Chapter 22 – The Accursed Forest
Shortly after arrival at water’s edge, the sounds of hoofbeats are heard nearby, and darkness quickly covers land and lake. It is likely the Black Rider, and Chonkorchuk, along with Druvvaldis, go off to investigate – perhaps this rider also dropped a valuable item. It is too dark to find anything, however, and after Chonkorchuk takes a few tumbles in the darkness before their arcane senses reveal nothing as well. But when the hermit and the traveler return to the water, they find the rest of their companions – Vasya, Katarina, Plamen and Khurshid – gone. Druvvaldis calls forth a luminous beetle, and helps his companion search for tracks. Curiously, Chonkorchuk finds about a half dozen prints of mailed feet heading along the water’s edge, and several sets of horse tracks as well. He and Druvvaldis follow them to the place where they earlier sighted a dugout – their dugout. However, the boat is gone, and the tracks disappear near it. Fearing to continue their search in pitch-blackness for an apparently strong, armed group, the two companions set up shelter for the night. During the night, while Druvvaldis keeps watch, a strange creature wanders into the area lit by the beetle. It appears as a black rooster with red eyes and a long, serpentine tail, and the shaman recognizes it as a vasilisk – born of a rooster egg, and capable of turning its victims to stone with the peck of its beak. He makes a move to wake his companion, but the creature immediately flaps at him and attacks. As he attempts to hold it back with his scythe, the roused Chonkorchuk blasts it with magical energy. The heavy weapon is difficult to maneuver, and Druvvaldis is left at the mercy of the foul monster’s beak, but as luck should have it, it trips on a crag, and soon Chonkorchuk finishes it off before it does any harm to anyone. The hermit attempts to cook it, but soon sees that the creature is dripping black liquid, and is unwholesome. The pair is left undisturbed for the rest of the night, though without adequate heat, Druvvaldis catches a cold. After it gets light, the pair resumes the search for their companions. Druvvaldis transforms the beetle into a fish, and it swims around the place from which the boat was taken, but finds nothing. He then changes it into a raven, and bids it fly to the island where the group discovered Khurshid, and search there. In several hours, the raven returns, having seen nothing. Druvvaldis then sends it along the lake in the direction they were moving the previous night, and a ways down the shore, the raven discovers the empty dugout. The two men follow the bird, and begin to search around once they locate the boat. Along the way, Chonkorchuk discusses the visions he has seen about their predicament with his friend. He beheld Druvvaldis as a younger man, lying in fear near a burning building, as well as a white horse’s head. The memories are painful to recount, but Druvvaldis tells of the invasion of his home island by the Knights of Ritterheim, who display such a head as their device. Of them, he says only that they seek to bring the whole world under the sway of their faith, and kill all who do not submit. He is not sure what they are doing in the Otherworld. After finding a trinket likely dropped by Plamen, they follow the tracks of the group of armored people and their mounts into the woods, and camp nearby. Before that night is done, they are awakened by Vasya. He says that he and the others were taken by a group of armed men, whom he describes in less flattering terms than those he reserves for Chonkorchuk. He is not sure what device they have, aside from the fact that it is some kind of animal – maybe a duck. He does know where their camp is. As for their purpose, he says they seek the flaming river, beyond which Baba Yaga's realm lies. The people who captured them seek knowledge about how to find this river, which Vasya claims to possess. Apparently, they want to cross in order to contract the crone to pasture her mares, in exchange for getting some of them for their service. But now Vasya has escaped, found the two of them, and is now prepared to lead them back to rescue their companions. With the help of the fefila and the raven, the group discovers an encampment at the end of the following day, and settles to make a plan of attack.
- A vasilisk is slain