RMUB, part 3.

‘The Vale’

Straight fantasy from 2000.


It is a dark time for the land of Eldebor. The treaty of Birn still holds, halting the long wars with the northmen of Haruud, and the war with Cryden has just come to a close with the assassination of Borgon the Red. Nevertheless, a deadly new mance has appeared, in the form of the dread necromancer Ur-Seth. An undead himself, this evil sorcerer has assembled an army of foul creatures, an army that now marches through the Eldeboran province of Urin towards neighboring Ocharos. If the food-producing province of Ocharos falls to the undead, Eldebor will be plunged into a terrible famine.
    Kan-Jakkob, High King of the South and ruler of Eldebor, has abdicated the throne in favor of his son, Rannoth. The new regent knows that he must stop Ur-Seth or his kingdom may well fall.
    While Garthen, Kan-Rannoth’s top general, rides with his army to meet Ur-Seth’s dire forces in battle, the High King has sent a small party of brave adventurers to find the seat of Ur-Seth’s power and destroy it. Having outflanked the necromancer’s armies and escaped the cordon around Ocharos, this band of warriors has penetrated deep into occupied Urin. They still, however, must pass Anhuin Vale, a remnant of Lendrill Wood known for its hatred of humankind. While the fate of all Eldebor hangs in the balance, the Vale waits to devour the south’s last hope…

     The sun was setting as the companions crested the last hill and looked down on Anhuin for the first time. They had failed to reach the Vale before nightfall – a perhaps fatal error.
     Selune and Juric looked at one another apprehensively. Rudolpho, as usual, said nothing. Also as usual, he was deep in thought. There was no choice but to go on, Vale be damned. If they did not reach Ur-Seth’s castle by midday tommorrow it would be too late to affect the battle in Ocharos anyway.
    “Come on,” Juric prodded. “While there is still light in the sky there is some hope of safe passage. The tree-spirits prefer to roam after nightfall.” Again Rudolpho wished they could have somehow brought the horses through the thicket fields yesterday. If they had steeds, they could ride around Anhuin and easily reach the castle by morning.
    “Selune,” Juric was saying. “Can your magics protect us in there?” He gestured toward the dark trees below. A warm breeze was blowing a strange, sickly-sweet smell up the hill from the forest.
    The sorceress shrugged. She ran her fingers through her brown hair and straightened her dark robe. “I’m ready,  as always. We shall soon see.”
    As they walked down the hill, Juric drew his blade. The reddening sun glinted off the big warrior’s sword; to Rudolpho it looked like it was already covered in blood. Sighing, he hefted his own weapon, a dark mace once blessed by Judon’s Apostle himself, in Kerkan. Selune turned to him.
    “And is our good priest prepared for battle?” Her tone was light, yet Rudolpho could hear strain underneath. Was the beautiful – and usually fearless –  mage a little nervous? “No. Is anyone ever truly prepared?”
    Selune rolled her eyes. “You are always so morose.”
    Juric waved his arm for silence. They were approaching the first trees of Anhuin Vale. The big man was now in battle mode: tense and wary. Like a coiled spring he stepped past the first tree-row and into the Vale. Selune followed him; Rudolpho came last, grimacing. He hoped Juric’s battle-lust would not cause him to be uncautious: one mistake in this forest could be the warrior’s last.
    Inside the Vale what little daylight remained outside was instantly choked off. A high canopy of treetops blotted out the evening sky. Eerie twilight descended around the companions. Rudolpho thought he should hear animals, or birds, but there was nothing. Every twig snapping beneath his boot seemed to be amplified tenfold. Juric’s chainmail jingled, impossibly loud in the still air. Selune swore.
    “Be ready,” Juric commanded.
    Although they were tense, sweating even as the sunset air cooled, Rudolpho thought he and his friends were ready to face any threat. In the name of Eldebor, they would do what they had to. Yet no attack came. The path they walked was faint, difficult to follow. As minutes crawled by, darkness fell. Selune spoke a word of magic, and a ball of light sprung into being at her shoulder.
    “The sun is gone from the sky.” Rudolpho spoke to no one in paricular. Perhaps, he thought, perhaps I am informing Anhuin itself.
     Juric grunted a reply, kept walking.
     Trees and bushes went by in an endless parade. Rudolpho felt as though he were being mesmerized. The past week had been tiring and long. From Ur-Seth’s patrols, to the hills, the thicket fields, and now this wretched forest. He gripped his mace tightly as they entered a small clearing. Selune moved closer, perhaps to voice one of her sarcastic comments, but before she could speak Juric cried out.
      “At the ready! Something comes.” His eyes gleamed in the twilight. Rudolpho knew Juric was always close to the battle-rage. He hoped his friend would not lose his wisdom in the heat of combat.
      Moving quickly forward with Selune, the three companions peered into the murk ahead, where crashing and snapping sounds were multiplying. Suddenly the gloom parted, and an enormous Woodon pulled free of the surrounding trees and lumbered into the clearing.
      The creature was a huge living oak, thirty or forty feet high. It shambled on dirt-encrusted roots, leafy arms outstretched as if to embrace them. A gaping, black maw drooled yellow sap continuously onto the forest floor. The rustling of the thing’s leaves seemed impossibly loud in the stillness of the Vale.
     “Attack!” Juric boomed. Rudolpho was already in motion, hefting his mace. He saw Selune step backward and begin an incantation.
     Juric’s sword swept downward in a vicious arc as he avoided the Woodon’s deadly branches. The metal blade bit deep into the creature’s form, bringing forth a fountain of sickly-sweet sap. Rudolpho could see the fierce smile on his friend’s face, the battle-lust in his eyes even as the tree monster recovered and reached for him.
     Rudolpho charged, brandishing his mace and shouting in a desperate attempt to divert the Woodon’s attention from his friend. He was partially successful: his mace crashed into the thing’s trunk, breaking off pieces of bark and splintering wood underneath. Instead of skewering Juric through the heart, the creature’s sharp spikes impaled his shoulder. Red blood spurted as Juric was propelled backward and off his feet by the force of the impact. The Woodon, ignoring the big warrior, turned to face its new foe.
    Rudolpho brought his mace back and prepared to swing again as huge, leafy arms moved to encircle him. Desperately, he backed away, but was tripped up by the Woodon’s huge network of roots. He fell, flailing, to the ground. As the thing’s deadly fingers closed around his throat he saw Juric move to attack again.
    Just then a brilliant, crackling white bolt streamed from Selune’s fingertips and exploded in the upper reaches of the Woodon. The monster shrieked, its black mouth spitting wads of amber. Sparks lit and flew in the creature’s branches. It lifted Rudolpho skyward, meaning to dash him to death against a nearby treetrunk. Choking, struggling to not drop his weapon, he managed a shout.
    “Fire! Use fire, Selune!”
    Juric had climbed into the creature’s lowest branches. He was hacking at one of the thing’s arms and had nearly severed it. The Woodon howled yet again, hurling Rudolpho to the ground. The priest of Judon was momentarily stunned, but scrambled quickly back to his feet. Juric had been peeled free of his perch, and was now held by one leg over fifteen feet in the air. He was still swinging wildly, chopping the forest monster again and again with his sword.
     Rudolpho ran forward to help Juric, but was repelled by a great wave of heat as Selune’s fireball blasted the Woodon. Its bark charred and came alight instantly. Now it screamed, a piercing wail. Its branches began swiping at the flames, but only seemed to fan them into a roaring blaze. Juric was tossed aside, his now-helmetless head crashing against a stump some distance away. He did not rise.
     Selune had drawn her dagger. “I’m out of tricks,” she shrugged.
     Wonderful, Rudolpho thought. He could see that while the Woodon was injured, it was not finished yet. Even as it burned it advanced on them. The trees behind them had seemingly shifted positions, the path they had come along was gone. There was no escape as the flaming Woodon advanced. It’s smoking branches swept forward. Rudolpho lunged to the side and then delivered a crushing blow against the monster’s face. Selune dodged also, then drove her small blade directly into one of the thing’s dark eyes. Sap fountained out, drenching her with sticky-sweet resin.
     A great oaken fist slammed against Rudolpho’s jaw as the creature counter-attacked. The priest slumped to his knees, the world spinning as stars danced in front of his eyes. Selune began to choke, great clouds of smoke billowing over her from the blazing horror. It reached out to embrace them with its crushing branches – it was the end.
    Before the Woodon could slay its tormentors, however, another blazing bolt of lightning flew out of the trees behind it. This time, however, it was followed by a great hollow crack as the creature split open and died with a pitiful wail. The carcass burned furiously in the darkness, throwing sparks and sizzling.
    Rudolpho grabbed Selune’s arm and pulled her away from the smoking ruin. Together they raced to Juric’s side. The warrior groaned and sat up, rubbing the enormous lump that had formed atop his head. “How bad is it, my friend?” Rudolpho asked anxiously.
    As Juric began his reply, Selune shouted. “Look there!” She pointed.
    A lone figure stood nearby, their rescuer. She was dressed in a gray robe, long blonde hair cascading down her shoulders. Her arm was outstretched, hand still steaming from the spell she had cast. She smiled.
    Rudolpho gasped and scrambled backward. This could not be! By all that was holy, this must not be! As the figure moved closer, the priest of Judon could see that he had made no mistake.
    It was his sister, Annalise.
    Annalise, who had graduated with honors from the Academy of Magic in Cryden two fourseasons ago. Annalise, who had served Borgon in the war despite her family’s entreaties to return to Eldebor.
    Annalise, who had been slain at the Battle of Everston last winter.
    “Hello brother,” the figure greeted. Juric gaped. Selune grimaced, clutching her dagger.
    Rudolpho stepped forward. His mind reeling, he strode toward his sister. His dead sister.
    “Lise,” he stammered. “How?” He had watched as she had been buried.
    Juric and Selune ran to his side, held him back. “Beware!” Selune cautioned. “I sense no life in her.”
    Annalise chuckled. “Be silent, little mage.” Rudolpho knew she had never liked Selune. “Come here, brother. Can you not see that it is I? I am returned.”
    Rudolpho pulled free of Juric’s restraining hand. He approached Annalise. “You have returned from the dead?”
    She smiled. Rudolpho suddenly noticed his sister was very pale, her eyes darker than he remembered. “I have indeed returned from my grave, brother, but not from the dead.”
    Juric and Selune glanced at one another, unsure of what to say. Rudolpho reached out and took Annalise’s hand in his own. It was cold.
    “None return from the dead,” she said.

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