Beneath the Southwestern WIlds lies a portion of Nidavellir known to those who dwell there as "the Krawl." It is here that the deepest roots of the greatest, most ancient trees of the Wilds reach, growing and tangling together, unchecked except by the parasitic fungi and lichens that feed upon them, many poisonous or covered in thorns. The tunnels of some native beastfolk of the Wilds reach deep into the Krawl to gather resources, including the Formican ant-folk who cultivate fungi there. And there are native creatures even more dangerous - enormous insects, fungal humanoids, and gods know what else. Even more dangerous than the rest of Nidavellir, it is not a place many mortals ever dare to tread.
Kyle Bloodmoon, Fen Ambreeze, Bartholomew, Vsskyre, and Rona reached the final room of Castle Blood's deep dungeon with heavy hearts, having lost so many comrades along the way. Even Metallon and Kairn seemed lost, for though they still followed behind them, both were injured and... confused. The walls of the last tunnel through which they had passed had been... cracked, and something had been growing through the gaps. The tunnel had been littered with the corpses of strange fungal creatures, but not all had been completely dead. Some had leapt back to life, and in the ensuing battle, they'd wounded Kairn and Metallon, infecting them with a strange toxin. This had not done wonders for their minds, already addled from the Darkness. The Minotaur and the Alfar-kin seemed barely cognizant now, leaning on each other for support and staring at the floor while they walked... and their companions were not sure if they would ever snap out of it.
But the party almost forgot all these troubles when they opened the last pair of ancient, dark oaken doors and gazed into the deepest room of Castle Blood.
It was eerie, and yet strangely beautiful. The room was enormous, with a tall, vaulted ceiling. From the very top of the dome hung an enormous spike of solid black crystal, covered in runes. Like the tunnel before, the room was covered in cracks... and the roots of the Krawl grew through every one of them. Yet one root in particular was not like the others: the root of the plant with which Vsskyre and Fen had communicated upon first entering the dungeon. It ran thicker and stronger than all of the other roots, its dark bark covered in streaks of glowing green and purple, covered in smaller mushrooms and even strange, dark flowers. Even moreso than the other odd plants they had seen, this great glowing vine was certainly not of this world. The whole room danced with its shimmering lights.
The vine seemed to originate from the very center of the room, growing out of a fissure in the floor in the midst of a circle of strange runes. And there inside of this circle crouched a single, strange figure: a pixie, seemingly, but not quite like Fen Ambreeze. He was in his human size, and his wings were like those of a butterfly, but dark blue and black, with jagged edges. His hands and feet were blackish, with a dark hue that faded in tendrils as it traveled up his arms and legs. The rest of his skin was quite pale, almost bluish in color. He had spiked black hair and equally black eyes, with pale pupils that shone in the darkness. These disturbing eyes turned to regard the intruders as they entered, but he did not rise or speak.
But this otherworldly fairy was not the only sign of life in the room.
First of all, there were the corpses - three of them. The first was the body of Driu, the party's former satyr companion. Now he was dead, his throat cut cleanly by the stroke of a sword. His wide eyes stared at the ceiling, and the fragments of several crushed soulstones lay on the ground around him, in the pool of his blood. The other two corpses were not anyone the party of Minoan allies recognized. They both lay within the rune circle where the pixie sat, right near the butterfly-man's black feet. Both dead men were Imperial humans in dark blue cloaks, and both had clearly been killed by blades, although the pixie had no weapons on his mostly naked person.
"Dead Venators..." muttered Vsskyre, staring at them.
And then there were the other humans...
"Lady Juno!" Rona suddenly exclaimed, and she rushed to a tangle of vines growing along the nearby wall.
Entangled in the vines on the wall hung six Imperials. The first - Lady Juno - was a female Templar in silver and gold armor. She was older, with blond hair and a weather-beaten but not unattractive face. Rona pulled on the glowing vines that bound her, but she could not seem to budge them. Also entangled in the vines were another pair of Venatori, one of whom was a dwarf, and a pair of Inquisitors in black Void-Iron mail. And finally, the last was a young woman in no particular uniform, with many pouches on her leather armor - probably a hired adventurer.
"Stay back, Rona!" shouted Lady Juno, causing her squire to let go of the glowing vines. "Don't touch these strange plants, lest you become bound as well! They are unholy... unnatural."
"Like us?" said Vsskyre, cautiously approaching the vine's prisoners. "I have spoken to this vine. It has a spirit just like yours and mine. It spoke of a being it wished to be set free... It must be the fairy there... I assume you tried to harm him, didn't you? And the vine protected him."
Lady Juno looked up at the moth-kin, her blue eyes blazing with righteous fire. "Our Venatori did their duty, beast-kin. Look at that 'fairy' - Does he look like the one that follows you? No. He is corrupted, perhaps by the evil of this place. Do you know how he killed those two men? He took control of the mind of the first one, and forced him to attack his partner, whom he had hunted beside for more than ten years. His partner was forced to kill him in order to defend himself. And when he realized what that monster had made him do - kill his closest friend - he turned his dagger on himself and took his own life."
At last, the fairy prisoner rose from his crouched position beside the vine and walked to the edge of the ring of runes, and spoke, in a lilting voice as otherworldly as his appearance: "I was only defending myself, dear lady knight. As you can see, I carry no weapons. Indeed, I carry nothing at all, save this loincloth I wear out of respect for what your kind call 'decency.' How do you expect me to fight? I must use the tools that I have... such as magic. Magic like that poor satyr there tried to use, before your Inquisitors cut him down like a rabid dog."
"His magic was dark as well!" retorted the knight, unashamed. "You see those stones we smashed around him? They contained the souls of his victims, many probably his fellow beastfolk like yourself!"
"Indeed," said one of the Inquisitors to Vsskyre, his eyes as dark as his armor and his tone cold and matter-of-fact. "The satyr was desperately trying to summon a demon to protect him, with no summoning circle to contain it, before I stopped him. Had I not killed him, that demon would be rampaging even now, killing you beastfolk and elves."
"Hmm, well," intoned the strange, black-eyed fairy man, "it seems these newcomers have a choice then, doesn't it? What will it be, newcomers? You travel with a Templar squire... Does that mean you will free these mortals and help them slay me? Or will you free me instead, as my lovely Mawinwydden asked you to do? All you would need to do is smash one of these runes the dark wizard put here to trap me. Then the invisible barrier that keeps me inside would be broken! And then I could help you unlock the secrets of the black crystal above my head... the mage-lord's most powerful artifact. It contains power beyond your dreams, you know. Or I could help you simply destroy it, if that's what you came here to do. It matters not to me - I only wish my freedom."
"Don't do it!" cried Lady Juno, her voice clear and commanding. "This dark creature wishes you to unleash the very blackest of magics, contained here by the black-hearted wizard who built this accursed place! Help us slay this evil spirit, and we will help you destroy the crystal, and then you have our word that we will convince the Imperial army to let you leave this castle and return home."
The fairy chuckled. "Hmm, perhaps. But I'm sure they'll want to keep the castle. Or perhaps they're lying, and they will try to use the power of the crystal against you. It is a soulstone you see - the largest one ever created. With the power contained within, you could drive the Empire out of this entire land! Or not - whichever you prefer. Just please, don't listen to these zealots. My name is Puck, and I am one of you. Smash one of these runes trapping me, and I will prove it to you."
At last, Rona spoke up, glancing at each of the Minoan party members, before her eyes landed imploringly on Fen. "Please, friends, don't let him trick you! He's some kind of demon - he must be. My Lady Juno is a woman of her word, I swear. If you free her, I am sure she will do what is right."
It was impossible to tell whether this was true from the expressions of the Imperials, all of whom had faces like stone - except for the hired adventurer girl, who looked very eager to get out, even though she remained silent.
The fairy prisoner - Puck - smiled. "So what will it be, allies of Minos? The choice is up to you..."
((NOTE for Harry Monster and Half-Baked: Your characters are still alive. If you post again, you may wake them from their stupor and join in the events here. If you do not post again, they may never snap out of it. The choice is up to you.))