The Midnight Tree - Part 3 AKA The EVIL TREE OF DEATH or WHY DID WE COME BACK TO THIS HORRIBLE PLACE The Midnight Tree was as big as she remembered. No, even bigger. It towered over them. Arian couldn’t believe they were here again, but the others had sworn to empty it of evil. She hoped they were ready. They had a plan and it all hinged on Gorlock’s newly summoned imp. The creature, Limpy, had flown just above the warlock’s head all the way to the tree with no problems but now that they were there, something seemed to be wrong with it. It was tearing at it’s own skin and whirling around in the air like it was trying to get away from itself. Suddenly, an ethereally beautiful but strangely translucent woman was sitting on a tree root right next to them. She gleamed. She shook a disapproving finger at Gorlock. “No summoning demons and devils, m'kay? The big boss is kinda cross!” “Master?” The warlock sounded both awed and cowed. “Mistress Avery?” “We're giving you something more appropriate.” Out of the imp emerged a small angelic figure, Limpy’s skin falling away and vanishing in a small puff of smoke. “Yoohoo! Hi there!” said the sprite, her voice like a tinkling bell. “An angel…?” asked Greeba. “Tiffany is much better at hiding and sneaking around. No poison stinger tail, but you can't have everything, right?” Avery, Gorlock’s pact mistress, looked fondly at the tiny sprite shimmering this way and that. “Hi, Tiffany,” said Gorlock, sounding resigned. “Can this sprite carry the rope over the branch?” asked Greeba. Tiffany did circles around the half-orc’s head. “Sure I can! I can go invisible, too! And I'm sneaky!” “Can you annoy people?” asked Xarius. “I mean, to distract them.” “I can be very annoying!” As if to prove the point, Tiffany flew right up to the sorcerer’s nose and flicked the tip of it. Xarius nodded and backed up. The angelic woman was fading away. She gave a parting wave to Gorlock and then was gone, back to whatever celestial realm she had stepped out of. Thibault let out a low whistle. “Does Avery have a sister?” "I must say, Paladin, that you are not at all what I thought a paladin would be." Arian cleared her throat. "I mean, from the stories." She’d always thought they were very…chaste. But Thibault was the first she had ever met. Perhaps all men were like this. She hoped she hadn’t offended him with the question. “I am a funny Paladin,” said Thibault with a smile and a small bow. " Oh! Oh! And the best thing!" Tiffany was positively buzzing as she careened off to circle around Gorlock’s head. “Yes, Tiffany,” he said, sounding even more resigned. "The Big Boss made it so that when icky stuff happens, you can resummon me for free! " she beamed. "You just need a short rest to refresh the power!" That brought a rare smile to the warlock’s face. “Excellent,” he said, clapping his hands together. “It’s an honour to meet a celestial being,” said Eamon, in Tiffany’s own tongue. Arian started. She hadn’t realised the monk spoke celestial too. She joined him in greeting the sprite. “Pleased to meet you, Tiffany,” she said, but in the common tongue. “You too, Arian! Now, about this rope…” She took hold of an end of the rope. “I can fly up there invisible, but I can't make the rope invisible! I'll do my best, but if icky stuff happens before I can get it over the branch... please don't be cross!” “No problem, Tiffany,” said Gorlock. “Just be… quiet , okay?” Arian whispered to Xarius, "The sprite is surprisingly adorable." Torgin giggled, Arian wasn’t sure at what – the sprite’s good nature or her comment. Tiffany took the end of the rope and flew upwards on gossamer wings, turning invisible as she ascended. “Good luck, Tiff,” whispered Gorlock after her. “You don’t see that every day,” said Torgin, still beaming. Tiffany looped the rope around a great branch on the ceremonial platform above them and flew back down to join them. “Made it!” she chirruped. Greeba tugged the end of the rope. It didn’t budge. “Thank you, Tiffany! Well done!” Arian had the sudden urge to give the sprite a cookie and had to stop herself from dipping her hand into her bag. “There's just one nasty crow-thing up there! It didn't see me!” “Well done, Tiff,” said Gorlock. Arian wondered if he felt the urge to give her a cookie too. They had a brief but spirited discussion about who should go up first and with what weapon readied. Torgin volunteered, attempted to hold his shield in his teeth to prove his readiness, and then dropped it on his toe. Greeba pushed him gently out of the way and began climbing, leaving the dwarf to hold the rope steady. Thibault followed her up the robe, moving slowly so as not to clank too severely. He barely made the climb, while Greeba shimmied up the rope with both stealth and grace. Arian took the rope from Torgin so he could climb up next. Above, Greeba found herself on an oval platform built directly on one of the tree’s massive branches. A large wicker chair, decorated with glossy black feathers and beadwork, sat at the far end of the platform. A pair of unlit cast iron braziers flanked it. A single kenku sentry patrolled the platform. He turned, his beak dropping open in surprise at Greeba’s sudden appearance. Greeba threw her javelin at the guard. Tiffany, sent by Gorlock, suddenly appeared over the guard’s head, distracting him even further. Down below, Gorlock whispered, “Stay alive, Tiff, be careful.” “Eamon, do you wish to follow the dwarf, or shall I?” asked Arian. “I’ll do it. Got to keep Torgin safe,” said the monk, and began climbing after the dwarf. Arian nodded, wondering at the strange but wonderful relationship between the monk and dwarf. And Torgin looked to need the help, as he suddenly stopped climbing and clung to the rope, perhaps struck with a sudden bout of vertigo. Arian tried to keep the rope as steady as she could, but it swayed a bit under the weight of the dwarf and monk. "Torgin, are you okay?" she whisper-hissed, seeing Torgin stalled half way. “Eamon, perhaps you can give him a boost? Is he afraid of heights, perchance?" Red-faced, the dwarf muttered a dwarvish curse and waved a hand at them. “Don’t worry, Torgin, I’ll catch you if you fall,” said Eamon, though Arian wasn’t sure how he’d accomplish that when they were both clinging to the rope. “Er, thank you, mother, but hopefully it won’t come to that,” said Torgin. Above, Thibault had reached the platform as well. He rushed at the kenku with his sword swinging, taking it down with one blow. “Yes!” Greeba whispered, fist pumping. She looked around. Everything seemed quiet. No other guards came running and there wasn’t a sound other than the whistles and chirps of the birds that lived in the tree. Greeba went to the edge of the platform and motioned for the rest of them to climb up. With that bit of encouragement, Torgin made it, followed by everyone else. Arian inspected the dead kenku guard. He wore just a motley collection of ill-fitting rags, though the feathers underneath were soft and sleek. It carried only a short blade, but she took it, and the small amount of coin in a money pouch to share with the others later. She followed as Greeba and Thibault led them down the steps and into the tree. They soon came to an intersection, with a tunnel to the left winding up and the main one descending down. “I think it's better to go up, strategically, what do you say, Torgin?” asked Thibault. “Erm…” Torgin looked from the paladin to the berserker. “Aye, boss.” He shrugged. “I usually do below ground work.” They clustered in the hall, debating about which way would be better to go – down, and closer to a possible exit should the need for one arise, or up, as they had only gone up just a fraction of the height of the tree. Finally, Gorlock sent an invisible Tiffany to scout. She turned invisible and first went down. She came back and popped into visibility with a sparkle. “Ok, lots of nasty bird things that way! At least five! What now?” “Are they sleeping?” Greeba sounded hopeful. “They’re awake! Guards!” said Tiffany. “Hmmm,” said the half-orc. “Can the sprite scout up now, please?” Tiffany’s wings shimmered and shook just a bit. Torgin squinted at her. “I think the fairy is a wee bit worried.” “I just hate it when I get all crumply-dumply!” said Tiffany with big eyes. Torgin cocked his head, confused. “Don’t get crumply!” said Gorlock. “And being re-summoned gives me motion sickness!” Arian was confused too. “Crumply-dumply? Is that a type of dessert?” Tiffany flew over to her. “You know—crumpled! And dumpled!” “Stay invisible and go slowly,” said Gorlock patiently. “I’ll check the up-way now?” The sprite still looked a bit concerned, but went, and returned to them even quicker this time. “A big one!” she said. “He nearly detected me!” She was shaking just the tiniest bit. “For a moment he was crooking his head like he thought he saw something….” “He’s bound to be smarter than the others,” said Arian. “He looked like he was guarding two doors! And he had a big glowy spear!” Thibault nodded. “Let’s attack him first and somebody can guard the doors in case the other guards come up?” Tiffany had calmed down now and perched herself on Gorlock’s shoulder. “One of the doors was very nice! All kinds of carvings! I bet these rotters didn’t make them!” “Can the wee faerie keep watch while we attack?” asked Torgin. “Certainly,” said Gorlock, and give Tiff a tiny pat on the back. She grinned and saluted. Arian couldn’t help herself. She took a sugar cube from her bag and handed it to the sprite. “Yummy!” said Tiff, popping the whole thing in her mouth and crunching it. “This Plane isn’t so bad!” “Oh, sugar? Rather than meat?” Greeba raised an eyebrow, like she couldn’t imagine any such thing. "She's so sweet, I assumed she must sup upon dew and sugar." "You should see my real form up in Heaven though! I'm like a giant burning wheel across the sky!" They all just nodded, wordlessly, except for Wisteria. “Sounds glorious and powerful!” said the elf. “Well, I am sweet too, yet I almost exclusively sup on bloody slabs of meat,” said Greeba. None of the rest of them argued this point. On they went, but the ravenfolk guards had sharp ears as they tried to sneak by. “Intruders!” shouted one. Torgin, who had somewhat anticipated this as soon as he’d heard his armour go clank , rushed at the kenku, trying to use the table as cover. He swung, but missed. Thibault used a javelin, striking one kenku. Gorlock attempted to blast the same one, but it dodged. Arian cast frostbite upon the kenku closest to the dwarf, hoping to both distract and injure it. “ Heehee ,” giggled Torgin, “Are you cold, crow?” Thibault wondered at the dwarf. How could he laugh, when he was surrounded? Indeed, the kenku had collected themselves and they all stabbed at the dwarf, most of them managing to find their mark. Torgin fell to his knees and then flat upon his face, half-rolling under the table. “Torgin! Noooo! Not again!” cried Eamon. The monk practically flew across the room to launch his attack and Greeba joined him, taking down one of the kenku with a mighty blow from her Warhammer. “Wisteria!” cried Arian, “The dwarf is down!” Wisteria grimaced. “If he's so keen to walk down Myrkul's halls, who am I to stop him? I'll stabilise him, but this is the last time I'm stepping in.” She cast Spare the Dying upon the dwarf and Torgin slipped into a restful slumber. Then she cast Toll the Dead and the low clang of a bell rang out, but the kenku shrugged it off. Xarius cast magic missile, three balls of energy flying out, each one finding their mark on a different kenku. One dropped immediately, the others cawed angrily. Gorlock cast healing light upon the snoring dwarf and then blasted the kenku closest to Thibault. Torgin awoke with a start, staring bewildered at the table above him and wondering exactly how he came to be on the floor under a table without any drink in him. Arian took the opportunity to cast infestation on the kenku crouched between Eamon and Thibault. The bird-creature suddenly found himself infested with fleas and jumped to the side, scratching frantically. Thibault grinned at the sight, but it was the kenku’s turn to strike and one of them landed a blow squarely upon Eamon. The monk immediately responded in kind, taking down the kenku that had struck him. Xarius cast magic missile again and brought down another kenku, leaving just one standing. Torgin, underneath the table, grabbed the bird’s feet and pulled him to the ground, surprised. They wrestled on the ground, the kenku trying unsuccessfully to stab the dwarf. Eamon, freshly healed by Thibault, leaped into the fray, punching the last kenku until its skull fractured and it collapsed. They all took a breath, only to be interrupted by a shrill warning from Tiffany: “Incoming!! They heard it! The guard is knocking on the fancy door behind him!” They only had a small bit of time to get in a little healing and to ready themselves when two large kenkus burst into sight for those closest to the tunnel. Greeba immediately threw a javelin, but was unable to distract the leader, Chief Keeak from casting Insect Plague. Nearly everyone was suddenly caught in a flurry of biting bloodthirsty insects as they crept and flew to fill a space twenty foot around. They crawled upon their victims, biting and tearing at everyone’s flesh. Even those that had the presence of mind to swat at the swarm, were badly wounded. Thibault, Wisteria and Gorlock fell immediately while Arian, Xarius, Greeba and Torgin were hanging by a thread. Only Eamon had been missed by the attack, and the monk looked on with both horror and revulsion. The room was black with insects; the walls looked like they were moving. Eamon grabbed Gorlock and got him out of the swarm. He opened a door to a room off the side, happily empty of kenku, and ran inside. Greeba, on the other side of the swarm, bodily picked up Thibault and made for the ceremonial platform. Arian swept off some of the insects, cast healing word upon Gorlock, then dragged Wisteria into the room with Eamon, cursing in elvish all the while, and hoping to be forgiven for the foul language later. A hatred burned within her for the kenku. How evil they were! Gorlock, revived a bit after some healing and his head clear after being pulled out of the swarm, runs to Wisteria and casts cure wounds upon the cleric. She woke, feeling at least half herself. “ Unngghhh , I was, walking with Myrkul...” she mumbled. There was a loud CAWWW! “There is no escape! Surrender and we shall be merciful!” “How merciful?” called Eamon. Arian shook her head. She did not believe these foul creatures knew the meaning of the word. “A fair ransom!” called the kenku back. “RUNNNNNNNN,” bellowed Greeba, making herself heard over the insistent buzz of the insects still crawling everywhere. “How much is the ransom? I’m willing to negotiate,” said Eamon. Arian stared at him. “Eamon, you have your health & perhaps some gold -- I have neither.” “We will assess ransom based on your value!” called the Chief. His caw was mocking. “I will pay you all of my money and a promise that as long as I live I will never return. You have my word,” said Eamon. “We already have your money! CAAW !” Was the kenku laughing? “Surrender or die now!” Outside, Greeba slung Thibault over her shoulder and began abseiling down the rope. Torgin went after them and, unlike his hesitation on the way up, he practically flew down. A kenku chased after him. Eamon ran as fast as the wind, not even bothering with the rope. Inside, they all began to run South and down. Arian cast a bit of healing on herself first, sure she would fall if she didn’t. As they ran, the Chief dispelled the remnants of the swarm, but they didn’t even look back to see. They just ran. But ahead of them, two kenku guards appeared, blades raised. Xarius blasted one of them into oblivion with his last magic missiles. The smell of burning feathers filled the air. Arian had had enough. A growl began in the back of her throat and grew into a rumble as she shapeshifted for the first time in battle to a large, shaggy white arctic wolf. She sprang for the remaining kenku, not even flinching as the blade he had readied pierced her. She bit at him, shaking her head from side to side, trying to rend his flesh from his bones. The sharp tang of blood filled her mouth. She finally stopped when no more sound came from him. She dropped his body, feathers and blood dripping from her mouth. She turned to see the Chief enter the room. She glared at him and bared her teeth, spitting out a bloody feather. She wanted nothing more than to rip the nasty kenku apart.