As we walked, we discussed whether we should rest again. Even given the rest that we had had after fighting the blights, Beiro and Baldwin looked quite beaten up and Melech claimed he was running out of spells. With the wound Beiro had given me, I was inclined to agree, but I also wanted to continue and not leave ourselves open to attack. Finally, we agreed to keep going, but would almost certainly need another break, if not to pause for the night, if we found any more resistance.
A short while later, we heard Baldwin call from behind us “Wait, I hear something. Rustling or chittering or something”. We all stopped to see whether we could hear it “I heard it too” Beiro said, “but it seems to have stopped”. I obviously missed it. “Let’s keep going, but carefully,” Baldwin said, ushering is forward once again. We took a few more steps and there was a flash of movement ahead of us. I happened to be looking in just the right spot and caught a clear view of the creature. A small spindly body covered entirely in the same thorns as in the walls. I also recognised it, as these creatures were the subject of many an elven folk tale. This was a child of the briar and given where we were, there were likely a lot more nearby. There were many tales that warned caution whenever you could hear the clicking sound that is their language, as they are evil in nature and enjoy the taste of blood. However, they carried their own interests and would trade for trinkets, favours or blood willingly given.
I relayed this information quietly to the rest of the group and decided it perhaps best to start a discussion of trade to avoid the threat of an attack. Given Baldwin had the crown he called out to the woods in Sylvan “Children of Briar, we would like to trade”. No response. I stepped forwards, thinking a better idea of what we were dealing with would help, but it would only serve to break my confidence “Children of briar, we have….err… trinkets with which we would like to find out what…err…you have to offer?”. Unsurprisingly, our hidden friends remained equally unmoved by this. I decided to cut to the chase. Rummaging around in my backpack, I pulled out the copper chalice that we had found in the same hall we had found the crown in. “We have this trinket to offer for a trade”. A thorny head poked out of one of the nearby walls “Trade?” It said, also in Sylvan. “Yes,” I responded, “we have no quarrel with you and wondered whether maybe we could offer each other something”. The small creature cocked its head to one side, then pointed at the chalice “I’ll show you to the centre of the maze in exchange for that cup”.
This seemed like a good start, changing what could have been an encounter that wore us out into our ticket to our destination. “Would we be safe if we were with you?” I queried, keen to get some clarification on this potential deal. “That would be down to Amabilis,” they said, matter-of-factly. We’d learned this was the dryad’s name from the pixie earlier and it was a fair point because it seemed like she had a high degree of control over this maze. What it did tell us was we would likely be safe from any of his companions in the maze. Keen to take advantage of conversing with an inside figure, I started querying about any information they might have. “If we had more to trade, could you tell us anything about Amabilis, the hag or the orcs that we’ve seen about the maze?” They thought for a second, “We could tell you about the orcs, what else would you have to exchange?” Thinking about our options, we had the ivory comb as another trinket, but it was probably worth a lot more than the information about the orcs. We’d had enough of favours after the hag incident, so that left us with blood. I wasn’t aware of any ill effect on us or the briar child of giving this, just that they liked it, so it was probably our best bet. “What about blood?” I asked. The child of briar’s eyes lit up at this suggestion. “Yes, that would be good” it chirped.
With our possibilities settled, I requested to discuss them with my companions. Our conversation had been taking place in Sylvan, so, although Baldwin knew what was going on, Melech and Beiro were less up to speed. We discussed and discounted the comb for extra information (although Melech was keen if there were no other options) and Beiro bravely volunteered himself to give blood, particularly as it was in exchange for information about the orcs. Beiro hated orcs. We were just reaching the details of offering the blood first and giving the chalice when we arrived safely when the child of briar interrupted. “Cup first”, in common, having clearly been eavesdropping. I looked at them. They didn’t seem to be about to double cross us, they just didn’t want to lose out themselves. If there was anything you could trust fey on, it was keeping up their side of a bargain. “Ok, fine,” I said, “but blood later”. “Hmmm” it pondered “ okay!” And held its hands out for the chalice. I handed it over and the briar child held it above its head triumphantly. “Follow me!” they squeaked and dashed off deeper into the maze. We gave chase, dashing down corridors and around corridors, frantically trying to unspool our thread for finding our way back.
After about 5 minutes of dashing about, the child of briar came to an abrupt halt. “Alright!” They said, turning around to face the now panting party “You’ll find the centre of the maze just around that corner”. They then looked up expectantly. “Beiro, would you do the honours?” I said, realising it was now Beiro took a dagger from Melech (having only longer, less cumbersome weapons himself) and cut the palm of his hand, dropping the blood into the cup the child of briar was holding. As he did so, tendrils started to grow from the child’s hands into the cup and down to the blood. It reached the blood and started to drink, quickly draining all that had been offered. “So, about the orcs?” I pressed. “Oh yeah,” they shrugged “they tried to get to the centre of the maze, but didn’t get very far” That was weird “but we saw some of them stuck in the walls,” I said. “Maze is getting bigger” they shrugged again. “Well, I’ll be off now!!” they squeaked and dashed back off into the briar.
Peering around the corner, Baldwin and I could see a wide clearing, within which there was a humongous tree reaching up out of the briar and into the sky. There seemed to be an entranceway carved into the trunk inviting further investigation. Our group cautiously stepped out into the entranceway, then from behind the tree stepped out another figure to join us. A beautiful female humanoid figure wreathed in leaves. Amabilis. But her skin was slate grey, not the greens or oranges of the forest a dryad is supposed to be. She spoke, “Leave NOW interlopers, and you may yet escape with your lives”. I knelt slightly, in a last desperate attempt for reason “Amabilis, if any part of your true-self remains, you must tell us what we can do to save you, to remove this corruption”. Amabilis furrowed her brow “The only thing that shall be removed is YOU” and as she spoke she released a barrage of magic missiles towards my companions. Beiro and Baldwin both took a hit but Melech blocked it with a magical shield. Baldwin chuckled “Yeah, whatever. Get em Beiro!”, but before we could return fire, her form merged into the tree and disappeared from view. Moments later we heard a shout from high in the tree, Amabilis again “Begone! Leave this place!”
We made towards the opening in the tree and found the inside to have been carved out into a spiral staircase. I started muttering to myself “This is that hag’s doing. This is NOT good for the tree”. The stairs were clearly not grown through any natural influence, they were carved, probably a few months ago based on the state of the wood. Head down, angry about this, I almost bumped into Melech as there was a yelp up ahead. Sounds of fighting started, but on the tight staircase, I could not see who our assailant was. Melech, ahead of me, seemed to be in the same situation and pulled out a mirror. Passing it to Beiro to hold, he started firing off spells into it, ricocheting off with what sounded like tremendous accuracy. I positioned myself to try and see what was attacking us in the mirror and could make out what appeared to be a small amorphous figure. “I came from the tree” yelled Baldwin, in full combat with it. With only the mirror to go on, I started trying to hurl insults. “You’re uglier than a blobfish!” “I bet you always cry at movies because you’re a big SAP!”.
At this point, Baldwin fell and suddenly came sliding down the stairs, I was unable to avoid him in the tight space of the tree and took a tumble as his body came past. I quickly got up and, looking nervously back at his body, having caught on a knot a handful of steps down, I doubled down on the insults. “I bet you think this is a bit of a STICKY situation”, “I’m going to distil you into syrup!”. I’m not sure how much it was actually helping, because then Beiro’s body came sliding the stairs as well. After being knocked over again, I saw Melech now face to face with this creature and looking rather panicked. He turned to me “We are RETREATING after this” and put his fist through the mirror. The shards scattered out into the air around the globular creature and, spinning in place, started slashing into its form. Melech turned tail and pushed past me down the stairs, leaving me alone face to face with this…thing. It looked like it had already taken a lot of abuse, but it had already felled two of my companions and I wasn’t at my best either. Gritting my teeth, I pulled out my dagger and stabbed it straight in the middle its form. It started to crystallize around the blade and as the rest of the creature hardened, I swung the rapier around into the side of the tree, smashing it and sending chunks of crystalized sap skittering down the stairs.
I came down to find Melech trying to shake the others awake. “We need to move, let’s get out of the maze and try again tomorrow”. Frustratedly, I agreed. The thread would mean we should be able to get back to the middle again quickly and camping here wouldn’t give us much rest. I expended the last of my musical energy in waking Beiro and Baldwin from unconsciousness and we all started hurrying back out of the labyrinth.