It occurred to Theodora that she didn’t actually need to speak. She could probably just think the words she wanted to say and the creatures would hear them telepathically. That said, it was hard to break the habits of a lifetime of speaking with your mouth, and anyway she wanted the rest of the party to hear the conversation.
“Yes, we are the emissaries from the Library,” she told them.
“Excellent. We are the caulborn, and now you will fulfill your end of the bargain,” she heard in her mind.
“Refresh my memory. What was the bargain again?”
“We agreed to show you the secret passageway into the workshop beneath your library. We have done so. Now you, in return, must venture into the Dark Forest and remove the shard that prevents our entry.”
“The Runelord’s shard.”
Scratchy let out a low whistle, Zelcor chuckled softly, and Theodora couldn’t help but have a little fun. “Are there any other ancient artifacts you want us to recover? Maybe the Wand of Orcus? Maybe a rod in seven parts? I hear the Dwarvish lords have a nice axe they aren’t using …”
“No, just the shard,” the caulborn replied, “this way, please.”
The caulborn led the party down the passage to another natural cavern, this one empty except for a square eight-foot pillar of black stone. Walking up to it, the party saw that each of its sides was etched with thin lines depicting a dense forest under a sun in full eclipse. The caulborn reached out and touched the stone with their strange elongated hands, and the party began to hear a disconcerting crooning sound in their heads. The discomfort was soon forgotten, however, as the stone began to glow with a bluish light. “Touch the stone, and travel to the Dark Forest,” everyone heard in their minds, and one by one they did.
Helanda was a little bit hesitant, and as she held back she saw the others touch it and disappear in flashes of blue light. Like many warriors, she was unnerved by eldritch magic, but her Pathfinder friends didn’t seem to mind, and she figured that wherever they were was the best place for her as well. She reached forward, shut her eyes, and pressed her hand against the stone.
There was a rush of freezing cold air, and when Helanda opened her eyes again she was standing not in a cavern but inside what appeared to be a spherical bubble of stone many miles across. Far above her the vault of the ceiling glowed slightly, casting everything into and eerie twilight. Beneath her feet was grass so dark it was almost black, and just beside her was stone pillar, similar to the one in the cavern, but this one much more weathered leaning precariously to one side.
A few feet away, Scratchy was whispering conspiratorially. “Those caulborn are going to betray us. I can feel it.”
“At least they led us to the shard,” Milacent answered, “once we have it we can … hey, is that supposed to happen?”
Milacent pointed to the stone, which had lost its blue glow and was now possessed of a nauseating yellow shimmer. Before anyone could answer Milacent the yellow light pulsed brightly and small … things … began to pour out from its side. Helanda was closest and saw that they were tiny white grubs gushing out in a wriggling stream, and a fear she had not known for years gripped her in the pit of her stomach.
“Rot grubs!” she screamed, “Run!”
The instructions weren’t necessary. The wave of swarming wormlike grubs engulfed the party, the creatures crawling into the spaces beneath armor and clothing and attempting to burrow into the soft flesh beneath. Running was the only thing anyone could think of.
Helanda was the first away, followed by Milacent. Scratchy emerged heaving and wretching from the swarm, then jumped on Fleabait to get away even faster. Zelcor ran, furiously swatting grubs off his skin as he did, then looked around to find that his riding dog had miraculously gotten away unscathed. He began casting a fire spell to burn the away the grubs, then saw to his dismay that Theodora was still in the swarm, covered in grubs. “Burn them! I’ll heal!” the priestess shouted, and Zelcor obliged. A wave of flame swept over Theodora, burning her but killing all the rock grubs on and around her. Zelcor then turned his attention to the rest of the grubs, chucking fireballs at them while the rest of the party healed their wounds and removed what grubs were still on their bodies.
“Met those in a cave beneath Korvosa,” Helanda muttered, “awful things.”
“We’re going to have to rest,” Theodora informed everyone, “I’m out of healing, and we’re still not at 100 percent.”
Everyone nodded in agreement with Theodora’s analysis, and they looked around for a good place to make camp. The bottom half of the sphere they were in seemed to be an enormous bowl-shaped basin, wooded with dark green fir trees and gnarled, naked snags. Thick fog was everywhere, and the entire realm seemed drained of color, leading to an excess of grays and blacks. There was one notable structure: maybe fifty feet away loomed a large black keep, each floor set off from the one below it and seeming to rest on nothingness. The impression was of a stepped jumble of towers and domed roofs, ending in the top of the last tower hanging over a great ledge beneath it.
Zelcor gripped the Shard of Lust that he kept in his bag and said, “That’s where we need to go. The next shard is there.”
“Maybe not just yet,” Scratchy opined, then turned to look at something he had seen from the corner of his eye. With all the flame they had just been throwing around, it was not surprising that they had attracted the attention of the locals, and now several of them were flitting about, hiding behind trees and watching.
Hiding because they were scared? Or hiding because they were preparing to attack? It was time to find out.