Leave me out of this, human.” No longer ill, the halfling identified something grimly satisfying in the knowledge of ghouls destroyed. The disease had claimed something from him after all, had marked him deep with haunted memory, black and smooth and cold as a scar of marble in a garden. He was alive now, but undeath had been close, terrifying, seductive. Undeath had been real, and it was rapidly giving him focus.
“My point is not what we should or should not have done. My point is what was done and cannot now be undone,” replied the wizard, his voice lowering as he mastered himself once more. “Will it somehow unravel the events to tell the sheriff?”
“We must honor the spirits,” Gloriana insisted slowly as she regained her own self-control.
“Then honor them,” countered Rahab. “Tell me, Gloriana, whose spirit is served by confessing to Hemlock: The woman’s, or yours? And what happens if you tell Hemlock and he congratulates you for doing the correct thing?”
The oracle’s gaze was withering; the wizard’s in turn was defiant. Abby reached out and laid a gauntleted hand in support on Gloriana’s shoulder. “What happened is unfortunate, Glo, but we at least survived to continue the fight. Our work lies ahead of us,” said the warrior quietly.
The alchemist was nodding. “This requires our acute attention, Glori, more so because it is now very personal. And anyway, we should not have this discussion here.” The elf woman looked around at the ambient villagers making little effort to conceal their curiosity about the apparent dispute.
Gloriana did not move. “I am a healer,” she asserted quietly but resolutely.
“Yes, you are,” replied Abby, nodding, “and Rahab is right. There is now no healing that can restore the woman from the field. There will be time to mourn, but I would hate to do any more mourning knowing that I had not made haste to prevent further incursion by the ghouls or your murderous stalker. Let Father Zantus worry over the rites of the dead. We must determine our next steps and then take them.”
Abby took a few tentative steps down the street to encourage them on their errand. The five got slowly underway. Gloriana walked the rest of the way in reflective, gloomy silence.
Hemlock gave the appearance of a man very much struggling to maintain equilibrium. He took a sip from the coffee cup on his work table, sat slowly on his worn wooden chair, then leaned back against the wall so that the front legs lifted off the scuffed planks.
“How many?” he asked, folding his arms.
“Twenty-one,” replied Rahab.
The sheriff ran a large, calloused hand over his bald head and regarded the coffee cup with a fierceness intent on transmuting the liquid into brandy.
“Word from all over the southern farming region has been increasing: Corpse-eaters, and no idea where they come from.” Hemlock looked desperate.
A silence ensued. Gloriana was aloof, and it had been Kara who had tendered the introductory summary of the foray against the ghouls.
“Do you know who this murderer is who is so . . . interested in you?” asked the sheriff, trying to bring the oracle into the discussion.
“When I first came to Sandpoint I was pursued by Aldern Foxglove, even when I made it clear I was uninterested in his affections,” said Gloriana.
“Have you seen him recently?” the oracle asked.
“No. Do you think he has been sending these letters?”
Gloriana gave no answer, so Rahab interjected: “Yes.” Hemlock raised his eyebrows in surprise.
“What can you tell us of the Foxglove family?” inquired Rahab.
Hemlock shrugged uncertainly. “I don’t know much. I am having a hard time seeing him as a murderer.”
“Consider him a primary suspect, then,” Rahab explained with a faint note of impatience.
Hemlock regarded the wizard carefully, then continued: “The family owns an estate to the southwest called ‘The Misgivings.’ The place is supposedly haunted by some sort of bat-winged monster, some devil. The family lived at The Misgivings decades ago, but when some members died, the family left. From what I understand Aldern was just a child then, but he recently returned from Magnimar to take up residence and rehabilitate the property.”
The sheriff’s information was in accord with what the wizard knew of local history. Rahab guessed the likelihood of an actual Infernal presence unlikely, though he mentioned nothing.
“The only other thing I know is that he had a servant with him who would occasionally venture to Sandpoint on buying errands.”
“Of what kind?” asked Kara.
“You could check with local vendors, but as far as I know nothing more than hardware and dry goods: Nails, tarpaulin, that sort of thing. The servant was called Rogors Craesby, a local, former farmer, hired as a caretaker by Foxglove.”
“We’ve met.” Rahab gave a sardonic smile. “Craesby was at Hambley farm,” explained the wizard. “He has been promoted from caretaking to . . . recruiting, let us say. Though, you will be pleased to hear he no longer holds the position, as I myself can attest.”
Hemlock’s jaw clenched and unclenched for a moment, his expression suggesting that he did not regard Rahab’s sense of humor highly. The wizard ignored the look. Hemlock leaned back again.
“How far is The Misgivings?” asked Gloriana.
“Six miles, perhaps, along the coast to the southwest.”
“Then that is our next move,” said the oracle, and she rose without waiting for further discussion. The others followed suit. The sheriff remained leaning against the wall, arms folded, eyes fixed on his coffee now cold.
“Skinsaw Man,” Gloriana said. Lem did not know to what she referred, but Rahab was nodding again. The others looked on. They were all standing in the street outside Hemlock’s office as the village went about its morning.
The wizard faced the oracle. “Grayst Sevilla, Skinsaw Man, The Misgivings, Rogors Craesby. Whatever else he is, Foxglove is central to this.”
Gloriana looked around at the others. “We should get ready. What time will you need?”
“No more than a day,” Kara said. Abby agreed, then motioned for Lem to follow her. Warrior and gardener strode away. Gloriana, Kara, and Rahab soon did the same.
Abby accompanied Lem to purchase a short bow and some arrows. Gloriana moved about town querying villagers about The Misgivings and Foxglove, but while everyone she met was only too pleased to make conversation, the oracle learned little more than what was already known. Rahab undertook a similar exercise at Mayor Deverin’s office looking through local clerk records and official documents under the cautious but curious eye of no less than the mayor herself. The effort proved useless as the wizard discovered that regional paperwork did not exactly measure up to his own rigorous archival standards for organization and accuracy. Kara brewed a potion of healing which she gave to Lem later in the day when he had returned to The White Deer with his new weapon. In the afternoon Rahab located a merchant with two precious scrolls scribed with one of the most significant spells known: Arcanistry to dispel magic. The scrolls cost dearly, but the wizard considered the coin minor compared to the value of the magical power itself. Practically giddy, the conjurer made haste to copy one of the scrolls into his own spellbooks, and tucked the other safely away on his person.
After helping Lem secure a bow, Abby made her way through town and surprised even herself when she managed to strike up fruitful conversation with a fishwife at the docks. Encouraged by the pint of ale Abby retrieved from The Hagfish, the fishwife leaned on her stall and gabbed pleasantly, describing her understanding that The Misgivings had been built some eighty years ago, and just two decades after that the family suffered some great tragedy that resulted in many deaths. The remaining Foxgloves shunned the place, abandoning it to decline for forty years until recently when the minor noble Aldern returned to reclaim the property. That evening at dinner the warrior relayed what she had learned.
Afterwards Abby and Gloriana strolled the darkening streets, making their way northeast out of town.
The women made quiet conversation in the glow of the warrior’s hovering lightstone. “How are you?” asked Abby.
The oracle sighed heavily. “Furious,” she finally replied.
“The farm woman.”
“I know it is difficult,” Abby began, “but I think he was right about not making the situation more complicated.”
“Ghosts of the road, Abby, it’s not just that!” The oracle’s tone was exasperated. “It’s everything.”
Abby said nothing.
“He doesn’t seem to care, as if everything is some kind of cosmic jest. Foxglove, the ghouls, the woman in the field, Sandpoint, all of it. Does he care for anything other than his own ego? How can one so smart be so stupid?” A ghostly shape manifested momentarily in the nearby air, then vanished almost immediately. They walked on as Gloriana fumed in silence.
“It’s not as if the rest of us have failed to demonstrate any worth,” she resumed after a while. “And what is his value? What has he shown or done that we could not have achieved on our own? Has he ever expressed real, meaningful gratitude? I tried to thank him that night after dinner during the passage of gifts, and he acted strange, withdrawn, like it was some sort of affront or embarrassment! I’m on the verge of striking the arrogant shit! If he is so unsatisfied why does he stay? Why do we let him stay, for that matter? He doesn’t even like us!”
“You think he doesn’t like us?” Abby seemed genuinely surprised.
“Of course! Look at how he behaves!”
“Glo,” Abby sounded almost—but not quite—reproachful. “Rahab’s an ass, but he values us immensely.”
Gloriana shook her head in disbelief. “Abby!”
The warrior nodded in response, a gesture that betrayed a measure of confidence she typically only displayed in battle.
“I mean it. He grew up apprentice to a Chelliaxian wizard. Shit, Glo, he is a Chelliaxian wizard. He’s probably spent more time in the company of devils from Hell than he has with people. We’re not just the friends Rahab has right now, we’re probably the only friends he’s ever had. We’re rarer than diamonds and ten times as valuable. He thinks he’s always right, he’s insensitive, socially perverse, unskilled at emotional support, and power hungry, but I watched him do everything he could to keep you alive in the fight with Nualia, and he doesn’t know the first thing about healing.
“You didn’t know that part, did you? As arrogant as he is I was completely surprised when you asked what happened and he didn’t mention his role, speaking instead of Kara’s effort. Yet it was Rahab who was the first to your aid when you fell, and he did everything within his power to help. Kara’s potion restored you, but it was Rahab who kept you here to be restored. And throughout the whole fight Nualia could have reached out at any moment and cut him to pieces. He wasn’t defending himself, or casting spells. He was focused only on trying to keep you with us.”
Gloriana could scarcely credit what she was hearing. Abby kept going.
“He loves you, Glo.”
Quite possibly for the first time in her life the oracle felt as though she had forgotten how to speak.
“He loves all of us, and I wager it terrifies him. Look how he talks with Kara in Elvish, like the two show-off students that invented their own secret language in school.3 I bet I could knock him unconscious in one punch, and he still banters with me and pokes fun, which means he trusts me enough to feel comfortable doing that, but for all his sarcasm he’s never once ridiculed me for my lineage, and that’s more than I can say for some of the people of Sandpoint, including many who supposedly think I’m a hero. Glo, you’ve known Rahab as long as any of us. Do you honestly think he’d stay around if he didn’t care?”
Gloriana stared in stunned silence. A faint breeze came up out of the northwest, rustled over the grass and into the trees, bearing a hint of the sea.
By the time they returned to The White Deer for the night Gloriana’s mood was improved. She and Abby had walked for more than an hour, and were now trading happier stories in fun companionship, laughing gregariously. It was a welcome change from recent gloom.
At the inn’s doorstep Gloriana stopped and warmly addressed the warrior: “Thank you, Abby.”
Abby smiled, friendly and full of admiration. “Of course, Glo. Let me know if he’s still bothering you later and I’ll punch his lights out.” Oracle and warrior collapsed in renewed laughter.
1 Zantus had three potions of Remove Disease.
2 Party members reached level 5.
3 This is particularly delicious because Abby actually speaks Elvish, too.