Sal continued to talk with the scientists for quite some time. I heard him ask whether it was possible to talk to the plants through the Lorde bulb. I heard one of the scientists say it is possible. He also said he wasn’t sure what good it would do. Apparently the bulb has no actual awareness. Then Sal finally got down to it and asked if we could have a discussion with the leader of the establishment. He talked to him about how interesting the plants were and said we wanted to know more. The scientist looked quite gloomy. He said: “I’m afraid the lead scientist will shortly be indisposed. He recently had a loss of a personal nature.”
Bartholameau quickly chimed in and said: “Was it a death or something more unusual?” Sal hissed at him to be quiet. Understandably, the comment rankled the scientist. He demanded to know who we are. Eshrin confidently announced: “We’re with the police.” The man seemed surprised but volunteered that the doctor’s child had just died. His child had been out somewhere with his wife at the time. The wife was due to return at any moment.
I asked if we could see the second in charge of the arboretum. We were informed that his name was Dr. Ludimere. We were told it would be a few hours before the doctor would be available, so we waited at the arboretum. As I was looking at the plants, I saw Sal pull Eshrin aside. Sal looked a bit agitated, so I went to see what was wrong. When I got into earshot, I heard Sal say: “Eshrin, while it may well be the easiest course of action to say that we are with the police, it would really be better if we were more discrete. A lot of people are trying to find you. We need to stay a step ahead of them. We’re not going to be able to do that if we leave a paper trail behind us.” Master Eshrin argued that we should just be honest. I joined him in his argument. Sal soldiered on and explained that he felt we are fighting an information war as much as anything else. He argued that we shouldn’t leave breadcrumbs behind for our foes. I had to grudgingly agree with him. Eshrin did not seem convinced.
We were able to spend some time looking at the plants while we waited for the museum to open. It was nice to take a moment to relax and to just be with other people.
The museum was quite nice. There were some very good portraits along with a fair amount of educational material. We were able to examine the solid case where several of the preserved, shriveled prototype bulbs were. There were no obviously missing sections.
Sal, who was once again chatting with one of the arboretum employees, found out that Alexander Lorde had an estate not too far from the village. The guide told Sal that Lorde frequently took work home with him. It is just as likely that a bulb was stolen from there as it is that it was stolen from the arboretum itself. I gotta hand it to Sal. The guy talks a whole lot, but people do seem to want to open up to him.
While we were continuing to wait for our appointment, we discussed the languages that we speak. Not surprisingly, Eshrin speaks many, many languages. Everyone seems very interested in having a “secret” language that we can all communicate in in front of other people. Sylvan was brought up as a possibility since Sal, Farraj, and Eshrin all speak it. I do admit it’s not terribly likely that most people we encounter will speak the language. I found Master Eshrin to be very condescending when he spoke of teaching me to speak Sylvan. He spoke like one would speak to a slow child and said: “I might be able to teach you to speak Sylvan since I am able to teach a kobold to speak common.” I admit I got a bit perturbed by this. I know I gave him a cross look and told him to be careful. I’m not proud of it. I don’t know why he got under my skin. He certainly isn’t the first wizard to tell me how stupid I am. I think being in Krig for so long and having so many people give me flack all the time just got to me. I’ll have to work on that.
Sal and Bartholameau got tired of waiting for Dr. Ludimere. They decided they wanted to go scout out the Lorde estate, which is about an hour’s walk away. I was worried about the two of them going alone, and I asked if they were sure. Bartholameau took offense and curtly said they would be fine. I backed off, but it didn’t keep me from being worried. Farraj sat and talked with the plants for a bit longer. Apparently they told him that a strange smoky shadow was at the edge of their “awareness” recently.
Not long after Sal and Bartholameau left, a black carriage with the banner of Pharasma pulled to a stop outside of the arboretum. A pretty woman about my age stepped out. She was clearly in mourning. I feel so deeply for her loss. What a terrible tragedy to have to endure. Once she had disappeared behind a door, I went out to speak with the carriage driver. I asked him to pass along my condolences, and I offered my services should anyone need aid. He seemed like a very caring and kind man. He asked me to keep the family in my thoughts and prayers, and I promised to do so. Just as I reentered the center, the woman emerged with a clearly distraught man. They quickly headed to the carriage.
Just after the carriage departed, we were ushered up to the conference room to meet with Dr. Ludimere. He looked at the plant specimen Eshrin acquired in the bog under a strange magnifying apparatus. He seemed quite astounded. He was sure that it was very similar in structure to the Lorde bulb. He said it was spongier, was clearly once incredibly well-hydrated, and had strange vessels. He said the vessels were almost like animal veins. Farraj offered that the plant did not seem to be more than one year old. The current Lorde bulb is thirty years old.
Dr. Ludimere assured me that all of the prototypes that had not been destroyed were accounted for. He was not, however, sure of how they were disposed of. He hadn’t been a member of the research team at that time. He assumes they were either burned or composted. He said none of the other researchers, save the grieving Dr. Bortion, were at the center then. He promised to produce records about the disposals along with a list of all of the recent researchers’ names within one day. He also said he would make note of any unusual occurrences at the arboretum within the past year. He stated that the staff sometimes consults with druids both from the central cities and from Three Bridge Falls.
In Celestial, Eshrin told me that the growth of the plant was far more likely to have been achieved by necromancy rather than through druidic magic.
It was a bit difficult to coax Farraj into talk to the doctor, but he finally did. He discerned that the bulb in the bog could not have been grown from the roots of the current Lorde bulb. The doctor told us that some internal structures for the complex root system are missing in the charred sample. Farraj suggested that we leave a sample with the doctor to study. Eshrin seemed comfortable with it, so we gave him some of the plant.
Dr. Ludimere told us that the current Lorde estate is owned by Dr. Lorde’s daughter. He said that she is a very difficult and unpleasant woman, but he agreed to make an introduction for us.
When the entire group reconvened at the tavern, Sal revealed that he had gone to see Lorde manor. He didn’t make any mention of Bartholameau being with him. He said the caretaker had turned him away. He also learned that Ms. Lorde had thrown her lover over last year after some kind of ugly altercation.
Bartholameau revealed that a man working at a southern research station had his entire project’s worth of orchids die overnight. He said there were no signs of boot or footprints and he did not know what happened. I asked if it sounded similar to the time that the plants had all died near the slavers’ cabin Eshrin’s last group visited. Eshrin got angry with me for not remembering all of the specifics. He is very hard to please. How can he expect me to memorize the details of twenty seven large tomes worth of reports and all of their various supplements in four days’ time? He is being unreasonable.
We decided that it would be best to go out and check the research station where the orchids died. The whole situation was rather peculiar. Farraj explained that orchids are very frail and can die easily. Still, it was odd to see all of the orchids completely dead and none of the other plants in the greenhouse suffering any ill effects. Eshrin cast “Detect Magic,” but there were no lingering magical auras. Farraj checked the soil and said there was nothing amiss there. He checked around outside and found that someone had been there recently. Inside the shed, he found a partial footprint that was cut off by a line. Just like we saw in the village the other morning when the shadow had been seen. We didn’t find any further leads, so we returned to the inn.
Early in the evening, a messenger came to deliver the bad news that the Bortion child had perished. He announced that there would be time to publically pay respects the following afternoon.
It never feels right to hear that a young child has died, but something just felt off about this. I decided to go visit the Pharasman cleric at the morgue. For some strange reason, no one cared to join me. The cleric is a human woman past middle age. Come to think of it, I never caught her name. After cutting through the necessary red tape, she told me the cause of death was asphyxiation due to foreign particulate matter. She said the Madame Dr. Bortion had been investigating dangerous plants in the field and had her young child with her. The cleric said the child’s death appears to be a tragic accident and nothing more. I know that people do foolish things every day. I just find it hard to believe that a mother would bring a young child to such a dangerous place. I have heard many whispers about town about how reckless she is though, so I suppose it’s possible. I also know how ugly town gossip can be. The cleric said she was certain the family would like to see me at the services tomorrow.
I arrived back at the inn to find that Sal and Bartholameau were still out gathering intel. They seem to get on well, so that’s good. Farraj was on the roof as usual. I assume he is keeping a watchful eye out for the shadow, but he may have just been trying to escape the confines of his “box.” Eshrin was in the common room enjoying a bottle of honeyed wine and compiling volume twenty-eight of the field reports. At least I think it’s volume twenty-eight. It may be twenty-nine.
In the morning, I thought it best to bring up the question of what to do if one of our number should be killed; assuming the body could be recovered. That was an exasperating exercise. Bartholameau was alright. He just said that of course he wanted to be brought back. Eshrin launched into a long-winded explanation of his heirs and devisees. That, of course, was in the event that he should not be recoverable. He said that otherwise, he would want to come back. Trust me, the telling of it and the pinning down of an answer took much longer than the recounting now. I thought I might have to bring in an inquisitor in order to get past the talk of wills and to a straight answer. Sal seemed absolutely appalled by the very notion that he might die. Like the thought of gallivanting around with the police might not be dangerous. He kept interrupting other people to emphatically tell us that he wanted to be brought back. He told me I would be hearing from his father immediately if he died. Not exactly reassuring. Tangling with an elven council member is not high on my to-do list. Farraj was nearly impossible. He kept insisting that the desert would take him and that he was somehow incapable of dying here in this verdant land. I kept quoting his own scripture back at him about how man does not control his own death and that it will come for him when it will. He still would not concede that he could die. He finally said: “If it will salve your conscience, my brother, you may bring me back.” It is not about my conscience. I was just relieved to finally get a commitment one way or the other, so I went with that.
When it came to my turn to talk, I told them that I do not fear death. I told them to bring me back if they felt like they still needed me. Eshrin launched in with: “What if Wilhelm is overwhelmed with paperwork and I need someone to assist him? Can I bring you back for that?” I honestly couldn’t tell if he was baiting me or not. I almost think he was serious. Farraj chimed in and said: “As long as I walk this land, I will bring you back my shiny friend.” That was actually really endearing.
I found out that Sal has spent a good deal of time in Krig and that he really liked it there. I cannot fathom why. I simply cannot. I have never met so many fools in my life. It seemed that half the country insisted upon starting a fight with me. First I had to fight because I hadn’t proven myself. They thought I was an “easy target” because I didn’t want to fight. Then I had to fight because I had proven myself and every jackanapes I encountered wanted to garner greater reputation by besting me. I supposed I needn’t dwell upon it. We got our mission done, that’s what matters.
After we attired ourselves as respectfully as we could, we went to the viewing ceremony for the poor child. When we arrived in the afternoon, we learned that the coffin would be interred that evening. We could see the doctors next to the Pharasman priestess. As we stood in respectful silence, Sal began to get twitchy. He finally whispered that something was “off” about Madame Bortion’s appearance. He said that it looked strangely “pieced together,” like an illusion. He walked away and came back a few moments later. He whispered that there was some sort of magic on the mother and on the casket. He eagerly whispered: “Is she evil? Did you check to see if she is evil?” I told him in a hushed tone that I was not in the habit of detecting evil upon grieving mothers at their children’s funerals. Still, Sal seemed very agitated, so I decided to heed his instincts.
The woman was bone-deep evil. The kind of evil that sets your blood to boiling when you detect for it. The coffin also had something evil within it. I hadn’t even noticed Eshrin leave. I did notice him come back to my side. He calmly reported that there was magic upon the woman and the casket. He said that there was a faint necromantic aura upon the casket and a moderate one upon the woman. He also detected illusion magic upon the woman and transmutation magic upon the casket. Before I go any further, let me just say that everything that happened next was a series of colossal errors. It was awful, and it was entirely my fault.
I was still reeling from the aura of evil that poured off of the woman. All that really sunk in were the words: “illusion,” and “necromantic aura.” All of my vaunted discipline melted away like ice in the desert. I demanded that we get the people away and destroy the evil immediately. I only paused long enough to get my armor on. I rattled off a hasty order to get the people away so we could engage. Sal said he could easily divert the people by telling everyone the parents were too distraught and needed a moment. I was so certain that Eshrin would dispel the evil woman’s illusion and some horrible beast would be there for all to see. I was confident that even if he failed to dispel the illusion, she would use some vile attack to make her evil obvious to everyone. I was such a fool. It never even occurred to me that she could truly just be some very evil woman. The group looked at me with so much trust. Because I am a paladin of Iomedae, and I am supposed to shine in her legion.
I did not shine. I was arrogant, and my arrogance nearly caused something we could not recover from. I would have gratefully accepted the humiliation of having acted so rashly were it not for the fact that my actions inflicted terrible grief upon another human being. An innocent man who had just lost his child. I know his grief would have been there regardless, but my foolishness increased his suffering.
The entire engagement was a dog’s dinner. Right from the moment when Farraj said: “So we are murdering this woman then, yes?” I said yes. Because I was sure she was some vile creature in disguise. We rushed right in. Eshrin cast his “Dispel Magic.” Nothing happened. I assumed the spell had failed, but I was still committed.
Even if we hadn’t been fully committed, I had set something in motion that could not be stopped. Bartholameau did a great job of trying to get Dr. Bortion to step away from his wife, but the man was understandably baffled. I barely had time to notice that several people in the back of the crowd had scattered. The doctor tried to comfort his wife, and the Pharasman roared about how disrespectful we were being.
Before I could even get to her, Farraj rushed in like some hell-bound dervish. He bore down on her with a vicious cry of: “Sarenrae’s justice is upon you!” He brought that massive earth breaker of his over his head and brought it crashing down right on top of the woman. She crumpled and landed in a pool of her own blood. It was an absolutely brutal blow. I just hadn’t counted on the fact that Farraj would take her out with one blow. She was so evil that I assumed she would be absurdly powerful. Everything fell to hell. I can’t remember a time when I have been so at a loss as to what to do on a battlefield. I could feel the eyes of the onlookers boring holes into my back. We were far too deeply committed to go back. I yelled at Bartholameau to open the casket. I knew I would regret that too. I rushed to the woman and laid hands upon her so that she would not die in front of all of the people. I knew we would have to account for our actions. When I healed her, she grasped feebly at her husband’s pant leg.
Farraj’s blow, so up close and personal to Bartholameau, caused the effect I feared it might have. Bartholameau did not open the coffin. He stumbled blindly away from the carnage and half shrieked: “Whoa, dude, what the hell?” The husband was in tears as he tried to drag his bleeding wife to safety. The Pharasman cast a spell to cure the woman of more of her injuries.
Farraj flipped the lid of the casket open and revealed the body of a dead baby. There was no obvious malevolent object or creature. Just a dead child. Farraj turned and ripped the necklaces from the woman’s neck. When I would not take them, he dropped them at my feet. I grabbed the manacles from my pack then. I could feel adrenaline screaming through my body. I grabbed the woman and wrapped her up in an iron grip.
I had to restore order to the situation before it spiraled any further out of hand. I called out for someone to figure out what was in the coffin. I also yelled for someone to get the cleric away before she healed the woman anymore. The absurdity was almost overwhelming. Bartholameau was still frozen with shock, so I roared in his face to get him moving. I felt like an utter ass, but it worked. Apparently he had seen something I hadn’t. He walked over and pulled a wig off the woman’s head. Oddly, the hair underneath was the same color.
You may think that things could not get worse. You would be mistaken. Eshrin was standing a fair ways back from the tumult. He tried to move toward the coffin when a bright spot of red blossomed on his robes. He cried out in pain, but I could see no attacker. He whirled and cast a great many balls of snow at the air. I do not know if it did any good. He is a very clever fellow though and thankfully avoided harming any bystanders.
With tears still streaming down his face, Dr. Bortion yelled at me: “Unhand her you devil!” He drew a dagger and tried to stab me. A part of me said I deserved to get stabbed. Of course the blade bounced harmlessly off of my armor. This made him look even more desperate and afraid. The Pharasman was yelling about blasphemy in a near-apoplectic fit. I don’t blame her either.
Farraj hurried to Eshrin’s aid. He reached Eshrin’s side and swung his hammer wildly. He didn’t seem to hit anything. I was able to shackle the woman. I plead with the cleric to understand that this woman was evil. While I was pleading my case, Bartholameau began to briskly wipe at the woman’s face. This upset her husband further. I was distracted for a moment when I saw Eshrin get stabbed again. He didn’t look too healthy at that point, and I was getting pretty worried about that. I looked back at the husband and noticed a marked change in his demeanor. He looked extremely confused and just said: “What?” The cleric also looked stunned. I cannot tell you how grateful I was to Bartholameau in that moment. His exposing the woman as an imposter shifted the mood to one I could work with.
Eshrin thrust his hand out, and a thunderstorm appeared in front of him. Nothing else really happened. Farraj swung his hammer again and connected with something. Despite the solid blow, I could see no blood. I thrust the woman at Bartholameau and rushed to Eshrin. I laid hands upon him and healed him. He still looked pretty banged up.
Bartholameau stopped the woman from grabbing her wig as the invisible attacker fled. A shadowy figure retreated to the shade of a nearby tree. Then it disappeared.
Even after all of that, the Pharasman interfered when Eshrin tried to look into the coffin. Eshrin had to explain his actions at great length and then invited the cleric to detect magic into the coffin. She was still very angry because she believed the spell present was just gentle repose. Eshrin persevered and finally pointed out to both her and us that there was a plant growth spell within the coffin. She conceded that it was there and that that was wrong. She also analyzed the necklace and some anklets, which also seemed suspicious. She confirmed that both had strong necromantic auras.
I worked with all of my might to calm and convince the Pharasman and to comfort the devastated father. He was, of course, inconsolable. Eshrin said that he wanted to autopsy the child to see what was within his body. The father refused. The Pharasman would not go against his wishes. I had to explain that he could not consent because he did not understand what was happening. I implored her to trust me. Eshrin implored her to trust the magic that she was seeing for herself. I showed her the terrible symbols on the anklets. They are used to animate the dead. Eshrin explained that the symbols were not tied to her person but to something else.
Finally, the Pharasman pointed out to the doctor that the woman was not his wife. She said something was amiss and should be checked. The man was shattered. I had to tell him about our fears and implore him to help us. Farraj nearly ruined the whole thing by speaking of the necessary sacrifice of the child. That was awful. He went on and said there was a vessel of a monstrous plant likely within and that it was a corruption of the Lorde bulb.
I could not apologize enough to the poor doctor. Sal had finally returned. He explained about the terrible monstrosity that had been found in the bog. Dr. Bortion finally agreed to hear us out at his lab. We were able to transport the coffin and the woman back to the arboretum. I studied her again without her items. She was still vile to her core.
When we reached the lab, we all quickly agreed to be completely forthcoming about the report. Eshrin tried to get the doctor to agree to a non-disclosure agreement. He was too emotional to be willing to agree to anything.
After hearing us out, he agreed to the autopsy. Sal pleaded with the doctor to withdraw, but he refused. He stayed even after he vomited.
I assisted the Pharasman with the autopsy. When we opened up the baby, we found a strange red tuber in the place of his spine and brain. We surgically removed the tuber and placed it in a magical specimen jar. I cannot put into words how awful that experience was. I had to cut open a baby and put my hands inside his chest and head. The despair and revulsion I felt were almost completely overwhelming. I wanted nothing more than to weep. I have never seen a Pharasman so badly shaken by death. I tried to push away my own distress so that I could offer her comfort.
We had scarcely sewn up and shriven the child when Sal very eagerly demanded to interrogate the captured woman. Something about the look in his eye and the zeal with which he said he wanted to interrogate her made me very nervous. I said that first we should just try questioning her. He very emphatically said it wouldn’t work and that we had to do whatever we needed to do to get the answers. Farraj and Bartholameau were not so emphatic, but they we nodding in agreement. I made it perfectly clear that we would not be torturing anyone. I also made it clear that I didn’t feel great about murdering a bound and helpless woman. I recommended that we return her to the Praesidium to stand trial. Bartholameau said they would likely use whatever means necessary to extract information from her. I turned to Eshrin to ask if this was true.
Eshrin misinterpreted my questioning look to mean that I was asking whether torture was okay. That’s alright. He doesn’t know me well yet. He said torture simply causes the target to yield whatever the questioner wants to hear rather than the truth. It was a “no” based upon logic rather than upon morality, but I’ll take it. Eshrin seems to me to be a good man. He is just a man of learning and procedure above other things. Farraj chimed in that the woman was hatching a plan to escape.
I knelt down near the woman, but not too close of course. I asked her if she would repent of her sins. I already knew she would scoff at the notion, but I also believe that any mortal soul can be redeemed under the right set of circumstances. She declined my offer, but she did say she would answer any questions posed to her as soon as she was before a duly appointed judge. That is when I knew that Farraj was right about her hatching a plan to escape. At the very least, she was trying to open the door for that possibility.
I reminded Eshrin that Chief Donovan had told me that we were entitled to dispense justice in the field if we deemed it necessary. I meant for Eshrin to serve as judge and to hear her crimes. Much to my surprise, even after I had stumbled so badly in my leadership just earlier that day, Eshrin looked at me with complete trust. He said that I should serve as judge. He said that Iomedae was the goddess of honor and who better to know and dispense the law than her paladin. The others seemed to be in agreement with him. I was humbled by their trust in Iomedae and in me as her servant.
The woman asked what authority we had to do this. Eshrin announced that he was a warden of the state and that he had full authority. Though his scarf of office was clearly visible, the woman asked him to come closer so she could see it. Eshrin wisely told her she could see it just fine from where she was.
During the course of her questioning, the woman prevaricated and tried to talk around answers she did not wish to give, but she did not ever seem to lie outright. The entirety of the group contributed to the questioning with very intelligent questions.
The woman revealed herself to be named Xael Noth. She readily confessed to murdering Elizabeth Bortion and her young child. She said that Dr. Bortion’s body was buried at the research station where she had been studying. Xael Noth went on to confess to a litany of deplorable crimes. She did not show a shred of remorse. These crimes included assassinations, kidnappings, and espionage. Master Eshrin recorded the entirety of her confession. She was quick to say that she committed all of these crimes of her own volition. She said she had led a difficult life and fell into this lifestyle at a young age.
She went on to confess that the amulet and anklets she wore had been illegally obtained. They allowed her limited control over two shadows and one ghost. She confessed to Sal that she had been so concerned about her disguise when she was attacked because she had hoped that others would come to her aid if they thought she was Dr. Bortion.
Xael Noth admitted that she ran an unlicensed office in Crent for the purpose of accepting contracts to commit assassinations and other crimes. She said she never saw the people who hired her and never knew who they were. She said that was true in this case as well. I asked her if she was a member of a guild. She said no, but I could tell she was avoiding the whole truth. I asked her if she knew Jay. She said she knew lots of Jays. I narrowed it down to an orc or half-orc named Jay. She said he was not a creditor. I pressed her on other ways she knew him. She said she did not associate with him. I did doubt her then. Or at the very least, I could tell she was not telling the whole truth. Bartholameau certainly picked up upon it as well. He told her that her body language said that she was not telling the whole truth. It seemed we had exhausted all of the information we could get from her then.
Eshrin produced a document detailing all that she had said. The document also said that she was signing it of her own free will and was not under duress. She readily signed it.
It is not often that I interact with such an evil person who adheres so strictly to a code. It is a twisted and corrupted honor, but in her mind she stuck to her code of honor. When we asked her why she confessed so freely, she said she had failed. She said her life would be forfeit anyway. From the look on her face, it was clear that some terrible horrors would befall her if she ended up back in the hands of her associates or superiors.
I sentenced Xael Noth to death for her crimes. I promised her the quickest and most painless death I could deliver. I executed her swiftly and with the added grace of Iomedae’s strength. Farraj came forward with a ceremonial dagger he had been holding for quite some time. Since the graveyard now that I think about it. He swiftly lopped off a hand and a foot so she would be useless as an undead creature. The group as a whole decided to do one better. We saw her body cremated. This seemed the wisest course of action.