The following morning the party departed quickly, re-establishing their methodical search for the path of their enemies. It was not hard; evidence of troll activity was abundant “Hundreds,” stated Slyron, needlessly. Indeed, the numerous tracks seemed to confirm the boast the troll raiders had made at the gates of Gardmore Abbey.
Near mid-morning, Slyron caught the sound of weeping up ahead. He spied three women in the middle of a grove, sobbing over the prone, still figure of another woman. He reported back to the others.
“How many weeping women?” Morgan asked.
“Hags,” said Asha.
“Witches,” added Gheshkan.
“A coven,” corrected Gwydion.
They could have been wrong. They weren’t.
As the party cautiously made their way towards the grove, the women spotted them. “Please!” they begged. “Help our fallen companion!.”
“Sure,” replied Slyron. “How about first, you tell us why you are out here?”
“We are travelers, simple farmfolk trying to get home when we were beset by beasts!”
“So, which is it?” Morgan snapped. “Travellers, or farmfolk?”
The women looked at each other briefly. That was enough for Morgan.
“Bullshit,” he said, and yanked out his axe. The others followed suit and quickly moved in.
The three women looked non-plussed for a moment. Then, their features melted, bubbled, and elongated into the grotesque, warty visages of hags.
“By Kord!” Gheshkan said, recoiling. “You’re ugly, even to me!”
“We’ll fix that.” Slyron said, whipping his dagger into the face of the first hag.
Indeed, neither the hags nor their large serpentine companions were much of a match for the determined group. All but one were cut down. The final hag had been incapacitated by Asha, but not killed.
Morgan slapped it. The hag stirred, groggy. Another slap brought forth a groan. The bloodied hag feebly spat out a thick phlegm of fluid. Morgan grabbed the hag by the sides of her deformed skull and lifted her into the air.
“Where is Skalmad?” he asked.
The hag coughed out a laugh. “Ye want Skalmad? Ye are heading the right direction.”
“Thanks.” With a quick twist, Morgan broke the hag’s neck.
Gheshkan’s mouth dropped open in shock. Slyron was less fazed. “What took you so long?” he asked Morgan as the dwarf brushed past.
“Look at this,” called out Gwydion. He gently rolled over the prone figure around which the hags had gathered. It was Thelva. She was dead.
“Trolls,” said Morgan. “I can tell by the claw marks. See?” The dwarf hauled up his breastplate, exposing his recently acquired scars. “Damn fungus-heads ruined me perfect abs!”
They buried Thelva under a hasty cairn. “We can continue the rites back in town.” Asha said. The party pressed on throughout the day. The marshes became less and less hospitable as they moved deeper into its centre. Towards the end of the day, they came across a large pond, bordered by wetlands and trees. A thick, musky smell permeated the air, the organic richness of the Downs. An odd sight by the pond, however. Floating out over the water were strange globes of light. The globes moved with a sense of purpose; indeed, they appeared to notice the party, and begin an approach.
With their resources depleted, Kord’s Deliverance decided to rest for the evening before investigating the lights. The knife cut a hole in the world, and the party disappeared. Upon speculation, Gwydion announced with typical surety that the lights were, in fact, creatures. “Will o’ the wisps,” he stated, then went on to list their characteristics and tendancies.
“You should write your own book, you know.” Slyron said to the eladrin once he’d finished his lengthy monologue.
“Really? I mean, pff, really. I have several already in the planning stages.
“That’s good. I’ve got the perfect title too.
“Ah. That, of course, means…” Gwydion began, then tailed off. “…um, actually, I have no idea. What does that mean?”
Slyron looked bemused for a moment, then his face cleared.
“My apologizes. I pronounced it wrong. It’s ‘ad nauseum’”.
“Ah! Yes, that’s much better. I—wait a minute…”
Slyron turned away, a tight grin on his lips. Before the spluttering wizard could retort, Asha took him by the arm.
“These will o’ the wisps. You said they are sentient?”
“By all the—eh? Oh. Yes,” Gwydion glowered once more in the direction of the elf, but Slyron had moved on. Gwydion focused back on Asha. “Yes, they are. But I would not recommend attempting to converse with them. They want lifeforce, our lifeforce.”
“Really,” mused Asha. She turned to Gheshkan. “I’ll need your help tomorrow.”
“Absolutely. What for?” Ghesh asked.
“To trade with these Will o’ the Wisps.”
“Trade? What are you trading?”
“Me? Nothing.” Asha gave Ghesh a dazzling smile, then lay gracefully down, settling for sleep.
However, the will o’ the wisps were not willing to trade. Or even barely talk. They were waiting near where the party had cut a hole with their exodus knife, as though they’d been there all night. Asha’s attempts to speak with them were rebuffed.
“_We want lifeforce_…” was all they said before exploding into brilliant novas. Each flare dazzled a party member, then dragged it into the marshy shoreline. The motives of the ethereal creatures became clear when strange, crustaceous looking creatures burst forth from the swampy muck to attack. Symbiosis, Gwydion would have lectured—but there was little time. A desperate battle followed, with the heroes fighting off the disorienting radiant attacks as the lobster-like aberrations tried to pull them into the water and feed. They managed to neutralize the chuuls first, then turned their attentions to the globes of light. Not easy to damage, and very, very hard to follow, but the wisps obviously had never encountered Kord’s Deliverance before (which makes sense, of course, because if they had, they’d already be dead).
Nevertheless, the group had expended an inordinate amount of their resources. They decided to press on carefully, and any encounter that looked too dangerous, they’d simply cut a hole with the exodus knife and rest. Hopefully they’d get the choice…
Late in the day, a flash of metal caught Slyron’s eye. He dropped to his knees, peering ahead carefully. The glint came from a copse of trees; in fact, he spotted several glints, almost strand like, reflecting from in between several of the trees. Also, in the middle of the copse, he could see a thick overgrown bush. Something large was concealed within it; the bush swayed with unusual movement, too erratic to be the wind.
As it was already late, the party chose to rest.