The glow was faint, at first, a soft orange around a corner. They knew they were still far too deep for sunlight to be peeking through, and so they suspected a torch and an armed force, but they heard no clink of armor and saw no flicker of flame. At these depths it could be some bioluminescent plant, but they had passed only the purple fungus-field on the way down. Of course it was possible they had made a wrong turn somewhere; the cave-in had driven them steadily and too-quickly forward, each cavern safe for only a few minutes or hours before the strain and rumble from below shuddered one step farther up the chain from depth to surface. Presently a crashing behind propelled them forward; they drew weapons and prepared for whatever it was.
It was a turtle. He sat in the center of the path, translucent and shrouded in mists that evaporated as they left his immediate vicinity. The turtles’ eyes opened when they turned the corner, and D’cafnaet’d and Montiago recognized Aegis, the spirit companion of their old friend Tortolla. The ancient creature blinked, then turned his head toward a nearby wall, which immediately issued forth the same orange mist before a swirling vortex of energy sprouted from the center, sparks and reality twisting around as the wall gave way to a brightness whose nature clashed so perfectly with the darkness of the cave that the rent world around flew bits of fire as the two met.
The rumbling came again, but over it they heard a voice. “Come,” it said. It could be Tortolla’s voice or Leeloo’s, and it could be both, but it was impossible to tell. They were out of options in any case; they ran for the portal and leapt through. The cave and portal both collapsed behind them.
The crash and the ruble followed them out, bits of rock and dust shrouding the world for a moment. But as it cleared the world came into sharper focus than it ever had before. The grass was greener, the sky bluer, the trees taller, the sounds purer. Each of them knew, immediately, that they had fallen into the Feywild. “There is a great evil growing here,” the voice said, “and you have the power to stop it.”
The voice faded and the sounds of a nearby battle replaced it. From a copse of trees not a hundred feet away they heard a shout, and they all glanced around before running forward. Great evils were kind of their thing, these days. And they didn’t have any other way of getting home.
An elf stood in the center of the trees, which formed a ring so dense that it might as well be a wall. There was one arch of an opening that they were all standing in, watching as the elf notched an arrow in his bow and loosed it at the lumbering tree that was slowly shuddering toward him. It was a dryad, but it was cloaked in a black, noxious cloud that was foreign to this place. The arrow landed with a thunk, but the other dryad that lumbered out of the trees right next to Montiago had already become the center of attention. They fell back, slid around to share defenses with the elf, and then were thrown apart by a blast of sound as a trio of harpies flew into their midst and shrieked out a mockery of a song. After that it was a struggle to regroup, the sound driving them apart as the dryads picked off anyone far from the others. But D’cafnaet’d and the elf managed to pick off the harpies one by one while Kynun kept the dryads far enough away that they didn’t do too much damage. The clouds that followed each creature provided a surprise, however: as soon as any of the beasts fell the cloud coalesced on the body, which flailed about for a moment more before finally succumbing to fate and death.
“Lucan,” the elf said after the fray had finished. “I thank you for your kindness.” Pleasantries were exchanged and the elf shared his story: he had been dispatched to discover the source of these clouds, and his search had suggested a cemetery in this area. Guessing that this was likely their goal as well, the others offered to join him, and soon they were standing outside the cave that served as the entrance to the Garden of Graves, reading the plaque mounted in the stone of the mountain:
Count you the shadows, watch the sun,
The wise know where they stand;
While knowing not the time to shun,
The fools must find themselves undone.
Like lustful swain or panicked child
Who beg another’s gentle hand,
The fool delves heedless through the wild.
The wise are not so soon beguiled.
When darkness falls and dreams portend
The rising of a fearsome foe,
The fool, swift-striking, meets his end,
The wise know foe from friend.
Let art and image point the way,
Abandon all you think you know,
For common sense leads fool astray.
The key is simply this: Obey.
The wise must ever strategize;
They never play, unless to win.
They see the harm in comfort’s lies,
And seek to open weary eyes
You’ve fought your way, you’ve risked demise,
To view the ivy heart within.
Now as the soul within you dies,
This knowledge is your only prize:
You’d never have come, were you truly wise
Immediately inside the cave stood three statues: a young woman, a matronly sort, and a crone. Each had a hand outstretched, ready to take something. They stood and discussed for a while, deciding that the poem’s mention of a lustful woman and a panicked child probably pointed to the youngest one, and the wise one to the crone. After all agreed, Kynun pulled a coin from within his robes, which floated from his hand, wobbled slightly, and then sailed across to the middle statue, settling slowly in her outstretched palm.
The crone leapt to life and charged Lady Ronstien, plowing her down and pinning her to the ground. Kynun’s sword snicker-snacked and the construct fell back, Lady Ronstien climbed away, and then D’cafnaet’d drove his dagger into the thing’s back. Again it attacked, again it was driven back, and this time the stone staggered, lurched, and stood still… exactly where it had started.
“Apparently this one is a lustful swain,” Montiago said, pointing at the middle figure, “and we are the ones who should be wise.” He picked up the coin, dropped it in the crone’s hand, and walked past. The others followed.