Just as Balekh stands to retreat, Beech springs. In a grotesque ripple of flesh and muscles, the form of the man shifts instantly into a hulking, faceless aberration. This beast quickly slams Balekh in the face across the table, and readies itself for another strike. Thinking fast, Balekh expends a spell to calm the creature’s emotions, and it finds itself bound from aggressive action while Balekh considers his options. Penned in and concentrating to hold the beast in check, his only escape is the window next to his table. He exchanges a few strained taunts with the beast, gathers up his papers and belongings, then smashes through the window and into the street. The beast howls and takes another swipe, but doesn’t appear to want to reveal itself to the city. This doesn’t stop Balekh from high-tailing it anyway.

By this point, Haggor and Veshenga have both reached the tax office where Taeva is waiting, and Veshenga’s story about Ironbriar’s strange behavior gives them further impetus to hurry back and regroup. When Shayliss rushes around a corner and tells them that Balekh’s in trouble, they believe her. It’s only when they’ve rushed after her down an alley that something seems strange, but Taeva’s the only one to realize that this woman looks like Shayliss but moves and speaks strangely compared to the Chelish girl that they’ve been traveling with lately. Not one to wait for confirmation, Taeva bolts forward and stabs the young woman in the back, just as she turns and rips out of her dress into a hulking, faceless aberration. Between the three of them, they put down the beast rapidly but not without taking a few blows. As it dies, it explodes into warped skin, rubbery bones, and foul-smelling goo. Veshenga recognizes the creature as a Faceless Stalker, and is able to give some basic details about the evil race of swamp-bound mercenaries.

Continuing on, the trio runs right into Balekh on his flight from the cafe. All of them compare notes (though they neglect to mention that the beast they fought looked like Shayliss), and head back to the restaurant. On their return, they find no sign of the beast, but do find the owner and a waitress looking greatly put out at the destruction of the window. Veshenga, however, notices a trail of strange footprints into the back and into a large pantry closet. Pointing their weapons at the closet and steeling themselves for another fight, Haggor throws open the door only to see a body slump out: a naked young woman apparently strangled to death… a young woman that looks very much like the waitress that is behind them.

The beast that was previously posing as Sergeant Beech rips free of the new facade it had created for itself, and once again attempts to smash Balekh to death. It, like its brother, is swiftly put down and explodes all over the kitchen. The restaurant owner, retreated behind an oven, begins to gibber. The party confirms that the rest of the staff is safe in the alley outside, and that the creature must have killed the waitress in order to take her form and clothing. Nothing they can do seems to calm the owner, so they leave him in the hands of his staff. Taeva mentions that she remembers a body that could have been Sergeant Beech was dredged from the bay a week ago, so it’s possible that these things are killing those that they’re replacing. She then lets it drop that the one they killed looked like Balekh’s girlfriend.

That’s all it takes for him to tear out of the restaurant towards his home, with the rest of the group on his tail. He reaches his loft a few minutes later to find Shayliss safely home—though the interaction between himself, an oblivious Shayliss, and the rest of the party in the hall is somewhat awkward. He suggests that they could all be in danger if there are more of these things, and Veshenga offers to try to get rooms in the Arvensoar while they finish this. Taeva pipes up that they should also collect Zif, as he is one of the other contacts in town that might be killed to infiltrate their group. Everyone else is surprised by this concern, as they had last heard she’d held a knife to the smitten gnome’s throat to get him to leave her alone.

They find him at the post office as usual, and explain the situation. He is less interested in hiding and more interested in helping, despite their protestations that he could get hurt, until Taeva smashes him in the back of the head with the flat of her sword. She claims that she was just trying to knock him out so they could take him somewhere for his protection. Shocked and suddenly both terrified and hurt, the normally ebullient gnome slouches away rubbing his head and suspiciously watching Taeva until he gets out of eyesight. Taeva seems confused at what she did wrong as the rest of the party looks on in dismay.

Eventually, they get Shayliss squared away at the Arvensoar with the Black Arrow rangers, and beat feet for the Mayor’s office to turn over their substantial findings of conspiracy and betrayal. Yet, who should they see walking out of the front door of the palace besides Ironbriar himself? The elf begins winding up a speech about what they need to do, but suddenly cuts himself off and races inside as Balekh whips out a spell scroll and mean expression. Rushing in after him, they’re detained by guards who are very suspicious that the scroll was just Detect Evil. A tense impasse begins, with the guards unwilling to get the mayor or accuse a justice of the city on the somewhat unhinged sounding testimony of four adventurers.

Finally, they convince someone to retrieve the cleric of Abadar that had checked them previously and the man quickly arrives to mediate the dispute between the party and Ironbriar. The elf consents to being detected by the official priest, and nothing is found. While the party suspects this is because of a nondetection spell of some sort, they nevertheless consent to converse with Ironbriar politely. The justice begins to tell them that it’s not safe to talk and that they should meet him at a sawmill, later, but Haggor is having none of it. He begins throwing the events of the day at the elf, asking pointed questions about the clocktower, and Ironbriar realizes that the game is up. He gives them a thorough villainous rant about their word against his, destroyed reputations, and the foolishness of bringing this to the Mayor without proof. He suggests that they both retreat from the Mayor’s office so they can settle this without mutually assured destruction. However, Haggor, still a keen judge of character, feels something off about they guy that should be a completely smooth bastard: with some of his twitches and deviations it almost seems like he’s under some kind of Charm effect.

The party breaks for a moment, catches the attention of the cleric, standing nearby, and asks him to detect magic on the justice. With the elf’s confused permission at this second round of divination—as Ironbriar thinks he has nothing to hide—the cleric fires off the spell and, within a few rounds, seems to suddenly notice the strong aura of enchantment. With a look for confirmation at the party, the man sucks up his courage, casts a dispelling at the justice, and strips off the Charm. The elf goes from rising anger at being targeted by an unapproved spell to sudden rage at realizing that he’d been controlled by magic. He begins ranting about the woman in the clocktower that had used him to run interference for the murders she was responsible for, warns them about her schedule and great powers, lists all the creatures they might encounter on the way, and in all ways appears to be as much a victim of the situation as they were…

Except he doesn’t volunteer any further information about the sawmill.

Strongly convinced that the justice is still a villain, even if he was only allied with the woman he calls Xanesha due to magic, the party convinces the cleric to detain (“protect”) him for the rest of the evening. They then try to decide what they should do next.

Advertisements