Jamis glowered at his beer, which was too warm. He glared at his food which was fine but causing his stomach to lurch every time he thought about eating it. The hangover was not improving. In fact it seemed to have moved on to a new and more insidious phase of active misery where everything was too bright and loud. He glared around at the busy inn. Efrin, a halfling, seeming to be in a similar state of misery, glared back from down the bar. Maybe he too was used to having his rougher mornings next to a fire in the quiet of the wilds. All these people talking, all the smells and lights and noise, it made him want to cry. Jamis glared at the beer again. ‘You did this to me’ he growled at it. The beer sat on the bar, seemingly indifferent to his discontent. A loud, pompous voice tore through the room and, by extension, though his brain. ‘What’s for breakfast, my good man?’ Aedan called to Redd. A bit of a mystery this one. Nobility of some sort, real or imagined. The loud half-elf wandered down the stairs and toward the bar, clearly in a good mood, the bastard. A group of travellers chatted too loud near the door. A drow, a dour looking bruiser named Ishura, with the biggest damn sword Jamis had ever seen sat in a corner looking unhappy. She seemed to be unhappy a lot. Maybe she was hungover. Maybe everyone in Villane was as hungover. And, to make matters worse, some idiot was yelling in the street.
About the time that the yelling finally coalesced into words, the door to the inn burst open to reveal Tsen, the travelling monk, in a state of clear excitement.
“There’s been a killing and they want us to investigate”
That had been an hour ago. Now he sat looking down at the remains of some poor bastards who ended up on the wrong end of a wolf. Or, probably a wolf anyway. The torn and ripped bodies were surrounded by large tracks that led off into the woods. There was also the matter of the apparent baby, or, more to the point, the apparent lack of a baby where the evidence suggested there should be one. A toy cow lay in the mud of the road. Jamis knelt and picked it up while his eyes followed the tracks into the forest. Behind him, the others talked to some guards about the couple. He turned the cow over and over in his hands, staring at the timberline. Over the trees, clouds gathered.
Things took a turn for the odd as they entered the forest. The trees, while healthy along the road, were starting to look wrong and Jamis had never seen a similar affliction. The life seemed to be drained out, leaving things dry and dead and, well, unhealthy. The tracks continued straight on, whatever had left them clearly had no fear of pursuit. That general feeling of wrongness wandered into his head, greeted the hangover like an old friend and started some unholy partner dance that involved lots of jumping. Jamis winced. Then they found the body.
Another body, anyway. Jamis was fairly sure this hadnt been the wolf’s doing seeing as the wounds were tiny and seemed to cover the corpse from head to toe. Maybe tiny wolves. Or, you know, something else. There were thorn bushes nearby. Jamis pulled his bow off his back and nocked an arrow, suddenly overcome with the feeling that something was watching. Efrin approached the body but when he got within a few feet a vine lashed out and tore into his leg. More or less simultaneously, the vines around the body formed into a…shape. An outline of something indistinct and not very plant-like. Then it caught on fire.
Aedan, who until this point had be traveling the forest with all the grace of a housecat being forced to walk through a mud puddle, apparently had hidden magical depths. Jamis didn’t see the spell until it arced overhead and slammed into the thorns. Everyone charged. He fired an arrow at another smaller shape in the thorns that splintered and fell. Ishura got one too, as did Tsen and Efrin. When he looked again, Aedan was chewing on a chicken leg.
They were tracking a damn wolf and the ponce was eating chicken. Unbelievable. Shaking his head, Jamis started after the tracks again.
The forest continued to grow more desolate and the feeling of wrongness continued to grow. Jamis was so lost in thought that he almost missed the camp they were walking into. He didn’t miss the body though. More bodies. What the hell was going on?
The last one had looked like an ambush. This looked like a massacre. Flies droned in an orgiastic hoard over the dismembered corpse. There were tracks and blood everywhere. As the party fanned out looking for signs of what happened, Jamis’s survival instincts, dulled by the hangover, finally rose to the surface of his mind and started yelling. The tracks were familiar. They were familiar because he had seen them countless times and had featured prominently in some of his worst days. Some of his nightmares as well. Gnolls. Gods damned, filthy dogmen. Huge and insane and fanatical and made of dogs and men and evil. Jamis swore. Then he swore again. Without really knowing how it got there, a sword was in his hand and his eyes were glued to the shadows around the camp, searching for what must be there.
It didn’t take long. Laughing their insanity and bloodlust, three of the filthy monsters flickered through the shadows in a full charge. Jamis drew his other sword and planted his feet, his head pounding with fear and rage and the never-ending hangover. He chose the closest gnoll and swung, wildly, missing as the laughing dogthing lowered it’s head to snap at his knee. Cursing, he lunged with his off hand and landed a hit, the point carving line of blood along the gnoll’s ribs and knocking it off balance. This was according to plan. What was not was the second gnoll tearing into him from the side, puncturing his armor and nearly knocking him down. Time slowed as the the gnoll tried to lurch in, jaws wide, which would have been the end for Jamis had Tsen not intervened. In a whirlwind of fists, he snapped the gnoll’s jaw shut with an uppercut and then broke the orbit of it’s left eye. It screamed a canine yelp of pain. Things got frantic.
When it was over, Jamis sat in the dirt panting, aware that luck was the only thing that had kept him from being cut in half from the swing he hadn’t seen coming. The party dusted themselves off and, just as Jamis regained his feet, a man appeared on the edge of the wood, hands raised. After confirming that he wasn’t hostile and then working to calm him down, Jamis learned that he was the partner of the corpse and that they had also been hunting the wolf.
The others continued their talk with the traumatized man while Jamis tried to focus on the wolf tracks that led from the camp. As he did, his eyes clouded, the hangover coming back in a wave of nausea that nearly felled him. For some reason, when he tried to look at the tracks his mind kept drifting to memories of home. Of the farm. Of screaming and blood. He shook his head, the violent memory fading as he did, confusion rushing in to replace it. He had the claustrophobic feeling of having someone else’s memory forced into his skull and it made him sick. The life he had known with his adopted parents had been bucolic and peaceful, not rage filled and dark like the vision he had just seen. Shaken, he trailed behind the party as they gave their condolences to the shaken man, (all except Ishura who merely sneered) and moved off after the tracks.
The clouds finally let go and rain poured down through the dead limbs of the twisted trees. The forest grew denser and then thinned into a clearing. There was a cave, the mouth of which swallowed the wolf tracks in shadow. There was blood on the dead grass that ran and mixed with the forming mud. It grew cold. He clinched his teeth and stared into the dark but nothing moved. The only sound was the rain falling onto the corpses of trees. Every hair on his neck stood on end. He and Efrin shared a look and, while the rest of the party crept forward, Jamis dug in under a large tree and readied his bow. It didn’t take long for things to go bad. From the treeline a woman and a wolf walked, fearless, predatory.
‘You should have never come here’ she said as her skin flowed like wax, her bones crunching as they reformed into a large, canine shape. A werewolf. First gnolls, now a damn werewolf. Jamis wanted to swear but didn’t, he was too busy pretending to be an oddly shaped tree root. Her wolf charged at Tsen and she followed, stalking forward low and fast. The wolf leaped and, while it was a good leap and probably would have been a problem for Tsen, it never reached it’s intended target because Jamis’s arrow caught it in the ribs and hurled it against the rock of the cave mouth. Rising from his hide under the tree, Jamis knocked and fire another arrow, which caught the weir in the side as she charged. Out of the cave, Ishura came, her greatsword held low and trailing behind, shifting into a spin she caught the weir across the chest, blood spraying even as the weir lashed out with claws like knives and slashed into Ishura’s leg. Efrin waded in with his scimitar and chopped, Tsen leapt and kicked, Aedan fired bolt after bolt from his crossbow. The wolf died. The weir fell and melted back into the form of a woman. Jamis sat back against the trunk of the tree and exhaled.
There was no sign of the baby and, sharing a look between them, the party knew they would have to return. Frowning, Efrin told them of the notes he had found in the cave.