Seven days and uncounted miles away from the battle with the Shadow fiends, the Roanwood thinned. Ahead of the pair came an eerie red glow. Azoloth and Trinsic looked at each other with some concern as Stravos and Hamilton were brought to a stop by their riders.
“What the fuck is that?” Trinsic asked.
“I have no clue, It’s night, so with the trees thinning out I expected silver moonlight, not whatever that is.” Azoloth responded.
“Could it be a blood moon?” Trinsic responded with another question.
“Could we be that unlucky?” Yet, as Azoloth spoke those words, both men knew the answer.
“Druids…” Trinsic hissed the word as his eyes narrowed. He reached down and grasp his swords hilt and drew it, Azoloth following suit.
“Dark days,” was all Azoloth said to the thought of Druids within the Roanwood.
“They die.” Trinsic stated, sounding more sure of himself than he had during the entire trip. Azoloth nodded grimly, and both men dismounted. They lead their horses as silently as possible to the edge of the large oak grove ahead. As they neared, Crimson gave a low, almost inaudible growl, as if he too sensed what lurked ahead. Azoloth shushed Crimson, and the well-trained canine fell silent.
Before them was a large clearing lined in oak trees. It was flat and grassy. In the center was a stone altar in front of which stood a figure. It was a humanoid shape, but it wore a thick fur cloak that fell to the ground. The neckline of the furs was lined with a necklace of bones. Features seemed to sprout from the edge of the cloak fanning out around the creature’s head. Horns made of branches came out from the neck and rose into the air like those of a stag. The creature, for who would call such a man, lifted blood covered hands up to the sky and shouted out in an ancient tongue.
In response to the calls, the sky roiled, clouds swirling in the moon’s glow. The mood had turned red, as red as blood. The entire grove was cast in that crimson hue. While not as oppression as the sickly green glare of the sun, it was still an unholy and unwelcomed sight. Druids, once the protectors of nature and guides to the land, had taken to dark paths. The path of blood and death, not nature and live now fueled their magic. Of course there had always been death and blood within the Druids magic for those were part of the great circle of life.
The wind picked up as the creature chanted before them, causing the branches of the trees to sway gently. Something brushed against Azoloths neck and he almost screamed. Jumping to the side, he whirled around only to find a dead rat strung up in the branches of the trees swaying back and forth. Azoloth looked around the grove near them and noted all the trees bore such gruesome trophies.
Trinsic made a face and brought his finger up to his lips, signaling for Azoloth to be quiet. Azoloth breathed heavily, yet it shaded his face with shame at his near outburst. Nodding to Trinsic, he motioned Crimson to follow him. The three of them began walking as quietly as possible towards the figure, swords drawn.
Each squire branched out to flank the man as they approached him, Crimson staying between them. Azoloth could feel the tingle of magic in the air, it clung to him like cobwebs as he approached the circle the Druid stood within.
As they grew closer, they saw a beautiful young girl struggling upon the altar. Her arms and legs spread apart, tied to the corners of the altar. She had long auburn hair, which was tangled with leaves and branches. Her features were ethereal and almost inhuman with almond shape eyes, a round upturned nose, and full lips. Her ears while slightly more pointed than a full-blooded human’s yet did not look Elven or fae, at least not completely. If she were one of the fae, Azoloth would have expected her to have more prominent ears or horns. Those lovely almond-shaped eyes grew wide when they saw him, even with the red moon dancing in them he could tell they were a brilliant emerald color. She wore a form fitting brown leather tip that covered small pert breasts but left her mid section down to her slender hips exposed. Then she wore low cut leather pants down to her bare feet. She shook her head emphatically as the men neared, yet she said no word of warning.
The druid meanwhile had reached down and picked up a wickedly curved blade in his left hand, and what looked to be an oaken staff in his right. The staff was topped with a strange milky gemstone. While not well versed in magic, it was clear to both squires that the girls’ life would soon end if they did not do something. The druid stood in the open, yet the loose leaves from last fall which blew around the grove left a circle of grass clear around where he stood.
Trinsic stepped forward, just ahead of Azoloth and to the right, so it was his foot that first crossed the unseen circle the Druid stood within. Suddenly the Druid whipped around to the right, a mad look of hatred in the eyes that looked out from a wooden mask. They designed the mask to appear like a stag’s skull. With a cry of rage, he pointed the staff at Trinsic and uttered a word that hurt to hear. Trinsic screamed and clutched at his chest as an unseen force struck him, Trinsic clawed at his chest and armor, prompting Azoloth to lunge forward towards the Druid. As Azoloth passed the circle, the Druid sensed him as well and moved faster than one would imagine forward and out of reach.
Turning to face Azoloth, the Druid brought the dagger up and drew it across one bare arm that slide from under his cloak. The blood welled up along the arm and dripped to the ground, yet Azoloth could not take his eyes off the armor the Druid wore. It was made of wood, yet carved to appear as worms and snakes which appeared to churn and slither along each other.
As the blood dripped onto the ground, roots shot up from the earth and wound together. Azoloth took a step back, his sword and dagger in hand. The roots formed what appeared to be a Knight in full plate mail made entirely of wood. A crimson glow came from within the wood, showing it was not solid within. The Knight came equipped fully with a wooden sword and shield. The corrupted nature defender then lunged at Azoloth, forcing him to parry the blow. The strength behind the sword was immense, it was as if he were fighting with a living tree itself. The Knight’s feet never left the ground, instead he appeared to glide across the ground.
Trinsic was still screaming as he writhed on the ground, and Azoloth was hard pressed to keep the Knight at bay. Moving effortlessly, the wooden Knight swung the sword like a club at Azoloth, yet the blows while crude had so much power behind them Azoloth could not find his footing to go on the offense. The steel of his sword did not even chip the Knight’s wooden sword as they struck each other.
Azoloth’s feet got tangled up in some branches he swore were not there when they had walked across the wide open space between the woods and altar. He was forced Azoloth to bring his sword up quickly, twisting his wrist to the side to deflect a crushing blow that nearly bashed in his skull. The next thing he knew, as the Knight’s sword was forced to the side, that wooden shield smashed into him, sending him flying across the ground. As he landed, he hurled his dagger in sheer desperation as the Knight glided closer. The dagger struck the knight in the face, slipping between an opening in the roots that made up the helmet and sinking home. Yet the Knight did not even seem to realize I had struck him, instead he raised his sword getting ready to finish the fallen men.
Then a sharp cry of pain filled the air. It sounded more like an animal caught in a trap than a man. A second later a sharp snap filled the air, and the Knight went still, then slowly receded back into the earth.
Azoloth rose up to his elbows and looked over to Crimson. He had stayed behind the Druid unnoticed, near the edge of the circle lept upon the Druids back. His massive maw was wrapped around the back of the Druids neck, teeth sunk deeply into the flesh. That crack no doubt had been the Druids spin snapping.
Azoloth fell back to the ground and took in a deep breath. With the Druid dead the magic was leaving this place. The red hue was fading from the moon and her soft silvery glow landing upon them. At the touch of the silvery light Trinsic stopped screaming and just lay there panting, trying to catch his breath. Azoloth too just laid there, the captive girl forgotten for the moment as Azoloth spoke. “Damn good dog”