You were in your room, the precious vial in hand, when you heard the outpost fall. A gust of wind swept past the tavern, causing the structure to moan in protest. You replace the vial in your vest pocket, gather your axe and run out onto the balcony. Chaos. Most of the patrons were rushing around, trying their best to board up the windows, a few of which were already cracked or broken. You rush down the stairs and lend aid to the tavern keep, a fairly young man of no more than twenty-five winters. Onderik was his name. The wind around the building had created a vacuum inside the main room, causing loose papers and receipts to fly around, not unlike a whirlwind you witnessed back home. You shake that horrid memory from your thoughts and focus on your task. Save your home.
The outpost was a hands-width from the southern supply depot. The roots of the outpost tree were out of the ground too. Not a good position for the merchants’ place of business to be. Four tons of hardwood, even at this close range, could crush the hastily-made structure if it had another good wind. You knew that. An idea came to you then. You scan your memories for another situation you had seen, much like this one. A fallen statue, obelisk actually, had come within a foot from a town well. You had seen workers build a support for the obelisk, preventing its further fall. Quick to apply, and ready to assist your community, you made good time in relaying a working plan to uproot the broken outpost without felling the precarious thing onto the depot. Everyone was thankful, the merchants especially.
The storm now past, a full day of work lost to repairs and clean-up, Stagmead was behind in its winter haul. Since lumber and hides were the main source for trade when travelers came, the community knew it had to pick up pace to meet the cold months’ quota. You learned this from your foreman on your first week of employment, though he didn’t mention the sheer lack of business until then. You hardly registered that conversation until after the storm. It had seemed more of a ‘Word hard to supply the demand’ speech than anything else. But now, after months of seeing no one else since you arrived, with no one really explaining why or filling in when the last traveler was seen, you sense a greater design in play. Whether the villagers of Stagmead were knowing of such a plan, you could not guess. One thing was certain though – Stagmead needed your help. The winds did a number to the lumber companies, both north and south tent camps suffered, with all but a few supplies remained. You patted your vest, mostly out of habit, but somewhat out of luck. May the gods look favorably upon you this season!
“Well you done did it this time, John!” Sevvy yelled over the sound of crashing, cracking limbs, your latest tree had landed perfectly. Right next to the surprised woman.
You swing your axe onto your shoulder and give Sevvy a beaming smile. “On target then.” Knowing your tree fell true. “You need my help to clear the branches, Sevvy? You ask, walking over to stand next to her.
“I need not yer help, you oaf,” she kidded. “I only be needin’ me axe and this tree.” she stated. Walking up and taking a solid swing at a large branch, just in front and below your belt, her rusty axe hit hard, cracking the poor limb.
That was your cue to let her be and be on your way.
The days’ haul wasn’t bad. After the storm, both camps worked together to haul away as much timber as they could. And much to your surprise, and most everyone else’s as well, both Charn and Delilah (Charn’s nothern lumber camps ‘competition’) had apparently gotten on good enough terms to share the foreman duties. You chuckle at the thought of those two sharing a pint at the tavern. You gathered from Hemmish and a couple other workers that the haul was more than both camps had managed in over two seasons. Looking around, with stacks of trimmed logs and sacks of bark shavings waiting to be moved to the supply depots, you couldn’t argue with that claim.
Earlier in the day, both you and Hemmish had agreed to work on the area around the chamber hole Hemmish had inadvertently uncovered, making it seem as though the entrance was no more than a rabbit or gopher hole. You took the hard work of chopping and clearing the tree and masking the hole, while Hemmish feigned working, acting as lookout in case Charn wandered in the area. After an hour of hard work, the area looked just as one would expect of a fresh-felled tree. Hemmish had come over and asked where the hole was, impressed that you had hidden it so well. You give him a knowing smile and nod slightly just in front of him. Hemmish took a quick step back, thinking he was atop of a makeshift cover. And he was right. But only just so. You had done a superior job in supporting the trap.
“You goin’ to head back in?” Hemmish asked quietly, nodding behind his back. He took a huge bite of his venison and looked at you, waiting patiently for an answer.
You knew he was referring to the chamber they had covered up earlier. With the sun on the horizon, the cold winter had forced everyone to eat their meals together, around a blazing fire. Thankfully that also meant that if he did go out, no one would see him past the firelight’s reach. Not far. “I might. Depends on if I can get out of guard duty tonight.”
“Ah.” Hemmish replied. “You can just patrol into camp, you know. The route is up to whomever is on duty. You could just hop on over when you come close to camp.” After another bite of venison, Hemmish looked at you, and waited.
“I didn’t know we could plan our route.” You reply, confused. It was your understanding that until the outpost was repaired, the person on guard duty would patrol around the village perimeter. You slowly nod, understanding his meaning. “Ah, I could patrol the village and its immediate surroundings. Thank you Hemmish.” You take a bite of your own meal, losing your thoughts to the night ahead.
With your axe slung on your back, you hoist up a small pack that Julianne had given you. “Now you take this here pack of food, for the patrol is long and you may get a bit peckish.” she had said before placing it in your hands, her eyes betraying her stern, almost scorning tone. You had said your thanks, not forgetting to say her full name, and left. Now, with the night’s moon on the full, you begin your route. With no torch, it was be hard to spot you on that night, despite the moonlight. You had an uneventful patrol, with little more than deer movement along the forest edge. The Skeleton’s Closet was a little more foreboding. With its overgrown old-growth trees and the sickly sweet smell that clung to the treeline, you found yourself giving that area of the route a particularly wide berth. A small shudder went through you, thoughts of large black birds swooping from the high, dense canopy, beelining it to your head. A snap of a twig under your own foot woke you from your walking dream. You hated those day dreams. Always getting in the way of your work. You take a deep breath and shove on forward, continuing on your patrol. Almost.
The chamber’s heavy and thick air clung to you as you slowly made way to where you and Hemmish encountered the dead rat. The air was deadly if inhaled too quickly. With that sobering thought, you gently set another foot forward, progressing further down the corridor just past the rat. Cobwebs hugged the corners of the ceiling, even coming down close enough to cause you to wipe them from your face. No one had been down here in a long time. After an hour’s slow pace, you fond out that the underground complex was exactly that. Many chambers were connected via the small corridors, all covered with cobwebs and dust. Lots of dust. You had encountered a score of dead rats, a few spiders, of which only one had anything in its web. Yes, indeed this place was deserted. A sigh of relief escaped your lungs. As if on cue, a gust of warm damp air slammed you hard in the face, knocking you flat on your back, axe head smashing you on the head. Your torchlight dims and fades to black.
Justine and Grapple sat in their chairs, a plate of steaming eggs and venison on the table. A third seat, empty, getting eyed at by the both of them. “John doesn’t like missin’ his breakfast much,” Justine said finally, breaking the silence. “Have you seen him since refit?”
“Nah.” Grapple answered. “He picked up his supplies from me before y’all headed out for the day’s work. Haven’t seen him since.” Grapple paused then and took up a thinking posture.
“What is it?” Justine said, noticing Grapple’s pensive stare.
“May be nothin’, but thought I heard Hemmish say he was on patrol last night.” He said after a long pause. “He’s probably sleeping in after that long night. I reckon after a long patrol like that, John’ll be tired.” Grapple reasoned. He took up a spoon and made for the eggs, taking a healthy bite.
Justine visibly relaxed at that. Grapple was most likely right. Since the patrol was eight (and not four) hours now, with active walking around the village perimeter, most everyone who had taken up the duty now tended to be late in rising the next day. “I guess so.” She said, more to herself than to Grapple.
Hemmish and Lilith were walking around the depots, using their free afternoon to the fullest. After yesterday’s successful haul, Charn and Delilah had given the lumber workers the day off as a thank you. Most knew it was more out of necessity than thanks, as most workers had spent all their energy hauling, no one could work effectively the next day. Lilith was surprised to see her older brother at her door, holding a small bag of coins. Shopping for supplies. Hemmish liked to bring Lilith with him while he stocked up on their goods. After a good while meandering the merchants, they happened upon Grapple, looking a bit out of sorts as he worked his hammer on a hot iron plate, an axe head, if Hemmish had to guess.
“How fair thee, Grapple?” Lilith asked kindly. Sweetly even. “What do you have for us this cool afternoon?”
Grapple stopped his work and regarded the two for a moment before asking, “Have either of you seen John today? He missed breakfast.” He stood waiting a reply, but after hours of thoughts, he was lost in them. Hemmish waved a hand in front of him. Grapple snapped out of it just as he finished talking. “Say that again. I missed what yer speaking. Sorry Hemmish, I’ve been kind of worried as John hasn’t missed a meal before.”
Hemmish let Grapple come back from his thoughts before repeating, “I think I know where he might be, Grapple. I had a talk with him before his patrol duty.” He tok Grapple by the shoulder and gave it a solid pat and continued, “There be something you and Sevvy aught to know.”
Blackness surrounds you, rendering your sight useless. Sounds of rushing water, a waterfall perhaps, assault your ears, making out nothing else. The air smells slightly sweet, almost bitter. You touch your chest, the vial still secured within your vest. Good. You feel around your surrounding, trying to get a grasp on where you are. Damp and cool hard stone underneath you. You stand up, but bump your head halfway up. You realize that you are not in the corridor you had passed out in. You reach down and feel around for the torch. Nothing. On your hands and knees, you slowly crawl in the direction you think the water is. You hit what feels like a moss-covered wall. Small pits and crevices mark the upper portion while short grass and damp moss lay near the cool stone ground. You take comfort that your pack is still attached to your belt and slide into a sitting position, to take inventory. A small smirk as you regard the food Julianne gave you. She spared no effort in making great food for the village, but what you had in your small package gave you pause to thank her. Helgon bread. At least you wouldn’t starve. You reached behind your back to retrieve your axe. It was missing too. Slight panic washes over you for a moment. You take a slow breath and let out a long sigh, wondering what had just happened.
Every bone and muscle in your body ached. Sweat poured from brow, slick slime-covered hands. It was all you could do to maintain your hold. You had found a small opening about ten meters to the left on the wall in front of you that had light coming from it. It had been a long time, maybe twenty or thirty minutes by your estimation, but you managed to widen the hole a bit. You slumped down, your back taking the brunt of the force as you landed with a loud ‘thwak’ on the floor. You stayed there for a long moment, gathering your strength. The area around you started to brighten up. Your eyes were adjusting to the low light, emanating from the newly formed hole. The sickly sweet smell wafted inn your nose again. You look toward the hole and see that the light inside was flickering. Torchlight.
“Three days.” Sevvy had said. She walked over to your bed and put a hand on your forehead. “He’s still hot to touch.” She turned around and walked away. You couldn’t move your head, or anything else. Sevvy was at the far end of the room, arms up, hands in a basin of sorts. You lift your head to see more, but wince in pain. “Stop tryin’ ta get up, damn you.” Sevvy said without looking back. “You been out for three days and runnin’ a mighty fever at that too. Don’t be thinkin’ of getting’ away just yet. You gots some explainin’ to do.” And with that, you nod off to sleep, images of ravens and dark forests flooding your dreams.
You awake to Lilith placing a tray of food next to you. You turn your head gently and realize that you are in one of the merchant’s rooms, for you had made the nightstand that sat beside the bed you occupied. You were under deerskin blankets. Duval’s room. You took note that he would most likely take this occasion and “remind” you of it later, when you next pick up rations. Before you could smile, Duval stepped into the room.
“Lilith, yer brother be needin’ yer help down at the camp.” He said with a gruff, but playful tone. “Oh, and do be tellin’ him he owes me a ration o’ his fine work.”
Lilith just smiled, winked and without skipping a beat, said, “Sure thing sir. No problem.” She turned once to face you, gave another wink and twirled around to head out. Smitten she was.
“Now…” Duval said, with the room to himself. “..I reckon we be squared ‘way fer the debt. Seein’ as I took you in and gave you me own supplies fer gettin’ well, I think I owes you nothing now.”
You look up at the man, beard almost touching the bed, and couldn’t help but give a little smile, despite the pain. “Sure thing, Duval. Sure thing.” You finally say. You allow the comment to sink in and watch as Duval mutters something under his breath and nods his goodbyes before backing out of the room.
Later that day, Sevvy and Grapple come in and fill you in of the three days you missed. Apparently the lumber camps have gone back to competing – the north camp boasting larger hauls than the south. The first time in over seven months. Petty Foremen Charn and Delilah. Grapple had found you, just outside the dark forest treeline. The Skeleton’s Closet. How you had come to there was a mystery. Neither Sevvy, Grapple or you could hazard a guess. Aside from fever and headache, you realize that everything else was the same. Your vest pocket still contained the vial; You recall everything about your excursion – the gust of wind, the sheer blackness, and that torchlight. You gather that you must have passed out each time before you awoke to those places – The pitch black chamber and just outside the forest. But why?
You awake with a start, hands on your chest. A nightmare. No, memories. You had begun to remember some of what you experienced in those underground chambers. Not much, but enough that got you thinking. You were never good at figuring things out when you only had some of the pieces. You shift and get out of bed, using the momentum if the movement to help you up to a standing position. A few steps and you gather your belt, with Julianne’s food pack still attached, and headed out the door, in search of Grapple.
“I better let Sevvy know you want to go back there,” Grapple said with a sigh. “besides, she’ll have me hide if I let you go without help. I’d go with ya alone, but iffa she did find us, we’d both get it.” He fidgeted with his smithy apron. “And good too.” He finished.
“Tell her to bring her tinderbox and tools.” You say, referring to Sevvy’s collection of small woodworking hand tools. If she was going to insist on coming, she might as well bring something that might aid them.
When Sevvy and Grapple combined their inventory with yours, you smiled. Two full water-skins, three new axes, a few torches, tinderbox, hand tools, your Helgon bread and general knowledge of the chambers, you felt as prepared as you could be. You would have preferred to acquire a bit more – armor perhaps, but that would draw more than a few raised eyebrows.
Stagmead was a hearty place, the villagers more than able to take care of the little trouble the wildlife threw at them. But this was different. Much different. Even though you told Sevvy and Grapple of your plan to go back into the underground chambers, and that Hemmish knew of the place, letting the general community know that there might be dangerous goings-on underneath them is, well, quite an earful. They’s take not to kindly to that notion. No, It was of good faith that you asked Hemmish not to say anything more about the place so that no one else could get wind of the makeshift group’s plans. Both Sevvy and Grapple were up for helping you, though Grapple admitted to only helping them until they got to the first chambers, where Hemmish uncovered them. You knew that he was going outside his comfort area, and respected him no less when he bid you and Sevvy good luck before retreating back into the village.
Sevvy and you made good headway, and before the moon was at its zenith, you had found the chamber you first had heard, and felt, the warm gust of wind.
“What do we do now, John?” Sevvy asked as she sluffed off her pack and knelt down to retrieve something. “We just sit ’round this here room an’ wait fer somethin’ to happen?”
You, taking a seat next to her, pack in your lap, and tearing off a piece of bread, answer, “Don’t rightly know that, Sevvy. I guess we can at least rest. Won’t hurt any. It’s most likely just after midnight, and we do well and rest up a bit before heading in any further.”
Sevvy takes a piece of bread you offer to here and nods her agreement. After you both finish your meal, you get up and start looking around the chamber for a clue. Something has to be here to explain the gust of wind. You lean against a wall, across from Sevvy, who stands up and regards your perplexed stare.
“What is it, John?” She asks
“Well I’m afraid that I had forgotten about something, but as to the import of it, is eluding me somewhat.” You reply honestly. Then it hits you. Hard. The air! The air almost made Hemmish pass out, and it did just that to you the last time you were here. But it hasn’t done so yet. In fact, you swear that the air is a bit thinner, easier to breath that before.
“Can you breath easy enough, Sevvy. It’s important.”
“Sure, I guess. Why?”
You tell her of the air and what had happened before, and reassuring here that it wasn’t the case now, when you noticed a slight panic in her expression. This night was going to be a long one. What was happening? You patted your vest pocket and thought of something. It meant giving up a potential fortune. You shook away that nagging feeling and went to work, pulling out the vial of pollen. You had to find out what was causing your shifting.