Fruit of the Fallen

Hunting Heaven

A Foretold Path

Part 29 of The Adventures of The Split Falchion

The Crimson Eagle, Two Days Later
It was just after midday, the barroom below doing its normal roaring business. Vargard had expected Marwyn to join the rest an hour ago. When there was no sign of the bard, he excused himself and walked to their room. He knocks on the door gently, and waits for a reply.
“Just a minute!” Marwyn yells through. The bard opens the door shortly after, and the warrior noticed he was wearing his ring.
“Mevalyn?”
“Yeah,” Marwyn nods, “She was leaving Fairhaven and we were catching up.”
“Leaving Fairhaven? What’s wrong?” Vargard asks, entering the room and closing the door behind him.
“They got snow again,” Marwyn answers, “The guard’s worried about too many people coming in from the fields to shelter in the city. Grain reserves and… well, I didn’t catch all of it.”
“Still sure you want to stay with us Marwyn?”
“Yeah, Var. Thanks for keeping quiet about… all this, by the way.”
“No problem, it’s your own business,” the warrior responds. “I got a runner from the university this morning. Perin’s finally got permission for his little expedition, so we’re a go in a few days.”
“That’s, that’s good,” Marwyn replies, somewhat distractedly.
“What is it?”
“I’ve almost got it, Var,” the bard says, reaching for an auburn tome, “I’m so close. I’m just not quite there yet.”
“We’re going to a forest, Marwyn. You shouldn’t…” Vargard begins, but stops himself when he remembers why Marwyn was studying Feather Fall. “I’m glad you were able overcome the mine shaft back in the Cogs,” he switches topics.
“Barely,” Marwyn grimly confirms.
“How’re Les and Jor doing?” the bard asks, he too eager to change the topic.
“Well enough. You should join us before the food gets cold.”
“Yeah, sure,” Marwyn replies, grabbing his pack and following Vargard out.

Meanwhile, Langhorn’s Study
“Sure you don’t want to join us, Langhorn?” Perin asks, standing by the Aundairian professor’s desk. Shakris had gone to the library to find research material, leaving the two elves alone.
“I think I have better use for my time than traipsing through a forest, Perin,” Langhorn answers dryly.
“How many times do I have to apologize for that… incident?”
“Only once. But now that I have ‘earned my keep’, I have my own research to consider. I’m not getting any younger.”
“Shame. I have a really good feeling about this, Langhorn,” Perin replies, “Crown must as well. Our liaison with Wroat said she’d never seen an approval return so fast.”
“Are they interested in the prophecy?” Langhorn questions, finally showing some interest.
“Well… it’s more the Manifest Zone really,” Perin admits, “I mean, look at what Shaarn’s done with the one here. Who knows what this one can do?”
“Or if it’s even there,” Langhorn counters.
“I apologize if this bores you Langhorn, but I really do think I’m on to something,” Perin says, wounded, “I hope you find your work to be just as fruitful.”
“Thank you,” Langhorn replies graciously, realizing he was being more confrontational than he rightfully should, “I wish you well on your journey.”
“Not that I’ll need it with those friends of yours,” Perin responds, picking right back up with his cheerful spirit, “Considering what they chewed through, I’m really starting to think fate is on our side.”
“We can only hope,” Langhorn agrees, “Safe journeys.”
“I’ll be sure to stop by when I get back, tell you how it went,” Perin says, in farewell.

The Crimson Eagle
Marwyn had joined his compatriots in dining on the noonday meal, a healthy selection of fresh meats and breads. Despite the dire state of Fairhaven Mevalyn had reported, Shaarn seemed to be doing well in terms of winter supplies. Breland had always been a titan of agriculture, the sheer size of the nation allowing it to dwarf the fields of even Aundair in sheer quantity. Even from just the week he had been in Shaarn, Marwyn could tell this.
“So, ‘a few days’,” Jorduna starts the conversation, after all had finished their meals, “Exactly when are we leaving with the mad professor?”
“They weren’t specific,” Vargard answers, “Probably at the end of the week.”
“Any others accompanying us?” Lesani chimes in.
“Probably not,” Vargard replies, “By the sound of it, the university’s much more interested in exploring the rest of those ruins. Probably have the same opinion I have on the matter, it’s a fool’s errand.”
“At least we’re getting paid,” Marwyn reasons, “I’ll take the woods over those ruins any day.”

One of the servants comes by to take their plates, dropping off a fresh tankard for each of the four. When they leave, the conversation resumes.
“Yeah,” Vargard sighs, “Just can’t shake the feeling that Cletus would’ve loved this one.”
“He’d probably do it for free,” Jorduna chuckles, “Probably would’ve hated that prophecy nonsense though…”
“I’m still not convinced of anything,” Vargard responds stubbornly, “It’s too much to believe.”
“You doubt the veracity of the prophecy?” Lesani asks.
“Not that. Just that whatever happens involves us,” the warrior clarifies, “Though I suppose we aren’t exactly trying to avoid it.”
“Jor and I were talking about this earlier,” the elf replies, “What we have seen thus far could match with what the prophecy has said.”
“Yeah, only if you want it to,” the hobgoblin argues, “The first part, ‘dying of the light’. That could mean anything!”
“Granted, but the appearance of a Siberys Manifest Zone would definitely fulfill the next part of the prophecy.”
“And then what? Siberys gets destroyed? Is that really what you’re saying Les?”
“What?” Marwyn asks, confused.
“The prophecy mentions ‘The Broken’ being endangered,” Lesani explains, “Given the reference to it in the previous line, I believe the prophecy foretells a threat against Siberys itself.”
“Bullshit,” Jorduna counters, bringing a hand down on the table, “Said yourself the prophecy can mean anything, Les. That could easily mean anything.”
“Right, but…”
“Les, Jor, let’s just drop it for now,” Vargard cuts the bickering mercenaries off, “We’ll worry about the prophecy if we come across it. Will you be ready to move out by then?”
“Yeah, Var,” they respond together. While forceful, their debate hadn’t been mean spirited. Marwyn, who had taken the sideline for most of the conversation, nods as well.

“Good. I’ll contact you when I know the day we’re leaving,” Vargard says, standing up.
“Where are you going?” Lesani asks.
“Pay from the ruins was good. I’m thinking about getting another sword,” the warrior answers thoughtfully.
“Never wanted to dual wield before,” Jorduna points out, “What changed?”
“Nothing. Just thought I’d get a backup, give myself the option,” Vargard explains.
“I should get back to studying,” Marwyn says, rising as well.
“Are you making progress?” Lesani asks, watching Vargard leave out of the corner of her eye.
“Yeah, I’m almost there,” Marwyn nods, “I’ll tell you when I got it.”
“Good luck, Marwyn,” Lesani responds, as he too leaves.

The Next Day, 100 Feet West of the Middle City
Marwyn had finally succeeded in casting feather fall, first in the comfort of his room, and then from the roof of the tavern. The spectacle had attracted some onlookers, and after he had harmlessly landed the guard warned him of the consequences of a repeat performance.
So instead, he had hired one of the sky coaches, having it take him far above the Dagger River.
“Here?” the driver asks, looking at the bard with some skepticism.
“Yeah, thanks,” Marwyn replies, handing the driver the standard fare.
“Uh… kid, I don’t know if you noticed, but… wait!” the driver exclaims, reaching out but unable to stop the bard from leaping off the side of the cab. He stares at the rapidly falling figure in shock, but then lets out a curse when he sees the descent suddenly slow. “Told the university I wasn’t doing this no more,” he mutters to himself, “Damn kids gonna give me a heart attack.”
Marwyn, meanwhile, was enjoying the rush of adrenaline from his jump. The spell slowed his fall, but the descent was still exhilarating. I wonder if I could glide like this, Marwyn thinks to himself, that would be amazing. After a minute, however, he realizes his mistake. He’d told the driver to go over the river on the off chance that his spell failed. Now, he realized that even with the spell succeeding, he’d land there anyway. While his landing was gentle, Marwyn gasps with the cold as he lands in the Dagger. The swim to shore was easy, even for him, but the cold still stuck with him all the way back to The Crimson Eagle.

“What did you do?” Lesani asks, seeing the sodden bard enter the tavern.
“Tried… higher,” Marwyn says through chattering teeth, “Overshot and… hit the river.”
“By Siberys, Marwyn! You could have been killed!”
“Spell… worked…” he argues, as Lesani draped her jerkin around him. They both move closer to the fire. “Thanks.”
“Just because you can do something does not mean you should,” the warlock chides, “I hope you have learned something from this.”
“Yeah,” Marwyn replies, warmth returning to him, “If I can find some way to pin my cloak to my arms, I could fly with this spell.”
“You would need the strength of several men to generate enough lift to fly, at best you would glide,” Lesani says, then shakes her head, “But you should not try either!”
“At least, I mean, I think I’m over my fear of heights,” Marwyn says.
“That is true,” Lesani compromises, “But I still advise caution Marwyn. That spell should be for emergencies only.”
“Ok, ok, Les,” Marwyn replies, thoroughly chastised, “I should probably work on those other spells now anyways. Var find out anything?”
“Not yet,” Lesani replies, “Perin is still gathering supplies. It should be soon.” She looks to her stone in slight surprise as it chimes. Marwyn’s does as well. “Speak of a devil….”
“Perin’s sent another runner,” Vargard says, once everyone had connected, “We’re leaving tomorrow at noon. Meeting him at the university gates.”
“Got it,” Jorduna acknowledges, disconnecting.
“Understood Var,” Lesani replies, closing the connection as well. Marwyn does the same, and hands Lesani back her coat. “I would get those clothes fully dried.”
“Yeah,” Marwyn agrees, “Back into a forest. Why do we keep going back into forests?”
“We go where the jobs are, Marwyn. That is all I can say,” Lesani answers. Unsatisfied, but unable to challenge the statement, Marwyn returns to his room to change.

Afternoon, The Next Day
The mercenaries had met Perin at the gates of Morgrave University as they had been instructed. From there, they take a skycoach to the lightning rail station which they had arrived from. Though Marwyn didn’t know the coach driver, she seemed to know him, as she gave him nervous glances throughout the trip. The bard tried to ignore it.
“Unfortunately we’ll have to disembark at First Tower,” Perin explains as he buys their tickets, “I’d like to minimize travel through the woods, but the damned manifest zone is right in the middle of the King’s Forest. Closest stop and all that.”
“Not a problem,” Vargard acknowledges, “Just as long as you know where we’re going.”
“Of course I do, don’t worry Mr. Garodin,” Perin reassures, as they board the rail, “I’ve triple checked the mural, and I’ve brought along this,” he says, tapping a scroll tube.
“What is it?”
“A map which centers itself on us. Updates itself in real time, I’m surprised they let me have it,” Perin says, “Though I imagine Wynarn isn’t too keen on us getting lost.”

It was a short ride on the rail, only an hour to the first tower. Getting off, the group is faced with the vastness of the King’s Forest.
The woods to the east expanded as far as Marwyn could see. It wasn’t the largest forest on Khorvaire, that honor went to the Towering Woods of the Eldeen Reaches of course. But it was still massive to one used to the wide plains of Aundair, which were broken only by small swathes of trees.
“Right!” Perin says, pulling a long wooden staff from its spot on his back and holding it as a walking stick, “Let’s be off!”
“Gotta ask Perin, are you any good in a fight?” Vargard questions, as they depart from the station. The swagger with which the professor was walking was drawing some attention, but otherwise they were undisturbed.
“S..somewhat,” the professor answers, the question tamping down on his excitement a little, “I’m not entirely defenseless.”
“We’ll hope it doesn’t come to it then,” Vargard sighs, stepping out of the way of a cart, “You have a tent?”
“Of course!” Perin answers, sails billowing once more with confidence, “I am always prepared! Anything one might need to survive in the woods can be found right here,” he pats the rucksack hanging from his back affectionately. “Or, well, almost anything. I wanted to bring a portable range, but couldn’t justify the weight.”
“Fire’ll do better anyways,” Jorduna cuts in, as they pass the last line of buildings which make up the town surrounding the First Tower. There’s a clearing between them and the King’s Forest, but past that, it’s practically jungle.
“I suppose,” Perin laments, “I’ve just always wanted to go on an expedition like this! Explore the vast wilderness of Breland. The air is… bracing!” he proclaims, taking in a deep breath. Jorduna and Vargard exchange looks, but don’t say anything.

When they reach the trees, Perin eagerly pulls out a machete, ready to hack away at the obstructing jungle ahead. It is with disappointment that he puts it back in its sheath, a clear trail through the woods had already been cut. There was evidence of foot traffic, though not much. While the locals most definitely hunted in the woods in spite of Brelish law, they’d be suicidal to do it openly or often.
After the first hour of travel, however, signs of previous travel grew faint. Perin delightfully employed his machete against branches that dared encroach onto the forest trail. Vargard had initially thought to stop him, thinking it would draw unwanted attention, but figured that the professor was already loud enough for it not to matter. The four hung back slightly, not wanting to get caught in an errant swing.

After a few more hours of walking, Perin decides to call it for the day, and make camp near a small lake. For most on Khorvaire it would not be night for another couple hours, but the forest canopy was concealing the sun as it moved towards the horizon. Jorduna withdrew some wire from her pack, along with a few other odds and ends, and moved around the exterior of the camp.
“Don’t go too far out,” she says, returning to the campfire Marwyn had started with a flaming arrow.
“Why?” Perin asks.
“Just… don’t worry about it,” the hobgoblin replies, “Any fish in that lake?”
“Perhaps,” Perin answers, grinning as he pulls a slender rod out of his rucksack, “Shall we find out?”
“Sure,” Jorduna shrugs. Perin moves to the lakeside, and is surprised when Jorduna joins him with a fishing rod of her own.
“Where did you get that?” the elf asks, looking over at the hobgoblin’s pack and noticing that it was too short to have held the pole.
“Figure it out for yourself, Professor,” Jorduna challenges, as she tosses a line away from where Perin had.

“Isn’t that illegal?” Marwyn asks Vargard, as they watch the two fish. Lesani had turned to her journal, isolating herself from the rest.
“Maybe,” Vargard shrugs, “Not like Breland’s King is waiting behind every tree to stop poachers. Hardly imagine any wandering forester’ll give us trouble with Perin’s writ anyways.”
“You know, I didn’t really think about it before, but Jor seems to really enjoy fishing,” Marwyn says with some surprise. He’d seen her at it once before, but the events of that day had… taken his mind off that.
Vargard grunts to himself, and answers, “Lot of things I don’t know about Jor. Ever tell you how I met her?”
“No,” Marwyn shakes his head, interested, “I don’t know how you met Les either. Or… Cletus.”
“It was after I’d quit the Royal Eyes, for the first time,” Vargard explains, eager to switch the topic, “Got the idea in my head to start my own team of operatives. People I could trust. I knew the Eyes would toss me a mission from time to time, but…”
“Why’d you quit the first time?” Marwyn interrupts.
“That’s… not something I can tell you, Marwyn,” Vargard answers reluctantly, “It was a personal decision, and it affected more than myself.”
“Sorry,” Marwyn apologizes.
“Can’t fault you for being curious,” Vargard replies softly, “I just can’t tell you, is all. Anyway, Jor, she was born in Darguun, you know that,” Vargard says, while watching the hobgoblin reel in what could be the first catch of the evening, “Ended up in Aundair a few years ago. Reason for that is her’s alone to tell. Anyways, it was a few weeks after I’d quit the Royal Eyes, and I saw her stealing from a food stall.”
“Did you turn her into the guard?” Marwyn asks.
“No,” Vargard shakes his head, “It was only a few bits of bread. Seemed like she’d been starving. Thought I’d test her, see if she was interested in joining my outfit. Cletus and Les were already with me at that point, but I felt like I needed a few more. Not like some teams, who hire as many people who can carry a sword. She’d already had a good collection of knives at that time, seemed capable of handling them.”
“Yeah, I think she told me about this,” Marwyn says, reaching far back into his memory, “I think you had her steal some stuff?”
“What?” Vargard furrows his brow, “No, that’s not how it happened at all. What did she tell you?”
“Nothing,” Marwyn answers quickly, “What happened?”
“Had her cut my purse,” Vargard smiles, remembering a fond memory, “I knew how to make myself appear an easy mark. Of course, all she found inside was a job offer. Poor girl wasn’t sure if it was a trap or honest opportunity when she handed it in. She was… less confident back then. It was a strange kingdom to her though, can’t really blame her.”

“Another thing I’ve been wondering,” Marwyn says, questions forming in his head that he’d never thought of before, “Why’d you name us The Split Falchion?”
“Hmm? Oh, that,” Vargard replies, momentarily caught by the sudden tangent, “In honor of my first sabre. We didn’t start with that name, can’t really remember what we called ourselves back then,” Vargard says, scratching his head.
“Steadfast Allies,” Lesani responds, over from her journal.
“Right, thanks Les,” Vargard says, “Honestly I’ve never been one for naming things. Anyway, I’d fought with a falchion during the war, and hadn’t bothered to use anything else when I went mercenary. Blasted thing was so worn that the blade got severed in two during one of our first jobs. Employer nicknamed us The Split Falchion as a laugh, and it kinda… stuck.”
“Why’d you switch to a longsword? Do you think I should?” Marwyn asks.
“No, I’d keep with what you’re familiar with,” Vargard replies, “I switched to a longsword because that’s what I pried off my opponent. Liked fighting with it better, it flows well with a shield.”

“What’re you talking about?” Jorduna asks, as she and Perin return, several fish in tow.
“History,” Vargard answers, “That’s a good haul.”
“It is!” Perin exclaims, who had in fact caught a couple of the fish, “I’m surprised the King is so restrictive of these woods. The natural resources are practically boundless!”
“Exactly why people aren’t normally allowed here, I wager,” Vargard answers, “How far have we to go?”
“Judging by my map,” Perin answers, pulling it out, “We have… two, maybe three days of hiking? Once there I’ll begin studying the land. If the mural was to scale, then the zone shouldn’t be more than a few hundred feet in diameter.”
“If it’s there,” Vargard counters, the smell of roasting fish permeating the air as Jorduna cooked them on a spit. “What’ll we do if it’s just more forest?”
“I’ll study the land just the same,” Perin answers, gaze wandering towards the campfire, “We can worry about that when we get there.”

Marwyn, meanwhile, had taken a seat next to Lesani. “What do you keep doing with that journal?” he asks, looking at the pages over her shoulder. The script was in Elvish. His mother had taught him her tongue, but it had been a while since Marwyn had tried to read the flowing letters. Combined with the warlock’s tight writing, he couldn’t make heads or tails of it.
“My studies,” the elf answers, keeping her gaze centered on the pages, “You have not attempted to cast your modified unseen servant ritual again, correct?”
“No, no no no,” Marwyn reassures, “Haven’t really done any rituals lately.”
“Good,” Lesani says, turning the pages to the latter portion of the journal, “Though I have been theorizing on a possible method to make it safe to use.”
“Really? How does it work?”
Lesani sighs, and answers, “Right now, it does not. I had hopes of using your mark as a conduit to safeguard the portion of your soul the spell uses, but it is rather hard to experiment without one myself.”
“The… the mark?” Marwyn replies, taken aback, “I thought it couldn’t be used for anything after the wand was destroyed.”
“Magic is a versatile art,” Lesani says, “Though given the difficulty I have faced attempting to modify the mark, that may be true.”
“If you need me to help you, I could try casting…”
“No, Marwyn, that will not be necessary,” Lesani interrupts, “My theories should not put your life in danger. When I am more certain of this method’s safety, I will let you know.”
“Thanks, Les. Anything else you’re working on?”
“A few things,” the warlock smiles mischievously, “Maybe you’ll see one or two of them soon.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” Marwyn says, and then looks to the fish which had finished cooking.

Perin roused the others at the crack of dawn, the next day. Such awakening might have been met with grumbling, had the canopy also not delayed the dawn. They resumed hiking after finishing the remains of last night’s meal. All had provisions, of course, but fresh food always tastes better.
The woods grew thicker the deeper they moved into them. At one point, the group is forced off the trail as it bends sharply southwards, their target to the north and east. It was several hours after they had made this correction, the sunlight once again dimming close to nightfall, that a mix of arrows and bolts rain down on the travelling five. Perin, leading the group, takes the brunt of two of the projectiles. Vargard manages to block the rest from injuring himself or his friends, and moves to cover the felled elf. “Ambush!” he yells, drawing his sword.
Marwyn struggles to string his bow, leaning down in attempt to dodge anymore shots. Lesani and Jorduna stand backs facing each other, covering the other two angles. No one had seen where the shots had come from, though the general assumption was that they were surrounded.
“I don’t see anything!” Jorduna yells.
“How is Perin?” Lesani asks.
“Still alive,” Vargard answers, placing the professor against a tree. He then lays his shield against Perin’s front, blocking most of him from archer fire. “Huh,” he grunts to himself, as he draws his second longsword.
“Why aren’t they attacking?” Marwyn says, scanning the trees for any movement.
“Could be repositioning,” Jorduna speculates, “Or they’re just running away like cowards! Hit and run tactics.”
“Who?”
“Plenty of bandits in these woods. Marwyn, help me with Perin,” Vargard orders, and then follows up with a whisper, “Make Jor invisible. Jor, see if you can find any.”
“Got it boss,” the hobgoblin answers softly, a grin spreading across her face.

“Uh… my head hurts…” Perin says weakly, trying to get up.
“Stay down!” Vargard commands firmly, pushing the elf back against the tree.
“Boss,” a whisper comes through his sending stone.
“What is it Jor?” Vargard whispers back, palming the stone.
“Found a half-elf bastard retreating. Should I take him out?”
“No, Jor, that’ll reveal you. Follow him back, but be careful.”
“Got it,” the rogue murmurs back, cutting the connection.
“My arm hurts too,” Perin groans, pulling at the arrow lodged in it.
“Stop doing that! Marwyn…”
“On it Var,” Marwyn responds. Healing magic was definitely an improvement over allowing the body to fix itself, though after a direct hit from a bow, the arrow still needed to be removed first.
“What happened?” Perin asks, as the haze from his injuries lifts.
“Ambush,” Vargard breathes into his ear, “Our attackers fled after firing on us. We’re tracking them back to their base.”
“What?!” Perin shouts, “We should get out of here!”
“We do that, and they’ll just come back for us,” Vargard argues, “If we can take them, then we’ll ambush them right back.”
“What if they’re too many?”
“Then we’ll have to get clever,” Vargard answers.

The bandit camp turned out to be a clearing only a few minutes’ walk from where they had been ambushed. Tattered tents were home to almost two dozen in equally disheveled clothes. What weapons they had were in slightly better condition, though certainly no army quartermaster would allow them to pass muster. Most had bows, their strengths allying more with attacking at range. In fact, not counting what were essentially long knives, only one carried a sword.
Something was cooking in a pot near the center of the camp, and the bandits were taking liberal drinks alongside it from several kegs. The barrels bore the mark of a popular and expensive brand, and it wasn’t likely that the men had paid for them.
“Found five Aundairian bastards just wandering abouts,” a bandit, who had recently returned, reported to the one with a sword.
“What did ya do?” the other asks, looking up from his bowl.
“Shot at ‘em. Pretty sure we got one. Others hunkered down.”
“I’m sure you idiots didn’t lead them back to the camp, right? Otherwise I might have to give you a reminder about…”
“No one followed us, jeez,” the first replies defensively, “Had Toval watch our backs to check. Those guys looked like they had some good gear, I’m thinking we take the rest of the boys and finish ‘em off.”
“We do what I say we do. Which is that,” the second orders, “Men, finish your grog, then suit up. We’ve got a…”
“Fire!” someone yells suddenly, flames sparking to life around the camp. “Fire!”

A Few Minutes Earlier, Jorduna
“Var, we’ve got at least 20 here,” the hobgoblin reports, “Big camp. Most are carrying bows, though they don’t look like they can hit shit with them.”
“They hit Perin pretty well,” Vargard’s voice comes through her stone, “20 bows is a veritable volley. And they’re way too close to avoid.”
“What should I do, Var?”
“Think you can disable some of their weapons?”
“Maybe,” Jorduna responds, taking another look at the camp. The five who had just returned had their bows firmly in grasp, but the others taking lunch had them either propped up nearby, or just in sight. Her eyes catch the barrels of alcohol, and she says, “Think I’ve got a better idea.”
“What?”
“I’m gonna set fires around them. I can smell the alcohol from here, must be strong stuff. Figure I can spread some around.”
“Do the best you can. I doubt they’re going to wait for us to regroup. Perin’s mobile, and we’re moving to regroup with you. We’ll give you as much time as we can, but as soon as they go on alert we’re moving,” Vargard replies.
“Got it,” Jorduna acknowledges.
“Good luck, Jor.”

Invisible, it was a matter of ease for the rogue to slip amongst the ranks of the bandits. Most were sitting, and focused on their meals. She took the opportunity to sever the bowstrings of four bows that were lying in the tent closest to her, taking care to support the stave of each as the tension was released. She was briefly worried that doing so would reveal her, but after the first time it became clear such maneuvers wouldn’t break her veil. She begrudgingly thanked Marwyn mentally for the assist, the spell was immensely helpful.
The other weapons she could see were too close to their respective owners to sabotage. So instead, she walked to one of kegs that hadn’t been tapped yet. She cut a thin hole in a side facing away from the mass of bandits, and collected the liquid that flowed from it in a large flask she had picked up earlier. A little on each tent, a few other opportune places, and finally, the keg itself, would make for an impressive distraction.
She finished applying the volatile liquid shortly before the scout had begun giving his report. “Var, something’s happening,” she says, taking out some flint and steel, “You ready?”
“Ready,” the warrior replies, “We can see the camp.”
“I’m going to start setting fires. I couldn’t get all of their bows, but honestly some are already drunk halfway to unconsciousness.”
“Do it,” Vargard says, and she strikes up a fire.

Her first target had been the leaking keg. She’d stuffed a rag drenched in alcohol into the hole she had cut, and then lit the end of the rag on fire. The rogue wasn’t sure if the barrel would catch fire, or explode, but she wasn’t going to be close by when it did.
The fire quickly reaches the innards of the barrel, barely giving Jorduna enough time to get away. The high quality ale made excellent accelerant, and the barrel provided enough pressure to make the brew detonate. Flaming chunks of wood rain down amidst the camp, lighting everything Jorduna had touched on fire. Recovering from the blast, Jorduna quickly chokes one of the more isolated bandits, forcing him into unconsciousness. Doing so dismissed the enchantment which kept her ethereal, but the rest of the combatants would soon have bigger problems.
The hobgoblin’s three companions rushed into the clearing, capitalizing on the confusion. Marwyn picks a target at random and fires off a shot. He wasn’t aiming to kill, but didn’t hold back either. Numbers were the only advantage the bandits had, and the inexperienced brigand goes down screaming, clutching the arrow in his shoulder.
Vargard had left his shield with Perin, so he charged with both longswords out. The presumed leader shouts, “For Khyber’s sake there’s only four of them! Stand and fight or I’ll hunt you down myself,” as he draws his sword. Jorduna was at the other end of the camp, so he was forced to engage the rushing warrior. The five scouts around him nervously look between the two approaching swords, and the one that was being drawn feet from their necks. Coming to a mutual decision, they fall back behind their leader and reach for arrows.
The rest, facing both the spreading fire and the rogue that had appeared out of nowhere, starting running off. A few tried to rescue something from the burning wrecks that were their tents, but it ultimately proved pointless.

Without his shield, Vargard was more exposed to the archer fire he was running into. Sometimes, however, it’s best to charge straight into the teeth of a beast. It’s the last thing it’d expect you to do. The archers rushed their shots, trying to halt the warrior’s charge. Only one arrow struck the warrior, grazing him across the forearm. One that went wide almost hit Marwyn, but he was able to step out of the way. He and Lesani focus their efforts on the remaining six bandits, supporting Vargard in his attack. Jorduna was still chasing off the rest of the bandits, so for now it was 2:1 odds.
The swordsman tries lashing out just as Vargard comes into range, but a quick shot from Marwyn fumbles his strike. One of the archers behind him cries out in pain as dark energy connects, the warlock aiming true as well. Vargard, meanwhile, tried to break the defenses of his opponent. He hadn’t had the opportunity to train with two swords to the point of mastery of the technique, but he knew the basics.
Fighting with two swords provided unique advantages and disadvantages. At face value, it suggested one was able to double the threat to one’s enemy. However, it was also more to mentally keep track of. With a shield, one needed only point it in the direction of a block. Using the same hand to direct stabs and slashes took a great deal more concentration. So, instead of staggering his attacks, Vargard mirrored his left hand to follow his right. It was more predictable, but also easier to keep up.
The bandit bowman started to back up, both to give themselves more space to fire, and also to distance themselves in case they had to run. One nervously steps around the bandit Marwyn had downed, who was weakly asking for help. Doing so also brought them closer to the fire, which had almost consumed all of the structures in the camp. Fortunately, the bandits had cleared the ground below of any underbrush when they had made the camp, so there was little risk of it spreading to the rest of the wood.

The bandit leader, meanwhile, was holding his own with Vargard. He seemed to have had at least some former training before turning to a life of thievery, and was exploiting the warrior’s unfamiliarity with dual wielding. The concentrated fire from the archers was also not doing the mercenary any favors, forcing him to be more defensive.
Lesani notices the bandit archers were using anything not burning as cover, and that she and Marwyn’s attacks were hardly able to damage them. “Marwyn, you must assist Var!”
“I am!” Marwyn shouts back, the frustration from his missed shots getting to him.
“He is struggling without his shield,” she replies, momentarily stepping behind a tree to dodge incoming arrows, “I fear he may not hold out until Jor returns, I will cover you!”
“Alright, fine!” Marwyn yields, steeling himself before charging in to engage the swordsman. The two in melee were focused on each other, so the sudden lunge from Marwyn’s rapier caught the bandit leader off guard. He’d expected to hear something upon connection, but the song that rang out wasn’t one he recognized. No time to think on it now, he reminds himself.

“What are you doing?” Vargard asks, while exploiting his opponent’s surprise with a quick cut to the torso.
“Helping!” Marwyn answers.
Vargard grunts, unable to keep up the conversation and focus on the battle at the same time.

With three blades assaulting instead of two, the bandit started giving ground, retreating towards his archers. He was about halfway to where they had taken cover, all three in melee having collected their own collection of wounds, that the archer fire ceased. “Keep firing you bastards!” the bandit yells, looking behind him nervously.
“Outta arrows. Sorry, but you’re on your own,” one of the scouts reports, who then turns in runs. The others debate internally for a second, but then they spot a hobgoblin charging their position, and quickly follow.
“Cowards!” he yells after them, “I’ll… I’ll surrender,” he says, throwing down his sword. “What now? Turn me in to the guard? Cut my throat?”
Vargard thinks for a moment, looking around at the smoldering camp. All but two of the other bandits had fled, their injuries preventing them from doing so. “You attacked us,” Vargard says, “We’re not here to flush out your kind. Leave us alone, and we’ll do the same.”
“What… that’s it?” the bandit replies incredulously, “You torch my camp, scatter my men, and that’s it?”
“Yeah,” Vargard nods, Jorduna returning to his side, “A word of caution, we don’t kill if we don’t have to. Trouble us again, and that’ll change. Spread the word.”
“O…ok,” the bandit says, grabbing his sword and backing off.
Vargard, for his part, turns and leaves the clearing. The rest follow.

“How far did the rest run?” Vargard asks, when they were a suitable distance away.
“Kept running as far as I could tell,” Jorduna replies, smiling, “Didn’t think booze could be that explosive.”
“I thought you’d been hiding bombs in that pack of yours for a moment,” Vargard jests.

Perin was where they had left him, clutching Vargard’s shield in front of him. He sighs in relief when he sees the mercenaries return. “Is it over? Are they dead?”
“Yes, and no,” Vargard replies.
“What?! What if they come back?”
“I highly doubt that. The ones that didn’t run for the hills were pretty beat up.”
“You didn’t kill any of them?” Perin says, astounded.
“You paid us to protect you, not kill people,” Vargard answers, “And we don’t kill unless we don’t have to.”
“Well, I…”
“And I’ll need my shield back,” Vargard continues, prying the metal frame from the professor’s hands. Placing it on his back, he asks, “You ready to keep moving?”
“Y…Yes,” Perin answers eventually, feeling it would be best not to stress the point.

Camp, That Night
The group had walked about an hour away from the ambush, trying to get enough distance between them and the bandit camp before making their own. They had the remnants of the fish from the night before for supper. The mercenaries went to rest early, the exhaustion from the prior skirmish getting to them.

Perin, however, remained conscious for a little while longer. He kept rubbing the spots where the arrows had hit absentmindedly. The wounds had been healed, of course, but in a way he could still feel them protruding outwards.
“I did well for myself,” he whispers to himself, staring at the sky, “Didn’t I? Took two arrows and kept on going. If only I hadn’t… before…” he trails off, feeling the back of his head, “Maybe I should invest in some armor once I get back. Perhaps a good sword…”
The professor jumps when he hears a branch snap somewhere in the woods. He settles down soon after, though, when his eyes pick out antlers in the distance. “Or maybe I’ll just sit at a desk for a while,” he ponders, allowing himself to slip into unconsciousness.

The Next Day
The following day’s travel was mostly uneventful. The five were guarded after their encounters of yesterday, but no trouble found them. They did notice, eventually, a subtle downward slope. It was close to dusk when Vargard, leading the party, called for a stop.
“Woah,” he exclaims, looking ahead. “Les, tell me that’s natural.”
“Perhaps, but not likely,” Lesani answers, matching his gaze. Ahead of them, the land’s falling had sharply culminated in a valley, the tops of the trees well below their current position. All vegetation in the sunken land seemed to have grown wildly, despite the season, greatly obscuring vision of anything which may hide below.
“This must be it!” Perin exclaims, “There can be no doubt.”
“Wait,” Marwyn says, “I thought the circle would make things colder.”
“There are more aspects of Siberys than just the Sea, my body,” Perin answers, trying to gauge the valley’s diameter, “In fact, there is a region of Khyber that has more in common with the Sea than, say, Shavarath.”
“What?”
“Never mind,” Perin waves the bard away, “About… half a mile. This is definitely the place. A new, active Manifest Zone! Ah, this really takes the sting out of losing the prophecy.”
“Is it safe to go inside?” Jorduna asks reprehensively.
“Were you not safe in Shaarn?” Perin asks rhetorically, then quickly adds, “Aside from the ruins, of course. Yes, it should be safe.”
“Should be?” Vargard questions, sharing his rogue’s skepticism.
“Well, y..yes,” Perin sputters, “It is likely that the Zone doesn’t even encompass the entire valley. But… I will want to reach the center, if possible. Confirm my suspicions of where this links to Siberys, and who knows? Maybe we’ll find something interesting.”
“We should make camp now,” Lesani suggests, cutting through Perin’s enthusiasm, “It would not do well to be caught there during nightfall.”
“What? But it is perfectly safe!”
“Do not pretend to understand the natural world better than I, Perin,” Lesani cautions, “I do not know for certain what it is, but I sense some danger to these woods. We should be careful.”
“But….”
“Might as well make camp,” Vargard agrees, “Perin, it’s already getting dark.”
“Fine,” the professor concedes, “But we move out at dawn.”

The Next Morning
“’effin nature,” Jorduna curses, cutting a creeping vine off of her jerkin. She and her companions had made their way down the steep slope that had ringed the valley, and had just entered the outer ring of the forest.
“This is more jungle than wood,” Vargard remarks, trying to avoid a fate similar to the hobgoblin’s. It was difficult, the vines were almost everywhere. It lay across most of the ground, and spiraled up the trees which blocked most of the sunlight. There was an odd absence of any animal life, and that, combined with the darkness, made the surroundings incredibly eerie.
“I’m beginning to agree with not coming here until now,” Perin says, viciously employing his machete at anything close to him, “We should be careful not to get turned around.”
“Can’t we just use the sun… oh,” Marwyn sighs, realizing it was impossible to tell where exactly the daylight was coming from.
“Ground’s still going down,” Jorduna points out, “Make’s sense that the lowest point would be in the center.”
“Maybe, but then again, maybe not,” Perin argues, “Stop thinking of the mundane! Come, you must be starting to feel it now! The Zone… it’s actually somewhat intoxicating.”

At those words, Marwyn realizes what he had been subconsciously sensing for the past hour. There was a… heightening sensation in the air. It felt almost as if the bard were looking out from the peak of some great mountain, and the feeling was growing stronger with every step. “Woah,” the bard says to himself.
“We can follow this to the center,” Perin explains, “And then use the slope to get back out.”
“That’s good thinking Perin,” Vargard compliments.
“I’m not as good as you in a fight, Mr. Garodin,” the professor bristles, “But I’m still a professor of Morgrave University. Don’t act that surprised.”
“My apologies. By your lead, professor,” Vargard says, gesturing forwards. He couldn’t sense the Zone’s effect as well as the others, he usually relied on Lesani for such readings, but even he could get a sense of the gradient.
“Right… this way!” Perin exclaims, pointing forwards with the tip of his machete.

The path through the overgrown woods wasn’t straightforward. To make what was already a subjective measure of direction worse, Perin, Marwyn, and Lesani often found themselves disagreeing on the best direction forwards. They often yielded to the professor, though several times it became clear the one of the other was correct. Travelling deeper led to yet thicker woods, choking them in lush greenery. Rips and tears were collected where vines had claimed parts of their clothing, and minor injuries where greater offence was taken. Marwyn soon found it impossible to tell from where they had originally come, and the undergrowth on the forest floor had all but obscured the incline of the land. Or, perhaps, it had evened out.
A few hours after they had come across their journey, around midday, the group comes across the corpse of a deer. Only it was clear that it had not died a natural death.
“I don’t like the look of that,” Vargard was the first one to speak. He eyed the carcass with caution. It posed no immediate danger, but whatever had slain it may. The creature’s stomach seemed to have burst outwards, its interior exposed to the air. No insect life or other decomposers had touched it, further evidence of the valley’s absence of non-plant life.
“Looks gutted. Hunter might’ve come through,” Jorduna offers.
“Wouldn’t leave his kill behind,” Vargard counters, “Perin, do you really need to reach the center of this place? What are you hoping to find that you can’t at the edge of this thing?”
“While this sight is… disturbing, I’ll grant you,” Perin says, looking away from the corpse, “We should press on. We need to reach the center. Do you have a problem with that, Mr. Garodin?”
“Not at the moment,” Vargard denies, “But we turn around at the first sign of whatever killed the deer.”
“If we run into any danger then I will lead the retreat, you have my word,” Perin answers, “Now let’s move on.”

The magical aura surrounding the valley was becoming so strong that it was beginning to be hard to think clearly. Not enough that Vargard felt they needed to turn back, but he was worried about the growing soporific effect. At the same time, the vegetation had begun to curiously recede. Shrubs were more modest with the fruit they bore, and the barbs of the ever present vines seemed to be blunter.
Further, still, they trekked. The air became hazy, and the five walked as if in a daze. Now would be the time for the fighter to call retreat, if not for the thoughts that came to him. You’ve come this far, they said, why turn back now? What could lie at the center of this place, this enchanted woods? He was filled with a need to know, now. The same drive that had taken Perin when the elf had first entered had them all now, pushing them further and further.
It seemed like an age when they reached the first clearing they had ever come across. The air was obviously brimming with power, Lesani felt it the most. She’d experienced this before, such Zones weren’t uncommon in the Eldeen Reaches, but never with this magnitude. In the center of the clearing was a stone structure, a temple it seemed, which burned with what seemed pure natural power.
Vargard was the only one not engrossed with it, and he cursed as he looked up. “It’s nearly nightfall, we’ve been walking for the entire day!”
“What?” Lesani exclaims, looking up as well, “We could not have been walking for that long! We would have come to the other end of the valley.”
“Unless we’d been walking in circles,” Jorduna accuses, looking warily at Perin.
“Look, we all felt like we were going the right way,” the professor defends himself, “I’m sure we’ll be fine. There’s nothing even here!”
“’cept what killed that deer,” Jorduna argues, “No way we’ll get back out before nightfall.”
“We don’t need to! I know about your reservations but all this gives us is the night to study that structure.”
“Var…” Marwyn says, fear evident in his voice, “There’s something moving in the woods.”
“What?” the warrior asks, turning around. His eyes catch movement, but he was unable to see what was causing it. “Everyone. To that building. Now.”
“Var, we do not know if this is a tra…” Lesani begins to argue, but is interrupted when something charges out of the tree line. It wasn’t unlike a wolf, but far larger than even a dire. Dark energy, which had thus far kept the beast concealed, now coursed across its exterior. More followed, yet none of the travelers saw them, as they were already running towards the building in the center of the clearing.
Jorduna turns to loose a knife, trying to slow down the leading beast. As she does, she sees Perin get run down, fangs puncturing deep into the elf’s chest. Saying nothing, she redoubles her efforts towards sprinting. The remaining four reach the stairs, which lead to an open, elevated platform above the forest floor. Besides the stairways leading out in four directions, the structure was barren.

Vargard reached the building first. He turns, shield out, to protect the ones following. “Where’s Perin?” he shouts, not seeing the elf.
“They got him,” Jorduna answers, gasping for air.
“And you just left him?!”
“His fault we’re here anyway!” she fires back.
“Why are they stopping?” Marwyn cuts in, noticing that the beasts outside the building, save one, had started circling them about 30 feet away from the stairs.
“Good thing they are, no way we can take all of them,” Jorduna says.
“We don’t just leave people behind, Jor!” Vargard exclaims, facing the stalking creatures.
“Nothing I could have done, Var! What are we going to do?”
“I could make us all invisible…” Marwyn speculates, trying to stay as close to the center as possible.
“This… feels like a hunt,” Vargard says, “That’s what Cletus would say, this place is a lure.”
“Then if these are just the hounds, where are their masters?” Lesani asks, scanning the horizon. As she opens her senses, however, she finds something more troubling where they stood. “Var! There is something building up below us!”
“What is it?”
“I… I think it’s a teleportation spell of some kind,” she answers, desperation growing in her voice, “We need to move off this platform before…”

A brilliant flash of dark light emanates from the platform, blinding all within it. The light spread outwards, encompassing the entirety of the clearing. It continues, filling the entire valley with a shifting shadow, before just as quickly disappearing altogether. In place of the sunken earth was now an even section of forest, practically indistinguishable from the rest of the King’s Wood. No trace of those who had entered the alien valley now remained on the face of Eberron.

Continued in Part 30, Lost in Twilight Woods – A Ranger’s Elegy

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