Fruit of the Fallen

A Walk in the Woods

Confusion and Illusion

Part 11 of The Adventures of The Split Falchion

The Split Falchion crosses the Thrane/Aundair border a week after they had left New Cyre. The journey had been largely uneventful, the few travelers they encountered posing no threat to them. Marwyn had spent most of the time with Mevalyn, talking of their respective lore and history. Admittedly, he had grown lax in his ritual studies, but this had paid off in respect to good company and a new skill. The spell known as Vicious Mockery was different from magic he had learned before, it required the use of a wand for one.

The rest of his group had behaved as they normally do on long journeys by horse, chatting somewhat as the mood took them, but overall keeping to themselves. In deference to Jorduna, the bards kept playing to a minimum, so the journey was also mostly a quiet one.

“I’m sorry you can’t stay with us,” Marwyn says, as the time had eventually come for Mevalyn to depart.
“It’s ok.” Mevalyn replies, “I think I’m going to take a break from the whole mercenary thing for a while now anyways.” She pauses to think, looking to the horizon, “I believe Fairhaven is as good a place as any to start my sabbatical.”
“Do you have enough coin to make it?” Marwyn asks, somewhat worried.
“I’ll be fine, Marwyn,” she responds, “Bards’ always find coin on the road. Plenty of taverns from here to Fairhaven.”
“Hey you two,” Jorduna yells from her horse, “We’re leaving now, break it up.”
“I..” Marwyn tries to say, before Mevalyn’s hug cuts him off.
“Take care of yourself,” she says in parting, “and look for me in Fairhaven if you’re ever in town. Who knows, I might have settled down.”
“I will,” Marwyn says, as Mevalyn mounts her horse and spurs it onwards, following the road north. He mounts his horse, and moves to catch up with the rest.

The group moves North-East, away from the road, but on a direct path to the Eldritch Woods. The Woods are the Southern-most forest of Aundair, and one of the few ancient forests left to the nation after the Eldeen Reaches succeeded. The woods are named thus due to old legends surrounding the woods, detailing dark rituals and cults of the Dark Six that once took shelter under their trees. Recent times, however, had largely disproven this myths. Or, at the very least, suggested that such practices had stopped long ago.

Still, as Marwyn approaches the woods two days later, they still seem as foreboding as if the legends still survived to this day. The trees, most of them hundreds of years old, tower over the landscape. They had technically reached the woods yesterday, but Vargard had wanted to enter them in the morning, and reduce the chance of having to spend the night in the forest. Ostentatiously this was to avoid sleeping in an area where an ambush could be planned more easily, but Marwyn wondered if he too was slightly wary of the forest.

“I just realized, do we have any idea where Redmont actually is?” Marwyn asks, taking in the enormity of the woods.
“No.” Vargard answers simply. “The sending Darius had received wasn’t specific, they only mentioned the southern part of the woods, and that itself was implied.”
“Wait,” Jorduna says, stopping, “You’re saying we’re just going to walk through these woods until either we trip over Redmont or he ambushes us?”
“Ah, no Jor,” Vargard replies, smiling slightly, “I’m saying you will walk through the woods. At first, at least. I don’t want you getting too far, but I’m not too confident in my ability to go throughout the woods without drawing attention.”
“Alone?” Jorduna asks incredulously.
“I’ll be wit’ you if the spooky trees try anything,” Cletus says, in a rare jest. Jorduna glares at him but doesn’t respond.
“Besides Cletus, we’ll be following at a distance,” Vargard continues explaining, “If we do draw attention, then at least we’ll have you two in our pocket. Otherwise, we’d be dangling you two out without support.”
“I don’t like this,” Jorduna says uneasily, “But I guess we have no choice.” She hesitantly starts walking towards the woods, one of her hands fiddling with the pouch she keeps her sending stone in. Cletus nods his head at Vargard, and takes off after her. Their gate and stance take on different forms as they pass under the first tree, as they obscure their movement and try not to make obvious noise. Marwyn notes that the cloaks they had gotten from so long ago assisted their efforts again, making his eyes want to slide off the departing figures as he watched them.

“Won’t following them defeat the purpose of stealth?” Marwyn asks.
“As I said, I’d rather walk into an ambush then… what the hell?” he asks, as Jorduna and Cletus walk out of the woods. A bewildered look graces both of their faces, and Jorduna rapidly turns around, trying to get a bearing.
“We were… but there was..” she tries to say.
“What the hell is going on here?” Vargard asks, as they walk back.
“Dunno. We’re in the forest, then we’re out,” Cletus explains.
“Var, perhaps I should examine the boundaries of the forest,” Lesani says, curiously, “It appears as if some form of magic has misled our companions.”
“Damn magic,” Jorduna says, sitting down to clear her head.
“Do it,” Vargard orders Lesani, and she carefully takes off towards the wood.

“There is some form of misleading illusion placed around the edge of the forest,” she reports eventually, “It affects all who cross the threshold, with the goal of turning all intruders away.”
“This complicates things,” Vargard says, thinking on that.
“Yeah,” Jorduna says, “It only took five minutes for us to get turned around. How the hell are we supposed to get anywhere?”
“It is possible, probable, actually, that this effect is not spread around the entire forest,” Lesani says, “If it did, it would draw attention. They would likely only ward the area of forest closest to a hideaway. This discovery is, if anything fortuitous.”
“That’s one way of putting it. To me it means we might have just been made,” Vargard responds grimly, “So we’ll circle the forest then. Try and find where the magic ends, and then try and travel back to here from the forest side.”
“If it is any consolation, I doubt they know we are here,” Lesani says, “I found no indication of sending magic associated with the spell. The element of surprise may still be with us.”
“I hope so,” Vargard replies, “But whatever the case, we’re together now. I’m not splitting us up if illusions are in play.”
“Blasted mages,” Cletus says in agreement.

After about 10 minutes of walking, Lesani stops, and focuses. “It clears here, and does not penetrate further into the woods. We should be able to make progress unhindered.” She then adds, “From this spell, at the very least.”
“You mean there’s more?” Jorduna asks.
“Makes sense. Why only have the one spell,” Vargard muses, “Var, Marwyn, you’ll want to keep your eyes open for any other tricks.”
“Sure,” Marwyn answers, while examining the illusion spell cast over the edge of the forest. While it did not feel as powerful as most of the spells Marwyn had encountered before, to be spread over such a distance, it must have taken some skill to cast. This fact alone made him even more wary of entering the woods. It also made him think of the Mark, which did little to improve his mood.

The Split Falchion starts walking through the forest. Despite the increased noise generated by their numbers, they still make an attempt at stealth. It takes considerable effort on Marwyn’s part, the bard performing two skills he wasn’t used to at the same time. Still, with the help of his cloak, he manages to at least match his teammates in covert movement. Eventually, Cletus signals for a halt.

“Found a trail. Human, heavy. Probably armored.” he says, pointing at what Marwyn can only see as forest floor.
“Any trace of magic?” Vargard returns in a whisper.
“No,” Lesani answers, Marwyn concurring.
“’t’s very faint. Illusion ‘d be more obvious,” Cletus says.
“True,” Vargard nods, “We’re about where we were outside of the forest. My bet, Redmont came this way and had a wizard cast the spell behind him to fool anyone following his trail. Must have chosen Sword Keep or Fort Light as his destination. Good work Cletus.”
“I’ll lead, follow the trail,” Cletus says, walking out to the front.
Lesani’s eyes suddenly light up as she follows his movement, and she hurriedly whispers, “No, stop!” Her warning is too late, however.

A burst of magical energy temporarily blinds the party, and as they recover their senses they find themselves surrounded by a collection of woodland predators: bears, wolves, etc.
“I think it’s safe to say surprise just went out the window!” Jorduna yells, as the group moves back to back, facing the outer circle of predators.
“Something is wrong,” Lesani says.
“Yeah, when’s the last time you say bears and wolves hunt together,” Jorduna interrupts, “They’ve obviously been summoned.”
Lesani moves to speak again, but is cut off when a wolf charges at her. She dodges the blow and gives it a shock of dark magic, which causes the wolf to slump over, dead. Another charges at Jorduna, and manages to get an attack in, biting down hard on her leg. Jorduna clenches in expectation of the pain, but then relaxes when none comes. The wolf’s bite had not affected her.
“This is another illusion,” Lesani says, finishing what she had tried to say.

The rest of the group stops attempting to defend themselves, recognizing the illusion for what it was. Soon, the animals fade, leaving The Split Falchion alone, standing shoulder to shoulder.
“That blew our cover,” Cletus breaks the silence.
“No shit,” Jorduna says, winding down from the combat.
“Still got that trail, Cletus?” Vargard asks.
“Aye, but we’d be walking into a trap now.”
“No choice. We leave and Redmont disappears again.” Cletus moves forward, to follow the trail again.
“Damnit, we’re always a step behind these guys,” Marwyn curses, frustrated.
“Yes, but at least we are gaining ground. Hope is not lost yet, Marwyn,” Lesani responds calmly.
“Thanks Les,” Marwyn says, “I just want this to be over.”
“We all do, Marwyn,” Vargard says, softly yet sternly, “Let’s keep moving.”

Cletus continues leading the group deeper into the woods. They were slowed somewhat when a branch staked with sharpened branches swings out and nearly catches him in the side. Similar traps, as well as pitfalls, are encountered further along the path, although the group meets no sentient resistance. At one point, Cletus stops suddenly.
“What’s wrong?” Vargard asks, “Trail’s pretty clear now.”
“Even I could follow this,” Marwyn chimes in.
“’xctly,” Cletus responds, “It was concealed earlier. Now it’s clear. Les, I’d take a look.”
Lesani kneels down by the tracks, taking a close look, “He’s right, these are illusionary. A very convincing illusion, I can only sense magic coming from these two,” she reports, indicating the two footprints in front of her.
“Nice catch,” Vargard compliments.
“Yeah, but if those are fake, where are the real ones?” Jorduna asks, then has a thought, “Godsdamnit, have we been following a fake trail the entire time!?”
“Prob’ly not,” Cletus answers.
“We’ll need to backtrace,” Lesani says, “Marwyn and I’ll find where the magical trail meets the real one.”
“And have any of you noticed how godsdamn quiet it’s been,” Jorduna continues in an annoyed tone.
“It was pretty quiet until now,” Vargard quips, then adds, “And you’re forgetting the traps.”
“Traps, sure. But we haven’t even seen anyone. Where the hell are the tracks from whoever set those up? Or from the mage that cast this illusion?”
“If an illusionist could create a false set of tracks,” Lesani answers, in a curious tone, “They might be perfectly capable of apparently erasing another.” She moves a slight distance away from the path bearing the false trail, searching for something, palms facing downwards as she scans for the slightest trace of magic. Marwyn takes initiative and goes to search the other side. A smug look crosses Jorduna’s face while they do so, the hobgoblin pleased at her deduction.
“’t’s not fair,” Cletus mumbles, looking spitefully at the illusionary bootprints.

“Found it!” Marwyn says, after a short time. Lesani moves over to him, and examines where he is pointing.
“Yes, there is another illusion here, covering a set of tracks. I can follow the trace. It appears to lead West,” she says.
“The amount of illusions here are starting to worry me,” Vargard responds, “I’m starting to suspect…”
“What?” Lesani asks, as he trails off.
“Nothing. Let’s keep moving. We might have regained some of the element of surprise, especially if they planned on leading us to an ambush,” Vargard orders, dismissing Lesani’s question.

The group keeps moving, Lesani leading this time, focusing on the sliver of magic that is all that remains of the hidden trail. Though they had started the journey somewhat confidently, the darkness of the woods only grows deeper, as the trail leads them farther into the Eldritch Woods. The traps had stopped once they had left the illusionary trail, though the thought of another illusionary attack, or perhaps a real one, left everyone on edge.

Around what was supposedly midday, the woods grew so dark that those with just normal vision could only see within the immediate area. They had long left any sense of a normal trail, grass and branches littering the ground underneath them. Marwyn steps carefully, not wanting to make their situation any direr. After about an hour of such walking, near the center of the woods, Lesani suddenly stops.

“Trail end?” Vargard asks.
“No, it is no longer necessary to follow it,” Lesani replies, and extends a finger outwards, towards a small rise in the topography. To the normal eye, it simply appears to be a hill in the otherwise flat landscape, uncommon but not rare. At Lesani’s words, however, Marwyn strains his mind, and even at this distance can detect faint hints of magic. “A spell is concealing an opening. I believe that simply focusing on that space will disrupt the illusion, it was never meant to overcome anything other than passive glances.”
“Any idea why?” Vargard asks in a guarded tone.
“No.” Lesani replies simply, but then explains, “The mage who cast all these illusions may simply have not been able to cast a stronger spell. What we have seen so far suggests an uncommon focus on illusionary magic, but everyone has their limits. Or, perhaps whoever cast this spell never thought that anyone would notice the tracks leading to it.”
“I still don’t like this,” Vargard responds, a sentiment shared by the most of the party, “But we press on. We have to be close.”

The illusion easily falls apart under careful glance, and a tunnel leading downwards is revealed. Though Marwyn was no stonecutter, it was obvious even to him that it was manmade, the gashes from pickaxes still visible on the walls. The sudden closeness of the walls only added to the dread that was building in him, and his senses were on high alert for even the slightest of sounds.

They began walking down the tunnel after checking for any magical signs or traps (finding none).They are startled briefly when a loud noise echoes outwards from the tunnel. Marwyn jumps away slightly, colliding with Jorduna, who was standing behind him. She mutters a small curse into his ear as she pushes him away, but lets it drop after that.

“Rock’s fall. Nothing serious,” Cletus reports, guessing at the source of the sound.
“In any case, keep it quiet from now on,” Vargard orders, “On the off chance that they don’t know we’re coming from this way.” The rest nod their heads in agreement. Their pace slows as they watch for any debris on the ground, careful not to dislodge any rocks as they pass. The tunnel grows more narrow, to the point where the strikes of the pickaxes turn into the streaks of normal rock. They must have dug out this tunnel to the surface, Marwyn thinks to himself, taking a guess as to what he sees.
His nerves had calmed somewhat after watching the rest react to the sudden noise at the start of the cave. Though they too had been surprised, all four had remained unmoved (besides Jorduna), and stolid. Their confidence helped him get over his own unease, though the uncertainty of what they were about to face still troubled him.
Eventually, they reach a fork in the tunnel. One smaller path leads off into the darkness, while a wider one shoots off in another direction.
“Which way?” Lesani asks, through hand signals.
“Magic? Tracks?” Vargard responds in kind. Both Lesani and Cletus shake their heads, and Vargard turns a careful eye to each path. He thinks for a moment, and then chooses the left, wider path, beckoning to the rest to follow him. The exchange reminded Marwyn that it had been some time since he had thought of the signs his team uses, and he shamefully realizes that he had forgotten most of them.
Moving at the same slow pace, it is not until about an hour later that they finally see light ahead. The flickering suggests fire, though the lack of smoke and low level only indicates torchlight. The group moves ever more slowly at this, focusing on stealth, and as they approach the light, voices begun to be heard. An intense look crosses Vargard’s face when he recognizes one of them – Redmont.

“Still no sign?” Redmont asks, his deep voice echoing throughout the tunnel.
“No, sir,” A female voice responds. “They got as far as the first line, where Jordy heard them. He tried following them but their trail disappears after a while.”
“Is he certain?” Redmont asks again, somewhat sinisterly.
“Y..yes sir,” the other responds nervously. “They might have recognized the false trail and gone off in another direction.”
“That would have left a trail,” Redmont responds, “Where is he now? And the others.”
“Jordy got back a few minutes ago, he’s coming here now to report to you personally. Isdraeli and Varkson are with him.”
“They’re not guarding the entrance?” Redmont asks indignantly.
“Y..ou’re orders, sir. After you had learned Jordy had left to track them, you told them to return to you if he came back empty handed.”
“That’s…. that’s right,” Redmont responds, sighing. His voice takes on a tired tone, different from before, “Any word of Darius?”
“No,” the other responds, “None since he reported the sighting of the marked ones.”
“Damn him,” Redmont responds, “he wasn’t meant to challenge them. Now he’s ruined everythi…”

Redmont stops speaking for a moment, and then seems to address someone new, “Ah, you’ve returned. Anything to report?”
“No, sir,” another Cyrian voice says, “They’re trail just vanishes at some point. Couldn’t find it, even though I circled out a few hundred paces.”
Vargard throws Lesani a questioning look, but she shakes her head.
“Any good news? Have other detachments found us?” Redmont asks.
“No, sir.”
“Damnit,” Redmont says, “Had I known they would be that close…”
“It had to be done,” a new voice says, “Breland was almost onto us. If your friends hadn’t helped us here we wouldn’t have survived last month, period.”
“Be that as it may,” Redmont says, “I have the odd foreboding that my trust in them was mislaid.”

Vargard chances a whisper, “All of them together, it sounds like. We have to take the chance now, before reinforcements arrive.” The group had been moving closer to the light, and had almost reached the chamber ahead by this point. Jorduna and Cletus nod. Marwyn then does so, hesitantly. Lesani, however, gets a troubled look on her face. It appears as if she will object, but then abdicates, nodding in agreement.

Redmont turns as a sudden noise rings out behind him. The Split Falchion stands, facing the five Cyrians who stand together in a small cave, torches and small makeshift beds laid out on the sides. Redmont looks at Vargard and the rest, and then says, almost in a resigned tone, “I knew you would come, eventually. Not this soon, though.”
“You underestimated me,” Vargard responds calmly.
“How long you must have fantasized about revenge. At the very least I can offer you a fair fight.”
Vargard seems to steel himself, then responds, “Tell us about Blue Cloak, and I’ll walk out of here and forget I ever met you, or your damned band of Cyrians. You can continue fighting for your country, and I can get this damned thing off my back.” Surprise fills the room, no more so than on Redmont’s face.
This is brief, however, though the other Cyrians still look on the situation in bemusement. “I am afraid that is impossible. Draw your sword,” he orders, doing the same. He then utters a phrase, not unlike a prayer, “All I do, I do for Cyre.”
The other Cyrians’ faces become resolved once more, uncertain of the future but finding strength in their leaders’ words. Vargard, grim-faced, responds simply, “So be it.”
The two sides face each other, daring the other to make the first move.

Concluded in Part 12, A Plot Revealed – Ends and Beginnings

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