Chapter 84: Into Darkness
The tracks left behind by Merella and her adventurer companions led straight into the forest to the north of Imnesvale. It was a very old forest, dominated by massive oak and beech trees that had spent centuries stretching skywards, creating a dense canopy that didn't allow much light to pass through. There was little undergrowth and few young trees except in the occasional spot where one of the older trees had died or been uprooted, tearing a hole in the dark green forest roof with its absence.
The gloominess of the forest intensified the deeper Ember and her friends went into it, aided by a low fog that crept in between the trees, chilling the air and blocking out even more of the light. Wreaths of mist draped themselves around the branches, and water droplets gathered on armor, clothing, and exposed skin. Ember wiped moisture from her cheek with her hand, and stared at her wet palm. It was just water, completely harmless, but there was something deeply unnerving about this midday fog, especially since it'd been a perfectly fine, sunny morning when they left Imnesvale.
"This fog... is not normal," Valygar said.
"No, it's not," Ember muttered. The entire forest seemed empty, somehow, as if there was nothing in it but the trees, the fog, and themselves. It made her skin crawl.
"Such a darkened glade could hide horrors of all manner," Anomen said, eyeing the trees suspiciously. "We must watch our backs!"
"Boo heartily agrees! There could be spiders, or ankhegs, or even basilisks! Anything could be lurking around the next corner!" Minsc sounded almost cheerful at the prospect of running into something.
"The woods have no corners," Edwin snapped. "(I am surrounded by imbeciles!)"
"Edwin, you have a manner that makes each of us feel beautiful and appreciated," Yoshimo said lightly, and approached Minsc. "Come, my friend, and lead the way. My skills may be of little use here, but you will spy anything that might approach us, no?"
Minsc laughed happily. "Evil cannot hide in fog forever! Not when Minsc and Boo have eyes and ears and a big sword ready for them!"
By mid-afternoon, it was almost as dark as it should be around nightfall. Even with one of Edwin's magelights, it was difficult to see anything that was much more than ten feet away; their only consolation was that the densest part of the strange fog never descended below the level of the treetops. Ember was about to suggest they start looking for a campsite when Valygar raised his hand and quietly called for a halt.
The sound of crackling leaves and snapping twigs came out of the gloom ahead of them. They hurried towards the noise, trying not to stumble over roots and fallen branches as they ran. Something moved in the darkness, shuffling along the forest floor, then stopped.
It was a giant wolf, more than twice the normal size, with a ragged coat of brown and grey fur. It had the gaunt look that so many of the wolves on the sword coast had had the previous year, but unlike those starved creatures, it did not lunge at them; instead, it stood perfectly still and regarded them warily, as if it was assessing them. It stood crouched over a human body, which it appeared to be dragging through the woods. Parts of the corpse's torso had been ripped away and more than likely eaten.
"Vile creature!" Anomen cried. With a start, the wolf came to life and ran off in a loping gait, leaving the body behind; it would have escaped easily if not for Edwin, who sent a volley of magic missiles after it. The spell struck the wolf's hind quarters, and it fell to the ground in a graceless, whimpering tangle of limbs. A ripple ran through its fur; moments later, a naked woman, emaciated and with painful-looking burns on her back and thighs, lay where the wolf had fallen.
"Man-things!" the woman snarled. "Curse you and curse the world! Let me have my last meal in peace!"
"Wolfwere," Valygar said, drawing his katana. "You and your kin have preyed upon the innocent for the last time."
The woman barked out a harsh laugh. "My kin? Hah! No longer, fool. They have fallen to the shadows. Your hunting has gone awry."
"I suppose it was the shadows, then, and not you who ate from that corpse you were dragging with you?" Edwin asked sardonically.
The mottled brown and grey hair at the back of the woman's neck bristled. "I speak the truth."
"Explain yourself," Valygar said. "What do you know of these shadows?"
"The forest was not always like this. All was well until a few tendays ago, when the skies darkened at high noon. The pack gathered so that I might calm them, but I knew no more than they. Then, a man made of shadow came among us. My wolves froze in terror at the sight of him. I changed form and leapt at his darkness, but he merely laughed at my attack. He brushed me aside as easily as a leaf, and killed my wolves, my children, one by one with a single touch... and once they were all dead, his darkness reached out to the corpses of my children and animated them as shade wolves." A low, keening sound, somewhere between a sigh and a howl, escaped her throat. "Numb with terror and sorrow, I ran."
"This is not right!" Minsc cried. "Wolves are meant to be wolves, not shadows! Even Boo agrees about the rightness of that and the wrongness of this!"
"Didn't one of the villagers say that her child was talking about shadows in the woods?" Ember asked Valygar. He nodded.
"Is it these shade wolves, then, who have brought terror to the village of Imnesvale?" Anomen asked. Ember noticed that the squire was staring at a point somewhere above the naked woman's shoulder, even as he addressed her.
"Yes," the woman said. "As we were, we would never attack man-things except to defend. Your flesh is not to our taste."
Edwin looked pointedly at the dead body.
"That man was dead when I found him. I took his body only to gather strength to face the shadow man."
"You wish to confront him again? Dangerous business, that," Yoshimo said. "I fear you won't fare better than the first time."
"It matters not. He has taken my family and my home from me. There is nothing left for me but revenge. Will you stand in my way?"
Valygar shook his head. "No. We will come with you, and confront this shadow creature."
"Yes!" Minsc roared. "The shining blades of goodness must be raised against him!"
Ember kneeled down beside the woman and said a prayer of healing over the burns caused by Edwin's spell. Lines of pain smoothed away from the woman's face as the wounds faded away.
"I thank you," the woman said.
"Do you have a name?" Ember asked gently.
The woman looked at her with large, yellow wolf eyes. "You may call me Anath."
The group shared their food supplies with Anath, who eagerly devoured everything they gave her, even dried fruit. While the wolfwere ate, they dug a makeshift grave for the dead man under the roots of a toppled tree. There was a signet ring on the man's right hand; Anomen bent down and gingerly removed it just before they covered the body with a mix of fallen branches, dead leaves and dirt. "If Helm wills it, we may perchance bring news of his fall to his family," the cleric said somberly, turning the ring over in his hand.
They rested for a couple hours in Anath's cave, and set out again long before dawn; in this forest, there was no point in waiting for the sunrise. "The ruins of an ancient temple lay to the east of the den," Anath told the group. She had spent the night as a wolf, but had changed into a human again in order to talk; as a concession to her companions' modesty, she wore Ember's cloak draped around her. "It was holy ground once, but now it is fouled, and the ruins have long been a place of foreboding to my pack. We do not- did not go there." She growled quietly, as if the very thought of the place was unpleasant. "A few days before the darkness came, we heard muted rumblings that seemed to come from the ruins. It sounded like falling rocks; we paid the noise little heed. But the shadow man came from that direction, and when I have seen the... the shadows of my flock, they have also come from the same place."
"So, we will seek them there first," Yoshimo said.
"Yes." Anath handed the borrowed cloak back to Ember. "Follow me closely," she said, then reverted to her wolf form. She sniffed the air carefully, looked back at the group as if to reinforce her order to follow her, and headed eastwards into the forest.
Less than an hour passed before the group saw Anath's former wolves for the first time. As they walked along a rough path formed by the bed of a long-gone stream, a series of strange, echoing howls rang out from the woods ahead of them. Anath stopped in her tracks, and snarled at the trees. Moments later, a half dozen shadowy forms bounded towards them, all headed straight for the wolfwere.
"No!" Minsc bellowed, and ran towards the shade wolves. "You will not," he kicked one of them away from Anath, "attack," he raised his sword, "the wolf lady!" With a fierce roar, he brought his blade down on one of the shade wolves, cutting it in half. Ember used her staff to knock another shade wolf off its feet; Anath lunged at it and somehow ripped its throat out with her teeth.
Suddenly, a white light surrounded them; as one, the shade wolves turned to stare at Anomen. The Helmite had raised his hand, and seemed to be holding a sphere of pure light. The shade wolves trembled as if in pain, and hissed at him.
"In Helm's name, begone!" Anomen shouted. The light in his hand brightened, and the shade wolves melted away to nothingness.
"(Why should I have to light our way when he can do that?)" Edwin muttered, quenching an almost-cast spell by closing his fists.
"Ah, but you make it look so easy, o mighty wizard," Yoshimo said, giving Edwin his broadest grin.
Ember hurried towards Anomen, who was leaning against a tree and breathing deeply. "Not as easy... as skeletons," he told her, panting. "A stronger will... binds them to this plane. I am well, my lady; please, attend to Anath."
Yalygar and Minsc were already inspecting the wolfwere. Other than a few scratches on her snout and a shallow gash on her left flank, she was unharmed, and a small healing spell was enough to set her right again.
"Minsc is very sorry about the little wolf lady's friends," Minsc told Anath. The wolfwere gave him a mournful look and howled once, then shook herself thoroughly and started down their makeshift path again.
Two hours laters, after destroying two more groups of shade wolves, they finally reached the temple ruins. The ruins looked old, old beyond imagining; there was almost nothing left but a jumble of broken rocks, an uneven, lichen-encrusted marble floor with several holes in it, and a few crumbling walls and pillars. One of the largest holes seemed to be created by an entire slab falling out of position, and a lower level of the temple was visible through the gap. A faint ray of light shone upwards through one of the smallest holes.
The area immediately around the hole with the ray was the only part of the temple grounds that was not utterly swarming with shadows and shade wolves.
With an enraged snarl, Anath rushed into the temple grounds, flinging herself at one of the shade wolves. Within moments, she was buried under a writhing, growling mass of shadowy wolf bodies.
Moving as one, the rest of the shadow creatures slowly turned towards Ember and her friends.
The fight was not going well, Edwin thought grimly as he sent several flame bolts into the mass of shadows. The boorish Helmite's fancy pyrotechnics were not enough to deal with this many undead spirits; apparently, all he could do without completely exhausting himself was keep the raving horde from charging them all at once. Edwin was tempted to suggest that the cleric would be more useful if he'd just grab his hammer and swing at the shadows like everyone else was doing, but he wasn't entirely sure he wanted to see what would happen if Anomen stopped trying to repulse the undead. (After all, there were advantages to not being attacked by a dozen of those things at once.)
He flung a volley of magic missiles at one of the shades. The blazing spheres were perfectly reflected in the surface of a pillar that stood beside the faint beam of light.
With a brief gesture, Edwin sent his magelight towards the pillar (it wasn't as if they needed it where they stood, with Anomen showing off). The pillar's surface was metallic, slightly curved and perfectly smooth.
He directed the magelight to the base of the mirror. There appeared to be some kind of mechanism there (yes, of course!) that allowed the mirror to be repositioned. It looked as though it might still work, even though he couldn't see any reason to-
Edwin looked at the beam of light, then at the mirror, then at the light again.
He grabbed the shoulder of the closest person, who happened to be Yoshimo. "You!" he said. "Do you see that mirror?"
"Mirror? I... Ah, yes, I see it."
"Do you think you could get to it?"
"I am Yoshimo!" the Kara-Turan said, as if such a silly statement was an answer. "But why?"
"If my deductions are correct (and they usually are), the mirror can be moved to reflect the light. The very light, I might add, that these shadows are avoiding."
"I understand," Yoshimo said. "Cover me."
Edwin blazed a path towards the mirror with a jet of flame. The Kara-Turan sprinted up the trail and stopped just beyond the beam of light. A few shadows followed him, but they stopped in front of the beam, hissing and snarling. Edwin threw a few magic missiles at them just as Yoshimo reached out to adjust the mirror, letting it catch the faint rays that came from the ground.
Within moments, the shadows and shade wolves were incinerated by a flash of brilliant golden light.
The shade creatures were all destroyed. Edwin was walking around the strange mirror, which was still glowing faintly, and was muttering about how fascinating it was.
Minsc sat crouched over Anath's body, sobbing. The wolfwere was dead; the shadows of her children had torn her to pieces.
"Why did the pretty wolf lady do that?" Minsc asked plaintively. "Why? Boo does not understand!"
"I don't know," Ember said quietly. "Maybe she panicked. Maybe the sight of them all was too much for her." Maybe she just wanted to die.
"We must avenge her! We must bring light to her little ones, and put the shadow man in front of the candle of justice!"
Ember squeezed his hand. "We will."
After wrapping Anath's remains in Ember's cloak and carrying them out of the temple grounds, the group slowly, carefully, made their way down through the largest hole and into the ruined temple itself.