WHEN THERE’S NOTHING LEFT TO BURN, YOU HAVE TO SET YOURSELF ON FIRE: which meanders through an ethereal grove until I categorically lose my shit

Well, Meepo definitely was not in the ground. Felegum checked it with his stone magic, digging down into the weird, absorbent soil about ten feet to search for a body and came up with nothing. Zeno did manage to find some footprints leading out of the undergrowth, though, so I chose to be optimistic. If we can’t find locate his corpse, then chances are he managed to run away.

Felegum walked back and forth out of the cavern and the next room where the viney undergrowth ceased. “Hey guys, check this out! Humidity, no humidity, humidity, no humidity. In my professional opinion, this is magic.”

“Thank you, Felegum,” said Zeno.

We left the loamy soil and Awk stooped to put his shoes back on.

“Ew, gross, you had your shoes off this whole time” I grimaced. “You don’t know what’s living here.”

Awk shrugged. “I like soil.”

“I don’t.”

We started down the hallway. “Do you think Meepo could open a door?” Felegum asked.

I had to think about it. Probably? Maybe? I’d never actually seen him open a door, and it wasn’t like we had a lot of doors back home. It didn’t seem like the fairest metric.

Anyway, we managed to find a tunnel that led up from the Grove into the goblin living area, which made sense– it wasn’t like you’d want to rappel down into the abyss every time you needed to pull some weeds or whatever. Still no sign of Meepo, but Awk did try to tune into the Goblin Shopping Network while we were walking to no avail, so at least that was amusing.

We retraced our steps and wandered along back through the doors in the non-garden basement parts of the lower level, eventually reaching a room full of locked doors. Zeno knocked on one in his typical bombastic fashion and a goblin voice answered. “Who’s there?”

“Oh,” Zeno ad-libbed, “we just passing through.”

“Passing through?” The goblin repeated. “No one passes through here. Only the ones who make us tend the garden!”


“Derrnen and his skeletons! They make us do it and then throw us back in here.”

Zeno and Felegum looked at the lock on the door keeping the goblins inside and then at me expectantly. I got out my tools. Like I said, doors are not an indicator of intelligence. You can be perfectly capable and still have hiccups with doors. Luckily, I manage to open this one. I asked the goblins if they helped take care of the tree with the apple, but they said no, that they weren’t allowed in the Grove.

They made it sound like a very capital-G kind of Grove.

Anyway, we let them go and they scuttled back through the passages to the rest of the goblin living quarters. Harry and I were sneaking around investigating things when Awk decided to waltz right in to the next room and discovered a bugbear.

“Who are you?” They asked.

“I’m a druid,” Awk said placidly. “I’m here to look at the trees. Derrnen sent me.”

Apparently this was too unbelievable for the bugbear and it attacked, smashing its shovel into Awk.

Zeno peeked in. “I do not feel compelled to enter this room.”

Helli and Felegum were off somewhere else examining a ravine or something, and I think I heard him asking her if she could jump over it.

Zeno cast that weird laughter spell on the bugbear. I tried to cut into the bugbears (because naturally now there were two) and had no luck, Harry punched, and Awk became a bear, which pushed all of us into the walls and corners of the tiny room, since bear-Awk tends to be a fairly large bear. Zeno sighed, frustratedly and disappointedly.

Anyway, Harry continued punching and headbutting, and then Felegum and Helli made it back from wherever they were. A few magic missiles flew in and slammed the bugbear. “Better than a rogue could do,” Felegum said.

Helli and I exchanged a look.

She attacked with her dagger, and I grasped the bugbear with a hand and shocked him, sending him unconscious. “And that–” I dusted off my hands– “is what a rogue can do.”

Then we had an interesting problem where the bodies of the two bugbears were sinking into the dirt again, so Harry and I propped them up.

“Bard, can you search the body for stuff?” The dragonborn asked.

“No,” Zeno replied, looking utterly disgusted.

“Respectable.” Harry nodded. “Guess I’ll do it.”

Meanwhile, Helli searched the bugbear I was holding and actually managed to find some money. She handed me a gold and I was elated. I hadn’t had this much money since I’d started my travels. I could afford another night at the inn. I could– it suddenly hit me– shop on the Goblin Shopping Network.

I didnt even know what I’d buy, but I wanted to buy something.

Anyway, Awk was still a bear at this point and he started sniffing around the empty room. Originally, the bugbears had been overseeing some goblin gardeners but the goblins had run out as soon as they felt they had an opening, so the ground was scattered with discarded rakes and shovels. Harry’s bugbear was slowly being swallowed by the avaricious earth, and we all agreed that that was pretty disconcerting, so Felegum and I slugged the bugbear I’d been holding up to the next, non-dirt floored room.

This was a whole endeavor on its own: Felegum and I are the leanest members of the party, and there were some times when we weren’t sure we were going to be able to keep body from being sucked back into the floor. Luckily, after sweating profusely, we got the corpse to solid ground.

Exhausted, I slumped back in. Awk had regained gnome form. “Please keep your shoes on this time.”

“I appreciate the dirt,” Awk said.

“I bet the lizard would appreciate the dirt,” Felegum snickered. Traitor.

I glowered at both of them.

We headed east and reached an octagonal room.

“Awk-tagonal?” Awk said.

“NO.” Everyone else said.

“I will attack him,” said Harry placidly but not without promise.

It turned out that Awk wasn’t the danger after all. He, Zeno, and Felegum were inspecting the octagonal room, and Zeno, perhaps frustrated by the wandering and caution, kicked one of the yellow puff-balls on one of the plants in the room.

A cloud of yellow spores filled the room. Felegum tried to exit and couldn’t make it out in time, but luckily he seemed to be close enough to the door that he wasn’t poisoned like Zeno and Awk. They used Awk’s medical kit to make sure it wasn’t serious, but it didn’t seem like they could cure it entirely. It was weird for us to be in a pickle not caused by Awk, but their poisoning didn’t seem too bad all things considered.

Felegum opened another door to skeletons guarding. He shut the door very, very slowly.

We walked a little bit down the hallway until we were mostly assured that we weren’t being followed by skeletons. The next room we entered was filled with purple fruits hanging on vines and glowing like constellations. Harry sneezed and we held our breath. Nothing happened, no fruit seemed disturbed. A huge relief considering what had happened with the last fruits.

As I headed to the next door to open it, the hilt of my rapier hit the branch and one of the fruits fell.

I thought I was being so careful. I held my breath, waiting.

Except nothing bad happened. It just smelled really, really good.

Beyond the next door was a room with another of those white marble dragon statues with red veins running through it. This time, the dragon had wings carved with feathers, which wasn’t exactly the way I’d thought dragons were. This looked a little too uncomfortably familar.

Anyway, it seemed like there was a shadow beyond the shadows behind the dragon, so we entered carefully and debated how to handle it.

Helli could tell that the shadow was magical in nature, so Awk, naturally, headed right toward it. Harry held him back, a valuable service to the party which will not soon be forgotten. Zeno bowled a purple fruit into the center of the room and still nothing happened, so we decided to just go in.

Awk approached the dragon statue. He found an inscription and whoever could read Draconic in the party had a go at it. Except they were all speaking at once or reading different pieces of it, and we were all trying to figure it out and nothing was happening. It seemed like something about needing light? I rubbed my temples.

“Why don’t we cast a light spell on it or something?” I repeated what I’d heard everyone else say. “‘Let the sorcerer’s power illuminate my spirit.’ That might–“

But as soon as I’d said the words, the all the light concentrated in on the dragon and I couldn’t breathe. This was what I got for sticking my nose in things and saying inscriptions. I thought I’d learned with the scythe, but no, here I was again, about to be royally messed up by some ancient dragon juju I’d parroted back without bothering to think about.

The ball of light sped from the dragon to my heart before I could stop it. Except it didn’t hurt. It just made me feel good, like maybe the world wasn’t so bad after all. I touched on the skin above my heart gently.

And then Awk tried to climb all over me and try to look at my face and whatever, and that was when, once again, I was grateful for my superior athletics from a lifetime of street fights and evasion. Awk climbed all over the statue, which was not something we could prevent, said the words again, but the magic was gone.

The next room was a library, which excited Helli and Felegum. The sorcerer found some spell scrolls, and Helli found a book presumably on ancient dragons? It was bound in dragonskin, which was probably why it had lasted, but also written totally in Draconic, so not really something she or I could read. Maybe that will shed some light on things later.

“I guess the rogues aren’t so useless now,” Felegum said, happily examining the scrolls.

Harry put a scaly hand on his shoulder. “Felegum, a wise man ought not speak too much.”

Felegum smiled. “I’m not very wise.”

After the library, we found more hallways and an underpass (very exciting) which led into a laboratory area. In it were samples of the different flora we’d encountered, the yellow puff balls, glowing mushrooms, and purple fruits. Harry was curious and went through some of the notes looking for information…until a book with a glyph on it exploded in his face.

He wanted no more to do with any of it after that, but we did learn that the cure for the yellow puff ball poison was to drink about two gallons of water.

We pooled our meager resources and evaluated the situation.

“Well, guess you guys will have to be uncomfortable and poisoned a little longer,” I said the obvious to get the awkwardness over with and opened the next door.

This time, we got another bugbear and the goblins they were issuing commands to. Zeno did his best to go negotiate, but unfortunately he was also kind of throwing up now due to poison, so he wasn’t as effective as we’d hoped he might be.

“Anyway,” Harry cut in as our bard barfed again behind him, “we killed Derrnen.”

The bugbear laughed. “Derrnen cannot be killed by you puny humans. He’ll just be reborn by the light of the tree.”

“He’s not dead? Ah.” Harry crossed his arms monastically. “Then currently we are in the business of making Derrnen leave. And business is booming.”

Somehow, Zeno whispered through his queasiness, his pipes once again whispering with him. Despite his intense sickness, he threw a confident smirk at Harry. “Take him down.”

Inspired by Zeno’s heartfelt belief in him, even during moments of extreme gastrointestinal distress, Harry dropped his torch and unleashed a flurry of blows on the bugbear, landing them before the flame even hit the ground. Not to be outdone, Awk also became a bear, though the bugbear’s armor was a little difficult for him to get past. Helli stabbed them right in the knees and then in the back, and the bugbear’s spine separated.

Yeah, I didn’t even know that that could happen to a spine. Definitely won the most metal award of the day.

The goblins, once they saw that their overseer was very dead, were excited to be out of there. “You can let us leave? We don’t know anything about the apple! Derrnen just makes us grow things!”

Harry cast a worried glance back at Awk and Zeno. “Any water nearby?”

The goblins pointed us toward a fountain and scurried off. Meanwhile, Awk slurped up a ton of water as a bear that he threw up a revolting mess of yellow sludge. We all grimaced, but once he was done he seemed to walk it off just fine. Bear-ily, but fine.

Harry clapped a nervous-looking Zeno on the back. “Let the evil out, kid.”

I’ll spare you the details, but rest assured that Zeno did indeed let the evil out.

It seemed like we’d reached some of the bottom parts of the citadel. There was scraggly shrubs and bushes that turned lusher the deeper we got, the soil returned to its loaminess, and patches of mushrooms formed clusters of soft light, like earthbound galaxies. Above us, the arched ceiling was a tapestry of vines and plants stretching 40 feet into the darkness overhead. Somewhere along the way, we heard voices by a distant tree.

There were, as best we could make out, a human clad in furs, a dwarf wizard, and another human, all in bark-like armor similar to the tree. Each held their weapons at attention.

This, you might imagine, would be the part where we talked and evolved a careful plan to engage them. This was clearly the tree, that was clearly what had happened to the party we’d tried to find, and Derrnen–

Suddenly, a bear charged past.

“That…” I blinked. “…was our bear, wasn’t it?”

Harry sighed and briskly walked after Awk.

“Aha!” Derrnen crowed as we arrived. “You will join the others.”

“Yeah, laughter was the wrong answer, bud.” Harry said, and made to smash his quarterstaff into Derrnen’s face. But Derrnen was real bad news, because he dodged and the dwarf wizard hit Harry with some force damage.

All around us, twig monsters like the kind that had attacked us that one morning sprang up and began to coalesce into larger, more annoying twig monsters. Awk destroyed one little one, but not before the others had a chance to form four huge dudes.

“Fuck nature,” Harry breathed.

Felegum shook his head. “I am going to shake every tree I ever see.”

Helli threw a dagger into the melee and took up a defensive position (I could not blame her, I was surrounded by trees and wished I wasn’t), Felegum mind-controlled the dwarf wizard, and Zeno once again was making people laugh uncomfortably and sinisterly.

It wasn’t until Derrnen had shifted into the tree, bark springing up his arms and binding him into the wood, that I realized what the twig monsters had been carrying toward the trunk before.

Bodies. Two bodies, one human-ish size– the bugbear from before who we’d defeated and who had been absorbed through the weird floor– and then a smaller one. A more familiar one, who had been slung over shoulders, cajoled through rooms, and at last disappeared.

I couldn’t protect him. Meepo was dead, and everything I had done was useless.

There are some moments you just can’t explain. Things move too fast or you’re not thinking in notes that move, well-ordered, from one measure to the next. Everything happens in an instant and all sounds are one.

What I knew was: stars and storms, feathers from the dragon statue and that curious fullness in my heart, the rage of not being fast enough and the wish to never be like that again, a will unlike anything else, molten and electric through my veins.

My eyes flashed, gold and bright, and wings fanned out from my back in planes of light.

I hadn’t saved him. But I could still even out the score.

Elsewhere, a twig blight swung at Harry and missed. “Like water, buddy!” Another twig tried, also to no avail. “I can’t be touched!”

Then he unleashed some acid breath on the tree for good measure. The dwarf wizard continued to twitch and laugh as she was still victim to Zeno’s spell, and still more twig beasts rolled in from other parts of the grove.

“Do you think,” Felegum mused, “they’ll get bigger if we let them…?”

We didn’t want to find out, but we found that we had a lot of other problems– Bear-Awk tried to keep the twig blights from picking up the bugbear, but was overpowered and the bugbear got thrown onto the tree and seemed to be sticking to it, like a fly on a spider’s nest. Then it started to get sucked in.

Helli grabbed a brick, but it slipped out of her hand as she was winding up to throw it. None of Awk’s attacks were landing, Felegum threw acid at both humans (and also in the direction of Harry), and Harry, once again, managed to gracefully dodge.


Derrnen at this point had fully become the tree, and a patch of brambles and vines clawed up from the earth below me, Zeno, and Felegum, entangling us. Didn’t matter. I was still close enough to reach the wizard with my rapier, and when my wings got close enough to her, she collapsed.

One less puppet for that tree to control.

Harry continued to dodge and headbutted another human, Helli picked up her dagger and stabbed again, and Felegum, in a feat of selflessness after untangling himself, smashed his beloved glass lantern on the roots of the tree.

“What’s so hard about this?” he called to me and Helli.

Zeno, once again back to speaking ominously and not throwing up, said mean things to the twig blight, and then as Derrnen stepped toward Helli, yelled, “You wish you could hit her!”

And lo, Derrnen could not hit her.

Meanwhile, I continued to struggle with the vines and branches. You’d think that having wings spring out of your back would mean that you could control them, but no– it’s just as awkward and difficult as it sounds. Half of me was trying to cut off the branches rooting e to the spot, and the other half was simultaneously trying to figure out how to hover and also balance. Suffice it to say that it was not going well. I was angry and frustrated and stuck.

Harry retaliated with another round of quarterstaffing, and then the twig monster got me, which made me even angrier. Then one of the humans hit Helli with a longsword and she wasn’t looking too good. “I’m going to leaf,” she said, slicing it with her reclaimed dagger. It exploded in a grand flash of autumn.

Awk bit another twig monster, Felegum’s attack missed but his fire was catching on the tree’s roots, and Zeno was living his best life. “Where’d all your friends go?” He mocked viciously. “You too much of a loser for them? Looks like they’re all dead.”

“That’s the way I like them,” said Derrnen.

And even though we were fighting him and he was tangentially responsible for the death of Meepo, I had to give him some metal credit for a response like that.

Derrnen hit Harry despite defensive encouragement from Zeno (“You wish!”) and the dragonborn didn’t get up this time.

I thrashed around in the vines, still stuck. What good did any of this do if I couldn’t move, couldn’t actually change anything? If I couldn’t help someone who needed it?

And maybe that’s what I’d been doing this whole time. Just letting myself be stuck. I don’t like talking about the celestial stuff. I actively hide it and I actually hate it, if you haven’t noticed, and it’s not just because I’m being petulant or whatever. It’s only ever made my life more difficult. And here, right when I most needed to, I couldn’t even move, even when I needed to try to help one of the few people I thought deserved it.

The twig monsters attacked again, hitting Felegum and missing Awk and Zeno, and Helli threw a dagger at Derrnen before moving over to Harry. I struggled some more as Awk bit through another twig monster.

Felegum splashed acid on one of the two remaining twig monsters and missed the other (“You don’t even deserve acid!” Zeno yelled at it), and the bard sang a lifegiving song to Harry. He rose up. “I’m not dead yet!”

Thunder rippled through the party as Derrnen unleashed another savage spell.

I never wanted this whole angel thing. But if was my only way out–

“Like water,” I said, as my wings seared through the overgrowth and I walked out of the vines and toward the battle at last.

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