26 September 1380 C.E.
Nyleth pulled her bow and began to sing a rousing song to bolster her companions. Nima cast searing light, burning into the wretched creature’s flesh. The horror exploded into embers without a sound. Moria stood and pulled a shaving of licorice root from a pouch. It vanished as he cast a familiar transmutation, speeding everyone in the party up. “Ah, here we go,” said Quinn, holding his ground and invoking the divine bond with his falcata.
The creatures shambled forward, making no sound other than the rustling of leaves as they groped for the adventurers. Nyleth’s arrows embedded themselves deeply into the walking corpse, and Nima called upon the power of sunlight to turn undead. The undead did not balk at the searing burst of magical sunlight. Instead, they sprouted tiny leaves from the shoots growing out of them. Frowning at the unexpected development, the priest drew his scimitar.
“That’s innerestin’,” said Quinn.
“Not the prettiest flowers, I suppose, but greenery is good for them,” said Nyleth.
Moria took a cautious step away from the nearest sprouting undead, then gestured swiftly. Five more Morias sprang into existence, indistinguishable from the wizard himself. Quinn advanced on the nearest of the monsters and introduced it to the power of St. Immotion. The animate collapsed before his blade in a pile of bones, rags, and detritus. His falcata didn’t stop moving as it cleaved through the first and into the one beside it. The second had the courtesy to fall as well, exploding in a shower of desiccated leaves and fur.
One of the creeping horrors swung its gnarled paws at Moria, shattering one of his glamors. Quinn was flanked by two of the reeking monsters, and one managed to get inside the paladin’s guard and draw blood. Nyleth’s next two arrows sank deep into the body of the horror attacking Moria.
Nima attacked another creeper, his slashes quick and sure. He parted the leafy tendrils that bound the rotten monster’s body together, and it fell. “I used to want to be a gardener,” said the priest, cracking an uncharacteristic joke. Clearly his companions were a bad influence on his sense of humor.
Moria produced his trusty wand and leveled it at the nearest creeper. A magic missile streaked from the tip to slam into the horror as the wizard and his duplicates moved to support Quinn. The spellknight’s falcata sang again, causing another plant-zombie to explode and showering Quinn and Moria with compost. The wizard gave his burly companion a look, but Quinn paid him no mind, shearing off the head of the remaining shamble. Despite the decapitation, the creature continue its assault until the paladin bashed the headless horror into pieces with a backswing of his shield.
“Ew, gross!” said Nyleth.
As they fought, even more of the shambling monsters emerged from the depths of the surrounding woods. They neither spoke nor uttered any groan, merely shambling resolutely toward the adventurers, their viney arms outstretched. “Saints preserve us,” Quinn swore.
Nyleth wheeled around to notice the corpse of a tremendous worg with a weedy vine growing from one eye lurching clumsily toward her. She took a prudent step back and buried two more arrows in the beast up to the fletching. The worg did not seem the least bit staggered by this development. Nima’s blade flashed and sliced, relieving a walking cadaver of one of its limbs, yet still it came. Moria sent his next magic missile streaking into the creeper menacing Nyleth, and the undead reeled from the arcane bolt.
Quinn sought a new target and felled yet another monster. The one-armed horror attacked Nima, who moved too fast for the clumsy blow. The creature on Nyleth slammed it rock-hard skull into her chest, knocking her back a few steps. Her next arrow shore off a fragment of the beast’s skull, revealing a mass of wriggling maggots and vines beneath … and still the creature stood! “Oh, disgusting!” she cried as she loosed another shaft. The final arrow collapsed the wretched body in on itself, where it continued to wriggle futilely on the ground. Nima cleaved the creeper he fought from chest to groin, felling it soundly.
“Mind the south!” Moria cried, blasting yet another creeper with magic missile. The hasted Quinn dashed to attack the only monster he could see, and obliterated it. Out of the black night beyond the limits of the campfire, the elves saw another creeper shamble violently out of the gloom. Quinn had only time to blink before the horrific visage was inches from his face, beating him about the head and shoulders and knocking him backwards.
Nyleth’s arrows and Nima’s blade sliced at the newest threat, but still the monster fought on. Finally, Moria stepped up and brought his quarterstaff to bear. Under the effects of the haste spell, the weapon blurs, shattering the dead hobgoblin’s skull, from which leaves and grubs spilled onto the ground.
“Now there’s somethin’ I dinnae see ever’day,” said Quinn.
“Huh! Well struck, Ecoriel,” cheered Nyleth.
Despite the battering the creeper had just received it still kept coming. Quinn stepped up beside Moria and sliced the abomination’s legs out from beneath it. Then he finished the monster off with a stomp that splattered what little remained of its body onto his legs.
“Sorry aboot that,” said Quinn. “We’re a right mess, we are.”
Moria nodded to the spellknight then looked back over his shoulder at Nyleth. “Is everyone all right?”
“I am currently unharmed,” Nima reported. “Sayyadati Nyleth?”
“Just bruised,” she said, rubbing her clavicle. The priest’s healing prayer eased her pain.
The paladin laid healing hands on himself. “Ah am now.”
“Something reeks of rot,” said Moria. “I fear some curse or plague accompanies these shamblers. We should quit this camp anon.”
“I think that would be wise,” said Nyleth.
“Aye,” said Quinn, moving to store his gear. “I think I slept enough anyways.”
“Huh,” said the bard. “I can’t smell anything rotting inside camp. Only out there. What about you?” she looked up at Moria and Nima questioningly.
The wizard nodded. “Fascinating. Perhaps it was linked to the extraordinarily tough one?”
“Perhaps?” Nyleth said uncertainly. “Either way, I would feel safer elsewhere.”
“I see that you are determined to move our camp,” said Nima. “But I feel it is unwise to move around in the dark.”
Moria evoked a light. “Then, we will not move far. What do you think, Quinn?”
“I’m fer quittin’ this spot, aye,” said the spellknight. “Ain’t like I’m any more graceful when I kin see where I’m goin’.”
“Very well, then,” said Nima. “Let us be away.”
* * *
27 September 1380 C.E.
They broke camp and made their way back to the ravine as soon as the slimmest lances of dawn penetrated the piney canopy above them. Quinn struggled in the misty gloom, but those with elven eyes started to make out the shapes of trees and rocks, beyond Moria’s magical light. They trekked deeper and deeper into the valley, and the only sound was the wind in the trees and the occasional caw of a crow in the distance. They continued to track the hunting party’s trail, which blundered and crashed through the valley, but again the day passed without success.
“Welp,” Quinn sighed. “Issa big valley. No sign o’ their quarry either.”
“Aye,” said Moria. “If Kaldar survives, he must be quite clever.”
Darkness fell quickly in Drakles Valley. From her bag, Nyleth pulled out some bread and cheese, along with a couple of apples and assorted pastries, passing them around to the others.
“Still gotta get me one o’ them bags, an’ no mistake,” said Quinn.
“If I find another, it’s yours,” Nyleth told him.
“It does seem to be quite useful,” said Nima.
“Everyone in my family has one,” said the bard. “I think it’s because we are all artists of some sort.”
* * *
28 September 1380 C.E.
Nima had the final watch for the night, his companions slept or tranced as their biology dictated. He watched the gloom beyond the dying embers of the fire warily throughout the night. Finally, the stars in the sliver of firmament above his head winked out and the sky turned purple, heralding the morning.
“Praise be to every power o’ good there is,” Quinn said upon awaking. Moria sat with his book propped open, munching on some breakfast. He practiced a hand gesture every so often as he prepared his spells.
Nyleth sang songs in Fomoraig, just to practice her pronunciation. In the lulls between her songs, she noted that only the wind and occasional crow made any sort of noise. “It’s actually quite relaxing out here,” said Nyleth. “Reminds me of home a little – the quietude.”
“Much greener than I am used to,” said Nima.
“Quiet’s th’ whole reason I ever came doon to th’ borderland,” said Quinn. “We aboot ready?”
“Of course, as long as Ecoriel is,” said Nyleth.
“I am prepared,” said Moria, securing his spellbook in his pack.
“Let us continue our search,” said the priest.
They broke camp and set out on the trail of the hunting party. The path became rockier and more difficult to follow, but they tracked it along its meandering course. The trail descended steeply into a narrow defile where the trees grew slightly farther apart than they had seen so far. Everyone but Quinn noticed a pile of freshly de-fleshed humanoid bones in a pile beneath a tree. Nima directed the paladin’s attention to the grisly sight.
“Nima, is it … Can you tell if it was … elven?” asked Moria.
“I may be able to determine that, but let us be cautious,” said the priest.
“All right,” said Quinn. I’m right behind ye.”
As they approached, Nyleth examined the tree, a forty-foot-tall soldier pine with a worn old boot hanging from one of the lower boughs. It was well made, and seems to have hung on a limb, like it had fallen from above and caught. She drew the others’ attention to the wayward footwear. Up close, they could see that the bones of the dead thing had been gnawed on thoroughly, making identification impossible. “Well, it was around the right size for an elf, I think,” said Nyleth unhappily.
“What about that boot?” asked Nima.
“I know not, but it gives me an ill feeling,” said Moria.
“Mebbe I kin get it doon,” said Quinn.
“I suggest not,” said Moria.
“I agree. It makes me nervous,” said Nyleth.
“Perhaps someone could hit it with a rock and cause it to fall?” said Nima.
“Leave it be,” Moria advised. “Let us continue.”
“If yer suren,” said Quinn.
“I am,” said Nyleth. “And there’s a clearing up ahead. Be careful and wary.”
“I am reluctant to expose ourselves needlessly,” said Nima. “Shall we observe from the trees before we enter the clearing?”
“I suppose,” said Moria.
“Nae fer too long, though,” said Quinn.
“If we don’t’ see anything, we can move on,” said Nima.
Moria was impatient to continue, but he waited with Quinn while Nyleth climbed a nearby tree and the priest readied his bow to cover her. “Nima and I can cover you from here,” the bard called down softly. “Just be careful, Ecoriel.”
He nodded and had begun walking toward the clearing when she called again in Faerie. “Hold. Across the clearing – behind a boulder. Something … man-sized is hiding there.”
“Man-sized?” asked Moria.
“I believe so – and behind the clearing there is a larger depression where there are no trees. I have you both covered, but be wary.”
“Suren I will,” said Quinn, starting toward the tree line. He dispensed with creeping once he was out in the open, his falcata in hand, but not raised.
“Quinn, rope,” said Moria, pointing to the ground maybe fifteen feet in front of the paladin. There Quinn saw something concealed beneath the leaf-fall. It lay across the ground from tree to tree, disappearing beneath their roots. “I am thinking ‘net’.”
“Mebbe I kin just avoid it,” said Quinn. “Dy’e see any more?”
“No, but I have an idea.”
Moria cast a spell and the image of an elven figure appeared. The wizard sent his illusion “walking” between the trees across the rope. The figure from the boulder suddenly peeked up above its cover, its beady eyes looking at the image from beneath a heavy steel helm. Moria made the “elf” look around cautiously, put a bit more uncertainty into its expression, and had it continue on toward the rock. Slowly. The lurking figure raised a crossbow and steadied it on the boulder, taking aim.
There was a twang of the bolt being loosed and it streaked at the image. Moria incorporated the missile into his illusion and had the “elf” cry out in pain and surprise as the bolt “struck” it. The sound of running feet came from the west side of the clearing as a great worg, ridden by an armored goblin, raced towards the downed “elf”, short spear raised to finish it off as the crossbowmen readied another bolt.
“There,” said Moria, ceasing concentration. “Trap sprung.”
“That works,” said Nima.
“‘Ere we go,” said Quinn, invoking his divine bond.
The crossbowman hissed a sharp intake of breath as Nyleth’s arrow took him in the back. The trees stirred from a sudden breeze, and the worg skidded to a halt, its rider falling from its back shrieking. The worg sniffed the air fearfully before turning and running full tilt back toward the tree line. And in a flash, the worg was crushed by a great green-winged beast.
Moria swallowed. “Oh. Dear.”