The Tale of One-Tree (FMF Unleashed campaign recap)

The Tale of One-Tree, Chapter XI: The Return to Nemnoc, Epilogue

Two weeks later, William was still busy inscribing a life trader rune onto a blade for Roza, while Roza was putting finishing touches on the finisher rune on her own enchanted blade, and was just beginning to assist Samira in putting her new woldwyrd together. Odrys, in the meantime, was leading hunting parties into Glimmerwood, and noted how the forest was slowly coming alive again now that the Orgoth site under Nemnoc had been cleansed, with the sounds of birds and larger beasts once again breaking the silence the adventurers had become used to ever since the Orgoth site had been roused earlier that year. While the adventurers were thus occupied, they had ordered the feralgeists attending them to stay hidden in their huts, and like well-trained hounds they obeyed, patiently awaiting the calls of their masters.

Heavy autumn rains were now setting in as well, and it was on one such rainy day that the sentries alerted Odrys to the approach of a lone, dark-robed wanderer from the west, who was accompanied by a spindly wold striding at his side. Odrys met the stranger, who introduced himself as Wayfarer Hamlin of the Circle, and when Odrys reported his arrival to the others, their faces immediately lit up with recognition, as Hamlin had come to them earlier that year to investigate a disruption to the ley lines in Glimmerwood. The group had found the small circles of standing stones guarding the ley lines uprooted then, and had proceeded to replant them according to Hamlin’s directions.

After taking Hamlin across the lake and into One-Tree proper, the wayfarer waited until William. Roza and Samira had finished their work for the day, and then met with them under the great ghost willow. Hamlin reported that, once again, the ley lines in Glimmerwood had suffered disruption, and that adjacent conjunctions had suffered a major drain, as if a major magical ritual had been performed somewhere in the forest. William gave the wayfarer permission to examine the land surrounding One-Tree for evidence, and assigned Odrys to him as a bodyguard, and the group also offered to accompany him on another expedition into Glimmerwood once their enchantments and Samira’s woldwyrd were complete. This prompted Hamlin to offer the spindly wold he had come with to Samira to aid her in her work, as it was a woldwright, a construct that, when directed by a Circle artificer, could assist in crafting other wolds.

For the next two weeks, Odrys accompanied Hamlin in his explorations of the plain between Glimmerwood and Widower’s Wood, during which the druid would often simply stand or sit down and close his eyes as if in intense concentration. During their daily excursions, Odrys was cagey about revealing what had been happening that year, but he did mention the toppling of an Orgoth stele in Glimmerwood, though he kept his account vague. In the evenings, Hamlin noted that there were no more fireflies among the branches of the great ghost Willow, but that the tree itself seemed to glow with an unprecedented brilliance. Hamlin also saw Odrys practice directing his feralgeist attendants, though he did not inquire further into this, simply accepting it as the workings of the Bokor William. Samira also told Hamlin about the Khadoran presence in Glimmerwood and their use of Orgoth artifacts, and Hamlin scoffed at the northerners’ foolish attempts to use such tainted artifacts.

When Samira’s woldwyrd had finally risen from the ground and been bound into service, and when the enchanters’ works were finished as well, the group only rested for one night and then finally set out into Glimmerwood as promised. The adventurers now all noted that Glimmerwood seemed to have fully become its old self once again, and after an uneventful journey towards the ruins of Nemnoc, the group found the site as they had left it, with Samira noting that there was a diffuse trickle of energy passing through the site from the north, as if from an unfocused ley line simply dissolving back into the body of Orboros.

Examining the remains of the toppled Orgoth stele, the adventurers noted they seemed brittle, which was quite unlike the normally quite impervious Orgoth stonework, and when William was easily able to chip the fragments further with a blow of his axe, the adventurers noted how their eyes, as well as the feralgeists’s, suddenly flared with what felt to them like savage joy. Hamlin, however, seemed quite oblivious of this, despite his own sensitivity to magical energies.

The group then proceeded to the stone circle north of Nemnoc, where they still found the stones lying uprooted and inert, and the gorax carcass that they had last found here now just shreds of bone. Hamlin also noted that the ley line was not flowing through the site any more, and decided they should seek out the stone circle upstream of this site to determine what was going on.

As they prepared to set out, Roza climbed a tree to scout the area from a better vantage point, and spotted a swarm of crows nearby. Directing her companions to it, they found another dead gorax, which was still quite fresh, though its stench was thankfully lessened by its demise. William then ordered one of his attending feralgeists to possess the corpse, and the spirit immediately complied, with the resulting shambling undead no less obedient than the feralgeist had been.

It did not take adventurers long to locate the next stone circle, with both Samira and Hamlin noting the swell of ambient energies as they approached. This site was undisturbed, but the outward flow of its energies had apparently been redirected southwards somehow, now passing into Nemnoc instead of through where the uprooted stone circle had been. Hamlin stated he would redirect the flow back to the destroyed site the next day, after which that site could also be re-empowered and the ley line then rerouted back into its old pattern.

During the following night’s watch, however, Roza at one point spotted a moving lambent presence among the omnipresent luminescence of Glimmerwood’s vegetation, and soon found herself face to face with a feralgeist slowly approaching the camp, its eyes firefly-brilliant; and just as the other feralgeists had done to her companions, this one now hunkered down before the shaman, its gaze lowered. When the sun rose the next day, William attempted to claim to Hamlin that he had summoned the feralgeist and bound it to Roza’s service, and tried to make his claim more believable by instructing Roza in how to approach the spirit, but the wayfarer seemed unconvinced by this explanation. When he and Samira then began the ritual to redirect the ley line back into its previous course, Hamlin then asked Samira about this, noting how he had not sensed the use of any magical rituals since his arrival, but Samira managed to brush off his concerns by referring to the well-known mastery of spirits bokors commanded – though the warlock would later whisper to her companions that they ought to be more cautious around outsiders, and that it might even become ultimately necessary for Hamlin to suffer a fatal accident if his attention should become a concern.

For the time being, however, Samira proceeded to assist Hamlin, and after the ritual had been successfully completed, the group returned to the uprooted stone circle. With the assistance of the warpwolf Bacarl and the undead gorax commanded by William, re-erecting the stones did not take any time at all, and the ritual to reconnect this site to the ley line proceeded just as smoothly, with Samira noting how her sensitivity to its flow seemed to have become markedly increased since she had enacted this rite for the first time.

After performing rituals twice in one day, Hamlin now called for the group to make camp, and told them he wanted to attempt to travel along the ley line the following day to check that the network had indeed been properly reconnected. While the adventurers were eating, however, they suddenly noticed Hamlin had frozen, watching them intently, and when they inquired about this, he told them they had just all been sitting turned in the same direction, their gazes seeming to follow the ley line’s flow.

None of the adventurers had noted this, but when they had settled down for the night, they deliberately arrayed their sleeping positions so that they all faced different directions. William then watched his companions as they slept, and to his amazement noticed that what appeared initially as ordinary restlessness and stirring in their sleep was indeed realigning his companions’s sleeping positions along the path of the ley line, with only Hamlin and Bacarl left unaffected.

When it became Roza’s turn to be the night watch, William alerted her to his observations, and asked the shaman to watch him as well as he slept. It then was, perhaps, because Roza was preoccupied with watching the gatorman in his sleep that she only noticed something was amiss when a small movement of the air carried a heavy stench to her nostrils – not the rotting-meat smell of the undead gorax, but the fouler musk of a living one, and Roza barely had time to react before the creature began to lay into her in the attempt to overwhelm its prey with a quick flurry of strikes and bites, but the nimble bloodweaver-shaman was thankfully able to dodge at least part of the blows. Crying out as much to warn her sleeping companions as in pain, Roza immediately rounded on her attacker despite her severe injuries and answered its savagery with her magic, striking with her life trader and finisher blades and finally ripping the gorax’s very life-blood from it with a spell, leaving the beast in just as bad a shape as its intended prey. Odrys was up next, but the warrior, confident Roza would not be struck down by a mere gorax, instead directed his gaze into the gloom among the Glimmerwood trees’ deathly light, and thankfully found no further attackers approaching the camp.

Then Samira rose and sent the gorax flying with a force bolt, and once this opening had created, she directed her woldwyrd to blast the prone beast with its eye’s deadly rays, slaying it. Once the gorax was dead, William instructed his second feralgeist to raise that corpse as well, though Roza at this point had quite enough of the combined stench of one already decomposing as well as one fresh gorax. Drawing on the raised awareness of the land that she had gained since becoming a host to the fireflies to find the most pungent plants she could locate, the Tharn shaman proceeded to stuff the goraxes’ orifices with several armloads’ worth of sweet-smelling herbs, berries and flowers, until she judged the stench to have been sufficiently stoppered and overpowered.

After the group had broken their fast the next day, Hamlin then stood in the stone circle, meditating silently until he suddenly disappeared in a flare of jagged jade runes. Not too long later he returned in the same fashion, and confirmed that the ley lines were flowing as intended once more. And with Hamlin’s work accomplished once again, the group returned to One-Tree.

On a lighter note:

Hamlin had at one point been nonplussed by Roza not only calling him darling, as is her wont, but also addressing him as Sir Hamlin, just like she addresses Samira as Lady Samira. The way such courtly expressions are at odds with a Tharn bloodweaver prompted the suggestion that maybe Roza had been abandoned in a city as a small child and then taken on and reared by nobility before returning to the wilderness, in an inversion of the feral-child-raised-by-wolves upbringing story…

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The Tale of One-Tree, Chapter XII, Part I – The Depths of Yokté

After Wayfarer Hamlin had left, his work on repairing the Glimmerwood ley line complete, the adventurers checked up on the captive Greylord, Oleg Ruskinovich, and found he had not been making any trouble, instead sitting quietly in the barred hut he had been confined to, and starting to look quite at home in the wilderness, with his waxed moustache now starting to become completely lost in a busy, unkempt beard and mane of grey hair.

Deciding that they were now eager to return to where the old gatorman village of Yokté used to be in Widower’s Wood, and where they already knew a third Orgoth site existed, the adventurers now quickly took stock of what supplies and allies they intended to bring along, including their soulless Iosan guest, Terys Lloryrr, as well as Juta, the young Tharn they had saved from vektiss earlier that year.

Before they set out, William then took care to explain to Terys Lloryrr that Samira and he intended to attempt to use him as the fifth host for the firefly-spirits, and inquired whether the Iosan would prefer to back out of accompanying them under these circumstances. But the Iosan simply gazed unfazed at the gatorman bokor-chieftain, his black-in-black eyes quite unreadable, and firmly restated his attention to come with them.

Setting out into another heavy autumn rain, the group then started its journey southward to the edge of Widower’s Wood. They were a bit of a stranger crew than usual this time, too, what with Samira and Terys sticking out as the only somewhat civilised-looking travellers in their hooded black robes and greatcoat respectively, as well as because of the warpwolf Bacarl and the eerily alien woldwyrd at Samira’s sides. The journey was not fast as it had been during the summer, as rain-soaked weeds clung to their legs and the ground became an ever deeper morass the closer they got to the first trees. In fact, the gatormen William and Odrys breathed a sigh of relief once the first pools and bogs became visible and they could begin to propel themselves forward in the water with their powerful tails instead of slogging through mud. Of course, they still had to account for the slower progress Bacarl and Terys made, and soon decided to find an at least moderately dry piece of elevated ground to set up camp for the night.

Darkness eventually settled over them, and for once it was quite complete, with neither the Glimmerwood fireflies and luminescent lichen nor One-Tree’s radiant ghost willow penetrating the gloom. And it was probably the very fact that the adventurers’ previous journeys, as well as their very home, did not allow them to get used to such deep darkness, that allowed William to be caught unawares while he was standing guard, as he only noticed they were not alone when something long and sticky suddenly speared out of the night, yanked him off his feet and dragged him off the little islet they had set up camp upon with a surprised yelp. Another sticky lashed out, dragging the surprised Odrys from where he had curled up for the night, and a third found the Tharn Roza, taking her on a short, spluttering journey through the swamp, until a looming shape rose up from the bog and closed its enormous flabby jaws on her.

William quickly struggled to his feet, angry that he had failed to spot the ambushers, and tried to blast the swamp troll that had caught him with spells, but missed the half-submerged creature in the gloom. Undeterred, the bokor proceeded to cast the Hand of Fate spell on himself, and thus strengthened laid into the troll with the staff Corpse-Eater and his powerful jaws, certainly making the troll regret its greedy attempt to hook what must have looked like a particularly big morsel.

Odrys, too, was back on his feet in a moment, and though he was unarmed, the powerful gatorman warrior tore into the troll with bare hands, toothed jaws, and a vengeance, making the creature wilt under his furious attack. Roza was still helplessly trapped in a troll’s jaws, but Samira sent Bacarl to her aid, twisting the warpwolf’s body for increased speed to make up for his slow progress in the swamp, and cast a spell on the woldwyrd to ready it for swift retaliation in case more trolls were lurking in the dark.

The troll who had caught Roza did not fail to notice the approach of the warpwolf awkwardly splashing through the bog, and since it had its jaws firmly clamped on its prize already, decided to try and make a run for it. Unfortunately, it was too slow, and Bacarl’s jaws tore its back open as it attempted to withdraw. Even such a grievous wound was not enough to down a creature as hardy as a troll, however, and it seemed to know it had the advantage of speed in the swampy terrain, so it did not stop its attempt to flee even as Roza was still struggling to escape from its flabby maw.

In the meantime, Odrys finished tearing apart the troll that had tried to eat him with a fitting reply from his own jaws, and with a furious roar the warrior propelled himself through the water to his chieftain’s side, where another troll succumbed to the gatorman’s berserk rage in just two more blows.

Samira then directed her woldwyrd to follow the troll trying to make its escape with Roza, blasting the creature with disruptive energies fired from the construct’s central eye, and drew off the building blind rage from Bacarl to keep him at the troll’s heels, though even then the warpwolf was no match for the swamp dweller’s speed.

Realising the peril Roza was in, William ran and swam after her as fast as he could now, after placing his enhancing spell on Odrys. But the Tharn shaman was not the helpless prey the troll had hoped for, and finally managed to force herself out from its jaws, and promptly used her own magic to pull back the blood the troll’s bite and claws had shed. And not too soon, either, as the troll, either too greedy or too stupid to give up, immediately clawed at Roza to capture her once more, but the wild swings failed to connect with the newly-restored shaman.

Then Odrys was on the swamp troll, slavering with gleeful rage, and the last attacker swiftly found its demise, ripped apart by the gatorman berserker’s jaws and claws.

Once the adventurers had then made sure that there were no more perils lurking in the dark, William decided to spend the little time that was left before dawn to cut apart the trolls’ carcasses, extracting their hearts to make theriacs of health, having become quite fond of what a boon these talismans were in battle. He was finished a little after dawn and packed the hearts away in his satchel to give them time to cure.

Even with their relatively slow progress though the swamp, the adventurers reached the area where Yokté had been with a few hours left to spare before nightfall, aided by the increased awareness of the land granted by the firefly-spirits they had joined themselves to. Unlike the last time they had been at Yokté, the concealing magics imbued in the Orgoth steles now seemed to struggle against the adventurers’ sight, and they easily spotted the vine-overgrown sinister shape rearing from the swamp. Puzzled questions by Terys and Juta did reveal that the steles were still protected from discovery by those who weren’t hosts to fireflies, however, even when they were almost close enough to touch the steles – except Juta suddenly exclaimed that she could see a shimmering shape in the air as Terys approached. Noting this, William waved the soulless Iosan back, and indeed it seemed to be that his presence at least partially disrupted the stele’s magic, though not enough to make it fully fade into view.

In preparation for their assault, William then noted the position of all three steles in an attempt to locate the central chamber, while Odrys, ever the straightfoward thinker, simply picked out a likely spot and began to dive and dig to find stone hatches leading downward, though he was unsuccessful in this, even when William confirmed that he seemed to have been looking in the right area. The adventurers discussed whether it might be a good idea, let alone necessary, to drain the swamp to access the Orgoth site, but quickly rejected the idea again, as this would not only require the site to be ringed with a dam, but also somewhere to put the water, which was not a trivial matter at all in this place of stagnant pools and lakes.

As dusk was now fast approaching, the adventurers once again sought a spot of dry, elevated ground, well removed from the circumference described by the Orgoth steles, and set up camp, with William cautioning them to have double watches that night, just in case something came creeping out from the Orgoth site.

It was while the adventurers were chewing on their rations that Roza then noted that Terys Lloryrr’s inscrutable gaze kept straying into the night, and, as was her custom, asked him “Are you all right, darling?”

Terys looked at Roza then, and in his flat voice said that he had heard that term, “darling,” before, said by parents to their children, but that no-one had ever used it when talking to him, and that he didn’t think he fully grasped its meaning. He then said he was wondering about the prophecy an Iosan priest had given him before he had set out from his country, and which he had first told the adventurers upon their return from the sacral vault near Yokté – “The empty vessel must travel to the lake that glows in the light of a lone tree.” Now that William had told him that the adventurers intended to try to use him as a host for the fireflies, Terys was wondering what this would do to him.

Listening to Roza’s and Terys’s conversation, William then suggested that the Iosan might at the very least gain a sense of belonging from the experience, to which Terys replied that those afflicted as he was were normally only used as weapons in Ios, and that he could not fathom any other sense of belonging, either. At this point Roza offered her own comfort, savage in the way of the Tharn but probably the more honest for it, saying that her own people had pledged themselves as weapons to the Circle in a not dissimilar fashion, but that she was grateful for the purpose it gave her, as well as for the protection the druids’ workings gave her people.

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This campaign has such a compelling mystery at its core. It definitely has not gone the way I expected. Can’t wait to read what happens next!

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The Tale of One-Tree, Chapter XII, Part II - The Depths of Yokté

After an undisturbed night, the adventurers resumed their search for an entryway leading down into the Orgoth site under where gatorman village used to be. Even though William and Samira had identified the largest island in these parts of the swamps of Widower’s Wood to also be at the very centre of the three Orgoth steles with their scowling faces, Odrys’s digging and diving had so far failed to find anything but mud, clinging weeds, and tenacious roots clawed into the sodden soil.

Remembering how the presence of the soulless Iosan, Terys, seemed to have a slight disruptive effect on the magics that rendered the steles invisible to most, William took the Iosan to the central island now, but there was no apparent change. Odrys resumed his digging, but to the warrior’s frustration his efforts still yielded up nothing but mud. Samira then suggested poling the water for a concealed structure, but even when Odrys put all his weight on the rod it only sank into mud and more mud, and never met any resistance that suggested a sunken stone structure like at the sites in Glimmerwood or on the plains to the east of One-Tree.

William then began to ponder that the Orgoth, surely, must have been living beings all these centuries ago when they walked these lands, and unless this area had not been flooded yet at the time, they must have built their fastness in such a way as to accommodate an entryway above the waterline. The steles were obviously too narrow to accommodate any kind of stairs leading down into the earth, but there were indeed several large mangrove trees and a few more weed-choked islands that might now conceal a hidden hatch. It was only when Roza reminded the bokor-chieftain that they had dug up and tipped over one of the steles at the other two sites that the scales fell from the gatorman’s eyes and he realised that they had been so preoccupied with the question of how to enter a submerged site that they had completely forgotten that they would have to negate the concealing magics first.

William then picked out the southernmost stele for their efforts, and though it was grueling work to dredge the heavy, sodden mud from the base of the stele, with the combined strength of the warrior Odrys and the warpwolf Bacarl at their disposal the sun had just barely reached its zenith somewhere in the clouds above when the stele finally submitted to being pushed, and after first only tilting at a drunken angle it finally slid underneath the murky water with an ignominious squelching sound.

At that moment the other two steles suddenly sprang into sharp focus in the distance, confirming that the magic had indeed failed. Quickly, the adventurers urged the Tharn Juta and Terys to get behind them, as the adventurers’ success depended on their survival, with either Terys or Juta intended as the vessel for the spirit-fireflies the adventurers were certain were being held by the Orgoths’ revenant torturers here.

Spreading out, the adventurers watched the large central island in tense anticipation. Several minutes passed, then William heard a soft sloshing sound, and a moment later dreads began clambering to the surface from submerged passageways, rivulets of muddy water spilling from their gaping mouths. The adventurers gripped their weapons tightly as a trio of masked and robed excruciators rose from the ground next, each of them taking joining one group of dreads.

The excruciator at the centre of the formation then raised a gaunt hand and pointed at William, addressing the gatorman chieftain-bokor, who was still bearing the envoy stone taken from the Greylord Oleg Ruskinovich in Glimmerwood, and demanded in a hollow voice that they drop their weapons and abase themselves.

Stepping forward and dropping to one knee, William attempted to feign submission, though it seemed he could not swallow his pride sufficiently to deceive the excruciators, and with a wave of its hand the spectre that had spoken now waved its troops forwards, with either of the two other excruciators taking a trio of dreads and leading them to either flank of their leader so as to encircle the adventurers, while the last three dreads formed a line in front of the lead excruciator, right where the island they had emerged on dipped under the surface of the swamp.

Energised by the prospect of battle, the shaman Roza called on the Devourer to grant her swiftness to counter their foes’ movements, knowing well that it was important not to allow dreads to build up momentum for a charge. At the warlock Samira’s command, armoured spikes erupted from the warpwolf Bacarl’s hide, and she sent the warbeast splashing into the water so it would reach the next island closer to the dreads before they did. Samira also cast a spell on herself to react more quickly to any opportunities that might present themselves, and last but not least sent her woldwyrd forward to secure her left flank and, hopefully, get the chance to fire at the undead Orgoth while they were still trudging through the clinging mud. William, in the meantime, abandoned his exposed position and quickly returned to the centre of the adventurers’ formation, the swamp no impediment to the gatorman swiftly propelling himself through the water with his powerful tail, and cast a spell on Odrys to twist the skeins of fate to make him even more of a force on the battlefield than the mighty warrior-berserker already was.

Wishing to prevent the Orgoth from surrounding the adventurers, Roza then summoned a zephyr to carry her as far into the swamp as possible, and though the spell sent her splashing into the bog with its treacherous roots and clinging weeds hidden under the brown surface, it had served its purpose, placing the Tharn shaman within reach of the small island the Orgoth on their right flank were heading to. Odrys followed the Tharn’s lead, and easily moved into a supporting position, while Bacarl gained the island where he could meet the dreads’ charge. Samira moved the hovering woldwyrd into position on her left flank next, but with the excruciator there still screened behind dreads, fired the construct’s eye ray at the iron-fleshed undead instead. To her shock, the ray failed to penetrate the grey flesh despite the warlock pouring power into it, and Samira now realised that her left flank was woefully exposed, with the dreads likely going to make short work of the woldwyrd. It was at that point that the Iosan soulless, Terys, realised the peril the warlock was in, and abandoned his position to try to reach Samira’s side in time.

The dreads at the centre of the advanced Orgoth undead now advanced into the swamp at the goading of their spectral master, clearly seeking to engage Bacarl as the largest obvious threat. The excruciator, in the meantime, flanked his defenders and began casting the black-rune spells of torment at the warpwolf that the adventurers had seen some of these undead use before, but thankfully both spells missed, their power expending itself harmlessly as they flew past their mark. This was just what Samira had been waiting for, and the guarding spell she had cast earlier now expended itself, allowing the woldwyrd to blast the exposed excruciator with its eye ray, though the construct failed to down the masked spectre.

On the adventurers’ right flank, the dreads barely managed to gain the island where Odrys and Roza were waiting for them, but the two warriors’ at seeing their foes fail to build momentum for a charge did not last long, as the excruciator in command of these dreads now used its ability to phase through solid matter as well as through water to rush past their line to sink its serrated blades into Odrys’s hide, their touch wracking the gatorman with agony and sending his muscles trembling.

Seeing that the adventurers’ right flank was already under attack, William quickly rushed to Odrys’s side, but in doing so also realised that he was now also within reach of the excruciator who had earlier attempted to cow him. Relishing the chance to punish the creature’s impertinence, William focused his will into a boneshaker spell, but though the missile struck true, the excruciator did manage to twist out of the way of the worst of the blast. Unfortunately for the creature, William’s power was far from expended, and the second boneshaker slammed into the excruciator just as it was recovering from the first, tearing it to pieces and sending its mask splashing into the mud.

Seeing the dreads were upon them, Roza summoned another zephyr that placed her within range to charge the undead warriors. Springing forward, she sank the life-trader blade William had made for her into the dread, following up with the finisher blade she had crafted herself, and sliced the undead’s metal-veined muscles from its dried-out bones.

Splashing through the water, Samira rushed forward as fast as she could now to support Bacarl at the centre of the adventurers’ formation, and focused her will on Bacarl to send him leaping at the advancing dreads, the warpwolf’s claws and jaws making short work of one of them and still finding the time to lash out at a second. Odrys, in the meantime, was bellowing a furious challenge at the excruciator that had dared to wound him, and the robed undead did not last more than a moment when the gatorman’s jaws, magical axe and spiked shield began their rending work. So great was Odrys’s momentum that it carried him all the way to Roza’s side on the small island where the shaman-bloodweaver had engaged the dreads, but in his fury Odrys failed to sink his teeth into another grey-fleshed abomination.

The dreads on the adventurers’ left flank now waded forward to support those of their number already doing battle with Bacarl, while their excruciator-commander surprisingly circled around behind them instead of going for the warpwolf or his warlock. Bacarl did not wait for the dreads to make the first strike and lashed out, spurred by Samira’s will, and even though he failed to rip another dread apart, the badly mauled undead still failed to return any of the blows it has received, and even its fellow abominations failed to inflict more than superficial cuts on the warbeast. On the adventurers’ right flank, in the meantime, the dreads fared even worse, missing all their strikes against Odrys and Roza.

William now charged in to support Bacarl against the dreads, but when he swung the staff Corpse-Eater the undead stepped out of the way with surprising nimbleness, and William realised too late that in his eagerness to join the fray he had neglected to cast a guiding spell on himself first.

Roza, in the meantime, continued to carve up the dread before her, and though her life-trader blade did not cleave deep despite being fed with her own blood, her finisher blade, empowered by her bloodweaver magic, found its mark, and the fell runes she had inscribed on the blade made certain that this was an injury the dread would not get up from again.

At the centre of the battle, Samira now made Bacarl lash out indiscriminately at the dreads closing in on him from three sides, hoping to at least weaken them before they could cut Bacarl apart, and sent her woldwyrd after the surviving excruciator, though the construct’s eye ray failed to down the robed spectre. Drawing in the primal power that had been building inside Bacarl and the warpwolf, Samira then infused it back into Bacarl’s flesh, undoing some of the damage he had suffered, and shrouded herself in a spinning vortex of high winds and storm-tossed clods of dirt in preparations for the dreads coming for her next.

While Odrys continued his grisly work with glee and hacked another dread apart, the last excruciator then passed through the line of his dreads, the water he was wading through not even rippling in his wake, and plunged his knife into William where he stood at Bacarl’s side. The undead torturer then pointed his blood-slick blade at the gatorman chieftain-bokor and, in a deathly voice, snarled the words “Perish, false envoy,” and with a crack the Orgoths’ envoy stone William had been carrying all this time since the battle with the Greylords’ forces in Glimmerwood shattered, finally ending his ability to understand the revenants’ hollow-voiced pronunciations.

Just as Samira had expected, one of the dreads that had not quite been in Bacarl’s reach now circled around the warpwolf and came for the warlock, but the wind she had summoned tore at the creature, making its swings go wide. Another dread who had not quite reached Bacarl yet also peeled off from the melee and went for the woldwyrd, and though the floating construct was quite nimble, one of the undead’s bladed limbs still struck home, sawing at the ropes holding the construct together. Bacarl and William also suffered further blows, but the dreads could not pierce their armoured hides and inflicted only shallow cuts instead.

William, seeing himself finally face to face with a target that his spells could reach, proceeded to blast the excruciator who had ended his envoy status to bits with a volley of well-aimed spells, though he did overtax his abilities for once and was left reeling after the last spell had caused the excruciator’s mask to plop into the mire and sink out of sight.

The Iosan, Terys, had at this point managed to gain the island Samira and Bacarl were on as well, and came to the warlock’s aid, though his thin-bladed sword failed to find the flesh of the dread that was slicing wildly at Samira.

The adventurers’ right flank was at this time nearly secure, with a single dread still making lunging strikes at Roza and Odrys. It was only fitting that the bloodweaver-shaman answered the creature’s blades with her own, but even when her empowered finisher blade struck deep into its torso, the dread was miraculously still standing. Samira, in the meantime, was desperately firing the woldwyrd’s eye ray at the dread intent on cutting it apart, but even when the warlock applied her full concentration the dread’s metal-infused flesh proved impervious. Sensing a chance to ease the pressure in a different part of the battlefield instead, however, Samira also directed Bacarl to pick up one of the dreads facing the warpwolf and throw it at the dread that was locking down her woldwyrd, but the mud-slicked undead slipped from Bacarl’s grasp. Enraged by his failure, Bacarl next clamped his jaws down on another dread’s head instead, ripping it off in a welter of ancient bone and snapping wires. Emboldened by this victory, Samira then tried to equal Bacarl’s success by swinging her voulge at the dread in front of her, but that undead proved just as elusive as the one Bacarl had unsuccessfully tried to get hold of just a few moments ago.

Realising that all the excitement was now taking place where he wasn’t, the berserker-warrior Odrys gave the lone dread he and Roza were facing short shrift, tearing its head off with his jaws in a satisfying echo of Bacarl’s accomplishment, and then made a dash to the Samira’s side as well, the water churning and foaming in his passage as he propelled himself forward with powerful sweeps of his tail. So swift was the gatorman in his fury that he gained the island Samira stood on with enough strength to spare that he could bury the axe Manyfangs in the dread’s shoulder and pierce its clammy flesh with the spikes on his shield, but even in Odrys’s rage this particular dread’s head refused to part from its spine when the gatorman fastened his teeth on it and tore and pulled, so the monster was still moving when Odrys spat it back out into the mud.

The dread Odrys had just mangled struggled back onto its feet and took swings at Samira and Odrys, but once again the whirlwind Samira had called up made its swings go wild. Bacarl, too, fared well against the surviving dreads’ assault, thought the woldwyrd did not, and the construct began to list as its animating magic began to wilt under the dread’s strikes.

Terys, meanwhile, flanked by Odrys on one side and Samira on the other, pointed his blade at the dread’s tattered body and told his companions to strike right there before plunging his own blade into that very spot, though the Iosan’s blade did not seem to be a telling blow.

Roza now summoned another blast of wing to carry her closer to William and Bacarl, close enough for her to make passage even through the sucking morass to sink her blades into the dread striking left and right at the warpwolf and the bokor-chieftain, ending the undead with her finisher blade. Samira also renewed her direction to Bacarl to pick up and throw the last dread before him, and this time the warpwolf’s claws closed around the undead’s small but heavy body. Taking aim at the dread still busy carving the woldwyrd apart, however, Bacarl missed his mark, though the at the end of his arc the undead came down head-first, its great weight finally snapping its neck as its head plunged into the muck, leaving its suddenly stiff and motionless legs and bare feet rising up from the brown water as a darkly comical monument.

Samira herself now followed Terys’s directions as she swung her voulge, the primal power she was drawing from Bacarl infusing her strike and the dread’s body shattering apart under the blow. With the path to the last dread now open, Odrys immediately leapt from Samira’s side and went for the undead facing the woldwyrd, and while the abomination had been easily able to weather the wold’s eye rays, its steely veins were no match at all for a gatorman berserker’s jaws and axe.

Taking stock of their surroundings, the adventurers saw that no other threats had emerged. And when they walked over to the island where they had seen the excruciators and dreads first emerge, they now saw the familiar outlines of hatches leading downward, though these were filled to the brim with brown-tinted swamp water.

After briefly discussing how to proceed, and with Samira busily engaged summoning the energies of Orboros to mend Bacarl and the woldwyrd, William laid the staff Corpse-Eater aside, since its length would make it an ineffective weapon under water. Odrys, too, sighed as he put the axe Manyfangs and his shield on the ground, though he reckoned that there were few threats he could not best with jaws and claws alone, and if another cage of spirit-fireflies was under their feet, as the adventurers were altogether certain it would be, he knew that such a cage’s walls would not stand up to his bare hands much longer than they would to the head of a swung axe.

Securing themselves with ropes to make sure they would not lose their way in the murky water, the gatormen then took flasks of bottled light and prepared for their descent, warning their companions that they might well come with a swarm of fireflies at their back biting and stinging at them, and that Roza should stand ready to perform the blood ritual on Terys when they arrived.

The murky waters sloshed quietly as William and Odrys slipped underneath the surface, their tails softly thudding against the nearly unseen stone walls closing in on them as they dove. In the cold glow of their bottled lights, they saw familiar stone steps beneath, and then the flasks’ dim glow became increasingly supplanted by the familiar brilliance of the cage of fireflies filtering through the murk as the stairwells opened up into the now so familiar chamber of pillars, galleries and walkways – but what that light also revealed, muted though it was by the mud-tinted waters, were the hulking misshapen forms of many more dreads silently ascending the stairs, and though the water slowed their advance down to a painfully slow crawl, it would only be little more than mere moments before they would gain the surface.

Churning the water with their tails, William and Odrys quickly turned about at this sight, and with their superior speed broke the surface just a few heartbeats later. Drawing in hasty gulps of air, the two gatormen clambered to their feet and quickly seized their discarded weapons, and Roza, Samira and Terys too raised their own weapons in grim anticipation as they listened to their friends’ gasped warning.

They were coming, and the battle for Yokté was just beginning.

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The Tale of One-Tree, Chapter XII, Part III - The Depths of Yokté

Using the time the gatormen’s ability to swim swiftly had bought them, the adventurers surrounded the southernmost hatch leading down into the sunken Orgoth facility, and stood weapons drawn and raised in tense anticipation. Samira also cast a new watcher spell so her warbeasts might the more quickly respond to the assault that surely was immiment, and Roza once again called on the gifts of the Devourer, this time choosing to channel the strength to drive her enemies before her. However, the moments passed one after another, and nothing emerged from the dark waters. The bokor-chieftain William squinted suspiciously at the three rectangular pools, trying to discern any movement underneath the surface, but the waters remained eerily still, and so he contented himself with merely casting guiding spells on himself and Roza, renewing them every few moments, while also sustaining the fate-twisting magic he had placed on Odrys earlier, though William’s fingers did grip the staff Corpse-Eater tightly in growing frustration.

Then the tension was finally broken when the hooded form of an excruciator wielding one of the strange Orgoth spears silently rose from the ground next to the hatch to the north of the adventurers, effortlessly passing though solid earth in the manner of these foul undead. Once it had fully emerged, the masked spectre leveled its spear at the adventurers in challenge, but held its ground.

Bellowing an challenge of his own, the gatorman warrior Odrys, relishing the prospect of battle, immediately responded and rushed the undead, though covering the distance did mean he had to expend his strength on running rather than bringing the full force of his jaws, axe and spiked shield to bear in a devastating charge. But the warrior’s prowess was still more than sufficient, and after his jaws had ripped half of the undead away, a strike with the axe Manyfangs ended it for good.

To the adventurer’s misfortune, however, the emergence of the excruciator turned out to have been a ruse to split the adventurers’ forces apart, and groups of dreads now began clambering out of the water, where they must have been waiting just out of sight in the darkness. Three came up behind Odrys, their bladed limbs hacking at the gatorman’s back and wounding him severely, though they failed to fell him. Three more dreads emerged from the hatch next to adventurers, who had been momentarily distracted by Odrys’s charge, and went for the warpwolf Bacarl, William, and Samira. The dread engaging Bacarl had barely managed to reach him by the time Samira’s guarding spell was unleashed, allowing the warpwolf to pre-empt the undead’s attack with a swift bite that nearly tore the dread in half before it could answer with a strike of its own. The dread that came for William took swings at the less-than-agile bokor-chieftain, but failed to penetrate his thick hide with its enchanted limb blades, while the one that had gone for Samira was too much slowed down by having had to come up the submerged stairs to accomplish anything but getting the blackclad-warlock within reach of its arms.

More dreads came up the hatch to the east of the adventurers’ main forces, and though they lumbered as swiftly towards Roza as they could, they could not quite reach her, though their presence at least served to prevent the shaman-bloodweaver from supporting her blackclad-warlock, as she would then have to leave the adventurers’ flank undefended.

And all the while these dreads were keeping the adventurers busy, two more spear-wielding excruciators had been rising up from the ground, one behind them and one secure behind the dreads on the adventurers’ eastern flank, and both of them immediately began to hurl black-runed spells into the fray. The first spell struck Samira’s woldwyrd, badly cracking the construct’s stonework, then another mystic bolt flew at Terys, making the Iosan give off an eery howl as he convulsed that was somehow more just wrong than an expression of torment. The third excruciator flung its magic at Samira, similarly sending the warlock into convulsions even as she managed to at least partially dodge the full force of the blast and passed off the rest of the damage, though not the pain, to Bacarl. Samira’s woldwyrd failed to strike true with an answering blast from its lambent eye, but seemed to have at least thrown off the excruciator’s aim, as the next spell it flicked at Samira’s back missed.

Odrys wheeled, furious at himself for having fallen for the Orgoth ruse and having recklessly abandoned his friends, and vented his rage by closing his jaws on one of the three dreads who were now preventing him from running back to his chieftain’s side. The axe Manyfangs seemed to gain a life of its own as it rose and fell and rose and fell on its own accord in the warrior’s hand, smashing the dread to the ground, whereupon Odrys pulverised its head with the edge of his spiked shield before snapping his jaws at the next dread.

William, in the meantime, renewed the guiding spells on himself and Roza, and both snapped and struck at the dread facing him, though he failed to tear its iron-infused flesh. However, the bokor-chieftain also realised that one of the two excruciators who had risen from the ground behind him was within reach of his magic, and as fortune had it he could even get it into view without taking his eyes off the dread. Dredging the depths of his potential, William flung a boneshaker spell at the excruciator who had cast its torturous magic at Terys, but did not yet accomplish more than making the spectre reel.

On the adventurers’ eastern flank, Roza now stalked forward to engage the three dreads coming for her, the strikes of her enchanted blades making the central undead stagger backwards. The shaman swiftly pursued, drawing power both from her blood as well as her soul to strengthen her blows, and after her first strike had already sliced off half the dread’s head, her second one felled it altogether thanks to the combined might of the deathly runes she had inscribed on her blade. And with the momentum of her powerful strikes having carried Roza right into the middle of the dreads, the excruciator who had been hiding behind them was now open to her magic. Drawing on the very core of her power, Roza threw her life-devouring magic at the thing, though the initial damage to its animating force was merely superficial, as the excruciator was able to dodge the brunt of the attack.

The soulless Iosan Terys, still wracked with pain, could barely expend sufficient breath to gasp insightful directions to William and Samira to aid them in the fight, and hung back for the time being, well aware that the dreads were foes he was not well equipped to handle. Samira, who was suffering just as much as the Iosan, was still able to direct her woldwyrd to fire its eye ray at the excruciator before it, but could only score a glancing blow as the spectre twisted out of the way in time. Fortunately, Bacarl proved more effective, as under his warlock’s direction he bit the head of the dread before him clean off even as his body was growing bony spikes to ward off further blows. Rushing up behind the dreads engaging William and Samira, the warpwolf then proceeded to lay into the back of the dread before Samira, but even as Bacarl picked the thing up in his jaws, bit down, and spat it out onto the mossy ground, only to pick it up again in his claws before flinging it back into the mud, the dread never stopped twitching until Samira infused her limbs with the power drawn from her beasts and hacked the dread to pieces in a frenzy of blows with her voulge.

William, in the meantime, was still proving impervious to the dread’s strikes, as they kept bouncing off his thick hide. The dreads attacking Odrys and Roza fared little better, their blades failing to bite through the gatorman warrior’s hide, or failing to find the Tharn shaman-bloodweaver altogether.

The spear-wielding excruciators at this point also deigned to enter the fray, but not only did the first fail to stick Samira with its sinisterly whispering spear, but the second, despite using its unparalleled ability to move over and through terrain, also failed to sink its spear into Bacarl despite a determined charge, and similarly could not strike the warpwolf with another of its foul spells.

The tide of battle was now clearly beginning to turn in the adventurers’ favour despite the Orgoth having second-guessed the ambush, as Odrys scissored another dread into pieces with two snaps of his jaws before beginning his vengeful work on the last dread facing him, though the undead miraculously remained standing after being struck both by the axe Manyfangs and the warrior’s spiked shield.

William renewed his guiding magic on himself and Terys, but still missed the dread sandwiched between himself and Bacarl with both his jaws and the staff Corpse-Eater. Frustrated but undaunted, the bokor-chieftain then flung another bone shaker spell at the excruciator who had just tried to strike Samira, and even as his spell finally crushed what passed for life from the thing, its disintegrating remains staggered towards the dread still on William’s flank, propelled by the bokor’s will, and the tip of the Orgoth spear it wielded struck true into the dread’s pallid flash before the spectre’s remains collapsed onto the ground.

Roza, finding herself with dreads on either side, now drew fresh strength from her blood, and opened a deep cut in the flesh of one of the undead before sinking her finisher blade into its torso, ending its cursed existence. She also managed to fling another life-draining spell at the excruciator who had rushed past her to attempt to strike Bacarl, but could do little damage, while Terys rushed into position in the centre of the adventurers’ lines, still holding back from the fight but quickly reeling off insightful stratagems to aid the adventurers in their struggles.

Samira then drew the raw power that had been building in her warbeasts back into herself before expending some to seal over the cracks in the woldwyrd’s stonework and sending her killing intent to Bacarl, who happily ripped and tore at the dread between himself and William. After Bacarl’s second strike, the metal-infused undead suddenly collapsed like a puppet that had had its strings cut, and it took William only a heartbeat to realise that that dread had been stuck with the Orgoth spear just moments ago – apparently these foul spears had a similar ability to weaken those they struck against impending destruction to what the staff Corpse-Eater granted.

With the Orgoth lines now facing total collapse, Samira next sent her woldwyrd at the excruciator that was trying to stick Bacarl with its spear, but inflicted only a glancing hit with its eye ray even at close range. Then Samira herself joined the fight and flung a force bolt at the excruciator that scattered its mask, spear, and ragged robes over the ground at her feet.

Now only two dreads remained. Bereft of further guidance they kept mindlessly attacking their last targets, and the one that Odrys was still facing managed to open a nasty wound on the gatorman’s flank, while Roza received an even worse cut that made her grunt and clutch at her arm in pain. Still, the shaman-bloodweaver not only still lived, but had managed to hold the adventurers’ eastern flank all on her own for the entirety of the battle.

And then the fight was over in just a few more moments when a raging Odrys first bit off the head of the last dread that was still keeping him from rejoining his friends and then hurled himself at the dread that had just cut Roza with a furious burst of speed. A swing of the axe Manyfangs sent the undead onto the muddy ground, where Odrys gleefully proceeded to cave in its head with the edge of his shield. And that, was that.

Silence once more enshrouded the swamp as the adventurers allowed themselves to sink to the ground, breathing heavily from the exertion of the second battle that day. Odrys quickly went around to bandage the wounded, taking a particularly careful look at Terys, who was, after all, intended as the recipient for the spirit-fireflies still trapped in the Orgoth dungeon below. Thankfully, the Iosan wasn’t as badly wounded as had first appeared, and William waved the Tharn Juta over to them again from where she had been hiding among the trees, even as Samira was circulating the power of Orboros through Bacarl, the woldwyrd, and herself, to mend both bone and stone.

William then went on to collect the Orgoth spears the excruciators had wielded, careful to touch them as little as possible while he wound them with rope and set them aside. Then Odrys and the bokor-chieftain picked up their flasks of bottled light again and made ready for another dive into the submerged Orgoth dungeon, with Terys standing ready at the edge of the hatch and their friends holding on to the ropes that would guide the gatormen on their way back.

As before, the gatormen were able to descend swiftly with powerful flicks of their tails, and as the stairs opened up into the central chamber, there was no more movement except for the fireflies incongruously dancing in the dark waters filling the filigree cage at the chamber’s core. Though unable to speak, both William and Odrys also noted that they could hear the fireflies’ buzzing even under water, and without any of the curious quality that sounds took on when you were fully submerged. Then Odrys waved at William to return to the surface, and waited for him to disappear upwards before gripping the cage’s mesh with his hands and prising it open.

Perhaps even a warrior as mighty as Odrys was a little tired after a day’s excavation and fighting, and it took him longer than expected to wrench the metal apart. Still, the fireflies finally came pouring through the widening gash in a furious cloud, and as before began to pinch and sting the gatorman’s flesh, their touch inflicting sharp pain despite Odrys’s armoured scales.

Quickly, Odrys began his retreat, and moments later was helped by his friends hauling at the rope when William broke the surface to tell them to make ready. Bacarl, Samira and Roza pulled with all their might, propelling Odrys and the cloud of fireflies enveloping him to the surface in a ball of blazing balefire, and then William stalked over to Terys and slashed at the Iosan’s arm with his ritual knife.

As the Iosan’s blood began to flow, the mass of fireflies at once rose from Odrys and transformed into a funnel cloud of swirling wings and glowing bodies, its pointed tip hungrily seizing upon the gash in Terys’s arm and channelling the entirety of the cloud into his flesh in a torrent of light. So swiftly did the blazing cloud disappear into the Iosan that the adventurers were still blinking away its afterimages several moments later, even as Terys slumped to the ground, his black-on-black eyes wide open and his mouth agape in a frozen expression of utter astonishment.

The adventurers, too, were seized by a sense of vertigo, and the world seemed to suddenly press in upon them, the stench of the swamp, the slightest stirrings of air, and the very shifting of the muddy ground under the soles of their feet now overpoweringly acute. The sensation passed after a few heartbeats, though this was more from them gaining familiarity with the sudden sharpening of their senses rather than any actual diminishment. At the same time, William, Roza and Samira felt a strange lessening of some indefinable disturbance that had been surrounding the Iosan, or perhaps it was not that he was now less, but more.

William quickly examined Terys, who was still laying motionless on the ground, and found he was breathing, though he also noted that, in contrast to the others who had joined themselves to the spirit-fireflies, the Iosan’s eyes were still the same bottomless wells of black (But perhaps, William reasoned, the Iosan’s eyes simply were too different to show the joining in the same manner as with them).

Gently shaking Terys by the shoulder now, the adventurers asked him whether he was all right, and he finally blinked before stammering that the world was suddenly everywhere, and that he saw all of their eyes glow. Terys then amended that it was not actually that the world was everywhere, but that it did not feel right any more, before seeming to realise that it was what he understood as feeling that was wrong, with everything now infused with meaning that had previously escaped him, like the swamp’s stench suddenly registering as disgusting rather than just a smell. Terys’s voice, too, had lost its previous toneless quality, as he now began to recollect how he had only been able to understand disgust as a rule that he had been taught by those raising him, and others like him, and that he had also seen – but not understood – a different quality of disgust in the faces of the Iosans taking care of him when he had been a child. Last but not least, Terys punctuated his rambling by pointing in the direction of One-Tree, clearly now feeling drawn to the village just as surely as the others, and asked what was over there.

Home is what’s over there, Samira told him.

Can we go there now, Terys asked.

Yes, Samira said, and smiled.

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The Tale of One-Tree, Chapter XII, Part IV - The Depths of Yokté

Though the adventurers were all yearning to return home to One-Tree after their victories this day, William still felt a vague sense of unease, and urged them to make sure their work was truly complete.

Obliging the bokor-chieftain, Samira sent her woldwyrd into the submerged dungeon, examining the site through the construct’s central eye as it silently passed through the still waters below. The site seemed identical to the one under Nemnoc and the one to the east of One-Tree in all respects, including the scores of small, empty niches in its outer walls, which somehow kept reminding William of soul cages.

After Samira had recalled her woldwyrd to the surface again, William suggested waiting till nightfall so they could check if something about the site changed after dark. To pass the time till then, the adventurers also decided to excavate the foundations of another stele despite their weariness, though when these labours were complete at dusk they seemed to have gained nothing more than another mask-covered stone pillar slowly settling into the boggy ground.

Still feeling unsettled, William then began to ponder what would be happening at One-Tree in the meantime, underneath which the adventurers feared a fourth Orgoth site was buried. The bokor-chieftain was wracked with apprehension, all the while realising that it would be impossible for the adventurers to return to One-Tree before another day had passed. Seeing his chieftain’s restlessness, Odrys also tried to assuage his fears by pointing out that chief Rawgash was still at One-Tree, and would provide any leadership they might need, and then got to work setting up camp on one of the larger dry islands rising from the swamp at the edge of the cleansed Orgoth site.

It did not take the adventurers long to find sleep after that day’s labours, though they did not neglect to take turns standing guard. But dusk had only just darkened into deep night when Samira, who had taken first watch, saw Terys suddenly sit bolt upright. The Iosan’s eyes flew open, a brilliant firefly blaze spilling from the orbs, and his jaw hung slack, with more fireflies dancing behind his gaping lips.

Free… a garbled voice issued from Terys’s mouth, a voice that was both unlike his erstwhile toneless speech as well as his as of this day more animated enunciation. Then he sat still again, staring straight ahead.

Quietly, Samira shook her companions awake so they could all bear witness to what was happening, before addressing the Iosan’s still form and repeating the one word he had said – free .

Us, us, us, us, the voice croaked, and then, free.

How can we free you? Samira asked, and then added whether the spirit-fireflies wanted to get freed from the soulless Terys, reasoning he might be a poor host after all.

Empty, the voice replied. William nodded sagely, and explained to the others that if Terys had truly been soulless as he had claimed, the firefly-spirits might be able to use his body to speak, as there was no spirit of Terys’s own that would interfere with them taking over that way. Then William repeated the question of how they could free the spirits.

Tree, Terys mumbled in reply. The adventurers glanced at each other, filled with an even stronger sense of unease as their fears about the threat to One-Tree seemed to have been confirmed.

Struck by a sudden inspiration, William then addressed Terys in Quor-gar, the gatorman tongue, and asked if that language meant anything to him.

Yes, the voice replied in the same language, and then groaned many, everywhere, us, us and us and us.

I promise to free you, William declared.

Yes, the reply came, and then, Hurts. Spikes. Cuts. Hurts. Once again the adventurers shared a glance, now filled with pity as they remembered how the excruciators had stabbed and sliced at the firefly swarms with those strange spears.

Bereft of an idea about what else to ask Terys, and realising that the spirits were still struggling with the concept of language, Samira took the others aside now, and wondered aloud whether any magic hiding the last Orgoth site underneath One-Tree had been disrupted now. Odrys agreed, reasoning that if the steles had protected the three Orgoth sites around One-Tree from detection, those sites might in turn have served to protect the core site, and with all three satellite sites now cleansed, that last veil of concealment might have been lifted now as well.

While the adventurers were discussing this, the scout Juta also chimed in, and asked them what they had been saying to the Iosan, which revealed to the adventurers that no-one but those who had joined themselves to the spirit-fireflies could hear the strange voice Terys was channelling. William nodded reassuringly at the Tharn then, and told her that, as a bokor, it was what he did.

The adventurers went back to their rest, but kept watching Terys for a while, until he slowly slumped backwards onto his pallet and closed his eyes again. The rest of the night passed without further incident, and when the last watch roused the others at dawn, Terys awoke none the wiser about what had happened in the previous night.

After a hasty breakfast, the adventurers broke camp and began a swift but wary march back to One-Tree, with their newly sharpened senses proving even more invaluable in ensuring swift progress than the insight they had gained from their previous joinings already had. Juta in particular again and again found herself nonplussed by the others’ ability to so easily sidestep all the unstable clumps of sodden soil, submerged roots and clinging weeds that kept threatening to trip her up.

All the while they were marching, the adventurers’ minds were still abuzz with questions. William mused aloud what they should do if they found another cage underneath One-Tree, and whether it might be an idea to perform the blood ritual of joining with all the folks of One-Tree. He did also concede that even though spirits were his business, he was wary of the repercussions of binding everybody to One-Tree in this way. Samira then interjected that not everybody was as strong-willed as them, and that there might be unpleasant side-effects to such an extensive joining, like everybody suddenly just mumbling free, free all the time.

William shook his head at Samira’s concerns, and reminded her that Terys was a special case since he had no spirit of his own, so there should not be any negative consequences to the other people from One-Tree. However, Samira was not willing to concede yet, and asked whether anybody would get anything worthwhile if everybody got to drink from the same well. The blackclad’s wisdom was persuasive, and William decided that the next joining, if one should become necessary, should be with Juta in order to maintain a balance among the natives of One-Tree with two joined gatormen and two joined Tharn.

The day had lengthened into afternoon while the adventurers were thus occupied with their thoughts, but as they approached the northern edge of Widower’s Wood, Samira suddenly realised she felt the stirrings of magic ahead, and uttered a warning to her companions. Only moments later, a bank of thick fog began to well up among the trees, with indistinct shapes bearing spears inside and a hulking figure leading them – a hulking figure with lambent green eyes.

Thinking he recognised the shape and the glow, William called out chief Rawgash’s name, and was rewarded by a guttural voice snarling the bokor-chieftain’s name in reply. Then the hulking figure began to shrink as Rawgash surrendered his primal form, while the fog began to dissipate, revealing a crowd of gatormen and Tharn standing behind the grizzled chieftain. The adventurers’ hearts sank as they realised that they not only knew all the faces that were being revealed, but that the entirety of One-Tree was standing before them.

Gloomily, the adventurers received chief Rawgash, as well as an utterly feral-looking former Greylord Oleg Ruskinovich. Rawgash then told them that, shortly past noon on the previous day, strange stone structures covered in scowling masks had suddenly appeared all over One-Tree. Then a blast of freezing cold had blown the door off the hut where the Greylord prisoner had been confined, and Oleg had rushed out, shouting that they had to leave, now, before summoning a concealing fog to cover their escape. Rawgash, too, had roared for everybody to run, and had then led the people of One-Tree south, since that was where he knew the other chieftain, William, had gone. They had not had time to take anything with them than what had been at hand, and Rawgash sorrowfully reported that some had not made it into the concealing cloud, though he did not know what had become of them.

Stricken with worry, rage and regret, the adventurers debated with the two chieftains what to do next. William suggested going to Blake’s Wheel, but Samira counselled against it, and said they should just send a runner to warn the human trading post instead. Odrys proposed going east, but that idea was quickly discarded, as the terrain was much more inhospitable there, and though the open grass steppe would prevent any monsters emerging from underneath One-Tree to sneak up on them, the volcanic activity in the area would make finding enough potable water for an entire village difficult. Nemnoc was also suggested, but going there would mean passing close to One-Tree, and that was a risk that William was not willing to take for the time being.

In the end, those advocating for going to Blake’s Wheel won out, though Samira’s caution that the trading post’s resources would be strained to the limit by such a large group of refugees was also heeded, and it was decided that should still send a runner ahead to announce their arrival so the people of Blake’s Wheel would not think they were going to be attacked.

It was at this point that chief Rawgash further counselled that no mere runner’s words would carry the same weight as the voice of one of the chieftains, though, so the adventurers conceded that it would be up to them to lead the people of One-Tree to Blake’s Wheel. Samira smirked that she hoped they wouldn’t do anything rash when an army of wild folk arrived on their doorstep, but William insisted on the plan, saying that the people of One-Tree would defend Blake’s Wheel, too, if the need arose.

And with that, they turned west, and began leading their weary, hungry and frightened people towards the bank of the Black River.

(I just did a quick count to see how long the One-Tree recap has got at this point, since it’s currently spread out over multiple files… it’s 61 regular-sized pages :astonished: )

The Tale of One-Tree, Chapter XIII, Part I - The Sack of One-Tree

After a weary trek of several hours across the grasslands wedged between Glimmerwood and Widower’s Wood, the palisades surrounding the village of Blake’s Wheel finally came into clear view ahead, and the adventurers were gratified to see them undamaged, and no more than the usual amount of smoke rising from the chimneys. Naturally, the sentries manning the palisades had not failed to notice the crowd following the adventurers’ small group and stood with rifles in hand, while the heads of more and more villages began to appear over the parapet.

Reaching the gate, William halted the groups’ approach, and planted the gnarled end of the staff Corpse-Eater into the ground before politely addressing the sentries, who knew the bokor-chieftain well from previous visits to Blake’s Wheel. Noting the sentries’ anxiousness, William then asked them to fetch the mayor of Blake’s Wheel, Roderick Bardem.

It was not long before the grey-haired Bardem, too, poked his head over the parapet, clearly not much more at ease than the sentries at the approach of so many wild folk. William then told Bardem that a calamity had befallen One-Tree, and that his people were not safe any more and had thus fled to Blake’s Wheel. He added that they would seek not to be a nuisance to Bardem’s people, but that they needed shelter, and after a few moments’ hesitation Bardem asked the chieftain and his companions to come into Blake’s Wheel so they could talk privately.

On the way to the Wheelhouse, the inn that also served as a mayor’s office of sorts, a voice suddenly called out William’s, Samira’s and Roza’s names, and they turned to see Douglas Merryweather, the riverboat captain they had helped recover smuggled cortices earlier that year. Merryweather didn’t fail to notice how tense both the mayor and his friends were, and told them he’d heard an army was on its way to Blake’s Wheel before half-jokingly asking if they had any designs on Blake’s Wheel. The adventurers quickly denied this, of course, and Merryweather said he’d wait for them outside of the Wheelhouse so they would be able to talk more after their discussion with the mayor was done.

In the Wheelhouse, Roderick Bardem shooed out the few patrons that were present at this time of the day, and then sat down with the adventurers. William told him that something had popped up from underneath One-Tree, and Bardem nervously commented that the bokor-chieftain was making this sound like some of the pre-Rebellion Orgoth tombs further west being broken open by accident. To the mayor’s increasing disquiet, the adventurers grimly confirmed his guess, and Bardem immediately remembered some hunters that had gone missing in Glimmerwood earlier that year, as well as the Khadorans making forays into Glimmerwood at the same time. He then proceeded to ask if the Orgoth would now come to Blake’s Wheel too, but William immediately affirmed that the fugitives from One-Tree would also do their best to protect Blake’s Wheel as well while they were there. The adventurers then laid out their plan to first scout out the specifics of what had occurred in One-Tree before making an attempt to retake it, but restated that they needed a safe place for their people in the meantime. Mayor Bardem, though clearly still unhappy about so many wild folk in his village, was still convinced of the wisdom of providing shelter for the people of One-Tree in exchange for their aid in fighting any Orgoth expeditions, and grudgingly gave his agreement to the adventurers’ plan, saying he hoped that neither of them would come to regret this decision.

As he had promised, Captain Merryweather was waiting for the adventurers when they filed out of the Wheelhouse again, with Odrys immediately setting out for the fugitives waiting outside of Blake’s Wheel, while the mayor went to talk to his people and inform them of their agreement. Merryweather was easily able to read in the mayor’s face that there had been bad news indeed, and immediately invited the adventurers to his boat, the River Lily, so they could share a drink and have some peace for a talk.

On the riverboat, the adventurers laid out the grim news to the captain, and Merryweather immediately asked them if he could provide any help. William asked him if he was currently carrying any explosives, but though the River Lily indeed had a supply of blasting powder on board, Merryweather confessed he did not have confidence in his or his crew’s ability to fashion anything from the barrels that would be safe enough to use. He then suggested to the adventurers that he could instead try to fetch the Khadoran renegade they had become friends with, Vasko Ambrozovitch, who had not only also become a trader of sorts and whose boat had passed Merryweather’s only a few days ago, but who was also much more comfortable with tools of war because of his background in the Khadoran armed forces. In the meantime, Merryweather also offered to also give his cargo of tinned food to the adventurers’ people so they would be less of a strain on Blake’s Wheel’s larders, as well as any crates and tarpaulins he could spare and that could be fashioned into tents and other kinds of improvised shelter. William glady accepted, and offered to pay Merryweather a hundred gold crowns for this aid, but the captain only smiled and said he’d happily accept half of that to cover a token amount of his losses, as well as the adventurers’ friendship.

The adventurers then went to their people to fetch as many as they could that could help them unload the River Lily’s cargo, while Merryweather told his engineer to immediately begin stoking the engine’s boiler so they could sail and fetch Ambrozovitch as soon as they were ready. Before sailing, he estimated that it might take him four days to a week to catch up with Ambrozovitch and return to Blake’s Wheel, and then he bade the adventurers good-bye as they got their people settled in in the small village.

While Odrys was directing the gatormen to set up shelters and then taking some of them to swim out into the Black River with him to catch fish, William and the old Tharn chieftain Rawgash were picking out speakers from their people that could help smooth over any difficulties with the people of Blake’s Wheel. Roza, in the meantime, went to the Tharn den mothers to make sure that the village’s children were all right, which also included two of their own, her daughters Tione and Syr.

To Roza’s surprise, the eldest den mother immediately took her aside, and told her that Tione had gone missing when Roza had last set out towards Widower’s Wood those few days ago, but had returned while they were fleeing from One-Tree, strongly smelling of the swamps of Widower’s Wood but refusing to speak of what had transpired.

Roza immediately went to her eldest daughter, taking off her mask and laying aside her sacral blades as she knelt to give Tione a hug. The girl seemed unusually shy at first, her large eyes roving over her mother’s body as if looking for something, until Roza realised that it was not reluctance or fear that was written on the little Tharn girl’s features but a child’s fathomless awe. Tione then told Roza that they hadn’t touched her at all, and breathlessly asked her how she had got that strong. Roza told her that this kind of strength came from within, and when Tione asked her mother if she, too, could learn this strength, the bloodweaver-shaman smiled and said that of course she could, and flashed her fangs to her daughter’s squeal of delight. Tione immediately babbled that there had been so many monsters, and that Roza had held them all off, and that they hadn’t touched her, and then asked if she could come hunting with her mother when she next set out again. And then the little girl was indeed not a great huntress yet but still just a little girl, pouting as Roza instead asked her if she was taking good care of her little sister Syr, too, but eventually accepting her mother’s gentle chiding. And after another tight hug for Tione, Roza picked up her mask of office again and returned to the others to make sure that they were getting settled in.

Night fell, with the human sentries as well as Tharn and gatormen peering into the dark behind the palisades in the attempt to pierce the gloom to see if any undead monstrosities were approaching. But there was neither sound nor sight that broke the tense quiet, and the adventurers eventually settled in for some much-needed rest. As they were getting comfortable, the Iosan Terys Lloryrr approached Roza, asking her if hearing the voices of children made her happy, too. Still caught off guard by the recent change in the man’s formerly utterly emotionless demeanour, Roza told him that the voices of children made her hopeful for the next generation. Terys nodded thoughtfully, replying that until that fateful moment in the ruins of Yokté those scant few days ago it had never even occurred to him to think about a next generation at all.

The adventurers had not been slumbering long before they were gently shaken awake by the sentries from One-Tree, who told them that the Iosan was acting strangely. Not having forgotten Terys’s behaviour the previous night, the adventurers were not surprised to find him standing bolt upright and completely still, his eyes blazing with a firefly glow and his slack mouth hanging open with a similar baleful illumination spilling from deep inside of him. It was also no surprise that he stood facing east, directly toward One-Tree.

William addressed Terys in the old gatorman tongue, asking what he saw in the east. Me, came the reply from the Iosan’s motionless lips, and when William inquired what he was doing there, the answer was H urting. Then William asked what would help make the Iosan better, the cryptic reply was F ree, and all one. Trying to make sense of the voice issuing from Terys, William was then told he was trapped, I n someone, empty and not empty, snared . William then asked if this entrapment was against his will, and both got an affirmative to that question as well as to the question if the entity speaking through Terys was free where they were right now.

Probing further, William asked for advice, and was taken aback by that eerie voice hurling All in one, not many*. One. One!* at him with unexpected force. Asking if the entity was tired, the bokor-chieftain was told N o , but he then learned that it could be tired, before Terys suddenly began to raise his hand, seemingly pointing at thin air and pronouncing Strength! The bokor-chieftain’s scaly skin crawled as he realised the Iosan was precisely pointing at the soul of the old gatorman chieftain, Toothy Trudy, who had perished during his experimentations with blood magic at the foot of One-Tree’s ghost willow, and whose soul he had since held on to in shame.

Sorrowfully, William mumbled that Toothy Trudy had seen many years, and would have seen many years yet if not for him. Terys’s brilliant eyes were unreadable, but after a long silence the voice channelled through him only quietly said, N o words .

With William translating into the old gatorman tongue, Samira then asked if there were any more of the things in masks left at One-Tree, and got a subdued Y es in reply, as well as an unexpected And one, empty and not empty, snared. The blackclad warlock asked if those Terys was speaking of were like the adventurers, but the cryptic reply was No, and yes. But snared. Samira then asked if the entity did not have the words to say what it meant, and got another affirmative response, and then One when she asked how they could help. Seeking to confirm a suspicion that had begun to grow in Samira by this point, she then asked if the entity was asking for help in becoming one, and the voice immediately hissed YES in reply.

Having guided Terys back to his sleeping place, the adventurers briefly sat down to discuss what they had learned before turning in again. William mused that maybe the entity inside of Terys as well as him and his companions was like an anthill, many component creatures that were making up one whole being, and that that was the reason it said it was both free and trapped at the same time. Returning to the observation that Terys could only serve as a speaker for the entity because he had truly been soulless, as he had claimed, and thus could not resist becoming a speaker while asleep, Roza then suggested that they, too, might become speakers if William was able to prepare the right concoction that could put them in a similarly subdued state. The bokor-bone grinder agreed that it might be possible, but it was clear they should only attempt such a thing after the matter of One-Tree was resolved.

When the sun had risen again the next morning, the adventurers inquired whether Terys had had any dreams the previous night. The Iosan said he had not, but he was able to read in the adventurers’ faces that something had taken place the previous night without him being aware of it. They recounted what had happened, and confirmed that Terys could not speak the gatorman tongue while awake. Samira then asked if Terys wanted to come with them to One-Tree, and he immediately said that he would gladly do so. Staring off into space for a moment, seemingly surprised by his own words, Terys then added, “I have felt… I have felt since two days ago, and I think I like it.”

The adventurers took their time approaching One-Tree, with Roza making sure that they used any dip and rise in the open terrain to remain as well hidden as possible. Odrys was staying behind in Blake’s Wheel to oversee the village’s defences, while Samira was once again accompanied by the warpwolf Bacarl and her woldwyrd.

Finally getting close to One-Tree in late afternoon, the adventurers saw the familiar shape of the ghost willow rise over the island in the small lake, and realised they could now see the tree’s drooping branches glow even in the daytime. Looking through her spyglass, Roza saw the village’s huts and dwelling now lay in ruins, with the island’s hillock replaced by an ominous mound of green-veined black stone. An imposing doorway was facing west, with an impenetrable darkness shrouding whatever lay inside. To either side of that doorway, huge heads of stone reared, but instead of the customary snarls and scowls of Orgoth architecture, these had wide-open eyes and gaping mouths. The ghost willow was perched on top of this structure, its massive roots snaking around the sinister blocks of stone and even sunk into the crevices between them in many places. Among these roots stood still figures of grey flesh and bladed limbs that were unmistakably more of the Orgoths’ dread undead soldiers, and the wispy robed shapes of excruciators were busy at the ghost willow’s mighty trunk itself, prodding at the blazing bark with their strange spears and cold fingers.

Having counted a mere four dreads and two excruciators, William suggested circling around the lake to begin with, both to make sure there no more undead, and to confirm his guesses of the Orgoth site’s layout. Under Roza’s direction, the adventurers managed to remain unseen while circling around the lake until they could see a third stone face on the island’s eastern edge, and William noted with satisfaction that the three giant heads were aligned with the sites in Glimmerwood, Widower’s Wood and the eastern plains that they had previously destroyed. Also, there seemed to be no more undead on the other side of the island.

The latter observation seemed to rouse a gleeful bloodlust in Roza, and the Tharn bloodweaver-shaman immediately suggested they should not merely observe but raid the Orgoth site. While initially hesitant, William said that if the Tharn was confident, then he was confident too, and suggested that he could swim to the island’s shore while pretending to be a mere snapper, which would put the excruciators into range of his magic. Well aware that the spectres’ dread bodyguards were warded against magic, Roza immediately affirmed she would not allow the bokor-chieftain to approach the island on his own. Though she could not swim as well as the gatorman, she could gather rocks into a sack tied to her waist to help her stay under water while she would breathe through a hollow reed like the children of One-Tree had often done while playing in the lake in summer. This way, Roza would be able to hide underneath William as he approached the island.

Terys and Samira took up position in the tall grass on the lake’s shore while William divested himself of his mask of office and other trinkets that could give him away as anything but a wild animal, only holding on to the staff Corpse-Eater, which he would easily be able to hide underneath his body as he swam. In the meantime, Roza snuck to the lake to pick reeds, and managed to do so without being detected before tying rocks to her waist in such a way that one pull of the rope would release the weight and allow her to gain the surface once it was time.

Using the intimate knowledge of beasts that his training as a bone grinder afforded him, William effortlessly imitated the demeanour of a snapper searching for food as he slid into the cool waters, holding onto the staff Corpse-Eater with his hands while keeping Roza positioned underneath his body with his legs, and propelling himself forward with lazy swishes of his powerful tail. This way, the bokor-chieftain and the bloodweaver-shaman reached the very edge of the island without arousing the undeads’ suspicion. Realising that the excruciators were further away than he had expected, William decided to lie in wait for a while yet, trying to convey to Roza through the firm grip of his feet that she should be patient a little longer. As William had hoped, the spectres’ investigation of the ghost willow eventually made them stand sufficiently close together that he could finally rise from the water and, brandishing Corpse-Eater, unleash a devastating blast of annihilating power on them. Unfortunately, despite the bokor-chieftain pouring as much power as he could into the spell, one of the excruciators managed to shrink back from the blast at the last instant, while the other escaped the roiling runes with disappointingly little damage. Then Roza rose from the waters in a blast of wind that deposited her onto dry land, from where she proceeded to nimbly leap up the roots and stone to sink her blades into the excruciators before they could react. Channelling her very life-force into her enchanted blade, Roza nearly tore the mask off of one of the excruciators with her first strike, revealing only emptiness underneath, before ripping it apart with a flung spell.

At the lake’s shore, Samira called her woldwyrd to her side and leapt onto the hovering construct as it reached her, while sending Bacarl splashing into the water so he could make his way to the island as well. Terys, meanwhile, loosed an arrow at the remaining excruciator, ignoring the risk of hitting Roza instead, but missed his mark as well as his ally. That excruciator then flung a missile of black runes at Roza, but even as the shaman-blood weaver sidestepped its spell, the spear wielded by the undead torturer gashed her side. The dreads were also scrambling to reach the spectre’s side at this point, but unlike the nimble Tharn they struggled to clamber up the slopes of stone and roots, and were slow in coming to their master’s aid.

William, too, had in the meantime gained dry land, and blasted the remaining excruciator with another spell, though he too could not score a hit.

Where arrow and spells had failed, Roza succeeded, her blades cutting through the wispy robes defining the shape of the excruciator before her and sending its suddenly hollow mask and empty rags tumbling down the slope. Making the most of her nimbleness, the Tharn then danced further up the slope, kiting the dreads behind her and away from the others.

Lashing the woldwyrd with her will, Samira was easily carried across the lake by the strange construct, where she could now come to William’s aid – and this would be sorely needed, as at this point two more dreads had appeared inside the doorway ahead of them, and then two more yet were coming trudging up unseen stairs, while the four dreads that were coming after Roza continued their awkward climb uphill. Leaping down from her position further upslope now, the Tharn denied the dreads the advantage of charging her position, but despite her excellent bladework she could only inflict heavy damage on one of the steel-fleshed undead instead of ending it. Eager to come to his companion’s aid, William then cast spells to twist fate in his favour and to guide Samira in her own efforts, and launched himself at the dreads that had just come into view from inside the doorway, but similarly failed to inflict more than heavy damage with both his jaws and the weight of the staff Corpse-Eater.

While her companions were making sure none of the reinforcements would reach her, Roza was nevertheless crossing blades with no less than four dreads at the same time – or rather three, as her empowered blade finally struck true and severed the magic that animated one of them. Down below, Samira launched herself at the dreads facing William, but her voulge failed to part the metal-infused undead flesh. Bacarl was still thrashing the lake’s waters as he swum as fast as he could, with Samira’s will stirring his bestial mind into a froth of primal power, then the woldwyrd began firing its eye ray at the dreads not yet engaged by William or its mistress before withdrawing, inflicting little damage to the undeads’ impervious flesh but managing to kite the dreads away from the fight. The undead, in the meantime, failed to strike Samira altogether, and scratched ineffectually at William’s thick hide, but scored first one successful strike and then another on Roza, causing the shaman-bloodweaver to stagger as her wounds were beginning to tell. Realising that the fortunes of battle were less favourable than they had hoped as William’s teeth and staff failed to inflict further damage on their foes, Terys too now launched himself into the lake, scrambling to gain the island as fast as he could.

Feeling faint and staggering, Roza slashed wildly at the dreads, missing her mark altogether at first but then plunging her second blade into a dread’s eye, the magic that she had poured into the blade causing its head to break apart like a rotten apple. Emboldened by her companion’s savagery, Samira drew in power from the woldwyrd and Bacarl, and then sent the warpwolf barrelling into the dreads coming for the woldwyrd as armoured spikes were erupting from his hide. Even so, it took the baying warbeast several swipes to drag one of the dreads to the ground before he was finally able to vent his frustration by tearing the thing limb from limb, and even managed a swipe at a second dread. In the meantime, Samira was using the power she had gathered from her warbeasts to lay into a dread with her voulge and managed to pummel its body into a shambling mess of wires and smashed flesh, though even such grievous damage failed to quite stop the monster yet. Readying herself for the counter, Samira called upon the elements to shroud her in a raging wind and stood her ground, while the woldwyrd drifted towards the dread Bacarl had only swiped at and scattered its remains over the ground after pouring two brilliant blasts from its beryllium eye into the gash the warpwolf had opened.

The other dreads continued to slash and slice at William, but struggled to do more than inflict shallow scratches on the gatorman, while the raging storm around Samira protected her from suffering a surely much more telling blow. Terys was still sloshing through the lake, but would soon gain dry land again, and then William renewed his guiding magic on Samira before first tearing a chunk out of the dread he was facing with his jaws and then thrusting Corpse-Eater’s point into the wound, the staff’s magic greedily sucking the animating magic from the undead and sending its suddenly stiffening form toppling backwards like a felled tree.

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Amazing story and narration as usual :slightly_smiling_face:. I am eager to learn what has been hiding under One-Tree all this time. With three whole Orgoth temples to hide it, this must certainly be a special temple, even for Orgoth. I cannot wait to explore it further :slightly_smiling_face:!

The Tale of One-Tree, Chapter XIII, Part II - The Sack of One-Tree

In the meantime, back in Blake’s Wheel the gatorman warrior Odrys had been busy organising the Tharn and gatorman refugees from One-Tree. Smoothing over any troubles with the human inhabitants of the small village on the bank of the Black River was thankfully made easier by the bonds of trade that had formed between Blake’s Wheel and One-Tree over the past ten years, but even so, diplomacy was not exactly Odrys’s strong suit. Having a good shouting voice and an indomitable presence certainly helped, of course – or it did so with the wild folk, at least.

But in the hours since Odrys’s chieftain and companions had set out, the warrior had found himself growing increasingly restless, the pull that had been drawing him to One-Tree since William had infused him with the spirit-fireflies all those months ago slowly becoming first an anxious itch, then a gnawing dread, until he could finally take it no more. Rushing to the lean-to he was using as a temporary home, Odrys picked up his axe Manyfangs and his spiked shield, and only paused briefly to inform the old Tharn Rawgash that he now had to hold the reins until he returned before setting out eastwards at a distance-devouring trot, trusting his well-honed constitution to swiftly carry him back to his chieftain’s side and still have strength left to strike down whatever foe he might be facing.

Odrys’s anxiety seemed to be vindicated as One-Tree slowly came into clear view on the eastern horizon, the giant ghost willow blazing in an eerie illumination that was more powerful than daylight, and the village that had once nestled among its roots now shattered ruins scattered at the foot of a mound of strange black stone architecture. Worse, Odrys could see his companions struggling with the familiar misshapen grey forms of dreads among the ghost willow’s roots. Bellowing a challenge, the warrior launched himself into the lake surrounding the island of One-Tree, drawing his limbs in close to his body as his tail propelled him through the water at breakneck speed, and only half noticing that he was overtaking the Iosan, Terys, who was of course much less adept at making good progress through the shallow lake.

Roza, in the meantime, slashed at one of the dreads facing her with her enchanted blade, felling the already heavily damaged undead, and then struck deep into the torso of the other with her empowered blade. Samira renewed the whirlwind she was using as a shield, and then poured her power into a strike, but failed to destroy the dread before her until she directed Bacarl to join in on the attack, the warpwolf’s claws tearing at the wire filaments that held the dread together until his jaws finally tore its head clean off.

Seeing that Samira seemed to have her own fight well in hand now, William then began to clamber up the ghost willow’s roots to aid Roza, bellowing at the dreads in an attempt to draw their attention even as Terys was now finally gaining dry land again.

But it was Odrys who once again proved that not being able to wield magic did not make him any less of a threat to the adventurers’ enemies. The gatorman warrior came leaping out of the lake and charged past Terys, past Samira, her woldwyrd, and Bacarl, and even past William, to gain Roza’s side and bury first his fangs and then the blade of Manyfangs in one of the dreads, and never stopped hacking away at the thing until it finally lay still after Odrys had repeatedly punched his shield’s spikes into its mangled form, bellowing bloody murder at the top of his lungs all the while.

Roza, then, immediately used the opening that Odrys had given her to focus all her attention on the last dread, echoing the raw might of the gatorman warrior with the subtle but no less devastating power of her enchanted blades and blood magic as she first sent the undead sprawling with one elegant sweep of her blade before ending it with a final stab through what once had been its heart.

Quiet settled now over what had once been One-Tree as the adventurers gathered at the foot of the great ghost willow, directly before the ominous opening through which the dreads had emerged.

William congratulated Odrys on his fortuitous timing, and inquired what had made the warrior follow them despite the original plan of having him oversee the refugees in Blake’s Wheel during his companions’ scouting mission.
“Duty,” was Odrys’s reply, as concise and dry as ever.
“Admit it – you just missed us, darling,” Roza then quipped, wiping her blades on the rags left behind by the destroyed excruciators. “You were just lonely.”
“Something felt off,” Odrys’s returned bluntly, but perhaps there was more than just the firefly glow twinkling in his eyes as he looked at Roza.

William and Samira now began making a closer examination of the Orgoth structure that had been unearthed beneath One-Tree. There were the three large stone faces with their gaping mouths, and it was immediately clear that they were aligned with the stele sites underneath the ruins of Nemnoc and Yokté, and the third site to the east. But now that the bokor and the blackclad could examine them up close, they realised those faces were feeling oddly dead and inert, and they reckoned that this had to be because the adventurers had toppled the steles at the other sites and freed the spirit-fireflies trapped there.

William then suggested that these large stone heads reminded him of hungry birds in a nest, and that they might have been used to somehow draw in energies from the peripheral sites – and with those energies cut off, the core site had finally been revealed. The adventurers then lit a flaming brand and tossed it down the gullet of one of the heads, but though the passage did continue downward, it soon narrowed to the point of being too small to admit any of them.
Samira, in the meantime, had also been sifting through the ruins of One-Tree, looking for some of the lesser hovering wold constructs she had been working on, but found no remains – it unfortunately looked like the Orgoth undead emerging from the underground dungeon had disposed of Samira’s tools as a matter of course.
That left only the dark and silent portal as a means of ingress into the Orgoth site, with the beginning of steep but broad stairs leading downward just visible from where the adventures were standing, and a familiar pulsing green glow faintly shimmering below.

Odrys was the first to descend, shield and axe raised, with Roza stalking at his side, her eyes glittering in the eyeholes of her fright-mask. Then Samira and William followed, shielded by the woldwyrd hovering before them. In their shadow walked the slight form of Terys, bow in hand, and behind the Iosan the warpwolf Bacarl was bringing up the rear, though he had to duck his head to fit through the initially narrow passage.

The stairs leading down from the portal soon emerged into a cavernous chamber. Three giant stone heads scowled down at the adventurers from the vaulted ceiling, and in between them there swayed a cage of metal mesh suspended from chains. That cage was the source of the pale illumination suffusing the dungeon, though this illumination appeared to be quite without source – there were no spirit-fireflies inside the blackened metal filigree this time, only a diffuse, pulsing glow.

Underneath the cage a large circular platform rose from the chamber’s floor, with stairwells leading further downward gaping darkly around its edge. Facing the descending stairs a large stone throne had been erected at the opposite end of this platform, and on that throne, attended by a handful of dreads and excruciators as well as an ominously armoured figure resting its hands on the haft of a terrifyingly large mace, sat a skeleton clad in black mail, with an Orgoth spear in its hand and an overpowering aura of dread emanating from it that was thoroughly out of proportion with its slight frame.

However, despite the icy fingers that began clawing at the adventurers’ hearts as soon as they set eyes on the enthroned figure, they did not falter and continued to advance down the stairs to the platform, even as the skeleton slowly rose to its feet and planted the haft of its spear on the ground in an imperious gesture.
“Impertinence!” a high voice hissed from the skeleton’s fleshless jaws. “How dare you come into my presence with blades and beasts? Kneel before your masters!”
“You aren’t really up to date on things, are you?” Samira quipped, the undead’s imperious attitude particularly grating to a blackclad warlock fully aware of her own status and power.
“Silence!” the skeleton keened in reply. Rragged runes of shadow suddenly formed a majestic halo around it, and the adventurers found their very lips stiff and unresponsive – all of them, that is, except for William, who set his own willpower against the magic assailing him and pointed the staff Corpse-Eater at the Orgoth lord, challenging it as the true chieftain of One-Tree.
“Impertinence!” the skeleton hissed again, but when another corona of runes flared around it, this time its grasp slipped, and the adventurers found themselves unfettered once more – and wasted no time capitalising on the failure of the Orgoth’s magic.

Summoning his magic, William formed runes into a baleful missile and sent it flying at the skeleton. The bokor noticed at once that casting the spell was much more draining this time than it normally was, as if the Orgoth’s very presence was drinking up the spell’s power, but still managed to pour enough of himself into the spell to make the Orgoth lord stagger.

One of the excruciators immediately replied, sending a volley of wracking spells at the woldwyrd that either missed or failed to break wood and stone bound by the power of Orboros. A flare of energy leapt from the woldwyrd’s great eye in reply, but though it connected it did little damage to the robed undead.

Roza now called on the gifts of the Devourer and leapt nimbly down from her perch still high up on the stairs, her legs easily carrying her to the excruciator who had attacked the wold; and though the bloodweaver-shaman too felt her magic dampened and drained by the presence of the Orgoth lord, she managed to cut the wraithlike figure before her, though the injury was much smaller than she had desired. But such a failure only served to stir up the Tharn’s lust for carnage, and she followed up on her blades’ strikes with a life-draining spell that ripped the excruciator apart. A grin of fierce defiance twisted Roza’s lips as she then also powered through the wave of fatigue threatening to overwhelm her, relishing that her blades were just beginning their feast.

To the warlock Samira, the drain imposed by the Orgoth lord was a much greater obstacle, and summoning a shielding vortex of wind was nearly all she could do while she, too, dropped down from the stairs. What little power was left over after casting her spell Samira channelled into restoring her woldwyrd, which she had failed to fully repair after the fight in the ruins of One-Tree. Samira also belatedly realised Bacarl was stuck on the stairs behind William, so all the help she could get from the warpwolf’s towering form was riling him for the power she would desperately need. The woldwyrd, in the meantime, retreated behind Roza and blasted one of the excruciators with its eye ray, but could not score a telling blow.

Terys nocked an arrow and loosed it at the Orgoth lord, but could not penetrate the ancient mail wrapped around equally ancient and accursed undead bones, only for William to follow suit with another spell in the Iosan’s arrow’s wake, the bokor’s magic once again succeeding at making the undead ribs crack and splinter, though this time around the strain of casting was too much for William, making him black out momentarily.

The dreads now also joined the fray, launching themselves at Roza and Odrys. The nimble Tharn simply sidestepped their bladed limbs, however, and though their swings did manage to strike Odrys, they either failed to inflict more than the most superficial injury, or were fended off by his shield. The armoured figure that had been standing at the foot of the throne had also set itself in motion, stalking forward with an unhurried stride that was no less menacing as it hefted its humongous mace in both hands.

Then the Orgoth lord itself made its presence felt, raising its arms and sending a wave of power into the adventurers’s ranks that wrapped itself around their limbs, making their weapons fall from suddenly nerveless fingers. The woldwyrd replied to the Orgoth’s magic by blasting it with its eye ray, but could not inflict any damage, and then another spell smashed into the woldwyrd, nearly sundering its body apart.

Last but not least, Odrys acted, picking up Manyfangs from where the Orgoth lord had forced him to drop it. The dread that had dared strike at the gatorman warrior simply fell apart under the onslaught of Odrys’s fangs and axe, and with a bellowed challenge Odrys then launched himself at the armoured figure that had at that point nearly reached him. His spiked shield smashed into the Orgoth warrior, but it appeared unfazed even after taking a blow that would have felled many a lesser foe in one cruel sweep.

With Odrys now standing apart from his allies, one of the excruciators launched itself at him with its Orgoth spear, but failed to strike true – the gatorman even managed to sidestep the spell that the robed wraith launched at him at point-blank range. Not only that, but the strain of having poured so much magic into the woldwyrd previously – if ineffectually – now seemed to have been too much for the undead, and its form suddenly wavered, bereft of strength.

Roza slowly circled around the dread that had engaged her, slicing at it with her blades and gathering her strength for a strike on the Orgoth lord once she could disengage from her current foe. But although her enchanted blades wreaked horrific damage, the steel-fleshed undead was still on its misshapen feet.

Samira picked up her voulge and drew in power from Bacarl and the woldwyrd before feeding it back into a new vortex spell as well as the woldwyrd’s failing frame. This time the construct’s eye ray managed to inflict at least superficial damage on the Orgoth lord, but Samira still found herself at a loss trying to figure out how to finally bring Bacarl into play from behind William.

Ignoring the bow forcibly discarded at his feet, Terys now drew his blade and, seeing an open path to the dread keeping Roza occupied, charged down the stairs and ran the creature through, the undead flesh immediately succumbing to the blow after having been weakened by the strike of Roza’s enchanted blade just a few heartbeats earlier.

William, then, still reeling from casting magic in the Orgoth lord’s presence, picked up the staff Corpse-Eater and jumped down from the stairs, finally clearing the way for Bacarl to join the battle, and moved into position on the adventurers’ left flank, where he would shortly be in striking range of the Orgoth lord itself.

Unfortunately, the adventurers’ plans were then suddenly thrown into fresh turmoil when the armoured warrior standing before Odrys hunched its shoulders and broke into a loping run that carried it right through the gatorman warrior, its form briefly becoming as insubstantial as the very air, and right to the warpwolf Bacarl, where it smashed its mace into the warpwolf’s head, inflicting a terrible wound.

The Orgoth lord then raised its arms, shouting “Come forth!” in its keening voice, before first casting the spell once more that made everybody drop their weapons and then ensnaring William within a halo of jagged runes that dragged him towards its throne even as it both crushed as well as cut him. “Now you will pay for what you did to me,” the Orgoth lord hissed at the bokor-chieftain.

Seeing his chieftain suddenly in peril, Odrys unhesitatingly rushed past the excruciator standing before him after picking up his axe again, risking the torturer-wraith’s spear’s sting but thankfully managing to sidestep the blow. Odrys easily reached the Orgoth lord, thus interposing himself between that sinister presence and his chieftain, but despite his teeth briefly finding purchase on bony limbs and his axe hacking into stained mail, he could not fell the monster.

The excruciator who was now standing behind William after its master had dragged the bokor-chieftain closer with its spell spun around and thrust its spear into the gatorman’s back, inflicting a heavy wound. It was also at this point that it became clear what the Orgoth lord’s call had meant, as more excruciators floated up the stairs at the chamber’s perimeter. One of them appeared behind Samira, but missed her with both spear and spell, while another struck at the woldwyrd and nearly succeeded at destroying the construct, except that its wracking spell failed to strike true.

Roza swiftly gathered her blades back to her hands from where the Orgoth lord’s magic had made her drop them and charged in, her enchanted blades finally managing to score a fatal blow and unceremoniously sending the mail-encased bones to the ground in a clattering heap – and with the undeads’ master’s demise the pressure that had dampened the adventurers’ magic finally eased.

Terys also picked up his blade again and turned around to strike at the excruciator that had appeared next to Samira, and though the creature attempted to dodge the blow, the Iosan still managed to score a cut across its ghostly form.

Freed from the Orgoth lord’s grip, William spun around and blasted the excruciator that had stuck him with its spear with his magic. The undead managed to dodge some of the impact of the first spell, but a second one ended it, allowing William to seize its dissipating essence and direct it toward the armoured warrior who had struck Bacarl with its mace. But while the disintegrating remains of the excruciator did manage to strike true, its spear failed to pierce the thick armour, and then the excruciator finally was just a pile of rags on the ground, wrapped around its mask and collection of knives. William was not unaffected by expending so much power on avenging the strike he had suffered, either, and staggered as a wave of darkness threatened to overwhelm him.

Samira now drew in her warbeasts’ energies once more, and after summoning another vortex of winds and channelling some of her power back into the woldwyrd in a bid to hold its form together, she cast a spirit fang at the excruciator before her to weaken its defences, but failed to hit it. The woldwyrd then spun around to fire its eye ray at the excruciator as well, and deployed its own magic suppression aura for good measure. Last but not least, Bacarl’s body shifted into a more heavily muscled form at his warlock’s behest, and the warpwolf then laid into the armoured warrior that had dared strike him, finally succeeding at sending the hulking undead tumbling down the stairs again, where it lay still before disintegrating in a flash of balefire.

The fight was still not over yet, though, as two more dreads were now also emerging from the chambers below, joining the excruciator who had so far been facing down Samira and Terys all on its own. Seeing that the only fighting left was behind him, Odrys eagerly turned around and ran towards the undead, grimly intent on saving the heavily damaged woldwyrd from destruction just when the battle was so close to being won.

The excruciator who was still trying to eliminate the warlock once again tried to run Samira through with its foul spear but missed its nimble target with both its weapons and its wracking spell, and so great was the impact of the woldwyrd’s suppression field that the creature was left nearly senseless and swaying on the spot from the strain of invoking its magics. The other excruciator thrust its spear at Odrys, but could only inflict a minor, if painful, wound, with its magic proving equally ineffectual against the mighty gatorman warrior.

Roza now summoned a blast of wind that lifted her up from where she had been standing over the bones of the destroyed Orgoth lord and carried her closer to the centre of the chamber, from where she was now in range to charge the excruciator keeping the woldwyrd engaged, swiftly ending the torturer-wraith with two strokes of her blades.

Samira once more had to stoop down to pick up her voulge, though hopefully for the last time, and cycled the power she was drawing in from her warbeasts into renewing the sheltering cyclone raging around her, as well as into mending as much of the woldwyrd as she could, before channelling the rest into a strike at the excruciator that had just tried to take her down. Infuriatingly, the creature managed to dodge out of the way of the blow and only took a glancing hit. Samira next impelled Bacarl to leap down from the stairs and rush the dread coming for his mistress, and the warpwolf gleefully obliged, tearing the thing of wire-veins and pallid flesh into pieces with his claws and fangs.

In the meantime, Terys was doing what he could to defend Samira, cutting the excruciator before him with his sword but doing little damage. And then William strode up behind the torturer, picking up the staff Corpse-Eater from where the Orgoth lord had forced him to drop it before dragging him away with its spell, and proceeded to smash the excruciator over the head with the gnarled length of ancient wood, ending its foul existence.

This just left one last, lonely dread, and Odrys was only too happy to begin taking it apart after its strikes had missed him. Only, perhaps overconfidence had made the warrior careless, as his own swings failed to strike telling blows. But then Roza joined the gatorman, and with a feral grin drove her blades into the dread, the draining magic instilled in her second blade ripping what passed for life from the undead after her first blow had sent it sprawling on the ground. And with that, silence finally settled over the chamber.