In the midst of my rant, a crack of lightning distracted us. Darvin arrived on the sand, looking disoriented but whole. He smiled, glad to see us, though the expression vanished when he saw Gunnar. “Who the blazes are you?”
We explained what happened in the interim while he had been imprisoned.
The group spent the next two days on the beach, waiting for Saltscale. He arrived, dragging a large, clanking chain. He snarled at the Kobolds, who started dragging something up out of the sea with a chain. He gave us a rather satisfied look.
It took hours. A rather ridiculously large container about the size of most serf’s homes came onto the sand. The dragon perched on the container and opened it. “You may each take one thing from within.”
“What of Darvin?” Asakku asked.
The dragon peered at him and shrugged. “Well enough.”
Inside his treasure trove, there were grand riches, though he had offered us each one thing. Spotting a large, well-crafted tower shield, I hefted it. I didn’t know if I wanted it, really, but… out of all of the things in there (including a canopied bed…) it was the only thing that interested me.
Elif pounced on a rather attractive dress in crimson with gold trim. “Ooh! This was made for me!” she chirped.
Gunnar snatched one of the gems (a crystalberyl, I believe), and Asakku took another gem. Darvin plucked a wand from the treasure hoard.
We left the vault, and Gunnar murmured under his breath to Darvin. “Hey, can you tell us what kind of dragon Saltscale is?”
“Brine dragon, I think,” he responded. “Breathes acid.”
We bade farewell to the dragon and travelled north through the free baronies surrounding the City of 1,000 Nights. We skirted around the City, avoiding notice, and eventually reached the edge of the Emerald Hills. Beautiful, verdant grasslands stretched before us covering rolling hills. Halfling towns dotted the landscape as we travelled.
We didn’t tarry as we headed toward the capitol. Upon reaching it, we found it to be little more than a large town. Lionel led us to the mead hall and inside. The hall felt warm in a way. Comfortable. Furs and rugs covered the floors with pillows lying on comfortable looking benches and chairs. A strong, perfumed scent filled the air, mixed with a scent of tobacco.
Off to the side a large, for a halfling, man sat on a staff wearing a ridiculously large hat jumped down from his perch. Lionel approached him, and the two embraced heartily. The man in the hat held him close for a long while before releasing him to go visit his siblings.
The halfling approached us, his hat covering his eyes and a hand wiping away a tear.
“Hello,” Darvin said with a broad smile. “I take it that Lionel is an acquaintance?”
“Hm? Oh. Yes. More than. He is my son.”
Darvin nodded. “Oh, oh yes. I am touched and glad to have been able to return him to you.”
“Indeed, you are always welcome here in my hall.”
“In the process of rescuing him, we incurred many… debts.”
The man waved his pipe. “I understand; I understand. But there is far too much joy today to deal with that. We shall throw you a festival. This must go down in legend,” he said. “You must stay here in the hall, I think. We have accommodations for folk of your,” he looked us up and down, “size.”
“Oh! I can wear my dress!” Elif grinned. Well… at least there was that.
We spent a week in Emerald Hills enjoying the company and hospitality of the Halflings. During that week…
• Darvin discovered the dwarven hold in this part of the world has been disconnected from the dwarven highway. However, during the revels, he imbibed far too much alcohol and smoked far too much pipeweed. When he came to, he realized he had made some strange deals with the diplomats regarding the island near the Golden Kingdom and convincing them to allow outsiders. They now expected us to make good on that… somehow… someday.
• Asakku got to talking about the stone he acquired from the dragon. Thanks to his information, we learned the value of all the items we gained.
• Through the festivities and increasing peer pressure from the Halflings and a very drunken Darvin who all but forced liquor down my throat and Lionel who encouraged me to indulge in pipeweed, I wound up made an idiot of myself over Dimweir’s death. One of the so-called nobles of a family of the area, tried to console me, and by the end of the week I had agreed to take his son on as new squire, named Ser Dudley Shortstack—a halfling dog knight.
• Gunnar drank far, far too much. More than any of us. He wavered back and forth between giddy and miserable at his new form and indulged far too heavily in the available substances. He found himself with a group of Halflings in with pipeweed smoking it up. One of the Halflings guided him away from the party and made him this cup of “tea.” He said it would give him the craziest dreams he’d ever had. After imbibing it, he passed out for a time. In that dream, he went on an epic quest in his old body. He ran and he ran, falling eventually into this deep cave. As he fell, he saw humans mining in a deep cave. As it deepened, the humans became dwarves, and the lights flashed and blurred. In the bottom, he found himself underwater. He surfaced, finding himself in a cave with a pickaxe before him. He seized it and began to mine. The world shifted in liquid Technicolor, and he dug into a green wall. The wall crumbled, and a dwarven sage reached out for his hand from atop a cliff. The sage pulled him up and embraced him as he woke, leaving him with a sense of belonging and… nauseated as well.
• Elif, too, fell victim to the drink and pipeweed. Her dress drew much attention, eclipsing her poor skill at conversation and awkward manner. By the end of the week, a halfling had made advances on her, and she had fallen for it. In the end, she wound up part of a marriage to a halfling named Helmy Goldleaf, a brilliant bard. Even after sobering, her new husband still found himself besotted with her.
At the end of the festival, we gathered ourselves to leave. As we prepared to leave, the leader approached us with a cart full of goods and a mule. Elif’s husband also joined us with a small covered wagon carrying all his belongings.
From there we travelled north until we reached the edges of the region and could travel along the shore, travel through the forest, or take a ferry. We elected to travel through the forest and soon regretted it. We struggled along through to evening, finally finding ourselves near a large cave opening by a stream.
Gunnar studied the ground. “There are large animals here. Look like they’re foraging.”
Asakku approached, crouching down and studying the prints. “Feline. Bigger than anything I’ve ever seen.”
“Victory goes to the bold,” Darvin said. “Life is full of risk!”
“…That’s how you got leprosy,” I replied, giving him a look.
He shrugged. “Well, you could stay at home in a rocker by the fire or…”
I rolled my eyes and sighed.
Gunnar approached a berry bush and began speaking to it in a very… familiar manner. “Dear, sweet berry bush… what creatures live in this area?” He fell silent for a moment and appeared to listen.
He turned to us. “Whatever is in there is larger than the bush, but smaller than the tree. And the bush remembered something leaving the cave last.”
We thanked him, and then Asakku prepared to go inside. While we waited, Gunnar decided to pour some of that strange tea he’d brought into the roots of the tree, which quivered and began turning strange colors along the veins of the leaves.
“Why?” I asked, raising a brow at Gunnar.
“I talk to the trees. People don’t even know. I wonder what they dream about…”
Asakku grunted and slunk into the cave. He returned, telling us that he’d found a female and two cubs inside. A massive cave lion. We elected to avoid the den, letting the babies live on with their mother.
Several hours later, in the complete dark, we found ourselves in a sparse swamp full of dead trees. We didn’t find a way around, really, though we discovered a way through the swamp. The way wandered back and forth. About halfway through the swamp, a massive, six-legged dragon emerged from the water with a tremendous splash and snarled at us.
Darvin, from a rock beside the path, launched a fireball at the beast, the swamp gasses around it igniting. We could feel the heat of the inferno on our skin as the swamp around us continued to burn. Dudly, from in front of me, roared out in fury and charged forward, his dog barking in a thunderous manner. The dragon slipped to the side, barely avoiding the attack with a snarl on its foul face.
Asakku rushed forward, and the dragon snapped at him as he went by, dragging its sharp teeth along his arm and drawing blood from the deep cuts. Asakku growled, thrusting at the creature with his spear, trying to drive it off. Elif followed him, stabbing the creature with Saga, her halberd/shovel.
Gunnar made a snarling sound behind me, and then a massive snake slithered into the water, swimming toward the dragon. Gunnar then stepped back and hunkered down behind the wagon. Helmy whispered into his hand, chuckling, and the dragon began laughing, curling over itself in amusement. I stepped into the swamp and swung at it, though I missed as I sunk into the swamp up past my greaves.
Darvin slammed a spell into the creature, causing it to waver midair, its flight now halfhearted and weak. My squire, Dudley, stabbed his lance into the ground and drew a longsword, standing on his mount’s back, twisting the sword over his head to try and end the conflict right then and there. He leaped into the air, and the sword buried itself into the dragon’s back, and he held on, his expression startled. Asakku moved up beneath the beast and stabbed into its gut with his spear, ripping it free only to drive it in again.
The dragon screamed, twisting midair in pain as blood poured down the spear, and the dragon slid downward onto the spear, sagging to the ground. Dudley sunk into the muck to his chin, and I reached down, grabbing him by the back of the armor and wrenching him free. We felt something metallic beneath our feet and fished out a great deal of wealth from the muck.
As we continued, we realized the month had changed over, spring continuing to push back the face of winter here in the wood. After the battle and the recovery of the dragon’s treasure, we set up camp for the evening and arranged a watch schedule. Asakku and I agreed to set up two shifts, with me on first and Asakku on second.
Darvin shook me awake, and I groaned. “What’s going on?”
“Something. Might be swamp gas, might be nothing.”
I looked around and then gasped, almost collapsing to my knees as pain erupted up my back as two blades drove into my flesh near my kidneys. I jumped forward, saving myself from a swift, bloody death, though that didn’t save me from the agony, and I collapsed to my knees.
Asakku looked around, his eyes wide and wild, though he didn’t act as though he saw anything. Helmy stood atop the cart, lifting his hand, and a burst of light emanated from his fingertips. I saw something that looked like a shadow, but… nothing I could follow through my pain. Elif headed toward her husband, watching the shadows.
Dudley squinted into the darkness but got his sword hilt stuck in his armor. I took the moment to rise and focus on my faith. The pain faded, and some of the bleeding slowed.
Gunnar shifted into a tiger and snarled, gesturing behind me with his paw.
The dog Dudley rode sniffed the air and growled, running toward the edge of the path with its hackles raised. Darvin muttered something, and a fireball erupted in the night, casting light and shadows across the swamp. A humanoid shape appeared aflame, though it disappeared when it turned right. Steam hissed up around me, and I charged toward the faint outline of the creature and swung my sword in its direction, though I hit nothing.
Gunnar thrust his hand out, and both myself and the one who stabbed me became illuminated in brilliant violet flames. It didn’t hurt, but it did look rather interesting. A second later, a portal opened, and the beast stepped into it. We heard the sound of the portal close around it, and then the sound of it opening again somewhere nearby.
After several more moments of tense silence, Darvin lit the area with fire again, calling out that he saw the creature we faced slinking toward us in the muck. Summoning my will, I growled. “Come and fight me, you coward,” I roared, sending my will out toward the thing in the muck, trying to force him to come out of the muck and face me. Which, of course, would draw him through the center of all of my companions.
It staggered for a second, leaning toward me before it vanished into another one of those damn portals. I heard the sound of the portal behind me, and I turned to face him. The scent of the creature washed over me, and I had a chance to see what the hell it was. The beast had faded gray flesh with fine, black clothes. He almost looked like he was made of paper. As he moved, his form blurred, making him harder to see. Of course, I didn’t have much of a chance to perceive any of that before he moved in so close our breaths combined and rammed two short blades into my gut, tearing downward and ripping them out of me.
Asakku charged up toward me and thrust his spear into the space the creature was, though it turned sideways and seemed to disappear. Helmy hurled a rock at the creature, though it just seemed to bounce off and fall into the water. Elif moved between us and slashed the creature in half with her halberd, causing it to part down the center like parchment.
I sagged, filling myself with healing energy, though I only managed to close the wounds rather than heal them in totality.
I hate everything.