Chapter 91: Into the Grove
The day only got worse as it went on. The rain continued unabated, the forest seemed to be littered with trolls - according to Cernd, there were far more of them around than there should be - and, as they crossed a particularly swampy area, they startled a pair of myconids. The giant fungoids sprayed a spore cloud at Yoshimo before they fled in terror, leaving the Kara-Turan in a state of utter confusion; dazed and glassy-eyed, he drew his katana and charged at Ember, forcing Minsc and Anomen to knock him unconscious to keep him from attacking her.
"'Tis a treacherous place you have brought us to, druid," Anomen grumbled, kneeling beside Yoshimo and checking his head for fractures.
"The beauty of the wilderness can be deceptive," Mazzy said. "Not all is as it seems. I've defeated much that is evil in just such a place."
"Beauty? This?" Edwin sneered, glaring at the rain from deep within the cowl of his overcloak.
"If an apple falls, do you suspect the tree of foul play?" Cernd asked. "The forest does as it must, each part of it playing its role in the greather scheme. The myconids were merely defending themselves. There is no treachery involved; that is the domain of sentient beings."
"Such as Faldorn,"Ember said.
"(If that one can be called sentient at all,) Edwin muttered. "The world would be greatly improved if the shadow druids would take the consequences of the drivel they preach to the fullest, and just kill themselves."
"Yes, Boo, you are right! He is waking up!" Minsc cried, and pointed the tip of his sword at Yoshimo's belly.
The Kara-Turan groaned, moved his arms a little, and blinked a few times before focusing his eyes on the sword. "What happened..?"
"Myconids," Mazzy replied. "Their spores can make you confused and disoriented."
"Boo has to know: does Yoshimo still want to harm little Ember?" Minsc demanded.
Yoshimo rubbed the spot at the back of his head where he'd been struck by the flat of Minsc's blade. "Harm our fearless leader? Why would I want to do... ah, the spores. Rest assured, good Minsc, that I wouldn't dream of it."
"Friend Yoshimo is back!" Minsc beamed, and withdrew his sword. "Hamsters and rangers everywhere, rejoice!"
They encountered the first shadow druids on the outskirts of the grove itself. Two men and a woman, all with matted hair and dressed in ragged, filthy hides, were walking towards them, brandishing rough clubs in a menacing fashion.
"Well, well, look who has come from the sheltered north to join his brothers in the trenches," the foremost of the men said. "Tell me, Cernd, are you here to lecture us?"
"Dalok," Cernd said calmly, and raised a hand in greeting. "What is the meaning of this?"
"We are taking what is ours to retrieve, Cernd," Dalok replied. "We are stripping the invaders of the spoils they rape from the earth! We are doing what is right!" Behind him, the other two druids cheered in agreement.
"But this is not our role," Cernd said, sounding almost as if he were explaining something important to a small child. "Balance is the goal, not slaughter. Trademeet never gouged the land, and yet you besiege it. Gragus would never have allowed this."
"No, he would not, and that is why he is gone. We have a new leader, one that speaks the words we wish to hear. We have a true leader in Faldorn!"
The calm expression slipped from Cernd's face. "She is a Shadow Druid! They are perversions of our calling!"
"The perversion is thinking that civilization and nature can coexist. We have taken steps in the only way we can as protectors of the wood. Faldorn says -"
"I have come to challenge her to the rituals of ascension! She may flout our way, but even she must obey the rules set down ages ago. That is her hold over you, is it not?"
Dalok laughed. "There are those who obey out of fear, perhaps, but some of us can see the truth; her way is better! We fight for nature, we take what we wish from the town fools, and we will stop your feeble attempt to interfere, Cernd!"
"Death to the enemies of nature!" the other man shouted. He charged past their leader towards Cernd, who welcomed him with two precise jabs of his staff.
Behind them, Dalok started to chant a series of low, rumbling words that Ember easily recognized; he was going to call lightning. Raising her staff, she ran towards the other druid. She was only a few steps away from him, almost within striking range, when the creepers and shrubs that covered the ground tangled themselves around her feet, forcing her to fall down onto a mat of twisting plants. Leafy tendrils wound around her wrists and arms, chaining her to the ground as securely as any iron manacle.
She heard Minsc roar with fury, and managed to turn just enough before the plants bound her completely to see the vicious smile on the woman's face. The woman shouted a word, and a thick, wooden vine wormed its way around Ember's throat, where it tightened like a noose. She thrashed wildly, but her arms could barely move at all, much less get near her throat; she tried to breathe, but could only force a tiny sip of air past the chokehold, no matter how much her lungs demanded it. Cold fear, mingled with rage, ran through her as red and black blotches filled her vision.
There was a bright flash as lightning struck - who? - and an acrid smell filled the area. Someone screamed.
"Do not move," Yoshimo said, his voice coming from just above Ember's head. The strangling vine loosened, as did the rest of the plants that had wrapped around her body, starting from her head and continuing down her back. She drew several deep, gasping breaths, but even in the elation of being able to breathe again, she forced herself to not move; the blade of Yoshimo's katana had to be skimming her spine as he cut her free, and even though she didn't notice it at all now, she most certainly would if she moved into its path.
"All done," Yoshimo said, and helped Ember pull her arms and legs out of the mass of enchanted plants. They were still twitching and writhing, eager to trap her again, but their movements lacked direction. Clearing leaves and bits of plant stems from her face, she could see why; the woman who had cast the spell lay face down in a patch of red-tinged mud, all but cut in two. Dalok lay near a cluster of ferns, his neck twisted at a very unnatural angle. The other man was the only shadow druid still alive. He sat propped up against the trunk of a silk willow, and Mazzy stood guard over him.
"Is little Ember all right?!" Minsc asked, an edge of panic in his voice.
"Yes," Ember croaked.
"Allow me, my lady," Anomen said. Reaching out a hand, he gently touched the side of her neck with his fingertips and chanted a minor healing spell. Cool water seemed to flow through her bruised throat, washing away the pain and swelling caused by the chokehold.
"Thank you, Anomen," she said, giving him a slight smile. "What happened with the lightning bolt? All of you are standing; didn't it hit anyone?"
"Oh, it did," Yoshimo said. "Our grand wizard drew the bolt to himself, and it did him no harm. It was quite a sight!"
The grand wizard in question merely grinned proudly and muttered something about not being a rank amateur who'd go unprepared into the lands of insane weather-tampering treehuggers. The ground was singed where he must have stood, but from the looks of it, the lightning hadn't as much as curled a hair of his beard.
"We outnumbered them, and we knew how they might fight. They were unwise to stand against us," Cernd said, looking down at the two dead bodies. "May the earth mother forgive your sins against her children."
"We fought as our mistress commanded us," the injured man muttered, droplets of blood appearing on his lips as he spoke. "I surrender now, to return to the woods and restore the balance..."
"No. Your winter has not yet come," Cernd said. He approached the injured man and said a healing prayer over him. "Take us to Faldorn."
Faldorn was sitting, poised like a queen on her throne, on a large rock at the very heart of the grove. Several other druids stood around her, but none of them moved or spoke any more than the massive trees that surrounded them did. There was an eerie stillness in the air; even the sound of the raindrops seemed muted.
"Boo does not like this," Minsc whispered.
Cernd stepped forward.
"Well, what have we here?" Faldorn sneered disdainfully. "Some fools come to stop the righteous force of nature? Laughable. Say what you must and then we shall purge the earth of your filth."
"I am called Cernd," he started. Faldorn interrupted him.
"Ah, Cernd. I have heard your name before. Come to investigate for the Grand Druid, have you? You may tell him that his way is dead. All that dwell here are now druids of shadow, and he can do nothing."
"We shall see, Faldorn," Cernd replied. "You are not invulnerable just yet, though I sense the filthy ritual you have performed. You drain from the land like some vile parasite."
Faldorn laughed. "You may frown upon the bond, but I am stronger than ever with the aid of this grove. The mother feeds me that I might fight for her!"
"You, or just the animals that you force to attack Trademeet?" Ember asked.
"We must all do our part to cleanse the forest," Faldorn said, giving Ember a scrutinizing glare.
"I remember when you would sooner endanger yourself and anyone with you than risk harm to a single animal. Funny how priorities can change, isn't it?"
"And I remember you," Faldorn said, standing up from the rock. "You said you would kill me if you ever saw me again."
"My lady?" Anomen muttered nervously.
Her face contorting into a snarl, Faldorn lunged at Ember and threw her to the ground, then punched her squarely in the center of her chest. The shadow druid was much stronger now than before, teeming with the life and strength of the grove, and she put all of that strength into the rapid blows she dealt Ember. She landed four solid punches before Minsc and Anomen managed to knock her away; Minsc's sword had torn through the rags Faldorn wore, but it hadn't as much as broken her skin.
Rage filled Ember. Bond or no bond, I'll kill her!
As the other druids moved to restrain Ember's companions, Ember threw herself at Faldorn and grabbed her by the throat, choking her just as she herself had been less than an hour earlier, just as she had done to Faldorn once before. The shadow druid gasped and pummeled Ember's torso with her fists, but Ember kept squeezing. "You still... need air... don't you?" Ember snarled at her enemy. She could all but feel the life of the grove, coursing through Faldorn under her fingers, so close and ready for the taking...
The entire grove seemed to lurch in pain.
Feeling as if she'd been startled awake from a dream, Ember let go of Faldorn and kicked her away from herself. "Do not touch me again!" she yelled at the shadow druid.
"You... are not natural," Faldorn gasped. Was that fear in her eyes?
"Neither are you," Ember growled.
"Enough!" Cernd cried. "Faldorn, you perpetrate gross crimes here! You are unfit! I challenge you, and by the rites laid down ages ago you cannot refuse!"
"What... what makes you think I would wish to refuse?" Faldorn replied, seeming to regain some of her composure. "I took this grove by force, and I shall keep it in the same manner. Did you think I would retreat? Oh no, Cernd, this is your end. Prepare!"
The shadow druid stalked off towards a ramshackle hut, accompanied by three of the other druids. As she reached the hut, she turned and gave Ember a wary glance, then ducked inside and out of sight.
"You have to beat her," Ember muttered to Cernd. She didn't dare think about what might happen if she let the Bhaaltaint near Faldorn again, even within the bounds of a Challenge.
"If the Mother wills it," Cernd replied evenly. "I will do my best."