GM Note: Congratulations to Joe and Chiara on the birth of their son. We wish them all the baby bliss they can stand.
While Father Diego and Idrissa took watch positions near the main entrance of the grounds of the shrine, Wilhelm, Isabella, and Brother Renero moved up along the low, crumbling stone wall to get a better view of the enemy camp. In many areas, the jungle threatened to consume the old shrine, and they used this to their advantage.
The marauders’ camp consisted of four tents, shared between nearly twenty men. Five guards patrolled the shrine grounds at all times. Three carts, laden with crates, lay to the rear of the camp, while the oxen that drew then and a dozen horses grazed among a grove of fruit trees. The shrine grounds were maintained by a small group of monks, who now tended to the needs of the mercenaries. Above all this, the image of Hamunan, the monkey god, loomed smiling, as if enjoying his own private jest.
The wanderers quickly identified the “leaders” in the camp. One was an imposing Afghan, tall and well-muscled, who seemed to have the respect of the rest of the marauders. Was this Uthman Khan himself? Could the wanderers be that fortunate? Quietly, Wilhelm sized up the man.
The other man to whom the camp differed was a robed man whose features were hidden behind a golden tiger mask. The group noted that the mask was also decorated with the symbol they had only days before, traced in blood on a forgotten shrine to Dashkin Rai. The dancing lights of the campfire played off the golden mask as the cultist addressed the camp.
“Tonight, Dakkim Rai’s harbringer will slay and rend. Beneath the full moon’s, it will wallow in bloodshed. By morning’s light, his fury will infect the people, who will be ready to take arms against these ferengi and dive them back to their ships and across the seas. Salmolin, the blessed and bloodied, has foreseen this. Praise be to Dakkim Rai, King of the South, Master of Beasts!”
The camp shouted its approval, then prepared to bed down for the night.
Quietly, the wanderers planned their assault. They would wait for a moment when the guards attention was elsewhere. Then, Isabella would cut the tethered horses free to distract the camp. Wilhelm insisted on a direct confrontation with the Khan, whom he holded would be caught off guard by the assault. From the rear, Isabella would use her pistols to even the odds while Brother Reniero ran interference for her. It seemed like a sound enough plan. In the distance, a lone wolf bayed at the full moon.
The distraction was executed perfectly, and Wilhelm found himself confronted by twenty armed marauders and the heat of a burning tent at his back. He focused his assault on the Khan while, from behind the stone wall, Isabella took aim at the closest man.
Then the priest emerged from his tent, chanting his chakra. He drew a knife from his belt and plunged it into his own hand. Blood welled, but he gave no pause. Suddenly, Wilhelm’s limbs felt laden, and the weight of his swords felt off balance. Blows he once turned away with ease now began to strike home. The German realized to his horror the foul sorcery that had been inflicted on him. With all the focus he could muster, he forced his way past the Khan’s defenses and cut the man down. He hoped the fall of their leader would break the will of the marauders, but he was instead met with even more resolve. The man at his feet was not the Khan after all.
The priest began a new mantra, raising his hands and calling out to the forest beyond the shrine. Even sluggish from the foul curse, Wilhelm closed the distance between them in an instance. He did not hesitate as he slashed his blades across the priest’s throat, silencing him in an instance. Only as the priest’s blood fed the ground did the German consider what the troupe had lost in his death. Hopefully, they would be able to extract info from another prisoner after the battle.
Isabella continued to blast away at the marauders, who now began to move in on her position. As they did, Brother Reniero sprang into action. What he lacked in fighting expertise, he made up in sheer will. He threw himself bodily against his opponents, bringing them to the ground in a tumble where he could wrestle them into submission. This allowed Isabella the chance to move and use the wall to her advantage, keeping the marauders off her while she fired away with abandon.
As the soldiers moved against Wilhelm, the forest exploded with a roar. A horrific man-beast burst forth, grappling and tearing at a passing marauder. Blood gushed forth from the man’s ruined throat. The shock and ferocity of the attack sent waves of horror through the ranks of the marauders. Their courage fled and all but one escaped into the forest away from the beast-man, Isabella and her hound along with them. Wilhelm held his composure. Growing up, he had heard the tales of wolf-men, but had never seen one himself. And what was a creature of the Schwarzwald doing in Hindoostan?! Perhaps this wasn’t a werewolf at all, but some foul specter the priest had summoned from the forest. Perhaps the dark magic of Dakkhim Rai had transformed one of the soldiers into this bestial thing.
The remaining marauder paused, unsure of his next action. Wilhelm suggested they join forces against the beast. The man agreed and the two joined swords. Brother Reniero, meanwhile, stole quietly among the laden carts, looking for something advantageous for the fight. He withdrew a canvas tarp and a length of rope.
Isabella had found her courage and returned from the forest. She remembered the silver shot the group had purchased before their journey to the Castle of the Devil and prepared to reload her pistols. Her hound she dispatched to aid Wilhelm and the others.
The beast was still feasting on the fallen Hindu when Wilhelm set his blades upon it. The assault scarcely injured the werewolf, but did get its attention. But before it could act, Brother Reniero was upon it. Throwing himself against the beast, he tangled it in the canvas and rope. The creature roared in anger! The marauder moved in to land a killing blow.
A shot rang out, and a lead ball took off the top of the marauder’s head before he could strike. The wanderers looked up to see a lone figure, bathed in moonlight, perched atop one of the monks’ hovel on the far side of the shrine grounds.
The beast burst its bonds and, with a growl, fled into the forest. Brother Reniero gave chase, but soon lost the beast in the black jungles. The rest of the troupe set off after the gunman, but found him gone once they reached the hovels. How had he slipped past them? And where were Idrissa and Father Diego, who were supposed to be standing guard?
The found Father Diego coming too against a nearby tree. He had been struck from behind. Idrissa returned moments later. She had been investigating some movements in the forest west of the shrine. There, she had found the bodies of four marauders, fresh victims of the beast. She was confident their wounds matched those of the child taken by the beast the night before.
And where was Santiago? Why, high in a tree. From his vantage, he’d seen the whole thing. “Big Dutchman,” he said in his broken dialect. “Him come with long gun.” Which of the Dutch was it? “One who room I visit.” Holtzmann? “Yes.” An outrage! Surely we must give chase. Can you track him? “Why? Him Dutchman. We know where he going.” They thought about it and agreed with the pygmy’s wisdom. It wasn’t likely that a Dutchman, even one armed with a musket, would remain in the wilds for long. Certainly he would return to the Nazim’s palace. But why was he here? Why had he shot the marauder?
These questions would have to be answered later. First, there was the matter of captives. The man they had mistaken for Uthman Khan still lived, though badly injured. The wanderers decided they would try to get as much information as they could from him. Brother Reniero immediately set about a bloody rouse, decorating himself in the blood and entrails of the marauder taken by the werewolf. It worked, and the wounded man was appropriately horrified.
From his loosened tongue, the troupe confirmed that the Khan’s plan was to arm the peasantry so that they might rise up against the Portuguese and drive them from the shores of Hindoostan. He was not, however, in league with the Dutch, who he hated as much as any other ferengi. The man was a lieutenant of the Khan, and was expected to report back to an outpost of the fringe of the Sunderbans within the week. He was reluctant to give the location of the outpost until Brother Reniero convinced him that he was a sorcerer, had stolen the man’s soul and would only return it when he led them to the site. Horrified, the man agreed.
Leading their prisoner back to Hooghly, the wanderers discussed their next move. It was decided that Idrissa, Father Diego and Santiago would rally the forces of the Portuguese and the Mughals and journey with them to confront Uthman Khan’s forces. Wilhelm, Isabella, and Brother Reniero would journey into the heart of the Sunderbans and strike at the heart of the Tiger Cult, and hopefully end the terror that had stole the hearts of the people of this region.
To be continued…