Island of Shadows: The Deeproot Path
She strides regally from the audience hall—it seems that she does everything regally. From her carriage to her mien to the precise turn of her wrist, it seems that she cannot be anything but regal. So it seems; but it is not so.
Servants push the heavy doors closed behind the Princess, and she sighs so deeply when they seal that she might have been holding her breath. Her inner chambers, though still a part of the court, are private and warded and safe enough. Here her every movement is not scrutinized, her every word is not examined for three meanings. Here she can safely let fall her outer robes and her first layer of guarded reserve. But only the first.
Moonlight spills through the dark chamber, deepening the shadows that are her birthright. “Chona,” she says in a quiet voice. From her left a short figure emerges into the pale light as other servants hurry to remove her garments and drape new, bright raiment on her shoulders. Shinchona bows but does not speak; she knows her role. “You saw them in there tonight. You heard their intemperate speech and the rattling of swords. You know what will happen.”
Shinchona bows, as much to choose her words as to honor her Princess. “No one truly knows what will happen.”
“But you do. When you know people well enough, watch them long enough, you learn what they will do. They become as predictable as water; you cannot say which side of a stone it will flow around, but you know it will flow past the stone. You know how they will act, so you know that we must act.” She considers for a second as she settles into her new, festive garments. “I wish you to do me a service,” she says, staring at the dark sky. Shinchona stands a bit straighter. “I wish you to speak to your friends, in the deep tunnels.” Chona starts and begins to speak, to object, but the Princess locks gazes with her for the first time and cuts off the words. “I know who. Tell them that they’re right, that the time has come.”
Chona blinks, panic racing behind her soft brown eyes and unreadable expression. “I—My, my Princess, I don’t—I’m afraid I don’t know—“
“But I do,” the Princess interrupts. “I have had the dreams too.”
Shinchona swallows, with difficulty, and seems about to speak again. She will object, the Princess decides. She will argue and quibble over meanings and the role of portents. But the servant closes her mouth, nods, and strides off into the shadows. The Princess blinks and raises her eyebrows in unguarded surprise. Well, she thinks, perhaps I do not know what she will do after all.
Amari slid down the rocky slope, bits of gravel and other debris biting into the ranger’s hands and backside. The sound of scraping stones and jangling armor couldn’t drown out the chittering and screaming of kobolds behind her. A spear bounced off the cliff wall beside her head. As she reached the base of the incline and dashed around the bend, Lily sent some sort of spell back at their pursuers. She stopped, skidding on the film of ice still clinging to the stone here in the shadows, and grabbed Lily’s shoulder. She yanked Lily back into cover a second before half-a-dozen throwing spears rattled down, striking where the witch had stood.
“Thanks,” Lily said, breathless, as they ran after the others. “But that should slow them down a bit.” The Sanctioned Witch grinned at Amari’s questioning look. “Simple misting spell, supposed to conceal us. But this high in the Reach, it’ll coat that whole slope in ice.”
The Glimmerdusk Ranger frowned and glanced back at the sound of small reptiles sliding over the ice. Their enthusiastic whoops suddenly turned to shrieks as they kept right on sliding past the turn and either sailed over the edge or slammed into the sharp cliff wall. “It’s not a long drop there,” the witch said. “But it’s far enough.”
Amari actually laughed. It shows how desperate we are, she thought, that kobolds slipping on ice is a win. They rounded the next corner and dropped panting into a sheltered hollow with the others. Valkor stepped into the narrow entrance after they passed, the stout Hearthsworn blocking it with his bulk.
Tarlith perched on a slight outcropping of rock above Valkor, the Riftling Rogue’s daggers ready. “We’ve got a minute or two,” Tarlith said, her eyes never wavering from her vigil. “Is there a plan?”
Ser Luther frowned, but the Royal Paladin’s essential good humor kept the expression from being too dour. “Not much of one. They’re between us and Barrel Roll Pass, and there’s too many of them to fight. Can we lose them in these crags?”
“Maybe,” Amari said dubiously. “We don’t have a lot of daylight left, but I’ll try.” They set off, the ranger scouting the way, but for all Amari’s skill, they were soon lost. They could all feel the temperature dropping as the sun dipped down, and Amari soon shifted from looking for a path to looking for shelter. Amari watched the light slipping away and knew her friends could see it too. Finally she stumbled, exhausted, around a bend and saw, tucked into a turn of the rocks a narrow cleft with a strange growth in it.
“Is that a, a tree root?” Lily asked incredulously.
Amari considered for just a second how ludicrous the question sounded here among the barren and rapidly darkening high-crags of the Frostbyte Reach. “Yes. Yes it is,” she replied and descended into the sheltered area. The root was enormous, easily twice as wide as Valkor where it rose from the sparse dirt and moss. It curved gently away from them and plunged into the solid rock wall of the cleft, creating an uncanny arch. Amari stayed alert as she approached, but saw no signs of anything else. “It must be one of the roots of the Deeproot Tree,” she said over her shoulder. “They grow through every realm; even Celestia, so they say.” She laid her gloved hand on the wind-scoured surface. It was warm. She felt her fatigue dropping away, and the aches in her limbs from her injuries, long journey, and bitter cold faded slightly.
As the others touched the great root and felt its effects, Ser Luther inspected the area. “Not much place to hide here, even under the root. Any fire we light will be seen, and we can’t trap much warmth from it.” He frowned as he passed under the arch, paused, and looked back where the root touched the cliff. “Hey. There’s a cave here. Or a passage, anyway.”
Amari came around and saw the darker shadow in the deepening twilight. “It must have opened when the root split the stone.” She moved closer and let her elven eyes adjust to the gloom. She could not see far, but she could make out a widening of the narrow cleft. “It gets wider a little way in. There might be a cave, or at least a place to shelter.” She looked back at Ser Luther. “I’ll check it out.” The paladin nodded and went for the others, while Amari turned and crawled into the cliff.
Uneven and painful under her chilled hands, the tunnel followed the path of the root. What she had taken as a widening turned out to be a bend in the passage, but only a few feet past the turning, the floor leveled out, the walls pulled away, and the ceiling rose. Amari cautiously stood, her eyes picking out shapes and forms but few details. She clearly recognized the smoothness of the walls, however. She touched the stone and recognized the slick feel of polished masonry. Her fingers found near-invisible carvings here and there, and as she turned, she recognized that someone had built mortared stone or brick supports under the root. This isn’t dwarf work, she thought.
“Amari,” the paladin called. “Is it safe?”
“I don’t know,” Amari replied, “but you should definitely see this.” She explored further as the others made their way in, with no small amount of shoving and effort to get the paladin and dwarf through the narrow way. By the time they all stood, blinking in wonder at their surroundings illuminated by Lily’s dim, conjured light, the ranger had a good idea of their situation. “I’m pretty sure this is fennek work.” The others looked at her blankly. “They’re guardians of the Deeproot’s, um, roots. Supposedly. Anyway, we know they build their warrens near the roots and hollow out passages along those roots to connect their settlements.” She shrugged. “I can’t think who else would build something like this, in literally the middle of nowhere. They—” She cut off and held up her hand for silence. A second later, everyone could hear the clanking armor and snorting drakes approaching the cave. The kobolds had found them again.
Amari motioned everyone deeper in. They had not gone far before the root, and the passage, began descending. They found a gentle series of stairs, sized for people a bit smaller than any of them, and continued down. They kept quiet, but even their whispers seemed to echo for miles down the strange hall.
The passage leveled out after perhaps twenty minutes and stretched away into the darkness as far as any of them could see. Branchings of the root began here, with smaller corridors breaking off of the larger one. Some smaller roots had no masonry around them; they simply dug into the stone and vanished. Most passed through narrow fissures where the rock had split. The group paused to rest in one of the small tunnels, Tarlith and Lily arguing the merits and flaws of trying to find passages that lead back toward Barrel Roll Pass. The witch clearly disliked being underground, but the rogue made calm and pointed arguments against picking random passages and hoping for the best. They did not rest long before hearing more sounds of pursuit.
“Seriously?” Tarlith muttered.
“Maybe the kobolds just wanted to get in for the night too,” Lily said, looking back up the stairs.
“Well they’re getting closer,” Ser Luther replied, pushing to his feet. “Valkor, you lead. We’re underground, so you’ve got a better sense for our surroundings.” He glanced at Amari, who nodded emphatically. “Besides, if you can’t fit into a passage, then we can’t go that way.” The dwarf chuckled and trotted off. “Where does he get the energy?” the paladin muttered.
“I dunno,” Amari replied, feeling quite exhausted as she stood. “But if I ever find out, I’m going to bottle it and retire.”
No matter how many turns they took, though, or how far into the mountain they went, the sounds of kobolds alway seemed to find them. And despite the Hearthsworn’s best efforts, Valkor had to admit after an hour that he was lost. They finally stepped into a short passage that widened when the root twisted around some dense rock and stopped. They were dead on their feet and resolved to watch and sleep in shifts, hoping the kobolds would go by. Amari took the first watch, staying awake only by pacing, and fell asleep seconds after she lay down.
“The kobolds seem to have passed by, but we can’t go back, even if we knew the path,” Valkor said the next day. “We’d just get further lost. Looks like the only way out is through.” The others agreed reluctantly, but the longer they continued on, Amari became more and more uncomfortable. After a few hours, she lengthened her stride to catch up with Valkor.
“You notice anything strange about this place?” she asked quietly and smiled at the dwarf’s incredulous expression. “Aside from the obvious.”
Valkor’s beard twisted as he made a face. “You mean the lack of tracks in the dust here?”
“Yeah. Nobody’s come this way in a long, long time.”
“Longer than you think.” The dwarf pointed to one of the tall, thick columns that supported the root. “Those are older than the ones we first saw. They’ve been getting older the further we go, and the construction style has changed. These are molded and fitted brick not cut stone.” He shook his head. “I’ve never seen the like, honestly.”
“I don’t think we’re still in the Frostbyte Reach,” Amari said quietly.
“We’re not,” Tarlith said. The ranger and dwarf jumped, and to her credit, the rogue looked a bit chagrined. “I can feel it in the air. The magic has changed.” She patted the great root where it dipped a bit between columns. “This is still the Deeproot, no mistake, but the rest? I don’t know this place.”
“Well, we’ll get a better idea soon,” Valkor said. “We’ve been climbing slowly for the last twenty minutes, and I can taste outside air. Not long now, I reckon.” He proved correct. Within twenty minutes they could all smell the damp, musty air of an old forest. Soon even the humans could hear the sound of flowing water and feel the soft breeze from the side tunnel that the Hearthsworn selected. When they stepped out of the unobtrusive cave beside a gentle cascade of small waterfalls, everyone except Valkor sighed and stretched and inhaled deeply. Amari thought she had never been so happy to see the blue-gray sky through the trees.
“All right,” Ser Luther said a few moments later, after they had splashed freezing cold water on their faces and filled their water skins. “Where in Crystalia are we? We didn’t walk long enough to leave the Reach, and this doesn’t look like any part of the Fae Wood that I know.” He glanced at Tarlith and Amari, who both shrugged. A soft breeze, cooler than the one they had first felt, stirred the branches above them and tugged at their clothes and hair. “So the first order of business has to be figuring out where we are.”
“You are in our forest now.”
They all distinctly heard the whisper—for it was no more than that—borne on the breeze.
Lily’s staff came up, power glowing around it. Ser Luther and Valkor moved back-to-back, sword and axed raised. Tarlith had her short, flat blade out, her eyes scanning for threats, while Amari drew her bow.
“You have invaded our home,” the whisper continued, coming from everywhere at once. “For this trespass you must amuse us.” Faint, sharp laughter echoed around them, and shadows began to move under the trees.
To be continued.....