The breeze ruffled Robin’s hair. It was a spring zephyr, warm one moment and cool the next, fresh with promise and rich with the loamy scent of the forest. If he weren’t trapped in this place by an insane dryad, he’d be loving it.
The sky-rowan grew out of the rock above his head, branches swaying in the light breeze. Too much to hope that the wind would pick up and tear a branch off for him.
‘How are your rock-climbing skills?’ he asked Eli.
‘I’ve never been much for that kind of physical exertion,’ the cleric replied blandly.
Robin grunted in reply, eyes scanning the few ledges and handholds he could see. How did a rock like this end up in the forest anyway? Magic was as good an explanation as any, but it wasn’t a terribly satisfying one. Even if it was the likeliest answer.
‘At least the red thread will be easier,’ Robin grumbled. ‘We have the thread and you have plenty of red pigments from making your paint.’
‘Actually, I don’t.’ Eli had the grace to look sheepish. ‘I used them all up, and I chucked all the paint I didn’t use into a bucket, so it’s just a brown mess at this point.’
Of course. Couldn’t get away with only one fetch quest, could he? Robin resisted the urge to sigh.
‘We’ll just have to go gather some dye ingredients from the forest then,’ he said instead. ‘But after we get the rowan wood. We’re here now; let’s focus on that.’ One thing at a time.
‘As you say, Red,’ Eli agreed easily.
Neither of them were going to climb up easily. Robin considered dumping his meagre experience reserves into Athletics, as that would probably increase his chances at climbing, but not by much.
Rope would be nice, but they hadn’t managed to find any in the tower. So an improvised grappling-hook was out. Could he do anything with the power of his mask? Climbing gloves and boots of some form? The illusions had at least a smidgeon of reality to them.
Robin willed the change in his apparel. Yeah, there was some added grip there, but not enough to make up for his inexperience with climbing. Not on a rock face this sheer. What else could he do? He flicked open his character sheet, hoping for inspiration.
Huh. His Crafting was currently maxed out. They were in a forest. There was plenty of wood around. Some tough ivy. Maybe he could fashion a crude ladder? That would be much easier to climb.
‘Eli,’ he called, ‘we need to head into the forest and find some things.’
He explained his ‘plan’—if it was complex enough to be called that—to the cleric and they set out.
It took a couple of hours to gather enough suitable materials. Fortunately, there was a mix of new and old growth throughout the forest. Robin uprooted saplings with some effort, gathered larger fallen branches, and yanked up several lengths of tough, woody ivy.
It took a further three hours to assemble the ladder, matching the lengths of scavenged wood into two long poles, lashing them tightly together with the ivy, then adding cross-pieces in the same manner to make crude steps. In the end, they had a very tall, incredibly rickety ladder, but hopefully it would do the trick.
‘We should move quickly,’ Eli said. ‘We’ve been in one place a long time.’
The unspoken worry was that Cherry or one of her minions would stumble across them soon. Robin didn’t need to be told twice. He jerked his chin toward the ladder and together the two of them managed to lever it up and into position.
The ladder swayed and bowed as they manhandled it, but it remained intact. For now. There was no knowing how long it might last. The top extended a few feet past the ledge the tree was growing on and out of
‘Up you get,’ Eli said when it was in position.
‘What? You should go! You’re clearly more nimble than I am.’ Robin just barely managed to keep from bringing up how elves had superior dexterity and reflexes. Not only might that be inaccurate in this world, assumptions like that struck him as somewhat racist.
‘Your plan, your execution.’
‘Great word choice.’ Robin looked at the cleric sourly. Then he glanced at the ladder. It swayed slightly in the breeze. ‘Fine. But you’d best have enough divine energies to heal me if I fall.’
‘You can rely on me!’ Eli gave a mock bow with a flourish. ‘Now up you pop. Snap snap. We’re on a time limit.’
Rather than waste time arguing, Robin just began the climb. He went slowly, testing each step as he went. The ladder swayed and creaked disturbingly, but nothing gave way. He made his way up to the ledge and stepped off with relief. The stone beneath his feet was much more solid and reassuring.
Robin took a moment to turn and look out across the forest. The rock was tall, but not so tall it was above the canopy. Still, he could see through the trees better at this height, and they were thinner in places. The tops of the mountain ranges that cradled the forest like granite arms were easily visible, though he couldn’t find the Keep from this vantage. Well, that was what scrying was for.
Still, it was a lovely view and Robin indulged for a couple of minutes before he turned back to the task at hand.
The rowan tree was mature but not old. That or growing up here had stunted it slightly. There probably wasn’t a huge amount of nutrients available in the rock. Though again, magic, so who knew.
Robin reached out. There were several branches in range. Several were too large to break off, but the smaller offshoots should be doable, if he was careful. He’d probably have to break them, then twist around several times until the bark gave way, but he didn’t need much for the charms.
The bark felt surprisingly alive beneath his fingers. Robin paused. He was in a world of magic. He was creating a charm from a magical tradition that respected and maintained harmony with the natural world. Just taking what he wanted might not be the way to go here.
Robin thought for a moment before laying his hand on the sky-rowan’ s trunk.
‘What’s the hold up?’ Eli shouted from below.
‘Give me a minute,’ Robin yelled back down. ‘I want to try something.’
He focused back on the sky-rowan. Did it speak the same language as Neher’s Oak? Couldn’t hurt to try. Robin ran through a few different phrasings, thinking back to some of the books on ritual magic he’d had in his collection on Earth.
‘Hear me Rowan, sky-tree, witchwood, delight of the eye, I am in great need of a gift of your wood, of several twigs to bind up with red-thread into a charm to protect me from those who would do me ill and keep me bound.’
Suddenly inspired, Robin flicked his free hand through the paces of [Lesser Phantasm], and illusory music began to play softly as a backdrop to his words.
🎶Rowan tree, red thread…🎶
The song flowed out of his memory, and with his level gains and repeated use of the spell, Robin found it a simple thing to add harp and bodhran to bolster the music.
The leaves of the rowan rustled.
‘I do not ask for much,’ Robin continued, ‘merely enough strong twigs to form into bundles for warding charms for myself and—’
Robin felt a surge of alien emotion. It felt like someone giving him a warning? Then there was a sharp crack and a medium-sized branch fell from the tree. It plummeted straight down with unnatural speed and force. Eli dove out of the way with a yelp.
‘Some warning would have been nice!’ The priest called up.
What was that? Magic, sentient trees, new world. This was amazing! Robin smiled with delight and murmured profound thanks to the tree. Not sure what else to offer, he reached up and pricked his thumb on the splintered end where the branch had been. He could spare a few drops of blood.
‘All right,’ he called to Eli, ‘steady the ladder. I’m headed back down.’
He was less than a quarter of the way when a small mote of cerulean light danced into view before his eyes.
🎶Aha! Found you! Found you!🎶
Frell. One of Cherry’s pixies. And he was mid-climb. He had the world-swimming sensation he’d come to associate with the pixie’s illusions. No no no. If he couldn’t trust his senses, he was sure to fall!
His stomach clenched. Unacceptable. He needed to think of something, fast. Pixies? What did he know about pixies?
‘Oh good,’ Robin said, playing for time, ‘I was hoping you’d find us!’
The little ball of light stopped bobbing in front of him for a moment. Robin took that as confusion. Pixies. Pixies loved fun and pranks and games, and they were often defeated by trickery or the guiles of the person in the fairy tale. That was certainly the case of the tale of The Witchweed and the Widow. Where had he heard that one? Nevermind. Not now.
🎶You wanted to be found?🎶
‘Of course,’ Robin lied smoothly. ‘That’s the whole point of the game, isn’t it?’
🎶Game? Game! I want to play!🎶
‘I can’t believe Cherry didn’t tell you the rules! Oh no, wait! I forgot.’ Robin made his eyes go wide. ‘I’m not supposed to tell anyone the rules. Part of playing the game is figuring out you’re playing a game, and then figuring out what the rules are. I was having so much fun, I lost track of who did and did not know we were playing!’
Pixies were also demanding. Well, Robin could work with that. He mashed up the rules for hide-and-seek, sardines, and mau and let the pixie have fun goading him into revealing more than he should.
🎶So I need to make up my own rule and try to get my friends to play without telling them the rules I’ve figured out, but I can make fun of them when they get one wrong even if they don’t know it?🎶
The pixie seemed delighted at the complicated shenanigans Robin had whipped up.
‘Yes, and I can’t believe you figured out that my secret rule is you can’t tell anyone you saw me or Eli here! You’re so clever.’ Robin was laying it on thick, but these pixies seemed to be a sort of hive-intelligence sort of situation. They were smarter in large groups. And here he was facing only one.
🎶I did? Oh! Yes. Yes I did! Clever me!🎶
The mote of light zipped thrice around Robin’s head before darting off into the forest, muttering potential rules to itself.
Robin allowed himself to relax slightly. That had been close. And he’d had to think on his feet while those feet were perched uncomfortably on a rickety ladder that would do Tim Burton proud. Ugh. Time to get down. Finally.
Robin shifted his weight in preparation for resuming his climb down. Unfortunately that proved too much stress for the already straining rung he was on. It snapped. Robin had one hand free, reaching for the next step down. The other lost its grip as his weight was suddenly no longer supported by his feet. Robin fell backward, arms pinwheeling in the air. He tried to grab the ladder but it was out of reach.
Robin plummeted toward the ground and when he hit the forest floor, blackness swallowed him.
The first thing Robin felt when he woke up was the scratchy comfort of the sheets. Having slept in the bed in the tower for several nights now, the sensation was more comforting than annoying. How did he get back here?
‘Ah good, you’re awake!’ Eli leaned over him. ‘Pretty nasty fall you took. I had to enhance my strength to carry both you and that branch that nearly killed me back here by myself.’
‘You can do that?’ Robin asked, sitting up. He noted that this time he got to keep all his clothes on. He could faintly feel the texture of the the sheets through the illusory coat he was wearing. That was an odd sensation.
‘If I have the divine energies stored up, yes. Would you like some water?’
‘Be right back.’
The cleric rose to his feet and left the room. Robin glanced around it. Ah. There was the branch of rowan wood, next to Eli’s bunk and the cleric’s makeshift pack.
Robin slid out of his bunk to go inspect the wood. It had been enough trouble to acquire. Best make sure it would actually serve its intended purpose.
Before he could inspect it more closely, however, Eli’s pack caught his eye. It was slightly open and Robin could clearly see there were packets of paint ingredients inside. Right on top was the root the cleric had used to make his red paint. Robin recognised it because he’d paid such close attention; he’d wanted to be sure and get his Crafting rank from the quest.
Eli had said he was out of those ingredients.
The priest had lied.