They approached the tree where the Trickster’s Pipe had grown around the tree, and heard the strange whirring of the device that raised and lowered to allow access into the raised structure could be heard. The others were confused, but Connor stepped forward with a frown on his face.
“Who’s there? What are you doing?” He said as the lift came to a stop.
“Eh? Oh, just gonna dig a trench here for Abrizim. He wanted me to try out the latest formula… don’t touch those. Very dangerous. Not very stable.” He paused to scratch his head. “Only have maybe about… thirty or forty minutes. Yes, that should be OK though. If you all would just…” He gestures behind him and a small army of clay figures climb out of another crate. Each one picks up one of the clay cylinders and starts to walk off into the darkness.
Reed stared at the retreating figures in mild confusion, “Hmmm, interesting… How far out are you planning?”
Connor’s face grew pale, “O gods. You are going to use those with an explosive mixture to dig a trench with explosives????
“Eh?” The Elf turned to look at Connor and his night vision was momentarily ruined when their gazes met. His goggles are now emitting a brilliant light. Pulling a much folded piece of parchment out of an inside pouch, he glanced at it briefly.
“Ummm… no wrong one.” He dropped it on the ground and reached into a pouch, pulling out a sheaf of papers and starts sorting through them, at least half of them falling on the ground. As the pages continue to fall, a metal spider about a foot across crawls out of another pouch and begins picking up his scattered papers.
“Ahh… here it is. You can check my notes if you want…” He hands you a paper covered in unintelligible scribbles and strange diagrams with circles, radiuses, angles and random doodles of weird creatures in the margins. “I need to get to work before it becomes too unstable.”
Not understanding the possible danger inherent in the situation, Reed broke into a wide grin, “Great! The help is much appreciated.” One of the clay figures made a rude gesture at him before picking up its load and following the others
Connor sighed, “This won’t go well I feel but I must trust in my God… Let’s head inside.”
Once inside the pipe, they saw Connor had brought them to room with chairs and drinks. “We really need to work on things as a team. This flying by the skin of our teeth can’t continue. Our luck will not hold out forever.”
Reed sat on the far side of the table so as to face the door and plucked a goblet of wine from the table, “What is it you want to discuss?”
“First. Just recently. Reed, I don’t know what your relationship is with your God or what you are used to but If you can’t show any God more respect please do not address them unless you are spoken to. I feel very sad that you spoke to Abrazim that way and I will have to take the time to make amends for your poor interaction and respect.”
“No, what else?” Reed asked flippantly, taking a sip of the wine and looking around with an air of contentment.
Connor frowned at him for a moment before shrugging, “If that’s how you want to play it, know that I will be crafting something to keep you silent against your will in the future.” Nodding in satisfaction to the other who had taken seats and helped themselves to various beverages, he continued. “Moving on. Battles. We need to have a more clear role assigned and know what we need to do. We almost lost Durak…”
“So what is your plan then?” Said Reed, “You must have one since you bothered to call us all together?”
“I have been very selfish lately only bolstering my survival for fear of what we all are just going to blindly throw ourselves at next and I feel bad for that. I can, and should do more for the rest of you to prepare for battle.” He picked up a tankard of ale and took a drink before continuing. “Are we decided on Cain being our leader? I’m ok with that but I think before going into a talk he and we need a clear goal and topics. Having Reed jump in without being addressed by you or asking him to speak only undermines Kain’s role as leader and makes us look bad like we have no order.”
“None of that sounds unreasonable.” Said Reed, “What are your thoughts? What do you believe should be our priorities?”
“First and foremost we need to keep our primary goal in mind. We must locate the spark before Dergeras finds it. After that, I believe we need to build up our army. At some point the Abyss will begin to organize itself again and if the living aren’t united … we will all die.” Connor irratably waved away the bright yellow smoke of Durrak’s cigar and coughed, “We do not have a lot of time and I feel like we aren’t making the best use of it.”
“OK, so what should we do then?” Reed said, concentrating for a moment and grinning when a bowl of fruit appeared on the table.
“I think we need to talk about what we can count on each other to do first and foremost.” Said Connor.
“Fair enough. What can we count on you for?”
“Whatever role you all decide to assign me. If you want me to work on our defenses that is what I will do. If you want me to invest all my time in healing than I will start to make healing wands and that is what I will do.”
“So what should I do? Who should lead? You should list out each member’s strengths and weaknesses. Find which role suits best.” Said Reed, munching on an apple.
“Why do you think we are all here?” Connor demanded, starting to lose his patience. “Until a few days ago I thought your strengths were hiding and picking locks and being in all honesty strange. Now after seeing you in the fight I’m not so sure. What exactly are you capable of?”
“I am biased you are a calculated person I feel you should identify my faults and strengths.” Reed said with a sly look.
“Reed. Unless you do desire to add to what do already be a questionable situation you do need to cooperate” Said Durrak, ” We no do know what you do be capable of. You do be constantly surprising those of us who no do be attuned to the Arcane.
“As for me, I do be physically strong. I do have no secrets. I put my enemies on the ground and do bury my Guisarme in their brain. I do break walls with my bare hands. I do crush enemies between my armor and any hard surface. I no do be a mystery”
Reed seemed loosen up a touch at the Dwarf’s directness. “I am skilled with my hands, and I am learned with the arcane arts. I have read many books on the subject and have a wealth of knowledge toward it. I have also trained to work locks, both physical and magical. Lastly, I feel I can speak to people and connect to a side of them.
“My weakness, I would say is wisdom. I am young and haven’t experienced much. I also don’t share the fear of the gods as you all do. Of course I see that as a strength but I am sure you would argue. I am not a fighter, I prefer to speak then fight, but I am not above kicking someone in the groin and then stabbing them in the back while they are down.”
“I also feel I lack wisdom.” Said Connor, “ A lot of my time was spent in shops and crafting. I have a eye for detail in what I am doing but can’t find those things in the world such as finding something or seeing something coming at us.
“Most of what I can do is help make you better at what you do. If we have time to prepare, I can create a lot of tools for different jobs. I don’t have a large constitution so I am not meant to be a front line fighter, but I can create potions, scrolls, armor, weapons and magic items. But it takes time.”
“So what’s your assessment of the others?” Reed asked.
“What I see is you as primary trickster. You hinder and lower the abilities of the enemies, secondary I don’t know. My primary role would be strengthen the party secondary healing. Kain primary damage secondary healer. Durrak. Primary offense. Secondary defensive offense. Holt, ranged damage, secondary eyes and ears and make calls of what’s happening in the battle field that we can’t see.”
“That sounds … more or less like what we’ve been doing.” Said Reed, shrugging his shoulders and nibbling on the apple core.
Durrak took a mug of ale and drained it in one long drink. “I do feel I must say… you all did be most rude to Xangeon Riddlebane. I no do know much of dragonkind, however I know enough. If you no do wish to leave a trail of people who hate you I do suggest not repeating the actions taken today.” He sighs, and mutters to himself. “I no did think it were possible for humans to be more ignorant than my prejudice did dispose me to believe.”
Raising his voice slightly, he continued, “And Reed… I did think your… heritage would give you some respect for … something. We do be supposed to assist the Gods, no mock and try to manipulate them as though they did be mortals.”
“I don’t disagree that I could show some more respect, but then again, I didn’t see him giving out much either. And your right we are to assist them, but damn they need to help us too.” Said Reed with a frown.
“He do be a dragon. It do make sense to show respect to something that can kill you instantly. He did tell me had it not been for his being grateful that Mogget did save his life he would have eaten you earlier for your extreme impertinence… and you no did endear yourself to him by showing disdain for the being he did just finish praising.” Durrak said and turned to look at the others. "It no do just be you… not one of you do seem to know how to acknowledge a thing more powerful than yourself.
“As for the gods… they no are just powerful mortals. It do be true that they have tasked us with things… or in my case he do force it, but as you do be pointing out, we no do be the only ones here. Losing us do be troublesome to them, but there do be others who do be capable of doing what do need doing.
“In any case, if they do tell us to do something it do be simply because they do have other things to accomplish that we no do be able to. That do mean they do be busy with things more important than us. We do be… alone in this.” The Dwarf shook his head in disbelief, “Asking a God to dig a ditch… I do be surprised you do still wear your skin on the outside of your body.”
“Because of two things.” Connor said, “One, my god is not like that and two, now that I’ve seen his method, I believe this also fits his need of testing an alchemical solution.”
“Did you no feel his anger? You do be fools… Every one of you.”
“I agree with Durrak. Reed do not do that again. I do not mean to insult anyone I guess my flaw is ignorance of who to treat races and other creatures.” Said Kain.
“You no do be one to talk Kain.” Durrak puffed on his cigar, the gold smoke pooling at his feet. “Xangeon did save your life and yet you did give him orders like a servant without even introducing yourself.”
“How did I disrespect him?” Asked Kain.
“He did even go as far as to give you his name first… and yet you did treat him as though he did be a horse. Connor could easily have taken you … but you did ask him instead. As though he were a beast of burden.”
“I was a…” Kain sighed, "A slave in a gladiator arena for all of my life until I was able to escape so manners where not really know just to shut your mouth or they would take your tongue.”
“If you did indeed grow up in a slave pit then how do you no understand how to respect power? Were it no for Mogget you also would be dead.”
Connor nodded his agreement, “More like we all would be dead.”
“Then I will apologize.” Kain said, keeping his voice neutral.
“That do be a start. That do be what I did be doing when you interrupted… dragons do like jewelry and I do be done with that part of my life. I no do have a need for jewels and gold… I only wish for tools with which to destroy enemies and protect…” His voice trailed off and he shrugged his shoulders as though easing a heavy weight and absently reached down to gently touch the lantern at his belt.
“That is good to know I have a gem or two that I can give to him as well.” Said Kain, sounding a little more natural now, “I plan to learn from Rrayu so that does not happen again. I will ask her when she is well rested.”
A low rumble builds to an ear shattering roar and the Pipe shook like a rat in the jaws of a terrier. Reed and Holt managed to keep their feet, but everyone else is slammed into one wall, then another the sound of breaking glass and splintering wood was barely discernible to their damaged hearing. The tree groaned and creaked, listing alarmingly to one side before coming to rest, at least ten degrees off center. Glass from shattered windows lay on the floor mixed with dirt, rocks, broken branches, leaves and other assorted debris.
“What in the hells was that?” Kain picked himself up off the floor.
“Oh no.” Said Connor, “I think he used too much…”
“What are you talking about?” Holt asked, “Did you know this was going to happen?”
“Well, I didn’t think it’d be like this.” Connor said defensively, “But… yeah… kinda.”
Durrak shoved a broken portion of the table off his prostrate form with a crash and stood, brushing himself off. “What did you be expecting Connor?”
“Well, he said he was going to dig a ditch, but he’s an alchemist so of course he’d use explosives.” Connor said and with that he went to the lift and let himself down.
The night was dark and moonless; the spray of stars across the sky insufficient to shed light on the scene. Connor pulled a lit torch from his rucksack and made his way to where the light illuminated a massive berm of earth that ranged between fifteen and twenty feet high. A brief examination revealed that this ground was likely exceedingly unstable, so he pulled his disk off the end of his staff and flew to the top.
A chasm at least twenty feet across and deep enough that his torch light didn’t show the bottom greeted his eyes. Ruptured tree roots and large stones stuck haphazardly from the side in spite of the fact that the forest had been burned by the Abyssal spawn that they had destroyed. Luagga had been right; this would indeed be a disruption to the natural order of the forest in spite of their attempts to minimize the damage. At least it wasn’t for nothing; this trench would be a very good base to build defenses from.
“Looks like a big hole. I don’t know how far it stretches but…” He said, as he flew back to where the others were coming from the Pipe. “Anyway, we won’t have to worry about an attack tonight I don’t imagine.”
“I will keep watch.” Holt said, “Just to be safe.”
The next morning, Reed was up early and inspecting the fortifications. The trench eclipsed his expectations. It was forty feet wide at the widest and nearly that deep at its deepest but nowhere along its length was it narrower than twenty five feet or shallower than twenty feet. The sides were loam for only a few feet before becoming thick, sticky clay. He was pretty sure that even without further modification this would be nearly impassible, but even so he wanted to do something to allow the defenders to more easily attack any enemies who might approach.
“We need to figure out what the proper defenses here should be.” He walked along the top of the trench, doing his best to devise a good plan based on his limited experience.
Kain walked into the trees, feeling strangely weak and sad. When he sat in a secluded clearing to commune with Mielikki, a feeling of pain and anguish subsumed his being. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he felt the terrible rent that had been torn through the ground. The natural order had been horribly disturbed and he wept with his Goddess over the loss.
Holt went to find some food and saw Luagga just finishing some kind of conference with a few Elven rangers who bowed to him before melting into the trees. Upon seeing him, the Elven Lord approached with a stern look on his face.
“Holt, what is the meaning of this outrage?” Luagga said, “I never agreed to any fortifications, let alone anything like this!”
“It was the God Abrizim’s doing Lord.” Holt said, “None of us could have stopped him, let alone predicted anything of this scale. That is why I follow Ehlonna, she is far more predictable.”
The former Druid’s eyes widened, “Ehlonna? She lives still?”
“She does. I am sorry for Abrizim’s actions, and I’d apologize for him if I thought it’d make any difference.”
Luagga wasn’t paying attention, “I seem to remember there being a shrine to Ehlonna nearby… I must look into it.” He muttered, almost to himself and turned to walk purposefully toward where the trench had been excavated. Holt watched him go with a faraway look on his face before turning to find Kain.
When he finally tracked down his friend, he found Kain sitting in the center of a small clearing, tears streaming down his face.
“Kain? Are you all right?” Holt moved closer and knelt next to him. ”Kain?” He reached out to touch the other man’s hand and was swept into another world. The forces that made up Ehlonna and Mielikki swirled around one another, the pain caused by the explosion creating an unbreakable bond. The two men sat perfectly still, one huge and muscled, the other appearing to be a boy on the cusp of manhood, the only movement the tears that ran down their faces.
Weak as they were, the two Goddesses found comfort and solace in each other’s company. When the storm of grief had passed, their essences were inseparable. The two had become one.
Reed was still standing on the walls, trying to do calculations in his head and wishing he had more knowledge of engineering. A soft, furious voice behind him broke his silent reverie, he hadn’t heard anyone approach.
“This is an abomination.” He spun to see Luagga’s stern face pulled into lines of ill-concealed anger. “You had a direct hand in its creation and for that I hold you accountable.”
“Well it’s done now.” Reed said, not bothering to keep the satisfaction from his voice.
“Yes, it is done and now you and your companions can leave.”
“There is still much to do. The men need stable platforms to stand on in order to fire upon enemies and it is my hope that we can bring some ballistae and other siege engines from Secomber to further assist in the defense of your people.” Said Reed, looking out over the trench with plans beginning to form in his mind.
“No. You should go. Today.” Luagga said shortly, “You have done enough.”
Reed turned and gave him an insolent look, “We will leave when our work here is done. Since you’re too stupid to do what’s necessary to keep the Grandfather Tree safe it falls to us to protect our investment of time and personnel here.”
Luagga glared at him, but knew there was no way to expel them short of ordering his Rangers to attack… and that would be suicide even if they could win as it would leave them with scores of dead and wounded, unable to defend themselves against another attack from the Abyss. Setting his shoulders stiffly, the ancient Elven lord turned and stalked into the trees, intent on finding the ancient shrine to Ehlonna. He must see if the boy Holt spoke the truth. If only he could regain contact with a power of nature, he might be able to restore his power as a Druid.
As one, Holt and Kain opened their eyes. Their souls still reeled from the event that had just occurred; they knew about one another… secrets that each of them had held close had been laid bare. In spite of the raw feeling of having your memories forcibly mingled with another’s they were overpowered with awe at what they had just experienced. It was the joining of their Goddesses that had precipitated theirs and the aftershocks of that union still rocked them to the core.
In addition to that, they felt the raw wound in the earth, the tips of roots like exposed nerves, the untold millions of tiny organisms that had been annihilated by the explosion and the fractures in the delicate pathways of worm, microbe and root that extended for miles around the blast site. It was almost more than their mortal bodies could sustain.
Holt rose unsteadily to his feet by levering himself up on his bow stave and Kain used his scabbarded falchion to a similar purpose. They noted the angle of the sun with evident surprise.
“I did not think it was so late.” Holt said.
“We were…” Kain’s voice faded, “I didn’t realize how much time passed either. We need to find the others and prepare to depart. Also I need to speak with Luagga about the people we will be leaving behind.”
Upon returning to the main camp, they found everyone busy about their daily tasks. Holt approached an Elven archer with arrow making materials who was sitting in the shade of the Grandfather tree and asked in Sylvan if he had seen Luagga.
“He went into the forest some time ago to search for a shrine. I believe to the southwest.” The fletcher replied with equal measures respect and reticence in his voice.
“Thank you brother.” Holt answered, “I can find his trail.”
Together he and Kain walked in the direction the Elf had indicated and it was a matter of moments for Holt to find the trail Luagga had made. It wove and twisted as though the one who made it was unsure of their true destination. After passing through an especially dense bit of underbrush with long thorns that reached hungrily for any exposed skin, they emerged into a clearing.
In the center of it lay a strange sight. On one side of a small hill was a lush green sward, a brook bubbled from it, running happily down to form a small rill that ran off into the forest. On the other side only small patches of weeds and thorns grew in a tangled mess, the trees near it were diseased with leprous looking moss and lichen clinging to branches and trunks. A stone altar straddled the crest with one leg sitting on each side, its center stained with ancient blood and the surface carved in ancient runes of power.
Luagga sat in front of the altar, unmoving, a slate knife with a wickedly sharp edge in one hand and a tree branch in the other. All about him, tiny motes of greenish white light flickered and flashed. They moved forward cautiously, unsure what was happening.
“I think those might be Wisps.” Holt whispered, and no sooner had he made this comment than dozens of the lights sprang from their hovering dance around Luagga to flit and flicker before them.
“Blood. Give us. Give him. Spill it. Spill your blood. Spill it on the stone. On the altar. Your blood. Spill your blood.” A myriad of voices spoke compellingly to them.
Kain shook his head irritably and waved the tiny things away. Glancing to his left, he saw Holt had drawn a dagger and cut a deep rent in his arm, the blood was running freely down to spatter on the ground and he moved forward clumsily as though sleepwalking.
“Holt! Stop it!” Kain tried to grab the other man’s arm but Holt’s erratic movements made him fumble. With a howl of anger and to Kain’s surprise fear, Mogget sprang from the underbrush and grabbed the boy’s wrist while Agroh swept down from above, pecking and beating at him with his wings. Under the onslaught, Holt lost his balance and fell forward. The small white cat held his wrist tightly in needle sharp teeth that kept him from doing himself any more damage, even though they punctured him to the bone in the process.
Kain stepped back from the melee and began incanting a spell that would summon blessed rain down upon the grove. As the rain began to fall, Reed stuck his head out of the underbrush. While looking for Holt, he had seen the flickering lights of the Wisps which had begun questing out from the clearing and led him here. He could hear them asking something but hadn’t quite understood.
The water fell on the Wisps, each one hissing like a tiny bonfire and winking out with a weak cry of agony. With an ear-splitting crack, the altar broke in two, and Holt came to his senses. “Mogget. Let me go.” He said weakly. The demon/cat glanced at Kain and waited for his nod before releasing him.
Reed waited for the rain to subside before approaching with a drawn dagger. “What happened here?” He asked, looking from where Holt was standing up and wrapping a hastily torn bandage around his arm to Luagga who was looking around the clearing with a strange awe shining in his eyes.
“We were tracking Luagga and when we came here something bewitched Holt.” Kain said, placing a hand on Holt and removing his injuries with a brush of Divine power.
“Help. Me.” A guttural voice croaked in the Goblin tongue in Reed’s mind. He looked around, but couldn’t see anything. None of the others seemed to have heard.
“I have found her.” Luagga said, a smile of perfect peace crossing his weathered face. “She has made me whole again and I have you to thank Holt.”
“What do you need me to do?” Reed thought, “Who are you?”
“Take me with you.” The voice whispered in harsh tones, “Take some of the soil from beneath the altar. Mingle it with your blood. Take me with you.”
After a momentary hesitation, Reed cut his palm and approached the altar.
“Reed! What are you doing?” Holt demanded.
Reed concealed the cut and shrugged, using his dagger to dig around the base of the altar. “Just wondering what this place is.” He said, sheathing the blade without wiping it clean. Fragments of the soil stained with ancient blood sacrifice clung to his blood.
“It was once a shrine to Ehlonna.” Luagga said, standing stiffly and looking around. “Years ago, before my time, Goblins invaded the High Forest, burning and killing as they came. They found this shrine, defiled it and made this place their home. After an extended war, they were all killed or expelled from here but apparently a remnant of their God stayed here. The Wisps lured the unwary here after the death of Jorda released the evil deity from her imprisonment. I was nearly caught up in their thrall myself.”
He stood and placed the branch he had been holding in the crack down the middle of the altar and chanted a low sonorous song. He raised his hands and a willow tree grew up and over the stone, spreading its branches so that they drooped gracefully to touch the stream. Even as it grew, grass sprouted on the formerly diseased side of the hill, lichen and disease fell away from the trees and tiny Brightstar flowers could be seen peaking from the surfaces too stony to grow grass.
“I am whole once again.” He said quietly. “I must return to the Grandfather and send my remaining brethren to this place.”