Bright and early the morning after they reached the shelter of Woodhold, the capital of Valtheia, the Hand set about learning all they could about the circumstances leading up to the attacks and infection. The learned that the first attacks by creatures from Mannhom had occured about five weeks previously, near Mirken’s Mill, a lumber camp to the southwest.
Lucien conferred with his fellow biomancer and doctor at the Temple of the Holy Triumverate. They worked out a plan to isolate any wounded who were injured by the infected. While he was on this errand, Alera talked to some of the city’s hedge witches, midwives and herbalists. An old midwife told Alera that if anyone would know a way to heal the sick before the parasitic plants killed them, it would be Jariko the hermit.
Armed with a description of where to find Jariko, the party decided to visit the old hermit to find out if he knew anything about the invasive vine, or a way to stop it. Once that task was done, they planned to visit the logging camps to see what, if anything, remained of the province’s frontiersmen.
The midwife’s directions called for them to follow an abandoned logging track a few miles into the First-Wood, then to leave the path and follow a stream against the current until the hermit’s hill could be found. The directions seemed to be good, but Miria the ranger discovered that the track was not as abandoned as they had been lead to believe. A group of six human-sized creatures in heavy boots had been walking along it not long before, from the direction of the abandoned logging camp at its terminus. Furthermore, they were headed upstream toward the hermit!
Thus alerted, the party proceeded cautiously toward their rendezvous. They lost the booted tracks at the base of the hermit’s hill, however, and found nothing of immediate concern at Jariko’s cave home. The hermit himself was friendly enough, and willing to answer their questions. Unfortunately, he had never encountered the parasitic vine, and had no idea how one might go about killing in it a living host. His manner was strange, and his voice was rough and halting from disuse. More than one of the Hand got the impression that he was hiding something, but they never discerned what it might be, or caught him in a lie.
Because of their aroused suspicions, the companions asked if they could look around the area, and see a vegetable garden that Jariko had mentioned he kept on the other side of the hill. The hermit agreed, but said he would stay behind and go back to his meditations, which the party had interrupted. There wasn’t much to look at around the hermit’s cave – just some chickens and a nanny goat for milk. When the party rounded the hill and found the garden, it was another story. Despite the fact that it was only early spring, the hermit had summer and fall plants ready for harvest.
A quick examination reassured the party that here were no parasitic vines in evidence, but something was definitely out of the ordinary. The party went back to the cave to ask Jariko about his unusual garden, and found him gone. The looked about for signs of a struggle, and found none. They took a moment to open his footlocker, but found only worn clothing, a few coins, and a miniature portrait of an Elven woman.
Miria was able to find evidence of his passage quickly. They followed him down the side of the hill and through the woods to a small pond in a brook that fed the stream they’d followed to find Jariko. The hermit was huddled by the water on his hands and knees, with his head down on his arms. He was shaking, and making low moans of pain. With his hair falling forward, the party could see that his ears were pointed – a half elf.
The party asked what was wrong, but didn’t get a coherent response. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t tell you. They spared me, because of my mother, but they left something behind.” The words were obviously causing Jariko great pain to utter.
“Who are they? What do they want?”
“The Lords of the F-f-f-...”
Alera shouted for the hermit to stop harming himself, that they would find another way to get the information, but it was too late. With a final scream and a burst of blood from the hermit’s mouth, a tree began sprouting from Jariko’s body. Within minutes, the tree had grown to more than 20 feet tall – an ash tree.
The party had never seen anything like this. Theories were exchanged, ranging from evil magic to cursed water to “maybe that’s just what happens to elves when they die.”
In the end, there was nothing more that could be done for old Jariko, so the party turned to their only other lead, the booted footprints. There was some disagreement among the party members about which direction to go. Should they follow the footprints and find out where the owners went, or should they track them back to their origin?
In the end, the fact that they were unlikely to catch up on unfamiliar ground convinced the party to try to find out where the passing feet had come from. They appeared to be coming from the old abandoned logging camp at the end of the old track, but there’d been no reason to go there for years. They followed the tracks back, but they skirted the old sawmill. There was the remains of a human being there, but it had been reduced to a simple skeleton, and a viny, purple flowered plant was growing with its rib cage. When Alera attempted to take a cutting, the plant attacked, leaving thorns and wriggling tendrils embedded in her leather gauntlet. The party settled for making a sketch of the flowers rather than risking having a member of the party become infested.
The tracks led them back to Mirken’s Mill, the first location to be attacked. They approached cautiously, and it’s a good thing they did. The ground around the mill, which should have been clear-cut long ago, was dotted with trees that ranged from 8 to 12 feet high. Two giant ash trees, each at least 100 feet, had grown so quickly in front that the ground was buckled and rent from the force of it. Among the trees were nine human forms, at least six of whom were infested with the parasite – it had grown so advanced that shoots, limbs, and vines had burst from the victims’ bodies.
The Hand knew that there was no sense talking to the infested – they would attack until destroyed. They made a plan to assault the creatures from long range, hoping to bunch them together for a devastating attack from Amalia.
The battle began well enough, but everyone knows that no plan survives contact with the enemy. The party had missed a presence on the other side of the mill’s waterwheel. A woman, who appeared to be an old lady, advanced along with the shambling plant-horrors. She was much more fleet of foot than they, in fact, and began to assault the party with devastating bursts of sound which threw them about and damaged them heavily. Her disguise was soon hanging off her, cut to ribbons by Tekla and Alera, and beneath it she looked like an old crone of gnarled wood.
The three normal looking people turned out to be anything but. The parasite had left their countenances alone, but caused great changes within. They began to spit corrosive gobs of a sap like substance at the party.
The battle was hard fought. The shrieking woman teleported into the middle of the group and sent them all reeling with an even more horrible shriek. Lucien went down under the devastating blows of the infected. Amalia risked life and limb to close with the creatures and engulf them in a fire shroud. Tekla and Alera worked together to take the foes down as quickly as possible. In the end, the infected creatures were not a match for the Hand, but they took a heavy toll on the group’s magical and personal resources.
Before securing a camp, the party examined the saw mill, trying to determine why it would be so heavily guarded. They found that the saw’s drive shafts and gears had been damaged. A hidden trap door had lain under the floor of the mill’s stone section (which had been built from the remains of a ruined tower), and it had been forced open with such violence that the mill’s gears were misaligned and cracked by the impact.
As the group settled for the night, it occurred to Miria that this assignment was not unlike being trapped in a child’s story.
That wooden crone had figured in her father’s stories. It had been a part of the Faerie courts, and been called a Hag!
With this bit of knowledge, both Amalia and Lucien were quick to realize that Jariko had probably been saying “Lords of the Forest,” one of the many names for the nobility of the Fae.