I only ask to be free. Butterflies are free. Charlemagne Diskinsen, the Taldane writer once wrote. It does not generally bring glory to believe in Desna. It lacks the fire and sword of Saranrae, and the strict identity of Pharasma's faith, but when you spend enough time in a sunless dungeon, the colorful butterfly becomes a sight to inspire you, more than any gold or sword or blood. Its wings will bring you to tears more than any roar or poem. And when you're lost at sea or deep in the wilderness, the sight of the limitless stars to guide you inspires even the least religious.
The people of Chastel have been imprisoned here for too long. We investigated what remained of the town hall. Inside we found… things not meant to be put to paper, but I will try. So that if my dead body is found one day before we finish our work here, that there will be some purpose to our seeing what we have witnessed. Men, women, and children slid along the bile and fluids that covered the floor, gorging themselves from filthy boiling pots. Lifeless babies dropped into their stew, and fed from. The stench was the worst thing I had ever experienced – feces and spoiled liquids mixed with the musk and sweat, thick as a sauna. I forced myself to look, to try to find some source of this perversion. Sulayn winced, as if looking at a horrific battlefield. Halda’s eyes widened wild. Aetherton looked away and leaned against the wall. We were leaving when Vargan came out of the night, smiling as if he’d just come out of an Ashtown bar.
He laughed off our fears but told us about some encounters with a Chastel villager and a dog, and how he’d refused to eat from them. Just before his arrival Sulayn had warned us by reminding us of Vargan’s devotion to Lamashtu, and here was the work of his beloved Lamashtu. But I had to believe that Vargan would never, could never stand for this crime against nature. He seemed to lack a certain conviction, it was true, but I and Sulayn impressed on him that these villagers had become docile servants, that these blessings had only made them betray their families. With the Prince’s coin in his purse, and the promise of more, and our resolve – all of it together, Vargan decided it was worth his while to fight alongside us. For now.
We investigated the warehouse together and found more food supplies unguarded. I was able to locate a slip of paper entitled Sanver’s Delicious Treats, with disturbing ingredients such as mother’s milk. I couldn’t make sense of the most esoteric bits, but Aetherton inspected it and identified something else from the demon Papa Bordgibash, some vital essence which stimulated the rest of the substances with his blessing. This only served to interest Vargan, though Aetherton took care not to say much of the nature of the ingredients. I scribbled the recipe down in my little black book here. At one point Vargan had some of the spoiled food up to his mouth and considered taking the blessing, but I was able to convince him, in the last second to let it burn. And with some reserve of will, Vargan, like an alcoholic choosing sobriety at the last second, threw the burning pot and its embers across the floor, catching some of the frayed netting on fire. We made a hasty retreat, though Vargan lingered. Sulayn stayed just long enough to shove him out of a window into safety as the warehouse alit all around them.
We then decided to investigate the brewery. Vargan lept like a perverse frog straight through the third story window. It dawned on me that he was becoming more and more inhuman. What did that mean? Sulayn ran up the side of the tower after him. I clambered up as quickly as possible, but I could not walk on walls like Sulayn could with his ring. I threw down rope to Aetherton and Halda and we got them up. While Aetherton, Halda, and I did our best to investigate carefully, Vargan noisily went downstairs looking for trouble. We were in the Night Ales Brewery, a local brewery with a decent reputation in Shudderwood, but Halda and I found nothing useful about the Chastel horror in its ledgers, and Aetherton did not discover anything unusual in the tracks. I was going downstairs when I heard, almost felt, a crash on the first floor. Vargan, it turned, had discovered Fiona Bovald, town mayor, and a couple dozen townspeople nearly starved behind a thick oaken door.
For his boldness in breaking down their door he was rewarded by a frying pan across the head. Twice. Fiona was not one to abandon her duties easily. I remembered that from our conversations about Cherry, the demon-possessed goat and the corruption of Shudderwood a year ago.
Inside I quickly offered my rations to the starving survivors, amongst whom I found Henri Chevre. Aetherton wisely suggested we not give them more food, and while I questioned how long they could remain resolute without more food, Aetherton took the question to group. A move I noted, distinctly. And Sulayn and Halda both agreed. I had to acquiesce, and settle on taking Fiona aside and impressing on her the necessity of keeping her town members safe. She wavered and said she could make no promises, but I persisted.
"Fiona, no one, in this world can make any true promises. But…make it happen. Lose no one else." I had to trust the look in her eye that came after. And with Halda caring for the weary, and Sulayn and Vargan bolstering defenses, they all said they hadn’t had this kind of hope for weeks. Not since Josephine had visited and gone missing. And that was how we discovered that Josephine had been through here and gone out to find the source of this corruption in Shudderwood. Weeks ago. While I was inclined to go out there and lend her support directly, the townspeople needed us more. I could only hope we found ourselves in the same place when we pursued our different approaches.
As it was late that night, and we were at a loss as to what to do, we retired. I made sure to brew elixirs anew. Briefly, on Sulayn’s suggestion, I brewed some Spirit’s Whispers to assist me in case we needed occult insights beyond our knowledge. And went to bed, exhausted, sometime in the hours before dawn.
Sometime in the morning, before any decent was had, we were visited by a couple of Chastel’s residents, bearing rank pies they no doubt thought were very good welcoming gifts. It was just a footnote in our time here in Chastel – full of sound and fury from Vargan who nearly murdered them in an anxious fit – but an important one. Sulayn asked me to make sure Vargan didn’t kill them and get the villagers out of here. I looked to Aetherton, who looked back, and then to Halda, who shrugged, but it was a good thing I crawled out of my bedroll for this. As it turned out, the villagers also wanted to invite us to the evening’s celebration. The merrymakers would be here later today, and everyone was expecting us.
How nice of them. I walked them out and learned that Tupton, that recluse the town once distrusted, and Sanver, of Sanver’s Solutions (the very same alchemist who assisted me on my first visit to Chastel a year ago) – these two were apparently a couple of the inner circle merrymakers. They convened in an unknown place within Shudderwood and occasionally visited to bring Papa's Blessing and choose the worthy to come with them into the forest. Asked when they would come, they said they did not know. Asked how we would know to arrive at the celebration, and I was told we would hear them by their merry music. I thanked them, and decided there, on the spot, we needed to get out of our current lodgings. And I knew just the spot.
Late morning was spent in Sanver's Solutions, after a short surreptitious venture through the mists. Unnervingly, the mists had spread more deeply into Chastel, so that we traveled in the haze unmolested. Vargan almost walked right out into the street, but I pulled him back to go behind buildings. We found the alchemist’s shop in a disarray and Aetherton advised us not to tread all over things until he’d had a chance to examine the place. He discovered no one had visited here in months. Feeling a little safer, we spread out in the small building and picked through his things. I began cataloging all manner of substances, pausing only to try to assure Sulayn that the jar he’d discovered was not a humonculus, but a solution with bloated mushrooms. He would have none of it. Under different circumstances I’d have a laugh of it, and how he sounded like the most superstitious backwoods peasant, except I knew such peasants often have some bit of truth we should all listen to. And we were all in no mood to laugh.
Finally, at almost noon, we retired to get some rest before the merrymakers would no doubt make their entrance. But not before I prepared the wax with the same trick I’d used at the ill-fated opera we had attended. Sulayn kindly offered me half of Sanver’s bed. I almost thought he was pulling his rakish tricks on me, just as I’d seen him do with Sczarni and mercenaries before. But he turned back on his side, the business of sleep clearly on his mind. I was glad for the comfortable bed, and slept like the dead.
The Butterfly and the Nightmare
I dreamt of stars. Just stars. Twinkling. In a clear sky. Open. The moon visible. I realize, as I write this, tomorrow night is the night of the Eternal Kiss, the new moon associated with sacrifice and Zon Kuthon. Why I dreamt of stars I do not know. Perhaps because it has been a couple nights since we’ve seen them.
I awoke to Vargan dragging me across the floored, and I was still groggy, but I could see something was wrong. And then I heard the distant lilting call of some song, cacaphonic yet melodic, grating, yet soothing. I quickly gathered my wits and pulled out the wax, handing it to each member of our party in turn. We went out into the pea soup mists, hearing sounds of merrymaking and lovemaking, groaning as villagers adored the merrymakers and gorged themselves. The disembodied voices came to use through the mists like nightmares, dampened only slightly by the wax. We followed the sounds in that forsaken fog. A baby cried out in the mists. Then we saw it crawling on the ground beside us, lapping at the milky substance on the ground. My head swam for a moment, but Sulayn but a firm hand on my shoulder.
Further on we found the good people of Chastel amongst bloated beings who I could still recognize as old acquaintances: the baker with a penchant for wine, the huntsman with a bawdy song for walks. And amongst them we saw a drummer, a bagpiper, and a flutist. And a shadow at the center. But then the shadow took form through the mist: its many wet eyes, its salivating toothy orifices, its fleshy body, its long twitching tendrils, the mass of it, extending, reveling in the song and the sin.
I knew it to be a creature of Lamashtu, akin to the Mother of Milk, but a creature of Papa: insemination, corruption, gluttony, then whispered its name to my companions as the villagers stretched out in front of us, two dozen strong. What were we going to do? And then whispered its weakness to magic and its vulnerability to disease cleansing supplies such as alcohol and potions. What were we going to do? Watch for its tendrils, its corruptive touch, I whispered. Aetherton snapped me out of my thoughts.
“Alcohol? Will alcohol work?”
“Oh, oh yes,” I said. But I didn’t have any.
He pulled out his flask and held it out in front of us. Sulayn, then I, then Vargan, all held out our respective weapons and Aetherton doused his and our weapons by emptying the contents of his flask. Then someone asked Sulayn to dance. And all was murder.
Vargan crushed men and women’s faces with his shield, and literally flew thirty feet toward the great creature in the center. Sulayn whipped the peasant with the butt of his glaive and sliced at the creature in the center, and it only quivered in anticipation, then irritated by his sting writhed its tentacles into the air. Halda backed up sending bolts at villagers flashing in the mists. Aetherton drew both swords and maneuvered to the left, but villagers came at him from all directions. I released my arrows while quickly grabbing Quicksilver and Kyonin’s Mark and Flametouch, spraying and shooting. The creature hissed from a dozen mouths and lashed out, striking at Sulayn with a barrage of movement, driving him back.
Vargan sent villagers flying, by the largest of them vomited a foul vile on his back which seemed to burn like alchemist’s fire, several beat him hard with clubs and stabbed at his flesh hungrily. Sulayn had backed up, straight into half a dozen villagers while the creature attacked relentlessly. Aetherton parried blow after blow, but with half a dozen on him he was pressed to his limit, and then a bloated villager sprayed his acid bile all over Aetherton sending him staggering and gasping. Halda kept backing up, and I was forced to spray the Brevoy’s Elixir and try to slip away without hurting these creatures- once men and women I knew and liked. Vargan ate the Shoanti Brew that I had found in Sanver's collection, and roared in fury.
Arrow after arrow I struck. Sulayn struck slice after slice, but the creature only thrashed harder. Vargan tried to crush his way through the waves of people, but they only came on his thickly, just as Aetherton was attacked and disappeared behind the people and the mists.
I flipped and twisted behind the carts at the edge of the town square, creating a barrier between myself and some of the villagers. For the moment. At last an arrow struck deep and burst in magical fire, exploding some pocket of puss in the creature. Only then it reached out, touched my mind. “Why? Why do this to us? When we only want to be friends?”
“Halda!” I dropped to my knees. “It’s…it’s in my head!” I only hoped she heard me before it would take over.
She looked at me but set her jaw, seeming to make a grim decision. Instead she sent the musicians reeling. I would have to push the thing out of my head on my own, but I found it far easier than I imagined it would be. With the break in that incessant droning from the musicians, the creature's magic did not have as much sway over me. As I saw the villagers come at Halda, I knew we each had our own battles to fight. Sulayn struck the creature, raking his glaive down its gelatinous body, spraying foul liquid, and then he too screamed, “Halda! It’s in my head!” before being surrounded with cleavers and picks.
I opened my eyes again, as if from a daze, to see a number of limbs and a knife coming straight at my face. Shoving hard off the ground, picking the Angel's Blessing off my belt I'd found in Sanver's collection I sprayed, and instantly was lit by a golden light. Using the distraction, I broke through their ranks and ran up the carts, their cleavers sliding off the light like an invisible bubble, while I spilled rotten fruit across the square from the carts. From that vantage point I saw the full horror of our moment. Vargan had gone down, and Chastel residents were hacking and defecating on his body. Aetherton was desperately fending off half a dozen crazed men and women. Halda was almost surrounded. Sulayn was harried and bloodied, caught by the creature’s mind attack at just the wrong time, in the midst of attackers.
Quietly I said a Desnan prayer against Lamashtu, “The butterfly lives in winter.” And smiled, despite myself, grimly. Glowing, above the carts, I hoped to goad the creature into attacking me, and pulling back hard I released a blessed and flaming arrow. The second explosion quickly followed the first as my next arrow hit one of its many eyes. I leaned into the wagon, tipping it over and scrambling away from the villagers’ retaliation.
It pushed its formidable mind against me against and sent me staggering. The creature, not to be distracted from its carnal work, loomed over Sulayn. He had gotten too close. And its tendrils came at him, all at once, an impossible attack from all sides, lashing him brutally with a thousand teeth and thorny bits. It ripped at his armor and flesh, sending him sprawling to the ground. I shook of the creature’s mind effects desperately and then more loudly said, “Ustalav does not fall so easily.” Approaching it, now no more than four yards away, pulling back hard, I released one arrow. I took a step forward, with blinding speed drew another arrow and trained it, pausing for half a breath, then release again, nearly snapping my string. The arrow struck deep, right in the cavity I had created with another two arrows. The creature lunged at me, then stretched into the air, flailed its tendrils in all directions, and crumbled, a mass of flesh.
Quickly, Halda and I scrambled for Vargan and Sulayn, each administering our magics. They both opened their eyes, ready for battle, scrambling for their weapons. Aetherton meanwhile methodically cut down one then another, and another, corrupt villager. Halda sent villagers reeling, stumbling, then electric bolts through the mists. Sulayn, bloodied, nonetheless twisted and slid through the villagers, cutting them down down, trying to get at Vargan who went down again beneath the tide of steel and frenzy. The villagers swiped at me with cleavers, clubs, and knives, their blows singing against my bracers, and I twisted out of them, sending one tanglefoot arrow after another to buy Sulayn and me some space while they tried to hack themselves out of the spider silk strings.
The aftermath was bloody as well, though I spent it mostly dodging old friends. In the end, we had to cut them all down, a massacre in Chastel’s square. Nothing moved. Nothing dared approach the cursed place we stood within. We could hear nothing but the sound of dripping blood and sagging flesh from the creature that came from Shudderwood…and something else. The babies…we saw the babies crawling through the muck still, who knows how many were trampled by the combat…
I swallowed the bile in my throat. Halda asked, "What do we do with them?"
"I don't know. Put them in the empty rooms."
Sulayn shook his head, looking around, ruefully, "I don't know that there will be enough rooms. What then?"
I grimaced. "I don't know. Find the space. We've killed so many. I'm sure there will be plenty of rooms." I added, "And damnit, put them in separate rooms…" I turned to check on the dying and the dead. Halda and Sulayn thankfully helped me out, because I hardly knew what I was doing, and in turn they saved a couple people I could not have. These were faces I knew, lying in this muck. Some had shared a dance. Some a story by the fire. Some their dreams for their children.