This week in Carrion Crown, Annie (Grift), a Dan (Sir Horace Gunderson), Toby (Solis and his eidolon Gea) and Tyler (Alexandros Callimachi) and GM Hunter embarked on the first steps of Trial of the Beast.
With the spirits of Harrowstone put to rest, the adventurers take the opportunity for some rest and leisurely study and preparation. This allows them to also fulfill Professor Lorrimor’s final request to his beneficiaries that they take time to help his daughter Kendra put the household in order while she determined what to do next with her life and the professor’s substantial legacy. The young woman decides to stay in Ravengro and do . . . things. Things which she must surely find a satisfactory way to pass the time. Darius Carfax St. James, archivist and spinner of tales, elects to stay behind in Ravengro as well, and weave the epic of the cleansing of Harrowstone.
Horace Gunderson shows his studious side, poring over the tomes destined with Lepidstadt University: On Verified Madness, Serving Your Hunger, Umbral Leaves and the Manual of the Order of the Palatine Eye — the last was secured by a sturdy lock, but Gunderson displays his prowess in the area of traceless burgling there. Not even Solis can make sense of the manual’s text, as it was thoroughly encoded.
Meanwhile, Callimachi satisfies his curiosity about some of the odder elements of the Harrowstone affair. Consulting Lorrimor’s library and brethren at the temple of Pharasma, it seems the very first haunt experience and Gibb’s purported possessions were the work of the Splatterman, seemingly strongest of the ghosts in his abilility to reach out beyond the prison walls.
Before setting out on the road to Lepidstadt, the travelers resupply, availing themselves in particular of the wares of Ravengro’s apothecary and general store. Finally, with a crude map tracing the route clutched in one hand and the name of their contact at the university, Montague Crowl, ringing in their ears, they take the first step on the road. Or their mounts do, because everyone very sensibly purchased a horse from the local farrier — excepting Sir Horace, who spent the time being smug about his cherished Gundersteed.
As they travel, the landscape slowly changes. More ruins appear on the horizon. The land becomes marshier and less idyllic than the rolling lands around Ravengro. A light drizzle becomes their constant companion. By the second evening on the road, everyone is thoroughly dampened and ready for whatever rest they can find under a convenient tree. Until they come across the traveling carnival.
“The Crooked Kinfolk,” the legend on the side of one caravan declares. Others go on to describe the fantastic acts and attractions to be found within. All the Kinfolk seem clustered on the side of the road, murmuring and showing grave concern as the adventurers pass.
The Wolf Boy, according to a mural, curls in a ball on the ground, weeping. Touched, Grift reaches out a reassuring hand, which the feral boy finds terribly comforting. His sobs subside and the rest of the carnival is rather touched by the scene.
Out of the crowd emerges Kaleb Hesse, clad in the ringmaster’s red long-tailed coat and high boots. He explains that Elise, one of the “pinhead girls,” a trio of sisters with microcephaly, was found missing when the troupe prepared to end its rest here. Callimachi’s inspection of the tracks suggests the girl wandered off into the fens.
Being either the kindly sort or easily cowed into following the herd, the four travelers strike out into the marsh to find the lost girl. Elise’s trail finally dead ends in a clearing scattered with errant’s bloom, a wild gray-white blossom. While Callimachi scours the ground for a sign of the girl’s passing, a spine-chilling scream echoes through the night. Gunderson and Calllimachi think the voice must be that of poor Elise, but Grift and Solis detect an inhuman quality to its timbre.
When the second scream comes through the air, Grift mimics it almost perfectly, to no reply. But the direction from which the scream comes seems to be moving, shifting to the west.
Callimachi takes point as they fan out into a sort of V formation, heading north and curving to the west. As the screams continue intermittently, everyone becomes rather suspicious. Finally, the screams sound no more, not even when Grift tries to elicit more. Shortly, the group comes upon a still pond in the tall grass. Only the rock Grift throws disturbs the surface. A second light-enchanted rock thrown into the water by Callimachi reveals nothing.
As everyone watches the rock illuminate absolutely nothing in the pond, there’s a shimmering, crackling sound to the side. Grift turns to find himself face to face with the wrinkly visage of a crone, craning forward from the impossibly huge, black bulk of a giant spider. Its fangs sink deep into the boy’s shoulders, pumping in venom even as the blood gushes forth. In response, Grift’s mouth spews froth as he drops to the ground.
Abruptly as it appeared, the spider shimmers and disappears again. Callimachi suspects it’s a phase spider, capable of moving between the material and ethereal planes at will to ambush prey. While he tends to Grift with a healing potion, which manages to do its work before he vomits up an enormous glob of venom, Gunderson, Solis and Gea turn their attention to the phase spider. Sir Horace strikes a mighty blow to the spider and anyone paying attention is surprised it didn’t drop dead there and then. Worse yet, it responds in kind, sinking its poison-laden fangs deep in the fallen nobleman’s neck.
The unpredictable pattern of the spider’s attacks throws everyone at first. Eventually they learn to ready themselves for its reappearance and strike then. When Solis goes to provide Sir Horace with resistance, the phase spider savages the summoner terribly.
Even when the spider is finally vanquished, its legacy lasts far too long. Gunderson and Solis are wracked by its poison, despite administration of antitoxin and healing magics. When they at last overcome the toxin’s effects, they both have the pallor of coming close to death. No one escaped the phase spider unscathed, but some clearly had it worse than others.
Scouting the area around the pond and clearing finally reveals the spider’s lair. The trinkets found amidst the charnel of its past victims are poor consolation for the final discovery: the body of Elise. Callimachi sets about collecting stones for a cairn for the spider’s past victims while the others assess the beast’s horde.
Later, they emerge from the fens bearing Elise’s body and the severed head of the phase spider. The Crooked Kinfolk are heartbroken by the dismal fate of their collective child. As tokens of his appreciation, Hesse offers two gifts: an enchanted silver dagger and the companionship of the Kinfolk on the road to Lepidstadt. Solis takes charge of the dagger. Everyone agrees that the journey remaining would be more enjoyable and safer in the company of fellow travelers.
 Why were either of them selling tanglefoot bags or alchemist’s fire? Who can say. We didn’t complain.
 And yet horribly abused, to hear Gunderson recount his journey: “I gallop all day.”
 Possibly to compare talon length.
 And somewhere in there was a tangential conversation about running cons by selling Gea: “I’m down to my last knut. I have to sell my beloved magical beast here.” Then the summoner walks away with a bag of gold and Gea winks out of existence. The only question: is 100 yards enough of a head start?
Sovereign against shapechangers.