The Tide of Shadows - Chapter 15

Adventure Date: June 23, 2012

Last Updated: May 8, 2013

The Knight, Death, and the Devil

The Shadow Stalkers moved wearily through the forest. Their foray back to the citadel had proven fruitless. Though the water in Triboar was no longer poisoned, the citadel itself had been scoured clean of any signs of occupation. A further mystery added to an already long list of mysteries.

Their camp lay undisturbed. In fact, everything was exactly as it had been left. Not even a pebble had been disturbed by the step of a rodent. Shribryn felt a shiver run down her spine. The forest seemed dead. Normally, she could hear the whisper of a sword as it slid out of its scabbard at one hundred feet, but now, she could hear nothing. Not even the faintest whisper of a breeze. The others noted it as well and felt ill at ease. Everyone, that is, except for Scuro. He relished the silence, especially the silence of the grave. I can finally focus on my magical studies.

The next morning, they broke camp and began their long trek back to Triboar. They retraced their steps and found themselves near where they had battled the pack of owlbears. Scavengers had stripped the carcasses of most of their flesh, but the skeletons still lay on the ground. Moving away from the creatures’ remains, the party set up camp and discussed the recent, strange occurrences.

Shribryn was the first to break the silence. “What do you think it means?”

“Which part?” Kat responded in a serious tone. “The ‘water cleaning itself part’ or the ‘orcs disappearing from the citadel part’ or, my personal favorite, the ‘Ro-Lund-Do raising the dead part’?”

Raven’s laughter held no humour. “There are many threads being woven together, but we do not see the tapestry.” She shook her head in dismay. “We swing our weapons blindly, no offense Shribryn, without seeing our true enemy. Without that knowledge, we are less than useless. We may feel we are accomplishing much, but we may be hindering the greater good.” Pelias had been staring into the fire, contemplating the others’ words. Raising his gaze to meet the others, he said, “Raven is right. We do not know who the enemy is. It seems that evil humanoid activity has increased in the area and we are doing our best to mitigate that, but we are not striking at the true source of turmoil. We do not have enough information. But if we do nothing, we do greater harm through our inaction.”

Ska’arr put down his whetstone. “We will find the true source of evil driving the orcs and we will crush it.” Baron Longtooth, Ska’arr’s newest companion, growled his agreement. The bear seemed out of place curled up beside Ska’arr, but they all knew the bear’s feral nature lay just below the surface.

“Enough speculation,” Scuro said irritably. “When we reach Triboar, let us gather more information and draw meaningful conclusions. Right now, you are interrupting my well-earned sleep.” With that, he lay down, wrapped himself in his cloak and turned away from the others.

Nodding in agreement, the others lay down to rest as the first watch was set. Only a few hours passed when Shribryn heard the shuffling of clawed feet even as she felt heavy footsteps stomping the ground. She woke with a start. “We are under attack!”

Four large, bipedal creatures rushed out of the darkness. Each was one and a half times as a tall as a human, but their bodies were very thin. Their arms and legs were long and ungainly, their powerful hands ending with sharpened claws as their three-toed feet dug deep furrows into the ground. Their hide seemed to be made of rubber, and their thick, ropy hair seemed to writhe with its own energy.

As the others awoke from Shribryn’s warning, it was already too late. Two of the trolls rushed forward and kicked dirt onto the hated fire, dousing it. The others reached down and plucked Scuro and Pelias from their bedrolls and hoisted them onto their shoulders.

Shribryn rolled to her feet and melded into the shadows. Stepping closer to the trolls, her eyes flared with power. Summoning the spirit of flame within her, a blast of fire erupted, engulfing the two trolls by the fire pit. Writing in agony, they beat at the flames that scarred their rubbery hides.

Pelias was being thrown about violently as the troll carrying him sought to escape with its prize. Grip like a vise... crushing me. Claws... cutting into me. Troll... too strong. I can’t... break free. Only hope... Focus concentration... Ignore pain... But it’s so hard! I hurt... so much! But... I must! A mental switch closed in Pelias’ mind as he gathered energy within his hand. With a simple toss, he flung the pea-sized sphere towards the already-burnt trolls. Fire exploded once more, trapping the trolls in a vortex of flame.

As soon as Shribryn called out her warning, Raven was moving. Quickly downing a potion, her muscles began to twitch – they felt super-charged as the magical potion moved through her veins like liquid fire. Placing herself in front of the troll that carried Pelias, she grinned as she prepared to brace the beast.

Light flared about as Ska’arr opened his lantern’s shutters. Rising to his feet, he suddenly dwarfed the trolls as his form continued to expand. Standing now a head taller than the trolls, Ska’arr drew forth his spiked chain and began its song of death.

Scuro was in a dangerous situation. He had not had time to imprint any new arcane symbols and energies within his mind, and had no effective offensive spells at his disposal. On top of that, he was being carried away by a stinking troll and his allies seemed not in a hurry to free him! Must I do everything myself? Reaching for his wand of magic missiles, his hand missed as he was tossed about on the troll’s shoulder. Growling in frustration, he mentally called out to his trusted familiar. Dra-Koo-La, to me! The gaunt bat silently beat its wings as it hovered above its master’s head, waiting for an opportunity to strike.

Whisper rose silently to her feet and glanced around quickly, assessing the situation. Dang! Two members captured, but most of the uglies have been barbecued. I wonder if troll meat tastes like chicken? Even as the spurious thought entered her head, a nimbus of shadows surrounds Whisper, spinning and flowing around her, confusing the eye and hiding her true intentions. The eyes of the troll carrying Pelias seemed drawn to the uncanny shadows. With an apologetic grin, Whisper’s arm whipped forward. A dagger seemed to sprout from the troll’s throat by magic.

The trolls had had enough. They began to retreat, taking swipes at anyone of the foolish vermin who chose to come to close. Shribryn gritted her teeth as a troll’s claw clipped her on her shoulder. A little higher, and her head would have been ripped right off. Twisting with the momentum of the blow, she spread her arms wide, once more summoning the fire within. A massive cone of fire engulfed the trolls as they shrieked in agony and fear.

Pelias focused his power and another inferno engulfed the trolls. The trolls’ retreat became more panicked. Oh, no you don’t. Raven stepped forward and gripped the troll holding Pelias in a painful lock. Staying out of reach of the troll’s claws, she planted her feet firmly into the ground and began to apply pressure.

A chain lashed out and wrapped itself around the legs of a badly seared troll. The chain drew taut, plummeting the monster to the ground. Even as it began to push itself up off the ground, the troll felt a single burst of agony as its skull exploded from the impact of the other end of the chain. Using the chain’s momentum, Ska’arr lashed out once more. The blood on the chain made his grip precarious and as the chain whipped out, it slipped from Ska’arr’s grasp. Undaunted, Ska’arr drew his greatsword and pressed the attack.

Scuro was having no luck grasping his magical wand. Every time he went to grab it, the troll’s sudden movement would bring it just out of reach. What is taking those fools so long to free me? Fortunately for Scuro, the others were having better luck.

Whisper leapt forward, her shortswords flashed in the firelight. The troll looked down, incredulous. Its guts hung from its torn belly like a bloated worm. With a numb expression, it tried to push its intestines back inside its body, but its arm seemed to stop working. The ground rushed up to meet it, and, with a final gasp, it died.

Even as it fell, Pelias squirmed free of the grasp of the slain troll. Even as he looked at his former captor, he saw as the horrific wounds started to close. Unleashing a burst of flame, the troll began to burn. Its intestines writhed as they tried to escape the hated fire. Soon, all signs of life disappeared.

Shribryn stepped closer to the nearest troll and gracefully spun under its clumsy claws. As she came up, flames flickered along the length of her dagger blade and leapt towards the troll. The ball of flame grew rapidly and struck the troll straight in its chest. Its shrieks were cut off as the air was sucked from its lungs from the intense heat. Turning tail, it tried to lumber away.

As the troll took its first steps, Raven ran forward, impossibly fast. With a leap, her foot lashed out, catching the troll under its chin. A sharp snapping noise could be heard over the chaos. The troll’s roar changed to a painful gurgle as its throat was crushed and its spine snapped. It fell heavily to the ground.

The final troll, too stupid to relinquish its grip on Scuro, ran. Scuro cried out in triumph. Grasping his wand, he called out, “Dart!” A glowing missile leapt from the wand and struck the troll in the back. Stumbling slightly, the troll continued its escape.

Whisper rushed forward, trying to cut off the troll. Her sword slashed the back of the troll’s leg in an attempt to hamstring the horrific beast. Even as her blade sliced through the troll’s flesh, it began to knit itself back together. With a gurgling groan, the troll that Raven had slain lurched to its feet. He came back to life, Shribryn thought as she threw a vial of acid at the troll’s throat. Good for him. An acrid smell spread as the troll’s throat vanished as the acid did its work. This was too much for the troll to handle. Collapsing back to the ground, it lay very still. The troll tightened its grip on Scuro as it sought its freedom. A flicker of light was its only warning. It had underestimated Ska’arr’s reach as his greatsword sliced the air. With hardly any interruption, the sword continued as the troll’s head leapt from its shoulders. Crashing down, Scuro was flung to the ground.

Leveling a blistering stare at Ska’arr, Scuro was about to exact some revenge on the troll. The troll’s body burst into flame. Turning his glare towards Pelias, his voice grated. “You stole my kill.” Pelias met him glare for glare. Scouting the area for other signs of danger, they quickly returned to camp and burned the trolls’ remains. Their rest interrupted, they tried to return to their slumber but found it difficult to accomplish. The greasy smell of burning troll meat was unpleasant, at best.

They rose with the sun, hoping to get away from the stench. Gathering their things, they resumed their trek back to Triboar. The days passed quickly and uneventfully. As they travelled, Ska’arr continued his training with his companion, Baron Longtooth. It was an amusing spectacle: Ska’arr trying to get the bear to sit or stand or follow any of his commands. The bear seemed strong-willed and did what it wanted to do. “Stay.” Ska’arr’s voice was sharp and he signalled Baron Longtooth. The bear looked Ska’arr straight in the eye and sat down with a whump. Smiling, Ska’arr turned to the others and bowed. To which the others burst out laughing. Turning back quickly, he saw that Baron Longtooth was using his tongue vigorously to clean his member in a very undignified manner. Ska’arr simply sighed.

Three days later, they caught sight of Triboar. Instinctively, their steps quickened. After a disappointing excursion that provided no answers, they looked forward to a warm bed and a glass of wine or two. The guards greeted them cordially enough, though they eyed the bear wearily.

For himself, Baron Longtooth seemed quite distracted. This was his first exposure to civilization and he seemed quite overwhelmed by the new sights and smells. Ska’arr kept calling to him to keep him focused and close by, but it proved to be a futile effort.

As soon as the party passed through Triboar’s gates, Baron Longtooth bolted forward, bowling over Shribryn and Whisper. He made straight for a crowd of people huddled around a cart. The crowd quickly scattered as an 1800 pound bear rushed towards them. The cart was knocked over, spilling meats and cheeses everywhere. Without further ado, Baron Longtooth tore into hunks of pork and wheels of cheese, happily gorging himself on the delicacies that had been laid out before him. Guards approached the bear wearily, their weapons drawn. Baron Longtooth seemed not to notice. Ska’arr rushed forward, his voice chastising. Baron Longtooth finally slinked over to Ska’arr’s side, though everyone could tell the bear was smiling and felt little remorse. Seeing the bear was at least semi-civilized, fear quickly changed to anger. Shouts of outrage were hurled at Ska’arr and his “pet” bear as the guards moved to surround the bear. Thinking quickly, Ska’arr glanced at the cart and addressed the loudest complainant. “Aren’t you Armin Zimmerman?”

The man was taken aback. “Well...yes.”

“Your reputation precedes you, sir,” Ska’arr intoned loftily, “and is incredibly accurate. Your wares are so irresistible that my trained companion was overwhelmed.”

Armin was flustered, but managed to eke out an answer as others began to listen more closely. “Why, thank you.” He began to address the crowd. “It is true that the quality of the viands and cheeses I personally prepare with my family’s secret recipe...”

Ska’arr tuned out and quietly led Baron Longtooth away as people began to crowd around Armin Zimmerman to order some of his meats and cheeses. Joining the others, they greeted him with amused grins. Scratching the back of his head boyishly, all Ska’arr said was, “I still know how to sell freezers to the Eskimos.”

Shaking her head ruefully, Kat began to walk away. Talking over her shoulder, she simply said, “I think we each have things more important than seeing Ska’arr pull a horseshoe out of his posterior. I will meet up with the rest of you at nightfall at the Talking Troll. Toodles!” Following her example, the rest dispersed to run their errands. Pelias headed towards the Tower of the Lord Protector to see if he could find any records of the history of the region.

Scuro pulled the hood of his cloak over his head, hiding his face from view. His eyes, his silver eyes, marked him as different and he needed to pass unnoticed. He soon found himself in front of a squat, nondescript home. Though nothing marked the house as different, it lacked any windows and the door was solid enough to withstand the crash of a battering ram. It was cleverly reinforced with bands of steel, though unless inspected closely, an observer would never note them. Rapping gently upon the door, a small latch was opened.

“Speak your business.” The voice was gruff and carried a hint of menace.

Scuro glanced over his shoulder. “It is Ro-Lund-do.” The latch closed quickly and the door opened a few seconds later. Scuro quickly entered the house. Bowing to the dwarf at the door, he spoke in a formal tone. “Greetings, Death Delver Belig. Death is the prize that awaits us all.”

Belig’s response was equally formal. “Death holds no terrors.” Bowing deeply, the dwarf guided Scuro to a nearby seat. Pouring two glasses of wine, Belig gave frowned. “What brings you to my humble abode? You know that the people of this town mistrust you as rumors swirl about.”

Scuro sipped his wine. What matters the nattering of some noisome flies? They can be crushed at any time. Scuro put on a worried expression. “I know. I do not know where these stories have come from. I swear that I have not raised any undead during my time in Triboar or its regions.”

Belig nodded. There was truth in it, but it also avoided denying that he had never raised any undead, ever. Reading the disbelief in Belig’s expression, Scuro continued. “I am a follower of the Keeper of the Eternal Sun. I am a conduit of His righteous power. If I had raised any into a state of undeath, I would have been stripped of all – my faith, my abilities, my life.” Again, Belig nodded knowingly. He showed no sign whether he truly disagreed or agreed with Ro-Lund-Do’s statements.

Giving up on convincing Belig of his good intentions, Scuro focused on the more immediate issue. “What news have you heard? My companions and I were in search of the source of the taint in the water, and have been out of touch.”

“Did you find the source of the taint?” Belig asked.

“It was located in an orc citadel,” Scuro explained. “Due to our actions, the taint is gone.” Again, Scuro’s statement danced around the truth of the matter. They had found the glyphs and sigils that they thought led to the taint in the water, but they still did not fully understand how the water was purified. A mystery for another time.

Belig was thoughtful. Finally, he said, “There is no news. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The orcs and other monsters plague us, but we manage to survive. Nothing has changed.”

Scuro’s face hardened. He was not used to disappointment. Standing abruptly, he bowed. “Thank you for the wine and your time. I will no longer bother you.”

Turning quickly towards the door, Belig’s voice caused him to pause. “You are welcome. Do not let juxtaposition tear you apart.” Scuro left without looking back. Does he know? A hundred thoughts flashed through his mind, between past and present, as he analyzed his meeting with Belig.

All eyes were on Ska’arr and Baron Longtooth as they approached the tanner. Bidding the bear to wait for him, Ska’arr tried to talk in a soothing tone. “Do not worry, good tanner. Baron Longtooth will not rip you apart, limb from gory limb.”

The tanner blanched a little. Swallowing hard, he replied. “Nevertheless, I think it will be prudent if your pet bear stays outside my place of business.”

Well, at least he is not rejecting me out of hand. “Very well. I wish to commission two items. First, I need a bandolier to better hold my weapons.” The tanner nodded. Not a hard task. “Second, I require barding for Baron Longtooth to better protect him.” Ska’arr’s heart and mind still dwelled on the loss of the Beast, his trusted companion. He failed to notice the tanner gawking at him.

The tanner stammered. “I do not know if I can craft that for you.” He eyed the bear apprehensively.

“Worry not, my good man,” Ska’arr said reassuringly, “Baron Longtooth is well behaved and will sit still quietly as you make your measurements. I am willing to pay a fair price for your work.”

Well behaved? The tanner looked at the bear. He had to admit that the bear was responding well to Ska’arr’s commands.

Against his better judgment, he stuck out his hand and they shook on the deal. “I will require two days to complete the work. Come see me then to pick up the items.” Taking quick measurements of Baron Longtooth, the tanner tried not to shake every time the bear twitched.

Kat sidestepped as people milled about her. Humans. Wouldn’t even notice their own hands in front of their faces. Her meeting with Borth Jhandelspar had been useful. All the guides in Triboar were fearless, but Borth was even more so. He had travelled more extensively in the surrounding region and heard more stories. A pint of ale was all it took for the jovial barbarian to begin spinning his tales. Even to Borth, Kryptgarden Forest was still mostly an unknown, but he had provided the name of a dwarf who potentially had more intimate knowledge. Arriving at the Talking Troll, Kat listened for the drunken ramblings of a dwarf. Ah, Nostromo. There you are.

Kat strolled over to the darkened corner of the Troll. Nostromo sat by himself with a pitcher of ale and alternated between sobbing hysterically, laughing, and babbling to himself. He looked to be in a sad state. His beard was wild and matted with old food and his clothes were torn and soiled. He smelled of dried vomit.

Kat pulled up a seat and sat beside Nostromo. He tried to direct his unfocused eyes in Kat`s direction, but failed. He upended the pitcher and drank deeply, only lowering the empty vessel to belch loudly. Charming.

Kat put on her best face. “Nostromo, my name is Katharina Shadowfeet, and I need your help.” Again, Nostromo’s eyes failed to focus properly on Kat. “Can you tell me about Kryptgarden Forest?” At the mention of Kryptgarden, Nostromo’s attitude changed wildly.

“By Hanseath’s Golden Mug! Leave me be! I do not want to remember!” Yelling out to Kevros for another drink, Nostromo almost fell out of his seat, his head slamming into the floor. Shaking his head, he pulled himself back into his chair and tried to clear the haziness that plagued his mind.

Kat slipped out of her chair and headed to the bar. Flashing a gold coin to the bartender, she ordered a bottle of Connemara. Handing several gold coins to the bartender, she simply said, “Keep it coming to my table.” Taking her prize, she headed back to Nostromo.

Nostromo’s head sat on top of his folded arms on the tabletop. His snoring was loud and jagged. Opening the bottle of Connemara, Kat poured a tall glass and moved it near Nostromo’s nose. At the smell of the powerful liquor, Nostromo clawed his way to consciousness. Reaching for the glass, he took a large gulp, which seemed to waken him further.

Looking around, his eyes finally focused on Kat. “Are you the one I should be thanking for this wondrous drink?” Kat nodded. “Drinks are on me tonight.” Nostromo’s eyes glittered in the firelight. “But only if you will tell me what you know about Kryptgarden Forest.”

At the mention of Kryptgarden Forest, Nostromo’s face blanched. “If you keep the drinks coming, maybe I can finally forget.” Taking another gulp, he began to speak.

“Kryptgarden Forest is a nightmare come to life. My companions and I, we had a map. There’s this small path in the forest marked by three rocks. Found it between Triboar and Westbridge. The fear and terror emanating from the forest were palpable. We had to drink just to take our first few steps down the trail.” Nostromo began to shake uncontrollably. “I lost many of my friends just walking down that trail. You need the Eyes of the Bearded One if you hope to survive.” Kat was confused. “Eyes of the Bearded One? You mean dwarf vision?”

Nostromo laugh was raucous. “No. I’m wearing them now!” Tilting his head back, Nostromo drank deeply. His body tilted further back as he fell over and smacked his head again. Nostromo lay on the floor as other patrons stepped over his unconscious form.

I need a little help on this one. Grasping the small stone in her pouch, Kat sent a message to Shribryn. “Gather the others and join me at the Talking Troll.”

A short time later, the rest of the Shadow Stalkers met with Kat at the bar. “The long and the short of it is that my unconscious friend,” Kat nodded towards Nostromo’s prone form, “has information about Kryptgarden Forest. I am having some... difficulty extracting it from him. That’s where you guys come in.” Looking straight at Pelias, she continued. “I’ll get him talking again, but I need you to gather the information from his head.”

Hoisting Nostromo off the ground, Ska’arr and Raven propped him up in his chair leaning on the table. Moving back to an adjacent table, the others left Kat alone to deal with Nostromo.

Pouring another tall glass of liquor, Kat tried the same trick again to wake him up. “Wazzat?” Eyes blurred and hands reaching out clumsily for the glass, Nostromo managed to finally grab the glass. “Who’re you?” Without waiting for an answer, Nostromo downed most of the Connemara. A semblance of intelligence returned to him. “I remember you. You were the one asking about Kryptgarden Forest...” Nostromo’s voice trailed off as a look of horror crept up his face.

Pelias closed his eyes. Focusing, his mind seemed to gather itself into a tight pulse of energy. From his own mind, he reached out and touched Nostromo’s thoughts. What Pelias experienced nearly overwhelmed him. Horrible images flitted about with no logical order. Pelias fought down an urge to vomit. Sifting through the chaos, he searched for clues about Kryptgarden Forest. Eyes of the Bearded One – Nostromo’s referring to Hanseath, dwarven deity of carousing and war. He thinks we need to be drunk to be able to enter the forest and survive.

Pelias continued to sift through Nostromo’s thoughts. Peeling back the layers, Pelias experienced part of Nostromo’s past. The cold grip of terror held him. His heart felt like it was going to hammer its way out of his chest. He drank and he drank and he drank just to try to calm himself, but nothing seemed to work. His friends’ shrieks, their blood splattering, the unnerving laughter, it threatened his sanity.

Darkness crept at the edges of Nostromo’s mind. Finally, in a wave, it overwhelmed him. When he finally awoke, he was back on the road between Triboar and Westbridge. The rest of his memories were blurred. Nostromo had continued to heavily self-medicate with Hanseath’s holy water – dwarven ale. Shaking his head, Pelias removed himself from Nostromo’s thoughts. Signalling to the others that he had gathered all the pertinent information, they began to leave to discuss their next course of action in private.

As they got up to go, Nostromo looked at them with clear eyes. “If you seek to enter Kryptgarden Forest, bring body bags to carry your remains.” Returning to his drink, Nostromo sank deeper into his stupor. Leaving the Talking Troll, the Stalkers moved away from the more heavily populated part of Triboar. Finding a small copse of trees, they melted into the shadows.

In a barely audible whisper, Pelias explained what he had experienced through Nostromo’s mind. “I did a little bit of research. There are several unrelated stories and rumors that name the Kryptgarden Forest as the site where the Tome of Moradin was last seen. Why the Tome ended up there is uncertain. Tales of dwarven princes, vengeful spirits, and even an avatar of Laduguer spiral around the Tome.”

Raven shook her head. “Regardless the reason of why it is there, we still have to get it.”

“True,” Shribryn said, “but knowledge will help keep us alive.”

Raven snorted. “We are going to be in no condition to be thinking straight.” The others looked quizzically at her. “From what Pelias has told us, we need to be drunk to be able to access the secrets of the forest. I don’t know if the alcohol allowed them to access the path or if it saved Nostromo’s life in the end, all I know is that we need to get ourselves some dwarven ale.”

Ska’arr perked up. With a sly grin, he said, “We will also need to test our tolerance to properly plan how much ale we will need to bring with us.” The others laughed quietly and shook their heads. Why not?

The next morning, they all met at the Talking Troll. Several hours later, they were stumbling out of the Troll. They had followed the age-old tradition of reconsidering drunk any decision they had made sober, and vice versa. A slower way to make decisions, but it was hard to break away from tradition. One of the most important facts determined that morning was that Pelias was the softee of the group. After only a glass and a half of the dwarven ale, he had difficulty standing. Purchasing several hand-kegs filled with dwarven ale, the group decided to sober up, rest, and collect any final items they may need for their foray into the Kryptgarden Forest.

The next morning, they gathered at Triboar’s main gate. Baron Longtooth was walking funny and was constantly turning his head to reach his back. He kept trying to grip the hide barding he was wearing. Finally, Ska’arr barked at the bear, and he finally stopped twitching.

“Time to move out,” Kat said eagerly.

Pelias gripped his temples and whispered. “Not so loud. My head is still pounding.” The others chuckled as they began their journey. Loading Baron Longtooth with the hand-kegs, they mounted and spurred their horses. Heading out on the road, they made their way towards Westbridge. Though patrols operated periodically on the roads, the area was still considered wilderness. Luckily, they had no encounters on their trek.

By midday the next day, they had spotted three large boulders off to the side of the road. Pulling up beside the lichen-covered rocks, they dismounted. Driving a stake deep into the ground, they hitched their horses up and began examining the boulders.

The boulders themselves seemed to block a small path behind them. Raven looked at the boulders closely and noticed tears in the lichen. They matched the size of a humanoids booted foot. Someone had recently been climbing over the rocks. Ska’arr moved closer to the rocks and closed his eyes. Hoping to scan the rocks for any magical emanations, he began to pass his hands in a slow pattern. Unfortunately, Baron Longtooth, itchy from the hide barding rubbing up against his shoulders, decided at that moment to pester Ska’arr to scratch his itchy spot. Rubbing up against Ska’arr, he knocked Ska’arr off-balance, ruining his spell.

Ska’arr looked over angrily at Baron Longtooth, but couldn’t stay annoyed when he saw the miserable expression on his bear’s face. Scratching the shoulder, he eased his companion’s discomfort.

Smiling, Pelias stepped up and scanned the rocks for magic. The rocks appeared to be nothing more than rocks – there were no magical auras surrounding them. Signalling that the boulders were free of magic, Raven quickly leapt up atop of them. Behind the boulders, she could see an overgrown game trail that led into Kryptgarden Forest. The forest was dark and foreboding, unseen life chattered noisily and moved about, but she saw no signs of any immediate danger. She signalled the others that the way was clear.

The game trail was only wide enough to move in a single file. Shribryn took the lead, while the others got in order behind her: Raven, Ska’arr, Kat, Pelias and Scuro in the rear.

“Wait! We can’t go yet!” With an impish grin, Kat turned to Peilas holding up a hand-keg. “Have some Fireball... Uhh, I mean, dwarven ale!”

Sighing, Pelias took a swig of the proffered drink and proceeded to get drunk after the first gulp. “Look what I can do!” Sparkles flittered uncontrollably from Pelias’ hand causing the nearby brush to smolder.

Quickly dousing the embers, the others turned Pelias forward and down the path. “Just let us know if you see anything bizarre.” Scuro said irritably. “No useless displays of magic.”

The game trail was very overgrown and winding. It didn’t help that very little light filtered through the canopy – Kryptgarden Forest was in a state of twilight during the day. One could not see further than ten feet ahead of them on the trail. After a short time, Shribryn stopped, shaking her head.

“What’s the matter?” Raven asked.

Shribryn turned to Raven. “Sounds and smells coming from every side. I can’t shut them out. I’m having difficulty getting my bearings. I need time to adjust to these surroundings. I’m afraid I won’t be much use as a guide.” Raven put a reassuring hand on Shribryn’s shoulder. “Do not concern yourself. Though your sensitive hearing would have given us more warning, it seems your heightened senses are working against you. Take the time you need to adjust. I will do my best to discern any threats as well as you would have.” Stepping forward, Raven took Shribryn’s position and continued to lead the others.

As they moved deeper into Kryptgarden Forest, the group noticed that it was dense with life, but nothing unusual. Pelias looked around blissfully, and continued to sip from his hand-keg. The forest looked like any other that he had visited, just a little creepier.

In his drunken haze, Pelias stepped over knotted roots without a moment’s hesitation. Scuro did not prove so lucky. His foot became snagged and Scuro stumbled forward into Pelias’ back. “This is most undignified!” Scuro vented. “If you are unwilling to carry me on a palanquin through this maze of trees, then have the decency to warn me about the roots!” Before Pelias could respond, both Raven and Shribryn stopped dead in their tracks. The others followed suit immediately and began to scan the surrounding trees.

Keeping her gaze forward, Raven pitched her voice so that only Shribryn could hear. “Do you recognize the sound ahead? I heard something, but I can’t pierce the damn foliage to see what made it.”

“I heard it as well,” Shribryn responded. “A soft rustling sound, almost too soft to hear. Something out there does not want to be found.”

Raven suddenly realized that the air was impregnated with an alien and exotic scent. Something brushed her temple. She turned quickly. From a cluster of green, curiously leafed stalks, great yellow and purple blossoms nodded at her. One of these had touched her. They seemed to beckon her, to arch their pliant stems toward her. They spread and rustled, though no wind blew.

Raven recoiled even as a puff of pollen burst from the blossom, missing her face. The forest around them burst with activity. Eight orcs, undetected before, pushed through the vegetation and set upon Raven and Shribryn. Immediately, Raven saw that something was wrong about the orcs. Their movements were too jerky and slow, even for orcs. Their sickly yellow skin and vacant stares made her skin crawl. Whatever was wrong with them would have to wait for they were upon her. Reaching for Raven, her fist lashed out catching one orc on the side of its head. With a loud snap, its head hung loosely from its shoulders as it collapsed. With the momentum of her punch, she continued to twist and delivered a spinning heel kick that sent another orc flying with a shattered skull. Well, whatever they are, they die as easily as orcs do. Shribryn was not having as much luck as Raven. Clammy hands gripped her as she fought down the urge to scream. Focusing her energy, she unleashed a fan of fire that engulfed the offending orcs, turning them into pillars of flame. Releasing their grip on her, they twisted in torment as they burned alive.

A lance of fire caught one of the burning orcs, punching a hole through its chest. Collapsing, Pelias was thankful that he could end the creature’s torment. Moving slightly into the underbrush, he sought to get a better angle on the remaining orcs.

“Orcs! Death to orcs!” Ska’arr’s voice was guttural as his rage took over. Pushing through the underbrush to better strike at his hated enemy, he swung his chain recklessly, almost catching Shribryn. Ska’arr’s chain lashed out, catching an orc in its neck. The chain barely slowed as it pulped the orc’s neck, causing its head to fly off. The orc standing beside the first was hurled against a tree, its entire right side caved in.

Whisper couldn’t see clearly what was happening. Diving into the underbrush, she hid herself as she moved forward to get a better feel for the enemy.

A field of force shimmered around Scuro. He would not be caught a second time by an enemy and thrown around. Summoning a spectral hand to do his bidding, he chuckled. At least this is one servant who obeys me implicitly. I’ll need to work on the others so that they will better obey.

When the last of the orcs fell, the forest seemed to burst into motion. Leafy stalks, each supporting a yellow and purple blossom, writhed like serpents. Lashing forward, they released puffs of pollen, uncannily aimed at the group’s faces.

“What are we dealing with?” Shribryn yelled.

“How should I know?” Scuro retorted. “I’m not a botanist!”

Suddenly, Raven knew. The memory had been fluttering at the back of her mind, teasing her as it danced between her conscious and unconscious mind. Sweat rolled down her spine as she realized what they faced. “Avoid the pollen!” The others looked at her sharply. “It will rob you of your will. We must find the central plant from which all these stalks come from. We must find it, and destroy it. If we get caught inside the plant, it will devour our minds and we will end up like the orcs did: slaves to be used to sate an abomination’s hunger.”

Pelias stepped back, barely avoiding a puff of pollen. “But what is it?” he asked.

“A yellow musk creeper.” Raven began to move into the underbrush, doing her best to avoid the plant’s blossoms. “Quickly, now. It is a large plant and its stalks could spread out over a large area. Which means it can surround us and it will devour our minds before we can escape its range. We must destroy the plant.”

Suddenly, part of the forest exploded in flames. Pelias called forth another ball of flame and held it in his hand, ready to throw. Creating a clearer path for them to move, they saw the stalks seemed to disgorge from a single, bulbous root. Remnants of corpses were strewn about the plant. “There!”

Raven shot forward, leaping and twirling between stalks that sought to entwine and trap her. The others followed behind, eager to end the danger. Shribryn, running forward, swung her dagger to slice a stalk that rose in front of her. With surprising speed, the stalk shifted over her blow and thrust its blossom straight into her face. The pollen smelled sweet and alluring. Shribryn couldn’t remember what she was doing, but she did know that more of that wonderful smell could be found in the cluster of stalks just up ahead.

Unaware of what happened to Shribryn, Raven reached the plant’s root. Lashing out with her foot, once, twice, she leapt and twirled as the vines thrashed spasmodically. An ooze, green and sweet smelling, escaped the bruised sections of the root.

Magical missiles flew over Raven’s shoulders and unerringly slammed into the root. Pelias could not risk another ball of flame with Raven so close. Suddenly, a scythe appeared, floating in mid-air, behind the plant. From her position, Raven was the only one who saw it. The scythe swung, tearing out chunks of earth and root. Now where did that come from? Raven had no other time to think. Arms gripped her from behind unexpectedly. Shribryn? Before she could react, she was surrounded by blossoms. The sweet, cloying smell invaded her mind and that is all she needed. Tendrils rose from the ground and thrust into Raven’s and Shribryn’s ears. The creeper began to feed. Sending out all of its stalks to slow the other prey, it wished to finish its meal to allow itself to heal.

The others saw the tendrils violate Raven and Shribryn. Rising up on their tiptoes, they were surrounded by other tendrils that held them in place. Their faces held expressions of pure ecstasy. Sickened, the others rushed forward to end Raven and Shribryn’s torture.

Pelias stopped his mad rush. Tempus, guide my aim. Ignoring the stalks lashing about, Pelias lost himself in his magic. His arm outstretched, tip of his index finger began to glow as he focused all of his energy into that one point. Releasing a bolt made of the essence of fire, his missile flew between Shribryn and Raven and struck the root, setting it aflame.

Writhing in agony, Raven and Shribryn were thrown clear of the creeper. Seeing his opportunity, Ska’arr leapt forward, swinging his chain overhead. Bringing his weapon down, the root was pulverized. The stalks, as one, became rigid, until finally collapsing to the ground. The threat of the creeper was gone.

Pelias rushed over and laid healing hands upon Raven and Shribryn. Extending his mystical senses, he could see that the damage to their minds was minimal and healing, but it would take time for them to fully recover. He knew their minds would be dulled, but there was nothing to be done about it. The worst they would experience would be a throbbing headache and some short-term memory loss. Well, it could have been worse. And who would want to remember that abomination anyway? Kat emerged from the underbrush. “So, how did it go?” Seeing orc bodies laying about, she ran over to search them for goodies. Finding only a single gem worth 20 gold pieces and 5 gold pieces, she was disappointed.

Raven and Shribryn were helped to their feet. Raven had a troubled expression. There is something important I should be remembering. The image of a scythe popped in her head, but with no context, she couldn’t grasp its relevance. Shaking her head in frustration, she took up the lead again and hoped her memories would return.

Returning to the trail, they continued down the path. Several hours passed, but it was hard to tell with the constant haze of twilight. Suddenly, Raven spotted a light off to the side of the trail. Silently signalling the others to stop, she pointed in the direction of the light. It almost looked like a lantern or a torch, though it was hard to tell. Shribryn’s ears perked up. “Hide.” The voice was muffled, but it was clearly Chondathan. With that, the light, and whoever was holding it, moved away.

Gliding into the forest, Raven began to follow the light. I could have sworn I saw the light here. But there were no tracks or signs that anyone had been there. The light bobbed ahead of her, no more than twenty feet. But in the vegetation was so thick, she could not make out who or what carried it.

Shribryn followed Raven. Listening for any signs of ambush, she was surprised when she didn’t sense any. This feels like a trap.

Ska’arr went to the location where they had first seen the light. Scanning the area, there were no signs that anything had been there. Strange. Calling the others over, he relayed what he had found. “This smells like a trap. I’m going after Shribryn and Raven. Maybe their minds are still addled from the creeper, or maybe they are under some influence, but regardless, they are moving into danger.”

Raven’s boots were beginning to make sucking sounds as she stepped more and more frequently into marshy soil. Something is definitely wrong here. Initially she had rushed to catch up to the light, but it always seemed to stay far enough away that she couldn’t clearly see who she was following. She slowed when the ground began to become less stable. She expected the light to vanish out of sight, but instead, it stayed relatively the same distance away.

The trees were also beginning to thin. As the light bobbed ahead of her, she finally caught a clear, unobstructed view of the light and its bearer. What she saw caused her to stop dead in her tracks. There was no bearer. The light was moving totally on its own. Raven began to retrace her steps.

The light stopped its whimsical movement the moment Raven began moving away from it. Suddenly, it rushed towards her with blinding speed. The light swirled around her, flickering between blinding light and complete darkness. A mocking voice spoke to her in Chondathan. “What do you hope to do? Escape?” The words came from the ball of light. A second ball of light flitted out of the deeper marsh and rushed towards her. “I think not.”

Raven couldn’t keep track of the creatures. They darted too quickly. Knowing she was in a very dangerous predicament, she moved back towards the others. Suddenly, she heard Shribryn entering the swampy area. “It’s a trap! Move back!” Summoning her force armor, Shribryn focused on the sounds around her, trying desperately to find the danger. She found nothing. One of the orbs twirled around her, mocking her. Slashing out with her dagger, she merely cut air. Suddenly, Shribryn felt a jolt of electricity jump through her body as she came into contact with one of the orbs. Raven went through a similar experience. “There is no escape. You are mine.”

Shribryn could hear the others nearby. Her piercing whistle drew their attention and led them straight to her and Raven. “I think not.” Dodging to the left, she avoided the swoop of the creature.

Raven tumbled about as she tried to avoid being electrocuted. Even as she did this, she analyzed her opponent. Seeing the others, she gripped her sending stone. Kat. They jump between our world and another. They are fast and manoeuvrable. We need to slow them down to have any hope of victory. If not, then we need to escape.

Knowing she couldn’t hit it directly, Shribryn tried a different tactic. As the creature darted towards her, she could feel the slight electrical thrill on her body. Thrusting her hand in that direction, she created a cone of fire to envelop the creature. Even as her hand darted out, the creature was already reacting. Zigzagging to the left, the cone of fire missed it completely.

“We need to slow the creatures down!” Kat cried out to the others. “They are not fully on our plane of existence!” Calling forth her innate powers, her eyes began to glow. Her gaze became more piercing and she was able to clearly see their opponents. They seemed to be globes of spongy material, about one foot across. They seemed wholly solid, though. What Raven mistook for passing between planes was just the creature’s ability to douse its own light and move incredibly fast. Well, I’ll need to match their speed. Calling forth another innate power, her nerves tingled with energy. Rushing forward, Kat moved almost as quickly as the creatures, though she was not nearly as manoeuvrable.

The others did their best to move through the marshy conditions to help Raven and Shribryn. They had been trying to move away from the creatures, but they were constantly flanked by them. Scuro tapped Ska’arr on the shoulder. “You’ll need this.” Ska’arr’s muscles flexed with raw power as he rushed forward to help the others. Baron Longtooth roared out his challenge as he followed Ska’arr’s lead.

Raven had been stung several times and was not doing well. I need to buy myself some time. Calling for aid, she summoned a bear of her own to attack her tormentors.

Ska’arr and Baron Longtooth ran headlong towards the creatures when suddenly, a small blur seemed to pass them. Kat leapt forward with her shortsword leading. The creature darted to and fro, but didn’t seem too concerned about her approach. She grinned. Must be confident I can’t see it. This will be a pleasant surprise. The creature doused its light and shifted to the right. Kat followed the shift and slashed. A weird, glowing ichor began to ooze from the floating sphere.

Pelias tried to envelop the creature in flame, but it seemed to dodge around the ball of fire. Glowing darts slammed into the creature, sending it off-course. Scuro smiled. His memories of his past life served him well. He recognized the will-o’-wisp and knew their vulnerabilities. He almost wanted to mock the poor fool, but decided not to waste his breath. Baron Longtooth and Ska’arr were not doing so well. The creature darted about, toying with Ska’arr, always staying out of reach of his chain. Even as it did this, it would seem to gently touch the bear, eliciting a yelp of pain and confusion. It did this over and over, seeming to delight in the bear’s torment. Blisters began to form underneath crisped fur. Baron Longtooth suffered, but he was reaching a manic state. He would close his jaws on its enemy or die trying.

Suddenly, the two orbs shot skyward and back towards the swamp. Shocked at the unexpected retreat, they looked on as the orbs disappeared from sight. Relieved it was over, they were prepared to see the combat through to its end. Seeing no signs of the creatures, they began to head back towards the trail. A mocking voice followed them. “Where are you going? Come back and play some more.”

Baron Longtooth struggled to breathe. His fur was matted with blood as the blisters on his body burst as he moved. Placing his hands gently upon the bear’s side, holy energy moved into the bear. His wounds closed, leaving only burnt fur to mark where he had been injured. Baron Longtooth turned his head back and gently licked Pelias’ hand. Moving forward without discomfort, he sought to catch up to Ska’arr.

Once back on the trail, Scuro addressed the others. “Well, that was fun. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m quite tired from this endeavour. Plus, I am almost out of spells. I would hate to meet our glowing friends without being fully prepared.”

The others slowly nodded their agreement. The sun had begun to set and what light they had was fading fast. “Let’s find a place further along the trail, away from our glowing friends,” Raven suggested. With that, they continued down the trail, keeping an eye out for a suitable place to set up camp.

An hour later, the trail widened enough to allow them to set up a meager camp. None of them had wanted to set up camp within the woods themselves. Too many strange happenings had occurred already. Settling in for rest, Ska’arr and Shribryn set up watches on either side of the camp. The leaves rustled quietly as a gentle wind blew in from the north.

Three hours later, Raven and Ro-Lund-Do were quietly watching over the others’ rest. Scuro whispered softly and a small head popped out from beneath his hat. His bat familiar was seldom seen and if the others had peered closely at it, they would have noted its gaunt and unhealthy look. Dra-Koo-La would have returned the stares with an unblinking one of his own – he never blinked anyway. Flitting about, the strange little bat fluttered up and perched on a nearby branch.

A dim memory had been nagging at Raven since their encounter with the yellow musk creeper. She knew it had something to do with Ro-Lund-Do, but she couldn’t quite grasp what it was. She was about to ask him, when they heard a whistling noise deeper into the forest. Looking towards the source of the noise, several branches rustled overhead. Scuro, Raven and Dra-Koo-La eyes snapped overhead. The branches hadn’t moved from side to side, they had moved up and down, as if from the weight of something bulky landing on them. Before they could shout a warning, thick, sticky webs dropped down on all of them, in an attempt to trap them even as they slept.

Up above, a faint clicking sound could be heard. Creatures out of their nightmares descended on thick silky strands. Spiders, as big as a dwarf, dropped down from the leafy expanse, their fangs dripping with venom.

Raven shouted out. “Get up! Spiders from above!” Even as she yelled, she drank down a potion, boosting her strength, and ran towards the first group of spiders that had reached the forest floor.

Ska’arr woke up with a start, his heart pounding. Spiders! Fear ripped through his heart. He immediately saw his predicament. Gripping the webbing in his hands, he tried to rip the sticky strands apart, but only succeeded in wrapping himself more tightly. His panic only grew worse.

“This is going to hurt,” Pelias mumbled to himself. Creating a burst of fire, he burned the offending web away but managed to burn himself. Getting to his feet, he saw a small horde of spiders surrounding them and prepared to drop his next ball of flame on them.

Scuro proved to be lucky. Having wrapped himself from head to toe in his cloak to keep as warm and comfortable as possible, he was not actually pinned to the ground by the web. Squirming out from underneath his cloak, he stood and moved towards the periphery of the spider horde. Concentrating on Dra-Koo-La, he saw the spiders through his familiar’s eyes. He also spotted movement up above, but he couldn’t get a clear look at whatever they were.

Kat’s drew her shortsword and sliced the webbing on her in one motion. Leaping to her feet, she was immediately set upon by a bloated spider. Stabbing the spider’s torso, its fangs clicked spasmodically. Lunging towards Kat, she spun away, pulling out her first shortsword as she drew her second. Using the moment of her spin, her second shortsword sliced the spider across its thorax, slicing through the spider’s heart and lungs. Ignoring the dying spider, Kat wheeled towards the others, hoping they were not trapped.

Shribryn was disoriented. The clicking noise the spiders’ produced was making it hard for her to focus. Trying to summon her magical armor of force, she lost her focus. A heavy thud landed beside her. She could sense the spider stalking her, but the clicking noises never stopped. Its fangs tore into her arm. She tried to focus on the pain to manifest a retaliatory gout of flame, but she was distracted by the clicking and lost the moment.

The spiders finished dropping down to the ground and begun stalking towards Shribryn. A louder clicking could be heard above and the spiders responded. They turned away from Shribryn and spread themselves out, each picking an individual target. Striking at their chosen foes, their fangs left burning wounds.

Raven somersaulted over a spider and landed softly behind it. Before it could turn, she spun and dropped down to a crouching position in a single fluid motion. Her foot swung out, catching the spider in its abdomen. The force of impact burst the abdomen, spilling spider guts everywhere. Continuing her spin, she rose smoothly to her feet, balanced, ready to strike at her next foe.

Ska’arr’s shrieks of panic continued to escalate. With a desperate heave, he tore free of the webbing around him and lurched to his feet. Fangs darted in but he hardly felt the pain. His only thought was to escape.

A small, glowing pea-sized sphere landed in the center of the spiders, erupting into a hurricane of flame, incinerating most of the spiders. Pelias turned to launch another fireball at the last remaining spider when a bolt of flame pierced its head. Shuddering once, it collapsed to the ground, dead.

Scuro didn’t even smile. He pointed up. “There are two or more enemies still above. I think they were directing these spiders. Let us give them a warm welcome.”

Pelias grinned. Tossing another glowing sphere above their heads, it burst into brilliant flame. The branches of the trees thirty feet above bowed as whatever was up their leaped from branch to branch to escape. Sending Dra-Koo-La up to see who or what their foes were, Scuro was taken aback by what he saw through his companion’s eyes. The two creatures seemed to be a cross between a gangly human and a bloated spider. Their slender arms and legs protruded from round, fleshy bodies. Their heads resembled spiders, with a pair of bulbous black eyes. One of the creatures turned back, reaching out further than Dra-Koo-La anticipated. Searing pain lanced through its wing as claws tore through it, sending the bat plummeting to the ground. Scuro shouted and ran towards his falling ally. The rest saw where Dra-Koo-La fell from the trees and knew their enemy was there. As they were about to give chase, Ska’arr’s screaming and shouting caused them all to pull up short.

“Get them off! Get them off! Mommy! Daddy! Help me!” Ska’arr continued to roll around violently on the ground in an attempt to dislodge the spiders only his panicked mind could see. They turned to help calm Ska’arr.

“Why aren’t we going after those creatures?” Scuro demanded. He cradled Dra-Koo-La in his arms. “They need to be exterminated.”

Pelias looked up from his ministrations. “You’re a cold one, Ro-Lund-Do,” he replied. “You want revenge for the harm done to your familiar while another of your allies suffers.”

Scuro’s tone was icy. “They have damaged what belongs to me. They shall be punished.”

Shribryn stepped between the two. “They are gone. There is no sense arguing over an issue that no longer exists.”

“We need to rest,” Kat said. “If needed, we can pick up their trail tomorrow.”

As they began to repair their disrupted camp, Scuro placed his hands upon Dra-Koo-La and began to softly chant. Pelias blood froze. As Ro-Lund-Do completed his spell, he felt a momentary flash of negative energy jump from Ro-Lund-Do to his familiar. Even the brief contact with the negative energy made him feel drained. What is going on? Dra-Koo-La flew up and then darted under Ro-Lund-Do’s hat.

Leaving his bedding, Pelias walked up to Ro-Lund-Do and grabbed him by the arm. “How did you heal your familiar?” Scuro glared at Pelias. “What reason would I have to answer your question?” he replied.

Pelias would not back down. “No more word games. Just answer the question.”

Scuro sighed. His tone was condescending. “Well, for anyone who knows how to heal, I created a conduit between myself and the Keeper of the Eternal Sun, allowing His holy radiance to flow through my hands to...”

Pelias cut him off. “Do not lie.” The others moved in closer. “That was not positive energy. I know positive energy. What you used sent shivers down my spine.”

Scuro sighed again. “We are all tired. None of us have gotten enough rest. Plus, you have been drunk for the past eight hours. You must have been confused.” Scuro chuckled good-naturedly. “I hardly blame you. I couldn’t launch another magical missile if my life depended on it.” He put on an air of nonchalance, but inside, he was fuming. How dare Pelias doubt me!

Putting his arm around Pelias, Scuro continued. “Come. We need to rest. Our trials are hardly over.”

Doubt was clearly etched on Pelias’ face. “Perhaps you are right. It has been a trying day. Plus the alcohol did not help any.” He turned to walk away, but stopped. “But I’m almost completely certain that it was negative energy...” His voice trailed off.

The rest returned to putting the camp back together. As Shribryn bent over to straighten her bedroll, Kat seemed to do the same thing. Their faces drew closely together. Kat whispered. “When there is doubt, there is no doubt. We need to determine if Pelias was right.” Shribryn nodded her head wearily.

Standing up, Shribryn walked towards the fire, where Scuro was setting his bedroll. He partially turned to see who was coming to pester him. Without warning, Shribryn’s dagger thrust forward through Scuro’s hat into Dra-Koo-La. Her bracers flashed, the light traveling up the dagger’s blade delivering a blast of positive energy. Normally, this would heal an injured person, but on Dra-Koo-La, the effects were devastating.

With a squawk, Dra-Koo-La was flung out of Ro-Lund-Do’s hat and had a single seizure. Scuro jumped over and began to heal his critically injured familiar.

“You stupid woman!” Scuro yelled. “What were you thinking?”

“I’m sorry, Ro-Lund-Do, but we had to be sure.” Shribryn pursed her lips pensively. “How could healing energy harm your bat?”

“You lied to us.” Pelias’ tone left no doubt as to how he felt. “I can sense the cold, negative energy you are feeding into your bat to heal its wounds. It is undead. Who are you?” Hands dropped to weapons.

Scuro knew he needed to convince the others that he was not a threat. “I am who I always was. I am Ro-Lund-Do of Durpar. My father is Pa-Squa-Le, the arch-priest of Amon-Ra. I am an exile. In truth, I am not a cleric of Amon-Ra, like my father. I worship the embodiment of Death. I have always felt a connection with the essence of Death. I am a Death cleric.”

Pelias shook his head. “You’re still lying.” The others edged even closer. “Ro-Lund-Do, tell the truth now, or suffer the consequences.”

Scuro kept his expression calm, but his emotions roiled. He was at the crux. He would either live or die by his next words. With a voice heavy with remorse, he continued. “To gain my power, I murdered a dying person.” Shribryn gasped and Ska’arr growled in dismay. “I am a drop of rain. Once a raindrop begins to fall, it must continue to fall or it is no longer even a drop of rain. A man must finish his journey once the first step is taken. My first step was connecting with the essence of death. From there, my path was clear to me.”

The others seemed unconvinced. “I was exiled for the murder I committed.” Scuro’s expression darkened. “My own father did not wish to have me “rehabilitated”. He only wanted to remove the blemish to his honour.”

Shribryn’s voice was quiet. “What of the accusations against you, Ro-Lund-Do? Have you ever raised the dead?”

Scuro looked calmly at Shribryn. “I am a necromancer. I study death to better understand it, but I have not raised any undead.”

“Will you raise any in the future?” Kat shot back.

Scuro kept his expression pensive. “Only as needed.”

“What happens when you meet undead creatures?” Ska’arr asked. “Will you drive them away or command them?”

“What use in driving them away?” Scuro retorted. “If I command them, I can use them to defend us from harm. Isn’t that the better option?”

Raven finally spoke up. “My opinion of Ro-Lund-Do has not changed. Why should we dismiss him? He has proven to be a useful companion.” The others were surprised at her statement. “He is irritating, self-serving, and arrogant, but he has not turned on us. In fact, he has fought for us and shed blood for us. For now, that is enough. We cannot condemn him for things he hasn’t done yet.”

The others weighed Raven’s words carefully. Finally, Kat spoke up. “She’s right.” Turning to Ro-Lund-Do, she said, “You have proven to be an able companion. We do not have the right to turn on you based on suspicions.” She frowned. “But remember, Ro-Lund-Do, we will be watching.”

Scuro smiled. The others thought he smiled in gratitude. They could not be more incorrect. They don’t even know who they are truly speaking to. But they will learn soon enough. Scuro’s smile broadened.

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