The Hall of the Wood: Excerpt 1

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In this scene, our heroes have left the last bastion of civilization behind and are plunging deep into the Simarron Woods with hopes of unraveling the mystery of the missing King's Patrollers. Others have gone before them. None have returned. This is an immersive scene I hope you enjoy.

The familiar gray haze gave way for a time. In its wake was a forest still heavy with shadows but lit by rays of sunshine filtering through the woodland's canopy to touch the lichen-embellished forest floor. There, chipmunks scurried about, popping their heads up briefly before dashing off in search of food. Ash made a play for them several times, but came up short each time. The Simarron's great oaks, their thick, ancient trunks marked with green and brown moss, spread their leafy branches in wide circles above them, wrapping the travelers in a feeling of serenity and security. Birds flew back and forth across the road. There seemed nothing untoward about the woods, and they each wondered if the strange stories and happenings were all some sort of misunderstanding. But as they traveled into late afternoon and the light from the sun began to dim, they noticed a subtle change in the forest. The wildlife disappeared, and an unnatural silence took hold. The trees grew gray and spotted, as if diseased. Even the air seemed thicker, somehow palpable and foul, as if they swam through rank water.

"What do you sense, sorcerer?" Kayra asked from atop Aurum.

The group stopped, and Murik moved to the head of the line. He paused, concentrating for a moment as he moved his hand in a wide arc before him.

"I sense … Darkness. Its flagrant taint is plain."

"Can you tell how—or what—has happened?" Jerrick asked, pointing to the unhealthy trees.

"No. But I am confident what we see here will only grow worse as we move closer to the source this corruption springs forth from."

"Do you think … Could the Hall be the source?" Holly asked.

Murik shook his head. "There is no way to tell presently."

Standing in silence, they each studied the forest, as if reluctant to continue.

"Perhaps a break is a good idea," Kayra suggested. "We can pick up the road for another hour or so afterwards."

All agreed, and they unfastened packs, sat, and pulled out waterskins and rations. Billard had provisioned them with dried fruit, nuts, salt pork, cheese, goat's milk, and bread—enough food to last them a good two weeks or more. Holly unstoppered a skin filled with goat's milk and took a long draft. The cool liquid had only just poured into her mouth when she spit it out, her face contorting in disgust.

"It's sour!"

Everyone looked at her.

"The milk—it's sour!" she repeated, louder this time.

Murik unstoppered his own supply and sniffed. He took a turn displaying his own displeasure, then said, "Mine, too."

Kayra checked hers also and concurred. "That's not possible. I had some before we left. The milk was fine."

Jerrick drew his sword in a smooth, quick motion, then handed the mule's lead to Holly. "All of you, stay here." He looked to the knight, whose hand was already at the hilt of her sword. "I mean it."

Without another word or gesture, Jerrick plunged into the forest, disappearing behind the wall of trees. Ash followed in silence. Only a few minutes passed before both he and Ash returned. The fur on the dog's back stood on end, and his eyes drifted back into the forest on more than one occasion.

"Grekkels," Jerrick said as he returned his sword to its sheath.

"How many?" Kayra asked, her own sword drawn now. "Did you see them?"

"No, but I saw their tracks. Couldn't have been more than a handful. The spot where the tracks ended reeked of brimstone."

"Teleportation," Murik said. "Line of sight only, but they could be anywhere by now."

"Agreed. I took a look around, but there was no sign of them. No way to tell what direction they headed, either."

"At least we know why the milk soured," Kayra said.

"Yes," Murik said. "That is just one of the ill effects of their presence."

"What—what do you think they were doing here?" Holly asked.

"Just watching us," Jerrick said. "Seeing what we're about. One thing's for certain, though. If grekkels have made it this far into the Simarron, then others of their kind—imps, haureks, and gaugaths—won't be far behind."