The morning had dawned as it usually does over the hot desert sands of Athas. The red sun glared across the rooftops of the Sage District, and the cries of merchants and hockers echoed through the streets.
The six of them reclined in the common room of Marius Amketch's compound, breaking their fast and discussing their next move. They knew they needed to find Allkirk, but the how of it was under contention.
"If you would allow me to make a suggestion," Marius Amketch interjected. He was dressed, as always, in fine but practical tradesman garb. "I have a small caravan leaving this morning for Gulg. You are all welcome to join it. From Gulg, it is a short 4 day journey to Altaruk, and from there, it's almost a straight shot along the trade road to Tyr."
Pa Mela nodded; this was also her plan. Altaruk was at the crossroads of several trade routes, plus was a major port city that rested on the shores of the Sea of Silt. Since merchants gossip more than old women, Altaruk was the perfect place to gather information and plan their next move. Besides, it was also the main headquarters for the Veiled Alliance. If anyone could help them find Allkirk, then Altaruk was where they would be.
As the group murmured their assent, there was a loud knock at the front door. Immediately, the group was on alert. Dryder moved to one window to peek out and muttered a brief curse.
"Remember that templar we met at the gates? She's found us. And she has a city guardsman with her."
As one, the group picked up their equipment and items. Dryder looked over at Marius and sighed, "I'm sorry we got you involved in this, my friend. It was not our intention to get you mixed up with the Shadow King's templars."
Marius waved him off, "No matter. Go through the storage room; there's a back alley that you can escape through. I'll see what I can do to hold off the one up here."
The pounding on the door increased in intensity as Gundrek moved to the storage area to make sure the way was clear. Pa Mela watched him go, then whispered over to Dryder, "See, I told you we should have muzzled him!"
Kratas frowned, "Enough...we have more important matters going on than listening to your japes."
Pa Mela made a face at him, then moved behind the bar so that she could cover the front door.
Gundrek burst into the alleyway, only to see another templar-wife and city guardsman. With a curse, he yelled back into the compound, warning his companions that they were surrounded. Drawing his Craghammer, he rushed the pair, releasing a mental wave of telepathic static, distracting them and forcing them to focus on him as an attacker.
Tor Val, upon hearing Gundrek's shout, ran to the rear door and grinned. At last, a fight! Drawing his gouge, he charged the Shadow Bride.
Within, Katrie waited tentatively on one side of the room. Repeated blows against the sturdy door rattled it within its frame, and she could see the tale-tell signs of the wood splintering around the lock. Not much longer...
Kratas saw her nervousness and smiled at her to help calm her, "Are you ready? Just wait until I finish my spell, then grab anyone that comes out. Got it?"
She nodded. Moving against the wall, she closed her eyes, letting the primal forces of the world fill her. She could feel the beast within aching to be released and took a deep breath, a hunger growing within her.
Dryder watched the exchange and nodded. Katrie was a young elf, but when it came to a fight, she was a tough little scrapper, a good friend to have covering your back. Seeing that Kratas and Katrie were both ready, Dryder concentrated for a moment, fading from existence, just as the front door burst open with a loud crack.
Gundrek swung his hammer, connecting with the Shadow Bride's shoulder, staggering her backwards. But not before her obsidian short sword found its way through his armor, opening a long gash down his side. Snarling from the sudden pain, he turned, knowing that his mental powers prevented the worst of the attack. Ducking, he easily dodged a swipe from the guardsman's battleaxe. Behind him, Tor Val roared as his gouge connected with the Shadow Bride, laughing as blood gushed from the deep wound. Tor Val and Gundrek were both suddenly startled when a small creature appeared behind them.
It looked almost like a halfling, but its skin was very pale, and its small eyes were jet-black; cruel and lifeless. Silently, it lashed out at Gundrek, its obsidian kukri scraping across his armor. A thick, viscous black fluid oozed from the blade.
Back in the common room, the shadow bride and guardsman crashed into the room, only to be greeted by Kratas. With a grin and chuckle, Kratas waved his hand, and a dark, blinding cloud of freezing darkness surrounded the intruders. A scream erupted from within the cloud, and a few moments later, the guardsman stumbled out, his left arm encrusted with a thin layer of hoarfrost. As he blinked his eyes to clear the sudden darkness, Katrie moved.
Her form blurred and shifted, and a loud roar erupted from the creature she had become. The guard gasped as the black, feline form crashed into him, claws and teeth ripping long, bloody trails down his sides.
The shadow bride burst from the darkness, slashing blindly in front of her. As she turned, cursing at Kratas, she suddenly stumbled back as an arrow appears in her arm. Looking over his shoulder, Kratas saw Pa Mela notching another arrow from behind the bar. She noticed his glance and gave him a grin and a wink.
On the roof above the door of the common room, Dryder suddenly reappeared. Leaping down, he tumbled through the darkness, springing up behind the shadow bride. With a delicate twitch of his wrist, he lashed out, leaving a deep wound on the bride's flank.
Outside the common room, Gundrek and the shadow bride circled each other, occassionaly lashing out with their weapons. The guardsman continued to try to distract Gundrek, but was unable to get a decent angle to strike a telling blow. As Tor Val turned to the threat of the small creature, it swiped at him with its kukri, opening a shallow cut on Tor Val's leg. A cold, burning sensation shot through his limb, but as Tor Val checked the cut, he noticed that most of the foul black liquid missed the cut itself.
With a wild look in his eye, Tor Val growled, "You little pissant!"
Grabbing the strange creature, he hurled it against the wall. With a sickening thud, the creature slid down, dazed. Tor Val leapt on top of it, smashing it repeatedly with his gouge and fists until little was left but a bloody mess. The creature suddenly burst into a spray of black ooze, covering Tor Val's face, blinding him. Stumbling back, he roared in anger and frustration as a second shadow creature appeared behind him.
Within, Kratas stabbed at the guardsman as Katrie savaged him with her claws and teeth. As his blade sank into the guard's shoulder, he feels a painful burning stab; the shadow bride had slashed him with her blade. Another arrow thunked into the shadow bride, and she growled a curse at Pa Mela. Seeing that the bride was distracted by Mela’s attack, Dryder used the opportunity to stab the bride with his longsword, pushing her off balance. The shadow bride stumbled, bleeding, into the corner of the room.
As she turned, she saw Kratas charging, a murderous glint in his eye. As his blade pieced her heart, she spat in his face.
Nearby, Katrie had finished ripping open the guardsman's throat. Her mouth and claws dripping blood, she leapt over the bar, rushing out into the back alleyway to assist Tor Val and Gundrek. Seeing Tor Val swinging his weapon around blindly, she pounced on the second shadow creature, clamping her jaws down on its leg. The creature, not making a single sound, stabbed Katrie with its blade, and she screamed as she felt the poison starting to burn its way through her blood.
Tor Val finally managed to wipe the ooze from his eyes. With a blind rage, he charged the second shadow bride, bringing his gouge down on her head with a thunderous crunch. As Tor Val tried to pull his weapon from the bride's head, Gundrek swings his hammer, crushing several of the guard's ribs.
Dryder ran around behind the building, moving to the other side of the shadow creature while Katrie continued to worry on its leg. The creature, realizing its danger, suddenly faded from sight.
The guardsman swung his axe in a long arc, cutting through Gundrek's armor and opening a small slash on his stomach, then leaving a shallow cut on Tor Val's arm. Gundrek and Tor Val exchanged a glance, and the two of them smashed their weapons into the doomed guard.
Dryder quickly looked around, noticing that Katrie still had her jaws wrapped around something. Realizing the creature was invisible, he waited, knowing that Katrie had it trapped. As he watched, two more slashes appeared on Katrie's flanks, forcing a growl of pain from her clenched jaws.
As the creature reappeared, Dryder sank his blade into its back. With its final breath, it burst into a spray of dark ooze, blinding Dryder and Katrie.
(Game Notes: I was surprised by how easy this was for the group. There is a significant power jump from 10th to 11th level. Not only that, but it didn't hurt the party that they rolled 5 crits during the course of this combat. I was lucky to roll above a 6 on many of my attacks.)
Pa Mela sat beside Katrie, examining her wounds. "These are fairly shallow, fortunately. I don't think you got much of the poison in you, so I'm pretty sure it will just run out of your system."
Katrie wiped the last of the black ooze from her face. "What were those things?"
Marius grunted from where he was helping Dryder stuff the body of one of the shadow brides into a cask, "They are the Shadow King's assassins. Vile little creatures that he has twisted with his magics. Souless beasts, or so rumor has it. You seem to have made a few powerful enemies."
Kratas frowned, "And now we've made them your enemies, too. I think it would be a good idea for you to leave Nibenay as soon as you can."
Marius nodded, "I agree. I already have several of my men packing my things. I'll be leaving on the caravan with you, my friends; there is some business in Gulg that I have to attend to."
Dryder grimaced as Tor Val and Gundrek brought in two more casks. "What are you going to do with the bodies? If they search your compound, they'll know for a fact you were involved in this."
Marius smiled mischievously, "Oh, I wouldn't worry about that. I have a good friend of mine who assures me that he can get these casks into the House Shom compound. And tip the authorities, of course."
Dryder grinned, "A bold plan, good sir. And truly devious! It would appear that my influence is having a beneficial effect on your business endeavors."
Marius nodded with mock sadness, "Yes, that's what I get for befriending crooks and villains."
Kratas peeked out the window, checking to make sure that no more templars were on their way. "What about getting us out of the city? You know they will inspect the caravan, so I doubt that hiding will do much good."
Katrie shrugged, "I can change to a different form, but you, Tor Val and Gundrek are pretty well known. Dryder and Pa Mela, not so much."
Gundrek rumbled, "What if we hide inside some more of these casks."
Dryder nodded thoughtfully, "You and Kratas could fit, But Tor Val?"
"I have a large trunk that I use to transport silks and fabrics. He may fit in that," Marius said.
Gundrek nodded, "Then we could throw some of the fabrics on top of him and nail it shut."
"We'd have to burn the fabrics afterward, though. You'd never be able to get the smell out of them," Pa Mela sighed.
Tor Val growled, "You will NOT put me in inside one of those…boxes!"
"I wouldn't either if I were him. It's bad enough out in the open, but locked up in that thing? The stench would be enough to kill you!"
"Mela, enough," Kratas warned.
While Kratas and Dryder pulled Tor Val aside to convince him of their plan, the others all turned to Pa Mela.
Her eyes wide with innocence, she shrugged and said, "What?"
The trunk was cramped and muggy, musty smelling and humid. The gentle rolling gait of the kank that his trunk was tied to did little to relax him; instead, his tension grew along with the suffocating sense of claustrophobia.
Tor Val couldn’t help but be reminded of his days in the gladiator pits of Tyr. When a slave did poorly in the arena, or when they were insubordinate, the overseers punished them relentlessly. At first, whipping the gladiator was all that was needed. Gladiators are trained to resist pain, though, so beatings soon lost the ability to deter obstinate behavior. So, the overseers devised new means of punishing their charges.
Half-giant gladiators were often placed in tight, cramped little cells where they could not move and could barely breathe. Several hours of this would leave the gladiator in agony, their arms and legs painfully cramping from the constriction. After several days, they would be howling for release.
The sudden cessation of movement jolted Tor Val’s thoughts back to the present. Outside, muffled conversation could be heard, getting closer as Marius talked to the guards and Templars inspecting the caravan. His hands and jaw clenched as he heard them get closer; if they opened his trunk, Tor Val would release his fury, uncaring if he died or not. Fortunately, the group moved past.
To Tor Val, it seemed like hours before the caravan resumed, like days before the caravan finally stopped again. He soon felt the trunk being untied from the back of the kank, and then gently settled on the ground. With a rusty groan, the lid was opened, and Tor Val quickly sat up, gasping in the hot desert air. Compared to the scorching heat on the inside of the trunk, it was the sweetest breath he had taken in quite some time.
Behind him, Dryder clapped him on the back. Tor Val nodded, then saw Pa Mela standing off to one side, smirking.
Seeing that she was about to say something, likely some barbed insult, Tor Val snarled, “If you know what’s good for you, woman, you’ll bite your tongue. I have no problem coming over there and shutting that pretty mouth of yours up.”
Mela held up her hands in surrender, and Tor Val felt the comforting weight of Katrie in her cat form pressing against his side. With an affectionate pat on her flank, he stood up and climbed from the trunk.
Kratas and Gundrek were climbing from their casks as Tor Val, Katrie, Dryder and Pa Mela approached.
“When we get to Gulg, I need to make a brief stop in the city,” Dryder said. “I want to see if there are any rumors of note floating around.”
“Good idea. We’ll need to resupply, too.” Kratas was stretching his cramped legs.
The six of them climbed on their mounts, pulling into formation around the small caravan. Soon, they were moving slowly to the south and west along the outskirts of the Crescent Forest.
The Spotted Inix was notorious for its bad ale, horrible food, and crude patrons. It was also inexpensive, which meant that caravan guards, drivers, and general laborers could get cheap ale.
Which made it a good source of information.
Dryder swirled his ale as he quietly sat in a shadowed corner of the tavern. The mug that he was pretending to drink from probably could have used a few dozen washes. However, Dryder wasn’t interested in drinking; he was interested in the conversation taking place a few tables down.
“I hear there’s this forest that just popped up overnight, just south of Altaruk. Story has it that it moves every morning. King Tithian is having a fit trying to find it.” The speaker was a dwarf, solid and square. Dryder had nicknamed him Brick.
“Yeah, well he would. Ever since Urik tried to attack and take over the mines, Tithian has been trying to gain whatever power he can,” said a wind-burned half-elf.
“Yeah, I heard that too. But I think that it’s those Veiled Alliance folks. Word is that they are doing a pilgrimage or something to find this forest, and that they are gathering an army. Pretty sure Tithian don’t want to find another army on his doorstep,” Brick opined.
Dryder quietly picked up his equipment, dropping a ceramic penny on the bar as he left. He’d learned what he needed to.
“A forest?” Katrie smiled hopefully.
They were moving along the shore of the Sea of Silt as they discussed what Dryder had learned. Each of them needed to wear breathing masks and goggles to prevent the wind from blowing the fine powder into their eyes and faces.
Three days had passed since Gulg. Dryder had caught up with the rest of the group in Fort Kalvis the day before, and the group had continued on. The road here traveled perilously close to the Sea of Silt; the powder covered the trade route to the point where it was almost indistinguishable from the rest of the surrounding desert.
Pa Mela spoke, her words muffled by the mask, “I’d like to look into this. I can see if I can meet up with some of my contacts in Altaruk. Maybe they’ll know something.”
Kratas agreed. “We still need to find Allkirk, though.”
“If I know Allkirk, he’s likely looking for this forest as well.” Pa Mela wiped the dust from her goggles.
A bellow from Tor Val alerted them that there was trouble. The four of them quickly drew their weapons and trotted to where Tor Val and Gundrek were scouting ahead.
The wagon was in splinters. The wheels and wagon bed were nearly completely buried by the silt.
“Nothing. No equipment or goods, no bodies. This has been here a day, maybe two.” Tor Val tossed away what was left of a broken barrel.
“We should move on. I doubt whatever did this is still here, but you never know.” Gundrek stood up, pulling his breathing mask more securely onto his face.
The better part of the morning saw them continuing to the west, following the coastline. As noon passed, Katrie could see, out in the silt, forms moving in parallel to their path.
“Someone is following us,” she nudged Kratas, “I can’t tell what, but they’re big.”
The six of them stopped, wary. The forms moved closer, stepping out of the dust and onto the shoreline. Five of them, twice as tall as Tor Val; giants. All of them looked thin and starved, their eyes hungrily gazing at the group, drool trickling from fanged mouths. These creatures were horrid; while they were humanoid in shape, they each had the head of some beast. A ram, a snake, a wolf and a bear. And finally, the head of a large feline with huge, sharp tusks.
“Let me talk to them. We may be able to avoid a confrontation,” Pa Mela handed her bow to Dryder, raising her hands to the giants to show them that she was unarmed.
“We are just travelers on our way to the next village. We don’t want any trouble,” Mela shouted at them in their language.
The creatures kept approaching. The snake headed giant hissed, “Look, it talks. Maybe we eat it first?”
The cat headed giant rumbled, “I like the big one. It feed us for days.”
Tor Val and Gundrek exchanged glances as the giants moved closer. They had both seen one of the creatures in the Tyr arenas, a pitiful thing that was mercilessly tortured by the overseers. But when it got angry, its wrath was terrible to behold.
Kratas whispered to Dryder, “They don’t look like they want to negotiate.”
Dryder thrust the bow back to Mela, “They look hungry. So, unless you want to be dinner, I’d suggest you defend yourself.”
With a roar, the creatures charged. Tor Val, with a loud shout, met the ram-headed giant head on, smashing his gouge into the creature’s knee. With a howl, the giant slammed his huge fists into Tor Val’s chest, staggering him backward.
Kratas focused his mental powers, linking himself with Dryder and Gundrek. He charged the snake-head giant, and his two companions moved with an almost eerie precision to charge two others, their movement completely in tune with his. Dryder smashed into the wolf-headed giant, and Gundrek into the bear.
Katrie ran forward, shifting into her beast form. She leapt past Kratas, latching her teeth and jaws onto the snake giant’s leg. With a roar, the snake giant lashed out, catching Katrie on her side.
Gundrek focused his mind on the creatures before him, releasing another wave of mental static so that he could distract the bear and snake giants. Using a trick he learned in the arena, he clipped his hammer on the bear giant’s knee then shoved his shoulder into its stomach. Off balance, the giant staggered away. Gundrek immediately charged it, slamming his craghammer into the creature’s ribs. The creature retaliated, its movements almost an exact mirror of his own. As he stumbled back in surprise, he yelled to his friends, “They’re learning our moves! Watch it!”
Pa Mela, hearing Gundrek’s warning, focused arcane energy into her bow. As the arrow began to glow, she released it, launching it at the snake giant. As the arrow sank into the giant’s shoulder, she shouted, “Hit that one.”
Dryder slashed the wolf giant’s thigh, dodging a heavy blow. The giant with the cat’s head roared at him, slamming him with one of its huge fists. With a sickening crack, he felt his ribs break, and he stumbled back, gasping for air.
Tor Val grimaced as he felt the giant bite into his shoulder. Growling with agony, his eyes began to lose focus as his inner rage took over. With a roar, he slammed his gouge into the creature with so much force that it stumbled backward, falling on its back. With a sickening thud, Tor Val buried his weapon in the creature’s skull.
Kratas turned, seeing the bear giant lumbering toward Gundrek. Calling on the howling monstrosities that grant him his power, a glowing halo of startlingly bright light formed around him. Pointing at the giant, he released it, focusing a bright beam of light directly into its eyes. With a cry of pain, the giant began blindly flailing around him.
Katrie winced in pain, her breath coming in ragged gasps from the snake-headed giant’s attack. As her claws dug into the creature’s side, she began to feel a trickle of warmth and energy flowing from the creature into her. She could feel her ribs starting to knit, her wounds closing. With renewed vigor, she again latched onto the giant, even as it lashed out at Gundrek.
Gundrek was suddenly shocked as the snake giant grabbed him. He’d seen Katrie use that move hundreds of times, and he found himself unable to move. With a curse, he turned his attention to the snake giant, calling on his mental powers to harden his flesh.
Pa Mela launched a few more arrows, satisfied as she heard the tell-tale “thunk” of their impact. Seeing Dryder bleeding from his wounds, she sang a clear, high note, calling on her bardic powers to heal him.
Dryder gasped as he felt the cool rush of healing from Mela. As his bones knitted, he slid beneath the wolf giant’s wild swing. Leaping up, he buried his sword into the creature’s back, then kicked away, yanking his weapon from the deep wound. As the wolf giant stumbled into the cat-headed giant, knocking them both down, Dryder yelled out, “A little help here!”
Tor Val yanked his weapon free, a red haze of fury darkening his vision. Taking two deep breaths, he mastered his rising fury, using it as a weapon, one he could now control. Hearing Dryder’s shout, he grinned, rushing at the fallen wolf-headed giant. Laughing, he buried his gouge in the creature’s skull.
Kratas easily dodged aside as the bear-headed giant blindly swung its fists. Glancing behind him, he noticed Gundrek and Katrie fending off the snake giant. With a casual wave of his hand, he focused the glowing halo surrounding him into another beam of bright light, smiling as it sliced into the snake-headed giant. Turning back to his opponent, he summoned his psychic reserves, striking the bear giant with his sword. A rush of mental inspiration washed from him, strengthening his companions.
Gundrek slammed his hammer into the creature again, smiling as he felt the crunch of broken bones. Hearing Katrie snarl, he pulled back just as she climbed up the creature’s body, burying her teeth in its neck. With a sudden twist of her head, she ripped out its throat, leaping away as it finally fell dead. Now free to move, Gundrek called on his mental powers, moving in a blur as he charged the bear giant.
Dryder leapt up into the air, driving his longsword into the cat-headed giant as it tried to stand up. Yanking his blade free, he immediately whirled, slicing his sword across the thick neck, nearly severing it.
Mela moved closer to the group. Singing another high sweet note, she sent some more healing energy to Katrie. Taking careful aim, she fired her bow, giving a satisfied nod as the arrow buried itself in the creature’s eye.
(DM Notes: I sometimes like to do these types of fights. The group loves them, too. Knowing that they will have a chance to rest immediately afterwards, they tend to use their dailies. This is why I like to make the fights at level +3 or higher. Beast Head giants are a lot of fun, and they hit HARD. Better yet, they can use the damage and effects that the party uses on them. Hearing Gundrek’s player curse as the giant used Disrupting Advance against him was priceless.)
Katrie had shifted back to her elven form. Now, she was sitting on Tor Val’s shoulders, the two of them gazing out over the silt sea to make sure there were no more giants approaching. The others moved between the bodies looking for any useful items or equipment.
“Hey, I finally found something bigger, uglier and smellier than Tor Val. Quite an accomplishment, if you ask me.” Pa Mela made a disgusted face as she stood up from one of the creatures.
“We didn’t,” Gundrek rumbled, tossing aside what was left of a wooden crate.
“Seems pretty clear to me that these are the creatures that attacked that caravan back there,” Kratas remarked. He and Dryder had found a few useful things; desert clothing, waterskins, and a large canvas cloth that could easily be made into a tent.
“Yes, and I say we keep moving before more come along,” Dryder replied.
Altaruk was a surprisingly bustling village that rested on the shore of the Sea of Silt. After paying the toll to enter the gates, Mela had assured her friends that she would soon return. Moving through the marketplace, she finally saw the symbol she was looking for. Entering the tiny shop, she glanced around, seeing it was empty of customers. Walking up to the proprietor, she covered her mouth with one hand.
Seeing the age-old symbol of the Veiled Alliance, the shopkeeper nodded, moving to lock the shop door. After pulling Mela into a back room, he poured a small cup of water and handed it to her.
“I just need information.”
The man nodded, “What do you need to know?”
“You know Allkirk? I’m looking for him.”
The shopkeeper sat down across from her, “I’ve seen him. He came through town about three weeks ago. He only stayed for a night, then went south.”
“South? Not Tyr?”
“No, south. He’s probably looking for the forest,” the old man shook his head with awe. “The pilgrims who pass through here say that there is a Shining One there, that it is calling them.”
Pa Mela sat back, a long breath escaping her lips. A shining one! That’s what Allkirk meant when he said that the world could now be healed.
Mela thanked the shopkeeper, then asked for the way.
“South, about four days from here. If you find the pilgrims, they will lead you.”
“A shining one?” Tor Val asked.
Mela nodded. Her usual demeanor was gone, and now she was quiet and thoughtful.
“When a magic user purposefully refrains from defiling, instead working to restore the energy and lifeforce that most defilers steal to power their spells, they eventually become unable to defile. Those who grow sufficiently powerful undergo a transformation. There are only legends about these creatures, though. One name you may be familiar with is Avangion.”
Kratas sat up, “An Avangion hasn’t been seen on Athas in thousands of years! Are you sure?”
Mela shook her head, “No, not until we find it. And we’d better find it soon, because the Sorcerer Kings will hear about it.”
Katrie was already excitedly packing her equipment, making sure her supplies were full. “Four days south, you say?” Mela nodded.
“We’d better get moving then. Why aren’t you all packed?” Katrie called back to them as she bolted from the inn.
Three days from Altaruk, they saw the pilgrims; a ragged band of around twenty men and women. The pilgrims were pleased to have the companions accompany them, sharing their food and water as they walked to the south. It was the following morning that they found the forest.
One moment, it was empty desert. On the horizon, they could see the jagged peaks of some distant mountain range. The next moment, the forest was before them. The change was so sudden that the entire group stopped.
The grove wasn’t very large; perhaps a few hundred yards across its center. As they began approaching, they could hear the rustling of the wind through the trees. Distant birds called throughout the wood, and beneath the shade of the trees, a cool breeze ruffled their hair and clothes. Katrie took it all in, a wide smile on her face as her hands moved from tree to plant to tree, touching them, caressing them, praising their beauty. As they moved past a small pond, they each stooped to take a drink of the sweet, cool, refreshing water.
They eventually arrived at the center of the grove. A small ziggurat rose from a large clearing, surrounded by a spiral of pillared statues made of obsidian. The ziggurat itself was made of sandstone and rose perhaps 40 feet hide; carved stone steps led up to the top. All around the clearing, pockets of pilgrims reclined, resting in the cool morning shadows beneath the tree.
Kratas was investigating the ziggurat. “This looks new. I wonder how all of this was brought here without anyone noticing. And who built it?”
Before anyone could answer, a warm golden light illuminated the clearing. Slowly descending the steps of the ziggurat was the most beautiful creature any of them had ever seen. She looked almost human, standing just over six feet high; her skin was a shimmering golden color, her hair as silver as moonlight. Two large wings, like a butterfly’s, spread from her back. Either they were reflecting the sunlight, or they were the source of the warm glow.
She moved amongst the new pilgrims, gently touching each, blessing them with her smile. “Be welcome, my children. All is safe here. Eat of my forest, drink of my water. There will be no harm while you are here beneath my gaze.”
Unknown to the rest of the group, Dryder had slipped away.
Her smile finally fell on the five of them. “Hello my children, welcome to my grove.”
Katrie bowed deeply, tears in her eyes. Gundrek blushed and mumbled something about being honored, and Mela knelt at the creature’s feet.
“You honor us, my lady. I am Pa Mela, and these are my companions. Kratas, Gundrek, Tor Val, Katrie, and Dryder.”
It was then that Tor Val and Kratas noticed that Dryder was gone.
The creature laughed warmly, “Oh, none of the ‘My Ladys.’ My name is Ulynin; it would please me if you called me that.” Her eyes fell on the party’s equipment, quietly observing each of them.
“Thank you my…Ulynin,” Mela stumbled.
“It would appear as if you and your friends are capable adventurers. This is good. Perhaps I could impose on you to assist me with a few errands. Missions, really.”
While she spoke with Mela, Katrie and Gundrek, Kratas motioned for Tor Val to follow him. Quietly, they slipped into the woods, looking for their friend.
He quietly stalked through the forest. As he moved through the trees, the golden radiance eventually left him. With it, the rage.
As soon as he saw that golden light, a fury unlike anything he had ever felt washed over him. It was everything Dryder could do to not pull out his weapons and leap on the creature, driving his blade through her throat. Instead, shaking, he had slipped away, distancing himself from her.
Arriving at the edge of the grove, he started slowly walking the perimeter, letting the sounds of the trees, birds, and wind calm him. Eventually, he arrived at an area on the outskirts of the forest that looked familiar.
Fortunately, the area was small; likely due to the amount of plantlife nearby. As he touched a leaf from a small bush, it crumbled away into gray ash.
It was here that Tor Val and Kratas found him.
“What was that all about?” Kratas was leaning down, picking through the defiled ashes of a nearby tree.
“I’m not sure. I felt it was a good idea to distance myself from her. I don’t know why, but I really wanted to kill that woman.”
Kratas and Tor Val exchanged a look; this wasn’t like Dryder at all.
“I think for her safety, I’d better camp out near the edge of the grove. Maybe find out what happened here?”
Tor Val nodded, “I’ll stay out here with you while the others kiss butt with the golden lady.”
Kratas snorted, “I guess that leaves me to go back.” He looked worried, “We’ll talk more later.”
“It is difficult to maintain this ritual. The statues and the ziggurat help channel my power to maintain the cloak on this grove. Weeks ago, one of the Sorcerer Kings’ minions tried to enter my grove. I was fortunate enough to stop them from doing lasting harm, but I felt it was in the best interests of all of those taking shelter that I make it difficult for such evil creatures to find me.” Ulynin was quietly walking between the pilgrims. As she passed, each reached up to quietly touch her robes.
“I need several things to help maintain this ritual. To the south and west, across the Black Sands, lies an ancient city; Kalidnay. There, I hope, is an item that I think will maintain the ritual, making sure that the Sorcerer Kings never find my home.
Or, if you wish, there has been a surprising number of attacks on my pilgrims as they search for the grove. Slavers, bandits, giants. If you could find the source of these attacks and destroy it, it would help the people of this grove considerably.”
Katrie nodded. This grove was a sacred place; the primal energies practically made her skin tingle. She would do anything to protect her new home.
Anyone who got in her way would be destroyed.
The day is now the 28th day of Smolder, in the Season of High Sun, in the Year of Enemy's Slumber, 190th King's Age. In the skies above, the comet known as the Messenger can be seen.