By the time they reached the clearing, even Aotiyane was exhausted. The forced march, especially when blindfolded, had been excruciating. The party had been half shoved, half dragged down an all-too-long and all-too-narrow game trail deeper into the forest. Even the wolves were weary. In fact, the only creatures in the party who seemed unfazed by the ordeal were the bears. Apparently that’s why the potion was known as “Bear’s Endurance”. Yane wished for one about now. Or maybe a potion of heal for those blisters. She still couldn’t see anything and did not dare to remove the blindfold wrapped tightly around her head. She’d heard rumors about the Fey and few of them were nice. She wished Keetel were around to fill in some of the details, but from the bits she remembered, Fey were capricious, powerful in their native element, and notoriously cruel on a whim. She really didn’t want to give them a catalyst.
Daveak, with his lack of armor rigorous conditioning as a monk, was doing much better. He, at least, could stand and he began to shuffle around slowly, memorizing every step and mapping out his immediate area. The grass was soft here and despite the now deep night, the air was surprisingly warm for autumn and smelled lightly of rose, if one strained to smell. It was a good place. At the moment.
A few feet away from Daveak sat Salutara, groping blindly around her to find Potestatem, who had been stable early in the march, but whose current status was unknown.
Off to their right, a silver giggling wafted on the air. “Welcome guests”, said its owner, “to the matriarch’s tree. We’ve made ready for you. You should see the delight we have in store. Oh wait—you’re blindfolded, you can’t see anything.” She giggled again and the sound floated away, leaving the party in silence.
The party remained still in the new silence, Sellek continued to try feigning unconsciousness, although it was possible that no one was even around to observe. Daveak, having mapped a small perimeter around himself, sat down to meditate and listen. Salutara, however, was becoming uneasy and gingerly lifted the corner of her blindfold in hopes of locating Potestatem.
The clearing was round, almost a perfect circle, with trees so dense around it that she wasn’t certain how they managed to enter the clearing at all. The only remarkable feature of the clearing was a tree in nearly the exact center, tall and imposing with silvery gray bark that lay nearly smooth down its trunk. She estimated the lowest branch was nearly twenty feet above the ground, with a set of dark green vines hanging from it and wrapping tightly around the pristine trunk, like a protective mesh. A sliver of moonlight that penetrated the canopy of the forest provided just enough light to see that the vines extended beyond just the central tree throughout the clearing and out around the trees at the perimeter.
Salutara pushed her amazement at the foreign and surreal beauty of the scene to the back of her mind and looked for Potestatem. He lay near the edge of the clearing only a few feet away from her, roughly deposited in a heap as the bear who carried him to the clearing brushed him off as it shambled back into the forest. She approached and rolled him onto his side; careful to keep his back aligned. Checking his vitals, Salutara learned that he was stable, albeit the weakness of his pulse indicated that Potestatem was still unconscious.
Although Salutara’s blindfold was now off, it was Daveak who was aware of her first. The soft crunch of the leaves on the carpet-like lawn was almost imperceptible, and the still-dark morning hid the approaching shadow.
“So, my little Ironlings, what should I make of you?” The voice was feminine, deep alto, and smooth, albeit with an edge that caused a dual impression of the coo of a lover and the growl of an executioner. The voice’s owner was feminine, towering, and intent. “Take off your blindfolds, I want to see into your eyes—all of you.”
The party hesitatingly removed their blindfolds to behold the owner of the voice.
The figure before them was unlike anything they’d seen or heard of before. Her features seemed almost elven, but elves, even the high elves, don’t stand eight feet tall. There was nothing in lore or song that really describes such a creature as they then witnessed. She stood erect, eyes glinting their multitone orange and green, and seemed to look both at and into each member of the party at the same time. The feeling is disconcerting, to say the least.
She wore a loose, beige robe of a material you cannot identify. It almost seemed to be a composite of the entire essence of the wilds. Part bark, part grass, part spider silk, part leather hide. All together at once. In one hand she clutched a staff, a branch long dried and treated with resin, perhaps a branch from the same tree in this glade. Around her neck hung a silver chain, upon which is a crystal pendant that seemed to radiate a soft, green aura.
“I am Cailych, the Matriarch.” Her voice both crooned and warned. “You were taken captive fighting alongside goblin and kobold, you carry the seal of the Cult, you are led by a necromancer, and not least, you have killed my wolves. Yet my servants did not destroy you on sight. Why?”
Cailych eyed Daveak carefully, considering his statements carefully. “Your tale is interesting, at least. And you wear the robes and ring of a paragon monk. If the monastery is destroyed, as you say, then some might have been stolen, although I doubt it. Regardless, I watched you pace off your vicinity and watched your meditations. I believe you to be a monk. And if truly a monk, then you would not be so likely to flagrantly lie before me. If you have lied, then know that I will find out and the consequences will be dire.”
She turned her appraising gaze at Salutara. “You’re far too brash to be only a cleric, especially one of the Lady of the Winds, yet I can see her mark upon you. Do not let your past life so invade your present that you would insult me in my own home, especially fatigued and beleaguered as you and your friends most visibly are.” Cailych paused a moment, contemplating. Then elevating her voice slightly, to ensure that all could hear her, the Matriarch declared:
“I will make your party an offer. I will grant you safe and unopposed passage to the very door of the beasts you seek. I will ensure that you’re well fed and rested when you arrive, and I will even grant you access to some trinkets you may or may not find of use. My forest, every reach, shall be cleansed from all that is not natural.”
“There is a price,” Cailyth smiled slightly and even Daveak was left in some question as to its meaning, “but I believe you will find it not too difficult to bear.”
“The price is this: I set my mark upon you. The creatures of the forest will know and respect it and the Cult will hate it—passionately. If were enemies before, you will continue to be forever. Were you previously friends, that compatriotism will forever be removed. When delivered to the Cult’s door, you will enter without hesitation and destroy all of the undead and their necromancers within.”
Turning back to Salutara, the towering Matriarch of the forest refocused her gaze on Salutara. “And cleric, you will atone for your party’s offenses by healing several of my wolves who sit on death’s doorstep.”
The matriarch turned gracefully to withdraw from the party. As she began to move toward the central tree, she called over her shoulder, almost as an afterthought: “Aotiyane, I see you have returned. Come, and bring your companion.”
Although her back was turned, the glow of the gem that hung from her neck pulsed and the vines that wrapped the entire clearing shook to life. They reached up to enclose the matriarch and she disappeared into the ground without trace. No sooner had she vanished from sight, then the vines shook again and began to wrap themselves around each of the party members, their iron-strong tendrils immobilizing, compressing, and pulling each adventurer into the ground. From outside the glade, a frightened baying could be heard before it also disappeared into the forest floor.