“Fighting their way through the goblin-infested valley of the pass, the survivors of the doomed Easthaven expedition at last came upon the small hamlet of Kuldahar. Nestled within the roots of a massive oak tree, the tiny cottages were a welcome sight for the weary travelers. As the party approached the town, a warm breeze blew over them, chasing away the chill of the frozen pass and carrying with it the sweet scent of cooking fires.”
“I knew you would come! I knew it!” The high-pitched voice of a young boy met their ears as they trudged tiredly into Kuldahar.
“You knew we were coming?” Elijah asked.
“Yeah! But . . .” the little blonde boy trailed off. “Where’s the rest of the expe . . . esper . . . epsadish . . . army? There’s more of you, aren’t there?”
“No,” Elijah said heavily. “Our expedition was buried by an avalanche when the mountain gave way. We are the only survivors, child.”
“My name’s Nate,” the boy said, plucking at his teal shirt. “You should go see Arundel. I’m sure he’ll want to know you’ve arrived. I’m gonna stay and keep a lookout.”
“Who is Arundel?” Elijah asked.
“He’s the Druid of Kuldahar. He’s my hero — I wanna be just like him when I grow up!”
“We’ll go see him, Nate,” Elijah assured him. “Farewell.”
They headed for the home Nate had pointed out. It was embedded in a mound of earth, sheltered by gigantic roots that were slowly creeping around it. Three stone columns stood guard before it. The group let themselves into the dwelling.
The inside of the druid’s home was tightly packed earth, with planks nailed down for the floor. A writing desk with a squat, burning candle was set up in the corner, and shelves full of books lined the walls. Catti studied the titles next to her, some of which sounded very unlikely for a druid to own, and they ranged from ‘Tankards and Tempers’ to ‘In the Cards’ to ‘Makings of a Monster.’ There were even four volumes of short stories that were all entitled ‘Throne Wars.’ From the ceiling, a large glass globe filled with magical light glowed softly. A curving staircase led up to what was, presumably, Arundel’s bedchambers.
Arundel himself stood beneath the glass orb, arms folded and almost disappearing in the creases of his dun-colored robes. Clay beads, feathers, and twigs were twined artfully in his long white hair.
Elijah was abruptly pushed forward, and as he approached the druid, he realized with considerable relief that Maggie was, for once, exercising restraint by not sneaking up the stairs to loot the place.
“Welcome,” the old man said. “I’ve been expecting you for some time now.”
Elijah let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “You must be Arundel.”
“Yes, I am Arundel. Known to some as the Archdruid of Kuldahar, though I would prefer you simply call me Arundel. Formalities aren’t much use in the North, and these are dark times.”
“Do you know what’s been happening in the mountains?” Elijah asked, then realization struck. “Were . . . were you the one who sent the messenger?”
“Yes, it was I that sent Hallaster to Easthaven, and his death weighs upon my conscience heavily. He was my apprentice, as well as my dear friend. He and the rest that perished will be missed.”
“You know about the avalanche,” Jaruah said flatly. It was a statement, not a question.
“Yes, and I also know it was no accident. Someone, or something didn’t want your expedition to reach Kuldahar alive.” Arundel slipped one wrinkled brownish hand from his robes to rub his temples tiredly.
“There was something on top of the cliff,” Maggie spoke up suddenly. “I called Borg and Killian over to see it when the mountain started to fall.”
Arundel nodded gravely.
“What troubles this town?” Elijah asked. In the shadows that clung to the walls, he could barely make out a halfling-sized shape creeping up the stairs. He sighed. There goes the ‘exercising restraint’ theory.
“Malevolent forces are at work in the mountains that, in turn, affect the Great Oak of Kuldahar. If the tree dies, the town nestled between its roots will die with it.”
“Could you be more specific?” Jaruah probed.
“The source of this evil remains hidden. Only the signs show: the unnatural weather, the recent rash of abductions, and monster sightings in the pass.”
“So, what are we going to do about all this?” Catti asked coolly. “Get ourselves killed for some stupid town? What do we care if Kuldahar wipes itself off the map?”
Elijah turned to face the cleric with a pained look. “Catti, please —”
“Well, she’s right,” Jaruah said bluntly. “It’s not our problem.”
“It’s everyone’s problem!” Elijah said sharply.
Catti and Jaruah began arguing their case, voices rising in pitch and volume. Killian took Elijah’s side. Maggie was not available for comment, and Borg, as always, had his own opinion.
“You’re all out of your minds,” Borg said decidedly. Everyone fell silent and looked at the dwarf. “We’re here for the treasure, and you don’t find treasure lying around town. There’s bound to be some in that pass of his,” he said, indicating Arundel. Catti and Jaruah nodded grudgingly, and Killian looked willing to agree to anything at this point.
Elijah addressed Arundel once more. “What are we going to do?”
“All we’ve worked for will be destroyed if we don’t find out who’s behind it all,” Arundel said ominously. “Investigate the Vale of Shadows. Darkness clings to the floor of the canyon, as though the sun itself is wary of it. There are rumors of ancient crypts awakening after a millenia of silence, and it is said the undead walk the nights.”
“Very well, together we will root out the evil that threatens Kuldahar,” Elijah agreed.
“Good luck, and farewell,” Arundel said, and glided to his desk where a large, blank book lay open. Maggie had already rejoined their ranks with a distinctly disappointed look on her face. As they left, she confided, "Those blasted druids never have any treasure."
The party crossed the bridge, wandering the small town in the early morning hours when only a few townspeople were awake, doing mundane, daily chores. They couldn’t help but notice the snow, creeping into the town like a plague — silently, with no one it affects willing to acknowledge it.
“This place needs —” Jaruah began, but was cut off by a wordless shout as a ragged looking young man ran towards them.
“RUN!” he cried. “The Vale’s filled with yetis! I tried to outrun them, but two are still chasing me! Get help!”
There was a metallic whisper as Jaruah, Elijah, and Killian drew their swords. Catti rolled her eyes and hefted her mace as Borg gripped his axe. Maggie was their sole archer.
The yeti was huge, towering well over them, with shaggy, matted white fur. It advanced with a bear-like roar.
“I know the routine,” Borg said in a mock-bored voice. “Show me a target and I’ll smash it!”
The yeti was harder to kill than any goblin, and the entire party was bloodied up with their own blood, each other’s, or the yeti’s. But they still had to dispatch the other one. It was easier the second time, as they had figured out the yeti’s weak spots and how to work as a team to bring the huge creature down.
As they cleaned their weapons and mopped themselves up, the frightened man hesitantly approached them again.
“My thanks,” he said. “I’m Mirek, and I would have been dead if you hadn’t been here.”
“Why is it that adventurers always have to do everything?” Jaruah muttered under her breath.
“My brother Silas and I make a pilgrimage to pay our respects to our ancestors in the Vale every year, but this time, the Vale seems . . . cursed, somehow. The shadows come alive, and yetis roam the paths, attacking travelers.”
“You said your brother was with you? Where is he now?” questioned Elijah.
An expression of pain and grief came over Mirek’s face as he answered. “Silas didn’t make it. The hugest yeti I’ve ever seen tore him to pieces as I watched. Blood everywhere. He didn’t stand a chance — there was nothing I could do.” He paused for a moment to collect himself in his sorrow. “Silas was also carrying our family heirloom, but it’s lost in the Vale now.”
“We’re going into the Vale tomorrow,” Elijah said. “We could try to find it for you. Where did you lose it?”
“Silas and I took the main path, but the hidden trails are safer,” Mirek explained. “Arundel might know about them. You should talk to him before you leave.”
“We’ve already spoken with him,” Killian said. “He didn’t say anything about hidden paths.”
“Well, if you’d like, I’ll take you,” Mirek offered. “My family moved to Kuldahar when I was about four, so I know a lot about the Vale of Shadows. I can only take you so far, however. That place is creepy, even in daylight. Once you’re inside the tomb, you’re on your own. I’ll meet you right here tomorrow morn, at dawn.
“By the way, you can take any yeti pelts you find to Conlan. He’s the smith, officially; but he’s pretty much a jack-of-all-trades up in these parts. Conlan makes weapons, armor, bows, arrows, and other things that you adventurers are so keen on. He’ll tan the pelts for you, make whatever’s your fancy, or else he’ll just buy them.
“I’ll see you tomorrow morning,” Mirek finished. “Farewell.”
It took the good part of an hour or two to skin the yetis and drag the heavy hides the length of Kuldahar uphill.
“. . . Okay, you open the door and I’ll drag this one inside,” Jaruah told Killian.
“I can’t reach the knob,” Killian said in dismay.
Jaruah rolled her eyes. “Elijah! Open the door!”
“My apologies, Jaruah, but I am otherwise engaged at the moment,” Elijah said, holding one end of a yeti pelt.
“She’s . . .” Elijah trailed off. “She was holding the other end of this pelt. Where did she go?”
“I’m right here, paladin,” Catti said from behind him. She sighed in exasperation and opened the door for them.
The party filed into the shop, maneuvering the yeti furs through the doorway. A sweaty man with shaggy, dark brown hair and sinewy muscles looked up from the forge as they entered. He put down the hammer he had been pounding a sword into shape with and wiped a rag across his face, spreading a thin film of dirt rather than taking it away.
“Welcome, strangers,” he said. His voice was deep, heavily accented, and somewhat mysterious. “What can I do for you?”
“We were told you’re the man to see about these pelts,” Elijah said, dropping the furs. “And also that you can sell us weapons, armor, and the like.”
“Aye, I’m Conlan,” the smith said wearily. “If yer needin’ a sharp blade or stout mace, I’m the man to see. Best take advantage while I’m still here.”
“Are you going somewhere?” Killian asked.
“Aye, I suppose so,” Conlan said, furrowing his brow and glaring at nothing in particular. “With all the skullduggery that’s been goin’ on around here, I imagine I’ll not be around much longer.”
“So you’re leaving town,” Jaruah stated flatly.
"Ha!” Conlan said disgustedly. “I wish that were possible. The southern pass has long since been snowed in by all this damnable weather we’ve been having lately. Now I hear tell that the northern route has been completely blocked by an avalanche. Mark my words; none of us will last through this winter. We’re all done for.”
“I, for one, have no intention of leaving until I am satisfied there is no threat to Kuldahar,” Elijah said firmly. Killian nodded in agreement, but Catti and Jaruah just rolled their eyes. Borg was staring at Maggie, who was in turn staring interestedly at a cabinet behind Conlan.
“Hmph!” Conlan huffed. “I didn’t expect you to understand. You’re all southerners; you don’t know how much we’ve suffered. Not even Arundel can protect us anymore, however much he talks as though he can.”
“We’ve spoken to Arundel. He seems to think this evil stems from the Vale of Shadows,” Elijah said. He spotted Maggie moving fluidly towards the cabinet before disappearing behind it.
“Vale of Shadows, eh?” Conlan said, nodding slightly. “That doesn’t surprise me. That place reeks of evil, if you ask me. Most folks in town avoid it like the plague. Those that wander off in that direction are never heard from again.”
Jaruah snorted. “Gee, that’s encouraging. What can you give us for these yeti pelts?”
They haggled for several minutes. Soon enough, they managed to collect five hundred gold for each yeti fur, and after selling the various weapons and shields gathered into the Bag of Holding from the goblins, the party took their gold and headed for the nearest tavern: The Root Cellar.
Notes: Thanks goes out to Weyoun, Laufey, Lord E, and Oryx for allowing me to mention their novels/novellas in this chapter.
VII. That's Some Big Oak Tree
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