The Circlestone Injustice Episode 4: Off the beaten path? Oh, of the Beatenpath!

17 Elient - "Daddy, daddy, get me out of here, Ha, ha, underground" - David Bowie

Izzy reacted furiously to Maena's accusation that he deliberately putting his followers and congregation at risk by setting up in a location infested with Ankheg. He denied any knowledge of the nest and, given that he was operating inside a Zone of Truth, he seemed to be genuine. However, when challenged about his deeper motivations the best he could say was that he was absolutely focussed on gaining followers; he wants people to idolise him above anything else. This seems to shock the women of his ministry and it is was at that point that Maena laid down some pretty tough home truths to Izzy. She pointed out to him that gathering followers for personal glorification is both disingenuous and blasphemous. Her words hit Izzy hard, and he seemed to suffer some sort of psychotic break, retreating into himself and becoming unresponsive. The women, clearly traumatised at the rapid change of their realities. Only twenty minutes earlier they were following a self-assured and charismatic leader who had promised them access to an exciting new "god of gods". Now they were reeling from the Ankheg attack and the physical, moral and spiritual collapse of their guru. They turned to the PCs for solace and guidance. In an attempt to find out more about the potential connection between Izzy and the Ankheg, to see if he really was as much a victim of circumstance as everyone else and not the instigator of this tragedy, Anahita decided to gently interrogate the troupe's horses. Her interaction with one of the horses, a chestnut mare, told her two things, the Ankheg nest seemed to have been here when the religious collective arrived, and the threat was still very present, the mare repeating over and over, "Scared, now. Now!" Remy also chooses to try and commune with the horses and he too gains some insight into things, mainly that he doesn't seem to be able to talk to horses. However, with his usual "growth mindset" approach to life, he sees his failure as a building block on which he can rest the foundations of his future beast-communication attempts. One way or another, he is determined to talk to horse. While Maena ministers, delivering a powerful and wise message to Izzy's followers, pointing out to them that while the messenger may well be flawed that does not invalidate the central truth of the message! This seemed to give the women a new sense of direction and purpose, particularly the Dwarf, Laanap, who showed real potential for leadership when she decided that she would help Izzy to bounce back from this. As this is happening J'Wi and Jonathan, possibly less interested in the human drama unfolding around them, possibly just more attuned to the environment than the others, notice something intriguing and alarming, there is a voice calling for help, and it seems to be coming from beneath there very feet! Quickly, fearing one of the farmers snatched was still alive and in need of rescue, the team kicked into action, Anahita grabbed a shovel from the camps tool-reserve and started digging at the point the voice seemed to be emanating from while Jonathan and J'Wi raced to the nearest opening to the tunnels to see if they could perhaps enter and locate the individual. Remy started to dig too, aiding Anahita with his not-inconsiderable hands and strength, while Maena used yet more of her magic to cast a supporting glamour on the desperate diggers. At the existing opening both Jonathan and J'Wi entered the underground, brandishing lit torches, and started to investigate, looking for a shortcut to the subterranean shouter. Realising that the person beneath their feet was now in immediate danger, the sounds of combat replacing those of the calls for assistance, Anahita uses her ability to transform into an animal to take on badger-form, this instantly allows her to burst through the remaining topsoil creating an aperture through which the early morning sun can shed light on the unfolding nether-drama. What she, and remy see, is a stout, and somewhat muddy, Halfling brandishing both an impressive wound and an impressive battleaxe; looming over him, despite it's obvious state of expiry, is the biggest Ankheg the team have yet encountered. For the second time in the morning, Remy finds himself lifting another being from the depths of the Ankheg burrow, this time though it is to aid a fellow adventurer, rather than attack a chitinous foe. Badgerhita scrambles into the hole and investigates the deceased beast while encouraging a slightly confused looking Halfling to accept Remy's offer of a very literal hand-up. Seeing that immediate threat to life has passed Maena goes to the hole into which Jonathan and J'Wi descended and calls for them to return topside, which they do, describing a far more extensive set of tunnels than even Jonathan had expected. He seems convinced that this network must have existed well before Izzy and the acolytes arrived. Once the dust, and mud, has settled, the new arrival, who introduces himself as Connor, of the Beatenpath Clan, explains that he had come across an entrance to some sort of warren. His curiosity, and natural Halfling love of a good hole, getting the better of him, he had wandered through tunnels which appeared, at least by torchlight, to be old, dry and abandoned. After several hours he had entered a section which seemed more recent, fresher and possibly occupied when he heard the sounds of running feet, screaming voices and what he thought to be combat. This drove him further, as he tried to gauge where the commotion was coming from and move away from that location. Then the lights went out. In his enthusiasm for delving he had lost track of his illumination situation; he'd run out of torches! That was when he realised the fighting seemed to have finished, that he could hear voices, seemingly from somewhere above him and he had shouted for help. In retrospect his energetic banging on some roots, an attempt to better guide his would be rescuers to his exact location, may have actually made his situation more perilous, the vibrations almost certainly drawing the obscenely large bull-Ankheg towards him. That was when he decided to hit it, with his axe. Connor thanked the team and immediately threw in his lot with them, at least for the short term in their determination to rest up and then attempt a spot of pest control; their desire being to rid this area of the infestation once and for all. Finally the team helped to break the camp, and send the farmers back to their homes armed with as much knowledge as they could impart about the Ankheg threat and how best to minimise it. Ironically, it became apparent that two of the younger visitors, a milkmaid and goatherd, had decided to join Izzy's group, so despite everything he did at least manage to recruit new bodies to his cause, or at least what remained of it. The camp disassembled and the cart packed, the women, and a still tacit and shaken Izzy, took their leave, moving off down the coast road towards Port Llast. Both Anahita and Remy tried to make a final attempt to penetrate Izzy's state of catatonia, and there were signs that he was cognisant of their words, tears welling up in his eyes and a hand reaching out to gently caress the Tortle's cheek as Remy apologised for criticising the bread he had shared earlier. Alone again, except for nature and their newest companion, the Stoners agreed to make camp for the night, rest up, and formulate an anti-Ankheg strategy. While Maena engaged in a much-needed commune with her patron-god, Jonathan and J'Wi chose to reconnoitre the camping ground and Connor, Anahita and an disproportionately excited Remy headed for what appeared to be a way down the cliffs, to a stony beach-cum-promontory.

However, before the trio could gain the pebble plastered point, they became aware of a rider approaching across the grasslands to the east. At once both wary of, and concerned for, the rider, they carefully moved to intercept them and shouted a warning about the threat of sub-soil assault.

The equestrian, who appeared to be well-heeled, both metaphorically in that his clothes and horse bore the look of having some real pedigree, and literally in that he was sporting some very elegant and expertly crafted riding boots, dismounted and explained who he was and what his immediate business was.

His name is Vittori Stanipavel and he was a son of the local landed gentry family, House Stanipavel. He was on a scouting trip of the families extensive grazing land (the Stanipavel fortune being tied to that of their extensive beef herd), particularly on the lookout for signs of, or information about the whereabouts of the Ankheg swarm which had been plaguing them for the best part of a year now.

Vittori was delighted to meet the PCs, especially when they indicated that they could easily lead him directly to the most recent Ankheg installation.

A tentative deal, in which Vittori speculated that his father might well engage the professional services of the team as support for an anti-Ankheg was struck with Vittori leaving to the family manor and the PCs making a committment to following his directions so as to meet him, and his family, there once Maena was finished with her spiritual refreshment. At the homestead they would share information with the Stanipavel patriarch, attempt to negotiate a fee and terms for their service as bug-killers and spend a much needed night in some comfort.

One happy accident was a casual comment by Vittori that there was an actual path down to a very pleasant and sandy beach. This reinvigorated a slightly blue Tortle (who still glowed with a yellowish hue, even when blue) and as Vittori headed east towards his familial abode, Remy, Connor and Anahita headed surf-ward, Maena continued her heavenly download session and Jonathan and J’Wi stayed nearby, just incase of any more trouble from the netherworld ...

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