> Chronicles > Book 2 – Part 7

Part 7 – The Twilight Grove

  • Contents:
    • Chapter 1 – Aiden Fire
    • Chapter 2 – Shrine of Ashârdalon
    • Chapter 3 – Nature’s Lore
    • Chapter 4 – Twilight Grove
    • Chapter 5 – Baeloch the Outcast
    • Chapter 6 – Battle Beneath the Gwlthyas Tree
    • Chapter 7 – Aftermath in the Courtyard

See also: Session 07 Adventure Log 2014/04/11

Chapter 1 – Aiden Fire

At the north end of the large hall the group approached a wooden door. Lee put his ear against the door and listened intently. He heard distinct activity on the other side, probably another gardener he guessed, so he slowly and quietly attempted to open the door to investigate within.

As the door cracked open he saw a bugbear in the room, busily at work gardening among the compost and fungi. Unfortunately for Lee, the door let out a creaking sound and the bugbear noticed it was being spied upon. It angrily dropped its tools and picked up its weapons for combat.

Magna was the first to react, charging into the room as the bugbear was about to throw its javelin. With a swipe of his sword, he wounded the bugbear, forcing it to drop the javelin before it had a chance to hurl it. But the bugbear returned the injury, bludgeoning Magna soundly with its morningstar. Next, Dodge joined the fray, but the first swing of his battle-axe was deflected to no effect. Lee sped into the room and initiated a flanking maneuver against their now-outnumbered opponent. Magna dealt another bloody strike with his sword. Now the bugbear was severely weakened, but it was still lucky enough to return another crushing, two-handed blow to Magna. Dodge swung his battle-axe again, but was frustrated by yet another miss. It seemed that perhaps Magna was going to have to duel the Bugbear on his own. But a second later, Lee delivered the killing blow, sinking his sword into the back of the bugbear. It fell forward on its face, dead.

The danger now surpassed, the group began to survey the room – another octagonal arboretum. Nodules of glowing fungus dotted the walls and ceiling, as well as the caps of toadstools and mushrooms, small polyps, puffballs, lichens, and less identifiable growths that filled the room. The humid air reeked with rot, and luminescent mists blurred the edges of the chamber.

However, beyond those commonplace components, they saw a most unexpected site – a haggard-looking man hanging from chains on the west wall. Though still quite groggy and weak, the prisoner seemed to be slowly returning to consciousness, perhaps awakened by the noise of the battle. Covered in dirt – bruised and bloodied – the victim looked like he might have previously been a strong and healthy warrior.

They approached the prisoner with cautious excitement. Could this be one of the Arrion brothers they had been seeking, or perhaps one of their mercenaries? Not likely, they quickly surmised. For based on the prisoner’s style of clothing and the various designs painted on his skin, he was obviously a native Kimrian from the highlands in the far north – a Krict. But maybe he had knowledge of the Arrion brothers. Regardless, they decided the merciful thing to do was free him from his chains and see to his health. They could question him soon enough.

Magna searched the body of the slain bugbear, but found no key. So Lee promptly went to work trying to pick the lock on the chain. While Lee worked at his task, Yríadel tried her best to comfort the poor man.

“A ydych yn ffrind neu elyn?” the painted man muttered in inquiry, his eyes rolling tiredly from Lee to Yríadel. “A ydych yma i f’achub i? Neu fy lladd i?”

Kyran, who had spent his apprentice years in the Kimrian kingdom of Gwynedda, had a good understanding of the tongue. And though the Krictish dialect was somewhat different from the more common Brythonian dialect, he recognized most of the words. “He seems to be asking if we are friend or foe,” Kyran announced to his friends. “Then… I think he asked if we are here to rescue him… or to kill him.”

“Os gwelwch yn dda, fi am ddim o gadwyni hyn,” the Krict pleaded with Lee.

“I understood those words, too,” Kyran stated emphatically. “Os gwelwch yn dda means please, and gadwyni means chains. That is simple enough, Lee. He wants you to free him from those chains!”

“No problem, I just got it,” answered Lee, as the lock snapped opened and the chains went slack. Carefully, they lowered him to the ground. Yríadel placed her gentle hands on his chest, relieving him of his pain and fatigue.

“Diolch yn fawr,” he spoke to Yríadel with a warm smile.

“You are welcome, traveler,” she replied with a reassuring look, guessing correctly that his words were a phrase of gratitude.

“Fy enw i yw Aiden,” said the highlander, pointing to himself. “Aiden y tân.”

“He said his name is Aiden,” translated Kyran. “Aiden Fire, I think.” Lee’s sharp ears also recognized the word tân as meaning fire, for his magic dagger bore the name Gartân, a Kimrian phrase for Fire-Guard.

Aiden pounded his fist into his palm and said sternly, “Yr wyf yn ceisio derwydd a elwir yn Baeloch y fwrw allan.”

Everyone recognized the name Baeloch [BAY-lokh], and could tell by the body language and angry tone that this man was no friend of the mysterious druid.

“Did he say Baeloch?” asked Lee. “Baeloch the Outcast?”

Kyran knew that derwydd meant druid, but before he could confirm Lee’s guess, Aiden answered them all using the common tongue, Westrian. “Yes, my rescuers, I seek the druid called Baeloch the Outcast. To whom I intend to deliver personal vengeance,” he growled with clenched fists.

“So, you could understand us all along,” scolded Yríadel.

“I ask pardon for any confusion brought upon you with my language. I did not intend deception. In my delirium I did not realize I was speaking in my native Krictish until now.”

“We also seek this Baeloch,” Magna chimed in, trying to smooth out any misunderstanding. “We believe he holds captive some men from our village, and we mean to rescue them. You may join us on our quest, if you choose. Is there anything that you need?”

“I thank you, but no. My needs are simple, and all I require are my weapons. They were tossed into that corner, with the evil bugbear’s gardening tools.”

Grimble Gromble the Gnome was at that moment inspecting the stack of tools. “Perhaps this well-made spear is yours, Aiden,” offered the gnome, “but the rest look like simple garden tools to me.”

Aiden rose to his feet and walked over to join Grimble Gromble. He reached down and extracted two tools from among the pile. The first was obvious – a hand-axe, which he added to a leather strap on his belt. The second was not so obvious – it looked like a sickle, though the blade was not quite so curved, and it bore the work of fine craftsmanship – unexpected for just a simple farm implement. “I thank you for your help,” he said with a friendly smile meant to reassure the little gnome, as he slung the sickle to his belt. “I call this little weapon a kama [kah-mah],” he explained, after noticing the curious look on the gnome’s shy face. Finally, he reached for his spear and gripped it with gratified recognition.

“Many of us are wounded, and all of us are tired,” said Yríadel. “If you please, let us gather together and I will share my healing aura with you all.” Without hesitation, they did as she suggested, even the Krictish newcomer. “Freyja Hélbrede”, she chanted while holding aloft a wooden carving of a falcon – her holy symbol. Her golden hair brightened and sparkled with celestial light as she channeled the power of her goddess into a healing aura which permeated all within her radius.

“By Gullveig of the Burning Heart!,” she exclaimed with surprise, sensing that more healing would be required. “Hold fast while I implore the sacred aura again.” She repeated the ritual, and afterwards all but the two most injured were restored to full strength and health. She singled out Dodge and Magna, laying her delicate hands on each of them in turn, and chanting “Freyja Kúrere”, so that finally even their deepest wounds were healed.

Aiden was quite impressed with the powers of this tender young girl, her beauty and glowing hair so out of place in this dark, dangerous locale, deep beneath the ground. But with his vigor renewed, he was suddenly overcome with intense hunger and thirst. “Say, ffrind, is that offer of help still open?” he asked. “I could sure use some food or water.”

“Gladly!” Lee responded. “Come, sit for a moment while we share our provisions with you. Perhaps you might tell us where you are from, and how you came to be here in this wretched room.”

“I hail from the highlands of north Brythonia,” began Aiden. “As an orphan, I was raised and mentored by a Krictish warrior-shaman named Galam. One year, through the secret order of warriors known as Fergusmor, we were introduced to a man named Baeloch. He claimed to be a druid on a sacred quest for a mysterious magical fruit. When Galam, during a particularly bad spell of sickness, had lapsed to near death, the druid claimed he could help. I allowed the Druid to tend to Galam – but my master promptly died.

“The following day, as we prepared the body of Galam for his last honors, it became obvious to us that Galam’s death was not natural, for his tongue was blackened and swollen, and his entire body was bruised from the hemorrhaging of his major arteries.

“In our grief, none of us had noticed the druid’s discreet and hasty departure. But my sadness turned to anger, and with no particular home or responsibilities, I decided to find the deceitful druid and discover the reason for the senseless treachery to which he visited upon a harmless old man – and to gain vengeance for his unnecessary death.

“For the next few years, I pursued the Druid, wandering from place to place, following whispers and cloudy memories of those who might have seen my quarry. Recently, while on the hottest trail ever, along the Old Road somewhere near the legendary Sunken Citadel, I allowed myself to be captured by goblins of the Durbulukh tribe, who were rumored to worship a mad, outcast druid known to have a fetish for magical or poisonous fruit.

“My plan was successful to a point, as the goblins dragged me into their dark lair. Before I could escape and continue my mission, fortune smiled upon me this day as your kind group happened by and released me from my bonds to continue our quest together.”

Once his story was finished, Aiden stood, his hunger and thirst now relieved, and urged the group towards the next door.

Chapter 2 – Shrine of Ashârdalon

Dodge took his familiar position at point, and led the way through a door in the southwest corner of the room, then down a narrow hallway. As he approached where the hallway opened into a wider space, he witnessed an eerie red glow up ahead, much different from the all-too-familiar purple glow which emanated from the various fungus breeds throughout this level.

When Dodge turned the corner to the west, he beheld a large room that gave the impression of a shrine. A huge marble statue of a rearing dragon stood in the curve of the western wall. The eye sockets of the dragon were empty, but a red glow lingered there, emanating a sinister crimson light throughout the chamber. The radiance cast an inky shadow behind the statue’s wide wings.

Dragon-carved granite blocks tiled the chamber’s walls and ceiling, though many were crumbled and broken, creating stony debris on the floor. A crumbling 5-foot-diameter circular red-stone tile was inset in the floor in front of the rearing dragon carving. A single wooden door stood in the middle of the north wall.

Kyran gathered next to Dodge. From his vantage point, he viewed the lifelike carving with a mixture of admiration and caution. His knowledge of the arcane allowed him to confirm Dodge’s suspicions. “That is definitely a red dragon,” he informed his comrades. “I sense your worry that this might be a trap. Wait, while I take a deeper look,” he said. “Kavvála Provállete”, he whispered, then his eyes turned a haunting black-on-black as he scanned the room searching for magical auras. “Be aware,” he warned, “I sense a strong magical aura of Alteration from both the dragon statue and the circular tile in front of it.”

Aiden ignored the warning and sidled by the group, approaching the statue. Was he being brave, or just reckless? The group did not know him well enough yet to decide. As he neared the circular red-stone tile, Aiden could see that runes were carved around the circular tile’s inner edge. Like the runes that had been encountered earlier within this citadel, these were also in Draconic.

However, before he could describe to the others what he was seeing, just as he stooped to gain a closer look at the circular tile, he caught sight of something dark lurking within the shadow of the statue. A wispy, vaguely humanoid form was revealed as it surged around the statue to attack him.

Though the chill of the grave confronted him, Aiden fearlessly faced his foe. With a swift swing of his hand-axe, his blade cut a swathe of the darkness from the wraith, but the shadow-stuff seemed to knit itself back together before Aiden’s eyes. His new friends, having faced a similar attack months before within the Crypt of Dartron, knew the best course of action from that prior experience, for their opponent was immune to weapons of the mundane. While Aiden tried to dodge the mystical claws of the shadow creature, Dodge charged forward, wielding his enchanted battle-axe. With a mighty swing, he cleaved the shadow in half. Though the blow would have ended the life of an ordinary man, the dark creature was able to reform, though it appeared to at least be partially damaged.

Yríadel chanted “Freyja Skáde” in her majestic voice, while boldly displaying her carved wooden falcon. Dazzling gold swirls of energy radiated outward from where she stood, lighting up the room in pulses as if in competition with the shadows created by the red glow of the dragon statue. As her bright emanations reached the shadow creature, it seemed to shiver and weaken as if harmed by the celestial light.

Kyran struck the next blow – and the last. “Kavvála Apókryfo”, he shouted as he ran headlong into the fray. An inky black glow of enchantment rose from his blade. He swung his jet-glowing blade at their opponent. His attack was accurate and deadly, and the undead shadow dissipated into howling nothingness.

The immediate danger now passed, Dodge checked the dark area behind the dragon statue, but found no more enemies. However, he did discover a loose stone in the wall there. He deftly pried the stone away and behind it he found a small hoard, which included some gold coins and a pair of flasks stoppered with clay in the shape of ornate dragon heads.

Kyran inspected the flasks and attested that they each contained alchemist’s fire. “These will make useful weapons,” he explained as he carefully tucked the flasks into his leather belt. “They can be thrown at an enemy, and when the stopper breaks off the target will explode in flames.”

Aiden’s curiosity brought him back to the red-stone tiles, and the runes inscribed along its inner edge. “These runes appear to be Draconic,” he announced.

“Don’t read it out loud!” everyone shouted quickly, practically in unison.

“Calm down, I can’t read Draconic. I only recognized it as such,” answered Aiden, somewhat surprised by their clamorous warning. He was unaware of the dangers they had encountered earlier when they had recited Draconic runes.

Kyran and Grimble Gromble joined Aiden at the ring to study the runes.

“Interesting,” said Grimble Gromble. “Translated, it means ‘Let the sorcerous power illuminate my mind’. Based on past experience within this place, one need only utter the phrase in proper Draconic to invoke its spell. Kyran already forewarned us that the statue and this ring of red stones all emanate with Alteration magic.”

“Yes, but is it good magic?” inquired Dodge. “Remember the fountains with Draconic runes that we encountered earlier. One gave us enough liquid to create a Fire Breath potion, but the other was trapped with poison,” he recalled.

Kyran’s friends could tell he was contemplating what to do next. He was the only one amongst them with any formal training in the arcane arts. Perhaps he was considering reciting the Draconic runes to see what effect their might be.

However, Aiden was oblivious to any protocol about waiting for advice from a magus. “Grimble Gromble, teach me how to recite these runes, so that I may try the invocation,” he suggested. Grimble Gromble agreed, and took Aiden into a far corner of the room. There they practiced in hushed tones while everyone else stood guard. Some even retreated to the hallway, suspicious that upon uttering the Draconic invocation, the dragon statue might magically animate and breathe fire on them all.

Their preparation complete, Aiden walked calmly toward the statue, stood within the circle of red-stone tiles, then recited “ea serpenta rau kaluva nyawisti.” Tensions rose among the occupants of the room as a puff of spectral flame erupted at Aiden’s feet, then rose up and enveloped him – harmlessly! Suddenly Aiden was regarded by all as being more charismatic and fascinating than before. Was it the effect of the magic, or was it simply due to Aiden’s bold demonstration of self-sacrifice and heroism?

Wishing to obtain the same fortuitous result, Dodge attempted the same recitation, but alas, the magic appeared to be gone.

Not one to dwell on missed opportunities, Dodge gathered the group together and led them to the wooden door on the north wall. He opened the door to reveal a small chamber beyond, which was filled with several stone bookshelves, some leaning and some completely fallen, though there was a clear path to a wooden door on the opposite corner of the north wall. The litter of torn and burnt pages, bindings, and scrolls formed disordered piles in the corners. They carefully entered the room and searched it. They discovered two scrolls of arcane spells – one of Pyrotechnics, the other of Acid Arrow – which Kyran stored in his pack. They also found a mostly unscathed tome of dragon lore, written in Draconic, that was obviously very valuable. This Dodge stored in his Bag of Holding.

Beyond the library, the north door opened to a corridor which went north about 10 feet then turned east. They followed north, and after the turn they witnessed damp and crumbled steps that descended sharply. They debated retracing their steps and clearing the current level before descending, but after a short discussion they decided to continue onward. They descended the steps, which dropped about 15 feet, into a passage which continued east, appearing to pass under the room above it – the same room from which they had rescued Aiden. The underpass intersected a vein of moisture and was in a terrible state of disrepair. Once again they almost turned back, but instead they plodded along carefully. After about 50 feet they approached stairs that ascended for 15 feet. They climbed the stairs and when they leveled out, the corridor continued for a couple dozen feet, then turned south. Around the corner was revealed an extremely long hallway going south as far as they could see. They continued on tenaciously. After about 80 feet, they got near the far end, where they discovered a pair of doors along the east wall.

Chapter 3 – Nature’s Lore

Lee checked the first door, and determined that it was locked. He tried to pick the lock but could not succeed at first try. It was a much higher quality door than any they had seen so far within the citadel, and it contained a much more intricate lock, too. Lee stepped aside to let Grimble Gromble gave it a try next, loaning him his lockpick tools. After a few minutes, the gnome was lucky enough to finally pick the lock and he handed the tools back to Lee.

Lee opened the door and spied within that a layer of soil covered the floor of the chamber. Rough wooden shelves, filled with a scattering of tomes and scrolls, lined the north and east walls, while a rough-hewn desk was located in the center. Fungus on the ceiling provided light, apparently in sufficient quantity to nourish several small bushes and pale saplings that grew in the soil.

The entire group filtered into the cramped room, perusing the shelves for potential treasures. Aiden was the first to spot something of interest: a large, wood and leather bound tome with Draconic lettering on the front. He laid it upon the desk for Grimble Gromble to inspect, being the only one who could read Draconic. The lettering on the front stated “Treasures of the Fire Lords”, Grimble Gromble announced, rubbing his ear thoughtfully. But when he opened the cover, it exploded in flames, destroying the book and burning poor Grimble Gromble’s pink nose and singeing his green beard.

The excitement of that spectacle over with, they continued to scan the shelves, though much more cautiously now. Magna uncovered a large, leather bound tome, still in excellent condition, but with no writing on its exterior. Very cautiously, he placed it upon the desk, then with his arm extended, he used his sword to tip open the book’s cover. No explosion occurred, so he took a closer look. The tome appeared to be written in the secret Druidic tongue and was probably very valuable.

Glen, Magna and Kyran each discovered items of high quality, all unmarked: a leather bound tome, a large wooden scroll case, and a small wooden chest. Each contained seasonal records of growth, precipitation, harvests, and similarly less than useful records for the surrounding upper lands for the last dozen years. However, they did notice several references to the name “Gwlthyas” and the “Gwlthyas Tree.” [GULL-thee-uhs]

Next, Glen uncovered a leather scroll case with the Angarian letter “E” upon it. He handed it to Kyran, but Kyran looked at it and announced that it was not arcane, it was a divine scroll, so he gave it to Yríadel.

“This is a spell of Entangle,” she informed upon review, and loaded it into her pack.

Aiden pulled down a large, leather-bound tome. There was lettering on the spine, but it was Angarian, which he could not read.

“I’ll take a look,” offered Dodge. “Historey ov Vhampyres en Brythonia,” he read, deciphering the runic lettering. “I think it means History of Vampires in Brythonia. It appears to be written in an ancient dialect of Angarian, but I can understand most of it.”

Everyone’s interest was piqued, and they gathered around while Dodge skimmed through and read aloud the more interesting portions (those which he could comprehend).

Heer bigynneth thee
Historey ov Vhampyres en Brythonia
Bi Jacken ov Kantor
~ ~ ~ ~
And men goeth anent to wonder
at thee hiehths of thee mountaines,
and thee mihty wavens of thee sea,
and thee wyde swepen of rivers,
and thee cours of thee oceane,
and thee cercling of thee sterres,
but thamselfs they redeth nought.

“Here begins the History of Vampires in Brythonia, by Jacken of Kantor,” Dodge began. From the first page he quoted, “And men goeth anent to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the course of the ocean, and the circling of the stars, but themselves they redeth not.”

“It seems the book was authored by Jacken of Kantor around 2160,” Dodge explained, “so this book is about 50 years old. Jacken writes about his attempts to track the three legendary vampires of Brythonia. He researched the history of vampires and deduced that after the legions of the declining empire of Garondor departed Brythonia about 200 years ago, a triumvirate of vampires took advantage of the lapse in civilization and moved to Brythonia with their own design on conquering the land. These vampires were initially successful on a small scale, but when faced with the mass invasion of Angarian peoples, the vampires retreated into hiding, apparently satisfied to rule smaller domains in secrecy.

Abideth threo vhampyres en Brythonia:
Bokâchio, Dântey & Petrârka

Dodge began reading and paraphrasing certain passages from the book, and pointing out some illustrations. “There abided three vampires in Brythonia: Bokâchio, Dântey and Petrârka.

… killen nere Ashen Plains ov Ashârdalon abouten yeer 2060

“Bokâchio (or B’Kâchio) was reportedly killed near the Ashen Plains of Ashârdalon around 2060 (about 150 years ago), though this was never confirmed. The name of the slayer is unknown and the exact location was never discovered.

… killen nere Dântey Torr bi Meda Kwae ov thee Oon Eie abouten yeer 2120
… Confermyd bi Sarnkees thee Waeter Wizard & Lord Aráganus ov Ullers Kepen

“Dântey, also known as Durântey (or D’Rântey), was believed killed by Meda Kwae of the One-Eye around 2120 (about 90 years ago). Though Dântey kept the exact location of his lair well hidden, the general area was known to be somewhere within the misty highlands of the Kricts. The castle was commonly known to locals as Dântey Torr (Tower). Regional authorities reported that around the year 2120 the evil villainy of Dântey disappeared without explanation, and shortly thereafter the new resident of the castle became Meda Kwae. This theory was corroborated by first-hand interviews with Zarnkeez the Water Wizard and Lord Aráganus of Uller’s Keep, both of whom were known companions of Meda Kwae in the By-Tor Brigade.

… Jacken of Kantor didst tracen to cite ov Kantor abouten yeer 2150
… hwaer liven en secrecee and reulen ofer mignons
… ascapen beforan confronteth

Laurelette D’Novus
… leder ov mignons en Kantor

“Petrârka (or P’Trârka) was finally tracked by Jacken to the city of Kantor, where Petrârka had been living in secrecy. He ruled over several minions and his Optio (lieutenant) was a female vampire named Laurelette D’Novus. Before Jacken could confront the vampires, they all suddenly disappeared without a trace and their trail was never found again.”

Dodge took a deep breath, interrupting everyone’s rapt attention. “Well this is all very interesting, but let us put it aside for now, and get back to our mission.” He closed the book and stored it safely in his bag.

“I think this book would easily be worth at least 200 shillings, to the right collector,” added Grimble Gromble.

“Over here. This might be worth a look,” said Kyran, pointing to a small wooden chest he was inspecting. Lee stepped in and checked it for a trap or lock, but found neither. So Kyran retook his role and opened the chest. Inside he discovered an ink well and quill pen, along with several sheets of paper with recently penned writing. The writing appeared to consist of research and diary notes written in a seemingly random mixture of Westrian and Druidic. Many of the sheets were actually signed by the name “Baeloch the Outcast”. Kyran glanced through the notes, and shared some of his findings with his friends.

“According to these notes, the Sunken Citadel was an age-old fortress pulled below the earth by some past magically invoked devastation. With the ancient inhabitants long dispersed, vile and opportunistic creatures common to lightless dungeons infested the subterranean ruins. At the old fortress’s core, Baeloch found the Twilight Grove. At the grove’s heart he discovered the Gwlthyas Tree, which sprouted from a wooden stake used to slay an ancient vampire.”

The mysteries and the clues were swirling around in their minds as they continued to look for more treasure. Dodge found a leather scroll case with the Angarian letter “O” upon it. He noticed it resembled the other scroll they found in this room, so he handed it to Yríadel for her to view. She confirmed it was a divine scroll, and that it contained a spell of Owl’s Wisdom, so she stored it in her pack with the scroll of Entangle.

Lee spied a thick, leather bound tome with an Angarian title on its spine stating “Thee Boc of Triks”. He extracted the tome from its high shelf and began to examine its contents. He silently read the first page, which was titled “Trik Number One.” Obeying the instructions therein, he pointed across the room at a random object and said to Dodge, “Dodge, looketh over there.” When Dodge looked that way, Lee exclaimed victoriously, “Ha ha! Madest thou look.” Dodge and everyone else eyed Lee with puzzled expressions.

So endeth thee trik, Lee read to himself with a mirthful grin. Before he proceeded further through the book, he realized that he was holding a rare Manual of Tricks, and that one who studied it under proper circumstances would increase his skills in disguise, sleight-of-hand, and stealth. He put the book into his pack for safe keeping and future study.

Thee Boc of Triks
Trik number one
Pointeth away and state thusly to thy freond
“Looketh over there”
When thy freond doth looketh away, declareth victoriously
“Ha Ha! Madest thou look”
So endeth thee trik

“Friends, I think we have spent enough time in this room for now. Let us continue our quest,” suggested Yríadel. Without argument, they all exited the room and made for the next door.

Chapter 4 – Twilight Grove

Lee put his ear to the door and listened. He could hear activity on the other side, so he signaled warnings to his team. He could not detect any trap or lock, so he silently opened the door to peer within. He spotted four goblins busily sorting twig and root piles on the floor of the sagging chamber. Upon Lee’s signal, he swung the door open and they charged into the room.

The goblins, though surprised by the sudden burst of warriors surging into their room, gleefully abandoned their boring task work to attack the intruders. Magna was the first to rush in, followed closely by Aiden, Dodge, Lee, Kyran and Glen. The goblins reacted quickly and surprisingly drew first blood, wounding Glen and Dodge. Lee was the first to return a blood stroke, wounding the goblin nearest the door, then Glen killed the goblin that had wounded him. Within seconds, two more goblins lay dead in the room, felled by Magna and Dodge. Then Glen scored a second kill, dropping the fourth goblin with his bloody scimitar. “Aid us, Protector of the Twilight Grove!” were the goblin’s last words before it fell lifeless.

“Uh oh, I wonder what he meant by that,” said Glen, wiping the blood off of his scimitar before returning it to its scabbard.

Their adrenaline rush slowly subsiding, standing victorious over the four dead goblins, the group scanned their surroundings. They were quite amazed at the view to the south. The southern wall of the room was collapsed and opened onto a vast cavern. Pustules of luminescent fungus on the rough walls and high roof loomed over a “twilight grove” of sickly briars, bushes, saplings, and other woody plants. Ruined walls and hollow towers protruded from the briars like islands in a sea. As they gazed more intently, they noted some higher, less crumbled walls in the far southern recesses of the large cavern, over which the tip of a gargantuan tree was visible. They could see a hint of movement here and there in the grove, as if some of the smaller tree-like growths were moving.

Filled with anticipation, sensing their destination was close at hand, they silently moved into the grove with nervous expectancy, spreading out into a wide defensive pattern. Pale, spindly briars coated with tiny barbs pressed close. The violet light above cast nauseating shadows on the earthen floor, creating the illusion of movement among the branches, though no wind blew.

As the eight brave heroes moved deeper into the grove, they began to gain a better view of the higher walls in the southern recesses of the cavern, and the tree which towered over the walls. While they walked through the briars, they had to tread very slowly or risk their skin and clothes getting ripped and damaged from the thorns.

They fully expected they would be attacked once within the briars, and their predictions came true. After they had traveled about 50 feet, twig blights began arriving in waves of two to four at a time with intent to kill.

The battle raged on and on, but they continued to plow forward towards the great tree. They were determined, and they would not allow the twig blights to delay their quest. Eventually, they defeated all their attackers. Or so they supposed, for no more emerged from the briars. All totaled, Dodge had killed 4 and Aiden 2, while Glen, Kyran, Lee and Magna killed 1 each. Yríadel and Grimble Gromble had wisely been held back in reserve, staying close by each other for mutual protection.

Chapter 5 – Baeloch the Outcast

Somewhat bedraggled and a little breathless, they approached the walls surrounding the tree, again in a spread formation. Stacks of heavy stones created a half-walled clearing among the briars, forming a courtyard. The walls were about 20 feet tall, while the cavern’s stalactite-dotted ceiling reached a total of 50 feet above the ground. Several varieties of plants grew around the perimeter, including a few suspicious-looking saplings, but their importance paled before that which stood at the courtyard’s center. Beneath the venomous fungal light grew a singular tree of evil! Its blackened, twisted limbs reached upward, like a skeletal hand clawing its way from the earth.

Three human figures stood near the tree. A 3-foot-long tree frog squatted next to one of the men. A fourth human figure was fastened to the trunk of the tree and appeared to be unconscious. At least 3 twig blights wandered around the area, too.

As the team warily rounded the walls of the courtyard and approached the clearing, they recognized two of the men – Mauritius and Larz, two of the three members of Tribus Baceolus, the mercenaries whom they had brawled with in the Darford Inn a few weeks before. They had found the corpse of the third member, Crispus, a few days ago within the citadel above. Perhaps the human fastened to the tree was one of the Arrion brothers, they silently hoped.

The central figure raised his hand, palm forward, to halt their advance. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to my underground lair.” He spoke authoritatively. “I ask that you hold your actions a moment, for you know not what you do.” Satisfied that their encroachment had been stayed, he continued. “You stand within the Twilight Grove. I am its caretaker, Baeloch, called the Outcast.” His head was bald and his skin was pale, as if he had not beheld the sunlight for years. He wore a simple brown cassock, like that of any humble druid.

Now within the clearing with an unobstructed view, the team noticed more details about those they faced within the courtyard. To the right of Baeloch stood Mauritius and to his left stood Larz. They looked familiar, yet strangely different. Mauritius wore his recognizable black scale mail and black cloak, as well as his belt with the tiny skulls embossed upon it. His black hair, once neatly cut and well-kept, was now somewhat ragged. Larz wore his drab gray, hooded cloak. They could not see his unkempt, dirty blonde hair beneath the hood, but they had no reason to assume it was any less scraggly than before. Besides their look of general disarray – not unexpected for men who had been on the road for weeks, then held prisoner by goblins – something else looked peculiar – their skin was rough and bark-like.

“Those are two of those mercenaries we brawled with in Darford. Are they not?” Dodge suggested to Glen in a low tone.

“Ah, do you recognize my new henchmen?” Baeloch asked the group rhetorically, nodding towards his two companions. “They are my first two ‘supplicants’,” he explained, making strange little “air quotes” with his fingers when he said the word ‘supplicants’. “The Gwlthyas Tree has ‘accepted’ them,” (again making “air quotes” around the word ‘accepted’), “and they are mine to control, just like the twig blights. You are too late to save them.”

Upon hearing the phrase ‘Gwlthyas Tree’, about which they had just read earlier, and pondering the terms ‘supplicants’ and ‘accepted’, several of the heroes looked up at the tree.

“I see that you are admiring the Gwlthyas Tree. It is quite beautiful, no?” Baeloch asked theatrically, raising a single eyebrow and tipping a pinky finger against his lower lip. “It lives, though it may look a little dead, most likely due to its most fascinating origin.”

Baeloch gleefully continued his story-telling, seemingly oblivious to the antagonistic stares he was receiving.

“In an age long past, someone staked a vampire to the earth on this very spot. The wooden stake was yet green and took root. And so grew the Gwlthyas Tree, reverberating with dark primal power to those who can tap it."

He waved his arm toward the great tree to emphasize his point, and the group got a good look at the sharp sickle which he held. It appeared it could double as both a pruning tool and a melee weapon.

“The druidic society expelled me, the frickin idiots,” continued Baeloch bitterly. “And why? Because I dared to expand nature’s reach in ways their puny minds could not grasp. I do not care. I have found what I long sought, embodied in the Gwlthyas Tree." As Baeloch ranted, the group grew confident he was quite insane.

Aiden clutched his spear with white-knuckled fury, ready to attack the enemy he had sought for so many years.

Off to the edge of the briars, outside the notice of Baeloch or his henchmen, Lee quietly peered beyond the setting, where he could see that the young man fastened to the trunk of the tree was none other than Arrioch, son of Arrion. The bark of the tree was just starting to grow around his body, as if he was next to be ‘accepted’.

Aiden stepped forward, near the center of the courtyard, gripping his spear in both hands like a quarterstaff. “I have come to gain my vengeance for what you did to Galam, you crazy old man!” he snarled.

“I will not tolerate your insolence!” Baeloch angrily replied. “Surrender your weapons and submit peacefully, or you will make me angry. And when Baeloch the Outcast gets angry, his pet frog Culchet [KUL-khet] gets upset. And when his pet frog Culchet gets upset . . . people DIE!!!" And with those shouted words, battle erupted from all sides!

Chapter 6 – Battle Beneath the Gwlthyas Tree

The first action came from Kyran. He wisely perceived that Baeloch was about to cast a spell, so he quickly grabbed one of his clay-dragon-stoppered flasks of Alchemist’s Fire. He threw it with great speed and accuracy and it hit Baeloch square in the chest. “Ow! You hit me, you A-Hole!” shouted Baeloch, in pain and anger. Flames erupted across his torso, burning through his cassock. Some of the flames splashed over to Culchet, the giant tree frog adjacent to Baeloch, burning its sickly green skin. Magna added additional suffering to Baeloch as he released an arrow from his elven bow which struck Baeloch in the thigh. “Well throw me a frickin bone here!” Baeloch yelled in frustration.

Mauritius rushed towards Dodge. Though he appeared to be under some sort of mental control, Mauritius still seemed to have enough awareness to know that Dodge should be his primary opponent. He swung his great-sword with both hands toward Dodge, but his reckless momentum allowed Dodge to block the blow with his two-handed battle-axe. The two great warriors squared off. Dodge, prepared to fight to the death, entered his infamous barbarian rage. Glen quickly joined the battle to aid his friend, slashing at Mauritius with his scimitar. But the mercenary, with his superior skill and well-crafted armor, was able to fend off the attacks.

Aiden ran towards Baeloch, swinging his spear in dazzling circles. As he ran by Culchet, the giant frog bit Aiden on the leg, spoiling his first swing at Baeloch. But Aiden’s next swing landed true, battering Baeloch on the shoulder. Culchet bit Aiden again, but Aiden would not let the wounds distract him from his vengeance. However, the bite did distract Aiden from noticing Larz, who was casting a spell of Daze. Aiden was unable to resist the magic and he uncontrollably ceased his frenzied attack which allowed Baeloch the freedom to step away. While beginning to move away from the fray, Baeloch tried helplessly to extinguish the flames that continued to burn his clothing and skin. Meanwhile, a twig blight emerged from around the tree and moved towards Aiden in a flanking maneuver.

“Yríadel,” shouted Kyran, “use your Entangle scroll. We can’t let Baeloch get away!”

Yríadel responded, grabbing the scroll from her hip pouch and quickly unrolling it. She whispered the magic phrases written upon the sacred scroll. Her smooth brow wrinkled with concentration as she envisioned the precise destination for the magic. Suddenly, in the immediate area around the tree, tall weeds and plants sprouted from the ground, wrapping around everyone within range, including Baeloch, Larz, Culchet and (unfortunately) Aiden.

Lee reacted to all the activity by formulating a plan. While still unnoticed by the combatants, he grabbed a Potion of Invisibility, gulped it down, and instantly disappeared from view.

Grimble Gromble, while staying close to Yríadel, spotted a pair of twig blights approaching the team’s flank. He rushed at one with his short-spear, keeping it from attacking Kyran, but the other continued charging towards Dodge.

Kyran took full advantage of his brief moment of safety, bravely purchased by Grimble Gromble, to cast a spell. “Kavvála Vlímaton”, he barked, pointing his hand straight at Baeloch. A missile of black energy shot forth from Kyran’s fingertip and rifled toward the druid, exploding in dark sparks upon his head.

“This is re-goddamn-diculous!” Baeloch shouted in pain. The direct hit on his scalp interrupted his frantic attempts to douse the flames from Kyran’s previous attack – the Alchemist’s Fire still smoldered on his chest. He also failed miserably at his attempt to extract himself from the entangling weeds. The battle was not going his way.

Across the courtyard, Magna released another arrow, this time at Larz instead of Baeloch, and sank the missile deep into Larz’s chest. Recognizing he was an easy target to Magna while entangled by Yríadel’s spell, the injured Larz attempted to extract himself and move away from the writhing foliage, but his efforts failed and he remained immobile. Culchet, though also entangled, was close enough to the dazed Aiden to deliver another bite wound, rendering the highland warrior weaker from loss of blood. The approaching twig blight reached Aiden and attacked his flank, but luckily Aiden was able to evade its thorns.

Near the front wall of the courtyard, Dodge and Glen continued to trade swings and parries with Mauritius and a twig blight. They were unable to penetrate the defenses of Mauritius, but he was occasionally breaking through Dodge’s, whose great strength was starting to show signs of tiring.

Yríadel recognized that Dodge was in danger against the Barkskin-enhanced Mauritius, and that Glen would likely fall next. She decided extreme measures were in order and dug out the blue-green Elemental Gem from her side pouch. This was a rare and powerful magic item she had been saving for just such a dire situation. She threw the beautiful gem onto the ground in front of her and it smashed into tiny pieces, releasing its magic. Instantly, a large spinning column of water erupted from the spot, and following Yríadel’s mental intentions, it sent crashing waves of water to slam into Mauritius. The first wave knocked him slightly off-balance, then the next wave hit harder, stunning him. Soaking wet and still off-balance, Mauritius was now prevented from delivering his killing blow upon Dodge.

The twig blight that was locked in combat with Grimble Gromble managed to cleverly maneuver away to attack Kyran, who was busy concentrating on Baeloch. It swiped at Kyran with its spikey thorns, leaving a large bloody gash in his leg. Unfortunately for the twig blight, this started a chain reaction that would cause its own doom. For as it attacked Kyran, Grimble Gromble saw an opening in its defenses and successfully wacked the twig blight with his short-spear. As it turned to react to Grimble Gromble, its defenses were then open to Kyran. Kyran, angry that he was forced to turn his attention away from Baeloch, got his revenge on the twig blight with a hardy strike from his long-sword. The twig blight staggered feebly, now disabled and effectively out of the fray as it tried to retreat.

By now, Magna had reloaded and shot another arrow at Larz, missing this time, though just barely. The arrow landed uselessly in the entangling foliage. However, before missing its target, as the arrow whirred past the head of Aiden, it snapped the Krictish highlander out of his Daze. As Aiden recovered his wits, he immediately renewed his attack upon Baeloch. He handled his spear like a quarterstaff, raining down a flurry of blows upon his enemy. But he was forced to balance his attack to deflect another bite from the tree frog, and so the more experienced druid evaded the thrashing. While Aiden’s attention was centered on Baeloch and Culchet, he failed to notice the twig blight that had recently emerged and was about to attack him from behind. However, the “invisible” Lee had spotted the unfolding scenario seconds before and had adroitly moved into position to protect Aiden’s flank. With his short-sword, Lee delivered a splintering blow to the twig blight, cutting it to pieces and preventing its surprise attack upon Aiden. Larz, though still entangled, was able to move closer to Baeloch’s side to assist him. He harried Aiden with his short-sword, which bought just enough time for Baeloch to cast a Barkskin spell upon himself, providing even more protection against the ever advancing attacks from Aiden.

Near the center of the courtyard, the battle continued to rage with Dodge, Glen and the Water Elemental against Mauritius and a twig blight. Now that the elemental had joined the fray, both sides seemed to be even. Grimble Gromble contrived to turn the odds in his group’s favor, and he attacked the twig blight that was poking at Dodge with its thorns. Yríadel stepped up against the previous opponent of Grimble Gromble and Kyran – the staggered twig blight – and cut it to pieces with her spear.

Free from distractions once again, Kyran unsheathed his wand, pointed it at his favored target Baeloch, then shouted “Pyrávlon”. With the magic word spoken, a missile of black energy shot from the wand’s tip and hammered into Baeloch, releasing dark sparks as it exploded onto his face.

Sorely wounded, Baeloch realized he was out-powered, even with all his minions, and suddenly became desperate. As he turned and started to flee, Aiden struggled through the entangling foliage to continue his unceasing attack upon the druid and hopefully prevent the escape. However, as all his concentration was centered on Baeloch, Aiden’s defenses weakened, which allowed Culchet to take another huge bite from his leg. Blood gushed all over the two combatants, and Aiden nearly fell due to the pain and weakness of blood loss.

Lee was quick to react and assist his new accomplice Aiden. He plunged his short-sword deep into Culchet, hoping to kill it or at least force it to release its grip on Aiden. The giant tree frog released its hold, now nearly as weakened as Aiden. It tried feebly to strike back at Lee, but was unable to find its invisible target.

Seizing the opportunity that his faithful tree frog bought for him, Baeloch turned again to flee. Aiden had just enough willpower left to slam his spear against Baeloch, nearly knocking down the powerful druid. But it still wasn’t quite enough, and Baeloch managed to elude his revenge-minded enemy. Simultaneous with his next few steps, Baeloch grabbed a small flask from a pouch and swallowed it quickly. To all witnesses, his health was visibly restored, and the renewed Baeloch turned back towards Aiden, smirking with maliciousness.

Perhaps sensing the impending danger his master faced, Mauritius doubled his efforts, hacking Dodge in the torso with his great-sword. Glen recognized a sudden opportunity to turn the odds in their favor, and he dexterously turned to attack Larz. He dealt a tremendously accurate strike with his scimitar, and Larz fell lifeless to the ground.

While the battle continued to rage on near the center – Dodge and the Water Elemental against Mauritius, and Grimble Gromble against the twig blight – Yríadel turned from her fallen opponent (now a pile of broken sticks) and looked about. To her dismay, she realized that Dodge had weakened considerably, despite his berserker rage. So, she quickly approached her childhood friend, while he remained locked in battle against Mauritius. She chanted “Freyja Kúrere”, and reached out to touch Dodge’s wounded arm, which was turned away from Mauritius. Gold sparks flickered from the touch, healing some of his wounds and providing a small surge of energy.

Perhaps Dodge was slightly distracted by the touch of Yríadel, or the sparks of light produced thereby, for a second later Mauritius found an opening and delivered a deadly wound to Dodge. The damage was critical, undoing the good that had just been performed by Yríadel. Dodge’s knees buckled; he stumbled and nearly fell. Glen tried to rescue his friend, but he succeeded in only delaying Mauritius – he just could not seem to break through his defenses.

Though ready to die in battle – and hopefully humbly to be claimed by the Valkyries and taken to Valhalla – Dodge was not going to surrender without a heavy price. Mauritius gloated silently, confident in his impending victory, as he parried against Glen while seeking another gap in Dodge’s defenses for a final deathstroe. “By Odin and Thor!” Dodge bellowed, and with a final surge he smashed his battle-axe square into the face of Mauritius, cracking his skull with a wood-splitting sound. The lifeless body of Mauritius fell backward with a mighty crash.

Dodge and Glen stood looking over their fallen opponent – ready to stab him again if he moved an inch. Splattered blood dripped from the face and weapon of Dodge. The two brothers-in-arms admired what a great opponent Mauritius had posed, and were gratefully amazed that they had finally defeated him, mainly due to Dodge’s fateful stroke. However, Yríadel was not so lax to stand about admiring their work. She soberly directed her Water Elemental to converge on the twig blight which had Grimble Gromble cornered against a wall, ready to thrash the poor gnome with its thorns. Before the twig blight had a chance to deliver its next attack, the Water Elemental crashed into it with a gushing wave that crushed it into tiny twigs. Grimble Gromble was liberated from the danger, though dripping wet from the great splash.

Now that Mauritius, Larz, and 2 twig blights were defeated, Dodge, Glen, Grimble Gromble and Yríadel surveyed the area for more enemies. They observed as the other theater of war unfolded before they could participate.

Kyran had already deployed vast amounts of pain and suffering upon Baeloch with his Alchemist’s Fire and Magic Missiles, but he still had ammunition in his arsenal, and he was ready to deliver. He grabbed a scroll, quickly unrolled it, then read aloud the magic word “Oxy.” An arrow of black acid magically appeared in his hand, then it immediately shot towards Baeloch. Unfortunately, Baeloch’s mystic awareness provided him the skill to evade the arrow. However, a split second later, Magna released an arrow from his elven bow, to which Baeloch could not evade, and it sunk deep into his belly.

Baeloch’s eyes showed intense fear as he imagined his end might be upon him. His face and torso were badly burned and now two of Magna’s arrows were sticking out of him, not to mention the beating he had received from Aiden’s spear-staff. And he could sense Aiden was not going to let up, either. Despite more bite attempts from Culchet, Aiden continued to relentlessly attack Baeloch with his spear. Bealoch tried desperately to protect himself, but finally, Aiden delivered a hammering blow to Baeloch’s hairless head – with a loud crack – and Baeloch fell senseless to the ground.

Culchet, the giant tree frog, was now the last enemy not yet defeated. It approached Aiden with menace in its freakish eyes, ready to defend his fallen master to the death. Before it could get to Aiden, Kyran shot Culchet with a missile from his magic wand, and black sparks erupted on its shoulder. A second later an arrow from Magna’s elven bow pierced the frog’s eye, killing it. The ranger would be credited with the final kill of the battle.

Chapter 7 – Aftermath in the Courtyard

Yríadel wasted no time. Before Dodge’s rage could cool – the wave of extreme exhaustion would likely kill him on the spot – she grabbed his arm to get his attention. “Drink this, quick,” she ordered, pressing a small vial into his hand, its stopper already removed. He obediently swallowed the contents of the Cure Potion as prescribed. He visibly strengthened and reenergized, saved by the quick thinking and clever ministrations of Yríadel.

Aiden stood victorious over the unconscious form of Baeloch the Outcast. Though about to pass out with fatigue and blood loss, he took out some rope and began binding the druid’s arms and legs. “I’m going to have a little talk with this fool later,” Aiden growled to no one in particular, or perhaps to the spirit of Galam.

“Gather together, my friends,” Yríadel urgently called to everyone. They quickly moved into a circle around her, anticipating that she was about to share her healing aura with them all. She held up her wooden falcon and chanted “Freyja Hélbrede.” A beautiful golden glow briefly replaced the sickly violet light of the cavern, as Yríadel’s blonde hair brightened with a shimmering light while she channeled the power of Freyja into her friends, healing their wounds.

Feeling revived, they separated, proceeding deliberately to individual tasks. Glen and Magna each took a stand at the outer corners of the courtyard to keep watch for impending attacks from potential enemies – who knows how many twig blights might still be out there? Aiden returned to Baeloch, to watch over his captive. He was not going to let his quarry escape.

Kyran went straight to the body of Mauritius, his mind intent on a single purpose. He anxiously searched the corpse and with great relief he located Brightflame, the dagger that had been so unjustly taken from him weeks ago in Darford, the day after that infamous tavern brawl. He stood, then solemnly held out the dagger with both hands. “Mauritius Hostilius de Tribus Baceolus,” he recited, “I salute you. You were a worthy opponent. And though perhaps you did not deserve to fall victim to the mind control of a crazy druid, it was still ultimately your fate to die in battle against my friend Dodge, son of Gedrik. But now your story has come to an end, and Brightflame is once again in my possession. Justly so.”

“This way, to the tree,” urged Lee in a hushed yet pressing tone to Dodge, Grimble Gromble, and Yríadel. “I am sure I saw one of the Arrion brothers bound there.” The four of them moved cautiously towards the great tree. There were two vacant depressions in the huge trunk, their shapes matched that of Mauritius and Larz. “I think this is what Baeloch referred to when he said those two mercenaries were ‘supplicants’ – his to control – and that the Gwlthyas Tree had ‘accepted’ them. They must have been confined within these two cavities where the tree took over their minds. If that is true, then this young man is next, I fear, unless we can free him before it is too late.”

“Yes, this is definitely Arrioch, son of Arrion,” Dodge confirmed upon closer view. “Let’s get to work and see if we can extract him.” Very carefully, Dodge and Lee carved and pried at the bark partially covering Arrioch, without causing harm to the comatose captive. After a few minutes they had him loose enough to completely separate him from the ominous tree trunk. They laid him down on a smooth patch of ground, and Yríadel knelt beside him. Slowly, he started to regain consciousness.

“You! Yríadel!” he croaked in a painfully dry voice, a helpless look in his astonished eyes as he looked up at her. “I thought I was dead for sure. Are you my rescuer?” Yes, she nodded wordlessly, the expression of her eyes giving him comfort and a warm feeling of safety.

He peered about slowly and recognized Lee, who stood looking down from behind her. “And Lee, too. But how?” he started to ask, but his voice cracked and stopped as he next recognized Dodge standing there too. “Water,” he whispered pleadingly to Yríadel, feigning a dry throat, which was not entirely untrue. But Dodge surmised the poor fellow was as surprised to be rescued as he was to discover Dodge among the rescuers. They were rivals once, long ago.

As Yríadel presented her waterskin and proceeded to help Arrioch drink, Dodge stepped back over to the tree, contemplating its destruction, followed closely by Lee. Arrioch relaxed noticeably as Dodge walked away, once again assuming a reaction which was not entirely untrue as the cool liquid eased is tormented throat.

This man is so arrogant, Yríadel thought to herself. Even in the presence of his rescuers, regardless of how unlikely they may be, he cannot forget the past and show some humility and appreciation. Well, he has a real awakening coming to him in a few minutes, when he sees that his cousin Glenlivet Lesgoth is here, too.

“I think we should chop it down,” Dodge stated speculatively, eyeing the Gwlthyas Tree.

“I agree, Dodge,” said Lee. “Have at it then. You’re the one with the big axe.”

“I must say, I concur”, added Grimble Gromble reassuringly, stroking his long green beard thoughtfully. “I have witnessed many strange flora in my years inhabiting the woods of Willowdale, yet I have never encountered one which symbolized such obvious evil as this one. Do chop it down, friend Dodge, and think not twice about it.”

Dodge reared back, gripping his axe with both massive hands, then plowed it into the trunk of the tree. The heavy blade landed with a solid “thunk” and sap bubbled out around the sharp metal. All within the courtyard heard the sound and stilled their actions. They turned to look, alarmed and excited. His hands still on the axe handle, Dodge looked about, half expecting a forest of twig blights to come rushing forward to attack, or the limbs of the tree to reach down and crush him. When nothing untoward happened, he yanked his axe loose, then began chopping away at the tree with an ambitious rhythm. Sap-soaked chips began flying in all directions, his thick red beard catching some of the debris. Lee and Grimble Gromble retreated towards Yríadel and Arrioch, acting out in mock fear as if the tree were about to fall on their heads, grinning conspiratorially.

Yríadel helped Arrioch to his feet, and together they trudged towards the front of the courtyard, a safe enough distance from the flying fragments of wood and the potential path of a falling tree. She sat him on the ground, his back to a wall. Then she kneeled beside him to monitor his recovery. Slowly, his strength was returning and his disorientation receding. Lee and Grimble Gromble surveyed the remainder of the unsearched courtyard, but found nothing of interest. Aiden began irreverently dragging his prisoner Baeloch towards Yríadel, brutally oblivious to the rough ground on which the druid’s head bounced against.

In the meantime, Kyran had thoroughly checked all the possessions of Mauritius and Larz, keeping anything magical or valuable and ignoring the rest. Unconsciously walking in step with the rhythmic wood-chopping sound produced by Dodge in the background, Kyran approached the group clustering near Yríadel and calmly lay the stash on the ground near their feet. In addition to Brightflame, he also brought Mauritius’ great-sword and a punching dagger. From Larz, he brought a magical Ring of Protection.

“Kyran!” blurted Arrioch, as he noticed the grim one.

“Arrioch,” Kyran replied indifferently, greeting the recently liberated man with a polite nod.

“Greetings to you,” continued Arrioch. “I guess I should not be surprised that you are among these rescuers, seeing that Dodge and Lee are also in company with Yríadel. I suspect Magna and Glen are also here? Or were the half-elves not brave enough to join you?”

“See for yourself,” Kyran answered with a satisfying wink at Yríadel. He pointed his thumb over his shoulder towards Glen, then stepped aside so that Arrioch had a full view of the vigilant albino, who was selflessly guarding their perimeter only a few dozen feet away.

“Glen! Over here,” Kyran shouted towards his pointy-eared friend. “Someone wants to have a word with you,” he goaded. Glen looked over at the small group, noticed Arrioch seated among them (and the somewhat distressed look on his face), then dismissed them with a wave and impassively returned to his watch duty.

Aiden arrived at the small gathering, brutishly dragging Baeloch, who was still unconscious. “Here, add these to the pile,” he said curtly, contributing some items to the pile Kyran had started. “I found these on Baeloch.” Among the collection was a masterwork sickle, 3 smoke-sticks, 2 doses of antitoxin, a Wand of Entangle, and an ample sum of gems and gold coins. Then he took a seat on the ground next to Arrioch and Yríadel. Kyran, Lee and Grimble Gromble joined them, their backs to a wall, and casually admired the handiwork of Dodge, who continued to persistently chop at the gargantuan tree.

“Arrioch, do you know the whereabouts of your brother Arrafel?,” Yríadel gently inquired. “We have not found him yet, and he is not in this courtyard where we found you.”

“Well, you can cancel your search,” he answered tersely. “Sadly, I witnessed the death of Arrafel at the hands of the goblin chief.” He slowly tried to rub some of the stiffness out of his neck, then he went on to explain further. “After the four of us had been trapped and imprisoned by the goblins, we came to understand that Baeloch, their overlord, requested all living human prisoners to be sent down to him. So they dragged us from our prison to the hall of the goblin chief. His throne room contained a circular shaft which led to these caves. But in a fit of anger over an imagined slight, that coward of a goblin slew Arrafel right before our eyes.”
He covered his face with his hands in a melodramatic display of distress. Yríadel lay her hand softly on his shoulder to console him, but her heart was not completely into the act. She had her doubts about his sincerity.

Grimble Gromble reached into his pocket and retrieved a small object – the ring he had discovered on the finger of the goblin chief they had slain a couple days ago. He gave it a look to confirm his hunch. Yes, he decided, it matched the ring which Arrioch wore. Sympathetically, Grimble Gromble held it out to Arrioch. “Son, I am sorry for your loss. And I believe this belongs to you.” Arrioch accepted the ring with recognition and a thankful nod to the gnome, who continued. “I pulled this off the corpse of that goblin chief. These brave people you see around you, they rescued me too, and they practically wiped out the entire Durbulukh tribe in the process of following your trail. And now, I hope they will see us safely to our homes.”

Grimble Gromble sat back down wearily, then they all sat in silence while they continued to watch Dodge at work.

Within a few minutes, the tree started to produce loud cracking sounds and lean to one side. Finally, with a long, sad creak, the tree heaved helplessly to one side, then landed with a tremendously loud crash. The ground shook and not a few looked up to the ceiling, with fear that perhaps the stalactites might release their hold and fall.

Dodge walked tiredly to where his friends sat resting. His body was soaked with sweat and his beard and clothes were covered with wood chips. “The deed is done. This evil will trouble us no more,” he announced with satisfaction. Their mission completed, they packed up their belongings – Aiden hoisted Baeloch over his shoulder – and they somberly began their march back through the briars towards the exit.

To be continued…


By-Tor Brigade Legacy VykingValor