The Midnight Tree - Part 1

Arian trailed behind the others as they left the inn. Was investigating the Ravenfolk the kind of thing Jaroo had spoken about? She wasn’t sure. But she had, at least, found a group of adventurers willing to take her in, even if some of them didn’t seem overly friendly. She’d probably done something wrong. She’d thought it was only good manners to shake hands or to give what you had freely, but even a handful of harmless herbs had been refused. Well, except by the dwarf, but he didn’t seem too particular about what he put in his mouth.


She would just have to try harder and be quiet and learn. She listened to them banter as they walked and picked any interesting sprigs of things that she saw. Strangely, the half-orc seemed the least scary. She’d never met one before and there was a wild and savage beauty to her.


It was late afternoon and the sun filtered through the trees, dappling the ground. It wasn’t like the wilds at home; so much grew here.


“Hsssst,” said the warlock. “I see something. One of those kenku buggers.”


"Hola there! Identify yourself, traveller!" The paladin was forthright. He strode forward, blonde hair catching the light.


Wisteria snickered behind her hand, loud enough to be heard. “There goes our element of surprise.”


Thibault turned his head and gave her a cocky grin. “With my chainmail, I don't think we will surprise anyone today.”


"Please, do not harm me!" the bird-woman said in a harsh voice. "I am just an old woman gathering berries in the forest!"


She did indeed have a basket full of ripe berries. Arian hesitated to say anything. Was this what investigating was about? Treating everything as a possible threat?


Wisteria narrowed her eyes to take a good look at the kenku. “Myrkul sees through all deception, little bird…” she said, but then visibly relaxed as her eyes fell open the old kenku’s necklace of tiny bird skulls. “Well met, fellow finger bone of Myrkul!”


Thibault asked, “Old lady, could you be so kind to tell us where these roads lead to?”


“My name is Starkfeather, I am a harmless old Wise Woman...”


“Nice to meet you, Starkfeather,” said the monk. So, he wasn’t prickly all the time? She must have been in the wrong at the inn. Arian sighed.


“The west path leads to the Midnight Tree. But you must not go there! Evil rules there now!” The bird-woman made a fleeting sign with her fingers, as if warding off evil.


Wisteria stepped in front of the monk. “Take us there. Or join Myrkul. Tough choice, I know.”


“What say you, old woman?” asked Gorlock.


“Threatening a woman of the cloth, especially your own cloth, is odd is it not?” asked Eamon.


“Starkfeather flaps her arms in panic. "No! No! Not hurt Starkfeather!”


“I am not so sure how devout she is, Eamon...”


“Ah,” said the warlock. “Perhaps we should all calm down.”


“Don't worry, Starkfeather. I won't let harm fall upon you as long as you do not provoke anyone.” The monk spoke in a soothing voice.


“Not to worry, Starkfeather, we mean you no harm,” added Thibault, holding up his hands as if to reassure the old woman.


“We won't hurt you, old woman... just take us to the Midnight tree,” said Greeba, but her guttural voice almost made it sound like a threat.


Arian wondered what the old woman would do. She looked to the dwarf, but he merely stood there calmly eating a bacon sandwich as if he had not a care in the world. Perhaps she should act the same. She saw a bush with some of the berries and surreptitiously picked some, storing them safely away.


The kenku seemed to come to a decision. “He said he would kill me if I went back! You must protect me!”


“We will,” said Eamon.


“V-very well.... I suppose..." The agreement seemed grudging, but Starkfeather turned down the west path.


“Who threatened you?” asked Thibault.


“Kreeack! He took over the Midnight Tree! Him and his thugs! Many follow him! He promise them riches...”


The dwarf had noticed her watching him. He grinned at her, showing all his teeth, and pointed a thumb at his chest. “Hullo, I’m Torgin. That’s me.”


"Arian," she whispered back. "Well met, Torgin. Are they always like this?"


He shrugged. “Who? The Kookoo’s? First one I’ve met.”

Arian sighed and turned back to the conversation. Greeba was interrogating the old woman. “Has he been doing other bad things, this Kreeack?”


“Kidnapping! He stole a fat human last Tenday!” It was hard to tell with the feathers and beak, but the old woman’s expression seemed to fall in dismay. “A rich man! Took him right off his horse, he said! He says the humans will pay a thousand gold!” She seemed sincere.


A wicked smile broke out on Wisteria’s face. “Ah, but what good is gold in the halls of Myrkul?” She cracked her knuckles.


“Yes, maybe he will pay... with his life!” said Greeba, sounding every bit the half-orc. “How many thugs does he have around?” She pressed close to the old woman, like she wanted to squeeze the information out of her.


Starkfeather considered. “More than two hands! He and his deputy, Greengloss, are mighty - be careful!”


Greeba nodded, seemingly satisfied. “Good, Starkfeather. Take us there, but we should remain hidden.”


Arian caught Torgin doing the same thing she was – checking out to see exactly how many fingers a kenku had. Five. So, ten men? There were 8 of them traveling, so surely that was a safe fight?


Starkfeather continued to lead them down a path, farther and farther west into the wood. It was near dusk when they approached what had to be The Midnight Tree. There was no mistaking it. It was the biggest tree that Arian had ever seen. It towered above them. She imagined that little sun ever made it to the forest floor here during the day.


Starkfeather pointed at a spot between two massive roots. “There’s a secret door there.”


Thibault immediately crept close to where she had pointed, trying to be as quiet as possible.


“Thank you, Starkfeather! Go home now,” said Greeba, slipping the old woman a coin. Arian caught a glint of silver.


Starkfeather nodded gratefully to Greeba. "Defeat Kreeak! Free our clan!" she croaked, and hobbled away.


Torgin was stroking the bark of the tree thoughtfully. Arian wondered what he was thinking about. Home? Bacon? But then Greeba said something to him in dwarvish and he shook himself awake.


“Let’s go! Make sure all the people without armour are at the back, please!” Thibault pressed on the burl knot, opening the secret door.


Arian paused briefly to place her hand on the tree before she entered and said a prayer to the Forest Father. It was time.


The door opened into a rounded room carved into the living wood of the tree. The walls were marked with graffiti and pictographs inlaid with amber sap that had seeped into the wounds. It smelled of the sap; a rich smell. A passageway led farther in, similarly carved and it widened into a small chamber.


Thibault was in the lead and he saw the four kenku inside the same time they saw him. They drew their blades immediately.


“We mean you no harm, Kenkus. We met Starkfeather and she told us we could come here in peace!” said the paladin.


The kenku either didn’t recognise the name or they didn’t care. “Surrender your weapons!” shouted one. “And your goods!” said another.


“Oh, I’ll surrender my sword…” said Thibault, but it was Eamon who strode forwards first.


“This doesn’t have to be violent,” said the monk. “Just let us through and no blood will have to be spilled.”


The four kenku merely looked at him. He shrugged and moved back. As soon as he did, the four bird-men struck without warning, their black eyes glinting.


Three solid blows hit Thibault and the paladin fell to the floor in a clatter of armour. One attempted to strike Greeba, but missed as Thibault’s body falling got in his way.


Arian froze in fear for a moment. No! This could not be! Had the Forest Father not heard her prayer? She had to do something! She moved forward, gasping at the sight of Thibault’s bloodied body. This was not right! She raised her shaking hands and cast her most powerful spell.


A shard of ice flew at the leading Kenku and struck him, then exploded into glass-like pieces. It was a spell that had worked well for her when fighting off a pack of hungry wolves.


Greeba gasped as a bit of ice bit into her flesh but worse – a twitch from Thibault as some of the sharp shards hit his already battered body.


“Ah! No!” said Arian, but it was too late to take the spell back. She slumped against the tree wall. What had she done?


Gorlock fired an eldritch blast that sped past her and struck a kenku, but she barely noticed. It would have been better if she had not come at all.


Wisteria moved past her to lay a hand upon Greeba, healing the damage that Arian had done. The half-orc roared in rage, revived by the spell, and bashed her Warhammer into the face of the nearest kenku. His beak shattered, his skull caved in and he fell to the floor near Thibault.


Xarius quietly moved forward just enough so he could see into the room. He raised his hand and cast magic missile. Three balls of light shot at the kenku and disappeared with small whomps into its body.


They all felt some strange static charge build up and then, as the sorcerer lowered his hand, 3 bolts of lightning came out of nowhere and struck each of kenku. Their charred corpses fell to the ground, pieces falling off into ash. The acrid smell of ozone filled the chamber.


“Wha…what just happened?” asked Torgin. His hair, charged with static, stood on end.


Arian fell to her knees. “What have I done?” she said, more to herself than anyone else.


“Shall we take our fallen comrade back? Or push on, maybe to our own doom?” asked Greeba, seemingly unphased by the smoking, blackened bodies.


The dwarf sniffed the air. “Smells like fried chicken.” He patted his pockets down like he was searching for another sandwich.


How could he think of food at a time like this? Arian looked at Wisteria. “Should I run after Starkfeather? Do you think she could help? She can’t have gone far!”


“I think it’s worth a try,” said the elf.


Needing no other encouragement, Arian ran, tears streaming down her face. Perhaps the Forest Father had heard her prayer after all; the old woman had not gone far. Arian pulled her back to the tree, trying to explain, the bird-woman grumbling but hobbling along as fast as she could go.


They had taken Thibault out of the tree and he lay upon the ground on a bed of leaves. Starkfeather waved her skull necklace around a bit and muttered some words. Would it work? It had to work!


Thibault coughed, spraying blood, and woke up.


“Bless you, Starkfeather, and may the Forest Father always look after you and all your kin!” She threw herself down upon Thibault’s feet, babbling her apologies.


Greeba poured a potion of health down his throat. He gulped it down and sat up with Gorlock’s help. “Welcome back, Goldilocks,” said the warlock.


“Hmmm......perhaps a true priestess of Myrkul after all......” said Wisteria, nodding. She smiled at the paladin. “If Myrkul sent you back, you must be truly marked for greatness!”


"It was my fault. I am sorry, my new friend. I am not used to traveling with companions." Arian looked at the ground, at anywhere other than people’s faces, sure they held nothing but disappointment. “I pledge to protect you at all costs in the future, brave sir.”


“Thank you, Arian,” said Thibault.


It was all too soon and they were back in the tree. Should they even go on after what had just happened? Arian wasn’t sure, but everyone else seemed confident. She fell to the back again, vowing to keep an eye on the paladin. She would not let him fall again.


The hall was full of doors.


“Which door shall we try first?” asked Greeba.


“All doors lead to death,” said Wisteria.


Torgin looked doubtful at that, but trundled forward warily.


Xarius stood quietly near her, looking ready for anything. He was the one who had saved them in that last battle. While she—she had nearly ruined everything. “I thank you, brave sorcerer,” she said. “I have never seen the like!”


He gave her a strange look. “I…uh…don’t know how I did that.”


She didn’t know what to say to that.


Two small wire cages sat on the floor, each holding a fire beetle the size of a small dog. They glowed, filling the tunnel with a strange, reddish light.


“Hey, yo!” Torgin was tiptoeing down the hall. “There’s bugs up ahead!”


“Hmmmm.......I say we leave them be,” said Wisteria.


“I'll leave them be, if they don't cross my path,” said Greeba.


Torgin came to the next door along the tunnel. He fiddled with it a moment and it swung open, but with a thunk that was entirely too loud.


A kenku looked up at him, sitting on the only chair in the sparsely furnished room. A ring of keys hung from a hook on the wall.


Torgin put his finger to his lips. “Ssshhhhhhh!” he said to the kenku.


“Oi!” said the bird-man, standing up. He was far more powerfully built than the ones they had run into before and he carried a glowing spear.


A human voice came from somewhere to the left. “I say! Help me!” They had, it seemed, found the kidnap victim, but his jailer did not look ready to give him up.