“Trouble,” said Y’smir as she looked ahead into the forest. It had only been a day since the trio had left the Druidic Grove. Y’smir’s magic had cleansed the grove, or so she claimed, and said it would serve one day as a refuge for those who wished to escape the Emberwood. She rode on Stravos, seated behind Azoloth, her lithe form pressed up against him and her arms curled around him. Feeling awkward at first, Azoloth had quickly learned to enjoy the sensation of her pressed up against him like that. Using her Druidic arts Y’smir had proven invaluable showing them quicker paths through the Roanwood for their horses to travel.

“Trouble?” echoed Azoloth, turning it into a question. His hand fell to the hilt of his Falchion as his eyes scanned the forest before them. A moment later Crimson let out a deep growl, letting them know he sensed something approaching them. Stravos began to get nervous and stamped his hooves on the ground aggressively. Crimson’s ears were laid back and the fur along his neck bristled. Unlike when the Shadow fiends attacked them, Azoloth felt no sense of dread about the forest. 

Under the sickening light of the noonday sun, the ground before them burst open and from the opening poured undead animals. Wolves, badgers, rabbits, and even a massive grizzly bear crawled forth from the first. The animals had glossy vacant eyes, dirt matted with fur and congealed blood. The stench was nearly overpowering as it reached them, Azoloth and Trinsic retching. 

Azoloth drew Stravos up short and guided him to walk backwards, Crimson interposing himself between the stallion and the creatures. Luck was with them that the creatures were slow and clumsy, for it took the two Squires a few moments to steady themselves. 

Y’smir who had seen much worse during the Druidic Rituals she had taken part in lept down from Stravos immediately. “This is Druidic Blood magic. The old Druid must have lain a curse on one of you before he died,” her soft almost musical voice called out.

Azoloth drew his sword as he gained control of himself once more. One glance told him Trinsic was in trouble, blade drawn and 4 wolves fanned out around him in a semi-circle. The giant bear was moving towards them as well now that its bulk was free of the soil. 

“It must be Trinsic, he has a blood mark upon him. Azoloth, can you hold them off while I remove it?” Y’smir called out.

“Yes.” Azoloth said the one word as an affirmation, with more confidence than he felt. Spurring Stravos forward, he let out a sharp whistle for Crimson. Looking Crimson saw Azoloth’s hand gesture and shot towards one wolf. Crimson looked part wolf himself, yet the bred war shepherd was much larger than any wolf. He buried the leading wolf in his charge and they tumbled into another one in a growling ball of flesh and teeth. 

Azoloth guided Stravos up between the remaining wolves and Trinsic. Slipping down from the steed, Azoloth patted his flank and moved off. Stravos was a warhorse and stood his ground at the approach of the wolves, snorting dangerously as his steel shod hooves stamped at the forest floor.

Slipping to the side around the melee was simple, as the Zombie creatures seemed only to want Trinsic. They only attacked any who stood between them and their prey. There was only one real danger left, and Azoloth confronted that himself. The giant bear rose on its hind legs before Azoloth and let loose with a mighty roar. 

Azoloth brought his shield up just in time as the massive grizzly brought down one enormous paw attempting to crush him. Digging his feet in, Azoloth leaned into the blow. The sound of a gong being struck sounded in the air as the fleshy paw backed by over a thousand pounds of muscle and undead might slammed into it. The shield had been a lucky find in the deceased druids belongings when little else had been found. Trinsic had insisted Azoloth take it as he was better with a sword and shield than Trinsic. 

The powerful blow drove him back several feet, digging large grooves into the dirt. Azoloth leaned into the blow further, then brought his right hand holding the Falcion up and gave a deft stab at the massive head of the bear. While the Falcion was best used as a slashing weapon, its point was sharp enough to step with in a desperate situation. The blow was not true, and the steel glanced off the eye socket of the bear piercing fur and feted flesh. The nasty gash slashed across the side of its head would have at least blinded a living animal, yet this undead abomination did not to even notice the strike.

The bear’s body tensed and reared back as it stood once more on its hind legs. It towered over Azoloth at a full 8 feet tall. Both massive paws came down this time, and Azoloth raised his shield once more instead of attempting to dodge to the side. He had to keep the bear busy while Y’smir saw to the curse laid on Trinsic. Flesh and steel met once more in a sickening screeching as the bear’s 6 inch long claws raked down the metal. The force of the blow shook Azoloth to his very core. Muscles tensed and Azoloth gave only slightly to the blow, the muscles along his upper body and legs trembling to hold the blow in check. 

Meanwhile Crimson had torn the throat out of one of the undead wolves and began to wretch at the foul taste in his mouth as it filled with rotten meat and puss. Crimsons momentary distraction nearly proved fatal as the zombified wolf struck back at him. Crimson knew nothing of the undead and did not understand why the thing would fall down and die like it should. The only thing that saved Crimson was that with its throat torn out, the wolf’s head lolled unnaturally to the side and caused its attack to bite into his shoulder and not his throat. 

Stravos was having a much better time of it. Each time one of his massive hooves came down, one of the smaller squirrels or rabbits that mobbed him exploded into small bits of gore. A wolf ventured too close to the steel shod hooves, and its skull was crushed into so much bloody paste. The stallion seemed to go wild, a mixture of fear and training. Bucking and kicking, those sharp hooves lashing out and destroying bone and flesh wherever they struck. 

Crimson was still having trouble with the two wolves he faced and did not know what to do about it. He dodged and struck at them while avoiding their flashing teeth and claws as best he could. Eventually those powerful jaws closed around the throat of the wolf he injured earlier and there was a great cracking of bone as he crushed its spine. The wolf stopped moving and Crimson was so surprised the other wolf took him completely off guard, bowling into him.

Y’smir pulled Trinsic from his steed and looked him over while the battle took place around them. She could see the sigil carved into the man’s spirit, invisible to most mortal eyes. To her trained senses it burned like a brand where the Druids magic had struck his chest. It marked him as a cursed man. The undead would hunt and hound him until his dying day if it was not lifted. Luckily she as a Druid knew how to remove the curse. Reaching into a pouch at her side, she pulled out some a bunch of small red berries and fur. She crushed the berries and let their juices stain the fur. Then she reached out and rubbed it across where the sigil burned into his soul and spoke arcane words, all of her attention focused upon the ritual. Trinsic could only watch in horror as the battle unfolded before him, helpless to do anything as Y’smir worked, trusting her. This was not the way most of the druids would have removed such a curse, yet Y’smir had learned much of the old way from her mother.

“Luminar preserve us, guide us with your silvery light,” the prayer came unbidden to Azoloths lips as he thrust his sword forward once more. He had no genuine hope of the blow doing anything to the massive undead bear. No one saw the slight flash of light from the crescent moon amulet he wore at his throat. His blade slipped into the bear’s stomach and through it, the blow striking home as he felt the resistance when he met the bear’s spinal column. He stepped back as the bear’s full dead weight fell upon his shield and his legs buckled, dropping him to his knees. The enraged bear could not move its hind legs now, but both front paws flexed at the edges of the shield as it tried to gnaw its way through the metal. Then suddenly the bear shook the shield which Azoloth had strapped to his arm with a leather strap.

Azoloth’s shoulder was pulled out of its socket as the bear shook the shield. While the massive creature had lost control of its hind legs, it used all of its incredible to kill the being who stood in its way. Azoloth screamed in pain as he felt the pop and tearing in his shoulder. He was unable to do anything for long seconds that seemed to last an eternity as the bear shook him back and forth like a doll before releasing him. He flew through the air and landed heavily upon the ground.

Crimson was bleeding from an open gash on his side where the wolf had torn into his flesh with teeth and claw, however, he had used his strength to escape. Now that he only faced one foe and knew how to kill them he pounced on the wolf and used his weight to pin it down, grasping the nape of its neck between his teeth he bit down and shook his head until a loud crack sounded and the wolf went limp. 

Crimson had slain the last of the creatures he faced, including the final wolf. Flecks of flesh, bits of bone, things darker than blood coated the stallion and the area around where he had faced off against the undead.

Y’smir channeled her power into the curse. Had the old Druid been alive still she would not have been able to cleanse it so easily. Yet his death had weakened his magic, and the curse faded into nothing. Finally she looked up and let out a cry of horror. Azoloth lay in a heap on the ground, one of his arms sticking out at an unnatural angle, and the giant bear was slowly clawing its way to him. With the curse gone, he no longer sought the death of just Trinisc, but of all those who drew breath. 

Holding out her hand before her, the fingers still stained with the berry juice, she cried out words of power. Vines sprung forth from the ground, and they twined together to form a thick wall around the bear. It had almost reached Azoloth when it was lifted off the grounds, roots, thorns and vines wrapping around the beard and holding it still. Within the vines were berries such as those she had used in her spell to cleanse Trinisc.

“Did you do that?” Trinsic asked, leaning against the side of his horse for support.

Y’smir did not respond to Trinisc. The vines entangled the bear knotted and grew tighter until a sickening pop echoed through the woods. The bear stopped its struggles. Y’smir ran to Azoloth then, reaching him at the same time Crimson did. Crimson leaned down and licked at Azoloth’s face as Y’smir took him by the shoulder and rolled him onto his back, shaking her head.

 

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