Editor’s Note: for this character history, we are very pleased to welcome guest writer Geoff Bottone, a founding member of SlugFest Games and one of The Red Dragon Inn’s original designers! He has graciously agreed to do a little writing for us. Thanks, Geoff!
The path ahead was partially clogged with white pine branches. Fiona set her jaw and barreled onward, using her brute strength and heavy armor to push through them. One of the branches, a long springy one, slithered off of her hip and snapped back behind her with a sharp, cracking sound.
“Oh, Dimli,” she said as she swung around, briefly snarling her arsenal in the branches. “Sorry about that, I should have…”
The sputtering dwarf waved her off with a beefy, gloved hand while using the other to brush sap and pine needles out of his long beard. “It’s fine, lass. No harm done.”
“I’ll try to take more care from now on.”
“Good,” said Dimli, winking at her, “and I’ll try to keep my head down and stay farther back in case you forget again.”
Fiona rested a hand on an armored hip. “You’re sure you’re all right?”
Dimli spat a stray needle into the bushes. “Yeah, yeah. It’s just, y’know, all the trees. Makes a dwarf a bit uncomfortable, you know what I mean?”
Fiona nodded. A childhood spent in the Greyport Undercity had made her extremely comfortable in small, dark places, slimy tunnels, and silent crypts. The great outdoors? Not so much. Everything was very big and very bright, and there were noises and smells that she hadn’t quite gotten used to.
She felt a small pinch on her cheek and slapped absently at it with a gauntleted hand. When Fiona pulled her hand away, she saw the remains of a mosquito smeared across the small armor plates. She scrubbed her armored palm on her hip. Stupid bugs.
“I wish Kaylin had come,” she said, watching the sunlight filter through the forest canopy above them. “She actually likes it out here.”
Dimli took off his helmet and scratched at his sweaty forehead. His dark brown hair lay damp and flat across his scalp. “She said something to me about ‘too close to home.’ Not quite sure what all of that was about, and she shut up tight when I pressed her. At least she arranged for a guide to meet us in Munson Glen. Once we meet up with them, we’ll be able to get our bearings and find out what’s poisoning the river.”
“Sure. Now all we have to do is find Munson Glen.”
“Kaylin said to just keep heading north, which is what we’ve been doing all vlnkin’ morning. We’re bound to reach it sooner or later.” Dimli settled his helmet back on his head. “But if we don’t reach it in, say, another hour or so, I suggest we go back to the Red Dragon for a pint and better directions.”
“I like the way you think, Dimli.”
They pressed onward for a bit before a thought occurred to Fiona.
“So, is ‘ackppfttt’ another dwarven swearword?”
Dimli chuckled. “Shaddap.”
“This must be the place,” said Dimli.
They stepped out of the trees into a meadow filled with tall grass and colorful wildflowers. Fiona raised her arm before her face and squinted into the light of the noonday sun. Aside from a cloud of bees hovering amidst the flowers and a small, black bird that circled the outer perimeter of the meadow, they were alone.
“Are you sure?” she said. “Kaylin said that our guide would be waiting for us.”
“Have you seen any other glens since we left Greyport this morning?”
Fiona lowered her hand. “Well, no.”
“Then this is it.” Dimli shrugged. “Probably.”
“We can’t have gotten here before our guide,” said Fiona, peering off into the tree line at the far side of the meadow. “Not with all the walking it took…”
“Prithee, friend, to me attend,” said a voice.
Fiona whipped around, her sword already half-clear of the sheathe on her hip. Dimli moved to cover her left flank, crushing the tall grass beneath his heavy, dwarven boots. His axe was in his hands, its razor-sharp blade gleaming in the sunlight.
“Stay your hands, my friends. I mean you no harm.”
The speaker was an elven woman of substantially smaller height and proportions than Deirdre. Her skin was a rich, brownish hue that was enhanced by the thick mop of red dreadlocks sweeping back from her high forehead. She was dressed in simple wilderness attire, though it, like her hair, was adorned with bits of bright stone, animal bone, and feathers. She favored them with a lazy smile and gazed at them with half-lidded eyes, an expression that only further annoyed Fiona.
Fiona slammed her blade back into its sheath, hard enough to make the sound of metal ring throughout the glen.
“Don’t sneak up on us,” she said. “It’s not healthy. For you.”
The elven woman rolled her shoulders in a languid shrug. Her gaze drifted from Fiona’s face to some place above and behind her. Fiona turned, just in case someone else was creeping up behind her, but only saw the leaves of the nearby trees swaying in the wind.
Dimli threaded his axe handle through the loop in his belt. “Kaylin sent you, I take it?”
The elven woman nodded, gently, once. After a moment’s pause, she held out her hand, palm down, fingers loose. “I am Erin.”
Fiona took Erin’s hand and gave it a brisk shake. She was a little put off by how limp and lifeless it felt. “I’m Fiona,” she said, releasing her hand and cocking her thumb over at Dimli. “And this is Dimli, son of Gro…”
“No need for all the titles, lass,” said Dimli. He glowered at Fiona as he took Erin’s still extended hand in his own. “Great to meet you.”
Erin still wasn’t looking at them. She seemed bored. “Likewise.”
She didn’t say anything else. They waited there in a silence that was broken by the low hum of a passing dragonfly. It zipped up to inspect a shiny patch in Fiona’s breastplate before darting away again.
Fiona let out very loud, very significant, cough.
When Erin continued to not respond, she said, “Kaylin said you’d show us what’s fouling up the river.”
There was another long pause. Fiona and Dimli exchanged glances. Dimli shrugged.
“We’re ready whenever you are,” said Fiona, letting the end of her statement rise up until it almost sounded like a question.
“Follow me, and I will take you to the source of the affliction.”
Erin wheeled around and took off across the meadow in a brisk jog, her dreadlocks bouncing along with every step.
“What is with her?” said Fiona.
“Dunno,” said Dimli. He watched Erin vanish into the trees and sighed. “She’s not going to run the whole way, is she?”
Fiona adjusted her sword belt and started off after Erin. “I really hope not.”
Fiona slowed to a walk. Dimli matched her speed and, from the rich, ruddy color of his cheeks, Fiona suspected that he was glad for the change of pace.
Erin swiftly outdistanced them, but Fiona didn’t care. She was breathing hard and sweating inside of her armor. She hoped that there wouldn’t be any chafing. Chafing made her cranky.
“What is with this woman?” said Dimli between breaths. “I know she’s a friend of Kaylin’s, but…”
“I know what you mean,” said Fiona. “Something’s not right about her.”
“She seems like she’s on another plane.”
“And,” Fiona pulled on her breastplate, hoping that the somewhat cooler air might find its way under her armor, “she doesn’t have any weapons.”
Dimli tugged on his beard. “Maybe she’s a wizard. I mean, Zot doesn’t have any weapons, either.”
“Zot has Pooky.”
Dimli chuckled. “Point.”
“And I don’t know that I’d want her casting spells around me. She doesn’t act like she’s paying attention to anything at all, and you know what Zot says about concentration, why I bet…oof. Hey!”
She glared down at Dimli, who had given her a sharp elbow in the ribs, hard enough that she felt it through her breastplate. Dimli put one thick finger across his lips and nodded his head in the direction that they were traveling. Erin had stopped a short distance away, and Fiona realized that they were rapidly approaching her position.
Fiona felt a slight twinge of embarrassment knowing that the elf might have been able to hear her, but when Erin turned to address them, her face still bore its sole expression of sleepy detachment.
She didn’t appear to be sweating either, which made Fiona a little jealous.
“And now, my new companions, do look upon the source of the problem.”
Fiona stomped up the last few steps to stand beside Erin, her hand on the hilt of her sword. Down below her, the hill sloped into a shallow valley by a meandering brook. There had once been trees here, but they had all been chopped down and, judging by the hacked up stumps that remained on the hillside, rather crudely at that.
In the valley, amidst the stump, arose a gigantic mound made of equal parts sawdust and slime. Dark, wet holes riddled its surface, opening on twisting passageways leading into the interior. From these openings issued a susurrus noise that made Fiona’s teeth ache. A significant portion of the mound rested within the brook itself, sloughing off its ropy, slimy residue into the water.
“Pfaugh,” said Dimli, holding his nose. “What’s that awful smell?”
“Whatever it is, it’s coming from the mound, I think,” said Fiona.
Dimli drummed the fingertips of his other hand on the head of his axe as he considered their options. “What do you want to do, lass? Crawl in there?”
“Pfft. No,” said Fiona.
“Didn’t think so.” Dimli reached under his helm and gave his forehead a meditative scratch. “Plans?”
“How much dwarven firewater have you got?”
Dimli reached back and patted his pack protectively. “Three bottles. Why?”
“Well, I was thinking…”
A deafening buzzing sound erupted from the trees behind her, drowning out her words. A dozen bugs about the size of dogs boiled out of the forest, their wings a vicious blur. Fiona’s ducked beneath a flurry of clacking mandibles, unsheathed her sword, and slashed one of the bugs across the abdomen. It fell out of the air and died thrashing, spraying ichor in every direction. Some of it got in Dimli’s beard, sizzling and smoking where it landed.
“Careful, lass, they’re acidic!”
Fiona pulled back into a more defensive posture, drawing a throwing knife as the bugs ringed them in on all sides. Dimli said something in dwarven that was no doubt very unpleasant and hefted his axe.
The buzzing and clacking of their assailants was loud enough to reach the nearby mound. The low, droning noise coming from within was soon replaced by sharp shrieks and chittering. Bugs started pouring forth from the openings on the mound. Fiona couldn’t do anything about them, as she was already hard-pressed by the bugs flying around her. She hurled her dagger toward one of her attackers, stabbed another in its luminous, compound eye, and managed to get back-to-back with Dimli. By the time she had a chance to look again, a seething, buzzing carpet of bugs blanketed the mound.
“That looks bad,” said Dimli, slapping a bug out of the air with the flat of his axe. He brought it down again in an overhead strike, cleaving the insect’s head from its thorax. “We should get outta here.”
“Imraael kerpi!” shouted Erin, raising her hands to the sky.
There was a bright flash of light and a rumble, as if of distant thunder, and a small, black raven darted up into the sky from where Erin had stood just a moment before. The raven let out a throaty caw as it arrowed through the cloud of attacking bugs, heading for the mound.
“She can turn into a bird?” said Fiona, wincing as a gobbet of bug guts struck her in the cheek, searing her skin.
Another bug landed on Dimli’s helmet, its mandibles battering against the metal with a sound like a dozen smith’s hammers. Dimli very carefully smacked himself in the head with the butt of his axe, dislodging the creature.
“Nice for her,” he said as he brought his axe down for a finishing blow, “but what about us?”
Fiona cut another bug out of the sky. “Finish these off. Get clear before those other bugs get in the air.” She scrubbed the acidic slime off her face with the pommel of her sword. “I wish I had brought my crossbow!”
“I wish you had brought a dozen crossbows!”
Even without the crossbows, they were holding their own. The cloud of bugs had thinned out substantially. They just had to finish off the rest before…
Fiona groaned as the bugs covering the mound began to beat their wings and took to the sky. She was about to shout a warning to Dimli when she noticed that Raven-Erin’s trajectory took her right over the apex of the mound.
“What is she doing? When they get in the air, they’re going to cut her to…”
“Imraael temri!” cawed the raven.
There was a flash of light and the raven was gone, replaced a huge, elder oak tree. The tree crashed down onto the mound, crushing bugs beneath it and caving in the roof of the mound. Those bugs that were not killed outright or trapped in the tree’s whipping branches began to swarm, and soon a cloud of whirling, buzzing darkness obscured Fiona’s view of what was left of the mound.
“She can turn into a tree?” Fiona shouted as she struck down another bug with a well-placed pommel strike.
“Just one more reason not to trust trees,” said Dimli, looking out over the devastation. Then he swung his axe upward. “Duck, lass!”
She obeyed, feeling the breeze of the passing axe as Dimli chopped the last of their attackers out of the sky. Ichor drizzled down on her armor, leaving bright streaks in the metal.
“It’s not over yet,” said Fiona, pointing at the swarm of bugs with her dripping sword. “We have to…”
The tree—leaves, branches, and all—vanished in a flash of blinding light. The form that replaced it was huge and shaggy. Erin reared up on her hind legs and, with a mighty roar, laid about herself with great sweeps of her massive paws, slashing bugs out of the sky.
“She can turn into a bear!” shouted Fiona.
“A grizzly, by the look of it,” said Dimli.
The bear tore through the bug cloud, rending wing and smashing carapace. Her fur was smoldering in places and she bled from a few wounds, but she fought onward, her fury undiminished. The bear dropped on all fours, bringing her front paws down to pulp several wounded, but still living bugs, only to rear up again and bellow a titanic roar.
Fiona felt herself smiling. “I take back every bad thing I said about her!”
“Me too, lass, and gladly.” Dimli started off down the hillside toward the mound. “C’mon, let’s help her.”
Fiona charged down the hill, roaring a battle cry. She and Dimli fell on the bugs from behind and carved their way through them, toward the snarling bear.
“Shame to see such fine vintage go to waste,” said Dimli, as he upended the contents of the last of the bottles on what was left of the mound.
Fiona knelt nearby, striking sparks from her flint and tinder, blowing gently when the alcohol and the slimy bulk of the mound looked like they were starting to catch. She stood up as the flames began to spread, sending greasy smoke skyward.
Erin, now in her original form, paced back and forth along the pile of bug corpses, whispering something in another language. When she finished, she joined Dimli and Fiona by the burning mound. Despite the fact that she wore no armor and had borne the brunt of the latter part of the battle, Erin had nothing more than a few scrapes and scratches.
“I am loathe to take so much life, but a little death here saves the lives of many who depend on the river. Thank you for your help.”
“You’re welcome,” said Fiona. “So tell us, how did you do all of that? The shapechanging stuff, I mean.”
“I am a druid,” said Erin with a slight smile. “I am a part of nature and, as you have seen, nature is also a part of me.”
“I like it,” said Dimli.
“Me, too!” said Fiona, extending her hand. “And thank you. That was amazing.”
Erin shook Fiona’s hand, this time with a grip firm enough to make Gog jealous.
“We’re going to head back to Greyport and the Red Dragon Inn,” said Fiona. “Do you want to come with? Drinks are on us.”
“No, lass,” said Dimli, waggling the empty bottle. “Drinks are on you.”