Before leaving Ronegarth for the last time for the foreseeable future, the party was joined by a blind Bison shaman named Redcrow, who offered to join them to help ward off evil spirits. Given their repeated vulnerability to spirits, the party gladly agreed.
When the party left Ronegarth heading for Garhound, they stopped off at the Sun Dome Temple to pass on a message from Duke Raus of Rone to Count Solanthos Ironpike. There they met Allicus Garanthae, an experienced Sun Dome Templar and trusted friend of the Count. After some conversations with the Count, it was agreed that Allicus should go with the party to Pavis to establish closer surveillance over the activities of the grandees of Suntown, who the Count suspected of getting too close to Sor-Eel the Short and the Lunar occupiers. He would also enter the Garhound contest, doubling the chances of a Sun County victor (the other entrant being young and brash).
That night, the guards announced a golden figure was approaching on a horse, followed by a heavily laden cart. The figure was clearly a Sun Lord of great power, and was received by the Count, who had given orders for a great feast to be laid on in his honor. The Lord’s servants announced him as Karstomye Khetu of Harmonious Intent, a great Dara Happan general who had been appointed the new Governor of Red Cliff domain, just to the South (and therefore new feudal overlord of Rabbit Hat Farm.) The general only spoke to announce his contempt for the barbarous cult of Yelmalio, a heresy in his eyes. The Count noted that he had slain more than a few Dara Happan Rune Lords, but noted that the General was his guest. The rest of the evening passed in awkward silence.
Everyone who was moving on took the opportunity to do so very early the next morning. They reached Garhound mid-afternoon, to find the town in celebratory mood, although Xaraya was unhappy to see and Redcrow unhappy to smell a contingent of Sable Riders barracked in the town. Most interestingly, the leader of the Sables was wearing a splendid helmet adorned with two vast Ibex horns, which Xaraya recognized as the helmet her father had worn.
The party went to Geo’s Inn, given Grom’s membership, where they encountered two Pol Joni nomads, a smelly Uroxi named Stikklebrixx and a young hunter named Reed. After some awkward glances, Reed and Xaraya recognized each other as survivors of the Lesser Ibex – each had thought themselves the only survivor. There was much celebration, and in the process the party chased a couple of Sables out of the bar.
Over the course of the afternoon, several delegations turned up. Duke Raus and Lady Jezra had come up to confer with Sor-Eel, who turned up with the usual coterie of soldiers, a trickster, and, quite bizarrely, Griselda, who winked at Skye when she saw her.
That evening, Sir Davis Garhound announced the opening of the annual Garhound Contest and paraded the prize – a beautiful young woman named Melisande, the Harvest Queen. The winner would take Melisande as a year-wife, or a ritual equivalent. Sir Davis called for entrants to the contest and first to step forward was a local lad, Carylon Squally, quite clearly Melisande’s beau. Next up was the brash young Sun Domer, Promidius, followed by another Sun Domer who had come up separately from the main Sun County contingent, called Vathmar Allweather, whom Allicus did not know. Allicus completed the Sun Dome entrants. Next up was Sor-Eel’s candidate, not a Lunar but an Orlanthi named Myrrhyn Calmstorm. All respectable Orlanthi gave him a wide berth. Grom then stepped forward to defend the honor of the Storm Tribe in the name of Humakt, whom in some legends had been a husband-protector of Ernalda during the Great Dark. Reed pushed Stikklebrixx forward, as the Uroxi had gotten quite drunk enough to forget why he was here. Finally, just as Sir Davis was closing out the call for competitors, a mysterious stranger dressed all in black showed up. His name was Jarst Daro, and despite being human he worshiped the Troll god Argan Argar. Like Humakt, there were a few legends in which this god had been a husband-protector of Ernalda, and so the priestesses administering the contest allowed him admission. One of the priestesses, Okalla Wayblue, an Axe Sister of Babeester Gor, the protector goddess, was particularly wary of this stranger, but Grom also caught her looking at him admiringly. He found the priestess quite attractive, despite her short hair, death rune facial tattoos and shapeless chain armor.
On Godday, the first event, the Horse Race took place. Promidius found himself a fine horse, but so did Allicus. Grom found himself saddled with a raging beast of a horse that he was sure was an Uroxi ally. The race began with Promidius and Allicus storming out to an early lead. They were never to be caught, as the race behind them developed into a comedy of errors. Grom was thrown off his horse at the gate and at the first water barrier. All others involved in the race fell off at some point, apart from Stikklebrixx, who kept his nerve to come in third. Allicus managed to outsprint Promidius at the death, making it a one-two for the Sun Dome and leading to curses all round from the Orlanthi.
While watching the race, Skye was approached by an old friend from her youth in Pavis, a boy she knew as Forthright Jon, who was now a guard in the Orlanthi delegation from the city. He explained to her that he was worried that his girlfriend, Dellica, had taken up with a bad sort, and was wondering if she could help him. Skye launched a blistering tirade against Jon’s manhood, telling him to “grow a pair” and get control of his life. Jon left more than a little shellshocked.
Meanwhile, Xaraya and Redcrow had been doing some investigating. Redcrow went spirit walking around the nomad totems and found out from some friendly spirits that there was an evil spirit in the area. Xaraya was looking into the Sables, and discovered that their leader was a mighty warrior called Asparukh Longhorn, that he had a formidable shaman ally, and that he was a nephew of a legendary Sable raider called Dias Firesword. Most importantly, Asparukh was indeed a veteran of the Battle of Scritha River, where the Lesser Ibex had been destroyed.
Xaraya looked around for Reed to tell him this, but could find only Stikklebrixx. He told Xaraya that the young hunter was nowhere to be found when he woke up this morning, but that he had left a note for them both, which read:
“For Xaraya, Khatun of the Lesser Ibex:
“My joy at finding another member of my tribe in unconfined, yet so soon after finding you, I must leave you. Last night I spoke to the Ancestors, and they told me that I should travel to the Tunneled Hills, to find the chaos-fighters we sent there, to persuade them to return. This will be a difficult journey, and the Ancestors told me I should travel alone, so as not to risk your life. I hope to see you again, and to avenge the destruction of our people, for the glory of the Ancestors.
“You win our bet. Now win the contest! When I next see you, I’ll bring back a whole gang of Storm Bulls that you can wrestle with.
Dismayed, Xaraya joined the evening celebrations. During them, a shifty figure was seen going round the competitors, but received short shrift, it seemed. He steered clear of Grom, Allicus, and the other Sun Domers, but when he approached Brixx he received a swift punch in the vitals for his trouble. Affronted, Brixx told the heroes that he had been asked to take a dive, whatever that meant. Vathmar excused himself early after refusing to eat the main course of roasted Cradle Fowl. It was noticed that he headed outside the town walls.
The next morning, an alarm was raised as a distraught guard found the mutilated body of a girl, one of the train of carnival workers who had come to town. The body showed evidence of bite marks, which the Constable took as evidence of a wild animal attack, but the Chalanna Arroy priestess said that the bite was consistent with human teeth, albeit sharp human teeth. Xaraya offered her services and helped examine the circumstances in which the body was found. On discussing with Grom, they came to a simple conclusion: Vampire! Krogar Wolfhelm, who was present with the Pavis contingent sent word on the wind to the Pavis temple of Humakt and received back the news that the Sword called Willem and a troop of undead hunters had set out right away, and would be in Garhound the next day. The word of a vampire attack spread through the town like Oakfed.
Despite the grim circumstances, the Joust went ahead. On this occasion, Grom’s riding skills did not desert him, and despite Promidius having what appeared to be a trained warhorse that fought with him, vanquished all comers to win the contest. Allicus came third behind Promidius.
The celebrations that evening grew more raucous than the previous night’s. Okalla offered Grom a drink of ale. He refused, on the grounds of his geas never to drink alcohol. Okalla was dismayed, as she told Grom that the Intelligence Test on Clayday was not a test of intellect, but a test of drinking ability. Grom realized he might have to forfeit, or even withdraw from the contest, but Okalla said that she might be able to arrange something.
As the evening wore on, a brawl broke out between some Lunar peltasts and a group of local lads. The brawl spilled out into the streets, and our heroes were quickly distracted by a cry of “Help, they’re attacking the horses” in Firespeech (which Allicus translated). The heroes ran to the aid of Vathmar, who was trying to protect the horse corral from a gang of Sables, who had succeeded in hamstringing one horse – the one Promidius had ridden. The Sables ran off when they saw the heroes approaching, and so they gave chase, accompanied by an angry Vathmar.
The Sables had taken refuge in their camp on the far side of town, and Xaraya used her magic to spy inside. They saw the culprits talking to Asparukh and his shaman, who had clearly gone into a trance. Xaraya conveyed this news and Grom, Allicus and Vathmar readied themselves (they had managed to grab a weapon each, but were of course unarmored), while Xaraya and Skye readied their bows and Redcrow entered a trance himself.
The Sables charged out of their camp, with magics already cast, and made a fiercesome foe. These were obviously experienced bandits, with skills to match the party’s. Redcrow engaged the shaman’s spirit in battle, and without him the party would surely have suffered grievously. As it happened, while two of the sables went down badly injured, and Xaraya had sent tendrils of darkness to wrack some of the Sables’ sould, Asparukh managed to penetrate Grom’s Shield spell and brought him down with a serious wound to the abdomen. Things were looking grim when the Constable showed up and put an end to the fight. Skye, not for the first time, used her magics to heal Grom’s wound.
On hearing the evidence, the Constable decided that the Sables had initiated the conflict and offered them a choice between arrest, or leaving the town immediately. They chose the latter, gathered their riding beasts, and left, giving warning that they would be back. Vathmar and the party were bound over to keep the peace, to which they readily agreed. Xaraya did suggest that the Sables had something that belonged to her family, and she was allowed to search their camp for it. She found the Great Helmet of the Lesser Ibex, and was all the more interested when Redcrow informed her that a spirit resided within, but he could not talk to it.
Despite their impromptu alliance, Xaraya still had suspicions that Vathmar, who was sleeping outside the town, might be the vampire. During the day, one of the young ladies of the town, who had been very eager to be seen in the company of the beautiful adventurers in the hopes that they might thereby attract the attention of some of the more handsome visitors, had got into conversation with Xaraya. Young Meggie Fipple was obviously Melisande’s chief rival in her age cohort, and had expressed some disbelief that the Harvest Queen would make an appropriate bride. Xaraya had persuaded Meggie (with the aid of enough silver to buy a better dress than Melisande’s) to go late at night to find Vathmar and see what his reaction would be. Xaraya would use her magics to keep an eye on her and protect her.
After midnight, Meggie slipped out of town followed by Xaraya’s projected sight. When she came within sight of the sleeping Vathmar, Xaraya cast a protective spell on her, but it proved to be useless, not because Vathmar was a secret vampire, but because he rebuffed the young girl’s advances. At least Xaraya was able to cross a suspect off the list, and Meggie got a significant bonus for her bravery, and a tale to tell.
By dawn break the next day, Willem and his undead hunters had arrived. They had already begun to fan out to question locals about vampiric activity, and said that he had two leads: one to a vampire in the woods to the east, another to a vampire said to dwell in sinkholes by a cliff beside the river to the southwest, about two hours away. He asked if Grom might be willing to lead a party to investigate one of these sources, if he could corroborate the rumors. Grom readily agreed, as long as could do his holy duty by completing the day’s challenge first, to which Willem agreed, although he told Grom to hurry up and get it over with.
Grom complied handily. The day’s challenge was the wrestling event, known to the locals as the Regal Rumble. As it happened, Grom was drawn first, and he made short work of all other entrants, throwing them out of the ring with some style. The only contestants to given him some trouble were Allicus, a rhino-fat smeared Stikklebrixx and a naked Jarst Daro, but all of them fell victim to Grom’s unique combination of brawn and technique. After the event, he was crowned King of the Ring, and acquired a legion of new fans, who were impressed that he had won the entire thing in 3 minutes and 16 seconds (hence “Grom 3:16”).
Grom hastened to get together the party to go vampire hunting, and awkwardly asked Okalla if she would accompany them. He need not have asked, as Okalla was going to demand that she be allowed to accompany any expedition to find the slayer of young women. After consulting further with Willem, it was decided that Willem and his mean would go the woods to the east immediately, while Grom, Skye, Xaraya, Allicus, Redcrow, and Okalla would explore the sinkholes to the southwest…