15 March (Continued)
Aramis smothered his flaming mantle and Azal helped out. “Are you okay?” she said.
“Fine,” he lied. With the fire extinguished, he looked around the room once more to consider its contents. “Anything else interesting in here?” he asked. Then he spotted a row of several brown-leather bound tomes with their spines marked with the letters “K D” and pulled one off the shelf from the center. Scanning its contents, the priest determined it to be some sort of journal dated 97 CY. Scribblings and formulas related to botanical experiments, fertilizer, philosophy, and several references of the name “Gulthias.”
Azal, who’d been peeking over the cleric’s shoulder pointed at the name and Aramis nodded. “The tree that produces the healing fruit is called the Gulthias Tree. Maybe it’s named after a person?” He returned the volume to the shelf and said, “We can look at these later.”
Bhavik nodded, “We should go.” He glanced out the door to the south. “I think we’re close. Very close.”
“Yes,” intoned the priest. “South seems to be our path.”
Azal concurred, “The quicker we get there the better.”
Bhavik led the group out of the study filled with nature’s lore and crossed the chamber to the south, warily surveying they grove before them, sword in hand. Aramis held the sunrod high to illuminate the area. Pale, spindly briars coated with tiny barbs pressed close. The violet light above cast nauseating shadows on the earthen floor, creating the illusion of movement among the branches, though no wind blew there.
Aramis said, “Mind the plants; there may be more twig blights.” Bhavik nodded and the priest continued in a low voice “We might as well try to sneak in. I apologize in advance if I give us away.”
The warden shrugged. “Douse the light, then.” Aramis did so, and Bhavik led the group cautiously forward. The dim light did the human’s eyes few favors, but he could make out enough of the terrain to stumble along. The group made slow but steady progress, and nothing challenged their passage.
They came to a courtyard wall of heavy stones creating a half-walled clearing among the briars. Several varieties of plants grew around the perimeter, including a few suspicious looking saplings. Aramis urged the group south, keeping a wall to their right, and Azal nodded agreement, her face serious and determined. They came to a break in the wall and the importance of the threat of twig blights paled before that which stood at the courtyard’s center. Beneath the venomous fungal light grew a singular tree of palpable evil. Its blackened, twisted limbs reached upward like a skeletal hand clawing its way from the earth. Human figures stood near the tree – one in scale armor and the other in a plain brown cassock. A large frog squatted next to the robed man.
The other was Talgen Hucrele.
To Aramis and Azal’s eyes, he didn’t look quite…right. The priest’s breath caught in his throat, and he aimed a panicked look at the tiefling, wondering if she’d seen what he saw. Talgen’s skin appeared rough like the bark of a tree. He stood unnaturally still, simply staring at or perhaps past the other man. Bhavik growled low in his throat, “More monsters.”
Aramis hissed, “That’s Talgen on the right…or at least it used to be. Don’t kill him, no matter what happens.”
The warden quirked an eyebrow. “I…see.” Aramis opened his mouth to speak but shut it again as Azal erupted.
“Talgen!!!” screamed the tiefling.
The man in brown turned slowly, spotting the source of the outburst. He set a book he’d been holding down on a flat-topped root and called out to the group. “There is no need to shout. Welcome to the Twilight Grove. I am its caretaker Belak, known as the Outcast to some. Have you come to gaze on the magnificence of the Gulthias Tree? All who come in supplication are welcome to bask in its glory.”
“What did you do to him?” demanded Azal. “Why… I’ll kill you if you’ve hurt him!” She took a few unconscious steps forward, her teeth clinched tightly and her hands balled into fists.
“Please, miss,” said Belak in a tone some might consider soothing in different circumstances. “Calm yourself. Talgen – was it? – has become a supplicant.” At his words, Talgen woodenly stepped between the adventurers and the Outcast. The oversized frog hopped up beside the young warrior.
“And what’s become of his sister, Sharwyn Hucrele?” asked Aramis, but Azal’s tirade was far from over.
“I refuse to calm myself! What is this supplicant thing you’ve turned him into?!” she growled loudly.
Ignoring the tiefling for the moment, Belak addressed Aramis. “The girl, I suppose you mean. She has been accepted by the Gulthias Tree and is awaiting complete supplication. You can see for yourself.” He gestured around the front of the tree. “She is just over there.”
Aramis took out the sunrod and craned his neck to see what the Outcast was talking about, and he could see the impression of a humanoid figure molded on the trunk, as though someone were inside the tree. “Queen’s blood, no,” he swore softly.
Tears of anger and frustration at being so blithely ignored began to flow down Azal’s cheeks. “Change him back now,” she said, her voice a quiet threat.
“But…why?” Belak seemed genuinely confused. “He has been blessed. He is quite fortunate to be the first supplicant.”
Azal could take no more, and her voice cracked as she screamed, “Fortunate?! You fool! Change him back!” Her grip on the sheathed magical blade at her side was so tight, her normally red fingers paled to pink.
Bhavik stepped forward and said, “I suggest you do what the lady says.”
Belak looked perplexed. “Even if I wished it, the means are lost to me now. Thieves, you see.” He turned and caressed the bark of the tree with one hand. “But the Gulthias Tree…” his tone is reverent.
“Thieves?” Aramis asked, but Azal had a slightly more emphatic response.
“Thieves?! Thieves?! You are the thief, taking away a normal life for him! Change him back now or I will kill you myself!”
Belak turned to regard Azal. “Goodness, gracious but you’re a passionate one.”
“You have no idea,” said Aramis. “And Fate help you when their mother finds out what you’ve done to them. For I promise, no one else will.”
“Once you feel my dagger slicing your throat you’ll know just how passionate I can be,” said the tiefling.
“I think you’ll find that the young man might resist being removed from his new…situation.” He smiled slightly. “Let us see.”
Twig blights erupted from the briars and moved to intercept the heroes, but before they could close the distance, Azal leapt forward and growled, “Belak, you are dead!” Eyes fixed on the Outcast, she let her dagger fly and the blade flew past Talgen and over the giant frog to imbed itself in his side. She held out her hand as the dagger reappeared and flicked the blood onto the floor, gritting her teeth in anticipation. Aramis drew alongside the tiefling and invoked his shield of faith to protect the heroes. He gripped his new staff and turned to face Talgen, as the young man advanced, face expressionless. Without hesitation he sliced across Azal’s body and shoved her back with his shield, stepping forward to pursue. The frog opened its mouth impossibly wide and its long tongue whipped out and grabbed hold of Aramis, yanking the startled cleric toward the creature’s waiting maw. Fortunately, its teeth clamped down only on armor. The twig blights swarmed the adventurers, but only managed to injure Bhavik.
The Outcast raised his staff and gestured at Azal, summoning the earth beneath her to reach up and squeeze, bloodying and rooting her in place. He then took a casual step away from the combat, his hand caressing the bark of the tree once more. “All is well, my lord,” he murmured.
“I’ve pulled up stumps before,” warned Aramis. The warden ignored the twig blights’ tearing claws as he circled to the center of the melee, stomping to draw his enemies’ attention, and laying about him with his icy blade in a wild frenzy. Talgen’s shield deflected the blow aimed at him, but the twig blight that was Bhavik’s second target was cut cleanly in two…until Belak raised a hand, causing the pieces of the stricken plant-man to reattach as it sprang back up.
“Don’t hurt Talgen!” Azal cried.
“I’m not sure I can,” Bhavik grumbled.
“Belak’s the real threat!” Aramis shouted.
Azal screamed in anger, cutting down an adjacent twig blight. Aramis’s prayer for a beacon of hope was answered, sending a wave of healing energy flowing over his friends’ injuries and weakening their nearby enemies. Then he slammed the enchanted quarterstaff down on the oversized amphibian, crushing its head into the soil. “Kulket…” breathed Belak, visibly upset. He turned angry eyes on Aramis and brought his own quarterstaff to bear, striking the cleric with a glancing blow. The earth rose up and grabbed the cleric, rooting him in place as the Outcast took another step back, touching the tree as though drawing on its strength. The wooden soldier turned on Bhavik, but the warden outmaneuvered the dance of steel. The weakened twig blights failed to inflict more than minor scratches on the tiefling and the warden. Bhavik tried to cut down another twig blight only to have Belak regrow the damned thing, and then he stepped between Azal and Talgen.
The tiefling tumbled past several of the twig blights before launching into a charge at Belak. She suffered several poisonous scratches from the plant-men but gritted her teeth at the pain, then growled loudly as she vaulted into a handspring and brought her dagger hard down into his chest. She willed the blade’s killing enchantment and the wound began to seep the greenish black mist as the necrotic energy began devouring the Outcast from the inside. She ended her maneuver and bounced back a step to help Aramis flank one of the twig blights. Belak grunted heavily from the blow, then blinked and tilted his head to the side as he got a closer look at Azal. “Have we met?” he asked abruptly.
Aramis tapped into the magic of his staff, healing more of Azal’s injuries, and then took advantage of the offered flank to smash the twig blight down. Unfortunately, he was unable to free himself from the earth’s grip. Talgen continued to batter Bhavik’s shield, then took a step nearer Aramis and the Gulthias Tree. The twig blights surrounding the shifter raked their poisoned claws across his flesh.
“I swear, you look familiar,” Belak said to Azal as the necrotic smoke pulsed. “But no matter. Since you will not become a supplicant, you will serve as fertilizer.” He slammed the butt of his staff into the ground and a wave rippled through the earth, bashing into Azal and driving her back several steps. Then the Outcast leveled his staff at the tiefling, summoning the grasping earth to crush her and hold her in place. “Stay,” he said. Bhavik finally managed to kill a twig blight without Belak interfering.
“You will die!” Azal screamed at the Outcast. “I swear to you, you will. I don’t care if you know me or not!” she continued, fighting against the binding earth. “You are nothing to me! You took away one of the few things I’ve ever cared about! You will die by my blade.” The tiefling flung her dagger directly at Belak’s head, neatly severing one of his ears.
The Outcast leaned against the tree as though seeking support as his ruined ear bled freely. “My lord?” he asked weakly. Taking advantage of his momentary weakness, Azal launched another attack immediately after her blade reappeared, opening a wide gash along Belak’s scalp.
“To the Hells with it,” said Aramis, praying for a sacred flame. The doomed twig blight got one final slash in on the cleric before it went up like a miniature bonfire. Talgen circled to flank the cleric and struck him hard with his longsword, shoving him farther from Belak and the tree. The Outcast focused on Azal, summoning more earth to crush her and bind her in place before limping around to the back side of the tree near Sharwyn, muttering quietly. Bhavik continued fighting the swarming twig blights, but made little progress.
“Leave her alone!” Azal shouted at Belak. Despite the distance and the cover provided by the Gulthias tree, the tiefling’s infernal wrath gave her all she needed to stick him again anyway. The Outcast grunted in obvious pain as Aramis took a step nearer the distant Azal pronounced a healing word to mend her wounds. Then the priest sent another twig blight to the great beyond on wings of sacred flame. As it fell, he beseeched the Raven Queen for her blessing, and she complied.
The wooden soldier advanced on Azal again, and her eyes widened as he approached. “Talgen… No… It’s me…” she said, tears filling her eyes. He was unmoved and struck her hard before driving her back a step with his shield. The tiefling persisted in trying to get through to her friend, her voice cracking between pleas. “Talgen, please. It’s me, Azal… You helped me when I left the orphanage… Please…” Two of the twig blights peeled off of Bhavik to flank the beset tiefling, and one of them sliced into her thigh with its poisoned claws. The Outcast sent another earthwave at Aramis and Bhavik, but the pair managed to leap over the rolling ground.
Aramis was torn between his immediate peril and Azal’s, so he deferred to Bhavik’s decisiveness. “Aramis, take the Outcast. I’ll help Azal.” The warden circled a twig blight to get nearer to Talgen and said, “Come here, Pinocchio.” His thorn strike impaled the young man and dragged him closer to the shifter.
Azal turned her head away as Talgen was hit, tears flowing freely. She vented her anger on the nearest twig blight, cutting the plant-man down before finally freeing herself of the grasping earth. Aramis stepped away from the twig blight threatening him and narrowed his eyes at Belak. “Bear my regards to the Shadowfell,” he said quietly. The daunting light seared into the Outcast’s chest, and he stumbled to his knees. As he panted, his gaze fixed on Azal and he blinked a few times as a look of recognition crossed his face. “I remember now,” he said. “You have…her smile. Your mother…” Then he fell dead on the cavern floor, his blood watering the ground at the base of the Gulthias Tree.
“What?” said Azal in a small voice, eyes wide. “My mother..?”
Talgen’s gaze lost a measure of focus and he turned on Bhavik, the nearest threat. His wild slashes failed to penetrated the warden’s defenses, and Bhavik said, “He’s not stopping.”
“Take him down, but don’t kill him!” called Aramis.
Azal stumbled, confused by Belak’s dying words. Tears continued to flow freely from her eyes, and she could not bring herself to attack Talgen. She tossed her dagger awkwardly at one of the remaining twig blights, but the blade flew over the creature’s head. Bhavik’s stern voice said, “Now is not the time to waver. Talgen is the biggest threat. Subdue him.” Azal bit her lip at the shifter’s words. Aramis spared a glance in Sharwyn’s direction before moving to help the warden by crushing another twig blight to the ground. The last twig blight raked Bhavik, and the bloodied shifter’s features became more bestial as he stared down the remaining threats. He cut the offending creature in half and then moved to flank. “Take him down,” he said to Azal. It was not a suggestion.
Azal sniffled, but complied. “I’m sorry,” she said to Talgen as she brought her dagger around in a sly flourish. His sword flew up at the last second, providing her no opening to his vitals, but her blade penetrated his woody flesh all the same. She saw thick, sap-like blood flowing from the wound and trembled. “Aramis… Please, I can’t… We have to… Help…” she finished pitifully, her voice ragged.
“It’s the only way we can save him,” said Aramis. “Fate forgive me,” he added, stepping up beside his afflicted friend and declaring a reluctant Oath of Enmity. His quarterstaff smacked against Talgen’s ribs, with a sound exactly like striking a tree. Azal cries out at the sound, and Talgen turned on the cleric, whose guard wavered for a moment. It was all the supplicant needed to strike Aramis and drive him back a step. Bhavik failed to land a meaningful attack, but he distracted Talgen long enough for Azal to stumble into a flank.
She muttered wordless apologies to her friend through gritted teeth, then drove her dagger down, pulling the strike at the last minute. Instead of a killing blow, the pommel of her weapon slammed into the base of Talgen’s skull, rendering him unconscious. She cried out at the impact and began sobbing as he fell. Aramis moved to her side and held on to her for dear life as she collapsed on top of Talgen and repeated, “I’m sorry… I’m so sorry…”
Bhavik lowered his blade and said, “What of the girl?” indicating the tree.
Aramis looked up at the warden, eyes brimming with desperation and said, “Rope. I’ll see to her in a moment.”
The shifter nodded and retrieved rope from his pack. “Azal,” he said softly. “We must bind him before he wakes.” As gently as he could, Aramis pulled her away from Talgen. She allowed herself to be moved away, and buried her head in her hands, which were covered in her friend’s thick blood. Bhavik bound the man they had come to rescue.
Aramis didn’t want to leave Azal’s side, but he needed to see what was left of Sharwyn. The warden turned and frowned at the Gulthias Tree as well. “That thing is an abomination. We should destroy it,” he said to the priest.
“We will,” Aramis assured him, approaching the bulge in the trunk.
“Can she be saved?” Azal asked weakly, looking up momentarily.
“I…” the priest began.
As he considered the Gulthias Tree, the obviously unnatural plant seemed to exude malevolence. Aramis could feel the slightest pressure in his mind, and he knew the tree was responsible. Perhaps, he thought, such a willful sentience could be bargained with…or threatened.
“I think we could coerce the Gulthias Tree into releasing her,” said the priest. “Maybe. I just don’t want her going down with it.”
“I’ll start hacking from the opposite side,” suggested Bhavik, offering hand axes to the other two.
Azal lightly stroked Talgen’s forehead for a few more moments, and then she stood and searched her pack for the alchemist’s fire. “Will these do any good?” she asked.
“Perfect,” replied the cleric. “Let’s tear this monstrosity down.”
The group set to work, and they could all feel furious screams in their minds as they hacked at the trunk. “Give us the girl,” Aramis said.
“Let her go!” Azal screamed at the tree, and her axe penetrated the bark near the humanoid impression. Black ichor as viscous as crude oil began spilling forth.
“Careful!” warned Aramis.
Azal winced. “Do you think it’s hurting her as well?” she asked in a worried tone.
They continued their work, and after a minute or more of the hacking blades, Aramis and Azal watched as Sharwyn was slowly extruded from the trunk of the Gulthias Tree as if she were being abscessed from a woody cyst. The cleric worked her free and started to examine her before she fell to the floor and began to vomit, purging sap, leaves, and thick blood. Bark-like scales sloughed off of her skin as she wept quietly. “I’ve got you,” Aramis said.
“Get her away from the tree,” said Azal, producing a vial of alchemist’s fire. “I’ll use this.” Aramis lifted Sharwyn and carried her several yards away, while Bhavik scooped up the book that Belak had left on the flat root and moved over to Talgen. The tiefling looked down at the Outcast’s corpse and kicked it out of the way in disgust. Then she took a few steps back herself and lobbed the vial at the trunk. It impacted and the resulting flames burned brightly, spreading across the bark and quickly engulfing the Gulthias Tree. Azal stood watching the tree burn for a few moments before turning her attention to helping Bhavik loot Belak’s body. She punched the body in the face a couple of times before the warden stayed her hand.
Aramis prayed for a healing word on Sharwyn, who’d lost consciousness again. Her eyes fluttered open, and she shivered uncontrollably for a few seconds. When she regained her senses, she stared around blearily until her eyes finally focused on the priest holding her gently but firmly. “Aramis?” she asked in a very small voice before she began bawling.
The cleric rocked her, trying to help her get it all out. “That’s right. I’m here. I’ve got you,” he said.
When she caught her breath, words came out in a tangled jumble. “It’s all my fault! I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean for it to happen!” she cried before the tangle of rapid syllables became a less coherent jumble. Aramis simply listened, watching the tree burn and noting with concern the smoke beginning to fill the Twilight Grove. Sharwyn eventually worked all the hysteria out of her system, and then she asked, “Talgen?”
“I’m not sure what’s happened to him, but we’ll change him back,” said Aramis.
She paled – no mean feat considering how much blood she had already lost – and said, “I remember now…The tree…It changed him.” Her eyes welled up again, but it was as though she’d run out of tears.
Azal gave over pummeling Belak’s corpse and moved back over to Talgen, stroking his forehead and mumbling to herself. Bhavik moved off to investigate something in a nook to the south, coming back with a small chest.
“Belak said that someone stole the means of reversing the process,” said the cleric. Do you know anything about that?”
Sharwyn shakes her head. “I don’t know.”
“All right,” he said. “Can you stand?” She did so slowly, shakily. “Let me introduce you to my friends Azal and Bhavik,” said the cleric. “This is Sharwyn Hucrele.”
“H-Hello,” she said meekly, her cheeks coloring. Then she caught sight of her brother. “Oh, Talgen.” She stumbled forward with Aramis’s help and knelt beside him. Azal stood to make way for the young woman.
“We’ll do everything we can to help him Sharwyn,” said Aramis. “I swear it.” The smoke from the burning Gulthias Tree threatened to choke the adventurers and the rescuees, and so they lifted the bound Talgen and made their way out of the Twilight Grove. They made a stop in the study to collect the Outcast’s journals, and then proceeded straight to the surface.
. . .
They arrived back in Oakhurst in the early afternoon, and they were met by Sister Corkie and Erky Timbers in front of the shrine. They explained briefly what they knew about Talgen’s condition and got him inside the stone building so that the healer could examine him. After she pronounced him stable, Erky and Bhavik got to talking, Azal sat and started flipping through the journal Bhavik had saved from the flames, and Aramis took Sharwyn home to her mother.
Madame Hucrele’s handmaiden Adell greeted them happily and ushered the pair upstairs where they were met by Sharwyn’s ecstatic mother. She asked about Talgen, and Aramis assured her that he was on the mend with Sister Corkie. She thanked him for all he had done, and asked him to confer her thanks to his friends, as well as an invitation – no, a demand – to join the Hucrele’s for dinner.
When Aramis arrived back at the shrine, Sister Corkie told the heroes that she wasn’t sure what could be done for Talgen. The adventurers went through Belak’s possessions, including his personal wealth, a pair of enchanted gloves that the Outcast had worn, and a small whistle resembling a small dragon curled up like a snail. The enchanted whistle was carved from strange transparent iron that Erky called nephelium, a metal that was once mined in the dwarven mines of Khundrukar. The name Azan-gund was etched onto the whistle, a dwarven word that the priest knew to mean “Night Caller.” This drew Azal’s attention away from the journal, and she pointed out an entry that stated the whistle had been dropped by the duergar thieves that had stolen the magical healing apple, apparently the only one that would grow all Spring. The heroes discussed the possibility of the apple restoring Talgen, and wondered aloud where they might have gone.
Erky commented darkly about the possibility of the gray dwarves having wormed their way back into the halls of Khundrukar, once ruled by the legendary dwarven smith known as Durgeddin the Black. If so, then they could be found beneath a mountain known as the Stone Tooth near the mining town of Blasingdell. “I dinnae know for sure if that’s where they’ve gone, but if it’s a miracle cure ye’re needin’...”
“Yes,” said Azal, caressing her friend’s woody cheek lightly. “It seems that for Talgen’s sake, we may need a miracle cure.”