Alone but for the screeches of the strange and wonderful animals in the dark jungle, the DragunShip slid down the calm river further into Datura.
As Jalana sat in the crow’s nest, as she’d done a hundred times before, she could almost reach out and touch the snaking tendrils of vines and branches above, the thicker branches missing the top of their mast by only a few feet, the smaller ones occasionally snagging, but not breaking, their sturdy and battle-worn ship.
Sitting on the lip of the crows nest with her currently bare feet up on the ledge, the night was no different to any of the other 10 or so nights since they left Mallac’s Rest.
She looked down at her feet and saw the small scorpion that she’d found in the Drow’s nest. It was clicking it’s claws together and seemed to be cleaning itself. Jalana wondered about the last time she bathed. It was within the last month, she was sure, and let the thought go. She wondered again at the vision she had a few nights back; she was in the crow’s nest, as she was now, and there was a heavily obscuring fog everywhere.
She remembered being scared in the dream, for what reason she did not know. In the dream she remembered looking down from the perch to see if she could spy the deck, and, in the dream, there was a great being climbing towards her. As he got to the perch he peered at her quizzically, and told her that it was okay to let go, then let go himself, falling backwards into the mist. She recalled the greatest thing about the dream was the connection to the man, his amazing set of stag horns and the look of serenity as he fell into the mist.
Jalana came out of her reverie and saw that Clarence, her scorpion companion, had disappeared over the edge of the nest. She stood and peered over the edge, seeing him comfortable in a small nook that he’d found. She smiled, and looked up.
“Ho! Ahead!” she called, pointing towards where they were headed.
Directly ahead there was a thick blanket of branches, vines and thorns blocking the way on the small river. With no way to avoid it, and with the ship heading towards the obstruction far too quickly to stop in time, she braced herself.
Those on the deck below leapt to attention, Fabian rebuking the other crew members for their lack of attention, and silently rebuking himself and wondering about the inevitable discipline that the captain would be dealing out.
With a door swinging on it’s hinges and a loud bang, Grash came limping and shouting from his cabin. “Fabian! What in the grunting bugbears arse is going on!” he called as he made his way mid-deck.
Jalana leaned over the crow’s nest and called down “Grash! Hold onto something!” and pointed at the brambles ahead.
Grash looked, and he saw what she meant. A seemingly impenetrable thicket of wood. “Fuck” he mumbled to himself as he didn’t bother to hold onto anything.
As they got closer, and all this happening in mere seconds, the wall of nature started to move. First it seemed like a wind had picked up, then visibly, the wall began to part. As they watched the wall parted, being pulled back like the drapes on a stage, to reveal behind a beautiful sight. The sky was again visible behind the natural shroud, and not just any sky but a ebony field of sapphires that didn’t end when the horizon met the river ahead. The water beneath reflected the stars above and it seemed to those on board that the ship would would sail into the sky itself.
They didn’t, though. The ship sailed on past the wall of wood and into what was one of the strangest scenes they’d ever seen. As the slipped into what seemed to be some kind of dock, they saw ships, as in any dock. However these ships were not docked as one would presume, the ships looked unfinished and without visible work being done on them. The hull had no planks, the ship was smooth hulled, almost like they had been whittled from one piece of wood. As they got closer they saw that the masts themselves seemed to be mere trees growing from the deck itself. But that wasn’t the strangest thing. The ships weren’t free floating in the river, they were attached to roots of the trees. The roots covered the banks of the river, obscuring any view of the earth of the river bank, and from those roots seemed to be ships growing from them.
“Fabian.” called Grash in the eerie quiet. "Moor the ship on the port side of the river.
Fabian gave a quick yessir and got the ship banked, throwing lines and the crew mooring the ship quickly and efficiently.
“Let’s have a look around, shall we?” said, Grash as he walked down the plank to the root covered bank of the river. There wasn’t much in the way of ‘ground’. The floor was covered with vines, roots and jungle detritus. The plants were like nothing they’d ever seen, some of them covered in spikes and some with the most magnificent shades of green, blue and purple. They did not look edible.
Jalana, Shun and Grash made their way to one of the other ships. Wary of their surroundings. Jalana shifted into the shape of a gorilla and took to the trees. Shun looked on in what other elves would consider to be amazement, however anyone not of the higher race would deem it to be an expression of the blandest of indifference. He stored the information away and continued his inspection of the ships.
As they saw that the ships were just as they thought, growing out of trees, Jalana looked across the river and saw someone familiar. A giant badger-wolf sat on it’s haunches and was watching them. This was certainly the companion of the fallen Leaf. She pointed it out to the others, but as they watched the creature made it’s way into the jungle, away from their vision.
They continued their scouting of the surrounding areas, enjoying the time on shore, even though the shores’ earth was not being trodden. Suddenly Jalana saw a head pop up from some of the roots. The face was similar to Leaf’s; hard, weathered and dark with sparkling eyes however this one seemed female. The figure was concealed from the shoulders down by the thick mass of roots but Jalana could see that the Halfling was doing something with it’s hands. As they all watched the Halfling moved something from it’s hands to its mouth and began calmly eating and continued to watch them.
“Hello!” called Shun to the Halfling woman (girl?). “She seems harmless enough.” he added to his companions.
About two dozen other heads popped up about them, most of them seemingly gathering things from the roots, some with children strapped to their chest and some armed. The men, women and children did not seem alarmed to see the outsiders, they continued to go about their gathering and chatting amongst themselves. Shun, having a basic understanding of the Halflings language could hear them talking about how the outsiders would die. Some of them spoke about their dinner this evening, and some spoke of things that Shun could not understand.
Jalana the Gorilla came down from the trees and made her way amongst the little people. Some of them startled but not too worried after they saw that she meant them no harm. One of the children leapt at her, and climbed onto her shoulders. Another offered her some of the small mushrooms that they were picking. Tentatively she ate it. It tasted like a mushroom. The little ones seemed happy with this.
“We’re looking for your leader.” advised Shun as he and Grash got closer. “We have a message, a delivery.” he added in his limited language.
Some of them were listening and a few of the children laughed and ran into a nearby tunnel of roots. A particular Halfling woman with no bags or children about her motioned for them to follow her. She lead the way with her heavy and nasty looking spear into the tunnel after the children.
“Vuvu, hold the ship, we’ll be back soon.” Grash spoke into the speaking stone and made to follow the woman, however he was pushed aside by a large gorilla with no less than 5 small Halfling children on it’s back that went into the tunnel on all fours.
Grash looked at Jalana, then looked at Shun looking at Jalana and shrugged. Not the strangest thing he’d seen lately. He made his way into the tunnels with Shun.
As they wound their way underground, then above ground, then under again they realised that the tunnels were well used by the Halflings. After a half hour or so they came out of the tunnels to a clearing. Stone and shattered statues were strewn about the place, the whole area seemed to be some kind of sunken ancient temple. Thankfully the ground here was cleared of roots and they could see the earth under their feet. Into the clearing they saw the children ahead scattering and heading into some of the many tunnel openings in the area. Some leading into the root systems and some into stone doorways also leading into the ground.
They stood in the clearing, surrounded by the chatter and movement of the Halflings. None of the companions felt violence in the air and none felt the need to arm themselves, it was a good choice.
They watched an older Halfing emerge from one of the stone doorways and make his way down to them in the clearing. Holding himself up on a sturdy looking staff and flanked by three tough looking Halflings, he came to them and stopped. Looking at each in turn, first Grash, then Shun, then the Gorilla covered in Halfling children, he spoke.
“You have something for us?” he asked bluntly and with no sense of worry about himself.
“Tell him we have the Dark Heart of the Forest, and ask him how much he’s willing to part with for it.” Said Grash, feeling left out because of his lack of understanding of the language.
Shun began to translate as the gorilla walked off into the jungle. “Well, yes, we do.” he replied as he turned back to the old man. ‘We have the Dark Heart of the Forest.’ said Shun just as Jalana came back from the jungle being followed by children still poking her and trying to jump on her back, with one succeeding.
“Oh hello everyone! Fancy seeing you here” she said, with a sly wink to her ship-mates as she popped another mushroom into her mouth.
The elder Halfling looked at her with a cocked eyebrow. “Is she… simple?” has asked Shun whilst pointing at Jalana.
Shun looked at Jalana who was pretending that she had just stumbled across this highly secluded clearing deep within Datura without being noticed by any of the Halflings until just now.
‘Yes.’ he answered. ‘Besides that,’ he continued ’they brought something to you, the leader of your people, for them to fulfil a pledge that they made to a Halfling called Arryn."
As he mentioned the name Arryn all the movement in the clearing stopped.
‘You speak a name that hasn’t been used here for many years.’ said the old Halfling. ‘You need to explain yourselves and what you know of Arryn.’
Grash explained, through Shun, where they met Arryn and how they came to be in possession of the black and forever-bleeding heart. As Jalana took the heart from the bag, with the blood dripping from her hands she looked at the older man and, in the common tongue said ‘Here is the heart, take it and we can be done with this.’
They did not take the heart. Many averted their gaze, some cried out in alarm as the heart beat and bled. Some left, running to the tunnels and warning others to stay away. Only the old man remained unbowed. His eyes full of sorrow.
‘A long time ago, a great warrior named Hamza’Tahir’Arryn was sent by the All Mother to hunt down a demon that our people released into the world. This was over one hundred years ago. You say that you saw Arryn?’
‘Yes, we saw him.’ said Jalana through Shun. She neglected to tell the old Halfling how she had plunged her knife into his chest and ripped the heart form his still living body. ‘But he is dead now.’
The elder sat on a nearby stone, suddenly looking weary yet hopeful. ‘There is…still a chance. We can still make right what we have done all those years ago. You will need to speak to our leader.’
As Shun translated Grash threw up his stump and cried ‘What?! You’re not their leader! We’ve been wasting time with you!’ and he went to the old man and grabbed him by the shoulder with his suddenly-there mage hand crackling with energy and shook him. ‘Where…is…your..leader!’
Several of the Halflings came forward but did not directly threaten Grash, but did look at him quite sternly. The elder was not bothered, but he stood and came back to the open earth below their feet and began to draw. “Here is where our leader is, he is out hunting today. He hunts the Ottugh. Be careful when you find him, those things…get in your head.” and the old man turned and walked back to one of the openings to the sunken stone temples.
“Addled old fool.” grumbled Grash, as the group studied the man and headed off in the direction of the river again. As Grash turned his back to the Halfing group he felt a sharp sting in his neck and moved his mage hand up to it, expecting a bug of some kind, except his hand came back with a small dart, tipped with a strange feather. He stopped and looked back at the Halflings, some of which were still looking his way and none of which were holding blowguns. He grunted, feeling no immediate pain, and made his way after Jalana and Shun.
They got the the river and found Vuvu waiting for them, as they had spoken to her through the sending stones and advised her to meet them there. She got them across the river safely and advised them that it was best that she stayed with the ship to make sure the crew were safe.
As the group followed the instructions of the Halfing elder they eventually saw, in the distance some two hundred yards, a large gleaming white temple. The stars were barely visible through the canopy above and the sounds of the night creatures was not calming. As Grash made his way cloaked in darkness, he felt, more than saw, a figure in the undergrowth ahead. Guessing this was their quarry he whispered to the others what he’d found.
“Hey you!” called Jalana, startling several small animals nearby. “We’re looking for you! Are you the leading of those short people we saw before?”
Grash was startled but not surprised. “Well, there goes the element of surprise” he muttered into the sending stones, and stood and walked over to the figure huddled in the roots and vines.
“Who approaches Jung?” the figure asked, his voice unmistakeably that of a Halfling, but he spoke the common tongue albeit haltingly.
“We bring you news of Arryn, and we bring you the Dark Heart of the Forest.” said Shun, with Jung the one now being startled.
“Arryn? The great hero of old, I was a mere boy when he left our village with anahata to defeat the dark one from below.” he said, more to himself than to them. " You have the anhata?"
Jalana came forward, now understanding the word for Dark Heart of the Forest, Anhata. She reached into her bag and took out the heart, offering it to him. The Halfling shook his head, “This is not the time for such things, we are in danger here and I am worried that you have sprung the trap designed for another. I hunt a great beast, called Ottugh. My people are out there now, flushing it towards me, to the temple there.”
He motioned to the temple, and just as he did so there was a terrible screech in the distance. Flashed and memory of a giant green dragon laying waste to Mallac’s Rest flashed through their minds, but Jung spoke up “That is the beast now, prepare yourselves and watch, but do not interfere, the beast is mine to kill.” and he made his way to the temple to meet it.
The other three climbed a tree, intent to watch the Halfling warlord fight such a beast. As they waited, and they didn’t wait long, the saw not one but three giant beasts, all claws and tentacles and slavering maws come bursting from the jungle into the clearing of the temple. Jung seemed startled but not scared, launching himself at the nearest of the creatures.
“He will not survive this!” cried Jalana “We need to help him.”
“Agreed, he cannot expect to overcome such odds. Plus, I need to stretch my legs a little anyway.” said Grash, looking down at his one good leg and the other one that still had Leaf’s leg skewered onto it. He huffed and leapt from the tree, racing to intercept one of the Ottugh with Jalana close behind.
Fearless Jung sprung from a crouch to the nearest Ottugh, pummelling it with fists and foot and with his short sword. The beast trying in vain to grasp him with it’s tentacles. From the tree that they were hiding in came a brilliant flash of light and an ear splitting bang of pressure as a bolt of lighting smashed into one of the beasts. Although it burned many of it’s appendages the beast stayed on fighting and trying to claw its way to the others up the temple walls.
Jalana drew her blade and with a cry it became fire, with Grash by her side they climbed the side of the temple to get a better position on the Ottughs. With Jung battering and piercing the beasts from within their reach and lightning blasting their flank, Jalana and Grash ran along a ledge of the temple and flung themselves down on top of the one that wasn’t attacking Jung. Their blades found purchase in the hard scaly skin of the beasts and they were hard pressed to stay out of the reaching tentacles protruding from their back.
As they fought Jalana heard a voice in her head, with no accent of emotion it told her of the plight of their kin and how the Halfings hunted them for sport. She knew then that the Ottugh was trying to communicate to her, and it wanted peace! She yelled this at Grash and compelled him to stop, seeing Shun in the trees she knew he was too far away to hear her and she dismayed, standing with her weapons stowed and hands out entreating her companions to stop. However the beasts fought on.
Jung, overmatched and under prepared was knocked down by one of the beasts giant arms, and then further crushed by it’s tentacle, being lifted and smashed into the stone below, his head hit the ground with such force that even his training could not keep him conscious and he knew darkness then.
As Grash downed one of the beasts there was now only two, and as he leapt deftly to the side he felt a presence in his mind, it called to him and told him that if he was spared that they would show him where the Halfings keep their treasures. Grash threw off the creatures voice and yelled “You won’t escape my blades that easy you overgrown worn!” and laughed as he killed.
Shun saw this and sent a terrible stream of lightning at one of the creatures, calling out his arcane and otherworldly powers at the beast who exploded in a vicious cloud of entrails and blood. The last Ottugh still fought, but with Shun, Grash and Jalana fighting it was summarily overcome and executed.
As they came to the still body of Jung Jalana knelt down by his body, and tapping into the energy of the jungle about them she called the spirits to bring life back to his ragged and barely breathing body. He stirred and then gasped, grasping at the rocks about him and getting up onto his knees, but he could rise no further in his pain and shock.
Jung looked up to see an imposing dark figure above him, dark matted hair about her face, freed from its tethers during the fight and blood on her face. ‘It is okay, they are dead. We saved you.’ said Jalana.
With wide eyes Jung looked around, seeking the eyes that he knew would be watching them. There, in the tree line, his warriors, watching him. His face was as stone, and he begins to stand, shaking, with all the strength of his bloodline he gets to his knees. But it was not enough, he had already fallen, and been saved by outsiders.
His people, his clan, his warriors and his family turned and walked back into the jungle with sorrow on their faces like that of those that had recently lost a loved one.
Jung knew they would never again accept him as their leader.