A storm had reached the Vineyard, a modest settlement not far off the Old Svalich Road. Aside from the occasional thunder, the only light visible was from the kitchen window. Here, long ago, the Martikovs had settled and produced wine for years, if not decades. The warming hearth was blazing over some logs. Dag and Stefania plated the table, while their children ran back and forth. From Adrian’s room, they heard a lazy tune, a tired performance of Big Tom’s Hijinks. Stefania imagined for a moment that it was Adrian who was playing, but could not hold the thought for long.
The mushrooms and the onions were soft and simmering in the broth. Against Dag’s wishes, she had also included some mutton in the occasion of their guests. Dag did not think much of them. Davian, her gruff father, muttered but not saying anything in particular. She turned to get a ladle, only to notice that the elf was sitting by the table. She had not met many elves, but she imagined they would at least talk more. This one, Lorien, was silent.
Stifling her surprise, she made a polite smile. “Is the room to your liking?”
Lorien looked up at her, waited a moment and nodded in recognition. “Well, then,” she said. “Supper’s soon ready.” She smiled and turned around, only to meet Dag’s worried look. Lately, he had not been himself. Nightmares had wracked him in his sleep, and in the day he seemed aloof and worn.
“It smells delicious,” a foreign-accented voice said. “What is that? Lamb?”
In the door stood a tall figure, who fit through the door by a small margin. Covered in silvery scales, Heskan stood very much in the posture of a soldier. Stefania never thought she would see a Dragonborne, let alone host one in her home. In his arms, almost as if carrying a baby, he held a wounded Vallakian by the name Ernst. Heskan bore him to the closest chair and eased him down. Ernst winced in pain as he rested his leg on a small stool.
“There now - it will heal soon.” Heskan said.
“It looks nasty, that injury,” Stefania said.
Heskan met her gaze with his silvery and black eyes. “Yes, it is a crippling injury,” Heskan stated as a matter of fact. “Fortunately, I have much training in healing mammals. I should be able to make him walk again within some days.” Stefania shuddered briefly at the phrasing. Mammals. Ernst seemed uncomfortable, shifting to put some distance between himself and Heskan. Unlike Lorien, Ernst was talkative in all the wrong ways. When the the others weren’t around, Ernst had made some inappropriate suggestions.
“Careful, Ernst, do not strain your knee,” Heskan said.
“Hah! Or I might just finish the job,” a husky woman’s voice said. A red-haired woman said down next to Ernst, tapping him on the shoulder. Ernst paled at the touch. Valentina was no woman to trifle with. Valentina threw a glance at him that might as well have been a throwing axe.
“We should leave him here,” a golden voice said. “He could work, couldn’t he?”
Stefania turned to see Lucio standing in silken night clothes. His skin was a titillating purple. He was plucking his lute with his gentle hands. They certainly were a strange company. Lucio was a stranger one, even. A so-called tiefling with a tail that seemed even more perverted than his flirting voice. These strange folk were the ones Adrian had died for. These were the folk Adrian had fought for.
“No,” Heskan declined. “Ernst is on a path of atonement.”
Dag muttered, before saying aloud “there is no atonement.” He looked more nervous than usual. Stefania tried to meet his eyes with hers, but he turned and fidgeted with the broth.
“Atonement is one of the roots of the Great Tree, Lucio,” Heskan said. “Even the vile can find redemption.” The words hung heavy in the air.
“What if you can’t?” Dag asked, stuttering almost. “What if there is not redemption?” All eyes came upon him. After a beat of silence, he finally said “Supper’s ready.” He lifted the kettle onto the table. “Guests first.”
Stefania called for the children to sit down. Dag began filling a bowl for the guests. He was about to extend the bowl to Lucio, before Heskan’s voice rasped.
“Dag, your wife has worked hard and it is late,” he said. “Why don’t you let her eat while it is warm?”
Stefania looked up, having made her children sit down. Heskan looked at Dag. For one moment, he was sitting in the chair, looking at dag. In the next moment, Dag let go of the bowl and dashed to the east door. Before she could react, Heskan’s body disappeared in a flurry of maple leaves. By the time she had turned around, Heskan embraced Dag, and for the first time she heard Dag cry. He rambled about a conquering dragon of death, about nightmares and how he could not sleep.
* * *
A cacophony of cawing flooded the bedroom. Heskan snapped to as Lorien shook him awake. He heard thunder. Trees breaking. Another thunder. No. Footsteps.
“Find out what is coming,” Heskan. Lorien nodded and disappeared without a sound. Heskan went for his chainmail, shield and warhammer.
Dag appeared in the doorway, looking quite befuddled. “Wha- what do I do?” he stammered. He was sweating. As a tree in the distance crackled and tore apart. Another footstep. A slow, rasping groan thundered louder than the actual thunder. A familiar groan.
Heskan’s silver eyes glowed in the darkness. “Oil. All the oil you have. Bring it to the stables.”
Heskan donned his armor as quick as possible. Lucio and Valentina armed found their weapons. With each strap fastened, Heskan heard another quaking footstep trembled everything.
“Heskan,” a gossamer voice called. “It’s a giant-”
“Tree,” Heskan said. “I know.” He had lost brothers in arms to such things before.
Outside, a fierce storm was sweeping down from the mountains. Rain hammered down, obscuring the approach of the creature. Valentina stood took a step out from the store room and stared to the south. Heskan stepped up right behind her.
Heskan made the sign of the Great Tree and touched Valentina on the shoulder. A cloak of silvery maple leaves appeared over her shoulders. “I stand by you, Valentina,” he said.
The creature stepped closer and came into a trot. It towered high, an mutilated oak fashioned to have a maw and thousands of dagger-like teeth. Green eyes flared with fel magic. It smashed its body into the structure of the Winery. Branches whipped out, crushing parts of the Winery printing-press room. Valentina gripped her axe and ran towards the hulking tree-creature.
Valentina roared and charged at the tree-being, landing heavy blows with her axe. Heskan followed suit, slamming his warhammer into the trunk of the creature. For each connecting hit, his warhammer flashed with green and gold energy. The energy rippled along the surface of the creature, tearing apart its bark. From the ceiling, Heskan heard arrows flying. Valentina landed another blow, which caught in the surfaced roots.
The tree-beast turned, its eyes fixating on Heskan. Behind it, the printing press room had collapsed. Crushed stone and timber remained. It lashed back, its branches whipping and entangling Heskan and Valentina. The branches clenched hard, crushing at Heskan’s waist. He grunted as the tree-creature raised him above ground. Held aloft, he could see Lorien and Lucio firing their bows and crossbows. Lucio called out and sang a sour note that distorted reality. The voice transformed into crackling waves of sound that ripped at the tree. Leaves and branches splintering. The tree-being roared and lashed around itself. Its maw gnashed against Heskan’s armor. Despite the quality of the armor, the teeth cut through armor.
Heskan gritted his teeth, drew his breath. He could spew icy cold frost. Lorien raced off the roof, daggers out. The branch clinched again. All Heskan saw was black.
“No!” Lucio yelled. “NO!” the second scream shattered the very air itself, blasting an ugly piece of the tree apart. The creature fell apart, crackling and falling upon the ruins of the printing press room.
“Heskan!” Valentina yelled, running over to where Heskan’s body fell. “Heskan!”
All Heskan could see was a spectral dragon, flying in the darkness. Calling for him.