Zelda addressed the other party members, over a map laid out on a table. They were in the Tree Spirits tavern, which was very quiet at this time of day when most of Elventree’s inhabitants were working.
“Cormanthor is an ancient forest,” she began, “whose origins were long forgotten even before the first elves walked the land. It is divided into three regions. First, the Rimwood: loose, low growth that spans a ten-mile perimeter around the forest’s edge.” She pointed to the border of the Cormanthor Forest on the map.
“Second, the Midwood, the bulk of the forest, where a dense canopy shelters a thriving variety of plant and animal life.” She pointed to a large area further into the map forest.
“Finally, the deepest, oldest section of Cormanthor is known as the Starwood, where shadow top trees soar hundreds of feet overhead, an unbroken blanket of leaves blocks out the sky, and it is here that the oldest elven civilizations were born.”
“Very dramatic turn of phrase,” whispered Cundall quietly.
“She’s been talking like that since she’s been reading those elven books,” whispered Minimus. “Reading – it rots your mind.”
“The ruin of Eventide Abbey is located within the Starwood, southeast of Elventree,” said Zelda, giving Cundall and Minimus the eye.
“Forging directly into the wood is not advisable, as those unfamiliar with the forest’s twisting paths would soon become hopelessly lost. I won’t get lost but there is always a chance we could become separated and then maybe we’d not find you again. There is, fortunately, an old path that was used on pilgrimages long ago. That’s the one we’re going to take. To find this path, we’re going to take the Moonsea Ride south from Hillsfar, into Cormanthor.” The elf pointed to the road leading out of Hillsfar leading south through the forest to the Dalelands and Sembia.
“We’ll pass through the Rimwood, and recognize the beginnings of the Midwood when we start to see white ash and beech trees mixed in among the pines. Then we’ll look for a path branching east off of the Moonsea Ride near the border of the Midwood, and we’ll find the trail.”
“How long will it take us?” asked Minimus.
“Traveling to the site of the Abbey on foot can be achieved in under a tenday at a brisk pace,” replied Zelda. “We’ll probably take a bit longer though, as we may not be able to travel fast all the way.”
“What if we take horses?” asked Maire. “Surely the journey can be made a couple days shorter by using mounts?”
“The terrain won’t favour horses, I’m not sure on the state of the trail, but I know some parts are difficult and I’m worried a horse will break a leg. We can bring Elum though, mules are much more sure footed than horses. The journey though Cormanthor isn’t just a stroll in the woods, as the unprepared soon learn. The deeper stretches of the forest can experience total darkness even at Highsun, and scaling the ancient trees can be as perilous as any mountain climb. Some even find resting in the forest to be difficult, their senses overwhelmed and their dreams troubled. Plus we have the added problem of the madness of Graz’zt infecting some parts of the forest, making animals and even spirits and fey more unpredictable, more wild, vicious, more dangerous.”
“Let’s get prepared then,” said Cundall. “We’ll leave tomorrow.”
The trek started early in the morning. The party left with a few (human) merchants and traders on their way to Hillsfar to sell items made or collected in and around Elventree. It was a two day uneventful journey to Hillsfar, but unsettling in some ways. While the merchants and traders they travelled with were known and friendly, people they met on the road were less so. The people the party passed along the road outside of Hillsfar drew hoods and averted their eyes from a distance; these were unfriendly times, and a stray glance was as likely to earn them a drawn blade as a greeting. At Hillsfar the party avoided the city and then turned onto the Moonsea Ride south. The Moonsea Ride was a wide, well travelled path, and travellers were common. Again everyone seemed overly cautious, as if previous bad experiences, or ill rumours had affected how they interacted with strangers.
A huge patrol of Red Plumes led by an officer was encountered. The party were challenged, and Cundall and Marie went to meet the officer and his escort while a thunder faced Minimus and wary Zelda stayed with Elum. When asked Cundall stated that they were truffle merchants and presented Chauntea the pig as proof and that the non-humans in the party were cheap labour and protection because “these are dangerous times”. The Red Plume officer did not appear to be particularly bothered about the non-humans. He seemed to be interviewing the party as a matter of course rather than because of any real suspicion. Cundall and Maire noticed that most of his patrol – spearmen for the most part – were young.
“New recruits for the most part,” said the officer, observing their gaze. “Lathander bless them, we’ve had to hurry them through training because of the losses we’ve incurred.”
“Attacks?” asked Maire.
“Some,” admitted the officer, “but also many desertions, and.. well.. many becoming… unfit for service.. if you know what I mean.”
“We do,” replied Cundall. “That madness has taken hold all over the land.”
Marie suddenly froze, she felt a disturbance in The Weave, the force where all magic came from. Something large and powerful had teleported nearby. Then a crashing sound from the forest as a huge shape pushed aside trees to step onto the road next to the bulk of the Red Plumes. Everyone’s blood froze as the giant bull headed demon bellowed a challenge. The party recognised it! It was the goristro demon that had been summoned by the daemonfey, it seemed years ago now but was surely only a few weeks. It still had Minimus’ dagger stuck in it’s head!
The party and the Red Plume officer recovered from the surprise quickly. Zelda was already shooting arrows into the beast, and Minimus was yelling “I want my dagger back you [halfling expletive]” and hurling more daggers at the creature, looking for vulnerable spots to keep it at bay.
The white faced Red Plumes responded to both their officer’s orders and their training, they attacked en masse and plunged their spears into the demon’s body. The weapons did not do as much damage as they hoped, the creature was resistant to mundane weapons, but when Minimus joined the fray his magic sword Companion sliced into the demon’s flesh easily enough. Still, the minor damage done by the spears and swords of the Red Plumes were creating scores of wounds on the beast which leaked black, smoking blood. Meanwhile Cundall had summoned a small storm cloud and rained lightning on the goristro, heedless of the Red Plumes it also caught in its area of affect. He then shifted into giant goat form and charged the monster. Marie cast all of her offensive spells at the beast, and Zelda continued with her hail of arrows. Meanwhile the giant demon was cutting down the Red Plumes several at a time, using it’s huge fists and stamping with a great hoofed foot.
By the time the battle was over, Minimus and Cundall had both been wounded, but only two Red Plumes had survived, a grizzled veteran sergeant and a young spearman, not old enough even to shave. The body of the goristro had dissolved into foul smoke and an evil smelling, dark residue on the ground.
The Red Plume sergeant was red faced with rage, and abused the party for their indiscriminate use of spells resulting in the loss of his men. He vowed he would report them to the Red Plume army commander. Cundall decided that wasn’t going to happen, and attacked. The rest of the party were forced back into combat and the veteran sergeant and smooth faced boy were killed quickly.
“Did we have to do that?” asked Maire, sickened to have to shoot a crossbow at the young soldier.
“We didn’t want to be hunted by them,” replied Cundall. “Life is cruel, Marie. These are hard times. It was bad luck for them, but they are an evil force, it had to be done for the greater good.”
The next few hours were spent stripping the bodies and digging a mass grave. The bodies were buried about half a mile off the road, their armour and weapons marked by a twisted ash tree.
To be continued…