Something is Brewing at Blight Lagoon
“They walk in our jungle to take what is sacred to us.”
“I see them enter the edge of our lands, making a path for themselves. They use their magic to bend the will of our jungle, their weapons take the life of any who oppose them. The scales of my body cannot hide the color of anger when they walk on the earth from which our trees grow.”
The tribe’s elders and warriors gather closer to hear CopperTongue’s story. “This time, they come to steal the shining plants at the Great Mother’s Lagoon,” he adds.
“They are not ours, to begin with.” calls one of the elders.
“Have our brothers not given their lives for the Great Mother?” the young leader counters. “Are we not the protectors of her temple home? Do we not shed blood to protect her blessed plants from other tribes?! Why should we treat outsiders any differently?”
The embers crackle and dance into the night sky, their brilliance lasts but a moment.
“The guild warned us the lizardfolk that inhabit these lands are hostile.” The minotaur’s usually echoing voice falls short, hindered by a wall of leaves and vines.
“C’mon Kofe. Are you really worried about a few grass-wearing, swamp-breathed reptiles?” answers a grinning, hooded ranger. His crossbow is trained ahead to the edge of his eyesight, his ears open to any sound made by thinking, breathing life.
“Mi’lord, I’m your ordained guardian. I’m supposed to worry for your safety. Our God would not be pleased if I fail in defending you,” Kofe calmly intones, his eyes rolling as he clears the path they walk.
“Shhh! Something is coming our way. To the east! We are not the ones to attack first, Kofe.” The guardian’s elven liege points in their new acquaintance’s direction. The duo ready their weapons.
“Mi’lord, watch my back. I’ll take the front!” Kofe feels the young lord’s acknowledging tap behind his shoulder, just as the faint rustling in the east turns into what seems like a stampede thundering towards them.
Kofe casts Thaumaturgy and an echoing below escapes his throat. “Show yourself and do not dare raise your weapon against me or you will know my God’s wrath!” Leaves and branches in the surrounding area rattle, forced afloat by his thunderous chorus, and even the ancient trees know it is no mere threat. The enigmatic enemy however does not respond and continues to crash through the foliage toward them.
A whispered command catches the minotaur’s ear. “Make way if it’s a passing beast. If it speaks, stay your weapon but be ready to defend yourself.”
In this moment, the minotaur’s black hair starts to rise as if electrified. His body hardens, his arms emboldened by a mastered rage shaped by the gladiatorial pit and the path of a cleric. His body is fueled as in fights of his youth, but his mind is now calmed by the wisdom of his deity.
Kofe raises his master-crafted halberd adorned from hilt to blade by runes and litanies of their God, ready to defend his liege.
Towering antlers shadow even Kofe’s full form as a giant stag breaches the vegetation; surging through roots and vines with its head tilted forward as if intertwined in a duel. The guardian plants his feet and readies a swing, but the beast stops just outside his reach. It snorts and steadies itself, raising its head as if a king before his subjects to reveal two figures saddled on its back.
“Halt, you who tread in our sacred land,” demands one of the riders. The horned guardian does not answer but, true to his liege’s command, he half-lowers his weapon.
The speaker holding the stag’s reins is an elven woman bearing a spear and piercing eyes. Behind her sits a pale-skinned lizardfolk holding a long blowpipe aimed at Kofe, her tail wrapped firm around a saddle strap and her crest radiating red as if burning for a fight.
“Where is your companion, beast?” snaps the elf, looking briefly away to scan the surrounding area.
“Do not lie or it will be your last breath,” hisses her friend.
Silence dominates as Kofe and the mounted jungle-striders standoff. A rattling thud breaks the stalemate when an unarmed crossbow lands in front of the riders. “You’ve caught us, there’s no need for violence. I don’t like making enemies,” a voice calls from the tree behind them.
The ranger pulls down his balaclava as they turn to look at him, raising his hands but keeping his squatted position atop the branches. “I’m VeiledMaxim,” he says, comfortably speaking his name in Dwarven despite the seeming incongruity. “My friend here is Kofe and we mean no harm, but we will defend ourselves.” He offers them an honest smile.
The elven warrior only answers by clicking her tongue. The stag charges forward in an instant as both riders smoothly dismount. Kofe dodges away from the charging animal but quickly finds himself facing the sheen of a spear tip.
VeiledMaxim, still unmoving, similarly has a blade leveled to his throat by the pale huntress’ tail. “You should not have disarmed yourself,” she hisses from the branch above him.
After several tense seconds, the elven warrior unexpectedly takes a step back, signaling her friend to do the same.
“Retrieve your weapon, city elf,” she commands, her glare fixed on her pacified quarry. “There is a hunting party of great warriors who wish you both ill. Follow us and try not to leave traces for them to track.” She lifts her spear and turns away, clicking her tongue again.
“You could have just asked if you wanted to get to kno-” The young lord’s words are cut short.
“Stay if you want,” she speaks sharply, already walking off to meet her approaching mount. “But know that your lives have no weight on my conscience.”
“It’s unwise to joke around instead of listening to my mistress, half-blood.” The pale huntress pulls her knife away from his neck.
“How do you know my lineage? Can you smell it?” he asks jokingly, following the lizardfolk back to the ground.
“Yesss!” she hisses fiercely.
“All right, all right. Just tell us where we are going. And remember this does not mean we trust you lot,” VeiledMaxim replies.
“We are heading south of Ma’Nyla, where we reside. I am PiercingGaze and my friend here is IvorySting,” the elven warrior calls back, saying both names in the sharp syllables of Draconic. She then taps her spear on a stone, signaling her companion to mount up.
“She is the princess of our people and I am her protector, so watch where your eyes fall, city elf,” IvorySting says as she passes VeiledMaxim to join her ward. PiercingGaze pokes her with the spear shaft as she mounts, and they quietly exchange a series of unintelligible clicks and chatter.
“Are they arguing?” asks Kofe, looking at his liege.
“Shhh! Kofe don’t interrupt them,” he replies, listening intently to their new guides. Gathering information is second nature to him, and he smiles slightly at the mentions of himself he manages to catch.
“Before we go further let me cover our tracks,” VeiledMaxim calls out over the hushed end to the riders’ conversation. He pulls up his balaclava and puts his closed fist to his mouth as if about to blow a trumpet, breathing out a strong, silent exhale. He lifts his fingers one by one as a cloud of near-invisible white powder swirls outward to hang in the air around them.
“It seems you know something useful, city elf,” exclaims the elven warrior, genuinely impressed.
“Pass Without Trace? Even our hatchlings can do that,” IvorySting whispers, flicking her tongue at Kofe as the stag passes him. He lets out a visible huff as he puts away his weapon.
Half a day passes with the hunting party’s light claws and slithered movements slipping through the jungle and leaving it undisturbed.
“They were here. I can still taste them in the air.” The tracker’s tongue instinctually flicks again, bone spear and dagger already in hand. Her face is masked by a humanoid skull, one of many trophies.
“Control yourself, SpearTongue, they are long gone. Something came for them. You can see the crowned-fury’s tracks in the brush. Another hunting party, I’d guess. What say you, CopperTongue?” The scales at her collar pulse crimson as the brutish lizardfolk looks back, staring easily over her companions’ heads and the great axe nestled between her shoulder spines.
“This was no hunting party. It smells of the prinsesa de gubat,” CopperTongue replies with cool disdain. “What do you see from the trees, EmeraldEyes?”
“There are no longer any tracks we can follow. Even the air has hidden them from us.” Arm and tail stretched to hold strong atop the tallest tree in the clearing; his tongue tasting the air and his eyes moving independently to take in his surroundings. The throwing darts in his pack lie untouched, their poison still sharp and uniquely crafted for forward scouts such as him.
Below, the rest of the hunting party reaches the clearing, completing the count at twelve warriors and hunters.
They regroup under an ancient mangrove tree, its roots green with algae and home to countless inhabitants of the jungle. The pools of water, connected to the river by twisting tunnels below the earth, are pulsing with life. Creatures live and die, hunt and forage, innocent to the brewing chaos about to explode in this enduring jungle. Its elder trees have witnessed countless life cycles pass.
“That war princess PiercingGaze will have welcomed her last outsiders after this hunt,” announces CopperTongue. The party raises an uproar of hisses and vibrating gargles, their tongues piercing the air and some tails even clubbing the ground in excitement.
The pathfinder EmeraldEyes leaps from his perch to join them. After a series of calculated tucks and tumbles through the algae-bloomed branches, he extends his arms to catch the air with two flaps of skin and expertly slows his descent.
“There is only one path across their territory and I know the fastest way to reach it. Give me two of our best runners and we can set an ambush for them,” he whispers as he comes up behind CopperTongue.
The deep scar across CopperTongue’s chest, a pierced crater by his hip that slashes up to his shoulder, radiates bright red; embers in a furnace. His excitement for EmeraldEyes’ idea cannot be hidden, even as he thumps his tail once against the ground decisively, his blood running calm and cold as steel. “I am glad you joined our hunt. Choose any you deem fit, but I will need you to also bring HornedMaw. Our vanguard will need her axe and strength.”
“I will not slow us, EmeraldEyes.” HornedMaw bows to him, showing the customary respect to elders and superiors; more than befitting one regarded as a living legend in the tribes of Ma’Nyla.
The vanguard separates itself from the main party in the shadows of a gigantic anthill, already in formation with EmeraldEyes to lead the path and HornedMaw to secure their flank.
One of the members between them lifts a dry gourd, whispering colorful wisps of air into it before breaking the shell against a sharp, stone edge. He uses the red liquid gathered on its shards to paint his comrades’ faces, arms, and legs.
After all have been streaked crimson, he shrieks, “Hassste!” Leaves fly and rattle against the anthill, then float to the now-deserted ground beside it.
Hours pass with the vibrant jungle and its residents being subjected to the alien sounds of foreign metal and chatter. The unlikely companions march steadily, with the stag riders leading the group.
“You must be hungry, mistress,” IvorySting says suddenly, speaking over the intruding whispers of the two following behind. “Let me get us some fruta. I saw our favorite tree a few strides away.”
“Hmm.” PiercingGaze pauses but nods, knowing not to argue with her protector.
IvorySting dismounts the steadily pacing stag and disappears into the brush, a sharpened blade dangling from her tail.
VeiledMaxim taps Kofe subtly with his elbow. Kofe in response slowly lags behind as his liege presses forward.
“That’s close enough, city elf,” PiercingGaze speaks in Dwarvish.
“Ah so you can speak more than Common and Gibberish, queen of the jungle,” the young lord replies, his hands empty and raised.
“The queen is my grandmother,” she replies flatly. “I am a warrior first, a princess second.”
“My apologies to both the queen and this venerable lady of the jungle. How do you know Dwarvish if I may ask?”
“You are not the only one who can gather information subtly,” the elven warrior answers without quite answering. “Enough with your game of fishing for details. How did you injure your shoulder?” She counters before he can speak, “Do not lie. That is no old wound, and there are many poisons in this jungle unknown beyond its borders.”
“I do not hide my Dwarven name, that first one was easy. But, again you have caught me. A vicious orange and black flower fired its spines when I touched its leaves. My curiosity is not always the best guide,” he answers carefully, offering just enough.
“You will be fine,” she shrugs. “Its spine is painful to remove but the poison is weak. Your shoulder should be numb for only a couple of da-”
PiercingGaze’s train of words and thought is wholly disrupted as VeiledMaxim suddenly howls, “OookOok! Oook Oook!!! Ook!”
A moment later, the tree towering over the stag erupts in primal violence. A muscled, boulder-like form leaps toward mount and rider, crashing into the bellowing stag and knocking it sideways.
The tree creature looms over the thrashing, grounded beast, which only manages to keep the elven warrior pinned. It raises its rugged fists from the ground, slowly rising upright before pounding its scarred chest in celebrated dominance.
VeiledMaxim clicks his tongue. “Heel!”
The raging ape breathes deep and exhales, lowering its posture and stepping away from its downed foe. It then proceeds to retrieve an unconscious IvorySting from the bushes, carrying with him the fruits she had gathered.
“Kofe, see to the beast, Jojo might have injured it. Ah princess, since it seems you didn’t notice my other friend here earlier, let me introduce him. This is Jojo. He is really sweet when you get to know him better.”
Receiving no answer, VeiledMaxim hesitates then continues, “Princess, I’m sorry. I know this is not the proper way to treat new friends, especially those of noble blood. But we need insurance as we enter your lands.
“I am certain your people will notice us soon enough. We have no plans on hurting anyone further, so please hold your anger. This is for our protection only.”
She remains still and silent as he approaches with a rope in hand, her piercing eyes not leaving the young lord’s.
Meanwhile, running along a path only he can see, EmeraldEyes whispers, “We are near the crossing.”
The vanguard together streaks past elder trees, the jungle around them turning into a green blur. They sprint low and downwind, flashing through and around towering roots.
“Did anyone hear that?” exclaims their rearguard, and the whole party abruptly halts their sprint.
“That is the sound of a struggle,” replies another of the crimson-painted lizards.The veteran pathfinder breathes in, scanning the area; its every vantage point and dark corner, each overlooks to the crossing. “Then this will be where we set our trap.”