I’m staring into the fire in Climber’s camp of outlaws, searching desperately for light in the depths of my shattered soul.
They want me to tell the tale of our recent adventures. They want it to be full of heroic action and rousing arse-kicking. They want me to banish their despair and replace it with hope. How can I do that when I have none of my own?
All I know is that no one is trying to kill me right now and I’d rather not talk to anyone at all.
Is it not enough that we retrieved that axe from the troll lord and returned it to Climber as we promised? If they knew the true story of how we managed that, of what it cost us (oh, my Ash), they would quiver like infants.
That cursed creature, Unch, is not helping.
Why must I be saddled with a dark faerie homunculous slave? It is an obnoxious creature, rude, unbearable. It thinks I killed its previous master, the troll lord (was it me who struck the final blow? I hardly remember), and is now bound to me, most unwillingly. I too am unwilling. I don’t want a slave, cannot abide the thought of it. Yet I fear what would happen were I to release this creature. I don’t know what to do…
And it sits beside me muttering, chiding, snickering, prodding, doing my head in.
Fate is cruel to take away my Ash and replace him with this… tiny, winged, ugly… Unch.
They are all looking at me, waiting for me to begin the tale. More than thirty of them, the woman Climber included, as well as my own companions. (Why again is it me who has to do this?)
I take a deep breath and hope my voice does not shake…
You may well wonder what adventures we’ve had since leaving this camp — a whole eleven days ago, when we expected to be gone only four. The forest beyond this safe haven is treacherous —
(Unch: What?! Did you go via Port Rabat?)
— and we encountered many foes. We’d been travelling barely half a day along the stream when the first attack came. Six ogres. We dealt with them quickly and took one captive. Before we had a chance to interrogate him, though, we were attacked again, this time by wargs. We defeated these too, our blades flashing through the air. And then another attack, the third in half an hour, this time wolverines. Five of them. The air reeked with blood.
By this time, we were wondering just what type of quest Climber had set us on! I mean, a troll lord had sounded daunting enough, without this relentless harrying…
Our captive ogre then told us of a power known as the Dark Tree, which has been compelling creatures and humanoids by leaving ‘signs’ in the forest. The Dark Tree was allied with the troll lord —
(Unch: I told you already, moron, Quagmire served the Dark Tree for two years.)
— and the ogre said if we went near either of them, we would probably die. As if we couldn’t figure that out for ourselves.
(Unch: What did you do with the ogre?)
We continued along the stream —
(Unch: I said what did you do with the ogre?)
We released the ogre. Once free of the Dark Tree’s geas, he seemed harmless.
Anyway, as I was saying, we continued along the stream, not having any clearer directions. And the attacks kept coming. And coming. Sometimes they came at night, sometimes in the hush before dawn. We fought several different kinds of insect-like creatures, spider-eaters, giant snakes, enormous spiders, more wolverines… It seemed as though we were a beacon for everything foul and misbegotten in the world. But each time we prevailed — although Squirrel did have a close encounter with his maker.
(Squirrel: One moment, asleep in our camp. The next, smacked awake by an impact on my legs. Pitch dark. People shouting. Ash barking. I conjured light, more by reflex than conscious thought. And there, over me, some kind of giant praying mantis. A blur of movement and I was out.)
He was lucky the Elloran cleric stopped by before, gave us something to bring him back.
Anyway, at a huge grassy mound by the stream, a large force tried to ambush us. Their charge was sudden and brutal. Ogres and ungerns and wargs. In moments I was completely outflanked. We fought, Ash and I, side by side…
… … …
(Squirrel: She was completely surrounded! And then an orc came barrelling down the flank, intent on getting behind the party. Right past my tree. My staff made a satisfactory thwack, jarring my hands with the impact, and he went down, soundlessly. I stepped back into cover. Better for me to stay at the rear, and pick away at them from afar. I concentrated my attack on the line around Zillah, but I wondered if she needed my help, really: sword and dagger flashing in constant motion, she and the dog ducked and weaved and parried in that writhing melee, and incredibly emerged victorious with the dead piled about them, and the prize in hand. A most impressive display, she and her dog equally bloodied! That — that was a good day.)
Yeah… it was… Thanks, Squirrel.
We went too far east-south-east, following the stream. We turned back when it forked — do you, er, want to hear about the tree ent?
(Unch: I can’t believe you met an ent and lived to tell the tale — ha!)
All right… We met an ent at the fork in the river. A very pissed off tree ent. It wasn’t happy about the influence of the Dark Tree on this forest. We tried to placate the ent, told it we were trying to bring balance and peace back to the forest, but it made us promise… well, it looks like we must go to the lost city of Tel Marenor…
(Unch: Are you lot crazy?! I’ve come from there and it’s my definition of hell.)
Eventually, we must go there nonetheless. We have sworn it.
Anyway, the tree ent let us live and then we fire-bombed a goblin village and negotiated until they gave us passage and then, after days and days of blood and death, we finally reached the lair of Quagmire the troll lord.
(Unch: You forgot to mention what happened to your dog.)
We came to a clearing at the foot of a curved escarpment —
(Unch: What about your dog?)
Shut the fuck up, Unch! He died, all right. A fucking creature dragged him up a tree! Is that what you wanted to hear? Now not another word from you until I say!
Right, so the troll lord’s clearing… There were a couple of huts, and a cave high on the cliff face behind. The forest was silent… and then it wasn’t so silent as I heard movement in the undergrowth about 100 feet away. A horde of ogres and ungerns descended upon us through the trees. Quagmire was among them — 12 feet tall, broad as three men, wielding a double-handed axe.
Yes, that axe in your hand, Climber.
In under a minute we were engaged and the troll lord stood before us, death incarnate. Foes came at us from three, maybe four, sides. We took out the smaller players first and they fell one by one. Then three of us faced off against Quagmire, while the others worked from a distance. We had it semi-surrounded, but we were mindful of Climber’s warning — that only fire would stop the troll lord from regenerating. Alix deployed her flaming sphere and our blows were having effect. He wasn’t regenerating. When he finally subsided, Alix kept the flaming sphere on him until he was damaged beyond all repair.
It was a relief to succeed in our original mission. But before we could bring the axe back here, we knew we had to take down the Dark Tree.
By now we knew the fiendish tree stood at the other end of a tunnel through the escarpment. With much trepidation, we approached the cave mouth and made our way through — it was only some 50 feet. And there on the other side we finally beheld the foe responsible for all the creatures attacking us for days and days.
A huge cowan tree, some 90-feet high with a broad canopy, stood in the centre of a clearing. All was still and silent. If I didn’t know better I would have called the tree beautiful. I got an ache in my chest at the thought of attacking a tree, no matter what it had done to us.
And then a deep deep voice. “Finally.”
It sent shivers down my spine.
We commenced our attack from afar — exploding beads, fireballs. The mighty tree rocked, shuddered, its canopy smoking, its roots clawing at the ground, keeping it upright. Our attempts had little effect. Those of us with appropriate weapons would have to get up close.
It fell to Vaantus wielding Climber’s axe, myself wielding a small hand axe, and Blizzard wielding some weapon or other. The very branches themselves stabbed and slashed at us as we ran to the trunk. We were committed. We would hack this cursed tree down or die.
It seemed to take hours. We hacked and hacked. I wanted to vomit. It seemed only one in three of my strikes had any effect. Vaantus fared better with yon battle axe. Meanwhile, our other companions were pelting it from afar.
And then that deep voice again. “Tell me why.”
We tried to explain and I felt a glimmer of hope. Maybe we could stop this. Maybe we could make the tree see reason. I am a ranger and killing this tree was making me ill. But it was all in vain. The Dark Tree’s hatred of humans — and mages in particular — was decades old. The tree was old and vindictive and basically wanted to kill every human it could find. Perhaps it wasn’t really evil, just filled with dark sorrow, warped by bitter magic and human self-interest…
In the end it came down to the tree or us.
My arms were aching by the time the tree finally fell with a creaking roar, branches and leaves crunching and gouging at the turf. And my heart bled anew, even as part of me rejoiced at our victory and I got the vengeance I craved.
The Dark Tree was defeated.
At least this forest shouldn’t be so treacherous now. And creatures will not be used against their natures. We can feel good about that. The Dark Tree had to be killed. We had no option.
And so with weary bodies and hearts we returned here to bring Climber her axe.
There is a hush when I stop speaking. Everyone is staring at me, wide-eyed.
I take several deep breaths and will my heart to slow down. It was a hard tale to tell. (I wish I’d thought earlier to order the homunculous to cease interrupting.) I didn’t want to relive it so soon.
Before anyone can say anything, I surge to my feet and leave the circle. I don’t want to field questions — my companions can do that. I don’t know if Climber’s people liked my tale, or if it brought them hope. (Is that a cheer I hear or the babble of fear?)
I just have to get away from all these people for a while.
See the D&D Chronicles page for all the adventures.