“On the morrow, we strapped on our packs and weapons and with excitement but no little trepidation, entered the Dragon’s noxious maze. Immediately, venomous fumes enveloped us, filling our nostrils with acrid stench and unsettling our stomachs. An oppressive mist swirled slowly through the unpleasant, thorn-woven hedges which bore bitter fruit we hoped we wouldn’t be forced to risk consuming for sustenance. I sensed uneasily that the mist was not the cause of the mood which had descended over us and that there was some agency of the Dragon already at work on our spirits. We had felt it while camped at the site of our battle with the Dragon cultists, but inside its maze the mood captured us at a more fundamental level than before.
“Travel was slow despite an easy path. We felt assailed, as though every pace was achieved by mental exertion against some great force. We bolstered each other whenever one among us succumbed to exhaustion and despair, though Ellion’s attempts at song and Garret’s attempts at hilarity to lighten the mood were quickly found by us to be intolerable. I hope they will forgive us for the evil words we threw at them, on the far side of this maze once the Dragon is vanquished.
“In some places the thorns leapt out at us to ensnare and wound us, causing us more underlying stress whenever the Dragon’s living architecture narrowed to loom over us closely on both sides. The Dragon’s creation was a parody of King Sova’s green hall, mocking that which was beautiful and throbbing with life into a greyed prison sapping our spirits and eager to see our demise.
“These attacks wore away at nerves despite not seeming to be much of a threat to our lives.
“It would have been at about midday, if we could have seen the sun, that I heard distant strains of music which immediately brought me back to my Lady’s moonlit forest. Before I could even think to ask if any of the others heard anything the vile odour seemed to ease from my senses, replaced with the unbearably sweet scent of the pomegranate seeds I had been fed from Her hand. The music swelled and I knew the Seelie Court was nearing; any uncertainty that had been tugging at the edges of my mind was immediately forgotten, and my heart sang with delirious joy. The perfume of the pomegranate, now augmented by the endless scent of honeysuckle I had noted in the forest that night, lifted me and bore me on the newly-sweetened mist of the maze. Lady Verenestra had come! She had heard my message the night before, She was here to join us in overcoming the green wyrm with the might of the Seelie Court! Why had our column stopped? Why was Erelas keeping us from joining them?
“I became angry in a swell of emotion, and strode purposefully past Ellion and Garret to find Erelas and Onia cautiously halted at a turning of the hedge wall. Hesitating to advance as though they were concerned that whoever was making this unearthly beautiful music could be of danger to us! I rounded on them to scold them for their stupidity and to push them forward, but in that moment I heard the singing falter and change to sounds of dismay. On the heels of the disruption came sounds of attack, and without hesitation I launched myself between my companions to throw myself at my Lady’s assailants, certain that the Dragon had come upon them perhaps backed by his cultists, from the sound of steel on steel. Erelas and Onia were startled by my aggressive course, but their quick reflexes managed to catch me in my headlong charge, and fought to restrain me but I was a wildcat, kicking and scratching and beating my fists on the links of Onia’s chain armour, spitting and screeching protest and insults.
“As I fought against them, I was able to catch over their shoulders and beyond the hedge horrifying glimpses of slaughter occurring among the fey folk who had marched from their distant home into the maze in response to my summons. My struggles grew even more frantic; I saw satyrs and dryads hewn down by slathering goblins, and I felt inescapable madness frothing upwards through my mind as Lady Verenestra, recognisable only by Her star-filled hair, vanshed under the black shadow of a huge Dragon still hidden from my view by the hedge, and the light from Her stars were extinguished.
“I remember no more until I came back to myself.
“The carnage was gone, the goblins were gone, and there was no Dragon in sight. The six of us stood on ground that should have been soaked in fey blood, and yet was only wet with the venomous mist which was once again oozing into my lungs. My stomach heaved. I felt empty, I felt as though I had spent a hundred nights with no sleep, I felt a yawning void stretch in front of me. I bit back tears of despair that we would ever find our way through this prison, and I bit back tears of loss that Verenestra had not come to help even as my soul cried in relief that She had not fallen to the Dragon. I listened dully to Onia as he told me that there had been nothing here all along, and as Erelas provided what I am sure was enlightening information about green dragons and their ability to inflitrate the mind and twist a person’s thoughts. I was defeated.
“When my companions judged they had given me some time to recover from the experience I had endured alone, we trudged on, they, shooting me concerned glances which I ignored wholesale. The hedges attacked us again, the poisonous berries gleamed evilly under the muted light in the mist, and another of what we by now presumed the Dragon’s minions, those black birds with the red eyes, flew over and perched on a branch above our heads, watching… watching…
“Time passes with no meaning in this maze. Or perhaps time does not pass at all here. We won’t know the answer until we emerge, but when that will be I do not know. The hedges attack, or they stay silent as hedges should. We put one foot in front of the next. We sometimes stop to nibble on rations or take a sip of the water from our flasks. Sleep is not possible; no matter how tired, when we stop to attempt a rest, not one of us can settle and allow it to find us. We shift in and out of anxious, trance-like states which feature disturbing visions, rising frustrated and demoralised before the appointed time. Not even Erelas finds respite.
“At some point, we came across a clearing in the winding corridors of the maze where goblins and scaled folk had been at work over some length of time slaughtering and apparently sacrificing prisoners brought there for that purpose. The stench was unbearable, and a terrible altar stood at the far end of the maze floor, dripping with the thick blood of freshly sacrificed victims. Piles of rotting flesh and bones littered the area. The sight was shocking, and pierced through our senses. For a brief moment, I froze, thinking it was another vision sent to me from the dragon, but Onia let out an enraged roar and barreled across the clearing as fast as the weight of his armour would let him, Erelas screaming alongside, and with their action, my own confidence returned. Ellion and Garret quickly had their bows notched, loosing arrows to rain upon the evil creatures like a hailstorm, and I found Lady’s Verenestra’s Feyblade in my hand, its moonstone blazing against the pulse in my wrist, Her magic surging in my fingertips aching to scour these creatures from the face of the earth.
“Though I was nowhere near the bodies of any enemies for the rapier to quench its thirst, still it felt powerful to hold in battle. Even more than my spellweaving, the Blade seemed to connect me to my Lady. It was something tangible I could hold, and the gem nestled in the centre of a metalworked moonflower summoned enchanted tendrils of living vine to grow and twine around my hand and wrist, blooming glowing flowers to dash away doubt and fear. I felt as though through my Feyblade, Lady Verenestra could guide my hand, and it was a transformative moment, banishing all chance for the Dragon to regain access to my heart and mind.
“Poor Syoran was last in line to enter into the clearing, and was unable to arrive in range of enemies before the rest of us had already put them down; just as he got close enough to hope to take a swing at one, it would die at someone else’s hand and our companions would be urgently drawn off to the next, these cultists sending their own arrows at us to answer Garret and Ellion’s. There was no waiting to include our enraged dwarf, I’m afraid! I believe his greatsword managed to taste goblin blood before all were dispatched, but I am certain he still sulks in private.
“We made gruesomely quick work of these foes, and in so doing, each of us seemed to shake some of the torpor from our minds and rally our spirits; we left that encounter feeling – dare I say it – revitalised, in some measure. Also, Garret [or was it Syoran or Ellion? I can’t remember at the moment] came out of that clearing gibbering about the Dragon having whispered in his ear, which did somewhat unsettle us despite our new resolve. Having experienced the Dragon’s ability to whisper in my ear earlier, so to speak, I put it down to this, and the Dragon’s malicious taunting of my guild brother merely fueled my anger to enact vengeance on it for what it was doing to us.
“Alas, there were no captives left alive for us to rescue, so we wiped the gore from ourselves and grimly continued through the maze, our determination to reach the Dragon and rid the world of its menace renewed. We edged cautiously along the pathway, trying to stay alert for any sign of attack. Rounding another corner, we neglected to find suspicious two trees standing along the path. In hindsight, of course, this was an environmental anomaly, since we had seen nothing like it in the days we had spent in the confines of the maze. As Erelas and Onia led us along, our proximity triggered a soft storm of spores to be breathed from unseen pods in the branches – these spores descended upon us, and I, the only one not wearing armour, felt them immediately upon my skin with a maddening tingle and itch before my eyesight even registered their presence in the mist. My hands leapt to my neck and face and began scrubbing vigorously; I suppose I was lucky in being able to rid myself of them so, because others around me began abruptly to react extremely.
“Onia in particular, stopped following Erelas. As I passed him, he began to yawn and reel as though drugged. I became alarmed as I heard and felt, more than saw, our bard and rogue making movements and sounds which did not match with how we had been progressing along the path just a moment before. I stopped in my tracks to take stock of what was happening and knew immediately that something was wrong and was going more wrong with every breath of hesitation. I heard Onia, now behind me, drop heavily to one knee as I saw Ellion beside me stumble with heavy-lidded eyes. Ahead, Erelas seemed unaffected and continued his cautious way along the path, which was leading us along to another of these damnedly out of place trees.
“I must have made some alarmed noise. I could see etching tracing its way slowly along the armour Syoran and his wife had crafted for Ellion, and the thought flashed through my mind that if these spores were eating through the product of Syoran’s craftmanship, they could quickly prove lethal to my friends’ flesh! I threw down my pack and ripped the water flask from its side, fumbling urgently with its stopper. Ellion was now down on the ground, and I dropped to his side and splashed his face and shoulders with my water, frantically scrubbing his skin with my fingers and muttering some form of "Nooooo, oh no, no no no, Ellion, wake up, help me wash the Dragon’s poison from your skin… "
“Syoran seemed frozen, confused at the events unfolding in front of him. He looked to Erelas for some explanation, but Erelas was just as uncertain of what was transpiring, and looked perhaps to be even a touch annoyed that the group was stopping to rest. Thank the gods, Ellion revived quickly, and I scrambled over my pack in panic for our cleric who was to all casual appearances enjoying the first good sleep any of us had found since entering the maze. Beside him, Garret had succumbed to the effects of the insidious spores as well. I desperately splashed and sloshed water over Onia. We were all done if he was lost. Even through the sickly veil of the Dragon’s hateful fog, I could see his breath sucking spores in and then exhaling those which hadn’t stuck inside of him in an evil fountain of dust. Somewhere to the side I heard Syoran calling out for torches – perhaps he proposed to march over to the trees and set them aflame? His great dwarven constitution certainly didn’t seem to be allowing him to succumb to the effects; perhaps this would be a worthwhile pursuit. I was happy, though, that Ellion who I had been able to revive first contributed to trying to wash Garret clean of the spores instead of lending a hand to the torch endeavour. It was terrifying to watch the work of the spores’ acid cut into strong steel armour, and I shuddered at what it could be doing to their owners’ insides.
“In the end, Erelas, who had ventured into the second tree’s blast radius, found himself being overcome by spores as well, but by now we knew the malady was easily enough overcome if attacked quickly with a vigourous scrubbing. All those affected reported to their dismay that their armour was likely weakened. We backed up, deciding to not risk more exposure to the deadly motes, and chose a different path.
Later we came on some wood elves who had been charmed by the Dragon. They made to attack us, speaking a strange mix of Sova’s wood elf dialect and what Erelas told us was draconic (I suppose his father taught him? He seems to have been a very impressive expert to have mastered that language well enough to have passed it down to his son). Ellion approached them to try to calm them down, and when he mentioned that we had been sent by King Sova, it seemed to break through their enchantment for a moment, so we encouraged our bard to sing for them the song Princess Aliona had shared with us around our campfire the night before we entered the maze, which told the story of Sova’s life. By the end of Ellion’s rendition, which was by all accounts more rousing than Aliona’s more respectful version, the elves had come to their senses and put away all idea of attack. We sat with them and answered their questions about what had been happening in the realm since their capture, and described how easy it would be for them to rejoin the princess for evacuation at the nearby wood elf settlement which had repelled the cultist attack earlier that week. The poor creatures were malnourished and mentally fatigued, but their ordeal was over and you could see in their eyes, and hear in their song, how eagerly they anticipated their reunion with their sovereign’s daughter in the living forest outside of this prison.
We left some distance between ourselves and the elves in order to attempt to rest, lest the Dragon should appear in the night and the elves be caught in the ensuing battle. They would be safer without the presence of an armed guard in the maze.