From the perspective of Baffin …
“Well,” mused Baffin, “a decent night’s rest, and no blood oath to release a necromancer from his tomb. All and all, a pretty good start to my day.”
Sure, the upcoming trek through the fire forest means consuming a magical cooling balm each day, instead of feasting on proper food and drink for such a strenuous journey. But, man, I’m glad I don’t have to ponder a promise to release Phaetos from the Necropolis and then let him do as he pleases in Ptolus. By mid-summer, no less.
On the other hand, …, well, that’s just it … somehow I might lose a hand! Hmmm, I wonder which one. I suppose I could learn to play the tom-tom … but I’d have to hold it between my knees, or tuck it under one arm. Wait, was it an arm I lost, or a hand?
Dammit, Baffin, get a grip! You’re not really weighing a monetary reward against losing a hand? Along with the infamy of being called a traitor? And what about your comrades who accepted the awful bargain with Phaetos, in part to protect you? You have no obligation to the necromancer, and more than a small obligation to save your friends from such a soul-rending fate.***
As the magical flames consumed – yet did not consume – the trees of the fire forest, ash rained down on the party trudging hour after hour along the lone dirt road. On each side, the oppressive heat slammed against the five adventurers, Torrent, the old man Hayden, and his daughter Crystin. Occasionally, the old man’s coughs yielded spatters of blood. Baffin knows they will get worse, but he does not know the cause or the cure. Upon first meeting Hayden, the bard wanted to leave the old man behind because of his frailty, but more so because of his obstructive attitude and psychic domination of his daughter. Now, seeing Hayden struggle and envying the bond between father and child, Baffin wonders about easing the old man’s suffering.***
“Nameless, can you see our pursuers?” asked Baffin. At the beginning of day, the sharp-eyed gnoll had spotted close to 30 torches in the distance and moving toward the party as it entered the forest. At that time, the Ragesians were about four hours away. Hopefully, they had fallen further behind due to their greater numbers. Or maybe they lacked magical protection from the fire and could not even enter the forest.
“No,” answered Nameless, “but that doesn’t mean anything. The road bends and curves in places, and the flames and heat waves obscure the horizon anyway.”
“Do you think we should go on? You and everyone else are still wounded from battling those hell knights that Phaetos unleashed to test you.”
“We should take advantage of our lead and our superior speed. We should keep moving.”
The bard agreed with the hunter and his expertise as a predator. Yes, the gnoll was a vicious killer, probably from the day he was born. But Nameless was also a pack animal by nature, and he had risked his life for everyone in the party. Baffin trusted him for that reason above all.***
“Guh, finally,” thought Baffin, “a place to stop and sleep for a while.”
Ack! Sleep near Crystin?! Hell no! How far apart were we last time? Fifteen feet? Twenty, I think. Well, let’s make it twenty-five. Avandra bless us that this meadow is wide enough.
“My apologies, dear girl, this is terribly inconvenient, I know. But would you please move a few feet in that direction before resting for the night?”
“But I don’t want to be far away from everyone,” whined the girl, or as the irascibly blunt Vennman would say, the demi-god.
“I realize that, but your powers make it dangerous for us to sleep near you. So, please, would you move? I’ll give you some food.”
Yes! It cost me my last bread roll, but heck, it was kind of stale and over-warm anyway. Now for some rest and dreams of a magnificent feast …
The trestles shook as people pounded on it with their palms. There once was a lady of Kath! Platters and bowls clattered and bounced along the table surface. People rocked back and forth to the rhyme, with mugs of ale upraised to toast the fictional lady of House Kath. Who went to take a bath! Greasy chicken bones rattled their way off the table and onto the floor. Baffin leapt onto the table to finish the bawdy joke, and suddenly he felt himself staggering and falling.
Wha?!? Who’s kicking me? Time for my watch???***
Wow, I never knew the back of Vennman’s head was so shapely. I mean, that is one well-crafted noggin. You would think it would be dented or something with all the beatings he takes.
“Uh-oh,” groaned Vennman.
Tiamat’s tits! He’s caught me staring at his head!
“Where’s Moog?” asked the wizard.
“Er, um, he’s over there, by the girl and her dad?”
“No he’s not. He’s gone!” growled Vennman.
No, not again! I run over and shout at the girl, “Wake the <censored> up!” I do not feel bad in the least for scaring her. She has too much uncontrolled power and is a danger to all of us every night, if not all the time. Moog! Not Moog! Hasn’t he been through enough? Both he and Vennman have become hard-bitten since their torture by the Ragesians, but the wizard has always been a tough guy. What happened to my goliath friend, always calm and so fond of desserts? I worry that something precious and kind has left his heart, and he will not be able to come back from the darkness.***
Everyone was awake now. No one could predict when – or if – Moog would return from Crystin’s dream. The remorseful girl said she saw Moog in a cave with dwarves and that he was married to a dwarf. Knowing the goliath was not fond of dwarves, some of his companions wondered if the girl’s vision was merely a hallucination or if Moog was trapped in another nightmare reality.
With dawn already approaching, the party put aside their reluctance to leave Moog “behind” – if that even meant anything in this case – and started again on their brutal trek to reach the other side of the fire forest. No one wanted to spend another night in the girl’s presence.
Only an hour into the new day, and the party became worn out from the exhausting heat. Four hours later, they struggled toward another clearing, but this break in the flaming trees provided no relief. Instead, a lake of lava, spewing occasional gouts of fiery liquid into the air and spreading almost fifty feet across, blocked their way. The road split into two, narrow five-foot-wide paths that circled the edge of the lake and rejoined on the far side. There, the clearing ended, and the road continued onward into the forest.
When the party reached the split in the road, they suddenly noticed a figure lying prone next to the lake …***
“Moog!” yelped Baffin, as the stocky bard rushed toward his unconscious comrade.
Yes, praise Avandra, it’s Moog! C’mon, wake up, you big lug! Hey, did his armor change? The style seems different, and it’s covered in these dwarven runes. Has Moog gotten older, too? What’s going on?
“Moog, wake up! Are you okay?” Hmmm, his eyes are open, but he’s just staring, as if his mind is still dreaming. “Hey Moog! Wake up!”
“Where am I?” asked Moog, in a groggy and confused voice.
“You’re in the fire forest. Remember? We’re trying to cross to reach the Lyceum.”
“Where? What?” responded the goliath.
“Don’t you remember? You fell asleep next to the girl, and who knows where you’ve been. But, man, we are so glad you’re back! How are you feeling?”
“I guess I’m alive,” mumbled Moog. “I don’t want to talk now.”
Uh-oh, he looks crushed. I wonder what happened to him. Poor Moog!***
Holy hell and Bane’s balls! What is going on over there? We have got to get past this lake! We can’t be arguing and fighting among ourselves now. If you’ve got so much energy, come over here and help the wizard and me. We’re dying over here!
“Vennman, you’re a true friend. Thanks for the rope. Hopefully, we make it out of here.”
Really decent of Vennman to offer his help, no question. I’m just not sure about our chances. Time and time again, it’s obvious that the wizard and I are the least athletically gifted party members, and here we are, together again, falling behind everyone else.
“Moog! We can’t be fighting each other now! We’ve got to get to the other side.”
Whoa! What was that?! I suddenly feel stronger. I might make it! Looks like Vennman is energized, too. Oh, no, Crystin has done something to help us … I hope it doesn’t backfire.***
Despite the in-fighting caused by Moog’s angry desire to leave the old man to die by the lake, unless Crystin agreed to send Moog back to his dream, the party managed to get past the deadly obstacle. Clearly, Moog had reached a darker place than before, even threatening to attack Nameless. Moog’s demand was thwarted, and now the goliath was sullen and silent.
Out of gratitude to Crystin and a growing sense of obligation, Baffin examined the old man. The bard confirmed his suspicions that Hayden desperately needed medical attention, or else the old man would die in a few months, or even weeks. Baffin tried to ease his patient’s suffering but was mostly ineffective.
The party staggered onward, finding it harder to walk because the road began climbing uphill and they were already exhausted. Torrent indicated that the Spring of Renewal was another four or five hours ahead and that would be the best place for a rest. Uncomfortable for many reasons, the party trudged further into the flaming forest.
Eventually, the party reached the magical spring and drank their fill. Unfortunately, as they settled down to rest for the night, it was obvious the clearing only allowed the adventurers twelve feet of space between them and Crystin. Baffin suggested that everyone tie themselves along the same rope, in the hopes that if one person were yanked into Crystin’s nightmares, then everyone would follow.
In the morning, everyone woke up groggy and feeling extremely cold. They were lying in a snow bank. Fallen snow surrounded them, and more fell from the sky. They had a vague memory of walking out of the fire forest, but no one was sure about that. The adventurers did not know where they were or even when they were.
Torrent exclaimed, “We’re outside of the fire forest in the mountains between the Ragesian Empire and the Dassen Empire! We made it through!”
With that, the party descended out of the mountains, into the foothills, and down onto a plain. They soon reached a well-travelled road that led into some woods. In the distance, they could see some wagons and people on the horizon.
Moog lagged behind the party. The goliath had been silent all day, and he brimmed with anger and sadness. As the party neared the wooded area, they heard weapons clashing, loud shouting, and people screaming. With Nameless scouting ahead, they charged into the woods to battle goblins that were attacking Dassen soldiers and chasing Dassen civilians. Moog, however, remained at the edge of the woods and did not join the fray.
After defeating the goblins, the party was invited by the Dassen commander, Sergeant Trajan, to be guests of the Empire and to speak with his superior. While half-listening to the sergeant, Baffin took just enough time to pocket the gold carried by the goblins. Trajan then led the party to the nearest town and a respectable pub, where the adventurers could eat, drink, and generally recover from their arduous journey.