Eastern Forest to the north of Seagate. First week of the month of Redheart (early summer).
A small human in metal banded leather armor slipped through the forest like a fish moving through the water. His black hair was covered in a high helmet that left his entire face uncovered except for the nasal bar and only extended a third of the way down the man’s somewhat oversized ears. The recurved bow in his hands was strung with an arrow but not drawn. His dark, dark eyes took in every detail. A scar turned one edge of his mouth up into a grin, but otherwise he looked deadly serious.
The hanging strips of bark on the thick tree he was circumnavigating looked like leather. The trunk was smooth without branches until high above his head where they spread into a canopy that plunged about a third of a bowshot into twilight despite it being high noon. It was sauna hot and the shade only provided a little relief.
The sun raged down in strips of sizzling light across a clearing to his left. There hadn’t been any big clearings in a while and being the suspicious sort he gave it a wide berth and stuck to the shadows of the trees; he had been feeling a strange knot in his stomach and a peculiar rising of the hairs of his arms while moving through this part of the wood. The waving fern fronds seemed too heavy and stiff. He pulled a forearm length of blue-leafed vine from the tree and waved its trailing edge through the ferns. It was cut like the ferns were razors. Grunting slightly to himself, he looked backwards, and clicked his tongue twice.
The tall woman nearly ten paces behind him who was missing part of her nose stopped studying the bug battle on a nearby tree and looked up when she heard the clicks. Finger length sized ants were fighting a beetle with mandibles that looked like barbed scimitars and whose body would have filled an open palm. Mikkel the Silent waved the section of vine in the noseless woman’s direction to make sure she was looking at it and pulled it through the ferns again. He dropped the cleanly severed vine and pointed out to the field, shaking his head. Alora nodded, and Mikkel resumed his cautious trek through the hostile wood. She crushed a couple of the ants with the butt of her crossbow before following. Both the beetle and the surviving ants descended on the dead like a starving man would charge a feast.
A broad-framed dwarf with wild golden hair followed the woman. Instead of flowing through the woods like the short human man, he used his shield to batter aside the vegetation. The shield was the worse for it with many green splatters on its iron and bronze surface, a couple of which seemed to be left by acid that had scarred the metal. His hook hand looped through the bracket on the back of that shield. When Durag who had been called The Bold was branded as a thief, it cost him a hand and saw him kicked out of the mines and his homeland. It could be worse since a hook had many uses, but he did miss the snail shell soup his wife had made him before his exile. Damn her for annulling their marriage and taking another husband instead of coming with him. As the noseless woman reached the clearing of ferns, she pointed to it and shook her head while pointing at the razor-edged plants. The clear eyed dwarf nodded and muttered quietly to himself, “Damn her. Damn those plants. And damn this creepy woodland. Take a solid cavern of rock over these acid-spitting flowers and sword bushes any day.” The woman leading the dwarf raised one eyebrow as she eyed him over her shoulder, and he grumbled, but returned to silence.
Durag passed the warning on to his taller, emerald-eyed brother Carnag whose braided beard swung against his chest as he tromped behind him; had had remained loyal to his brother and followed him into exile. The gesture had to be repeated twice as the beetle with the mandibles had flown at his brother’s face before the warning could be given. The dwarf in question wasn’t known for his dexterity or flexibility, but had dodged in a way that would have made a circus contortionist proud despite his heavy plate armor. Carnag in turn scowled at the guffawing gigantic human bringing up the rear, and for a moment, seemed to be tempted to pursue the combative beetle for its slight against his honor. The bladed plants were enough of a deterrent.
The “avoid the sword ferns” gesture was passed on for the last time from the scowling dwarf to the huge man. When the man finally reached the clearing, he paused for a moment to watch the ferns as they waved in the faint breeze. He had a very large sword in both hands and let go with his right, resting the blade on the pauldron of his shoulder armor. Despite the warning, he reached out to touch the fern and was cut deep. With an oath, he pulled away and popped the sliced finger into his mouth to suck on the wound. A musical laugh sounded from up ahead. The woman had kept an eye out knowing Agnar would never be able to resist his childish impulses to do just that. His reckless courage was part of why she loved him, but she had a mean sense of humor that found injuries to others funny.
A grin opened Agnar’s blonde beard, and he waved his injured hand like you would if it had been burned. He stuck out his tongue at the woman and muttered, “I hate this place.”
“As do we all,” Durag said, “But you just keep acting like a troll without a head, letting the damn plants sting and poke and spit on you. If you’d just stick to the path, you’d only just hate it as much as the rest of us.”
The forest had been getting stranger for the last few days as they descended deeper into the wild part of the wood. Animals and plants were twisted, warmongering creatures. All of them, except Mikkel the Silent, had taken various injuries from things that should be harmless, like ferns that turned out to be made of sword blades, and one never to be sufficiently damned mushroom that had sprayed out spores which exploded when they made contact with flesh. That had cost Carnag almost all of his healing, and he prayed for more of the blessings of Renayl, God of Mercenaries and Warriors, as they marched.
“You complain like a child. Injuries are part of the warrior’s lot.” Agnar stated.
“A child?” the dwarf’s voice raised, but at a look from Alora, his rage turned into a harsh whisper. “You’re the one who stirred the damn thing up. Wouldn’t ‘ave happened if you hadn’t played, “kick the fungus.” Carnag almost bit the dust cause of you, and I’ll be damned if I see my brother become fertilizer for these devil plants.”
Agnar winked at the angry dwarf, “Makes you angry don’t it? Makes you want to do something about it other than drip useless words through your lips. When you decide to be as bold as your name let me know and we can get to settling any score you imagine you have.” Durag’s teeth ground loudly enough to make the barbarian smile.
When they camped that night, it was a tense affair. It seemed everything in this part of the forest was aggressive. Even the plants had gaping mouths that would shut like a trap door or pits of acid that splashed out if their leaves were brushed. Once their campsite was set Agnar again announced, “I hate this place. There is no glory in slaying plants. There is no gold in slaying plants. There is even less glory in being slain by plants. And, I’m a might bit tired of listing to Durag’s whining.” He ducked as an expertly thrown cooking pot whizzed overhead. Without a pause, he continued, “Why are we doing this again?”
“Because our, most likely insane, employer wants yon priest to read a scroll inside a summoning circle and see what pops up.” Alora pointed to Carnag and then lolled back on her bedroll. “The same priest whose gravestone almost read, ‘Death by Mushroom,’ I might add.”
“More like ‘Death by Idiot.’” Durag said as he leaned back against a nearby tree. His nonchalance followed his innocent shrugging of his shoulders when the flying cooking pot had suddenly appeared.
With a wintry smile, Carnag’s voice rumbled like shifting rocks. “You can bring spirits into the world through the summoning circles. If we can bind one to service, then our lady of endless gold gains that much more power. If we can’t, then we aren’t worth what she is paying us and we’ll be dead.”
“Why not just read the blasted scroll in the mountains where we were?” Agnar poked a vine with his sword. The vine had been slowly creeping into their clearing like a stalking serpent. When jabbed, it curled up like it was feeling pain.
“Okay, even though this is the third time I have explained it since breakfast, I’ll tell you again.” Carnag sighed theatrically and took a pose with one hand over his heart and the other outstretched like an orator. “In the days after the raising of the young gods to divinity, those who we now call the Diabolic Pantheon began twisting the souls of their followers into demons. These evil spirits were set loose to wreak havoc on the world. The other groups of gods began changing the souls of their followers into shapes that better served their needs, and the spirits of the dead made war with each other. There was great destruction, and in the midst of rebuilding from the horror of The Night War, all the world was fragile then.”
Mikkel the Silent scowled and curled up into his cloak. He had the next watch and needed the sleep.
“After many years of this, the gods agreed to keep their spiritual followers away from the world into their own realms. They all banded together to create The Cage, which is made of the raw power of the gods. It enwraps the world and keeps the dead on their own side of the veil and the living on ours. Each bar of the cage was maintained by a separate pantheon and reflected their power. Power that would keep out the spirits of other pantheons. Over time, both priests and wizards figured out that at the junctions of the bars, the magic sometimes cancelled each other out; therefore, at these intersections where the magic is negated, you could summon spirits there with greater ease. We call these summoning circles,” Carnag said this like the name of the circles was a huge revelation even though he had been over this at least a half dozen times more since they had left the mountain fastness of the Atef.
“We go to a summoning circle where war intersects with some other pantheon’s line to try and bring forth one of the Spirits of the Fallen, which most people call war spirits. Since I am a priest of one of the war gods, I can potentially call such a spirit. This area is infected by the power of war which is why everything seems more aggressive and dangerous,” the dwarf smiled as he said this and held out the black helm symbol of his god Renayl who was known as the Patron of Mercenaries.
“If this place is infected by the power of war, and you are a conduit of said power, how were you hurt by that little spore-spitter?” Agnar ducked his head, expecting another flying object, but Durag remained leisurely leaned against the tree. Little did Agnar know, Durag’s cogs were turning. There was still quite a bit of forest to cover, and plenty of opportunities to get back at the cocky warrior. Agnar’s wry smile peeked through his beard, and then he directed his attention back to the younger brother. “So why can’t our employer go herself?” Agnar asked as he vigorously scratched every inch of his scarred, muscle rippling torso. He always did this just after taking off his armor.
“Only priests of that pantheon can summon particular types of spirits. So I couldn’t summon a nature spirit, nor could a priest of the life powers bring forth an oracle of knowledge.” Carnag was wiping down his holy symbol with blessed oils as he answered this. Durag had not moved from his position against the tree. As first watch, he had kept his armor on and assumed a more guarded stance once the others gradually settled down to sleep.
In the morning, they broke camp. Mikkel found some onion shoots and eggs they made into passable omelets, and then they were on their way. Just after the group got moving, the light-footed scout saw the first of the metallic doglike creatures. Their scales were metal and glinted like the edge of a blade, and their tails were long. It was hard to tell how many there were because they darted in and out of the brush, but their eyes glowed a deep red that was often visible when they were hiding and watching. Their six legs made them skitter like a swarm of ants when they walked, and each one was the size of a mastiff.
The creatures never attacked but closely followed the group for hours. After being tracked and hunted, everyone was on edge, waiting at any moment to feel the surge of adrenaline of a surprise attack, and clutched their weapons tightly. The weird cackles and fluting howls of the doglike beasts followed them though the wood.
On the second day of being tracked and hounded by the beasts, Mikkel while sliding through the underbrush, came upon a clearing. More of the sword ferns waved in the breeze. A big rabbit, almost waist height to a man not counting the ears, was on the near edge of the clearing, casually nibbling on the razor sharp fronds. Mikkel froze, not trusting this image. Everything about this part of the wood had been so bizarre for the last few days he was, appropriately, very suspicious of the image created by a rabbit chewing on a home grown razor.
One of the six legged, knife-scaled dogs came stalking into view. It had also spotted the rabbit and was crouched low and slinking forward more like a cat than a dog. Its long tail swished behind it and glittered dully in the light of both suns. Without moving its head, the bunny’s pink eye, closest to the clearing, swiveled to look at the approaching predator. Mikkel’s muscles tightened, expecting for the rabbit to bolt. It reached up with one paw to scratch its ear. That was it. No frantic escape or anything else. It just watched as the thing creeped up towards it.
Once the war-enhanced canine realized it was spotted, it let out a harsh metallic bark and charged. Bounding over rocks and through brush, all of its six legs pounded forward at an incredible speed. The rabbit, as if frozen, just stood there. When the predator was within arm’s length of engulfing the helpless rabbit, the bunny leaned forward. Its mouth opened to an impossible degree, like a snake dislocating its jaws to swallow its prey; its lower jaw lay flat on the ground and its upper jaw extended alien-like above its head. The dogish creature yipped before vanishing into the cavernous gullet. The bunny’s belly bulged out, and one could see a futile, feeble paw pressing out against its side, as if it were about to give birth, and it slowly hopped away. Mikkel could do nothing but blink his widened eyes, shake his head, and continue moving carefully through the wood. Agnar was right behind him, and again could be heard muttering, “I hate this place…”
Eventually, the group found the burned out remnant of a small tower. This was the marker they had been told to seek. The tower had been built by the clergy of the god of guardians to protect the circle and destroyed by those wanting to make use of it. Behind was a twisted wall of mushrooms and thorns, all with a glittering sense of danger radiating from them.
Carnag stepped forward with an ancient scroll in his hands. He stepped up to the wall, leaving a comfortable distance between himself and the possibly antagonistic fungi, and after searching with his eyes, found something like a gate made of spears grown together. He stepped within after motioning for the group to wait and looked through the hole for a moment. Low chanting could soon be heard coming from the circle.
The air charged with a prickling that felt like electricity. Images of cavalry charges and screaming swordsmen flooded everyone’s minds. Agnar drew his great sword and began to pace around muttering, his eyes growing wilder and wilder as the images assaulted their consciousness.
One of the six legged canines stalked out into the clearing. It was soon followed by several of its pack mates. Their hackles were up and all were growling, sometimes letting out yips or howls in time with the chanting. They barked and then attacked.
One of Alora’s crossbow bolts transfixed the first one, and Mikkel’s first arrow went wide . Agnar sliced one in half with his mighty sword, but another chomped down on his armored thigh. Durag knocked one aside with his shield and smashed its head with his spiked hammer. Cries of battle filled the air as the chanting continued.
Agnar’s voice rose up from among the shouting and the dog’s metallic barking, “I. . . “
More and more of the war enhanced beasts arrived and attacked. The chanting seemed to drive them mad with fury. Even the nearby trees looked like they were shivering as potential continued to build in the air. The four adventurers had gone back to back with each guarding their own front. Agnar controlled a large area because of the sweep of his sword while Alora had a smaller frontage due to her daggers being so much shorter. Durag smashed one and then another, but he was bleeding from many wounds when one of the creatures bit through his shield and tore part of it away.
“Hate. . .” Agnar shouted, scraping one of the dogs off his leg with his sword like butter off a knife.
A bolt of lightning exploded from the circle illuminating everything brilliantly for a split second, and Agnar went mad. He howled in fury and chopped at the foe. The other three closed in to guard each other and picked off those attacking the big warrior’s back. Almost a dozen of the creatures were chopped, smashed or stabbed when the dog who had first arrived yipped and fled into the wood. Soon only the dying were there, some still growling and trying to bite. The whole group sagged while Agnar fell to a knee.
“This place,” he panted, finishing his battle-long sentence.
Carnag stepped carefully out of the gate. “Did I miss anything?” he asked with eyebrows raised at the piles of dead magical beasts and his comrade’s many wounds. A blue skinned humanoid of roughly dwarven height stepped out after him. It had no mouth but did possess piercing sapphire eyes, almost comically short legs and massively overmuscled arms that nearly hung to the ground. The thing’s great hands clutched air as it grasped at the nothingness in front of it over and over.
“Nay, fair priest, we were just taking the air. Enjoying the scene. Touring the lovely countryside,” Agnar gasped out between breaths. He hobbled over to join the group, using his sword as a crutch. Blood streamed down his side, and he would soon have even more scars.
Carnag grunted then bowed with a theatrical flourish, indicating his blue friend. “We have verified the summoning circle is active. I suggest we go and get the rest of our gold.” The newly summoned spirit looked about with dead eyes and continued to flex its hands open and shut convulsively.