Three freshly Gauntleted magi – Arabelle of House Jerbiton, Guiscard of House Merinita, and Henri of House Bjornaer – arrive at the covenant of Nigrasaxa in southern England after long journeys from various parts of continental Europe. They are welcomed by covenfolk and quickly approached by a young boy who tells them, with twitching eye, that they are required to report immediately to Maximianus, the head of the covenant.
Led to the Great Hall by the young Winker, they find Maximianus in conversation with a worried, but formidable looking nobleman. With minimal pleasantries, Maximianus introduces the magi to Lord Robert, and tells them that the nobleman requires their help. Robert explains that his youngest daughter, Mathilda, has been missing since the previous day, and despite extensive searching no clue has been found as to her whereabouts.
The magi agree to help find the little girl. After mildly pressing Maximianus for some recquisitions of vis, but failing, they decide there is no point dithering, and leave the covenant for Robert's manor, in the company of the lord and a trio of his men-at-arms.
After an uneventful, and quite uncomfortable journey – at least for Robert and his men, who are nervous and wary in the presence of those with the Gift – they arrive at the lord's manor house. They are given directions from here to the spot where Mathilda was last seen, and Robert also suggests that they may want to speak to Hilda, Mathilda's nurse, and William, the man who led the search for the girl.
The magi confer and decide that it would probably be best if Arabelle, with her gentle Gift, approach the mundanes for questioning, while the other two hang back and try not to spook the superstitious folk. Unfortunately Henri is immediately seen by the sharp-sighted Hilda as Arabelle opens conversation with her. The nurse is terrified, thinking that the Beast in human guise is here to kill her. She crosses herself and mumbles a prayer; however, with soothing words and calm demeanour, Arabelle settles her and is able to learn what she knows of Mathilda's disappearance.
Hilda claims that she was supervising Mathilda while the girl played in the woods, when, in the midst of running across a clearing after a butterfly, she suddenly fell down a hole in the ground. Running over to the hole, Hilda looked down the hole but could not see the girl, though she could hear her crying. She immediately ran back to the manor and fetched William and some other servants. When they got back to the hole, it was quiet and there were no signs of anyone being taken out or leaving.
Confident she had learned all she could from Hilda, Arabelle then moved on to William. The master of hounds had also spotted the other magi lurking about, but did not seem nearly as perturbed about it as Hilda. The young man corroborated Hilda's story, and seemed sure that the nurse would not have had anything to do with Mathilda's disappearance.
Henri then suggested to Arabelle that perhaps Hilda might know of any local tales of unusual creatures or places in the area. Hilda claimed to know nothing of such things, but said that there were old women in the village nearby, West Compton, who might.
The magi then decided that they had learned what they could from the manor house, and headed towards West Compton, which also happened to be on the quickest route to the clearing where Mathilda disappeared anyway.
Circling around the edges of the little cluster of cottages, Henri saw that there seemed to be an unusually large crowd of people in the village for this time of day, and they were gathered out the front of a small church. Noticing the magi, the villagers appeared to be suspicious and worried. Undaunted, Arabelle and Guiscard proceeded through the village, to find the local parish priest exhorting the gathered throng to beware of the agents of the devil in their midst. The churchman promptly focused his attention on the approaching strangers garbed in odd robes, accusing them of being in the devil's employ and the ones responsible for the disappearance of Mathilda. Guiscard disputed the priest's accusations, and attempted to discredit him, but quickly gave up after realising the irate churchman was not amenable to rational arguments. Instead the magi marched resolutely on, trusting to the Gift and whatever frightening reputation they had to keep the villagers from acts of violence, and giving up on the idea of questioning the old women of the village for the moment.
And indeed, the crowd parted before them, apparently not swayed enough by the priest's firebrand rhetoric to take action against the magi. Meanwhile the priest himself remained safely in the vicinity of his church and its aura of the divine, yelling imprecations at the magi as they disappeared into the woods.
Soon enough, the magi found themselves in a clearing, with an odd looking hole occupying the middle of the open space. Looking down the hole, Henri could see the bottom about twenty feet below, and noted that the excavation was perfectly rounded and smooth sided, but could find no presence of the girl.
The magi then set to investigating the scene using their various magical skills. Granting himself the acute olfactory senses of a hound, Henri picked up on several scents, but two in particular were of interest to him: one which he deduced must belong to Mathilda, and another which smelt odd and was confined to the immediate vicinity of the hole. He decided to take the plunge to the bottom of the pit, but not before silently working a spell which slowed his descent to a safe pace. After a long, thorough search of the floor of the hole using both mundane and magical senses, he finally discovered something significant: a single hair!
Presuming that the hair belonged to Mathilda, the Bjornaer magus cast an impromptu Intellego Corpus spell – using the hair as an Arcane Connection – hoping to gain a remote view of the girl in order to determine what state she was in. The low level casting succeeded, and Henri, in his mind's eye, caught a brief glimpse of a young girl that matched the description he had of Mathilda – she was in a state of repose with her eyes closed and nothing could be discerned of the environment around her, but Henri was sure that she was still breathing.
Meanwhile Arabelle and Guiscard, even with magical means of detection, could find no trail or other indication of where Mathilda had gone. Growing suspicious of the circumstances around the girl's disappearance, Guiscard began to wonder whether faeries might have had something to do with it. He considered the possibility that they may have used a means of travel available to their kind, such as a faerie road or teleportation, that would make it difficult to determine where they had gone. Although he was far more familiar with the nature and abilities of faeries than the other magi, he could not say why specifically they would have taken Mathilda, or what intentions they would have regarding her.
So the magi discussed what they had learnt and what their next options were….and were stumped – they were confident that Mathilda was still alive, and that she had been abducted by faeries, but they could not see how to determine where she currently was. They considered the option of returning to the covenant and utilising the library there and possibly requesting Maximianus' help. As darkness fell and their active spell effects dropped, they prepared to head home when a loud cackling drew their attention – on the edge of the clearing an old woman they recognised as being from West Compton stood, apparently entertained by the magi's consternation.
The crone observed that the magi were having trouble in their investigation and claimed that she knew where Mathilda was and who had taken her – she made it clear that she thought the local priest was a fool and was wrong about his accusations against the magi. Identifying herself as Agnes, the crone offered to lead the magi to a forest where faeries dwelled, alleging that they had taken Mathilda.
The magi agreed to take Agnes' help in return for a vague promise of a favour in the future. Agnes stated that she would come to the covenant when she was ready to call in the favour.
Following Agnes deeper into the woods, the magi tried to elicit more information from the crone regarding the faeries, but they learnt little other than that the fae around the area were usually quite benign and friendly, and she did not know of them having done anything like abducting young girls before.
Finally, soon after Guiscard sensed that they had entered an aura of fae power, Agnes said that they were now on the outskirts of the faerie forest, and took her leave, saying she would not go any deeper.
The forest was thick with vegetation, making visibility very limited, but curiously there was a clear path through the undergrowth open before the magi. As they entered the passage clearly intended for them, they noted that the forest was very dry, with a brittle atmosphere.
Following the path they soon came to a junction with several other paths branching out, but no noticeable difference between them. Guiscard confidently made a choice and they proceeded, before coming to another junction. By this time the magi had heard frequent rustling in the vegetation to either side – it seemed they were being shadowed and observed. Henri again magically endowed himself with senses like those of a canine, and caught whiffs of a curious smell that reminded him of paper.
Guiscard again chose a path, assuring the others that they were on the right track. Soon enough they reached another junction, and then another, and another….Eventually even Guiscard had to admit that they did not seem to be getting closer to where they needed to be. Realising that they were likely in some kind of fae maze that would endlessly lead them in circles regardless of which path they took, the Merinita magus, in sudden frustration, conjured a fiery nimbus around his hand and stuck it forth towards the wall of dry, highly flammable vegetation at his side…and his arm was shoved aside as the creatures that had been stalking the magi, fooled by Guiscard's illusion of threatening flames, leapt out to prevent the magi from burning the forest down.
And so the magi found themselves in a fray with a trio of creatures that appeared to be made from bundles of straw arranged into a roughly humanoid form. Silently the things launched themselves at the magi, swinging their straw..arms(?) aggressively, and filling the trail with, to Henri's sensitive nose, the sweet scent of paper. The magi have little trouble evading the straw men's attacks though, and refrain from making offensive moves themselves, instead protesting that they meant no harm to the forest or its inhabitants.
But it is not until Arabelle makes a well practiced incantation which endows her with an almost palpable aura of authority, and proclaims their friendship that the creatures appear to be pacified, at which point they disappear into the undergrowth as rapidly as they appeared.
Looking about, the magi notice that there is now a new passage in the wall of vegetation…