Screams From the Woods
Rumors of trouble in the nearby woods had reached the ears of Revansa who was eager to hunt. These rumors were vague and barely suggested the nature of the trouble. She and her new companions headed out to look for the source of trouble and hopefully put an end to it.
The trail they were following went deeper into the woods, weaving a slender thread into the gathering night. Enormous trees crowded the path, their massive trunks like the columns of a temple for fell beasts. Except for the tread of their feet, the dusky air was smothered in silence.
Without warning, cries pierced through the thick forest, alerting the party to dangers ahead. Hal concentrated, trying to get a fix on the nature of the trouble, but was unsuccessful. They pushed forward through the trees into a small clearing. There, framed between the ponderous trunks of two ancient trees, stood a small girl. Beyond her trembling silhouette, an enormous tree pitched maniacally from side to side, as though caught in some otherworldly gale. As they drew near, they saw that the tree’s branches do not move with the randomness of wind, but instead with calculating and sentient evil. Even the brawny roots stirred, pulling from the stony ground, lashing out across the clearing, and sinking down again. The body of a man, snagged among the higher boughs and writhed in a futile struggle to break free.
Hal moved in attacking the tree with one of his axes, wood splintering with each swing. Keeping her distance, Vesper began to unleash bolts of magic energy, but the wildly winging limbs proved to be a difficult target. Revansa moved up along side of Hal and started hacking at the tree, severing smaller branches. Even while devouring the man in its branches, the tree was able to lash out and cut Revansa with its sharp limbs. With several more solid strikes with their blades, the tree fell silent and stopped moving.
With the threat of the tree vanquished, they finally got a good look at the child. She appeared to be about seven years old, with bronze-colored hair that emerged from beneath a frilly hat. Hugged tightly to her fine red wool box coat was a doll in a lacy dress. In addition to her understandable terror, they noticed a marked sadness that haunts the child’s features – a sadness that seems to extend beyond the terror of what she has just seen.
“Mother and father were poisoned and Uncle Dory came to take me away but he said we have to go through the bad woods and he says if we have fire we’ll be safe but the bad things didn’t come at us for one whole day so Uncle Dory says we’ll use torches only at night but then the tree started moving and grabbed him and now who will take care of me in the bad woods?"
Night of Dreams
After some discussion, the group agreed to help the girl, Elenia, out of the woods and safely back to Il Aluk. Before heading out, the group buried the broken remains of Dory, with Hal saying a quick prayer over the grave.
Something huge and shapeless shifted in the shadows beyond the ring of trees. Though the breeze was gentle, they heard the unmistakable sound of branches crunching and striking against each other. The child screamed and threw her torch onto a dead branch lying near the center of the clearing.
She muttered frantically, “Need fire! Need fire!” Flames leaped up on the branch, casting fiendish shadows upon the trees around. The motion beyond the clearing ceased. Then came a slow, grating sound as though an enormous monster was backing away from the clearing.
The child dashed about the woods and began to gather more wood, piling it on the flames. Frightened, she tried to convince you and herself, “We’ll be safe if we have fire!” The rest of the night passed without incident, with each member of the party taking turns to keep the fire going and watch for more trouble. When they slept, each was troubled by a dream about the girl. None shared the specifics of their dreams when they awoke in the morning.
The morning dawned cold and damp. As they broke camp, Revansa noted great troughs and scars on the ground around the edge of the camp. From the massive disruption of soil, she guessed that at least one of the evil trees had circled the camp a few times during the night.
All through the morning, the party made its way through the dark and rambling woods. Elenia insisted upon carrying a torch, and looked to every side for more attacks, but none came.
By noon, they reached a narrow, weed-choked road. A stone’s throw down the road, a Vistani wagon could be seen. Its canary-yellow wheels and cherry-red sideboards starkly contrasted the oppressive grays and greens of the forest. A gnarled woman draped in a ratty but colorful shawl could be seen sitting beside the caravan. She was motioning for the group to approach her and called to each by their names. She introduced herself as Madame Yvonne and said that it was time for her to repay the debt she owed them and read their fortunes.
Confused the party entered the wagon, leaving Elenia outside within the protective circle put in place by the Vistani. Despite the cheerful colors and cleanness of the wagon’s exterior, the interior felt cramped and cluttered, and it carried the weary smell of a place that serves as bedroom, kitchen, parlor, and transport. The bent old woman moved through the wagon with a surprising deftness that hinted at a lifetime of such confinement. She arranged small crates and rickety stools, enough for the party and herself, then settled like a vulture upon a low seat. She produces a small deck of cards from her robes, then set about dealing the cards.
The old gypsy woman leaned laboriously into her task, her craggy hands caressing the deck with amazing delicacy. Then the crone’s voice rang out: "Much darkness. . . much darkness. . . one among you is deceived. . . one among you thinks to do the right thing, but does evil . . . one among you, though good once and kind has been turned to great evil by this land. . . one among you must be slain to save the others.. . . "
The shrill shriek of a horrified child rang out from the woods outside. The party leapt up, jostling the contents of the wagon and rushed for the door. In the glaring daylight they saw Elenia struggling to climb a tree as a pack of snarling wolves jumped and attempted to pull her down.