After a week of travel, Callindra was once again growing tired of traveling by horseback. Her new equipment was getting a good breaking in due to excessive sweating and they hadn’t seen any signs of civilization since leaving Arkasia. She heard the sound of running water in the distance and called out to Tryst.
“Can we break for lunch? My ass is killing me and I’m out of water. I think there’s a river ahead, I wouldn’t mind a swim and a good scrub. I might start attracting flies at this rate.”
“I suppose, it is around midday.” Tryst said, squinting at the sun. “We don’t have time for getting side tracked though, we are close to the ruins of Lin Lamorak.”
They left the roadway, which was really more of a trail at this point, and found a beautiful little brook. Bright green moss grew thick on rocks that surrounded a tranquil pool overhung with weeping willows. Butterflies flitted from flower to flower in a small partially shaded meadow and birds sang sweetly from the trees.
Tryst had dismounted from his horse and was looking around the clearing with a strange look on his face, “This place has some kind of power to it. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but the growth seems to be slightly unnatural.”
“It looks like paradise to me.” Callindra said, she dismounted and tied her horse’s reins to a tree branch.
“Yes it does.” Said Vilhylm, “That’s what has him on edge.”
“We haven’t seen anything that looks this lush for days. You have to admit it’s suspicious.” Said Cronos, loosening his bastard sword in the scabbard.
“Look, there is a trail leading off in this direction. Let’s check it out.” Tryst pointed with his hammer.
Callindra stared longingly at the cool water before following the others. The trail wound around behind the small hill all the way to the top. An ancient tree, gnarled and bent by age, disease and a partially healed lightning strike seemed to circle protectively around a small cottage.
Although the hill wasn’t very high the absolute stillness of the winds made the hair on the back of her neck stand up, “OK you are right. Something’s wrong here.” She said, drawing her sword.
Vilhylm knocked on the door with the butt of his spear and it shifted partially open. After glancing inside, he looked over his shoulder at them, “Seems to be abandoned. It’s a one room house.”
Callindra looked inside, there was a small bed against one wall, a tiny wood stove and some cupboards and shelving along one of the walls. “Something’s not right here; the inside of this house is far smaller than the outside.” She said.
They all moved in cautiously together but as soon as Cronos, who was bringing up the rear, had entered the door slammed, plunging the room into darkness. Mere seconds later the floor dropped away beneath her and she fell with a frightened shriek. Without any way of knowing how far away the ground was, Callindra slammed into the ground much harder than she would have normally only able to avoid a painful sprain by tucking and rolling to fetch up awkwardly against a wall.
“What a rough landing. How are the rest of you?” She wondered how Tryst had fared in his heavy armor. Callindra squinted, trying to see through the curtain of blackness before her but she couldn’t see anything and her companions did not respond.
“Tryst? Cronos? Vilhylm?” She raised her voice slightly, but still didn’t get a response. “Absent Gods, they must have fallen somewhere else.” The wall next to her was rough stone, she followed along it with her right hand, Brightfang gripped in her left. After what seemed like hours she saw a dim light ahead.
The light came from a hole in the ceiling above her head, at least fifteen feet up. She could see the walls of the cavern were indeed naturally carved out by some long since departed river, now roughened with age. Voices came from above, too faint for her to make out. Sheathing her sword, Callindra began scaling the wall. As she neared the hole she could make out the voices above.
“-will be dead before you can move.” A guttural voice said, dripping with malice.
“NO, you can’t!” This was a woman, she sounded near panic, “You’ve done enough haven’t you? Without proper help he’s likely to die anyway, just leave us be.”
“I enjoy seeing you like this Tyreen. Tears streaming down your face, near hysterical with fear and grief. I can taste the despair as it radiates from you. These pitiful children will not help you any more than you helped your people when you abandoned them to live with this hermit.”
Callindra braced herself against a large stalactite, barely able to reach the edge of the hole with her fingertips. Uncertain of whether she would reach it or fall she gathered her body and made a wild leap from the wall, scrabbling for grip on the rough stone and losing some skin and a fingernail in the process. What she saw over the edge drove the pain to the back of her mind.
Through a doorway surrounded by glowing runes, a figure draped in tattered shadows and black silk was standing with its back to her, facing a beautiful woman with pale brown skin and waves of thick green hair. She was half draped over the fallen figure of Vilhylm and Cronos lay in the center of the room with a hole the size of Callindra’s fist in his chest.
Without thinking, Callindra moved toward the doorway, but before she could reach it a hand landed on her shoulder. She spun in place, drawing her sword and swinging all in one motion. Only her extensive training allowed her to halt the blade before it bit into Tryst’s neck.
“Don’t try and pass through the door.” He said in a low voice, “It’s protected against entry with strong magic.”
“I’m not going to just sit here while that bastard kills my companions!” She hissed, turning back towards the door. His grip on her shoulder tightened to immovable iron.
“You think I want to wait and watch? That’s my brother in there lying dead on the floor, but I don’t want either of us to join him.”
Even as he spoke, Cronos stirred on the floor. His body jerked erratically as though it was a puppet being manipulated by invisible strings. The motions smoothed out as he struggled to gain a standing position. The hole in his chest was now only a hole in his armor, his hands were steady and his voice calm as he incanted a spell.
“WHAT?” The black clad figure spun to stare at Cronos, “You were dead before, I’ll make you so again little worm!”
“You shall not have him yet.” The voice that issued from Cronos’s lips was deeper and more guttural than it had been before. “For now this one is lost to you.” The spell he had been casting was released from his hands as he spoke and a scintillating bolt of energy burst from his hand. The figure in black fled before it as darkness does before the dawn.
“You have already attracted some powerful enemies younglings.” The voice continued as Cronos turned to look at Callindra and Tryst, “Beware of Dergeras, he is dangerous and I won’t always be here to protect you.” His eyes narrowed, “Especially you daughter of Sol. He seeks to hurt you most of all.” The shimmering runes surrounding the door flickered slightly and ceased to glow.
“Grace take me, what was that?” Tryst said, rushing through the doorway to catch Cronos as he fell like a puppet whose strings had been cut. Once he had been lowered to the floor safely, he checked his vitals, “He’s alive.” He said, his voice reflecting the disbelief on his face.
“Of course I’m alive.” Cronos croaked, “I feel too horrible to be dead.”
“Your companion may live now, however this one’s life is in grave danger.” Tryst turned to look at Tyreen as she spoke, “I fear he has been poisoned; only my presence is keeping death at bay.”
“Who are you and what has happened to Vilhylm?” Tryst demanded, turning to face her.
“My name is Tyreen. I am a Dryad and you are currently within my tree.” She gestured to the wooden walls and floor before continuing, tears streaming down her face. “I grew him from a cutting of Grandfather Tree when I had to leave. When we left to come east and serve as we could here.”
“What has happened to Vilhylm?” Callindra asked, “How can we save him?”
“In the nearby village of Vonlar there is a healer known as Jasmine. She will be able to provide you with the medicine that can help him.” Tyreen said, “Jasmine is known in these parts for her healing abilities.”
“If it can help Vyl, I’ll do it.” Said Callindra, her sentiments echoed moments later by the other two.