“Darius and I grew up together in Irin. He was always a scrawny little bleeder, who's mouth got him into all kinds of trouble his fists couldn't get him out of. That's where I came in, as I have always been a tough bastard with an eye for causing my foes to suffer. As we grew we did everything together, so it made sense when Darius got his money lending business started, that I should be the head of his security team.
“We worked hard together to get his business up and running, and weathered many trials together. As the years passed by, our friendship became more and more solid, and I truly never thought we would fall out in any way. However, about six moons past, he began to change. He became crueller, and the bond between us seemed to have faded. Yithia, his love, told me I was being silly, but I knew that something was very, very wrong.
“He started to meddle in affairs that were clearly dangerous – the poison thing with your church being one of them – and when I urged caution, he flew at me and told me to keep out of his business, and warned that if I couldn't, that I should leave him. This, more than anything before confirmed to me that some terrible doom had come to my friend, though I had no idea what.
“I begged Yithia to work a divination to scan her love, but she grew angry and upset, and echoed Darius' words earlier. I truly believe that she too knew what was going on, but didn't want to admit it, even to herself.
“Then, I saw it. I had heard through my underworld contacts in Irin that a retirement order had been put out on Darius – though not the one you are here to execute – and eager to try and slap some sense into my lifelong friend, I charged into his chambers...”
Istan seems to sag a little at this point. He takes another slug of liquor, and after warming it in his mouth swallows it hard. He looks up at the group with wet eyes, and then manages to compose himself enough to continue.
“I burst into Darius' chambers, and caught 'him' by surprise – or at least something that resembled him. It was only a split second glimpse, but he was...wrong...somehow. His features were loose and alien; blank eyes, grey flesh, like molten wax. He was too tall, and too slender. His arms were overly long, and his shoulders were hunched.”
Istan shudders again.
“It was only a split second glance. As fast as my shocked brain could take in what it had seen, the thing was back to normal; Darius for all intents and purposes. But I knew better.”
“I ran. I grabbed my weapons and a fistful of coins and ran.”
Istan clenches his fists and looks down, and all the group realise that they have been silently rapt by this terrible tale. Emmiven is the first to speak.
“Istan, at the risk of frightening you, what you saw, did it look anything like this?”
The warrior looks up at the warlord, and Emmiven allows his features to slide into their natural state; noseless, mouthless, wide white eyes without pupils and grey, featureless skin, like potters clay. Istan leaps up and reaches for his blade, knocking his chair flying. The group all stand up, arms out, trying to calm him, and seeing that Emmiven has returned his features to their human mask, and seeing the groups' eagerness to avoid conflict, he picks his chair up and sits down once more, though with a notable degree of cautious stiffness to his manner.
“Yes. That is exactly what I saw. What, in the name of all that crawls are you?”
Emmiven nods, apparently unmoved by Istan's revulsion. “I'm a shapeshifter, a changeling. I am called Doppelganger by some, Shift Kin by others. I believe that your friend may well have been replaced by one of my kind. Did the changeling know things that only Darius could know?”
“Then it must be a very old, and very powerful specimen, for only they can read the minds of their victims and steal not only their appearances, but their personalities. We must be careful in our endeavours, for such a beast is canny and will have numerous spies and associates”
“It's possible that Darius may yet live you know.” Adds Jaeger, though Emmiven does not look convinced. “We may be able to save him.”
“So,” gulps Istan, finally back in control of himself, “my friend is at best a prisoner, and has been for months now, and you seek to destroy the monster that has ruined his life.”
He seems to give the matter a moments thought before continuing.
“I know a secret way into Darius' inner chambers that this shapeshifter will not know. Darius, fearing that a mage with the power to read minds could learn of an escape route he had knowledge of, and assuming that we would always be side by side, charged me with creating a secret way in and out of the compound that only I would know of. I did this, and to this day, only myself and the mage that helped me create it, know of it.
“You could use this way to enter the compound completely undetected by the guards and wards around it, and hopefully, catch the monster unawares. However...”
The group stare quietly, having expected this.
“I have duty to the people of this village. They took me in without any knowledge of who I am, and in payment I have worked to help keep them safe, for dark things stalk the forests to the south of here; Attercops.”
“I do not feel that I can leave the people of this town alone to face the predations of these monsters, but will have to come to Irin if you are to use the secret way. To this end I propose an alliance. You help me wipe out the Attercop hive once and for all, and I shall help you to not only locate the secret way into Darius' keep, but shall fight besides you against the imposter. Everyone wins.”
Istam sits back, fire in his eyes, and waits for the group to reply. The party look at each other, and without words decide that this is an excellent plan. Emmiven grins at Istan and extends a hand. Istan hesitates for only the briefest moments before taking his hand and shaking on the deal.
“So be it. We leave at first light then. Get some food in your belly, get some sleep, and I shall see you in a few hours in the town square.”
Istan rises, and drops a couple of silver coins on then table, before leaving.
23:00 – 00:30 (4/5/1472) The group have some more drinks, and try to relax before the trials of the next day. Then they retire to their rooms for the night.
07:00 – Thick mist, strong with the smell of pine sap and damp earth, hangs over Aramayne, turning everything beyond immediate sight into looming, shadowy ghosts. Istan is waiting for the party in the stillness of the square, and now wears his weapons in a more professional manner. He also wears a well maintained suit of chainmail, a heavy shield of burnished steel, and a riveted helm of leather covered steel atop his head. He grins as the group emerge, and greets them warmly.
07:20 – 07:25 – With the party (plus the faerie dragon) gathered, Emmiven riding Diabolus, the group move out of Aramayne, and into the foggy depths of the Argent Woods.
The woods are an eerie and storied place, and in the gloomy half-light, more evidence of the carnage that took place here during the aelwyn wars is apparent. Crows caw above, and furtive movement in the dense canopy suggests the nearness of arboreal rodents – or something else. However, as the group head southwards, all natural beasts seem to grow less frequent, and the party increasingly find huge swathes of webbing, thick as bedsheets and tough as mail, spread like nets between the trunks of the trees and along the lay of the canopy.
07:26 – 07:30 – Dense webs hang vertically from trees ahead, and form low slung sheets across the floor, masking the terrain beneath pale, sticky fibres. Moss covered stones jut up from the rich black soil, and the tangled roots of ancient oaks – a tree that is starting to become more common than the Silver Pines – rear up like woody talons all around, forming twisting labyrinths of earthy tunnels back into the ground. The party are moving with great caution now, for Istan has warned them that they are nearing the Attercop lair.
“So, what exactly is an Attercop?” asks Varracuda quietly.
Istan begins to speak, but is interrupted by Grigori. “Attercops, also called Ettercaps, Arachryst or colloquially, Spider Folk, are nasty arachnid humanoids with a penchant for breeding monstrous varieties of spider and for laying ambushes. They are rumoured to feed on blood, and prize the fluids of sentient beings above those of other, lesser beasts.”
Istan nods, and adds. “They're nasty little bastards with a venomous bite and the intelligence to fight together and make their abilities pay. Don't expect a straight forwards battle with them.”
Grigori suddenly seems to shake as if struck, and his shrill voice rings out, echoing through the webbed stillness of the ancient forest...
“AMBUSH! EMMIVEN, TO YOUR RIGHT!”
All eyes snap to the right, and at once see the form of a nasty grey-green spider the size of a hunting dog, launching from a trap-door of silk-woven sod at the base of a sprawl rooted Oak. At the same instant another, identical spider leaps from the left hand side of the party, whilst four wretched things; hunched backed humanoids with spider-like heads, pinkish-brown chitinous armour, and segmented, spider-like limbs, skitter forwards, each one wielding a greataxe apparently woven from arachnid secretions. Each creature stands a little over 5' high, and moves with the surety of thinking, self-aware entities.
In the distance, almost obscured by the waving sheets of webbing hanging from the branches, loom two huge spiders, each larger than Emmiven's warhorse. They are pale silver, with irregular splotches of indigo across their bodies, and have six silvery eyes set into their small, viciously fanged heads. As the group watch both vanish, reappearing a moment later directly in front of the party, venomous fangs snapping.
Combat ensues. The webbing proves to be a substantial handicap to the party, for it restricts movement by clinging in sticky clumps to them, whilst all their enemies are able to move through it without impediment. The smaller spiders attack using stealth; lunging at their targets and then withdrawing into webbed tunnels which burrow beneath the forest floor, allowing them to move unseen - often some considerable distance from where they originally struck – ready to strike once more by surprise.
The Attercops are, as Istan warned, skilled combatants, that seek to flank their foes and make use of their paralysing venom to incapacitate party members for crucial moments. When they strike with their strangely crafted greataxes, the damage is substantial, the strength in their spidery limbs being perfectly suited to their heavy, cleaving blades, and they soon manage to wreak some substantial damage to the group.
Of the most immediate concern however are the huge silvery spiders, for they are able to bend space, and teleport across the battlefield, delivering a powerful bite thick with a potent venom. These monsters wreak additional havoc, by being able to send enemies on involuntary trips across the battlefield, with bursts of teleporting energy, and they become the primary focus of the parties efforts.
The group work incredibly well together through this battle. Emmiven uses Diabolos to trample foes under its iron-shod hooves, smashing them to the ground and pulping them before they can rise, whilst the warriors form a defensive line, shoving back the monsters as they launch in to attack. Seren bears the brunt of several attacks after an Attercop sneaks around and manages to paralyse her with a bite, and even the barbarian – usually the most doughty member of the party in matters of constitution – finds himself held rigid by their venom at least once; a horrific sensation of leaden helplessness that leaves a wake of painful pins and needles in its wake.
However, with the deft discipline of seasoned adventurer's the group drive the horrors back, leaving no survivors, though all bear at least a few wounds from the fray.
07:31 – 07:36 – Jaeger spends a little time draining the venom from the Attecop's glands, managing to obtain a small vial of the nasty stuff, whilst the rest of the party catches their breath, cleans and dresses wounds, or drinks plenty of water in an effort to purge any remaining venom from their systems.
07:37 – 07:53 – The party move on with even more caution, the forests around them becoming increasingly thickly shrouded with webbing, though the barbarian's flaming axe and the genasai's fiery invocations clear it easily enough. As they continue, they spot the desiccated forms of local animals and even a few unlucky humanoids hanging in the tangles, along with small amounts of coin, and discarded weapons.
“Leave them.” warns Istan frowning, “Likely they are rigged to some kind of alarm system or trap. We can rescue the remains and their wealth once we have destroyed the colony.”
The party heed his words, and move on, trying to ignore the silent, swaying shadows.
As the party move on, it becomes clear that the warhorse will not be able to move safely, and reluctantly, Emmiven tells the intelligent steed to return to the edge of the woods and to wait for them, which it does. Eventually, the group see some kind of ancient structure ahead – small and roofless, possibly a large shed or small cottage – almost lost amidst the omnipresent silken sheets of webbing. At first they think the area is empty, though they spot several clusters of curious silk spheres; tumorous things of off-white fibres, anchored to the ground and trees by tough strands of webbing, which Istan identifies as nursery sacks, almost certainly swarming with immature, but highly venomous spiderlings.
However, as they draw closer, Grigori and Istan both notice that something squats, almost invisible in the gloom and through the webs, on top of the structure's walls – two massive spiders, even larger than the phase spiders before. Each is a fat bodied thing covered in short, black bristles. Their pedipalps have evolved to become 5' long barbed blades of chitin, each one oozing tiny droplets of milky venom, and their short legs suggest these are ambush predators that use speed and surprise to deal a vicious, fatal blow to their prey before it is able to respond. The wretched twisted forms of Attercops can also be seen inside the structure, though before the group can attack, Grigori spots something that gives him concern.
Just in front of the party, in the billowing sheets of webbing, the priest has noticed a thick strand of darker webbing, which hangs in such a way that anyone moving towards the structure would break it. In a world of hanging silken sheets, this webbing is almost invisible and seemingly unremarkable. However, upon closer examination, Jaeger realises that it is supporting a delicate net of envenomed webbing, hung over the area, which would, if the strand were broken, be dropped on the party, almost certainly wrapping them up in toxic strands, which would likely impede their ability to defend themselves and expose them continually to their poisonous covering.
With this deadly trap discovered, the group are able to move around the trigger safely. However, their movement sends tiny vibrations through the crazed tangles of webbing around the area, alerting the monsters ahead as surely as if they had shouted, and at once, another battle begins.
07:54 – 07:55 – It is a short battle, but by its end several areas of the webbing are burning cheerily, and two of the egg sacks have been ruptured by the blind swinging of a attercop that demonstrated an uncanny ability to manipulate the webs in order to impede the party, the area around them boiling with blind, vicious spiderlings, who swarm and bite anything they come into contact with that has warm mammalian blood or its equivalent.
The “sword spiders” lie dead, though they have inflicted significant harm on the party; their massive, poisoned sword-arms ripping through armour and flesh like paper, shredding internal organs and pumping their targets full of deadly poison, and were it not for the vigilant healing invocations of the cleric, Emmiven, Varracuda and likely Istan would all be dead thanks to their tender mercies.
07:56 – 08:01 – The group allow Grigori to work healing over them, and take a moment to master their pain and budding fear. Once again, the assassin obtains a vial of milky attercop venom from the slain fiends, and before too long, the party are ready to explore the ruins and to find their way into the attercop lair.
“Be warned,” begins Istan grimly, his armour punctured in several placed by the serrated blades of the sword spiders, “I have never been this deep into the monster's territory, and know not what lies beyond this point. Be prepared for anything, and keep your eyes and ears open.”
Gritting their teeth against the pain of their wounds and the residual sting of the toxins in their bodies, the group nod, and move towards the ruined building.