The seating was important to me, it seems silly afterwards, but I wanted to make a good impression. This was altogether a different kind of combat than I was used to, but it was a form of combat. As always, positioning would be vital. Elder Sandros would be key to the negotiations, so I sat at his right hand, the easiest place to talk to him. Ayeena would be opposite so the elder would have the most pleasant view of the party. Maybe her beauty would cause his mind to wander, and more easily be manouvered into providing what was needed. Terato and Vincent would flank the mage, between them they would have the knowledge to cover anything he was interested in. Marigold and Argent would sit in the middle, because Marigold was the only one likely to say something inappropriate, and because Argent would creep the hosts out. "The Mage" it turned out as a title granted to the head mage of the village, and he had given up his name when he took the position.
Negotiations went well, the mage even offered to halve the price of food in return for a day of Argent's services translating some Abyssal for him. Unusually I was actually enjoying myself, it was relaxing to sit and eat in pleasant company after so many days on the road. A little tipsy from the wine, I was hardly prepared for the moment when everything changed. Suddenly Argent and Ayeena were yelling at each other accross the table, the elder was looking terrified, and the mage was on the verge of starting a fight. It had all been going so well, I'd thought. A sinking feeling washed over me as the rivalry between my friends surfaced once again, but this soon turned to a rising feeling as the cause of the ruckus became apparent, and I was going to be sick.
The villagers of Scardale cannot eat any food they catch or grow, as it poisons them. They only have one source of food. Human flesh. I frantically searched for something to use as a purgative while the Mage desperately tried to apologise for tricking us into consuming human. Vincent, bless his kind soul, came to my rescue with the salt and a glass of water. By the time the contents of my stomach were sitting in the wine bucket the mage had arranged to demonstrate where they actually got the meat from.
The demonstration was more horrifying than any of us could imagine. In short, the Mage had inherited a pact from the previous tenant of his position. Under the dungeons of scardale there is a sub-basement in which a creature calling itself "Anaris" resides. The mage plays chess against her once a week, to entertain her, and in return for a selection of... stuff, she provides them with... people. Specifically she can copy people that already exist, occasionally she demands a new person be brought to her, and after a while alone with them, she can then copy them as many times as she wants. The people she copies are exactly the same as the original was when they were copied, and are fully sentient. At this point the person is slaughtered, and butchered.
The Mage took us to the room he uses to play chess with Anaris. At the back of the room was a locked door, which he had never passed. Anaris would never emerge in person, electing to send through a person she had copied to represent her. Apparently Anaris could also control these copies when she desired, thus allowing her to play without ever showing her face. The current "avatar" was a tiefling girl we had met earlier in the day. I was left with a quandry, Anaris was plainly torturing these people, forcing them to eat their own kind for her own twisted entertainment, yet stopping this would deprive the whole village of their only food supply, and they would starve even faster than Hollow. We resolved the best thing to do would be to confront Anaris personally and renegotiate the deal that had been made, to allow for more palletable solutions. I gave the Mage my word that we wouldn't endanger the vilage's food supply, and with his blessing we ventured through the doorway and deeper into the dungeons below Scardale keep.
I can't bring myself dear diary, to sully these pages with images of the creatures we found down there. It was evident Anaris had been experimenting, attempting to create some kind of superior monster. Every creature we found in the place was some chimera mix of human and skitterer. The more able of them were placed in the hallways as guards, while the others were confined to cells, any human part of their minds driven insane by their hybrid nature. We made our way through the dungeon without serious incident to finally confront Anaris in her lair.
"So, you've finally come," mocked the creature as we entered the room, "I've been expecting you." Ugh, what a line that was. Narrrowly avoiding the cliche, I hurriedly presented my argument to the creature, but she cut me off. "Why should I change the deal? It's always been acceptable in the past, anyway, I enjoy watching the pathetic humans squirm when they have to kill their own kind." I spluttered feebly, what were we going to do? kill it? There was nothing we could do, nothing we could offer it, and Anaris knew it.
"One moment, I wanted to ask a few questions about how you copy people." Vincent suddenly added.
"And why should I tell you anything?" Anaris snarled her response, clearly not interested.
"Curiosity, I'd like to know what you're experimenting on, maybe I can figure out why all of your creations fo mad." Vincent was clutching at straws.
"I like them that way, so much more interesting to play with. No go away and leave me to my toys" The creature replied... and then I had an idea.
"I'll make you an offer," I meekly supplied, "if you renegotiate your food deal, I'll give you something new for your experiments that'll entertain you for years."
"And what's that?" The creature suddenly sounded curious.
"If you really want something more interesting," I said, "I'll give you me."