Yenstar was the first up and downstairs. “Do you have any coffee?” He asked the inn’s owner.
“Nope and you won’t find any in town either.” The Goggler told him.
He gave a heavy sigh and took a seat at one of 3 tables in the main room. “Got anything to wake a man up?”
The man chuckled. “I’ve got some Cas Tea. On the house.” He said bringing over a cup that looked like it was filled with steaming mud. “I pity anyone that has to try and keep up with those kids. All of them have far too much energy.”
Having only seen a few gogglers in his life Yenstar wasn’t sure how to tell their age. But from this man's voice and words he was probably the age Yenstar looked.
He took the cup and thought, what the hell. He sputtered and nearly gagged. The man laughed at him. It was like the strongest, bitterest coffee he’d ever had. It burned almost like whiskey but he could feel it hitting his system and waking him up.
“Damn.” He cussed. This time sipping the brew much slower.
Unsurprisingly Olive was the next down. She looked a heck of a lot more like a warrior than a little girl. No longer in traveling clothes, she wore a black brigandine and leather vambraces that looked like bear hide. The metal plates on the brigandine were dull as not to reflect light and give her position away. Her dark brown boots that went to her knees looked sturdy but comfortable, each with a boot knife showing. Completing her outfit was a pair of dirks and several pouches attached to her belt.
“Morning Yenstar!” She greeted, overly cheery. Olive dropped her traveling pack in one of the other chairs. “I’m going to get some breakfast for everyone. Want anything specific?”
“I’m good.” He replied holding up his cup. She shook her head and left the inn.
The kenku sisters were down next and their classes were now obvious. Feta in all black dragonhide leather that was even more inky than her feathers. Carrying a sickle and many daggers, she screamed rouge. Mika’s shiny scale mail with plate gauntlets and greaves could mean she was any type of tank class but the large ball mace and metal kite shield, embossed with Alphriya’s symbol told him she was a cleric. Thankfully it was of a goddess he didn’t oppose.
“Any coffee?” Was Feta’s first words, dropping into the chair next to him.
“No but if you have the stomach for it this will wake you up.” He replied, handing her his cup.
She shrugged and took a gulp. Watching her gag caused him and her sister to chuckle.
“By Luxisis that’s got a kick. What is it?”
“Cas Tea.” The goggler owner said, bringing over another cup and refilling hers. “Made from a plant found in the swamp.”
“Thanks.” Feta replied “It’s awful, but I’ll need it.”
“None for me.” Mika added with a warm smile.
Their fighters came down together. Yenturis also had plate gauntlets and greaves but with banded mail cuisses and tassets. An impressive greatsword on his back and a pair of hand axes on his hips.
Tuck was slightly less impressive with his leather cuisses and pauldrons that looked to have come from the same bear as Olive’s armor. He did have on steel vambraces and greaves, with scale tassets and a chain undershirt. His boots were just as sturdy as his sisters. In full armor his boar spear looked more dangerous than it had last night. Tuck took the chair beside his sister's bag, setting his own pack on the ground. If these kids really wanted to become adventurers they would have to invest in some kind of storage device. Carrying around a large pack could get you killed.
“Olive gone to get breakfast?” Tuck observed as much as asked.
Yenstar nodded not saying anything as he and Feta were still focused on their drinks.
“Good morning Mika.”
“Morning Tuck. are you ready for today.”
“Yep. Are you sure you’re ready? None of you have packs.”
Yenturis chuckled, taking a seat next to him. “Don’t worry Tuck. Most adventurers have these.” He pulled what looked like a money pouch off his belt and showed it to him. Tuck took the bag and looked it over. “It’s a bound storage bag. They can hold much more than their size. Mine can hold 100 pounds of weight.”
“Feta has one that holds 250 so we keep our stuff in hers when we adventure together. I went for a cheaper version that only holds 25 pounds.” Mika added.
“How much are they?” Tuck asked. Not needed to carry all Olive and their mother’s samples out of the forest would be great. And think of all the extra fish he could catch if he had one of these.
“One like Mika’s will get you back 10-20 titanium rounds. Something like Feta has, probably 10 mithril spheres.” Yenstar chimed in. “That’s if you don’t get ripped off. Some people choose to take multiple 5-10 pound bags. They can be bought cheaply from any town with enchanting apprentices.”
Tuck nodded handing the bag back to Yenturis. “Myra has one that can hold a few pounds, but I had no idea they came in such large sizes. I’m also betting she got ripped off.”
Watching Hamish slither down the steps was a bit odd. He had on a tunic made of fish scales. Yenstar could sense its protective magics. He was carrying a staff with a shiny pearl, the size of his fist, on the top. The only other weapon he had was a sling. He carried a much smaller bag than the twins.
After greeting everyone Tuck told him about the storage bags.
“That’s a rare enchantment under the water. My father has a ring that lets him store up to 6 items. I’d love to get one for myself. Then I could use a proper staff that didn’t need to be broken down for travel.” He showed the others how his 7 ft staff came apart.
Olive returned with several paper boxes filled with food. “I’ll go get Myra and Le’Ly while you dish out the food.” She dashed up the steps before anyone could say anything.
When they came back down Yenstar was glad he bought Le’Ly a simple leather shirt and a hunting knife yesterday. He hoped she wouldn’t need them but knew it was better to be prepared.
Myra was in head to toe leather armor that was a dark green with scale mail tassets. Her bow was strung today, it and 2 quivers were strapped on her back. She also had a hunting knife on her belt. Instead of a pack she had a large leather pouch that hung over her bottom on it’s own belt.
“Your robes are magical too right?” Hamish asked Yenstar once they were all eating.
“Yes they are.” He replied. Yenstar was wearing the same plain brown robes he had on yesterday only with copper dragonhide vambraces and boots. A crossbow across his back was the only visible weapon. Well that the kids could see. He was sure Feta knew he had several knives and pouches in his robes and that his 5 rings were all magical as well. He would analyse her, but rouges didn’t often take kindly to people trying to gleam their level and stats.
Once breakfast was done they all headed out. Olive and Tuck in the lead.
The tree line ended up being farther than it looked. From the inn it took 3 hours to reach it. Though the first 45 minutes was crossing the last of the swamp. There was no road to follow or even a gaming trail. It was just open grassland between the swamp and the trees. The tall grass and reeds slowed them down as it was over Le’Ly’s head, she had to hold hands till it pittered off near the trees.
Looking at the sea of trunks there was something foreboding about them.
They all rested for a few minutes as some needed a bathroom break. Once everyone was ready again Olive leapt onto a branch. Feta jumped up to join her on the high ground.
“Tuck and I will lead. This first leg is going to be easiest. There are fewer beasts.” Olive told them with a grin.
“If we’re lucky we won’t see anything till we stop for lunch.” Tuck added
With nothing else to say they marched into the trees. Time passed with only a deer being seen and several birds and small animals heard.
Lunch was a simple affair of trail mix and ration bars. The day wasn’t all that hot under the trees but the air was stuffy and they were all covered in sweat and ready to have a seat. Olive and Feta landed nearby and relaxed against a tree.
“Will we get to our search area by nightfall?” Mika asked.
“Should.” Tuch responded. “We’re headed for the western corner. There’s a huge, dead redwood there and it’s hollow. Makes for a safer place to camp. If we reach it early we’ll still stop for the night.”
They made it to the tree mentioned without any attacks. Though as the sun had started to set there were sounds of predators in the distance.
The tree had probably been 50 feet across when it was alive. It was still close to 200ft tall but hollow with an opening on one side. It was like a natural cave or house. The hollow center was large enough for them to set up all their bed rolls though no tents.
Once their packs were set down everyone, except Hamish and Le’Ly, pulled out tools to gather wood and other supplies they would need for the night. He was tasked with watching their things and keeping an eye on Le’Ly. The little girl was exhausted and just curled up on her bed until they returned.
As everyone in their group knew how to build fires and set up camp they had everything done in record time.
Chattering and stories passed as they cooked their dinner. A simple stew made using forest plants Olive and Mika gathered.
Yenturis was on watch when the first attack happened. He hadn’t heard or seen a thing until the beast leapt at him. It knocked him to the ground but he was able to call out waking the others.
An arrow from Myra was the only thing that saved his throat. It struck the massive cat in the shoulder causing it to roar in pain. Yenstar cast a fire spell that fizzled and did little damage, while Tuck threw his spear at the beast.
Getting his hand on one of his axes Yenturis was able to finish the tiger.
He was breathing heavy and bruised but wearing his armor had stopped the beast's claws. “I never even heard it.” he confessed eyes wide.
“And you never will.” Tuck told him ominously. He came over and pulled out his spear. “Tigers are silent killers that can leap more than twice their length.”
“Come on Myra let’s butcher this before it goes bad.” Olive said. “We’ll have steak for breakfast.” She added happily.
Myra shook her head. “Go on to bed Yenturis. Olive and I will keep the last watch as we dress the tiger.”
“Wake me when you finish and I’ll watch while you wash up.” Feta offered heading back to her bedroll.
Yenstar didn’t head back to bed. He’d heard of the effects of this forest but never dreamed it would stop one of his spells. He’s lever 46 for Aega sake. The rest of the night was spent with him near the edge of camp testing spells on a dead log. The ones that connected didn’t do near the damage they should and some would work once and fizzle out a second time. A lance of fear shot through him. Without his magic he wouldn’t be much good in a fight.
Morning came and having fresh meat put everyone in a good mood. They learned that Mika was a great cook and that Le’Ly also enjoyed the chore. Feta offered to store the rest of the kill so it would stay fresh.
“Thanks we can turn some of it to jerky tonight when we camp but I didn’t bring enough salt for a whole tiger.” Myra replied to her offer.
“Using our storage bags the meat will stay fresh longer than salting.”
Myra nodded. “One of the merchants from Tornmer sold me a 4 pound storage bag last year. It’s great for keeping all my clothes in.”
“I’d love to have one for plant cuttings and other things we find on patrol.” Olive chimed in.
They were purposely not talking about the thick white fog that had rolled in sometime after midnight. It was hard to see past the second tree from their fire. As they broke camp the fog started to recede.
Once they could see 5 trees deep, Tuck and Olive said it was time to move out. Again today she and Feta took to the trees while everyone else walked below them.
It took 5 hours heading due east to cross their section. They then had to head back west for the next sweep. They were almost back to the western edgen when Tuck stopped.
The others on the ground looked at him, save Mika who looked up and got a signal from Feta.
“A pack of bugbears.” Tuck explained in a hushed voice.
“6 of them.” Mika added just as quietly.
Everyone loosened their weapons and Myra knocked an arrow in case they were seen.
There were several tense minutes as they waited for the all clear from Olive or Feta. Unfortunately one of the beasts must have sensed or smelt them because it gave a roar and the others in the pack responded.
Before they got too close 3 of the bugbears were struck with daggers from the trees.
Yenturis charged forward and slashed the lead monster with his sword. He would usually use his large wings as a counter weight for his sword but when he tried one wing struck a tree and caused him to stumble, leaving him open for a counter attack. One of the wounded bugbears took advantage and smashed his club into Yenturis’ side.
Mika bashed another uninjured beast in the chest with her shield before taking a swing at it as it was knocked back.
Myra shot an arrow into the beast that had attacked Yenturis. Leaving him to finish the first one he’d attacked. A sharp stone struck one of the injured beasts causing it to turn to Hamish. Tuck was ready for that and gored it’s unprotected side as it turned.
Olive leapt from above landing on the bugbear in the back that had been struck with 2 of Feta’s daggers. She landed with a dirk in each hand stabbing into the beasts shoulders so she could use them as handholds to take it down.
Feta made a similar move onto the last bugbear that was trying to flank Mika. Only she stabbed it with one dagger and used her sicle to open its throat.
Once they were finally down everyone was winded.
“That wasn’t normal?” Myra questioned looking over the dead and trying to salvage her arrows.
“No.” Tuck panted “Usually you see just one or 2 scouts.”
“Why were there so many?” Olive asked while gathering her and Feta’s daggers.
“It’s the dungeon.” Yenstar replied. He’d stayed back watching Le’Ly, feeling like a spare prick. “The pure mana attracts creatures. They travel there to make it their home. One of the reasons guilds watch dungeons is to protect them from too powerful of creatures seeking them and accidentally killing the core.”
“If they like the mana why would they kill it?” Le’Ly asked
“They are dumb, wild beasts that don’t reaslize the shiny rock is what makes all the power in the dungeon.” Feta replied with disdain. “Thanks kid.” She added to Olive as she handed her the daggers.
“What should we do with them?” Mika asked.
The teens looked at her oddly. “We leave them.” Tuck said with a raised brow. “The forest will reclaim them. Not like they are good for anything.”
“Unless you want to replace your mace with one of these.” Olive added, holding up one of the large branches the bugbears had used as clubs.
Feta chuckled. “Is there anywhere nearby to clean up?”
Tuck looked around at the trees. “Yeah a small spring. It’s just outside our area to the north west.” He pointed into the trees.
Yenturis shared a look with the sisters. They were glad to have joined the teens. They had all already lost their sense of direction and would have likely had to rely on Feta climbing high enough to see above the trees.
Yenstar cast an old find water spell that he hadn’t needed in years. It spun around like crazy before exploding in a shower of sparks.
“What was that?” Hamish asked
“Find water.” He replied looking at his hands is betrayal.
“Told you magic was unreliable here.” The half naga replied.
“I keep hoping my magic will find a way to compensate or overcome this taint.”
“Come on then.” Tuck called “I don’t like chatting over the dead.”
It was only a 20 minute walk. Once they arrived at the spring everyone refilled their water before washing any blood off. They also decided to stop for lunch.
By the time they were done eating it was afternoon. They headed back east to make their next sweep of the area.
“How long will it take to search our whole section?” Yenstar asked, once they were moving again.
“It should take around 5 days at this time of year. In the winter it takes longer because there is less sun. Or if we run into anything nasty and need to rest or heal after.” Tuck replied.
As they turned around and started heading west again Le’Ly made a noise.
“What is it?” Myra asked, having stuck close to the young girls all day.
“That weird fog.” her voice was frightened and small as she pointed to the north.
The others stopped and looked.
“That’s not a fog honey.” Myra replied. “That’s the miasma. You can see it has a purple tint.”
“Myra’s right but it shouldn’t be this far south.” Tuck added, his voice tight with worry.
“It makes sense if the dungeon is cleaning the mana then this heavy corruption can spread farther than normal.” Hamish proposed.
“I don’t know.” Yenstar said. “If I could rely on my magic I’d suggest we check it out but as it is...” He looked at his hands. “I’m as much a liability as Le’Ly.”
“He’s right.” Feta spoke up from the trees. “Part of me wants to see what is causing this, but I refuse to take you kids in there. When the rest of the team from Judor arrives we might try it. They should all be A to SS ranked.”
“Tuck and I can escort you back here.” Olive volunteered. “Going straight here from Riverside wouldn’t take a day.”
“We’re moving much slower searching and trying not to attract trouble. If we left Riverside and headed straight into the trees we could get you there before nightfall at a quick jog.” Tuck paused. “Well to the edge of the miasma. No clue how far into that you’d need to go to find the source.”
Feta nodded. “Right now we need to find the dungeon. We can worry about this later.” She waved to the purple haze that felt like it was watching them.
Not an hour later there was an inhuman scream coming from behind them.
They all paused and looked back. Another closer scream was heard to one side.
“COVER YOUR EYES!!” Olive screamed from the trees.
“COCKATRICE!” Tuck added knowing what that warning meant.
Myra pulled out a handkerchief and tied it quickly around Le’Ly’s head. “I’m immune to their death gaze. I’ll call out positions.”
“Everyone circle up so it can't attack our backs.” Mika instructed as another scream came, even closer than before.
Myra took Olive’s offered hand and she was pulled onto the lowest branch so she could see everything and give them orders.
The beast rushed at Hamish who swung his staff when Myra called. She was raining arrows and calling to Olive where to throw. Feta felt useless. Olive and Myra had worked together so often that she could hit one of the pair of beasts with just minor calls from the selkie while the 3 daggers Feta had thrown hit only air. Instead of getting frustrated she passed her throwing daggers to the teen when she was out and sent prayers that her sister would be safe.
On the ground, Tuck and Hamish reacted to her calls immediately, the adults were taking some hits from the pair of overgrown dragon chickens. Finally Yenturis sunk into the state of reaction he hadn’t used since learning drills as a kid to react to the calls without thought or hesitation. When Myra next called for him to attack he lobbed the head from one of the beasts.
The other shrieked in furry at its mate being taken down and attacked without thought instead of the circling and striking they had been doing. That made it much easier to cut down. Once the beast was dead Myra called for them to hold.
They all listened to see if there were more that would attack.
After what felt like an eternity but was really just 2 minutes, Myra called an all clear and they removed their eye coverings.
“Let’s not do that again.” Olive said coming down and hugging Tuck.
He hugged his sister back. “Deal.”
They chuckled before breaking up to collect arrows and daggers along with any useful parts from the beasts.
“I’ll keep these spoils too and we can split the profits from anything that tries to kill us.” Feta offered.
“Thanks.” Olive replied with a massive grin handing back some daggers. “Mum will love getting a cockitrice eye to experiment on.”
“Yeah I just fear she’d send us hunting one.” Myra said with a pout.
Tuck chuckled and his twin just grinned.
“How are you able to look at them?” Mika asked now that the danger was passed.
“Selkie are immune to visual magic.” Myra replied. “Any magic that’s activated by looking at it or at a target doesn’t work on us. And yes that applies to illusions.”
“It also works with some slight of hand.” Olive added with a wicked grin. “Her dad has used that on some thieves and it’s hilarious.”
Once they had everything stripped off the 2 cocitrice and in Feta’s bag they headed west once more.
The group had made it about halfway to the western side of their search area when they decided to call it a night.
There was no massive tree to use as shelter tonight so everyone set their tents facing each other with their backs to trees. Once they had a fire going and a thick tiger stew simmering they set that night's watch. Being in a more open area they had 2 people per watch.
Mika and Tuck were on watch when she stood and looked to the south east.
“There’s someone out there. They need our help.” She told him picking up her shield and mace.
Tuck came to her side. “No there isn’t.” He said getting in front of her. “Mika you have to stop.” He said louder, putting his hands on her shoulder.
She shoved him out of the way and began walking to the trees. “It is a cleric's duty to help those in need.”
“OLIVE!” Tuck shouted diving for her knees.
His twin and several others came out of their tents to see Mika trying to walk into the trees while Tuck was holding her legs and trying to stop her.
“What is going on?!” Feta demanded.
“Will-o-wisps.” Hamish said by way of explanation
He took a bucket of water and splashed Mika in the face.
She sputtered and wiped her face, almost hitting herself with her shield. “What…. What happened?” She looked down. “Tuck what are you doing?”
He let go and stood up. “You were entranced by some will-o-wisps.” he explained, dusting himself off.
“Good thinking with the water.” Olive congratulated, patting Hamish on the back.
“They are fire magic. Water is the best way to fight them.” He replied embarrassed.
“Those were much stronger than the ones in the plains.” Feta said, hugging her sister. Now that their spell had been broken they could see the glowing orbs floating throughout the trees.
“I don’t even recall what happened.” Mika confessed. “I was watching the trees one minute then wet the next.”
“You said there were people in need and as a cleric you had to help them.” Tuck explained.
“They are able to somewhat read your mind and call you in using what they see.” Myra explained. “Unfortunately I am not immune as these are hearing not visual hallucinations.”
“Come on Mika, I think we have done our part. Myra you and Yesturis can take over now.” Tuck told her, heading back to camp.
“I’ll keep an eye on this side. Will-o-wisps lead people into danger so there may be another beast out there.” Myra told him.
With that grim thought everyone else headed back to sleep.
Nearing noon they were attacked by a Dryad.
“That wasn’t normal.” Yenstar stated once she was dead and the twins were harvesting it.
“What do you mean?” Myra asked, “Dryads always act like that.”
“No they don’t. I’ve spent most of my life in forests. Dryads are usually calm unless you attack first.” He replied. The avians had never seen one so didn’t comment.
“Nope.” Olive popped the P “Not in here. Dryads are vicious and will eat your face. They can’t even talk.”
“This forest is messed up.” Yenstar replied, shaking his head. He wondered how many elves would die at the hands of a crazed dryad. They are one of the few species elves tolerate and there are laws protecting them in elvish countries.
“Let’s find a place to have lunch.” Hamish suggested.
“It needs to be away from here.” Olive replied. “Loads of stuff will come to feast on her body.”
Tuck led them to the top of a small hill where an underground spring bubbled up and started a small stream.
“OW!” Yenturis exclaimed slaping at his neck. He pulled away a small creature about half the size of his hand. “What is it?” He asked the group
“Strige.” Feta replied, gathering her things back up.
“Where there’s one there will be more.” Mika added standing as well.
“Stupid pests.” Tuck grumbled.
There were more of the small beasts descending to feed on the group. They ended up having to run as they swatted away the ones that got too close. Finally after running for 20 minutes Feta stopped and looked back to see if they were still being attacked.
“I think they’ve stopped, let's rest and get some ointment on these bites.” Tuck said, not seeing any more of them.
“I can use a healing spell.” Mika offered.
The teens looked at her like she was crazy.
“Try it on yourself first.” Myra countered.
“AH!!” She shouted after casting her spell. Her feathers were singed and the flesh under them burned. “I had hoped healing magic wouldn’t be affected.”
Olive gave her a sympathetic smile handing over a jar of burn cream.
As there was no danger while they were treating their wounds the team took a break and finished their lunch.
Olive and Feta were looking for a good place to spend the night when they saw another bugbear. They signalled the group to stop and watched the creature. It looked right at them.
“Something is wrong.” Feta said, not taking her eyes off the creature.
Olive nodded and threw a dagger.
The creature dodged and ran straight for them. It yelped in pain when Myra struck it with an arrow.
“Don’t get too close.” Olive warned.
Tuck nodded and stabbed at the bugbear as it closed.
While Mika was blocking the beast there was a strange slurping sound and the bugbear fell heavier on her shield.
“Brain hound!” Myra called shooting at the brain with legs that had left the now dead bugbear and was trying to attack Mika’s face.
Hamish spun around and smacked the thing off her face with his tail. Then started helping her get the bugbear off.
“What in the nine hells!” Yenstar exclaimed once Yenturis had bisected the beast.
“It’s a brain hound. They can jump on your face, eat your mind and take over your body.” Olive explained looking at the dead thing in disgust.
“One on the many horrid things that come from the ruins.”
“Looks like a mad necromancers experiment.” Yenstar toed one of the things legs. “Ever seen a homunculus?”
“Yep.” Olive replied with a shiver. “They are just as horrid and wrong.”
“Definitely have or had something using dark magic in this forest. Probably using the corrupted mana in their experiments. When a full guild team gets here they'll have the manpower to clear it out.”
Feta and Mika nodded. “We’ll be on that team.” Mika declared. “I can handle a regular necromancer, but once they start using dark magic to make abominations like those they have to be killed.” It’s in a cleric’s nature to hate the undead.
They kept walking for another hour wanting to be farther away from the brain hound before setting camp for the night.
Nothing attacked in the night but the mornings fog had a purple tint to it which put everyone on edge.
“We are getting close to the end of our search area but these last few sweeps will take us closer to the ruins than ever.” Tuck explained as they were breaking camp.
“The last 2 passes of our section we might see some stone work.” Olive added.
“Hopefully we find the dungeon before then.” Hamish tied to lighten the mood.
“Yeah, I’m done being in their creepy forest.” Le’Ly whined. The tigerling hadn’t said much the whole trip, but she was starting to like everyone in the group. Watching them fight made her want to get stronger so she could help them.
“That can’t happen if we don’t get started.” Yenstar said, “Get a move on girls.” motioning to the branches over their head.
Olive and Feta chuckled jumping into the trees.
They were looking for a place to break for lunch when Tuck stopped.
“What is it?” Yenturis asked as the teen knelt down and touched the ground.
“There was a fallen tree here. Someone dragged it that way.” He pointed to the marks leading more north that they were headed.
“Should we check it out?” Myra asked.
“Yes.” Yenstar replied, “It could be a dungeon creature out collecting resources. Young dungeons do that to unlock more items.”
Mika smiled. “That makes it worth checking out. And if all else fails you can lead us back here and we can start searching again.”
Everyone in agreement they followed the drag marks.
“I see it!” Olive called excitedly not 10 minutes later.
The group came into a clearing at the base of a rather steep hill. The entrance was a nice stone archway. The area around it looked like it had been picked clean with some branches missing and plants pulled from the ground.
“There’s our dungeon.” Yenstar said with a grin. Being one of the first people to ever look at this dungeon brought a wave of pride. An eager giddiness made him want to rush in and explore.