A commotion was being raised at the main entrance of the prison; among the shouting and other noise, Huskin was able to pick out that of Drebbinard, that pesky Dragonborn that kept coming to visit him in his cell, trying to garner additional information about Heinrich’s whereabouts. Truth be told, Huskin was starting to warm to the old, grizzled veteran despite himself: the Dragonborn was not one to mince words and was more direct with him than anyone he had ever met, but had enough tact to speak so without being offensive, possibly due to having to tiptoe around his Human superiors in the military. But at the moment, it did not sound like Drebbinard had his normal air of calm about him.
The door to the cell opened violently. “I’ll speak to him if I damn well want! Everyone wait outside!” He pushed a Halfling officer off of his leg and through the door, slamming it closed behind him. He turned and launched himself at Huskin’s cell, his body impacting the bars with such force that concrete dust rained down from the ceiling. “I’ve been waiting for twelve days, Huskin, and that damned leader of yours has yet to return to the fort. Every day that my people and I wait there for them is another day I am away from home, away from my family, and I’ll be damned if I let you jerk me around any more! Tell me where he is!”
Huskin felt a sense of dread in the pit of his stomach, a cold fire that licked at his heart. “I’ve been in here for twelve days already? And Heinrich has yet to return?”
“Are we just going to repeat everything I say? Where is he?!”
“No, Drebbinard, I’m saying that that cannot be right. The task he was undertaking should have taken eight days, ten at best, round trip. It is impossible that he hasn’t returned. Are you sure that he didn’t-”
“I’ve had my ranger scouting the woods for days, my thief searching the towns for information, and my Cleric and I have been keeping a solid watch on the main road. A group of a dozen Humans could not have slipped by us unnoticed, nor even known of our presence.”
Huskin must have had a clear look of confusion on his face, as Fetin’s closed his snarling mouth and stared hard at him. “What is going on, Huskin? What was he up to? Where has he gone?:
“It was a hunt,” Huskin found himself whispering, unable to stop, “a big one. Something was in the woods nearby that was frightening game away at an unprecedented level. We were essentially being starved by this creature’s presence, but we didn’t know what or where it was.”
Fetin’s hands slid off the bars and he kneeled down to put himself level with the seated Half-Elves eyes. “Some unknown beast?”
“Something. Animals were fleeing for miles in every direction. According to Heinrich’s estimates as to where the creature’s lair was, it would be in just the perfect location that the parts of the forest emptied of woodland creatures would be outside of normal civilized hunting grounds, making the change in creature density unnoticeable to the nearby towns.”
“This Heinrich sounds smarter than I would have given him credit for.”
A tiny laugh escaped Huskin’s lips. “Indeed, he was someone to respect,” his face became stony and harsh, “which is why I am worried if he has yet to return. He is not a man to take more time on a task than estimated. But I cannot imagine what sort of creature that resides in the woods could possibly overpower a group of a dozen armed men.”
“So you’re saying that if this man hasn’t returned then something must have happened to him? Are you certain?”
“He is a strict man with a rigid code: if he said he wasn’t going to take more than ten days hunting this creature, returning whether he succeeded or failed, I can only assume something must be wrong.”
Fetin sighed heavily and lifted himself up. He stretched his neck out for a moment as he thought. “Alright, then. I’m handing off the hunting of these bandits to someone else, then.” Huskin started at this. “If there isn’t likely to be more bandits, I see no reason to wait around. I’ll just direct someone else to watch the fort and get a move on.” He turned to leave.
“Wait!” called Huskin, pushing his face between the bars. “You must find Heinrich!”
“I don’t have to find anybody. No offense, kid, but I don’t work for free.”
“Then I’ll pay you!”
“Can’t pay me. We already confiscated everything in the fort. You’ve got nothing left.”
“Not true! We have a secret stash we’ve been keeping elsewhere, just in case. You can have it, all of it, if you’ll just find Heinrich and make sure he is alive.”
“Even if I did, how can I guarantee that you’ll keep your word?” Fetin reached for the door.
“I may rob people for a living, but I have honor. I’ll keep my word, I swear to you! All our treasures, yours. Just find him.”
Fetin held on to the handle of the door, staring at it’s blank wooden surface. Gradually, his hand fell away and he faced Huskin. Fetin examined him at length, studying the wild-eyed Half-Elf who was so unwilling to tell him anything just days before. “I can only imagine what this man has done to earn your respect so,”
Huskin let out his breath, seeing the conversation swinging his way. “You can ask the man yourself.”
+ + +
Arcaeus returned to the bandit fortress, climbing the southern wall as he always did and checking to make sure the bandits hadn’t returned in his absence. Assured the place was empty, he let himself into the main building by the trap door in the roof. When he landed in the room below, he was greeted by the sight of the rest of the party examining a crudely-drawn map on the table.
“We’re going farther north,” Fetin said by way of greeting. “According to our Half-Elf friend in the Edelton prison, his comrades should be up this way down this road, and through these words.” He indicated the positions on the map.
Arcaeus cocked a brow. “He finally decided to cooperate? What made him change his mind?”
“Said the bandits might be dead, wants us to find ‘em.”
“But if they are already dead, we won’t get a reward for them, right? So how-”
“Half-Elf’s paying. He’s got some treasure stashed away and it’s ours if we find the bandit leader. If we do, I need you to head back to Edelton and get the location of the stash from him, alright?”
“Why me? I thought you were on friendlier terms with him.”
“Because he caused a ruckus at the prison,” interrupted Bogrin, standing at the opposite side of the table and staring judgmentally at Fetin over crossed arms. “Seems he lost his temper with the guards and may have struck one or two. It’s probably best he doesn’t return there.”
Arcaeus shook his head, but acquiesced.
“Memorize this map. We’re moving out tomorrow.”
+ + +
“A large group of Humans has definately moved past here some time ago,” Arcaeus said, lifting himself off the ground, “but the tracks are pretty old. I think the only reason they are still in tact is due to the trees blocking the wind and the complete lack of animal life in this area.”
And there was no animal life nor wind. The forest was completely silent and everyone felt a great uneasiness that was easily explainable, despite the dramatic effect claiming otherwise might have.
They continued along the tracks – stopping periodically to examine them closer to ensure they were the right tracks – but there didn’t seem to be any other Humanoid tracks in the area. All of the animal tracks were older than the Human ones and had been covered or destroyed completely with the Humans’ passing.
It was already the second day of tracking, past noon according to the last time they saw the sun. They were traveling so deep into the forest, they half expected to stumble across a hidden Elven enclave, especially seeing as the tracks were slowly drifting Eastwards.
“What is that?” whispered Ilfari suddenly, darting ahead. Arcaeus looked up from the ground, feeling a crick in his neck from having his head bent down for so long. What looked to be a wall was partially visible between the ever thickening trees. The rest of the party approached and examined it: it was well over fifty feet high and seemed to be made completely of vines from which protruded vicious looking barbs at uneven intervals. It streched off in either direction. They looked for a way around the wall, but found that it circled around for some distance, so they returned to the footprints rather than follow it all the way around. The footprints mingled around in front of the wall for a while, then approached the wall and vanished.
“Looks like they may have climbed it,” said Fetin, though his tone and the way he looked at the top of the wall so high above did little to convince the others that he believed it.
“Why would they go through the trouble?” said Bogrin. “Did they think the creature was on the other side? Did they know?”
“We might have to climb it to find out,” suggested Fetin, though he didn’t volunteer to be the first to try.
“I suppose perhaps I should go first,” said Bogrin, removing his armor and weapon, tucking his symbol of Moradin into his pantline to hold it tight while preparing to leap onto the wall “If anyone can navigate between those thorns, it would be the smallest of us, right?”
Ilfari and Fetin agreed with him, but Arcaeus was still staring intently at the footprints and the wall. Something was odd as he stared at them, feeling they didn’t quite match. Then he saw it: a few of the footprints were cut in half, half on this side of the wall, the other half vanishing below it, as if the wall was not there before.
“Hold on a moment,” Arcaeus thought aloud. “I think this might be-” Bogrin ran and leapt forward, reaching up to grasp the vines as high as he could. Instead of hitting the wall, however, he passed clear through it, and there was a great crash and rustling of leave. “I was going to say that I think this might be an illusion,” Arcaeus said as a ten foot section of the veiling wall vanished from his eyes.
“Wish you said it sooner,” said Bogrin, struggling to right himself from the mass of bushes he had fallen into. Ilfari burst into laughter which she immediately attempted to stifle. Fetin pulled the Dwarf upright and set him on his feet.
“Shut your mouth, Tiefling,” said the Dwarf as he pulled his chainmail back on. “I didn’t see you doing-” he stopped, a look of dawning disbelief on his face. He turned to look at the walls again. “These walls can’t all be illusion,” he said as he touched another section of wall which dutifully vanished as well. “The magic needed to craft so many illusions of such a scale is outrageous! The walls were spanning hundreds or thousands of feet, maybe more!”
“I don’t know of any creature that can put up illusory walls, especially on such a scale,” admitted Arcaeus.
“Nor I,” seconded Fetin, “but we’re about to find out.”
The trees thinned as the group moved through the bushes, eventually clearing away completely. What they found was a wide clearing stretching before them. In the clearing were only three trees: a tiny one sat on the right by a small pond, another, far larger one grew a few hundred feet away next to a group of rocks jutting from the earth, and a third tree, somewhere between the first and second in size, hung over a lone plateau fifteen feet high on their left. A tiny house could be seen just beyond the plateau.
“Nice little garden,” said Bogrin, though there was clearly a note of wariness in the comment. “You think the Humans might still be here?”
“The tracks seem to scatter in all directions from here, so they clearly separated in this area,” Arcaeus reported. “We should look around, I suppose.”
The party stepped forward but stopped shortly as a tingle of magic traced a finger down their spines. “What was that?” said Ilfari, spinning around as if expecting to catch the magic trying to hide itself in the bushes.
“Some sort of spell,” said Fetin. “Probably defensive, possibly Elven. Someone is guarding this grove. Bogrin, what can you tell us about this magic?”
Bogrin closed his eyes and breathed deeply, reaching his hands out before him and concentrating hard. “It’s some sort of baffling enchantment.”
“So you don’t know what it is, then?”
“No, I mean it is literally a baffling enchantment: those who are affected by it would be confused and likely wander about this place listlessly. S’probably why the Humans scattered at this point.”
“Why didn’t it effect us?”
“I guess it doesn’t work on those with strong wills. But then I can’t explain how the Tiefling made it through alright.”
“You’re a laugh and a half, Dwarf,” said Ilfari, kicking dirt at him. “I’m going to go check out those rocks over there,” she said, and scampered off.
DM Note: It is rather annoying that I made this nice little trap for the players and all four of them made a successful will save. Then Bogrin had to go and roll a natural 20 on his arcana check. So much for that bit of drama. -The DM
“Yes, let’s all take a look around. Arcaeus, get up on the plateau and scout the area. Bogrin, if you wouldn’t mind checking the lake. I’ll examine the house. We’ll meet by Ilfari in a few minutes.” Bogrin and Fetin stumped off and Arcaeus made his way up to the top of the plateau. On the other side of the steep cliff was a gentle slope leading to the peak, soft with undisturbed grass.
Arcaeus surveyed the area below; it was almost like a valley, walled in by trees. At the base of the hill behind him the forest rose up once more and circled to surround this open garden. The rock formations in the center consisted of large, black stones piled in no particularly notable way. The pond, in which from here Arcaeus could see Bogrin wading up to his armpits, was fairly small and, if Bogrin’s height was any indication, not very deep. The house was also of little interest besides looking as if something had fallen on it and destroyed the roof, but whatever it was had since been removed. He vaguely wondered if anyone lived in the house still, but that line of inquiry did not keep his interest long.
He scanned the horizon as well, but it was nothing but trees to the edge of his vision. He noticed that the trees to the north beyond the lake were slightly younger and smaller than elsewhere, a lone grassy hill rising up above the treeline. Determining that his time would be better spent elsewhere, he descended the hill. He couldn’t see his tracking abilities being useful here, so he chose to examine the tree at the base of the plateau. The tree was a softer variety of Oak, so he judged it at perhaps two hundred years old. He trotted over to the largest tree, a pine, and determined it to be about the same age. Finally, the smallest of the three was unknown to him, but it closely resembled a slow-growing Burr Oak or some similar tree, so he estimated it around the same age.
DM Note: My biology classes are finally paying off when I can use them to describe trees accurately in D&D. Thanks for not wasting ALL of my money, college. -The DM
If the three trees being the same age was important, he couldn’t determine how. Noticing that his comrades were gathering once more, he ran over to join them. Bogrin was showing something to the others who shook their heads at him.
“What did you find?” he asked, striding up next to the Dwarf.
“Well,” said Ilfari first, directing Arcaeus’s eyes towards the rocks, “this is something odd.” She pointed to several bones embedded in the rocks, among which was a skull, clearly human.
“Human bodies lodged into a rock?” he tugged at one of the bones. “It’s in there pretty tight.”
“Strange, right?” she said, rubbing a hand over one of her horns. “And it’s not just one, either; There must be a half dozen bodies or more stuck in a few different rocks. One teleporting accident might explain the first rock, but a several seems unlikely. Any ideas?”
Arcaeus shook his head. “None whatsoever. And what about you, Bogrin? I saw you showing something off from afar.”
“This strange medallion was buried in the mud at the bottom of the lake. There is a symbol on the face I don’t recognize. Is it Elvish?”
Arcaeus shrugged. “I wouldn’t know,” he said while peering at it, “I don’t speak Elvish too well.”
“Really?” Bogrin asked, surprised. “What sort of Elf doesn’t know Elvish?”
“I grew up with Humans, Bogrin. They knew about as much Elvish as you do.”
Bogrin frowned. “I didn’t know that.”
Arcaeus shrugged. “There was never a need to bring it up. I’m afraid I don’t know if this is Elvish.”
Bogrin pocketed the medallion. “I’ll have someone take a look at it next time we’re in town.”
“So you only speak common?” asked Ilfari.
“And somehow we are still on this topic…” Arcaeus said to no one in particular.
“I just find it weird, is all.” She rested a hand on one of the rocks as she peered around. “So there is nothing interesting here at all? This was a waste of-” she pulled her hand off of the rock suddenly, as if shocked, and Arcaeus turned quickly this way and that.
“Did you feel that?” he said, crouching low.
“Yeah… what was that?”
“What? What do you feel?” Fetin moved his hand to his sword, peering around uselessly.
“It’s very slight,” said Arcaeus, “but there is this pulsing vibration in the ground… now… and now… and now…” he knocked his fist on the rock in the rhythm of the pulsing. He turned to look at the rock. “Get off of this thing.”
He leapt to the ground and the others followed suit, but he continued to look around. “No, I can still feel it,” said Ilfari.
“I can feel it too, ” said Fetin, his sword out and at the ready. “Can you tell what direction it’s coming from?”
“I don’t feel a thing,” said Bogrin, his hands resting in his sleeves.
“It’s those big damned boots of yours,” said Ilfari, grabbing his hand and forcing it to the ground.
“Oh!” he gasped in surprise. “How’d I not feel that?” Arcaeus began running off towards the pond. “Where is that boy going?”
“Stay there!” Arcaeus shouted back as he moved rapidly northwards. Each step closer he took, the pulsing gained strength, becoming strong enough that he nearly lost his balance with every beat. Even the pond itself was roiling like the sea in a storm.
Arcaeus had a sickening feeling as he began to recognize the pattern of the pulsing, a pattern he wouldn’t have guessed would accompany such a powerful force. He turned towards the others, who watched with apprehension. “Get behind those rocks! Hide from those trees!” he indicated northwards beyond the pond briefly before sprinting towards the lone tiny tree nearby.
A minute passed, then two, the tremors increasing to a power so ferocious that the trunk of the tree was bobbing back and forth like a blade of grass, leaves and whole branches falling from it’s boughs. A deep moan rang through the trees, a sound like the continents of Aden shifting and crashing together. The pulsing tremors ceased, and all was still.
Arcaeus peeked around the edge of his hiding place cautiously. A beast of outlandish proportions held its head above the lake, lapping at the waters. The creature had three great legs on each side of its body, each easily ten feet thick. The legs and body were scaly like a lizard’s, but the feet were more like an elephant’s. The creature’s head was like a dog’s, with great, floppy ears, a protruding nose, and great lengths of something fur-like: closer examination would reveal it to be long grass that grew upon its scalp and spine. This massive creature licked up the waters of the pond, drinking deeply.
After several minutes of this, it began walking again, it’s great feet shaking the earth.
Fetin and the others hugged the rocks, pressing themselves against them as hard as possible, as the beast approached them. At the edge of the rocky outcroppings, the beast turned around again and squatted low.
“Oh no, it’s not gonna-” began Ilfari, but Fetin cover her mouth with his hand. The monster before them was relieving itself before them, only fifty feet away. What came out of the animal was frighteningly familiar, a great black mass that crashed into the ground with a thundering force, laying among the rocks as if it had always been there, among kin.
Ilfari pushed herself away from her hiding place. “Gods be damned!” she spat, looking at her clothing with utmost disgust. “I’ve been climbing all over these oversized turds!”
The creature turned sharply, a deep rumbling coming from deep within it. Fetin grabbed Ilfari and pressed her close to the rocky droppings. She struggled to push herself a way from it, but Bogrin was assisting in pinning her down and she couldn’t resist. Above them, the gigantic head sniffed at the droppings, approaching their hiding spot, each great step threatening to dislodge their rocky cover.
The creature reared back suddenly and roared, rubbing a great leg over it’s back, trying to reach for an arrow that now protruded from it. It turned and snarled viciously, sniffing at the air. On its grassy side there suddenly shone a bright light, showing etched into its flesh the same symbol that the medallion bore. It flashed for a moment before dying out.
“What in the world was that?” said a shocked Bogrin.
“I don’t know, the kid has the right idea! To hell with this hiding!” Fetin stood behind the creature, tossing a rock at it’s hind quarters to get it’s attention, but the beast was already bearing down on him in a furious charge. He barely had time to roll back behind the rock before it rocketed through the space he occupied moments prior. The vibrations from the charge were so powerful that Bogrin tumbled off his rock and landed on his back. The beast turned, sniffing around with it’s head low, its eyes working furiously but seemingly not focusing on anything.
“It’s blind!” called Fetin, hurriedly moving to a location farther from its great legs. The monster breathed deeply and unleashed a wave of steam from its mouth so hot that it melted the rock-hard nuggets they were using as cover.
Fetin launched himself out from the rocks, swinging his blade at the beast. The creature’s jaws snapped at him, but he was already diving under its body and slicing upwards. Distracted by Fetin, the beast was unaware of Ilfari as she launched herself at the shaggy grass-hair on its back, clinging to it and stabbing at whatever area was within reach. It reared back and howled, falling on its back and rolling around to dislodge her, but not before she leapt to safety.
The three of them sat still as it violently searched them out, but their smell was covered partially by its own scent from the time they spent among it’s droppings. It did, however, catch the smell of Arcaeus, whose arrows still pricked it on occasion. It galloped towards the archer, running right over Bogrin and knocking Ilfari to the ground in the process. Arcaeus leapt sideways, feeling the monster’s head brush against his legs as he landed in a tucked roll. Fetin sprinted after the creature to make a swing, but the beast reared up and slammed its feet on the ground, knocking Fetin over. It reared up again, landing its two front feet with such force that the other felt it in their bones. Fetin howled in pain, blood pouring from his mouth.
Ilfari once more leapt at the beast, stabbing at his underside and legs while Arcaeus peppered its face with arrows. Bogrin, meanwhile, pulled Fetin out of reach of the beast, flowing his healing magic into him as they moved.
“If the ground wasn’t all soft dirt,” said Fetin as he writhed on the ground, “I would be done.”
“Stop moving, you daft, red-skinned frog! You’re whole damn body must be broken.”
Ilfari landed next to them on her feet but clearly disoriented. The monster was approaching in a charge again. Bogrin attempted to move Fetin again, but Fetin pushed him away and grabbed his sword, rolling to his knees and slashing upwards into the monster’s breast as it rolled overhead. It screamed and howled, stomping the ground with insane strength that jarred the weapon from Fetin’s grip. With a sound like an explosion, the beast leapt off, racing towards the woods at a speed that was impossible for them to keep up with even if they weren’t all banged up from the encounter. Despite being easily three hundred feet away, the beast vanished into the woods in a matter of seconds, his massive body passing through the trees like they were air itself. The pulsating rhythm of his stomping quickly vanished.
The party collapsed. “That was insane,” said Ilfari, her breathing heavy. “I think I dislocated a shoulder holding on to him.”
Bogrin blinked drops of blood out of his eyes and rubbed his head. “How’d I get that?” he mused aloud, rubbing the blood between his fingers.
“Priorities, my friend,” said Fetin, shaking an arm that looked like a lump of tenderized meat. Bogrin physically recoiled at the sight of it. “You try dragging a sword through a fifty ton beast and see how you look afterwards.”
“What was that thing, exactly?” wondered Arcaeus aloud.
“It looked like something the gods themselves would be wary of,” said Bogrin as he gingerly worked on Fetin’s arm. “What it’s doing in such a place is a mystery.”
“I feel confident,” Fetin said, gesturing towards the rocks with the arm that still resembled an arm, “saying that the bodies in there belong to those poor bastard friends of Huskin’s. I don’t see how they could have survived that beast’s attacks. Hell, I don’t even see how we did.”
“I suppose I should go deliver the news to him, then,” said Arcaeus, squinting at the sun as it approached the treeline. “Where should I meet you guys when I’m done?”
“We’ll just be waiting at the inn; depending on the haul, we should all be there to carry it back.”
“Yeah, I don’t need help informing a prisoner that all of his friends are dead. That’ll be a cinch.”
“There you go,” said Fetin, responding to Arcaeus’ sarcasm in a like manner, “bragging about getting the easy part.”
Arcaeus walked towards the bushes from which they originally entered the garden, his bow still clutched in his hand.
“Arcaeus,” called Fetin. The Elf turned. “Lay it on him easy, alright? As gentle as you can.” Arcaeus nodded solemnly and continued on his way.