Chapter 12: Carnivorous Squirrels
They escaped Yartar through the main gates, a half-dozen guards behind them. Thia threw a fog cloud behind them as they ran and they quickly made it to the treeline and out of harm’s way. Roon had left his Tressym, Beatrice, back at their inn, but he doubted they would be returning that way anytime soon. He hoped someone found the winged cat and took care of it for him.
“We need,” Thia breathed hard, holding a stitch in her side as they slowed to a walk, Roon barely keeping up on his short legs, “to get to Triboar and speak to Darathra.”
“And tell her what?” Kilian asked, coughing and shedding his overlarge coat.
“Explain to her what happened. We’re the heroes of Triboar. She’ll believe us, and maybe she can speak on our behalf to the town of Yartar.”
“It couldn’t hurt,” Roon said. He didn’t like the idea of being banned from a town or being suddenly arrested for the murder of guards who were wholly guilty of their own crimes.
“They don’t know it was us,” Bran pointed out. “We all wore disguises.”
“Still,” Thia said, “they could make the connection.”
They continued for another few hours through the dark before finally making camp in a group of trees far from the road and slept soundly until morning.
They passed through surrounding hills in the early light, the heat already starting to pull layers of clothing from their backs. The hills were pastoral and untouched for miles until they came across a group of shepherds watching their small flock of sheep. The men warned their group of hill giants in the area. They thanked them and continued until they skirted the edge of Triboar, then cautiously entered the town and went to the leaning tower, the place where they hoped the Lord Protector would be.
They found Darathra sitting at her desk in lamplight, combing over a set of ledgers carefully and sipping on a steaming cup of tea. Her eyes were bright and she looked more rested than last they saw her.
“Darathra,” Thia said, striding ahead of the rest, “how are you? How is the town?”
She stood to greet them with a smile. “It’s making its way toward repair,” she said. “What are you all doing back here?” She gave Bran a strange look, having never met him before.
Thia quickly explained their meeting with Harthall, who was wrongly convicted of a crime by a Captain Brenner of Yartar. She told Darathra about the guards shaking money from criminals, and their quick bout against the guards and their subsequent escape from the city. When she finished, Darathra looked thoughtful.
“I don’t know this Captain Brenner…” she said finally.
“That’s okay, because we killed him,” Evelyn chimed in helpfully, and Kilian cast the girl a quick warning look.
“But,” Darathra continued, unhindered, “I can send a message to my connections in Yartar and see about getting a fair trial for this Harthall Zimmorvan. Furthermore, I’d suggest you avoid the city for a while, until this mess is sorted. That’s all I can give you for now.”
“Thank you,” Roon said gratefully. “We should also warn you that there may be hill giants in the area. We ran across a few shepherds who claim to have seen some.”
“I’ll keep your warning under consideration,” the Lord Protector said, and she sat again, shuffling her papers.
Before leaving, Roon asked, “one last thing, if you don’t mind.” Thia rolled her eyes, expecting the worst. “Have you heard of a dragon in Crypt Garden?”
“Crypt Garden?” She looked up as if searching her brain, “there is a child’s tale told about the dragon who snatches misbehaving children. That’s about all I know.”
“Does it have a name?”
“I’m sure it does, but none that I can recall. It’s no more than a bedtime story, as far as I know.”
Roon thanked her, and they made to leave.
“We should stay here tonight,” Kilian suggested as they stepped outside into the daylight. “Get a proper night’s rest before we travel to Crypt Garden.”
They all agreed, and with a wry smile, Thia excused herself from the group to partake in the entertainment of the brothel. The rest went to the Talking Troll for a midday meal.
“Thia’s a bit of an…” Bran started to say, at a loss for words.
“Enigma?” Roon asked.
“Sure,” the half-elf shrugged as they entered the tavern.
“I say we try the powdered unicorn horn,” Roon said as they sat and ordered their food, dodging past the hole in the ceiling where bird droppings were a constant worry.
Kilian looked skeptical. “I don’t think that’s the best idea…” the sailor said.
“I thought it wasn’t actually unicorn horn,” Opal said, folding her arms.
“It’s not,” Kilian told them. “We don’t know what it is.”
“Look, we can’t know if it’s going to work on an enemy if we don’t try a bit of it ourselves. We need to know that it’s legitimate. Besides, if it was poison, Beatrice would have noticed when we first got it. Tressym’s are sensitive to poison.”
“I’ll lick it,” Evelyn shrugged, and Roon handed her the large bag of grayish powder.
“Try just a little bit,” Roon suggested, unsure of what it would do to her.
Kilian leaned back, opting to avoid the argument. “You’re a very bad influence.”
Opal took some next, and Roon tried a very small dab on his tongue. It took only a few minutes for the substance to take effect on Evelyn and Opal. Their gazes turned dreamy and distant. Opal crawled onto the floor and began stroking the dirt smeared boards. “The earth,” the genasi said slowly, “is a part of us. All of us. Taste the dirt…”
Before Roon or Kilian could intervene, she had licked the floor. “Ew,” Bran said dispassionately.
“Alright, I think we’ve seen it works,” Roon said quickly, and with a flourish of his hands, he cast a restoration spell over them and the effect wore off immediately.
Opal awkwardly extricated herself from the floor, looking confused.
“I would drink this,” Kilian said with a grimace, pushing a cup of water toward her.
Opal drank it gratefully, clearly noting the taste of dirt in her mouth. “Okay,” Roon said, “so it works.”
“Not on gnomes, evidently,” Bran added.
Roon grinned and tucked the bag away, eyes widening in excitement as their meal was brought to them on a steaming plate. He dug in.
They spent the evening in the Northshield House, a comfortable inn owned by Urgola, the woman who’d fought the fire giants with them and told Evelyn about the giantslayer sword. Inside the main room was a large, crackling fireplace with three hunting dogs sleeping in furs before it. Evelyn went to tell Urgola about their finding of the sword while the rest of them eventually went upstairs to bed.
In the morning, Roon sent a message to Thia telling her to meet them south of the city and got a one-word response of “okay.” They set out an hour later and began their journey southwards to Crypt Garden.
Their second day on the road led them past three hill giants, seen by Thia’s fey owl well in time and allowing them to sneak up on the three overlarge creatures and dispatch of them quickly. Again they found a strange assortment of objects on the giant’s bodies, including a giant pipe that Roon happily kept, though he had never smoked before, and a rocking horse that Opal was amazed by, but they told her it was too large to take with them. Thia even found a tombstone, the engraved name too worn to make out. They left that, and various other junk, behind. Thia told them that hill giants were known to be the least intelligent of the giants, and Roon had to agree, based on how quickly they defeated them. He almost felt guilty, except that the giants were also known to destroy farmland and wreak havoc on livestock, as testified by the shepherds they’d encountered two days ago.
They continued down the road until they came across the very small, quaint hamlet of Westbridge and found their place at an inn, the only establishment in the tight grouping of buildings.
The interior of the inn was well lit despite the darkening sky outside, and the walls were decorated with many sized statues of men, women, orcs, goblins, elves and more, all posing and completely nude. Roon picked up a small statue of a naked gnome woman curiously, holding it up to Kilian with raised eyebrows. Kilian gave him a look that said, don’t break anything.
“Ah, hello travellers! Welcome, welcome to the Harvest Inn!” A small halfling man with curly hair trotted up to them and gestured for them to follow. He took them through the maze of statues into a separate room, where he stood at a halfling-sized desk, which Roon gratefully leaned on, finally feeling a normal size. “How can I help you this evening?”
“Two rooms, please,” Roon said with a smile, gesturing to the group of them. “Mind if I ask your name, and perhaps we could also ask for some directions?”
“Harivin Dardron, at your service,” the halfling bowed. “What are you looking for?”
“A dragon,” Thia said without pause. “We’re headed to Crypt Garden. We were told we might find one there.”
The halfling gave them an interested look, but Roon could tell he held back a smile. “Aye, well that’d be old Gnawbone you’re looking for.” He held up a finger dramatically, “the great green dragon of Crypt Garden.”
“Gnawbone?” Roon asked curiously. “That’s an odd name. Could you tell us about him?”
“Oh, yes,” Harivin’s eyes went wide. “Tis’ a children’s story told to keep the younglings in bed at night. Should a child not listen to his or her parents and not go to sleep, great Gnawbone will swoop down and carry them in his mouth, flying ‘round the land for all to see the disobedient children.”
“That’s a tad dark for a children’s story,” Roon said. “I don’t think fear is a great way to raise kids.”
“And you know a lot about raising kids, Roon?” Thia asked in bemusement.
“Alright,” he held up a hand, “fair enough. What about an oracle?” He asked Harivin. “Heard anything about one of those in Crypt Garden?”
“’Fraid I haven’t, no,” the halfling shook his head.
“Well, thanks anyways, good sir,” Roon smiled and Harivin proffered the keys to their room.
“It is just a story, you know,” Harivin added.
“Right,” Roon smiled. “A story.”
Evelyn gave Roon a pile of tarp and some rope and wood and asked if the gnome would construct a large kite for her. When he asked what she needed it for, she shrugged. He took the components and spent the evening in the room with Bran and Kilian. Kilian helped him put together the pieces while Bran watched, cleaning his nails with a dagger.
When he thought they’d put together something that looked like it might fly, Kilian tossed it out the second-floor window, the rope tied securely to one of the bed posts, then shot a gust of wind into it. The kite billowed out like a sail and floated there. Kilian let the spell drop, and Roon reeled the kite inside. He went to the women’s room and knocked on the door, handing the kite over to Evelyn. She thanked him quickly and the door clicked shut.
By morning, they were all anxious to get back on the road, so they bid farewell to Harivin Dardron and took the road that curved west toward the forest.
“I don’t like this,” Opal whispered. “Not at all.”
“Shh,” Kilian warned.
The forest was dark despite the early hour, and the trees were growing denser as they crept deeper. The animals watched them with unblinking eyes. They could hear the constant sound of wings fluttering down into the trees and of tiny feet skittering through the brush to follow them.
“Can you speak to them?” Roon asked quietly. “See what they want?”
“This is giving me the creeps,” Thia said as a squirrel bounced past and climbed a tree, staring down at them from its branch.
Opal motioned for them to stop as she bent and put her hand to the ground and closed her eyes, and a shimmering green light cascaded over her and then disappeared. When she opened her eyes, she looked up at the squirrel in the tree and began chattering in a strange voice. The squirrel watched her, then ran down the tree and went to stand in front of her. It blinked and tilted its head. Its movements were unnatural, too intelligent for the rodent. It chattered back, slowly, deliberately. Opal stared, mouth slightly open. The druid girl spoke to the squirrel for some time, and Roon could feel the other animals in the forest pressing in around them, but when he turned, he saw nothing. He felt a chill run down his spine and from somewhere a crow cawed and branches snapped.
Opal stood, looking terrified, and the squirrel continued to watch them. Evelyn drew her sunblade, the curved rapier, and pointed it at the squirrel.
“What is it?” Kilian asked the genasi.
“Um,” she looked at all of them, “the animals all work for the dragon. It’s name is, uh… Clowgilmiamatar,” she struggled through the long name. “The squirrel said it, uh, it wants to eat us.”
Another crow landed on a branch near them and cawed loudly, staring at Opal with beady black eyes. Opal jumped back, frightened. “They keep saying they’re watching us,” she trembled, and a moth fluttered past her head deliberately and she stepped aside. “They think we look tasty.”
“Well, this is sufficiently disturbing,” Roon said. “I think I should send a message to Zephy—”
“What was that?!” Thia said suddenly, pointing behind Opal.
Roon saw a flash of green, but it disappeared.
There was a cracking sound like splitting wood, and a figure moved through the trees, not toward them, but around them, watching.
“It’s a tree person of some kind,” Bran said, watching it move, a finger already over his crossbow.
“Maybe it wants to help,” Opal whispered.
“H-hello?” Thia called to it, and the figure stopped, then stepped into a tree and disappeared.
Roon heard Kilian swallow nervously.
They heard breaking branches again. It came from a tree next to Opal. She jumped back and said softly, “they just spoke.”
“What’d they say?” Kilian prodded.
“Uh, they said ‘don’t mind the animals, they’re not themselves’.”
“Well, I mind them,” Roon said, pressing closer to his companions. “I certainly mind them.”
“They’re behind you!” Kilian said quickly, grabbing Opal by the shoulders and pulling her back as the tree person appeared from within a tree and tilted a head at them. The cracking wood sound came from their mouth. It was dark, so their momentary stillness made them easily blend in with the forest.
“They said the animals serve the green one,” Opal translated, and the tree person again stepped into a tree and vanished.
Roon cast his detection spell and felt a shimmer of magical aura all around them. It pressed in. “We wish to see your master,” Roon said, stepping forward and feigning bravery as best he could, pulling out two large gems from their bag of holding and proffering them to the many animals. “Dragons like treasure, right? Well, we’re here to offer some to Gnawbone, in exchange for information.”
He saw a herd of deer in the corner of his eye, but when he turned, they were gone. The birds took flight immediately and the squirrels disappeared in the underbrush.
“That’s it,” Roon whispered to his companions, “I’m speaking to Zephyros. He sent us here, he must know what to do.” With that, the gnome sent his message to the cloud giant, and got a speedy response.
The cloud giant’s voice sounded confused and airy. “Oh, did I send you to Crypt Garden? Hm, I forgot I did that. I don’t trust dragons. No… Well, try not to die!”
Roon stared ahead, momentarily dumbstruck. “Well?” Kilian said, shaking him, “did he respond?”
“We’re getting out of here,” Roon said, voice cracking. “NOW.”
“What did he say?” Thia asked.
Roon shook his head, backing away, unable to spot any animals around them. “It sounds like he didn’t mean to send us here. This is bad news. Very, very bad.”
“We came all this way,” Thia hissed. “We can’t turn back now. We have nowhere else to go.”
“We’ll figure something out,” Roon said, eyes shifting to his companions, who all looked confused. “Come on, we can find another way to stop the giants. We don’t even know if this is a good lead. Please,” he looked at Kilian pleadingly, but the sorcerer shook his head.
“We have to push on,” Kilian said. “Thia’s right. There’s nowhere else to—”
Suddenly, there was a noise behind Roon and he turned quickly as they all jumped back, drawing their weapons. Clacking. It came from all around them. Roon held up his hands, ready to throw a spell at whatever came at them.
“Spiders,” Bran said quickly, and they all saw he was right.
Out of the dense, dark forest crawled half a dozen massive spiders with shiny bodies and thick, hairy legs.
“Too late,” Roon squeaked, and released a blast of white fire.
They all jumped into action as the spiders closed in, shooting wet globs of webbing at them and coating the surrounding trees in the sticky goo. Opal transformed into a sabretooth and went leaping after one. Thia turned and sent a massive, earthen hand shooting from the ground to grasp one of the arachnids. Bran jumped between trees out of the spider’s range shooting crossbow after crossbow. Kilian got webbing across his legs but still managed to shoot spells at the spiders facing him. Roon threw his hands up and cast spiritual guardians over himself, and a thick, magical aura raised up and turned into tiny, flitting playing cards which sliced through the air and lashed out at any spiders who tried to get near him. Evelyn wielded her sunblade scimitar in one hand and her giantslayer longsword in the other. Roon turned and saw Bran shoot down another spider, but they were still coming through the trees. Roon could hear the chattering of animals as though cheering for the dark creatures. He sent his spiritual middle finger flying through the air to slam into a spider, crushing it, and behind it, the spider in Thia’s earthen grasp exploded. He turned again and saw the sabretooth tiger had been bit and was limping back. Poisoned, Roon thought, trying to maneuver back toward her.
As they killed another spider, and another, Roon could see the herd was thinning. Only a few remained. He grinned as he jumped back and managed to get a grasp of Opal’s fur and send a healing spell through her.
Just then, he saw a spider at least twice the size of the others slunk out of the woods. It moved slowly, deliberately, clacking its pincers menacingly. The other spiders seemed to bow before it.
Evelyn didn’t even pause. She raised her blades, screamed in bloodlust, and charged the spider queen. Thia flicked her wrist and her giant spelled hand sprung up and grabbed a hold of two of its legs. The spider screeched and tried to pull away and Roon moved his spiritual weapon to hover over it just as Thia shot an invisible spell into the spider’s mind and made it scream horribly. Kilian finally broke his legs out of the webbing wrapped around his feet and shot a bolt of fire directly into the spider queen’s chest as it reared in agony. The fire exploded over its massive, hairy body and consumed it. The body shuddered and the two legs ripped free as it fell with finality.
Roon barely breathed his sigh of relief before, from within the trees, they all turned at the sight of a gargantuan, green-scaled dragon head with blood dripping from its yellowing, toothy maw.