“Are there any more of those creatures on the way?”
“Boars?” Kyrian asked. “Only the one as far as we’ve seen.”
As they approached the falls a tall, handsome man emerged from the rushing water and watched them, a drawn bow in his hands pointing vaguely downwards. Sam eyed the drawn bow skeptically. Olena noticed his expression and waved a hand reassuringly.
“It’s all right, Dougal, these people helped us in the clearing.” The fossergrim nodded and lowered the bow a bit more. His face was drawn with an expression of suffering.
“It would be best for you to leave quickly, whoever you are.”
“Is there something coming?” Fa’ss’th asked. “Maybe we could help you with it.”
Dougal shook his head. “I do not know what is happening. I am going inside; if you need me, call and I will come.” He turned and vanished once more beneath the waters. The adventurers looked up at the top of the waterfall, where an ugly purple glow reflected from the rocks.
“Shall we take a closer look?” Fa’ss’th asked. Kyrian unfurled his wings and darted up the rock face.
“Kyrian! Come back down here! It’s safer if we stay together!” Olena cried to no avail.
“Is there a path to the top of the falls?” Barak asked. Olena hurried towards a narrow trail that seemed to lead in that direction, gesturing for the others to follow her.
Sam sighed. “I guess we take the slow boat to the top.”
On reaching the top of the cliff they found Kyrian examining an immense growth of purple crystal. It seemed to have sprouted, like a plant, from the rocky bottom of the stream, dividing the flow into many separate channels. The running water made it sing faintly, like a wet finger on the rim of a wine glass.
Fa’ss’th and Barak approached, extending their psionic senses to examine the crystal. After a while in meditation, they turned to regard the group again.
“Oh, this is not good,” Fa’ss’th announced. Barak blinked at the lizard’s dire expression.
“No, this is very good.” He eyed the crystal, biting the inside of his cheek thoughtfully. “We should see if we can extract several shards and seed the forest with them!”
“Seed the . . . what?” Olena asked, dumbfounded.
“You realize this is probably what is hurting the fey; it’s feeding off the local magic and converting it to psionic energy!” Fa’ss’th declared.
“If we can spread it out, we can expand its influence! Of course, that assumes that the local magical field is fairly uniform, and strong enough to support it . . .” Barak began.
La’ss’a interrupted him. “Olena, how long has this crystal formation been here?”
“It wasn’t here yesterday. Only a few hours, I think.”
Kyrian nodded. “Dougal trained me here for years and I promise you it’s new.”
Sam frowned. “Have any other strangers come through in the last day or so?”
“None,” Kyrian affirmed. “We’re quite isolated here.”
“None that we know of, at least,” Olena corrected. “If seeding the forest would ease the pain, then perhaps we should try it.”
Sam scowled into the distance. “Sulveig, that little weasel . . .” Fa’ss’th pulled a piece of crystal from his belt pouch and held it up, comparing them. The winged twins drew closer to see what he was doing.
“What do you want to bet that Nymbus took Sulveig to that cave at some point in the past?” Sam asked.
Fa’ss’th made a noise under his breath. “I bet the attack on Nymbus was coincidental. The elemental’s job was probably to destroy that crystal and spread it. See, they’re the same. As I said, this crystal formation is feeding off the magical energy in this area. The fey are connected to the energy, so the crystal acts like a disease to them.”
“Then what can we do to stop it?” Kyrian demanded.
“I’m getting to that,” Barak announced, appearing to have returned temporarily from his reverie. "Olena, when you first noticed that something felt off, what did you think, what did you do?"
Olena looked bewildered. “Mother disappeared under the water, and animals gathered around Hypatia’s tree.”
“Mind adding a little context for the outsiders?”
“Forgive me. Our mother is a Naiad, a water spirit, and Hypatia is a Dryad.”
Barak nodded. “They retreated to their traditional sources of power, water or a specific tree.”
“Hypatia cried out that Dougal was suffering—he’s a fossergrim.”
“A waterfall spirit,” Kyrian explained. “I came here to help him, but he was out of his mind. He attacked me—only when my sister wounded him did he return to his senses.”
Sam rolled his eyes and tapped a foot impatiently. “Is there a point to all of this?” He blinked and nearly toppled over as the earth under his foot rose and crumbled, revealing a woman’s face. Her skin was gray and looked hard, like granite, and her hair shone whitely even through the dirt.
Olena giggled. “Well met, Kefirah.” The woman climbed out of the hole and surveyed the group. Barak stared at her in delight.
“Is this another local ‘spirit’?” La’ss’a asked.
“Why are you trespassing on my mountain?” Kefirah demanded.
“She’s an oread, a mountain spirit,” Olena affirmed. “Stay your hand, Kefirah, these people are here to help us. Sam rolled his eyes again dramatically and groaned.
“Greetings to you as well, child,” Kefirah added belatedly. “I was not aware I was in need of ‘help’.”
“My sister means the two of us, I think,” Kyrian explained.
“Ah. Well, if you must.”
“You haven’t felt any distress for the last day or so? No weakness, headaches or the like?” Barak asked. The Oread shrugged.
“The world felt strange to me for a moment, but I let it pass through me and I am not harmed. Such is the way of nature . . . bend to change and you do not break. The hard stone is brittle and shatters.”
Barak nodded, breaking out in a pleased grin. “See, that’s what I thought. She’s used to drawing her power from the earth, so she adapted easily. The crystal isn’t actually harming your mother, it’s her resistance to the new power that’s the problem.” He waved his hands excitedly, emphasizing his words. At one point Sam was forced to grab his belt to prevent him from toppling into the stream.
“We’ve all been fighting it,” Kyrian mused.
“Then the new power is not evil, just different?” Olena asked.
“I get it,” Fa’ss’th said. “It’s like a poor man used to turnips and barley suddenly being given a feast of goose liver and caviar. It doesn’t make you sick because it’s poisonous, but because you aren’t used to it. There’s a hierarchy of energy in the world: natural power, divine power, arcane power, psionic power. Psionic is the ‘richest’ form of power, the most refined. So it would make sense that something like this would happen.”
“Right!” Barak enthused. “See, you have a psychological resistance to accepting the psychoactive refraction matrix and it’s causing a mechanical feedback effect . . .”
“Whoa, stop, Barak, stop!” Sam yelled.
“What?” Barak asked, looking hurt and perplexed.
“We don’t have time to listen to you and your ‘explanation’. We get the general idea. So, how do we fix it?”
“They need to release their concentration in accordance with Darylix’s absorption law.”
Sam massaged his forehead tiredly and turned to Olena and Kyrian. “Allow me to translate. You need to do a relaxation and meditation exercise to clear your mind.”
Olena gazed at the two humans a little uncertainly. “That’s it?”
“Well, if you want to be simplistic about it . . .” Barak began. Sam booted him in the shin pointedly.
“But . . .”
“Barak, it is three in the morning, I’ve been marching all day, my back hurts, my feet hurt, and instead of sleeping I’ve been attacked by tiny idiot fey, charged by a dire boar, and now I’m standing here listening to you babble about refraction matrices or whatever the hell it was that you said. Enough!”
“Just shut up and let me take care of it from here, okay?”
“All right, all right.”
“Academics,” Sam muttered. He gestured for Olena and Kyrian to sit down, then guided them through one of the simplest meditation exercises he knew. They were resistant at first, but as they focused themselves and relaxed, the buzzing diminished to a pleasant, energizing sensation.
“Thank you, Sam,” Olena said happily.
“And thanks to you, Kefirah,” Kyrian added. The Oread nodded and disappeared once more into the ground.
Barak beamed over them. “As an added bonus, your mother and the others will no longer be tied to specific places or things. Of course, I think that’s only within the crystal’s radius of effect, so they’re still somewhat limited . . .”
“Let’s go explain things to the others so we can get some sleep,” Sam cut in. Fa’ss’th looked at the long climb down the mountain and sighed.
“Once more into the breach,” he muttered, and then began trooping back down the path.
In the morning, Nymbus’ students awakened to find Aviana the Naiad standing nervously outside their rough camp, holding a large bundle wrapped in oilcloth in her arms. It seemed she had been standing there for some time, waiting patiently for them to awaken.
“What have you brought, Mother?” Kyrian asked gently. She smiled; the smile seemed a bit sad.
“I have brought gifts to these people for helping us. I bring them because I have learned something important. We may be small and far away from everything, but this does not make us safe. Only understanding can make us safe. So I think the time has come for you, my children, to leave this place and seek understanding in the world.” She took a deep breath, then continued. “So, I have also come to ask the strangers if they would take you with them and protect you until you are wise enough to protect yourselves.”
Olena’s lip trembled and she fought back tears. “We always thought this day might come.”
“We didn’t always believe it, though,” Kyrian muttered. Aviana set her bundle on the ground and embraced her son tightly. He sniffled and buried his head in her shoulder.
Fa’ss’th chuckled. “If you only knew how far from home we already are,” he said, grinning mischievously.
“You are fey, but human also, you cannot reject part of your nature,” Aviana told her son sternly. She let him go and bent to unwrap the oilcloth. Inside were three bows, two quivers full of arrows, and a bag of gems. “It is not much, but it should help you on your way.” She retreated a few steps, clasping her hands together. She looked at Nymbus’ students as though unsure what to do next. Barak began to fumble for something diplomatic to say and froze in horror when Sam abruptly stepped forward. The tall, lanky blond bowed formally to the Naiad.
“I will watch your children as though they were my own.” Aviana’s nervous expression transmuted instantly to a delighted smile and she kissed Sam on the cheek before pattering away to dive into the lake.
“You mean you’re actually capable of being diplomatic?” Barak whispered.
“There’s a lot of things you don’t know about me, friend,” Sam replied, grinning.
“Thank you, Sam,” Olena said softly.
“Hah. Just don’t make it a hard promise for me to keep, okay?”
“Of course,” she murmured, looking at Kyrian, who was still watching the ripples on the lake. Silence fell.
“Great,” La’ss’a said finally. “So we are still back to square one on figuring out how to fix our teacher.”
“Yes, but now you have our help,” Kyrian announced.
"Well after this nice family moment, it probably would be best not to talk to our teacher's daughter, it probably won’t be worth our time.”
Fa’ss’th poked La’ss’a. “She may be able to shed some light on what Nymbus was doing. I’m even less sure now whether these crystals are a good thing or if Nymbus had reason to hide them.”
La’ss’a appealed to the humans. “Sam? Barak? Think a change of mind is in order?”
Barak shrugged. “He may have tried to talk with Demaris about them. She might know something. At the very least she’s known Nymbus a lot longer than we have.”
“And besides,” Sam added, “If Sulveig was so interested in Nymbus’ work, he might pay Demaris a visit, too.”
The group, larger now, set back out on the strangely empty road and continued traveling west, encountering no living creatures. After a few days getting mildly turned around in the mountains, they discovered a high grassy plateau where someone had built a sturdy log house.
“With any luck, this is it,” La’ss’a remarked, continuing down the path.
Every inch of the plateau was given over to some productive activity. There were elaborate tiered gardens, long rows of unfamiliar plants, some of which grew tall and straight, some which crawled in vines along the ground. Fences enclosed tidy pastures, and a still near the cabin sent a thin thread of smoke into the air. Fa’ss’th looked at the pastures a bit skeptically, wondering where all the animals were.
As they approached, the door to the cabin opened and a woman came out, her dark hair pulled back under a farmer’s straw hat, her clothing workmanlike and unremarkable. She glared at them and thumped her fists onto her hipbones. “Who are you and what do you want?” she demanded
Fa’ss’th coughed. “Uh, we’re loking for Demaris to bring her some news.”
“And your point is?”
“Would you happen to be Demaris?”
“That is my name but I don’t know you.”
“No, but we do know one person in common. We bring news of your father, Nymbus.”
The only sign that this affected her in any way was the slight quirk of one eyebrow. “Maybe you’d better come inside,” she suggested, turning back to the cabin and holding the door open. Fa’ss’th approached, only to be assaulted by a horrible stench; the woman smelled like she hadn’t bathed in months. He thought it was strange, considering how otherwise orderly and tidy the homestead was. He hesitated on the doorstep and heard something . . . something big, shift its weight inside the house.
“Um, no offense, but maybe outdoors is the best place to discuss this,” he said brightly, retreating several steps and bumping into Kyrian. Demaris scowled.
“Screw this. Get ‘em, boys!” She shifted into an arcane pose and held up a hand, wild, crackling power gathering in her palm. An immense manlike creature squeezed through the narrow doorframe, roaring and swinging a club. It had an oversized head and jaw full of misshapen teeth, and it was so hairy it was difficult to tell where the crude hides it wore for clothing ended. Fa’ss’th squeaked in alarm and darted backwards between Kyrian and Olena.
Kyrian drew on the psionic power that lingered in his mind; his swords appeared in his hands in a flash and he slashed at the Ogre, but it’s thick hide turned the blows. It laughed at him, grinning evilly. Olena darted forward and launched herself at Demaris, her greatsword slicing into the gap between neck and shoulder. Demaris roared in pain. Her body began to swell and change until she stood nearly ten feet tall, her skin a deep hideous blue, the straw hat dangling from one pointed horn. Black eyes with glowing red pupils glared at the wound, which began rapidly sealing itself together.
Barak pulled fire into his hands and hurled the bolt at the towering Ogre Mage. For a moment it was wreathed in flames, screeching, then it beat itself out on the side of the house. Its skin sizzled where the fire had marked it, and the wounds did not heal of their own accord.
Sam’s energy blade exploded uselessly into fragments on the first ogre’s chest as another one forced its way through the door and swatted at Kyrian dismissively. The blond fey snorted and dodged the blow while the first ogre tried unsuccessfully to line La’ss’a up with its club. The little female lizard leaped in, landing on the ogre’s face and giving it a few nice gouges before she dropped to the ground again.
The Ogre Mage, it’s disguise penetrated, waved and muttered for a second and vanished from sight. Fa’ss’th’s keen ears heard it move away from the battle. He pulled a scroll from his belt and looked at it sadly. He’d hoped to learn this spell later, but sometimes battle upset your plans. “Oh well,” he sighed. “There will be other scrolls.” The Ogre Mage howled in fury as a cloud of glowing dust appeared around it, destroying the spell that kept it invisible. It gripped its eyes, blinded by the tiny glittering particles.
Barak whooped happily and shot another flaming ray at the Ogre Mage, it burst into flames and burned, casting a pall of foul-smelling smoke over the scene of the battle. Kyrian, Olena and La’ss’a succeeded in dispatching one ogre and injuring the other badly; it hurled its club away and shouted, “I surrender!”
Sam wandered over to the Ogre Mage and jabbed a blade into its eye socket, pinning it’s skull to the ground. He began methodically searching the corpse for valuables. La’ss’a held up a claw at the remaining Ogre and hissed.
“I’m not sure how long I can keep my friend over there from doing the same to you. You best tell us where the girl is if you want to keep your worthless life.”
“Hobgoblins took the girl! We just stay to loot!”
“Where did they take her?”
“I don’t know, mountain stronghold probably.”
“Where is the mountain stronghold?! Directions!”
“West along the road, in the mountains north of Murann. Path is hidden behind dead tree!”
Olena leaned down and whispered to La’ss’a, “Should we have it lead us?”
“Um, excuse me?” The voice came from behind them, towards the road. “May I be of assistance?”
Very slowly, everyone turned to stare at the newcomer. A tall, swarthy-skinned young man with black hair stood awkwardly on the path, his left hand gripping the reigns of a large chestnut warhorse. He was wearing a well-made suit of chainmail with a dull green tunic over it, a longsword sheathed at his side.
“What happened?” he asked, recoiling a bit from the attention. “Where did these ogres come from?”
“That’s what we’re trying to find out, friend,” Kyrian said quietly.
“Ah, forgive me, my name is Oren Falscar. I have been scouting this road, I heard the commotion and came this way. Do these monsters live here in this cabin?”
“No,” Kyrian explained. “We were hoping to find someone here, but this ogre claims that hobgoblins have taken her.”
Oren’s expression went hard and cold. It didn’t suit him, his face looked built for joviality. “Then we should seek her out at once. I offer you my assistance in this task.” He hesitated then and looked slightly abashed. “I am sorry, perhaps I should explain further. I am a paladin in the service of Tyr, sent to scout the mountains with two of my brother knights. We have seen evidence that the monsters are gathering their forces, so my brothers left to return to Athkatla with the news. I remained as is my duty, but it would be nice to have some company in these dangerous mountains!”
The ogre began attempting to crawl away surreptitiously—or at least as surreptitiously as something nearly twice as tall as a human can crawl. Sam cleared his throat noisily and it froze.
“Stay, brute,” Olena said, “your fate is not yet decided.”
“It isn’t?” Sam asked.
“Are you going to kill it?”
“You have another idea?” Sam asked her incredulously. He grinned, glancing at the paladin. “I mean, ahem, of course I had absolutely no intention of killing this creature. After all, he surrendered fairly!”
Barak gave Sam a skeptical look. Oren shifted his weight uncomfortably. “In truth, I do not care what you do with it. If you let it live it will simply return to its masters and swell the numbers of their army. But one wounded ogre probably won’t make much difference anyway.” He sighed.
Sam blinked. “Are you sure you’re a paladin?”
“Never mind that,” Olena interrupted. “This ogre said some hobgoblins took the woman that lives here to their stronghold. Do you know where that is?”
“No, but I have some small skill as a tracker. Perhaps I can assist you.” Sam shrugged and began bullying the ogre into dragging the corpses of its companions away. Oren surveyed the rest of the group a little helplessly. Fa’ss’th took a few steps towards the paladin and met his gaze squarely.
“Greetings. I am Fa’ss’th. And yes, the ogres seem to be gathering strength in this area.”
“Ah, well met, Fa’ss’th.”
Kyrian butted in. “Let’s get some rest. If the hobs wanted Demaris dead, they’d have just cut her throat here.” Olena gave him a dirty look and he flinched slightly.
“May I join you?” Oren asked.
“Sure,” said Fa’ss’th. “We’ll make camp and chat about what to do from there.”