It looked like some sort of dragon. An undead dragon, bony back claws gripping the edge of the crumbling church we tried to camp in. A lone wight straddled its back, pointing a knobby finger in our direction.
Collectively, fear and survival drew our party closer together, weapons drawn as we faced it in a half circle. The undead dragon leapt down with a screeching roar. Instinctively, I stepped back, noting the unnatural crunch of frosted grass beneath my boots. The air felt frigid, and our clouded gasps kept time to our uneasy breaths.
“It’s just a wyvern,” Maziel announced, but even her voice betrayed a quaver. She hurried to nock an arrow and aimed. “We can win this one.”
“And the undead things shambling toward us from behind?” Barnaby questioned, poking his muzzle out of Cosmo’s bag with a whine.
Sure enough, emerging from the frozen mist were the ever faithful undead ilk we continually failed to elude.
Maziel pressed her lips into a thin line, and I could see her recalculating our odds. If she considered running, the moment passed and her arrow flew, sinking into the wyvern’s neck. The wyvern snarled and snapped in her direction, but the drow had already taken off for high ground, the kender at her heels.
“I suggest you look for cover, Klotonk.” Feeps said, drawing his rapier between a hum.
The gnome nodded. When a crossbow bolt wholly earned the ire of the wyvern, he rushed for the empty rectory beside the church, starting up a spell.
Zan trotted toward the ghouls, raising a hand to stop our incredulous shouts to come back. He moved straight toward the mob, so close one of the ghouls couldn’t have possibly missed him. But it had. It was unable to see the wood elf thanks to the Primordial boon of undead invisibility.
Zan grinned broadly, as if he didn’t expect it to actually work. Then he pulled back his fist and punched a hole through its rotting skull.
The ghoul mob cried out and surged toward me and Feeps. The last two in sight.
“I don’t really have a plan,” I told my friend, digging my feet into the ground.
“You never do.”
I snorted at his sass, then changed into a tiger and pounced into the crowd, despite his worried protests trailing behind me. There’s something about a wild shape, something feral that makes me alive and apart from my half elf from. Sometimes it’s the battle fever, and sometimes it’s lounging in a tree as a cat watching the world ignore me for a little while. Most of it involves not thinking.
Claws and fangs tore at the flesh of my foes as I bounded through the mist. I could see Zan’s fist and feet flying as he amassed a pile of confused crowds searching for the unseen killer.
Behind me echoed the sound of explosive spells, whizzing arrows and a howling wyvern toppling over.
What I missed however, was the ever growing group of ghouls I somehow surrounded myself with in the frigid fog. Something raked my back, and I snarled in pain, whipping out against my attacker. Then another claw tore a wound in my haunches, and I slashed back savagely. It was the bite that sunk into my neck that stopped me, spreading a poison deep into my bloodstream.
My muscles locked, paralyzing me in sporadic moments as the ghouls continued to lash out. Weak and bloodied, I dropped my wild shape and tried to focus on fending off the horde. Overwhelmed, I missed the next bite that dropped me, sight and sound fading entirely.
Then someone shook me awake, reminding me of the cold ground where I lay. Pale irises beneath a wild mane of white hair hovered over me. It was Maziel, with a very worried Feeps behind her. All around, ghoul bodies littered the area.
I licked my lips and cringed at the taste. “Ugh, did you feed me a--?”
The drow held up a tiny, empty vial. “Potion.” She crushed the container and powdered my chest with broken glass.
I sighed, laying my head back down. “You’re mad at me.” From the corner of my eye I watched the group scatter. Feeps was the only one brave enough to linger, and only for my sake.
“What kind of reckless shit was that?” Maziel snapped.
“We were fighting a horde of ghouls, and I was trying to keep them off your backs!”
“And you went in head first---unthinking as always! You almost got yourself killed!”
I sat up and faced Maziel head on. Immediately, I felt my defiance fade away. I didn’t see the usual exasperation and annoyance. I saw worry. I hesitated awkwardly. “I-I’m sorry, okay?”
The drow rose to her feet, extending her hand and pulling me up. “Two weeks, Taelim. Only two before you go home. Try to stay alive until then will you?”
Maziel turned to lead the group into a distant forest of dead trees, and Feeps fell in line beside me as we trailed behind.
“Please don’t start,” I begged my warforged companion.
Feeps looked at me dolefully, but dutifully obeyed my wishes as we pushed into the woods searching wearily for any place to rest that night.
None of us slept well in the hovel of a house we hid in that evening. Every snapping branch, every echoing cry caused us to wake and brace for the worst. Before the sun rose we set off again, scurrying back to the ramshackle Stilt Town that seemed like home at this point. According to both our ranger and native guide (who always seem to contend for control of pathfinder), that was back through a forest you might warn children about.
“Why is it so cold?” Cosmo grumbled, accepting nuzzles from the furry Barnaby. They both looked at me as if to ask: Druid?
I threw up my hands. “I don’t know. Clearly this place isn’t 'one with nature'.” I quoted the air.
I paused as we crested a hill to catch our breath. The thought did cross my mind, but I couldn’t explain it. I had no clue other than it felt wrong, and the feeling had been nagging at me since we returned back to the Material Plane. My eyes wandered over the dead treetops, their skeletal branches scraping the gray sky. My gaze fell upon a wide clearing. Tall, jagged stones jutted out in a circle at bizarre angles as if placed. They reminded me of the stones where I completed my Geas.
“Hey Zan,” I called him over. “What is that place?” I pointed at the clearing.
The wood elf’s eyes narrowed. “No.”
Feeps gaped at us, and I forced a smile. I didn’t really appreciate the word.
Zan folded his arms across his chest. “Because bad things happen there. Plain and simple.”
“Klotonk,” I called the gnome over, guiding his attention to the clearing. “Weird and mysterious phenomenons happen there. Feeps and I are heading over, want to come?”
His eyes widened. “Um, yes!”
Zan’s jaw dropped as I lead the way, Feeps apologizing as he hurried to get to my side and scold me softly. Maziel called after us, then cursed my name when Cosmo was suddenly in the group despite Barnaby’s protests. Both our guides followed grudgingly.
It took longer than expected to reach the clearing. By then we were shivering, and I was pretty sure Maziel loathed me again. It was hard to explain being drawn to it, the compulsion to go without knowing what waited ahead. Still, I did it often enough.
The stones were far taller than I perceived from afar, each pointing inward in a perfect circle.
“Now what?” Zan asked, hands on his hips, glowering.
I bit my lip and glanced around, keeping my distance from the stones. Even Klotonk approached cautiously, careful not to get too close. Something drew my gaze upward, and I only just realized how dark the sky was, despite what should have been noon.
“Well, we came all this way in the woods of the undead!” Zan said bitterly before storming off toward the center of the stone circle. He spun and faced us. “And for what? Now, if you don’t mind, let me be the guide.”
Nobody answered him. We were too busy eyeing the glowing spirit that had risen from the ground and towered over the wood elf. After a few seconds, he noticed our frozen horror and turned slowly to face whatever the looming entity was. Piercing eyes connected with Zan’s and then he dropped to his knees, clutching his chest.
We all made a lunge for our companion, but tiny fiery spirits alighted in front of us, the pretty and deadly will-o-wisps.
“The s-stones!” Zan choked out.
Maziel made a break for inner circle, her body seizing for a moment before she successfully dropped to Zan’s side, avoiding the spirit’s gaze. With one hand she cast Faerie Fire, outlining the massive, flickering spirit with an otherworldly light, with the other she dragged the monk out of the ring.
Cosmo and Feeps drew daggers, trying to keep the wisps at bay as they occasionally disappeared and reappeared around us. Then the air drummed, and we all cried out as a dark energy pulsed through us painfully, the spirit in the center laughing.
“I can’t read this!” Klotonk called, ducking near one of the jagged stones, eyes darting across the writing.
Zan, trying to gather his bearings, pointed at me.
Shit. I bolted over beside the gnome. Of course he couldn’t read it. The language was druidic.
“It’s a ritual!” I called out to my party. “Buy me time!” I pushed Klotonk gently back and set to work, calling forward nature’s divine energy. Whatever this spirit was, it broke a containment spell, but it could be sealed away again. I hoped.
Maziel returned to her trusty bow and was firing glowing arrows at the imposing spirit. Klotonk ducked back into the forest, sending spiraling magic the entity's way. The spirit slashed out against the air, sending waves of wild energy.
“Contain it!” Zan shouted. “Everyone take an angle!”
I barely grasped his words as I rushed to the next stone, concentrating on rebuilding the druidic bindings.
“Taelim!” Multiple voices shouted at once.
I glanced up, and barely ducked out of the spirit’s strike. Back pressed against the stone’s surface, I could feel its gaze on me, and didn't dare move. Once my party unleashed another torrent of attacks, I hurried to complete the next piece of the puzzle.
A massive pulse of painful energy shook the air and I staggered, struggling to concentrate on the incantation. A commotion erupted from my group, and I couldn’t help but watch in horror. They managed to take down the wisps, and forced the dark spirit into a submissive hunch. It stared them down with utter hatred as its body slowly dissipated, revealing gaping holes in its form. It, however, had no intention of going down alone. Slowly, our legs began to petrify into stone.
I cursed under my breath and awkwardly stomped over to finish the last stone, the dark spirit in the center screeching wildly as it hissed away into nothingness from the party’s final onslaught. As I worked along the circle I didn’t exactly take in my efforts as I went. I might have noticed the surge of life spreading out from the base of each of stone, the golden glow of druidic runes drawing in the blight like a beacon. When the ritual was completed, a wave of warm energy swept over us, and the petrification on our legs shattered.
If anyone asked, I couldn’t explain the purification process. I followed directions--old directions--and something happened. Something that had been in place far before my time.
A bright blue sky greeted us, light rays of sunshine reaching our shoulders. The frigid fog vanished, replaced with a clear, crisp air. Ever so slowly, life was returning back to the swamp’s outskirts.
I walked over to my friends and beamed widely, knowing full well they had faced the brunt of it. “You guys look awful.”
Even Maziel’s austere features softened, if only slightly.
“What was all this about?” Klo asked.
I shrugged, having only paid attention to the basics of what the stones said. "Something about a demon lord and an avatar…”
The gnome pouted, disheartened I didn't know more.
“Doresian. This whole cursed blight was thanks to some alliance with him and Orcus.” Zan offered, shifting uncomfortably. “Seems like it's sealed once again. First time in a loooong time.”
“That is good, is it not?” Feeps asked, daring to feel proud.
“Sure, yeah, we're the heroes of the swamp. Again.” Zan feigned excitement. “Or maybe we painted a target on our backs and the hunter is Orcus.”
I slapped Zan in the back playfully. “No point freaking out about it now.” I stepped to his side, gesturing forward grandly. “Will you lead us out of here, o great guide?”
He snorted. “As you wish, princess.”
I frowned and followed. Got me there.