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    Pixie in the Playground
     
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    Default Chapter 22: The Return of Hollowchest

    Spoiler: Chapter 22: The Return of Hollowchest
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    As the party's first evening in Hangtree comes to a close, Gavin approaches Flynn.

    “You seem to be the Baroness' right hand. Perhaps you could arrange a room for a visiting knight?”

    Flynn glances up from the map he's studying, flicks a desultory glance in Gavin's direction, and points wordlessly toward Olaf's old room in the clubhouse.

    "Your pardon," Gavin demurs, “But would not a room in the lady's manor be more... appropriate?”

    Flynn points again at Olaf’s room. “I won’t have you staying in the house while she’s out.”

    "But proper etiquette dictates that visiting knights stay in the..." He trails off, fuming, as Flynn simply arches an eyebrow.

    “You Aurbeski have strange concepts of proper etiquette,” Flynn says, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth as he turns back to his map.

    Grumbling all the way, Gavin resignedly claims Olaf's old room as his temporary quarters.

    On his way back into the clubhouse's bunkrooms, he passes Aelron, Keegan, and Lajiao, sitting in Keegan's room. Aelron is prestidigitating tears out of a handkerchief and holding it back out to a still-sobbing Keegan while Lajiao headbutts the boy reassuringly. Keegan has taken news of Olaf's death hard. Seeing Gavin passing by, Aelron tucks the handkerchief into Keegan's hand, pats him on the shoulder and murmurs, “Find me if you need to talk, any time. I'll be in my room.” Then he steps out into the hall and moves briefly into step with Gavin.

    “My sympathies, friend,” Gavin offers. “No child his age should have to grieve for a father so.”

    Aelron misses a step, then chuckles sadly. “Father? No, my good knight, Olaf was no one's father. Just a dear friend. Remind me sometime to tell you about our misadventures in New Drougant City the first time we stopped there. For now, I need to get to work on my staff. Enchantments don't complete themselves, you know.”

    Now thoroughly bewildered, Gavin shuts himself in Olaf's room to wonder what sort of utter lunatics he's agreed to accompany.

    A few days later, when the party is gathered 'round the table in the clubhouse eating breakfast, a messenger arrives with a note for Flynn. He accepts it and bids the messenger wait by the door; the seal on the heavy envelope is that of Hangtree herself. He slides his plate out of the way and breaks the seal, pulling out a small leaf of parchment scrawled with a brief message to him, and yet another envelope, this one addressed to the King of Drougant himself, also bearing Hangtree's seal.

    Flynn reads the letter to himself over quickly and lets out a laugh. “Apparently,” he informs everyone, “Baroness Hangtree now controls the capital of County Forscythe. Captured it with no casualties, even. That's gotta be some sort of record. Unfortunately for us, this means she will be staying in Forscythe until the King can appoint a new Count. If we want to talk to her directly, we'll need to go pay Forscythe a visit.”

    Miaoyu moans and begins scrambling for parchment and a quill. “Tsarae is gonna be so annoyed,” she mutters, penning yet another note directing Tsarae to where the party has gone gallivanting off to this time.

    Flynn recruits a Brigiian messenger to take Hangtree's missive to the King, then gathers everyone up for a hasty departure.

    On the plus side, it's something for Keegan to do besides mope. He seems almost happy to be leaving the clubhouse, even if it DOES mean he has to keep the party's bewildering herd of horses fed, watered and moving in the right direction.

    Forscythe is only a couple days’ travel away, but naturally they don’t reach it without a random encounter. The second night out of Hangtree, during Seeker’s watch—it’s always during Seeker’s watch, have you noticed that?—that ten bandits appear around the camp, looking slightly less than amiable. Seeker howls the moment he spots them and casts Circle of Protection, warding the camp.

    Flynn is on his feet and out of his tent in a flash; always nice not to need to pick up your weapon. He puts an eldritch bolt at the feet of one of the bandits, their first and only warning. “We’re not easy pickings,” he calls to them. “Look elsewhere.”

    Inside the tents, the others are scrambling to get ready. Miaoyu and Gavin hurry out of the tent, both unarmored but bearing weapons; Aelron lingers in the tent, feeling vulnerable without his armor and not wanting to reveal himself quite yet.

    As the eldritch bolt fades from existence, however, the bandit leader sneers at Flynn. “That's not even a real weapon, is it? Get 'em, boys!” Apparently he failed to notice the very real hole the bolt made in the dirt at his feet.

    Three bandits go for Gavin, but they’re uncoordinated and Gavin is nimble and holding a shield. He manages to keep them all on one side of him so they can't flank and divide his attention, and parries or blocks all of their attacks.

    Two bandits creep out of the shadows near where the party's horses are tied up. They reach up to the first two horses in line, untie them and begin attempting to lead them off. Unfortunately for them, these are Flametongue and Dawnrunner, Aelron's notoriously testy mounts. “Hey Aelron!” Flynn shouts. “Brigands are going for your horses!”

    "Ohhh, they did not just!" Aelron seethes, sweeping out of the tent and into the camp. The bandits couldn't have known how seriously this particular party takes horse-theft, or how temperamental Aelron’s horses are, but if they had there's no way they even would have attempted this raid.

    Three bandits are closing on Flynn and Miaoyu as Aelron steps from the tent. Miaoyu sidesteps into the shadows to clear Aelron's path, and a cone of intense flames bursts from his hands to char the rapidly closing bandits. Only one manages to dodge the flames, but he comes out of his mad scramble just in time to see Flynn's eldritch glaive scything down at him. None of the three live through the experience.

    Miaoyu reappears in the trees at the edge of the camp, where the bandits currently struggling with Aelron's horses had been hiding, crossbow loaded and ready; she puts a bolt deep in the shoulder of the bandit attempting to lead Aelron's riding horse away. The bandit, terrified and confused about being attacked from behind, drops to the ground, trying for cover.

    Gavin hurls his spear—his only actual weapon—at one of the bandits in front of him. That bandit dies, but his two companions, now facing an unarmed man, grin and close for the kill.

    Three of the remaining bandits—the ones who didn't manage to make melee contact with the party in the first round and have just watched their companions get slaughtered mercilessly by a bunch of half-awake maniacs and mages—decide to reconsider their life choices and run away as fast as they can. The two horse thieves are a bit unnerved, but hey, if they get the horses they can run faster, right?

    With his front cleared, Flynn whirls to the bandits converging on Gavin and sends a bolt hissing in their direction. It goes over their heads, but the distraction is more than enough for Gavin; he lunges between the startled men, picks up his spear, and body-checks one of them into a tree trunk. The two of them decide this is way more than they bargained for and hightail it into the trees.

    With the battlefield otherwise empty of combatants, Aelron rounds on the horse thieves, who are still struggling valiantly to get his horses to calm down enough to mount. “Get. Away. From. My. Horses.” He levels his staff and sends a bolt of arcane energy sizzling past Dawnrunner's mane; it strikes the uninjured bandit just above his collarbones and hurls him to the ground, where he manages one feeble twitch before darkness claims him. At the same time, Miaoyu puts another bolt in the bandit she wounded previously; he, having just recovered enough courage to return to his feet, crumples to the ground again as the bolt explodes through his neck, showering Flametongue with a spray of arterial red.

    With all the bandits either dead or run off, the party searches them for loot (they didn’t have the decency to have anything worthwhile) and disposes of their bodies.

    The next day, they pass by the pomegranate grove, and with encouragement from the party, Aelron stops by to visit the dryad. Since he’s carrying Olaf's Razor, Aelron doesn’t have to worry about making a will save; he is immune to spells, and the dryad's charm counts as a spell effect. The dryad doesn’t remember him—they have incredibly short memories—but while that's a bit of a disappointment, Aelron shrugs it off fairly easily. He offers to share what remains of his Illian whiskey with the dryad in exchange for a lock of hair, and the dryad accepts. Nothing like having a good time and getting some rare components.

    The party passes into Deepspring county and then finally Forscythe. When they reach the keep, it’s flying Hangtree’s banner and the field around it is curiously unscathed. The only evidence of bloodshed is a single pike with a head on top mounted over the front gate.

    A nervous guard hails the party and lets them into the courtyard, where they find the newly-promoted Sergeant Ranolf—one of the fighters that helped the party clear out the pirate cove in chapter two—waiting to meet them.

    "Welcome to Castle Forscythe," he says solemnly, stepping forward with arms outstretched to either side in a gesture of greeting. He holds the post for a moment, then snorts once, and suddenly both he and Flynn dissolve into riotous laughter.

    "So,” Flynn asks a few minutes later, once they've both recovered, “Whose head is that on the pike?"

    Ranolf smirks. "That’s Countess Forscythe. She made the mistake of accepting a duel with Hangtree."

    As Ranolf leads the party through the castle to meet with the Baroness, he tells them of how Forscythe was captured. It’s a fairly short story: the Baroness simply gathered up twenty troops and marched straight to the castle. After she won the duel, Forscythe county was happy to reconsider their stance on independence, and the Baroness is currently the occupying general until the king can find someone else for the job of count or countess.

    Ranolf brings the party to the dining room, a high-ceilinged, banner-draped chamber with fireplaces on its long walls and high windows along its back. Sunlight slanting in through the windows illuminates Baroness Hangtree seated one chair to the right of the County Seat at the high table. She smiles as Flynn enters and stands to welcome them.

    “Dear Flynn, welcome! So good of you to join us!” The smile they share is positively conspiratorial. “And Seeker, Aelron, Miaoyu, good to see you are all well. But who is this with you?”

    Gavin steps forward, then kneels. “My lady, I have the honor to be Sir Gavin of Tidehollow, knight of Aurbesk, until recently serving with the Seventh Regiment attempting to march the Huroc out of Aurbeski territory. I have accompanied these folk hence to testify in Drougant as to the presence of said Huroc, at the behest of the Larlonite.”

    Hangtree nods formally. “Welcome, then, Sir Gavin, to County Forscythe. I am Baroness Hangtree, Interim Countess Forscythe. Thank you for joining us. I fear your testimony may be necessary.”

    Once Gavin has stood and all are adequately welcomed, Hangtree gestures to the table before her. "Please, sit and help yourself to whatever food you desire—and I mean that: the countess had a habit of hoarding food, it seems."

    The party takes the time to enjoy the food, but soon they get down to business and report all that happened on the party's ill-fated (or ill-un-fated?) trip to uncover the Huroc.

    "I’m sorry to hear of Olaf’s death," she says. "He was a fine man. This is definitely worthy of concern." She leans back in her chair and withdraws into thought. “With Olaf dead, where does the prophecy stand?” she asks after a moment.

    “It’s wrecked,” Miaoyu says. “Olaf’s fate was already shattered and he drove the last of it into the ground when he tried to kill Alderik. For now, I think it’s safe to say we don’t need to worry about it being fulfilled. The Huroc are still a problem, though.”

    "I had an idea," Seeker says eagerly. "We could try to convince the rebels to join us against a common enemy." At the Baroness’s skeptical look, he tries to explain a bit: "The logistics aside—"

    Hangtree makes an abrupt chopping motion with her hand, overriding him. "No. You cannot say something like ‘let’s work with the rebels’ and follow that with ‘logistics aside’." She launches into a short rant about the importance of logistics, before finally subsiding and shaking her head. “Look,” she finally says. “Even if we COULD get the rebellious baronies and counties on our side, it wouldn't do us any good. Their forces, the armies they actually control, cannot leave their lands; I bent the rules rather heavily bringing twenty of my own men into County Forscythe as an 'honor guard'.” She grimaces. “Drougant doesn't HAVE a standing army under the control of the crown; all armed forces are baronial, or county-specific, and forbidden to leave their territories. Which means the only way to raise an actual army in Drougant is mercenaries.”

    “Hence Haddon's Eagles,” Flynn says, “And all the mercenary bands that the rebels are employing.”

    “And the Map-Tappers,” Miaoyu puts in.

    “Okay,” Seeker says, not quite willing to give up yet, “But the rebellious counties have enough money to HIRE those larger mercenary groups. If we can sway them to our side...”

    Aelron shakes his head. “Even IF we had a plan that could do such a thing—and I've not yet heard one proposed—all the mercenaries are on the wrong side of the country. The rebellion is a month or more west and north of us as armies march, well past New Drougant City by this point. The Huroc are nigh-directly east.”

    Hangtree looks directly at Seeker. “I know you wish to help your wife, but for us, Drougant must come first. I am sorry, but I see no way that pursuing an alliance with the rebels can aid us in deflecting the Huroc. It might save lives, but that will be for nothing if the Huroc cannot be deflected.”

    Miaoyu turns to Gavin. “What about Aurbeski aid? If Drougant can put an army together, will Aurbesk be willing to coordinate for an attack on the Huroc?”

    Gavin smiles tightly. “Doubtful. Where was Drouganti aid when the Huroc were ravaging our countryside?”

    Flynn lifts an eyebrow. “Who raided the up which rivers recently, again? Just wondering.”

    “Enough,” Hangtree interjects, looking sharply at Flynn. “We have our differences; that is enough. Perhaps if we can FIND an army, the Aurbeski will be willing to discuss coordination. Until then, such speculation and argument is pointless.”

    Gavin grimaces. “I... have a suggestion. I can't pretend I like it, but it is a possibility. We could appeal to the Bene. They could fund your mercenaries, but their price would be steep.”

    Miaoyu looks over at him in consternation. “We're broke anyway. How does that help us?”

    Gavin shudders. “The price would not be exacted in gold.”

    Flynn frowns. “I think I'll pass on finding out exactly what that means. It sounds like a direct military confrontation with the Huroc is probably not going to happen. Is there another strategy we can pursue?”

    Aelron shrugs. “We try to find a way to do what the Aurbeski were doing: redirect the Huroc, give them something that's NOT Drougant to chase.”

    Now it's Miaoyu's turn to frown. “Maybe, but then where would we send them? South is no good; that's a bloody ocean, and we haven't got the boats. East is a no-go; we can't have them going back into Aurbesk—”

    “We can't?” Flynn murmurs, sounding vaguely disappointed. Hangtree glowers at him. Miaoyu elbows him in the ribs. Gavin stoically pretends not to notice.

    Miaoyu continues. “We can't have them coming west into Drougant... so where do we send them?”

    Flynn pulls out his map, a new smile on his face, and points. Under his finger is a narrow valley marked Demonsbreath Pass, which winds its way up from the coastal areas of Drougant, through the continent's central mountain range and out onto its northern plains. “Here,” Flynn says, “The same place the Aurbeski were leading them: Demonsbreath Pass.”

    Aelron smiles in appreciation. “Pitting Huroc against Kadashari? It has a certain elegance to it.”

    “Kadashari?” Miaoyu asks, perplexed.

    Seeker stirs, growling. “Heretics,” he says shortly. “Demon worshipers. They're most of the reason that Demonsbreath Pass retains its name.”

    “Using the Huroc to clean out the Kadashari certainly strikes me as a wonderful idea,” Aelron says, “But what happens once the Huroc either get bored or clear the pass and come out on the other side? If we don't deal with them, they WILL be back to haunt someone eventually. If not Drougant or Aurbesk, some other civilized nation.”

    “Would that not be someone else's problem?” Ranolf puts in.

    Aelron turns to glower at him. “Do not allow your duty to Drougant to distract you from the fact that every life is valuable. If we half-ass this job and the Huroc destroy another nation because of it—or worse yet, come back later to hunt us down—what will we have achieved? I do not intend to pay a blood price for Drougant's safety. I intend to see the threat the Huroc pose ended, one way or another.”

    For a long moment, the silence is thick and heavy as a down comforter.

    Gavin breaks it, glancing speculatively at Hangtree herself. “What if we could bring down the Huroc leader? Would he agree to a duel?”

    Miaoyu nods. “Oh, yeah. Alderik loves to fight. Any excuse will do, I'm sure.”

    “My lady is strong enough to make the attempt,” Flynn interjects, “But how can we be sure that the rest of the Huroc will hold to whatever word Alderik gives? Even if we could manage to beat him in a duel, we don't have an army standing behind us to threaten the rest of the Huroc with once he's gone. Ten to one they'd invade anyway, regardless of what anyone promised upon the outcome of the duel.”

    Seeker looks down at the map. “There are plenty of more... natural dangers in Drougant,” he notes slowly, tracing the Corpse Copse and pointing to the ruins of Old Drougant City. “What if we could lure the Huroc into one or more of those?”

    “Luring someone into Old Drougant or the Corpse Copse would require heading into them ourselves, and that's a dangerous proposition,” Hangtree points out.

    “Besides which,” Aelron states, “Feeding an entire army of Huroc to a forest that is famous for turning people into ghouls doesn't sound like solving the problem to me. It sounds like turning the problem in to a roving army of ghouls.”

    “Or maybe they'd clear out the Copse for us,” Miaoyu says with a shrug, “But whichever side wins is still a huge problem. We can't guarantee that any of these things will cancel out the Huroc, so we're back to not actually solving the problem.”

    “Besides which,” Flynn points out, “It's unlikely the Huroc would chase us exclusively to any of these locations. They'd hit towns along the way, and kill thousands of people, and most likely kill us before we could lead them anywhere. Casualty count would be enormous.”

    “Then it sounds like, if we're going to fight, we have to do it my way,” Miaoyu says. “From darkness, quietly, hitting where the enemy is weak and never exposing ourselves to their strengths.”

    Gavin frowns. “Such a war is dishonorable.”

    “Beats the hell out of pointless death,” Miaoyu says flatly.

    “Unfortunately,” Hangtree breaks in, “Most of Drougant's soldiers are trained in what we might charitably call 'honorable combat'. They don't have the skillset required for guerilla warfare.”

    Aelron shakes himself. “And I almost forgot! We still have the egg!” He pulls it from his pack, a massive sunstone crystal slightly warm to the touch, wrapped for the moment in Seeker's stasis spell. “If we bring this thing anywhere near the Huroc at the wrong moment, it might hatch and blow whatever plan we have.”

    “When does that spell run out?” Flynn asks, looking to Seeker.

    “The twenty-sixth,” Seeker says heavily. “We've only got a few days left.”

    “Aelron,” Flynn says slowly, “You are a... student of the Mother of All Dragons, yes?” Note the careful avoidance of both 'worshipper', which might suggest sanction where none exists, and 'cultist', which might offend.

    Aelron nods hesitantly.

    “Could you... speak with the dragon when it hatches? Convince it to join our side?”

    Abashed, Aelron takes a moment to think. “I... well, maybe. Little is known of young dragons, though I imagine it might be more open to persuasion than an adult dragon, as human children are more impressionable than adults. I am uncertain how my patron would respond to attempts to brainwash a young dragon, though, and more importantly, this egg is already known to be a relic of Kurush. I have no idea what THAT will mean for the dragon itself when it hatches.”

    “Way too much uncertainty in all of that to form plans around,” Hangtree mutters, and everyone has to agree.”

    “I could try giving the egg to the Mother of All Dragons,” Aelron suggests. “She would be... best qualified to raise it. That would remove it from this plane without killing it and get it out of the way.”

    Miaoyu rolls her eyes as she takes a sip of ale.

    “What would you need to do that?” Flynn asks.

    “Mostly just a portal. A planar weak point. The ones that the Mother of Dragons can access are usually in areas of unspoilt natural beauty; WE want one that doesn't already have a dragon living in it.”

    “Wolfhead Woods should suit your needs,” Hangtree says, peering at the map. “It's only a few days' travel from here.”

    “Oh, goodie,” Miaoyu mutters, “Another trip to the Dead Unicorn Forest.”

    Yes, it’s back to the forest where Olaf killed the unicorn. Provided that the area is useable, Aelron should be able to consecrate the area to his goddess and open a portal for her to take the egg, if she so desires.

    While that potentially solves one problem, the party still has no idea on how to handle the Huroc.

    "What if there was some sort of symbol the Drouganti could rally behind?" Seeker asks. The Baroness ponders the suggestion for a moment.

    "Drougant lost its Laerosian Regalia some time ago. If it could be recovered and given to the king, certain parties might be... more inclined to recognize his rule."

    When Laeros rose as the god of civilization, he was given magical gifts by thirteen other gods. Laeros in turn bestowed each of these powerful gifts upon the leaders of the world's civilizations. For example, Femta gifted the Throne of the High King, which became the symbol of the Thousand Kingdoms; it’s said that when someone who is worthy sits upon the throne, they are blessed. (Of course, no one has been found ‘worthy’ yet, and the throne has a nasty tendency to kill any unworthy who sit upon it.)

    For Drougant to lose its regalia is no small thing; some theologians have argued that losing it has thrown Drougant out of favor with Laeros, resulting in all the squabbling and backbiting for which Drougant is so lovingly known. If they are correct, regaining the regalia, whatever it is, and presenting it to the King of Drougant could, in theory, help stabilize the nation, or at least rally the people long enough to fend off the Huroc.

    But how in the name of the gods are they supposed to find something that’s been lost for centuries?

    “Miaoyu?” Flynn prompts.

    "Give me a minute," she sighs. Miaoyu relays the request to Gilgadar, and then he tells her to hold on and after a few minutes of awkward silence, she hears his voice in her head again.

    "Okay, the thing about other dieties’ religious artifacts is that I can’t get too close to them or they get a little… nervous. I don't have a location yet. It's gonna take me a while to find that without it upsetting anyone. In the meantime, though, I can tell you what you’re looking for."

    And then he tells her, and Miaoyu breaks the minutes-long silence with a sudden laugh. “Okay, here’s a good one,” Miaoyu says in response to everyone’s puzzled expressions. “The relic for Drougant? It’s the Sword of Loyalty! Oaths made on it are unbreakable.”

    Flynn and Hangtree simply stare stonily; they see no humor here. Seeker just seems puzzled. Aelron coughs politely and turns to gaze out the window, the noise covering what might have been the barest hint of a snicker from Gavin, who seems to be having trouble keeping a smirk off his face.

    After a moment, Miaoyu clears her throat and continues on. “Anyway, Gilgadar needs some time to pin down its exact location. I’ll get back to you guys on that.”

    The day has grown late and the party retires to their rooms, planning to head out to Wolfhead Woods the next day; they all relish the nice, comfy beds while they can.

    At breakfast, Miaoyu finds a nice little surprise tucked under her plate of eggs: a note and a map, presumably from everyone’s favorite god of thieves. She unfolds the note and it reads as follows:

    On the Throne waits the Sword. In the hands of the Faithless King is Fidelity.

    The map is that of Old Drougant City. A river snakes from the northwestern corner to the southeastern, widening at the very heart of the map. A small island is marked in the middle of the river there, and in the middle of the island is a rectangle labeled ‘throne’. Miaoyu sighs; she’s not surprised, but she’s not excited by the prospect of venturing into Old Drougant City by any stretch. She pushes her plate to the side and spreads out the map on the table and places the note on top. “Guess what I found?”

    "Where did you get that?" Seeker asks.

    Miaoyu looks up at him with a wicked grin, winks, and turns back to the map. Everyone takes a turn looking over the note and studying the map.

    Old Drougant City was the capital of Drougant until about 200 years ago, when a dynasty fell and took the city with it. There are about a million rumors about what exactly befell Drougant City and why, ranging from godly wrath to natural disaster, to magical experiments gone awry, to demonic invasion. It’s no one's idea of a vacation destination, or even a safe travel route; even experienced adventurers think twice before venturing into its ruins. Whether or not the ‘Faithless King’ mentioned in the note is the king that fell with Drougant City is anyone’s guess, but it’s an intriguing possibility. Either way, it seems fairly definite that if they want the sword, they need to head straight to the center of the city.

    “Well,” Flynn says with a sigh, “If we manage not to get ourselves killed on the way, legend has it that there’s a lot of coin left in the king’s vaults. Maybe we’ll fund our army yet.”

    It’s a problem for another day, though. For now, the egg is the priority. Fortunately, Wolfhead Woods isn’t far from Old Drougant City anyway. The Baroness gives the party three soldiers to take as support (including our beloved Sergeant Ranolf) and they set out.

    Miaoyu jogs back inside as they're preparing to leave to remind the Baroness of something: “If you see a grumpy cave elf, please tell her where we’re headed and point her on her way after us.”

    After a couple of days of travel, the party reaches the edge of the Wolfhead Woods. With a few days to spare, the party beds down and plans to investigate the forest for a ritual location the next day.

    Naturally, it’s not that easy. During Seeker’s watch (we’re starting to get suspicious that he’s making weird things happen), he notices silvery flickering in the treeline. While it doesn’t look like an immediate threat, he and his watch partner, one of the Baroness’s soldiers, wake everyone quietly. Soon, everyone is armed and armored and they spend a good ten minutes watching the strange flickering. When nothing happens, Gavin offers to investigate, with Flynn a few steps behind in case he needs support.

    “My name is Gavin of Tidehollow,” he says as he moves toward the treeline. He can’t seem to get a fix on the silvery flickering; at one moment it’s far back to the right, the next it’s nearby and to the left. He waits for a long moment, expecting something to happen, but aside from the flickering, all is still. Slowly, a feeling of betrayal overcomes him. He glances at Flynn and shrugs and they both return to the camp.

    “Nothing happened. I just can’t help but feel like whatever it is, it’s been betrayed,” Gavin says.

    “That’s probably because of this,” Seeker says, and pulls the alicorn out of his bag. Flynn shouts a protest, but it’s too late: Gavin is asked to make a will save, and he fails it.

    Gavin snatches the alicorn out of Seeker’s hand, nearly shaking with fury. “How dare you? I can scarcely believe that you—a Larlonite with vows of pacifism—would condone the murder of an innocent and pure creature!”

    Seeker’s ears twist back in a show of distress. “It was to save the life of another—to break a curse.”

    “So you exchange one life for another? Well I hope the life you saved was well worth the life of this unicorn and the suffering it experiences now!”

    Seeker’s hands flash up as he attempts a dispel, and Gavin lunges forward to disrupt his casting—but too slowly. The charm breaks on Gavin and he’s left momentarily dazed. “I... I’m sorry. I’m not sure why I got so angry.” He makes to give the horn back to Seeker, but Flynn takes it instead.

    “I think maybe it’s time we give this back,” he says, and turns on his heel to approach the forest. Gavin moves to go with him, but Flynn waves him back. “I should do this alone. I technically have the best...,” he clears his throat, “credibility.” Gavin stays a few paces behind, but keeps Flynn in sight, should the unicorn spirit become hostile.

    Flynn enters the treeline and begins speaking. “Your sacrifice saved a greater life than mine. Your death is among the greatest of my many regrets. Know that the one who killed you is dead and gone; rest in peace.” He places the alicorn on the ground and takes a couple of steps back.

    For the first time, the silvery flickering stops and manifests in front of the alicorn, taking on the shape of a large, hornless unicorn. It touches its muzzle to the alicorn, and the alicorn itself vanishes, reappearing in ghostly form upon the spirit in front of Flynn. The spirit looks up at Flynn, studies him a moment, then lowers its head and charges forward, its horn piercing directly through Flynn's chest. The momentum of its charge, which should have carried Flynn at least five paces back, vanishes upon impact, dropping Flynn flat on his back; the unicorn, discorporeating more with each passing moment, canters through Flynn and loops around toward the forest before vanishing entirely.

    Flynn is starting to sit up by the time Gavin, followed swiftly by the rest of the party, makes it over to him.

    Gavin rushes over to Flynn to make sure he’s okay. “I’m sorry—it looked like it was just playing. I didn’t think it would hurt you.”

    Flynn waves off his concern and stands. “It's not that bad.”

    Aelron and Miaoyu gasp. Seeker growls. Gavin blinks.

    “What?” Flynn asks. Then he notices they're all staring at his chest, and looks down. “Oh. Well, that's a first.”

    The unicorn's horn put a hole straight through Flynn's chest, missing his heart and lungs by what must be millimeters. The entire party can see straight through him. Strangely, though, the wound isn't bleeding, and Flynn himself feels perfectly fine.

    “Just as well,” Seeker grunts as he steps forward to heal the wound. “I always thought you and Olaf were more alike than you knew.”

    The healing spell leaves behind a pearlescent scar. It seems we have a new Hollowchest in the party—one that can cure poisons once per day and has a constant, passive detect poison ability.

    Once everyone is satisfied that the hole in Flynn’s chest isn’t about to kill him and that the unicorn ghost isn’t about to seek further revenge, everyone returns to bed or watch as appropriate. Seeker pulls Gavin aside before he returns to his tent. “I just wanted to say, your criticism, compelled though it was... I struggled with that for a long time.”

    Gavin shakes his head. “I would have done the same thing. Loyalty is paramount.”

    Morning finally comes, and the party heads to the unicorn grove after asking Ranolf and the others to make camp at the forest edge with Keegan. The grove actually appears to be more filled with life since the unicorn’s death: the grass is thicker and more luxuriant. It would seem that unicorn blood is a great fertilizer.

    Since they have some time, the party agrees that it would be best to check if there are other, better places to open up a portal to the Dragonmother’s realm. Miaoyu and Seeker pair up and take the planar hound skull to look for places where portals may be ready to manifest; they head west. The other three go east, using Aelron’s knowledge of magic and the planes to identify places themselves.

    Seeker and Miaoyu don’t have much luck or excitement, aside from having to dodge a group of passing bandits. The other three have more results, however. After a bit of searching, they hear the telltale clash of weapons, but from the rhythmic sound, it’s likely training, not battle. Normally, they would just continue around the training location, but as they draw closer, they realize that the grass is lush and the trees are straighter; this is likely the location of a portal, or at least an ideal place to open one. Gavin volunteers to get Miaoyu and Seeker and in the meantime, Flynn climbs a tree to see if he can learn anything himself.

    Gavin uses one of the party’s dog whistles to catch Seeker's attention, then howls a message in Pack. He explains that they found an ideal place for the ritual, but that it’s likely being occupied by bandits or some similar group. Once Seeker deciphers Gavin's strange accent, he and Miaoyu return to the rest of the group and use the planar hound skull to confirm the presence of a portal at the center of the strange camp.

    Miaoyu goes in for a better look. In the midst of many trees are a number of tents and shelters, and an unexpectedly large group—about 50 people in total. They’re wearing actual armor, too, things that look professionally made and like they might actually turn a blade. They’re disciplined, too, and diverse both in race and class, with even a few noncombatants in the mix. Their levels range quite a bit, too; some are level 0, but others are level 1, 2, and maybe even higher. If they’re bandits, they’re not like any that the party’s ever encountered. What they are exactly, though, is hard to say; they don’t seem to bear any standards or symbols or even shared colors.

    At the center of the camp is a large, standing rock, and Miaoyu’s best guess for the center of the portal. She sees one person, a mage, both enter and leave some sort of opening the rock hides from view, but she can’t determine where it leads, so she returns to the group and shares what she found.

    The party tosses around the possibility of nicely asking if they can use the grove, but since there’s no way to ensure that the group won’t try to pull a fast one (or to reassure them that the party won’t do the same), the idea is discarded. As ideal as the location would be, it’s just too risky to try, so it’s decided to use the unicorn’s grove at first light.

    At dawn, Aelron starts preparing for the ritual by consecrating the grove to the Mother of All Dragons. It’s an eight-hour ritual, though, so the party members finds different ways to distract themselves. Gavin and Flynn, being disciplined and responsible fighters, take up watch, with Flynn in a tree and Gavin on the ground. Miaoyu, not being a disciplined and responsible fighter, decides to make a tiny house out of twigs. Seeker takes to watching Aelron work, and would have helped if he could have.

    The eight hours begin to draw to a close and Miaoyu’s house is coming along quite nicely, when suddenly it collapses. After a stunned moment, she looks up and finds Tsarae glowering at her.

    “Oh, hey,” Miaoyu says. “Sorry. We sort of got... pulled off track.”

    Tsarae keeps glaring and Gavin bounds up, spear in hand, ready to act at any sign of hostility. From his perch in the tree, Flynn shouts down, “Relax! That’s the other Gilgadarite we were supposed to meet.”

    Gavin lowers his spear and relaxes a bit. But only a bit. “Greetings. I am Sir Gavin of Tidehollow.”

    Tsarae studies him for a moment before turning back to Miaoyu. “What happened to the other one?”

    “Oh, Olaf... didn’t make it. We lost him to the Huroc, but we wrecked the prophecy.”

    “And we’re about to wreck it some more,” Aelron adds as he wraps up his ritual.

    “So,” Miaoyu says, “learn anything interesting?”

    “Well, the Huroc weren’t where you said they’d be,” Tsarae says, shooting Miaoyu a dirty look. “Other than that, some Kadarashi are coming down this time of the year. Knew some of them.”

    “Knew some of them?” Seeker echoes. Tsarae raises a brow and he grumbles, “Just making sure I heard right.”

    Gavin changes the subject: “Once we’re done with this egg, we just need to stop the Huroc somehow.”

    Tsarae shrugs. “If the prophecy’s wrecked, what else is there to worry about?”

    Gavin stares at her. “The lives of thousands?”

    Tsarae shrugs. “There are worse losses.” At Gavin’s mounting fury, she sighs and decides to elaborate. “Let me use a metaphor you surfacers will understand. When you harvest wheat, you put the good grains in storage, and leave the bad grains in the field so they will fertilize the soil and make it rich and help the next harvest be strong.”

    “There’s only one problem with that metaphor,” Gavin deadpans. “All the grain is dead.”

    Tsarae waves her hand dismissively. “All metaphors break down if you examine them too closely.”

    Gavin lets out a frustrated sigh, and Aelron calls out to him, “Just let it go. There’s no point arguing morals with someone who doesn’t have any.”

    “Exactly!” Tsarae says brightly. “He gets it.”

    Right about that time, the consecration is finally finished and the presence of the Mother of All Dragons fills the area. Gavin feels a gentle but firm ‘push’, as if a request to leave the vicinity; he departs quickly, keeping his back turned to the now-sacred place politely. The Gilgadarites are used to feeling like they don’t belong, but leave regardless, and Seeker, although perhaps the most welcome in the area, also leaves. Flynn, still in his tree, is far enough away that he doesn’t need to move.

    Miaoyu and Tsarae find a nice place to wait while Aelron begins communing, Seeker and Gavin not far away.

    “Want to play a word game?” Miaoyu asks Tsarae.

    Tsarae glares. “You’re just going to keep bugging me until I say yes, aren’t you?” Miaoyu grins and Tsarae sighs her consent.

    “Okay, Tilly Willy likes grass but not bushes. Tilly Willy likes wood, but not plaster; boots but not shoes. Feel free to join in once you figure it out.”

    Tsarae glares. Miaoyu keeps listing things that Tilly does and does not like.

    Communing with a deity is risky. Ask the wrong questions, say the wrong things, improperly address the entity whose attention you have called, and you can find yourself dead, or worse, cursed. Some deities are, of course, worse about this than others; Turmlar and Brigii are honorable beings. Nunantii, on the other hand, is better avoided. The Mother of Dragons is a protector of natural beauty, and as such can take a harsh view of mortals. Aelron walks a fine line between valuing and needing civilization himself, and serving as a protector of the wilds for his patron. While she is not as vengeful as Nunantii, the Mother of Dragons can be insistent in her own way.

    Like now, for instance. As the communion begins, Aelron sits silently and allows the Mother of Dragons to search his mind and memories to find that which brings him to consecrate a grove in her name. Once she has satisfied herself about his reasons for calling her, she prods him mentally. Speak.

    “I pray, my lady, O Mother of Dragons and protector of the untamed, take this egg which I present you,” he murmurs. “Kurush's followers have leapt the bounds of prophecy, and now it is up to mortals to restrain their violence and curb their wrath. This egg is a wild element, one that mortals cannot account for, bound up in sundered fate as it is. Please, see fit to remove it from our hands, that we might face the Huroc without worry for it or ourselves.”

    There is an un-sound of pondering, as if a mountain were humming to itself in deep thought, that comes from all around and nowhere at once, but does not leave the clearing. And what do I or the wilds gain from this transaction?

    Aelron closes his eyes. “You have seen firsthand what mortals can do when backed into a corner. If Drougant, or any other kingdom threatened by the Huroc, grows desperate enough, the destruction they could unleash upon the wildlands I am bidden to protect would be catastrophic. As for you, personally... that egg is a relic of Kurush. I and my fellows have no want of it or use for it. Keep it for yourself, and know that even mighty Kurush cannot use dragons for his own purposes if My Lady does not wish it.”

    And then, just as suddenly as she arrived, the Mother of Dragons has made up her mind.

    A twig snaps behind Aelron, and, seemingly of its own volition, his head turns, glancing over his shoulder. A small white rabbit has frozen in fear at the sound and stares back at him before darting away into the brush. By the time Aelron turns his head back to the grove, the egg and the presence of his goddess are gone. He stands, take a deep breath, and offers a prayer of thanks.

    During Aelron’s watch that evening, he hears strange cackling from the woods, of the non-sinister variety. He scans the treeline, but can’t make anything out, so he peeks into the tent to see if Tsarae has taken a night outing; he finds her fast asleep.

    Aelron takes another moment to see if he can locate the source of the laughter, but, finding nothing, he continues his watch without incident.

    At breakfast, the party begins discussing their plans for Old Drougant City (after Tsarae and Miaoyu have ceased bickering about the twig house for a while; “There was going to be a whole village!” “It wasn’t structurally sound!”). They decide to head to the nearby town of Scarlet to stock up on supplies, gather information, and send Ranolf and his men, along with Keegan, back to Hangtree.

    “Do you want to come on a stupidly suicidal mission with us?” Miaoyu asks Tsarae.

    “We could use every good sword arm we could get,” Seeker adds.

    “Don’t try to convince her,” Aelron advises him. “Just let her make her decision by herself.”

    “He learns quick,” Tsarae quips, smiling over at Miaoyu. “I’m impressed.” She mulls it over for a bit and finally shrugs. “Sounds interesting. I’m in.”
    Last edited by AverageSparrow; 2014-04-30 at 09:54 PM.