This is part of a longer ongoing series. Click here to see all the parts.

The party arrives at the village of Chris after a few days of travelling. They’ve grown weary of Rodrigo’s terrible jokes. The sight of the town fills the party with the relief that they would get to part with the new addition to the crew.

“I was going to tell a time-traveling joke, but you didn’t get it.” The party groans. B.U.D. claps and lets out a genuine laugh. “Get it?” B.U.D. says, unable to hold back his laughter “Because he went back in time and told us the joke!” The party groans louder. Their pace quickens towards the village.

It is about noon when they arrive to Charis. Charis is a small logging village hidden in the Lotusden Greenwood, away from most of the world. It’s a rustic quiet village whose draw is it’s quaint charm, but today all this is undermined by its current state of disrepair. The houses are dirty, with planks of wood falling from its face. The windows are boarded up and the party walks over puddles of shattered glass that have settled into the dirt. There are a few people out and about. Most of them are guards who are busy with apprehensive gazes that scan the tree lines. They take no notice of the passing party except to give half-hearted greetings. Those who are not guards are in a rush and don’t acknowledge the party.

It’s about noon when they make it to town. The streets are empty except for the few guards who keep an apprehensive watch towards the treeline. They take little notice of the party except to exchange a quick polite greeting. Eventually the party asks for directions to the mayor’s house. A guard points the way, but his gaze never leaves the tree line. They make their way to the center of town where, although the buildings seem to sit in a better state, they are also in  a state of disrepair that has become the theme of the town. The mayor’s house is not much bigger than the buildings that surround it. It is built like a personal home, with nothing to distinguish it from the rest of the houses. As the party approaches, they notice deep scratches along the door and frame of the house all belonging to different animals. There is a blackened ring of burnt wood where a lamp used to hang. Bits of glass still linger scattered about, mixed in the ashes. Zarmir walks up to the door and knocks loudly. There is a moment of silence before the door opens revealing a young blond finely dressed man. There are dark circles under his blue eyes. He looks puzzled by the strangers at the door.

“Oh hello. Do you have business with the mayor?” He says as he looks over each of the members carefully.

“You aren’t the mayor?” B.U.D.  Asks.

The young man laughs nervously. “Me? Oh no I am just his assistant, Albert. Do you have business?”

“Yes, we’re are here from the school. We are here for a job. I have a letter” Tal says he pulls out a letter that with the dark red wax still sealing it’s contents. The symbol of the school, a screaming beholder with the initials XSH written neatly under.

The young man takes the letter and examines it without opening it “Please come in, we’ve been expecting you. You must be tired from travel.”

“Yes, quite” Zarmir exclaims. They follow him into a modestly decorated house. There is a bookshelf with unmarked books against one of the walls and a small desk and chair in which to read them. There are clear signs of neglect as thick puddles of dust collect and stick to every inch of the room. They follow the young man into an adjacent room where an older man is busy writing in a ledger. He stands when they enter the room. Confused by the strange company, he looks towards the young man who in anticipation says “This is the party the school sent over to help us with our issue” He hands over the letter.

The man looks at the seal and without breaking it, he sets the letter down on the table on top of a stack of disorganized papers and books. He is an older man with gray and thinning hair. He has a slender frame and behind his glasses lie deep dark circles, deeper than those of the assistant. He clears his voice and addresses the party “Welcome, I hope you’ve done well in your travels. You must be tired, please sit, would you like something to drink? Some water, tea?”

“Tea would be nice, if it’s not too much trouble” Tal is the first one to speak up. The mayor motions for his assistant to bring the party some refreshments.

“I am relieved to have you here. We have been requesting aid for quite some time, but you are the first and only to actually come and respond. We can’t afford much I am afraid to say, so we are forever grateful for your presence. I don’t know how much you know of this arrangement, but we don’t have that much money so at this point we can only pay you in gratitude”

“We aren’t getting paid?” Varus snaps

“Oh we already paid the school, it was part of the agreement. We pay them half, they send aid, and then we send the other half when the job is done. Did they not inform you?” the mayor answers, looking worried and sounding anxious.

“They didn’t tell us shit” Varus replies.

“Well that was the deal I have the contract somewhere here” He says as he begins to look through the mess on his desk “We can’t afford to pay you guys right now. We sent the money over” He continues to shuffle through the pile

“What is it we’re doing exactly?” Tal chimes in.

“Oh my apologies. We have been having issues with animals attacking our humble village.”

“We’re here for Animals?” Zarmir checks

The mayor steals a worried look towards Zarmir. He worries that the party will leave for having to deal with a problem so trivial. He desperately explains “I know. I know what this sounds like, but these aren’t normal animals.”

“How aren’t these animals normal?” Tal asks as he pulls out a small journal and a pen to jot down notes.

“Well when it all started, we thought it was just animals too. Animals that got rabies or maybe someone stepped on a nest. It started slow at first, there were odd instances of small birds and mammals randomly attacking but nothing serious, just strange. But then they started working together, and the attacks became coordinated. Then the type of animal changed. It started with birds and small rodents, then it was raccoons and small dogs. Boars. It’s like they are possessed by something. “

“Do you know where it all started?” Jalila asks

The mayor starts riffling through the books and pages scattered on his desk until finally he says “Like I said, we didn’t think about it too much when it all began. We thought it was just animals so it’s hard to pin point the exact time and place it all started. The earliest incident recorded was about three months ago and it occurred near one of our logging sites, right around here” the mayor says as he circles a point on a map of the area that he flips around for the party to see. “We had the most concentration there initially before they started moving in on us”

Tal raises his hand to his chin as he examines the map, without looking up he asks “Can we take this?”

“Please do! It is the least I can do” the mayor responds as he folds up the paper nicely and hands it to Tal.

“Do you have any working theories on what might be possessing them?” Jalila asks.

“Well we don’t have any working theories. We’ve searched the area but there doesn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary. At least not how we understand it” The mayor responds.

“Tell them about the witch” the assistant says as he stands at the doorway, listening intently.

“What witch?” Varus asks, growing suspicious.

“Come now there’s no need for that” the Mayor interjects “There is no witch, that is just mean town gossip”

“Stop protecting her!” He exclaims, his face turning red, “This whole thing started when that old woman moved to town”

“What woman? What are we talking about?” Jalila asks concerned.

“There are people in this town who think, wrongfully so I might add, that Willow, the older woman who moved recently is behind the whole ordeal because the troubles started when coincidentally right around the time she moved to town. She is harmless and keeps to herself, there is no need to bother the woman”

“Joan said that she saw her performing strange rituals at night. She speaks in tongues and collects strange plants and creatures in jars” The young aid continues as he tries to convince the room on his theories.

“Well Joan is a drunk and we can’t go around trusting everything she says she saw. Just the other day she was in an uproar about the seeing Tiamat in a potato” The mayor changes his focus towards the party with a look of sincere apology on his face “Please ignore him, he is confused”

“Well maybe she knows something regardless. Doesn’t hurt to check all our leads. Where does she live?” Tal asks, still jotting down notes. Glancing over papers in hopes that they might reveal more.

The mayor examines the party and thinks for a second. “I will only give you her location if you give me your word that you won’t hurt her”

“I can’t make that promise” Zarmir replies, a smile begins to creep towards his ears.

Jalila smacks him on his shoulder “Don’t say that!” she shifts her focus towards the mayor. “We promise she won’t be hurt. We’re just want to see if she knows anything”

“Yes, please excuse my brother, he is just a bit hot headed but he means well” Tal says in an attempt to reassure the mayor of their intentions.

The mayor stays silent as he begins to weigh his options. His eyes find their way to the unopened letter of the recommendation that still sits on top of the pile. A neat stamp of a beholder screaming and the school’s initals, “XSH”, stare back at him in dark red wax. He sighs as he picks up a pen and motions for the map. He says “Okay, but please don’t hurt her, this is all just a huge misunderstanding” He marks up a point on the map opposite of the initial marking. “She lives in a small hut around here. You can’t miss it. It is the only building out there”

The aid grows visibly angry. His face is bright red, his eyes are blood shot, and his fists quiver as he says “Watch out. Make sure she doesn’t put a spell on you”

Without missing a beat, the mayor snaps “Stop it boy! I have had enough of your nonsense. Pick up your things and go home, I am done with you for today!” the young man is paralyzed by the sudden outburst, but he regains his senses, grabs his belongings and walks out. He murmurs something incoherent under his breath as he storms out of the house.

“I am sorry about that” the mayor says as he fixes his collar ” He means well, it’s just this whole situation has us all stressed. The people are desperate for a solution so they can go back to living their normal lives. I don’t know where this whole witch nonsense started but it’s getting out of hand. I am doing my best to quell it but people are tired of waiting” He stares after the aid who is no longer visible and becomes lost in thought. A clear moment goes by before he regains his composure and says to the party “Please be kind to the old lady. If there is a witch in these woods, it won’t be her.

“We will see” Varus murmurs as he pulls out his flask and takes a swig.

Jalila shakes her head and sighs “Ignore him too. We will be kind and cordial” Jalila moves forward and places her hand on the mayor’s shoulder. He looks exhausted and it is clear he hasn’t gotten much sleep. She notices the old stains on his clothes and he smells dirty.  But she also notices the sincerity in his eyes and reassured by his request.

He moves up to her and grabs her hand “Thank you so much. This means so much to us. If there is anything we can do for you, please let me know”

“Where can we sleep? Do we get food?” Zarmir asks

“Oh right, you can try the tavern in town “The Sleeping Toad”. We haven’t been getting much in the way of visitors so there should be rooms available. As for food, it’s not great, but it will fill you up”

“We can make it work” Varus says as he walks out of the room.

“We will come back if we get anymore leads” Tal says shaking the mayors hand before following the group out into the street.

“If it’s all the same to you all, I rather sleep outside” Varus says ” I feel safer at the edge of town away from the people. It’s harder to be surprised”

“I agree with Varus” Zarmir says “I’ve got weird vibes from this town”

Tal stops and turns to his brother and loudly exclaims “You litterally just asked for food and a place to stay”

Zarmir lets out a laugh at his brother “We both know I am not the smart one”

“Agreed” Jalila smirks “So I guess we’re camping”