Piece 19 – A Puzzling, Warpt World

Izzy paused at the entrance to the hall. Everything about the atmosphere the place exuded just screamed haunted house–the abundance of cobwebs on toppled chairs and dust-caked tables, the rusted chandeliers that dangled perilously from chains that could give way any second, and the mysterious specter that loomed at the head of the hall where the seat of honor remained whole though empty.

The dark form twisted and folded into itself in the air above the table at the end of the hall.

“Curious,” Sophia thought aloud. “In a village like this, that’s where the Elders would sit when gathered to discuss important matters…”

Izzy snapped back to the moment after having been laser-focused on recalling the voice. “Curious because there’s no Elders or curious because there’s a spooky monster above the table like the world’s ugliest chandelier?”

Sophia smiled. “Forgive me, I know that’s something you may not know,” she replied. “The Elders of a village like this were considered a step beneath the Gods. When they met it was to decide important matters that often dictated the fate of their village. That space is covered in protective runes and wards.” She pointed, and Izzy squinted to see.

The etchings were faint in some places, but still there. Clear, precise lines carved into the stone floor. Carvings, ornate and in concert with the decorative markings, were visible on the table and each of the chairs. Perhaps it was a trick of the curious lighting, but as Izzy looked at the markings they seemed to give off a dull glow as if to challenge any with ill intent to step back. Little lights in the darkness.

***

Little lights in the darkness, the candles the lizardfolk that Curian identified as Kobolds–or, as she’d put it more bluntly, gecko bastards–were all that helped lead the way along the dark corridor. The goblins marched along the walls in lockstep, and each had a dagger readied as if they were out for blood at the first sign of disobedience.

“Quite the predicament you’ve gotten us in,” Fontaine muttered. “All because you two insisted we take this blasted leisure time!”

Professor Everest stepped ahead a little too far, and the toe of his boot caught the heel of Fontaine’s in a way that caused him to stumble ever so slightly. The goblins were fast, but none struck. Instead, as they processed what had happened, they laughed to themselves.

“Dumb lot, this group,” one goblin said.

“Nothing but bickering,” another goblin added.

“They’ll make a handsome sacrifice, though,” a third goblin said. “Master’s hungry.”

Curian’s ears perked up at this. “Master’s hungry? What manner of master is it that goblins serve these days? Thought you served yourselves and only yourselves.”

The goblin nearest to Curian let out a hiss of hot, foul breath, but Curian did not flinch away.

“We goblins are smart,” the goblin sneered. “Times change and reality is what powerful people say it is. You get a chance to change reality by helping one such powerful person? Well, you don’t need to worry about that seein’ as we’re about to feed you to them.”

“Ah, shit,” Curian said. She turned to CMO Carter, glanced at the others, then returned her attention to Carter. “They’re definitely in a cult. No idea what their master might be, though, so…Keep your wits about you. The big guy any good in a fight?”

CMO Carter shrugged. “I’d be lying if I said I knew,” she said. “We’d only just met not that long ago, and their…Well, my Captain now, I suppose…Captain Warpt sorted things out nonviolently by threatening to blow up the planet.”

Curian stopped abruptly enough that Fontaine walked into her and fell backwards. “Threatened to blow up a planet?” She chuckled. “I hope I get to meet this Captain. I bet she’s got some fun stories to tell.”

***

“I don’t know you,” Izzy said. “You’re not a real person to me, just some spooky children’s show bad guy who killed people to try to scare me. I couldn’t even escape you on a vacation that was inflicted on me! Good grief.”

The shadowy form seemed to consider this as it shifted and reshaped into different faces. “You have few enemies and your memories are…baffling.”

“They’re organized, thank you very much,” Izzy replied proudly. “I’ve got all my thoughts in the right order. Ducks in a neat little row. You just see ’em as squirrels darting around the forest because you don’t know me.”

Sophia raised an eyebrow. “That’s quite the way of putting it,” she said.

“Something something codifying memories and thoughts,” Izzy muttered. “I got bored one summer, happened upon a video, and anyway that’s how I spent the next four sleepless days. I think? I can’t always remember.”

Behind the shadow, the wall began to shift and churn. The shadowy form shuddered, and there was an unmistakable muttering to the effect of concern. Protrusions from its top portion morphed into long, many-jointed stalks that ended in bloodshot eyes. Its central form collapsed to a bulbous shape, and at its center was a single, angry, bloodshot eye. The being turned to the shifting wall, its attention temporarily not fixed on Sophia and Izzy.

“Dang, that’s ugly!” Izzy said, clearly not concerned if the creature heard her.

“I’m not sure what it is, to be honest,” Sophia said. “I’ve never encountered anything like it in my years of studies.”

The wall gave way to a long, dim corridor lit by curious candles alight with black flames. Something moved within the corridor, and Sophia and Izzy crept closer as their curiosity got the better of them.

“Looks like they’ve got back-up,” Sophia muttered.

Izzy jumped up and down. “My crew!” she shouted. “And some little Godzillas!”

“Kobolds,” one of the creatures hissed from within the corridor.

Curian looked around the shadowy creature, an eyebrow raised. She spotted Sophia and smiled. “Looks like you’ve made a friend!” she called out.

CMO Carter, Professor Everest, and Fontaine peered around the shadowy creature.

“Captain Warpt! Thank the stars, you’re all right!” Fontaine exclaimed.

CMO Carter and Professor Everest exchanged smirks.

“Be careful! That creature looks similar to a Witness from an old fantasy game,” Fontaine added. He winced. “Not that I would know from personal experience. Purely research.”

Curian patted Fontaine on the back. “Whatever helps you sleep at night, Wizard of plus ten wishful thinking,” she chided. “Bug-boy’s right, though. You know what to do, Soph?”

Sophia tapped her chin. “It seemed to take issue with you, Captain Warpt, Sorry. Izzy.”

Izzy nodded. “It’s cool, no worries,” she said. “Hey, big ugly!”

The goblins and kobolds surrounding the group in the corridor seemed to take issue with this comment, and yet none of them appeared to know how to handle their deity being called such a name. They remained still, their attention fixed on the Witness.

“Hey there ug-uh-leeeee!” Izzy shouted. “Look at me!”

The Witness turned and shifted, its form nebulous and murky again.

“Oy! They’re not what they said they are!” shouted one of the goblins. The shadows shuddered, a faint light briefly emanated from deep within its form, and the offending goblin crumbled to dust.

The Witness settled on a vague shape somewhere between Spiral Reach’s Chancellors and Izzy’s parents. “You are so very disappointing,” they hissed. “So. Very. Disappointing!”

Izzy shrugged. “I might have annoyed my instructors, but I’ve never bugged anyone enough for them to say I’m a disappointment. Heard I’m eccentric a lot.”

The Witness’s form began to glow with a faint, sickening light

Sophia gestured to Curian, who ran to the Witness’s side and waved her arms. “Yeah, ugly! Over here! I want my turn at your cheap mind-reading tricks.”

The Witness turned its attention to Curian, and its form changed to that of Dullahan. “Your world and the others will fall before my might,” it hissed. “Not bad. I like this form. Its mission suits me. You, however…” The Witness began to glow again.

“Hideous abomination!” Fontaine shouted. “Turn your gaze upon me and know your demise!” Professor Everest coughed to mask the brief bout of laughter that escaped.

“Enough!” The Witness roared. It glowed a vile green, and the glow quickly spread to everyone but Curian and Izzy.

“You chose to play games, and so a game we shall play,” the Witness sneered. “Select which of your worlds–your reality–will become my next meal. Failing to choose will only end with my devouring both of them!” It cackled wildly. The others were clearly in pain, their features frozen in contorted pictures of agony.

Izzy reached slowly for her sidearm. It felt heavier, and the metal seemed to call to her.

Yet she still didn’t want to take another creature’s life.

“Choose, or I will choose for you!” The Witness roared.

It turned to face Izzy, a toothy grin bisecting its face. “Perhaps I will take both worlds just to savor the sweet notes of suffering I feel radiating from you.” It opened its mouth and began to laugh again, but the sound that followed was far less jubilant as it gasped and sputtered.

“What is this treachery?” the Witness howled as its form convulsed between states it began to slowly rotate, which afforded Izzy a clear view of the strange weapon jutting from the Witness. It looked like a dagger wedged in a long stick at a glance.

“Had a wild, improbable idea and I figured what the Hells have I got to lose?” Curian replied.

“Something from each world as a weapon?” Izzy commented. “Super cool if true.”

Curian smiled “Super cool it is, and it looks like I was onto something.”

The Witness screamed and howled, smoke curling from its form as it spun faster and faster. It came undone slowly at first, dark smoke flinging from it until there was nothing left.

The air shimmered with a warm light and the magic that held the others in place faded. The goblins and kobolds fled without another word, and were not pursued.

“Not worth it,” Curian said as Professor Everest prepared to take chase. She walked across the small span of hall between her and Izzy and offered a mock salute. “Captain Warpt, I presume. Curian. I trust you’ve kept my traveling companion safe?”

Sophia cleared her throat. “I’m right here, you know,” she said.

“It’s almost as if I can hear her voice now, sending messages from some distant place,” Izzy snarked back prompting a hearty chuckle from Curian.

“Not bad,” Curian said. The air grew thicker with the shimmering magic.

“Looks like you best get back to your crew,” Curian said. “They missed you. Said something about time off?”

Izzy nodded. “We’ll see. I think I’ve had enough sitting back and relaxing after…Well, this silliness.” She gestured broadly. “Take care. May your mission be successful, and your course clear. Or something like that.”

Curian offered another, more sincere salute as Izzy backed away towards her crew. “I’m still a far way from home, but if we ever cross paths again we should grab a bite to eat. Swap stories. I’d bet you’ll have plenty to share.” The light in the air grew to an unbearable brightness.

“I’d like that,” Izzy said as the dining hall vanished, replaced entirely by the haunted mansion. A mechanized spider the size of a city bus dipped from the ceiling, and prompted Fontaine to shriek in horror.

Curian sighed, the wall where Izzy and her crew stood now no more than a wall. She turned to Sophia and forced a smile.

“Please tell me you at least sorted out how to get the next Piece.” Curian said.

Piece 18 – Uncrossing the Stars

Izzy tapped a finger against the tip of her nose. “You’re asking what to do with me in a helpful way, right?” she asked. “Not some thinly-veiled allegory for murder, right? I’m getting some mixed vibes.”

Lady Rhimeghast chuckled. “That’s a valid question, I suppose,” she said. “You need to be returned to your home world, but there appears to have been more of an exchange than just you and the person who took your place.”

“Would that be the catalyst that caused the shift between worlds? Something or someone else also moved between realities?” Sophia asked.

Lady Rhimeghast nodded. “There has been an interesting uptick in curious magics to the west of the summit. Perhaps if you were to investigate that a little further, you could find answers?”

Sophia opened her mouth to reply, only for Izzy to step forward and speak first.

“Yes! Definitely! We’ll fix that right up and get me home,” Izzy replied. “I’ve got a crew that’s undoubtedly missing me, and I was on a short vacation that was cut even shorter, so…Relaxation to get back to, I hope.”

Lady Rhimeghast smiled. “Hopefully it will be that simple,” she said. “I’ll send you just beyond our borders, to the edge of where we’ve noticed the curiosities. The rest is up to you, however. Do you think you’re up to the task?”

Izzy offered two thumbs up. “I dig the Masters of the Fancy Jewelry vibes this world has, but I’ve got a lot to get back to so I need to accomplish this.”

“I admire your tenacity,” Lady Rhimeghast said. She snapped her fingers, and the world melted around Izzy and Sophia.

A chill wind scattered snow around Sophia and Izzy. A winding mountain path stretched ahead, gently sloping downwards to a small, abandoned village. Remnants of huts barely stood, with rooftops mostly collapsed and windows long-shattered. Curls of smoke snaked their way skywards from a feast hall at the far edge of the village.

“If this were an adventure game, that looks like a quest marker if I’ve ever seen one,” Izzy said.

“You seem to be a natural at this,” Sophia replied.

“Something like that,” Izzy said. “There were, uh…We…Ah! I had simulations of worlds like this, but with less chance of death if you screwed up. Which admittedly is a thought that should have occurred to me sooner.”

Sophia placed a hand on Izzy’s shoulder. “We can do this,” Sophia said. “We’ll get you home.”

The path seemed to stretch away from them as they walked towards the source of the smoke, and the atmosphere grew colder with each step. Thought it was still daytime, the world seemed to grow darker as they approached the hall. The doors were open, one barely held in place by its iron hinges.

Sophia and Izzy entered slowly. A solitary figure stood by the far wall, facing away from them and shrouded in shadow.

“Captain Warpt,” they said, their voice heavily distorted. “How curious, but this is now how we were meant to meet…”

Piece 17 – A Simple Mix-Up

Sophia had turned quite red, her fists balled at her sides. “We are most certainly not servants of the Morrigan,” she snapped again as the two skeletons continued to guide her and Izzy along the winding mountain trail.

“Truth!” Izzy said. “I don’t even know what the Morrigan are to be a servant of one. Them? It? Whatever. Did I mention I was at a stop while traveling through space before ending up here?”

The skeletons stopped abruptly, turning to face their captives.

“She said she was in space,” the one skeleton said.

“We’re all in space, idiot,” the other skeleton replied, waving its arms in a sweeping gesture.

Izzy nodded. “That’s not an inaccurate statement, but I meant more along the lines of zipping around the stars and visiting other worlds,” she replied. “But a bit more sciencey and a little less magical.”

The two skeletons exchanged glances.

“Air’s a bit thin this high up,” the one skeleton said.

The other skeleton nodded. “Makes sense. Anyway, off we go. Stop dawdling. Her Majesty will sort you out.” The skeletons began their forward march along the mountain path once again, and powerful magics in their gauntlets tugged at the simple shackles around Izzy and Sophia’s wrists. They followed, the spellwork potent enough to force compliance.

Sophia glanced over at Izzy as they walked. “This must be a little frightening for you, I’m sure,” she said. “Though they may appear a bit unsettling, I assure you the denizens of Rhimeghast are very lawfully aligned. We just have a little confusion to sort out.”

Izzy laughed. “You’re very kind, but I’m not frightened,” she said. “This is like living out a movie! You, uh…Probably don’t have those. Like living out a story!”

Sophia smiled. “I suppose you’re right,” she replied. “Let’s just hope they don’t throw us in the Rhimeghast dungeons,” she added quietly to herself.

The transition was subtle and gradual. Shapes in the snow gradually gave way to sections of hillside with stone doors and barred windows. Izzy looked around, trying to take every detail in and commit them to memory. The path ahead forked around the outside of a vast opening at the height of the mountain.

“Behold,” one skeleton said. “The Heart of Rhimeghast, our grand palace.” They gestured ahead at a vast crater that occupied much of the mountain’s peak.

Izzy leaned as far forward as the spellwork allowed. “Is it invisible?” she asked. “Or can I only see it if I’m dead. Not dead? Unalive? Whatever the word is.”

“Departed is the preferred nomenclature around these parts,” one of the skeletons offered. “And no. Mind your steps or you’ll get to Her Majesty a lot faster than you’d like.”

They approached the edge of the crater and its details came into view.

“Oh damn,” Izzy muttered.

A series of long, interwoven paths snaked along the wall of the crater downwards. Iron bridges spanned the void with lanterns that dangled from them to lend light to the furthest depths. Numerous skeletons and zombies milled about. Specters and spirits drifted through the air, focused on the tasks with which they were busy. Torchlight burned brightly along the walls, casting curious and concerning forms along the paths.

“The tomes do not do it justice,” Sophia said, mouth agape. “Oh damn indeed.”

“Down we go, prisoners,” one of the skeletons said without looking back. “Careful steps, please, because we’d like for Her Majesty to be able to question you.”

High above, Badb circled, her shadow massive on the ground. She had followed since the cave, but maintained a significant distance.

“Curious,” Sophia said.

“That bird, you mean? Terrifying,” Izzy replied. “Looks like it could swoop down and eat us.”

“Yet she hasn’t,” Sylvia said. “I wonder why.”

The path down was far more perilous than it looked, littered with loose stones and scattered bones. Both Izzy and Sophia carefully watched each step, their attention focused on their feet and less on the path ahead. The sudden stop proved jarring, but not as jarring as the sight they beheld upon looking up.

At the center of the crater’s void, held aloft by a series of concentric bridges that branched outwards, was a brilliant crystal chamber. Its exterior reflected the world around it. A massive pair of gilded doors towered ahead, and as they approached the doors swung inwards with a deliberate slowness.

“Enter,” boomed a voice from within the chamber.

The skeletons guided Izzy and Sophia into the room, and the doors slammed shut behind them. Glittering crystals lined the walls of the simple room, giving light to the otherwise dark space.

At the center of the chamber stood a colossal throne, and above that throne hovered a frost Lich. Chains of ice circled her skeletal form, a crown of jagged icicles atop her head. Glittering points of blue starlight emanated from within her seemingly bottomless eye sockets.

“Presenting Her Majesty, Lady Valeria Rhimeghast,” the skeletons said together in a way that had clearly been rehearsed and repeated numerous times.

Izzy bowed with a flourish, a gesture made all the more difficult but impressive thanks to the shackles that bound her to the skeletons. Sophia quickly followed suit.

“We found these agents of the Morrigan below, creeping up towards our territory,” one of the skeletons said.

Sophia stood. “Your Majesty, Lady Rhimeghast, I must respectfully disagree,” she said.

“Fools!” Lady Rhimeghast spat.

“Oh, they’re in for it,” the one skeleton said.

“One does love to see it when Her Majesty doles out judgement on those who bow to the Morrigan,” the other skeleton said.

Lady Rhimeghast shook her head. “You two are the fools, you boneheaded buffoons!” she roared. “Have you not seen Badb high above? How she has maintained a cautious distance? Do you think she would have done so if these were her minions?”

Izzy chuckled. “Minions.”

“You have brought me a keeper of knowledge from our world and a traveler unmoored from her reality,” Lady Rhimeghast said. “Her simply being here has thrown things out of alignment, and I intend to find out why she is here. Leave us!” She snapped her fingers, and the shackles fell from Sophia and Izzy’s wrists.

The two skeletons turned and fled without further comment.

“Now, child from another time,” Lady Rhimeghast said. “What do we do about you?”

Piece 16 – Bird-Words, and Fractured Reality

The air outside of the cavern shimmered. The vast shadow cast by the Crow seemed to disappear. A tall woman robed in a black, feathered cloak walked into the cave. She stopped at the edge of the runic wards, her face a mask of contempt. Long, midnight black feathers stood out on her head where hair should have been. Her smile was abundant in pointed fangs.

“I thought it might perhaps be easier to address me in a more relatable form,” Badb said. “You mortals have such fragile minds and it’s so easy to upset you.”

“Really nice of her,” Curian snarked in response. “Big, mean bird thought about our feelings.”

Badb continued, clearly not bothered. “My sisters and I serve a purpose far beyond your comprehension,” she said. “There are many more worlds than there are stars in the sky, and for every world there are far more people.”

Curian yawned loudly. “Yeah, this is the part where you tell us about how those people need to die for whatever reason, justifying you stuffing your ugly faces with souls,” she said. “I’ve fought monsters like you. I know the kind of twisted reasoning you use to justify your actions. You’re all the same.”

“Oh? Is that so, little world-traveler?” Badb replied, her voice suddenly bitter-cold.

The air in the cave wavered, a strange glamour suddenly present.

“Fiend, what trickery are you trying?” Sophia snapped.

Badb stepped back. “This is no magic of mine. I take my leave, but this is not the last you’ll see of me. Next time I will be far less kind.” She vanished from sight, the last signs of her presence was the sound of monstrous wings as she took flight.

There was a soft pop and faint sparkle to the air.

“That was unusual,” Sophia muttered. “Something must have set off the magic of the wards, perhaps.” She waited for a smart remark from Curian, which had become her default expectation.

“The realism of this haunted house is wild,” muttered an unexpected voice. “These spiders seem real. Really real. Too real, maybe. Oh, damn. They’re actual spiders.” Sophia glanced over slowly as whoever was next to her shook several large, confused spiders from her sleeve.

Sophia reached for the dagger at her belt, taking a step back.

Not-Curian looked around. She was shorter than Sophia, although only a little, with a shock of pink hair that practically glowed in the cave’s low light. Her armor did not look terrifically sturdy, Sophia noted.

“Witch! What have you done with my friend?” Sophia said, immediately cursing herself. Curian would have had some remark about the generous use of the word friend. “Traveling companion. What have you done with my traveling companion?”

“Uh, what did you do with me? And did you call me a witch? A real witch or just like an insult, because neither option is terrifically nice,” Not-Curian said.

“Just who are you, exactly?” Sophia demanded.

“Captain Isabelle Warpt of Spiral Reach Academy. Izzy to my friends. Jury’s out on you, person who calls people witch right when you meet them.”

Sophia blinked. “You didn’t use dark magics to imprison Curian and take her place?”

Izzy raised an eyebrow. “Is Curian your friend? Traveling companion? Either way, that’s a definite no. I wish I could do magic, but that’s some serious fairy tale stuff. Don’t suppose you have a name, huh?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I…It’s been a very trying day,” Sophia said. “Sophia. No nickname. May I call you Izzy or should I call you Captain Warpt?”

Izzy scratched her head. “You going to call me a witch again?”

“I suppose not, no, since it seems that was an error. My apologies,” Sophia replied.

“Izzy works, then,” Izzy said. “So where am I, exactly? Looks like I’m not in Kansas. Not that I was in Kansas.”

There was a sound from near the mouth of the cave. Izzy produced a shining, object and held it out in front of herself.

“What a curious crossbow,” Sophia commented, her eyes fixed on the mouth of the cave.

“Thanks,” Izzy replied. “It’s definitely not a crossbow. A crossbow would be more helpful about now, really. It’s a training plasma pistol. A broken one. I’ve never been too keen on hurting people.”

Steps outside of the cave grew closer.

“Me, neither,” Sophia said. She grabbed Izzy’s hand and pulled her behind a large, fallen portion of cave wall further behind the runic wards.

“Swear on me heart the runes spoke to me,” rasped a dry, hollow voice.

“That really the way you want to say that? That’s what you’re going with?” asked a second speaker. Shadows, despite the low light, crossed the cave’s threshold.

Izzy hazarded a glance around their cover and immediately fell backwards. “Oh crap, they’re skeletons,” she whispered. “Walking, talking skeletons. What the hell kind of Weirdsville is this?”

Sophia shrugged. “Evidently it’s not a Kansas,” she replied. “We’re currently traveling near the Rhimeghast Mountains, one of the major trading outposts for the Undead.”

Izzy held up a finger, her expression suddenly quite serious. “They’re real, live skeletons. Like, walking around with their skin missing. No insides or anything. Wait. How are they talking?”

“Same way we can hear you, I reckon,” replied one of the skeletons. “Clear as a bell.”

“Do come out and show yourselves, please,” said the other skeleton. “So as to not have to belabor the point, we can also see you despite not having physical eyes. Glad we could get that out of the way.”

“Don’t think I’ve forgotten about the heart comment from earlier, by the way,” the first skeleton said as Sophia and Izzy emerged. “We’ll be revisiting that when we’ve got a moment.”

Izzy raised a hand, smiling. “Now’s a moment. Why not discuss now?”

The skeletons hesitated as if considering Izzy’s suggestion.

“No, that can wait,” said the first skeleton. “First, though, we’ll need to take you to the Lady of Rhimeghast Castle. She’ll know what to do with you, you servants of the Morrigan.”

Piece 15 – The Perilous Road to the Rhimeghast Mountains

The sun was still low in the sky, the early morning frost only just having burned away, when Curian and Sophia prepared to leave the forest. The Orcs and Treants wished them a kind, long goodbye, repeatedly insisting they visit again, and so the duo departed with their next destination in mind. The Rhimeghast Mountains were still a long walk away, but they already dominated much of the horizon. Grasping vines covered in dagger-sized thorns flanked the dirt road, reaching deeper in some spots.

“The Rhimeghast Mountains used to be home to a bustling castle-town,” Sophia explained as they walked along. “That was ages ago, however. Long before the Liches claimed the mountains for themselves.”

Curian stopped without warning. Sophia bumped into her and stumbled back.

“Liches?” Curian replied. “Murderous mages who should be long-dead, but aren’t thanks to incredibly sinister magics?”

Sophia blinked. “Yes, I suppose that is one way of putting it.”

Curian held up a hand. “And we’re going to their domain, right? Where they’ll undoubtedly want to kill us.”

“If a Piece is there, what choice do we have?” Sophia asked.

Even at a distance, the jagged heights of the Rhimehast Mountains looked threatening–snow-capped claws tearing into the sky above.

“What else do you know about our destination?” Curian asked. “Shed some light on where we’re going.” She started walking along the road again.

Sophia walked a little faster to stay next to Curian, hoping to avoid any sudden stops. “Rhimeghast Castle-Town was a trade hub, and a favored place for weary travelers to rest,” Sophia explained. “It also happened to have a reputation as a place where criminals could bide their time while knights opted to look elsewhere.”

Curian nodded. “So it was interesting before Liches took over,” she said.

“Quite right,” Sophia said. “There are a number of accounts on when the Liches and their Undead troops arrived, but all agree on one point.”

“Oh? And what’s that?” Curian asked, glancing over at Sophia as they walked.

Sophia frowned. “Ah, well…The Liches aren’t particularly keen on visits from the living.”

Curian shook her head. “Of course they aren’t.”

The slopes began gradually, the last of the dense woods along the road thinning out before they gave way to boulder-strewn, unforgiving hills. The road wound along the steep incline of the hills, tracing what may have once been the safest path. Impossibly dark, gaping cave-maws were visible in the upper reaches of the hills.

“Makes me miss the cursed forest already,” Curian muttered as she braced against a bitter, frigid wind.

There was a sound like thunder, audible over the now-relentless winds. It was distant at first, growing louder with every passing second.

Curian turned around slowly, cursing under her breath. Countless birds shifted their flight path. The Crow did not care, knocking aside of the hapless avian creatures that failed to move from her path.

“Gods damn our luck,” Curian muttered. She grabbed Sophia by the hand and pulled her along. The sound of wings pounding against the air grew louder.

“We need to make it to one of the caves,” Sophia shouted. “But we have to be careful. I recall hearing tales of caves warded with protective spells. Surely some of those will have lingered.”

“And if we pick the wrong cave?” Curian replied, not breaking her stride as she continued to sprint along the winding path, cursing the inconvenient rocks her toes became acquainted with along the way.

Sophia shrugged. “We die, perhaps?”

“Delightful,” Curian replied. They reached a fork in the path, a cavemouth to their right. The trail continued to the left.

“No, keep going,” Curian shouted. “I don’t like the looks of that one.”

“Why?” Sophia asked, though she followed.

“The glowing, red eyes didn’t exactly give me big ‘come on in, we love visitors’ vibes,” Curian replied. They charged ahead, rounding the bend as the soil gave way beneath where they had just been.

The Crow flew closer, its pace measured and deliberate. Its caws sounded more like laughter as its wingbeats buffeted the hills with harsh gales.

“Not much of a choice left,” Curian said. She leaped into the nearest cave, Sophia following after. The darkness inside was oppressive, but something dull and silver was visible along the cave’s floor.

“Runes! Get behind them!” Sophia blurted out.

The wingbeats stopped, and a thunderous caw sent a blast of hot air into the cave.

“Come out, little insects,” the Crow taunted. “I won’t eat both of you. Yet.”

“Doesn’t exactly inspire confidence,” Curian replied. “We bested your sister, Badb. What makes you think we can’t get past you? Maybe you should be more afraid.”

Badb, the Crow, cackled raucously. “Your only path to the Piece you seek is through me, fools. You sacrifice but a moment of your time to me and I will allow you to continue on your pointless endeavor. Easily the most reasonable deal you’ll get.”

Curian sighed. “And the only deal,” she said. “All right, you pestilent parakeet. Talk.”

Piece 14 – The Long Sunset

The Wolf was one and also many. It fractured into several wolves to launch complicated attacks on the Orcs, then gathered into one Wolf again when it struck at the Treants.

“How far do we have to go?” Curian asked Gnarlroot. The Treant raised a mighty branch and pointed. In the distance. A tree stump taller than a noble’s estate stood in the distance. A dull glow emanated from it, and Curian realized it looked like embers still burning.

“Kil’Gronn! Gnarlroot! Now’s the time!” Curian shouted.

A din of laughter arose from the Wolf. “It hardly matters.”

Gnarlroot and Kil’Gronn reached the remains, and a bright light erupted forth. In the distance, birds began chirping as a light breeze danced through the upper reaches of the trees.

“Thank the Gods,” Curian blurted out.

The chase continued, the charred remains of Elderbark just a few lumbering Treant steps ahead.

“Something’s not right,” Curian muttered.

A chorus of laughter rose up from the wolves that made up the Wolf. “You’re catching on, but will you figure it out before I claim your soul?”

Sophia looked around frantically as one of the wolves leapt from branch to branch. It swiped at her with its claws, only having narrowly missed as the Burlknot slammed it back to the ground.

“Hope your little, mountain-mud brain comes up with something,” Burlknot shouted with an offer of an unexpected smile. Curian chuckled; she took note of the insult and told herself she’d have to return the favor later.

If there was a later, of course.

The last several times they’d reached the remains played back in Curian’s mind.

“Kil’Gronn, do you trust me?” Curian shouted over the madness.

Kil’Gronn shrugged. “As much as I’d like to, which is only about half as far as I could throw you.”

Curian nodded. “Good enough,” she said. “Bet you could throw me pretty damn far. What about you, Gnarlroot?”

“Your heart beats like one who is not trying to deceive, and so I will afford you my trust,” Gnarlroot replied.

Sophia furrowed her brow. “I already know that look,” she shouted. “You’ve got something mad and foolish planned, haven’t you?”

“Hey, Gnarlroot! Throw me to the ashes!” Curian shouted.

The colossal leader of the Treants stopped suddenly. Curian held on with all of her strength, the rush of wind from the abrupt stop nearly throwing her from where she stood.

“Just do it, damn you!”

Gnarlroot plucked Curian from his upper branches as gently as they could, swung back the mighty branch that held her, and then released with as much calculated care a sentient tree of some thousand years in age could muster.

Curian soared through the air that spanned the distance between the chaos of the Wolf, the Treants, and the Orcs, her face pinned back by the wind. Her eyes watered and she tried to keep focused. The ashes arrived far quicker than expected, and Curian had only enough time to land with an awkward forward roll that narrowly avoided hitting the far edge of the depression in the mighty stump.

She fumbled with various concealed pockets without looking, her eyes fixed on the wolves as they coalesced into one massive form. Behind it, everything else had frozen in place.

“Here goes nothing,” Curian said as she retrieved a small tool she’d stolen from an Artificier at The Hobbled Drake Tavern after he had shared a few too many opinions with her about he she could be more appealing to the eyes. It was a simple box with a curious wheel at its top next to a small opening that occasionally stunk like bogwater.

Curian flicked the wheel. A small spark issued, but nothing followed. She repeated, watching as the Wolf reared back and leapt at her.

“Shit!” Curian shouted as she repeated the action one last time. The spark ignited, and she dropped the device into the heart of the Heart of the forest. The ashes erupted in brilliant green flames around Curian, though they did not touch her.

“Elderbark,” Curian said as she grasped for the right words. “I, uh…I release you to the next life. Your watch of this forest has ended, and a new one has begun. Rest!” She had little time to be proud of her eulogizing as the Wolf growled, prowling on the outer edge of the flames.

“I will tear the flesh from your bones first,” the Wolf snarled. “Then rend your pitiful soul from your body. I will savor it as your eternal screams roll down my throat.”

The flames burned brighter and brighter. There was an explosion of light outwards, rolling over every inch of the forest. Curian shut her eyes against its radiance, and when she opened them the Wolf was gone. She found herself standing at the foot of the tree stump, her hands shut tightly around something.

“One of the Pieces,” she gasped as she opened her fingers.

“Guess there’s more than dirt between those ears,” Burlknot said, roaring with laughter. The Orcs, slowly, joined in the merriment.

“Thank goodness you’re okay,” Sophia said as she was set down. “How did you know that would work?”

Curian scratched at the back of her head. “Call it a hunch, I guess?”

Sophia massaged her temples.

“That was very brave of you, little one,” Gnarlroot harrumphed.

Kil’Gronn stepped forward, bowing to Curian. Curian returned the gesture.

“Very brave indeed,” Kil’Gronn said. “You are welcome to visit my…” She hesitated, her attention briefly turned to the Treants.

“Our” Kil’Gronn corrected herself, “forest whenever you like.”

Curian smiled. “Only so long as you’re not trying to kill each other,” she said.

Kil’Gronn and Gnarlroot exchanged sheepish glances.

“I believe there is much mending of old wounds to be done,” Gnarlroot said. “As for you two, where will you go next?”

Curian looked toward the sunset, its last rays of light pooling high in the distance on snow-capped mountains.

Piece 13 – The Truth in the Shadows

Burlknot was the first to speak after Curian’s insult. “Is she always like this? This…pleasant?”

Sophia offered a slight shrug. “Her heart’s in the right place, but it occurs to me she hasn’t slept since we’ve set out on our journey,” she said.

“I’m perfectly fine, thank,” Curian snapped back, stopping short as she fell forward. Her face landed in a dense moss patch, and she began to snore almost immediately.

“Perhaps we could allow her time to rest before resuming things,” Gnarlroot reasoned. “It seems we both have made a deal with her, after all, and she did have some rather strong words just now.”

Curian snored loudly, face partially buried in the moss.

“If any of you Treants try anything, don’t think we’ll hesitate to cut you down where you stand,” Kil’Gronn said.

Burlknot stomped forward, stopped short by Gnarlroot.

“You keep watch from your side of the path and we will keep watch on ours,” Gnarlroot snapped back.

The fog was dense, but Curian knew the way. She followed the ruined stair, her fingers running along the moss and vines that covered much of the wall next to her.

A starless, cloudless sky greeted her as she reached the top of the crumbling castle’s highest tower. A foul, bitter wind threatened to knock Curian over the edge, but she braced herself against it. In preparation of what was waiting for her. She felt a familiar gaze and knew it was just a matter of time.

The fire erupted from around the edges of the tower, spreading until Curian was trapped. Shadows formed on the other side of the raging flames, coalescing into a single figure that stepped through unscathed.

Dullahan.

“Across the gulf of darkness, from beyond thresholds I may not cross, you seek me out,” Dullahan taunted. “Your efforts are in vain.”

Curian drew a sword she didn’t remember acquiring, its glittering blade giving off a warm light from within. Runes glowed softly along its hilt. She pointed it at Dullahan, eyes narrowed.

“I cannot let you harm my world,” Curian said.

Dullahan let out a chilling laugh. “You never had a say in the matter. From the moment you brought the Prognosticarium back here you already ensured I would travel world to world, and the darkness would follow in my wake. Not that you’ll need to worry about that for long…”

Curian lunged, sword raised, but fell short as the castle beneath her began to quake violently. She stumbled forward, looking around wildly in hopes of seeing what had happened. The entire world was shifting and shaking wildly, cracks of light breaking through all around.

“Wake up, damn you!” a voice rang out. “We’ve got a situation here!”

The world exploded in a blur of light, and when Curian’s eyes adjusted she found herself face-to-face with Sophia.

“Forgive me. I know you must have been tired,” Sophia said. She jerked backwards, and as Curian’s eyes focused she saw Kil’Gronn behind Sophia.

“Talk later,” Kil’Gronn demanded. She threw Sophia upwards into Burlknot’s waiting branches.

Curian did not have a chance to say anything before Kil’Gronn repeated the process on her.

“Hold tight, loud little one,” Burlknot grumbled. “Would hate to drop you before I have the chance to make you regret that remark you made.”

Curian chuckled. “Ah, that little gem,” she said. “What’s going on, exactly? I feel like I’ve missed something.”

Sophia pointed to the ground below. The forest had gotten significantly darker to the point where Curian couldn’t see any of the Orcs below. She glanced up and noticed the sun was still just where it had been before. When she looked back down towards the ground, Curian could feel something watching her.

Two crimson eyes, deep tears cleaved in the gathered shadows, appeared fixed on Curian.

“Little traveler, you are so far from home,” growled a voice from the shadows. “Let us ease your troubles. Come to us and we will give you peace.”

The shadows shifted and rolled over one another, gathering together to form a massive, singular form. Their edges blurred with the air around them but its shape was unmistakable.

“Wolf,” Curian muttered.

“Gods no,” Sophia whispered. “One of the Morrigan.”

A low guttural sound crept up from below, building to a dull roar. The wolf was laughing.

“I’m so glad we could find you before our sisters,” the Wolf said. “They would have surely robbed us of this joy.”

“Hate to ruin this moment for you, but the bird-brained one tried to kill us already,” Curian said.

Sophia glared at Curian. “Don’t taunt the Morrigan, please.”

“Hey, Angerbranch,” Curian said.

Burlknot groaned. “You are a very difficult creature to tolerate.”

Curian nodded. “I get that a lot,” she replied. “Listen. I think we need to fix this forest. You up to the task? Time to put differences aside because…” She pointed at the Wolf.

“Gnarlroot, what say you?”

Gnarlroot signaled to the other Treants, who began scooping up the Orcs. “One day, we will have to sit down and come to terms with our past,” he roared. “Today is not that day! With me, Treants! We must gather the ashes!”

The Treants moved in great strides across the forest, the absence of wind creating a horrifying echo from the howls that followed behind them. They moved fast, but the Wolf moved even faster. She tore at the Treants roots and leapt upwards, digging her claws into their trunks.

An alcove of trees that stood higher than the rest loomed in the distance. Above the din of madness and fury raging behind them, Curian could hear Kil’Gronn as if they were next to each other.

“Beautiful,” Kil’Gronn gasped. “Not what I expected at all.”

“It would seem we have some misconceptions about each other,” Gnarlroot said, not breaking stride as another Treant was felled, this one even closer.

A tree trunk stood alone in the center of the copse, its center darker than the surrounding wood.

“Ashes!” Curian called out. “Kil’Gronn! Gnarlroot!”

Kil’Gronn leapt from Gnarlroot, hurtling downwards. Gnarlroot extended a branch and Kil’Gronn vaulted off of it, landing with a careful forward roll on the tree stump.

“No! Gods damn you, no!” the Wolf howled.

Light exploded outwards from the heart of the tree stump, engulfing everything in the forest. When the light dimmed, the Wolf had gone. Several Treants lay in ruin, the Orcs they had been carrying dead around them.

In the distance, birds had begun chirping as a soft breeze blew between the branches.

Piece 12 – Peace, Even if By Force

The Treants and Orcs were frozen, their attention shifted from each other to Curian. She had started screaming every foul word she could think of in every language she knew foul words to borrow from the moment the Orcs had emerged.

“The small one can hold a great deal of air for her size,” Gnarlroot muttered.

Kil’Gronn nodded in silent agreement.

“Just give her a moment,” Sophia said. “She gets like this when she’s very upset, I’ve found, and it’s best to let the anger run its course. It’s been an eventful…”

Curian paused, glaring at Sophia. “You were going to say it’s been an eventful day, weren’t you?” she snapped.

Sophia winced. “That is within the realm of possibility.”

Curian stomped over to Sophia, her fists clenched tightly at her sides. She stormed over to Kil’Gronn, eyes narrowed, and jabbed a finger in the Orc’s direction.

“It might have been a eventful day. Or even week. Who knows?” Curian ranted. “If the Orcs and Treants would just take a break from murdering each other, maybe we could find out? But no. Nooooo~!”

Curian stormed over to Gnarlroot’s towering roots, kicked them, and let out a pained roar.

“Had to break Time!” Curian screamed.

Kil’Gronn stepped forward. “It’s hardly that simple! They murdered our people!”

Gnarlroot rumbled. “You cut down our brethren,” he replied. “Desecrated their remains for your shelters and burned them for warmth!”

Curian let out another roar. She pointed at Kil’Gronn. “Enough!” she snapped. “Same goes for you!” she added, jabbing a finger upwards towards Burlknot.

Sophia stepped forward, placing a hand on Curian’s shoulder. Curian clenched her teeth but said nothing as she visibly focused on breathing.

“I think perhaps we need to discuss this further,” Sophia said. “Gnarlroot, this was your home before the Orcs arrived, yes? Do you recall what happened?”

Gnarlroot scratched at his crown. “Only through stories passed down, I suppose,” he conceded. “I was but a sapling when Elderbark was felled and burned.”

“And you were only a child when Gronn was killed,” Sophia said. “I’m so sorry to ask this, but you said you were there. Did you see anything?”

Kil’Gronn winced, the pain on her face contagious. The other Orcs looked away, tears welling in their eyes.

“I only saw their shadows, but that was enough,” Kil’Gronn said. “My grandfather was torn limb from limb.”

Burlknot grumbled something, averting his gaze.

“Now you’ve got something to say? Spit it out, you cowardly conifer!” Curian shouted.

The Treants gasped collectively.

“You’re going to stop fighting, damn it, and we’re going to talk,” Curian said. “Or I’ll fight all of you!”

Piece 11 – A Tale of Trees

Curian and Sophia backtracked slowly along the path to the Orcish encampment, the sun still exactly where it was overhead.

“Wonder how long we were there,” Curian muttered as she constantly scanned the trees for any signs of movement. Kil’Gronn had warned the Treants were excellent at remaining unseen until they wished to be observed, and that by then it was often too late.

“Keep your wits about you,” Sophia chided.

Sophia replied with a mock salute.

“Soph, your head’s full of knowledge,” Curian said. “Where would we be looking for this ol’ Treefellow’s ashes?”

“Elderbark,” Sophia corrected. “Treant burial mourning and burial practices vary from grove to grove, so I can’t say for sure. Since we’re looking for the remains of one of their leaders, however, I’d say we’ve got quite a challenge ahead of us.”

Curian sighed. “I was worried you’d say something like that,” she said. She paused, holding a hand out to stop Sophia. She pointed to a between two trees flanking the path. A slim branch shifted gently, its motions mimicking a light breeze blowing through.

Sophia nodded. “We’re not alone, that much isn’t in question. What is it they’re waiting for, I wonder.”

Curian stroked her chin. “I’ve got an idea,” she whispered to Sophia. She turned to face the moving branch and offered a silent thumbs-up to Sophia.

“Hey, you! Shady pine over there!” Curian shouted. “What’s your plan for us once you’re done watching?”

“Subtlety isn’t something you pride yourself in, is it?” Sophia asked, eyes fixed on the now-stationary branch.

“When it counts, sure,” Curian said, smiling.

“A question you’ve asked, an answer you’ll receive,” rumbled a voice from among the trees behind Sophia and Curian. They turned around as the trees parted. Two Treants stomped their way into view, their faces worn by the elements but not beyond the point of recognition.

They did not look pleased.

“Crush these intruders now and leave their remains for the Orcs to find,” said the one Treant. It was the slightly shorter of the two, its bark dense and covered in callous-like knots. A dense tangle of vines fell from its canopy.

The other Treant, taller and lanky, its trunk and branches slender and stripped of much of their bark, made a grumbling sound. “These are no Orcs, no, but what curious creatures. An elf and a….”

Curian sighed. “Half-dwarf,” she said.

“Oh, how delightful,” the taller Treant replied. “I used to hear about Dwarven-kind all of the time from my saplings along the mountains.” They turned to the shorter Treant and gestured to Curian and Sophia with a long branch.

“Not Orcs.”

“Intruders,” the other one snapped back. “And we watched them go along with the Orcs.”

“As prisoners. Isn’t that what you saw earlier, Gnarlroot?”

A rumble issued from the other side of the trail, and a third Treant stomped into view. It grumbled and rumbled, moss-ringed eyes fixed on Curian as if it were looking through her.

“I do not trust this one,” Gnarlroot said. “She is an abomination.”

Curian clenched her fists and her sides. She inhaled deeply and let her breath out slowly, between clenched teeth. Sophia placed a hand on her shoulder. Curian flinched, almost imperceptibly, and Sophia took a step back.

“You look like a tree that’s seen its fair share of bird droppings,” Curian said. “Birds who like berries, I’d bet.”

The two Treants were silent, their focus fixed on Gnarlroot, whose expression remained impossible to read.

After a painfully long silence, Gnarlroot let out a low, long sound. It was like a persistent breeze dragging fine branches against a cliff wall. The other two Treants joined in.

“Oh, thank the Gods,” Curian muttered. “They’re laughing.”

Gnarl root leaned forward, its face taking up most of Curian’s field of vision. “Why are you free, little ones? What did you give to the Orcs in exchange for you release?”

“They told us a story and let us go,” Curian said.

“Liar!” snapped the shorter Treant.

Curian tensed. “I’m not lying,” she replied, taking a step back only to bump into the towering leg of the taller Treant.

“Then tell the rest of it,” the taller Treant instructed. “We can tell if you’re not being honest.”

Sophia snapped her fingers. “That’s right, how could I have forgotten,” she said. “Treants can detect deception easily as they can sense changes in breathing.”

“Hearts beat faster at the thrill of a lie,” Gnarlroot grumbled. “You’re not lying, I don’t think, but you’re not telling the whole story. Tell, or I’ll let Burlknot punish you.”

“I’d like that,” the shorter Treant, Burlknot, said, clenching and unfurling the thick, dense branches of its hands.

“A question first,” Curian said. “Fair?”

Gnarlroot straightened up, looking skyward for a moment. “Perhaps. Yes, I suppose that would be fair. What is your question?”

“No story has just one way of telling,” Curian said. “What’s the Treant side of how things played out between Elderbark and Kil’Gronn?”

Gnarlroot grumbled and rumbled. “A story our ancestors have passed down, muddied by time,” Gnarlroot said. “The Orcs arrived on the eve of longest day, their numbers few. They paid no attention to our kind, as if they knew not of our presence.”

Gnarlroot waved a mighty branch through the air, and a dense curtain of pollen fell. Shapes moved through it, dark outlines easily visible amid the particles. A line of small figures moved through a miniature representation of the forest. The trees, many of which Treants, watched the Orcs silently. One Treant loomed taller and mightier than the others. It watched the Orcs closely, following after them from a distance.

The Orcs gradually slowed to a stop. They spoke to each other, animated in their gestures but with no words. One Orc stepped forward, a mighty spear in hand, and the other Orcs knelt down and gave him their undivided attention. They began to craft simple huts from mud and fallen branches.

The shapes sped along in the pollen, Gnarlroot waving its branch to add to the pollen occasionally.

The Orcs began to cut down trees.

“The Orcs cut down trees at first, and then they came for Treants,” Gnarlroot said. “Elderbark, the first of our kind to spring forth from the soil of this forest, would not stand idly by. They confronted the Orcs, asking that they simply take no more than they need.”

The Orcs grew darker amid the pollen, outlines of weapons becoming clearer. Some, however, wielded clubs surrounded by pollen with an ethereal glow. The glow spread from the clubs to anything they touched, and soon the pollen was gone.

“The Orcs caused much destruction that day,” Gnarlroot said. “It was only once their foul leader, Gronn the Terrible, was felled that we could find peace. Or so our ancestors had thought.”

Sophia stepped forward. “I’m beginning to think I understand,” she said. “I wonder if there may be a way to help both you and the Orcs, but I suspect it will be no small feat.”

Gnarlroot leaned down, closer once again. “And just why would that be, do you think?” they asked.

“I believe,” Sophia replied, “that your kind and the Orcs would have to work together.”

A rustling sound came from the underbrush. Orcs rushed forth, weapons at the ready. Kil’Gronn emerged, a broadsword held effortlessly in one hand.

“We would sooner die than ally ourselves with these murderous trees!” Kil’Gronn shouted.

Burlknot roared with laughter. “Allow me to make that a reality!”

Piece 10 – Elderbark and Gronn: Eternal Enemies

Curian considered her words with great care. The Orc soldiers stood around the net she was still trapped in, each one wielding broadswords with the ease one might casually wave a dagger around. Sophia’s nervous gaze didn’t help reduce the pressure of the situation.

Kir’Gronn leaned forward, her chin resting in her hand. “Well?”

“Honestly, I have no idea who Elderbark is, but that sounds like the name someone with high hopes would give their wolfhound even knowing it’s going to die some day,” Curian rambled. She paused for air, then added, “We’re searching for pieces to some stupid, awful puzzle that could bring about the end of all worlds, and being all trapped doesn’t exactly aid in that quest.

Kir’Gronn chuckled. “And what of you, quiet one?”

“Sophia,” Curian said. “She’s the brains of helping me save the world. Worlds. Oh no, I hadn’t thought about it much until now.”

“Deep breaths,” Sophia instructed. “I am Sophia, a Keeper of the Astrarium and all of its knowledge.”

“The Astrarium, you say,” Kir’Gronn mused. “Then surely you know where you are, do you not?”

Sophia shook her head. “We traveled here by way of a tunnel,” she said. “I had no time to regain my sense of direction before your snare snagged us, I’m afraid.”

“Snagged us good, too,” Curian muttered.

Kil’Gronn stood, slowly approaching the net Curian and Sophia were trapped in. “Then you will find the answer varies depending on who you ask,” Kil’Gronn said. “If you were to ask my people where you are, you would be told you have found your way to the heart of Grimtusk Glade.”

“Catchy name,” Curian said.

“And who might say otherwise, if I may ask?” Sophia added.

Kil’Gronn smiled. “That answer is a story, but that story will cost you. Do you think you’re willing to accept such a steep cost?”

Curian leaned towards the netting, eyebrows raised. “What kind of cost for what kind of story? I’ve told some premium stories for only an ale or two, so it must be good. Plus you’ve got us at a disadvantage since, you know.” She gestured at the net.

Kil’Gronn unsheathed a dagger and, in a flurry of silver blurs, cut the net open. Sophia and Curian tumbled out to the floor, not a scratch from the blade on either of them.

Curian leapt to her feet, eyes narrowed despite Kil’Gronn still having her weapon drawn. “You could’ve just untied it and let us out,” she said. “Had to be flashy about it.”

“You’re free of your ensnarement,” Kil’Gronn said. “And so you can choose to listen or not. It will cost you, but trying to leave this forest on foot without our help would come at an even steeper price.”

Sophia shuddered. “So there’s something else that calls this place home,” she asked. “Is that why it felt like we were being watched as you brought us back here?”

“Captured us,” Curian added.

Kil’Gronn nodded.

Curian sighed. “We don’t have all the time in the world, you know,” she snipped. “So we’ll take whatever your cost is. Tell us a story, Queen Orc.”

Kil’Gronn tightened her grip on the dagger’s hilt abruptly. A loud crack resonated throughout the chamber, causing Curian to leap back and look away, shielding her face. She hazarded a glance back. The dagger rested on the floor, its hilt in pieces around it. Droplets of blood dripped from Kil’Gronn’s closed hand.

“I have been kind and patient with you,” Kil’Gronn sneered. “It would be wise for you to not to be so disrespectful.”

Sophia stepped in. “My apologies,” she said. “She’s not from this world.”

Curian gently moved Sophia aside, eyes narrowed. Her expression softened and she averted her gaze to not make eye contact.

“I don’t need anyone making excuses for me,” she said. “Apologies all the same. What’s this costly story of yours?”

Kil’Gronn picked up the broken dagger and sighed. “This forest was once bountiful and full of life,” she explained. “That was three generations ago, when my grandfather first brought my people to this forest.”

All of the other Orcs fell silent, their heads bowed.

“His name was Gronn,” Kil’Gronn continued. “His people respected him, and in return he never settled for anything less than seeing our people thrive. We made use of the plentiful trees here to build huts. We hunted the bountiful wild game that roamed this forest, taking only what we needed. And yet the forest grew angry with us.”

“You see, the forest happened to also be home to Ancient Treants lead by Elderbark the Terrible. He was a mighty sentinel, towering over every other tree in the forest canopy, and so my grandfather saw him approaching well before he arrived. He demanded audience with our leader, and so my grandfather met with him.”

Kil’Gronn paused, her eyes fixed on a distant place. “What my grandfather thought to be the beginnings of negotiations so that we may share the forest quickly turned into a slaughter of our people. The Treants surrounded our encampment. Their numbers were great. Their fury was inescapable. I watched my grandfather and many of my people die that day.”

Curian hesitated, stepped forward, and placed a hand on Kil’Gronn’s shoulder. Tears ran down the orc’s cheeks, but rage filled her eyes.

“My mother hid me well, and the few survivors you see are those present here. One day years later, I became the Chief over my people. My first act was to take a handful of my most elite guards with me to where Elderbark slept, and when we were certain he was alone we burned the bastard to the ground.”

Sophia gasped. “The magic in a single Treant,” she murmured.

Kil’Gronn huffed. “Indeed, the magic in a single Treant, and one so ancient as Elderbark, is something to be respected and feared,” she said. “That day was the last this forest saw and it is the very one we are living this moment. None of us have aged. No animals move within the forest. All is still. In freeing myself from the pain by exacting my revenge on Elderbark, I trapped us all in that moment.”

Curian opened and shut her mouth several times. “What can we do, then, to pay the price of hearing this story?” she asked.

Kil’Gronn smiled. “In truth, you are free to go should you wish,” she conceded. “The cost is the burden of knowing the nature of this forest, and the punishment my people have faced for as long as I can remember.”

Curian shook her head. “Right, and that’s awful,” she said. “But what can we do to make this right?”

“You would seek to help us though we captured you?” Kil’Gronn asked.

“Sure, you trapped us and brought us back here, but you were nice enough to us,” Curian said. “Besides, we still need to find the piece of the Prognosticarium that fell here. No going anywhere until we do, so we might as well make a full day of it.”

“I agree,” Sophia said. “What is it we must do?”

Kil’Gronn sighed. “The Treants will ignore you to a point, as you are not one of us,” she explained. “Your task, however, is sure to capture their attention, and then they will not likely be warm in their reception of your presence.”

Curian shrugged. “What’s going to get their branches snapping?” Sophia rolled her eyes so hard it was almost audible.

“You must find Elderbark’s ashes and bring them back here,” Kil’Gronn said.

Curian blinked a few times. “Ah,” she said. “I hate this already.”