Derek collapsed against the stone to catch his breath, gesturing weakly for the tiefling to continue on and nearly losing his bow from the dead grip of his right hand in the process. Belarus ran by, doggedly clutching the dousing rod and shouting back over his shoulder: “Discretion is the better part of valor, Derek! Retreat and we shall return with young Cedric and my retainer Kokurel to save our allies, but now is not the time to stand!”
The young man smiled and fumbled at his quiver, spreading arrows unceremoniously at his feet from numb, bloody fingertips. “…clumsy as a milk maid grabbing her first udder,” the ranger muttered to himself, falling suddenly to one knee. “Never knew valor was all cut up in parts,” he continued, unfeelingly dragging his hand across a number of shafts along the ground and leaving a smear of blood in the process. “Always figured it was an all or nothin’ kind of thing.” He checked briefly over his shoulder to ensure the tiefling had escaped, and then turned his attention back to the cave. Not six paces away lay Roland, his fervent prayers silenced and his shield cleft in two, his armored body contorted in its final agony. Crumpled in the tall grass, nearly hidden from view, was Benji, a shuriken just beyond his little hand and the blood pooling slowly beneath it staining the soil a rusty umber. And beyond him was Eammon, finally reunited with his son in death, unseeing eyes open to the gnarled roots that hung suspended from the cave roof above, his back arched awkwardly upon the cracked lute beneath him.
The young ranger glanced down at his now empty quiver and spat a wad of blood and lung onto the soil as the redcaps screamed and closed in around him. “Well,” he muttered in resignation as he slowly reached for the dagger at his belt, “at least we took one of you with—“
Eammon saw another pair of arrows strike the redcap mage as it conducted the battle from its fey circle of stone, the second punching clean through the monster’s vicious little form in a spray of blood and viscera. Derek let out a whoop and slid down the rock embankment to escape his pursuers, leaving a small trail of blood as the vines and brambles around his limbs constricted suddenly and stole his life one stubborn drop at a time. Belarus slowly circled his own foe, fingers bent and crabbed as he drew the curse of his dark art, while across the ravine Benjamyn danced between a pair of redcap blades, his young face stoic as the cut on his scalp ran red past his cheek.
The holy name of Erathis spun the bard around, drawing his eye once more to the paladin single handedly holding their escape route. Four redcaps encircled the man, darting in and out with their sickle blades and cackling their mad rhymes at fever pitch. Roland held firm, calling upon his god again as he swung his hammer and delivered a glancing blow to the nearest attacker. Another feinted from the left, but as he pivoted to bring his shield to bear he slipped in his own blood; his boot shifted no more than a foot before he regained his balance, but in that moment another redcap lunged in to bury its cruel sickle in the seam of Roland’s armor. The young man made not a sound, but the redcaps knew he was through, half of them pulling off suddenly to turn their attention to the old bard standing not far away.
Roland looked at Eammon then, his face unreadable despite the pain. Holding his hammer aloft, the paladin compelled the redcaps to turn back through the divine will of his god, but the little creatures seemed almost happy about it. “With the roads in such a state, I got the Knight-Mayor’s leave to wait,” one of the four intoned through crooked, broken teeth as it tromped back to Roland. Another shook the blood off its blade, giggling, "You’ll sometimes find that one or two are all you really need.” The third slowly circled behind the paladin, whispering “But here there’ll be a lot to do,” as the last gasped, “Indeed!” Drawing them once more entirely upon himself as his left flank glistened wetly in the dim cavern light, Roland raised his shield and returned to the business of dying.
Eammon sung then, of life and courage and the glimmers of hope that have no place in our desperate lives. He felt the magic reach out to his comrade, hoping that it might buy him time and earn some small measure of his sacrifice. As he did, Benji leapt across the ravine, landing not far away in a tight ball and rolling to his feet grinning ear to ear. “Bloody ‘ell, did you see that!?” He flourished his short sword and scanned the field, but tentacles from the ravine suddenly shot after him, wrapping themselves around the young boy’s throat and waist and dragging him gasping over the ledge in a shower of skittering stone.
Eammon’s song cut off in a ragged scream as he ran to help the boy. To his side, Belarus hurled a small vial of dark liquid at a redcap only to be rewarded with a blade in his belly and a fierce kick that sent his limp form rolling paces away in the dirt. “On it! Dammit! I’m on it!” Del shouted somewhere in the ravine below, though about what Eammon did not know. Belarus wasn’t moving. Benji was screaming from the ravine for help, and Roland’s voice was getting weaker and weaker behind him.
“This isn’t supposed to happen,” the half elf murmured to himself. “I can’t…I can’t save them. I can’t save him. Foolish old man. Must you cloak yourself in failure at every blasted turn?” The last words he spits out angrily, as if in defiance, and turns grimly to rescue his friends, and perhaps, redeem himself.
He finds a single redcap standing before him, head cocked to the side like a dog trying to understand its master. “"It will soon be done: bands cannot always play, nor ladies smile.” Its lips peel back to reveal its jagged grin as its sickle lashes out faster than the old bard’s eye can follow. “Endure with patience the distasteful fun for just a little while!"
Benji glanced over his shoulder as the sing-songy voice echoed through the cavern. “Did you hear that?”
“Of course I heard it, peck,” the dwarf snapped angrily. “I’m neither deaf nor stoopid, nor such a coward as fears the rotten breath of whatever demented fuck sings songs underground.”
Derek’s mouth twitch a bit at the corner as he glanced ahead to Eammon, who was slowly leading the group by the dousing rod’s inexorable pull. “Don’t dwarves sing underground, Kok?
The dwarf stopped abruptly and jabbed a stubby digit in Del’s chest. “Aye. Drinking songs. And occasionally when some humie hillbilly wanders too deep, we sing ass-kickin’ songs. Would you like tae’ hear a refrain or two, master Derek?”
“Shall we proceed with the stoopid quest, then?”
“Yessir. Proceeding with the quest, sir.”
“What was that?”
“Proceeding with the stupid quest, sir.”
The dwarf spit on the ground and returned to his march. “Aye. As I suspected: yellah.”
Yt lacketh such, I woote:
Yt ys a mutton-saddel, loe!
Parte of ye fleecye brute.
“Oh gods, what’s a mutton saddle?”
Cedric briefly rubbed his temple with one gloved hand. “Maybe you shouldn’t concern yourself overmuch with making sense of these echoes, master Benjamyn.”
The dwarf idly scratched one sideburn as he glared over his shoulder at the halfling. “He means to say to shut up, peck.”
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Roland shifted his hammer’s weight on his shoulder as he smiled reassuringly at Benji. “See? That one didn’t even make sense. No reason to concern yourself, little one.”
Speak roughly to your little boy,
And beat him when he sneezes;
He only does it to annoy,
Because he knows it teases.
Roland shook his head and sighed, regretting having spoken. Benji looked around nervously again, one finger idly tapping his shuriken bandolier without his knowledge, Eammon muttered darkly beneath his breath, and even Belarus cocked a brow askance. “That last one made too much sense for my liking.”
Derek put his head in his hands. “Oh gods, now they’re rhyming.”
Not long after, the route forked before them, and despite Eammon’s insistence that the rod was pointing to the left, Kok assured the party that any dwarf knew his way underground better than any stick, and that it had been that way for generations. Assuming the rest of the group would make the “right decision,” Kokurel set off on the right fork alone, until Cedric, promising he would return as soon as possible, threw up his hands in resignation and trotted after to keep an eye on the dwarf.
And so it was that the bard, the rogue, the ranger, the warlock, and the paladin found the cavernous expanse in which resided the reliquary of Buliwyf’s heart. Seven redcaps stood scattered within the cave, as if in eager anticipation of their arrival. Bowing as one, they brandished their wicked blades and greeted their guests:
Five rosy girls, in years from Ten to Six:
Sitting down to lessons – no more time for tricks.
How cheerfully we seems to grin,
How neatly spreads our claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!
Roland mouthed a silent prayer of thanks to Erathis for their victory as Benji went about looting the bodies in a workmanlike manner.
“Em, well Derek, these Maguffaguffa are also known as redcaps,” Eammon amended as he tuned his lute and plucked a few notes. “Legend tells that they were once gnomes sworn to guard the reliquary we now seek, but over the centuries the dark heart of Buliwyf twisted their souls. They guard the reliquary still, but distinguish not between friend or foe, murdering instead any who would dare seek the heart of their new master.”
“So why call ‘em ‘redcaps,’ then, huh Eammon? At least ‘maguffaguffa’ makes sense.”
“Because in the course of their duties these poor gnomes have taken to bathing themselves in the blood of their victims.”
Some ten paces away, Belarus abruptly dropped a redcap’s limp arm and wiped his hand on its trouser leg. “Charming,” the tiefling muttered under his breath.
“Indeed,” the bard smiled as he clears his throat. “As soon as Benji is done and we’ve caught our breath, we’re off. It seems to be a bit of a maze down here, so I agree with Del that we should mark the cave walls in such a way that we can find our way back. He’s already made a few cuts over here to start us off.”
It was then Roland noticed just such a mark, though it was on the cave wall nearest to him and seemed to be pointing in the wrong direction. Surely Derek knew what he was doing, though; this must be some curious method designed to throw off any pursuit. Best not to say anything, for fear of insulting the young ranger. Shouldering his warhammer, Roland stepped over a redcap body and moved to join his comrades as Eammon began to softly sing.
Benji craned his neck to see over Derek’s shoulder as the ranger squatted beside another dead cockatrice and angrily started plucking feathers. Across the hedgemaze stood a statue of Mr. Quinn, a perfect reproduction of the old, sad bard, except it wasn’t a copy it was the real thing, because Mr. Quinn had been scratched by one of those nasty little birds and one moment he was singing a song about heroes and heroic things, or at least that’s what they always sounded like to Benji, and then he’s telling Roland to leave him be and help the others, and then Benji looked away because he was busy gutting another cockatrice himself because Del had already killed two and they had an informal side thing going on about who gets the most kills that Del said better not to tell Mr. Quinn or Bellie about because they’d be angry, and definitely not Kok (this was Benji’s idea) because Kok can’t keep secrets or control the volume of his voice. Then Bellie comes stomping around a corner pulling leaves out of his hair and branches from his robes and he says “Oh, you want to play rough, hm?” which Benji thought was pretty impressive and the kind of great line that Mr. Quinn said all the heroes said before they killed dragons and kissed princesses, and the next thing he knew Mr. Quinn was a statue because he got turned to stone by a cockatrice.
Bellie was beside Mr. Quinn at the moment, flicking some of the mud stuff off his fingertips after having rubbed much more of it on the statue. “This batch isn’t working either, Derek. Are you sure you know what you’re doing? I’d rather not Eammon be doomed as lawn art for eternity because you can’t remember how to make a rudimentary poultice.”
At about that time Del said something about his uncle’s prize bull taking Bellie on a trip to pound town, which Benji didn’t entirely understand because he hadn’t been out of Allan’s Crossing much and so he didn’t know all the local villages quite like Del did, nor did he understand why a bull would take Bellie anywhere, nor what a stuck pig had to do with anything. Del didn’t seem to be in the mood to explain, since now he was putting the feathers in that small stone bowl with some mud and a little spit and blood and mashing it all together and just leaving his coin pouch hanging out there for the gods and everyone to look in but Benji wasn’t going to hold it for him because for some reason Kok doesn’t appreciate common kindness like that or friends looking out for friends or anything good and decent like that.
Just then Roland placed a hand gently on Benji’s shoulder and started leading him away. “Maybe it’s best for you to go help Belarus, lad,” and though Bellie was vigorously shaking his head ‘no’ and Benji rather agreed with Bellie that it would be more exciting to keep watching Del, Benji figured he’d do what Roland suggested anyway because the paladin looked kinda worried and Benji wanted him to feel better. Benji wasn’t worried, though. Why should he be? Del and Bellie were going to save Mr. Quinn. That’s why he stuck around with these guys for so long, apart from the fact that they could be pretty fun at times: they never lost and they always saved each other. Just like the heroes in Mr. Quinn’s stories.
As the first ray of dawn pierced the dense foliage overhead, Belarus and his companions suddenly found themselves alone. Of the arch-fey, his court, or the hamlet of Stardust, there was no sign, save the lingering injunction to retrieve the reliquary containing Buliwyf’s heart. The tiefling was certain that none but Eammon and himself could feel the mystical energy lacing every fiber of this realm, but even his retainer Kokurel had sensed the power emanating from the being who called itself The Thin White Duke. Such was the power of a god, a power Belarus intended to one day hold for himself. A power that cast in stark relief how weak they really were.
Without a word, Eammon set off to the east, allowing himself to be pulled along slowly by the dousing rod the Duke had given them. Derek sighed and trotted to catch up to the old bard, while Cedric and Roland quickly set the remainder into their marching formation. Soon the seven fell into their customary ways: young Benjamyn conversing with the crass dwarf as Roland and Cedric discussed the shallow “science” of military strategy; Derek slinking ahead for patches of time to scout, then returning to talk with the others; Eammon humming snatches of song under his breath to himself, and Belarus lost in his own thoughts.
He found those thoughts tending again toward the nymph from their crossing and her terrible beauty, the fierce dedication of the courtiers in her thrall, and a small pile of muddy bodies. Toward a pair of perfect porcelain hands crossed in repose and the single green leaf clinging wetly to a wrist.
Killing her was a sin. The tiefling grunted softly and tried shaking the foolishness from his mind, knowing it was but the lingering wisp of her power over him, but the feeling would not subside. Indeed, as he glanced at the life and light of the morning forest, its beauty threatened to overwhelm him. This was not a land of half measures. It was wild and wondrous and infinite. His companions walked on, oblivious to it all, believing it business as usual. But the Feywild was something else entirely. They were intruders, and they had thought to master it with blade and song, axe and bow. And perhaps they had done so for a time—but there would be a reckoning.