The night air was mild, but heavy with moisture and the slight funk of decay. Sprokit felt the damp leaves beneath his clawed, scaly feet. His small, slight frame made it that much easier to pad silently through the dense forest. Sir Bertrand had taught him to move quietly, Sprokit's pet skunk Spritz hadn't learned it, however, so Spritz was back at home. Where Sprokit couldn't pet him. Sprokit desperately wanted to pet Spritz to calm the fear rising in his gullet.
It wasn't the still, spooky forest or the pitch darkness. Kobolds, like Sprokit, were natural cave dwellers, and he could see perfectly in all but magical darkness. No, it was the sky he feared. It was a cloudless night and every step he took he felt like he might fall up into the sky and be lost forever. Open sky felt wrong to Sprokit. When there were clouds, at least he could pretend it was one of the high strange ceilings in the caverns of the Underdark. Sprokit glanced up into the night sky and wished he hadn't. No clouds. His breathing quickened. No Spritz. His steps grew faster. Again he glanced up. So many stars. Why was he out here? He could just flee home. Where was Sir Betrand? As doubt thundered in Sprokits ears, and he was about to turn about and try to scamper back to the warmth of his little bed, a soft rustle broke the stillness of the night.
Sprokit froze. The hoot of an owl came from ahead and to the left. Rohvu, the party's druid had found the place they were searching for. His fears forgotten for a moment, Sprokit made his way in the direction he heard the owl. A moment later, he was standing in a peculiar grove of trees with Sir Bertrand and four of the five other members of the party.
Sprokit surveyed the grove. Each tree around him was a different species. Ash, oak, willow, pine,and on; twelve trees in total. All planted in a perfect circle, but not aligned to the compass rose. Sprokit stood in the center of the grove and turned himself North. The trees were offset by around eight degrees. He sniffed the air, and felt for magical disturbances, but each seemed to Sprokit to be nothing more than an ordinary, healthy tree.
"Where's Rohvu?" Whispered Rayke. He had unslung his lute and leaned against one of the trees. Rayke’s fingers were idly flicking along the neck, but no sound escaped. He had wound a black silk scarf through the strings and stuffed an extra in the body for good measure.
Lyra pointed one walnut tanned finger up into the canopy of the perfectly circular grove, the supple leather of her armor barely making a whisper in the silence of the woods. Sprokit was careful not to look up again and instead he sidled over to Rayke, reached up and tapped gently on his lute.
"When we home," said Sprokit in his small rasping voice. "Want to hear one about the maze. Yes?"
Rayke looked down at his pint sized companion. Sprokit only stood a bit over three feet tall, his vibrant red scales looked a deep crimson in the low light Rayke was emitting through his lute. The kobold wasn't quite meeting his eyes, but he could see the tell tale bounce in Sprokit’s bird-shaped legs that meant he was excited.
Rayke chuckled. "The one with the god of Kobolds and the god of Gnomes?."
"Yes. That one my favorite."
"He’s going to hear the real story one day.” Lyra warned.
“My version is as real as any other, Lyra. Plus, I’d prefer my tales to have good role models.”
“True, he needs good role models somewhere. I can't believe you brought him." Lyra's gaze looked especially grave as it fell upon Sir Bertrand. "He's going to die."
"Sprokit can hear you," Rasped the kobold. The admonishment in his voice was echoed by the swishing of his tail. In truth, Sprokit had his own reservations about this adventure, but he trusted Sir Bertrand.
"Oh Sprokit, You know I love you, but that’s just it.” Lyra tried to comfort him. “I don't want you to get hurt. Another year of training and experience and I'd have no worries for you."
"Agreed." Corrin's voice came from across the grove. His eyes were closed and his palm was flat against the trunk of one of the trees. In his other hand, he held a polished oaken staff with a bottle of deep crimson liquid spinning lazily above its tip. Corrins eyes opened and his robes rustled gently as he made his way around to each tree in turn. As he placed his free hand against each tree, the bottle at its tip glowed with a dim arcane light.
Sir Bertrand answered them both. "He'll be fine. You all worry too much. Sprokit knows what to do if things get dicey. Don't you Egg?"
Before Sprokit could finish, a great tawny owl wearing an ornate, antlered tiara floated down into their midst. Just before she touched down, the owls shape began to shift and twist into that of a tall, slender elf, her antlered tiara now keeping a head full of long copper-tinted hair. "Now that everyone has made all this noise, I suppose it's safe to tell you there’s no one else around." Rohvu's smile gentled the rebuke and she continued. "This has to be the right place."
"Definitely." Corrin gestured around the grove. "Any of these can serve as the link we need, but I can't tell which one would get us closest."
"Suggestions?" Asked Sir Bertrand as he glanced around the grove at his friends.
Lyra was the first to couch the obvious answer. "If any of them will get us close enough, let's just pick one and go."
The discordant twang that sputtered from Rayke’s lute was a clear indication of what he thought of that idea.
"Close enough isn't close enough when traveling to Candia. It’s the north pole of the nine hells. It’ll be dangerous enough as-“
"We know, Corrin." Sir Bertrand cut him off before his tone passed from agitated to angry.
After a moment, Sprokit broke the silence. "What trees have to say?"
Rohvu smiled down and gave Sprokit a wink. "I can try to ask them." She strode to the center of the grove and closed her eyes.
Rayke strummed a dull chord on his lute and riffed, "We all love Rohvu the druid / 'Cause when speaking with trees, she is fluid/ she breathes through her nose / and then the wind blows/ and I'm always amazed she can do it."
Laughter rolled through the grove clearing the air and centering the party. After a chuckle escaped her nostrils, Rohvu took a deep breath. As she exhaled, the leaves around the grove began to rustle. After another deep breath a small twig sprouted from the trunk nearest to Sir Bertrand. Two deep green leaves burst from the end and split gently apart in only a few seconds.
"Your connection to nature never ceases to astound My Lady, well done."
Rohvu favored him with a smile, "We all have our gifts." To the group she said, "I'll be able to bring us back here if we can find a tree there. Corrin," She nodded to the wizard. "You'll have to teleport us there. This is the best link to Nicholus we're able to find."
"I still don't see how the tree helps us." Lyra scoffed. "Corrin can't talk to trees."
"True," he replied. ”I needn't speak with it though. I just need something our wizard friend was attuned to acting as a guide. Apparently he spent a lot of time in this grove. However, my guess is that he spent most of his time here under this tree." Corrin rapped a knuckle gently against the bark of the great oak.
Sir Bertrand gathered them around the tree and gestured to the fighter, "Lyra and I will lead." His gaze fell to the wizard and druid. "If we get into trouble, Corrin and Rohvu are our heavy hitters" Finally, he smiled at the bard and his own squire. "Rake and Egg can focus on distractions from the rear."
Corrin took hold of the flask atop his staff and pulled it from its place as his ornament. The cork made a soft pop as he removed it and he took one quick sip. His face contorted and he passed the bottle to Lyra. "Here,” he said, "That’s awful, but it'll keep us from freezing. For a few hours, at least."
Once the bottle had made its way around the group, Lyra stuffed it and the last few drops into a fine leather satchel. "We ready?" she asked.
A round of curt nods answered her.
"All right," Said Corrin. "Hands in. I'll get us as close as possible." Corrin stretched out his staff in one hand and placed his other against the oak. Once everyone had a hand on Corrin's staff they disappeared in a blue arcane flash.
The grove was left in the deep silence of another night.
Sprokit found himself alongside Sir Bertrand, the paladin's kite shield blocking the brunt of a raging blizzard for them both. The snow whipping around the party was rising and falling too quickly to make anything out beyond it. Only the roiling winds whipping the heavy frozen slush.
"We need to get out of this!" Rayke's shout was barely audible over the blistering torrent of snow. The rest of the group just nodded, not wanting to put their warmth potion to the test any more than necessary.
Sir Bertrand muttered a prayer and angled his shield about him. As he did, the dragon emblazoned on the front glowed to point the way. It brightened and dimmed to act as a guide as the old paladin led them on through the seemingly endless snowfall.
Sprokit followed close behind to keep out of the worst of the wind and wished yet again that he could do something useful in a situation like this. Rohvu had said that everyone has their talents, but was Sprokit’s?
Sprokit was clever. He had a kobold’s knack for invention and engineering. If he was honest, though, his inventions backfired more often than not. He brought his mind back to the task at hand. After all, Sir Bertrand thought he was ready for this. So he must be.
The blizzard raged around them churning and slinging snow at them, and even with the preternatural warmth of the potion they could still feel the frozen sleet hitting them from all angles. Until suddenly, it wasn't.
It was as if they stepped through an enormous invisible bowl that kept the storm at bay. Once within, the cold went from a harsh offensive, to a passive presence. It no longer lashed at Sprokit, instead it hunched over his shoulders. It perched on his chest. It lounged down his spine and stretched itself along his tail. If not for Corrin's potion Sprokit knew he would already be a frozen statue.
Sprokit turned to thank the wizard and found he stood alone on the outskirts of a small village. He snapped his head around looking for his friends, but it seemed some magic had whisked them away. He took stock of his situation and thought about what Sir Bertrand had taught him. He needed to stay out of sight and guard the exit.
Where was the exit? Sprokit glanced at the snow storm raging above and behind him, beyond some unseen barrier. This was a snow-storm-bubble-prison... How do you escape from that? He studied the ornately decorated and cheerily lit buildings. Then he saw an icy lake on the far edge of the village and beyond that, a lone fir tree. It stood silent, out in the darkness, past the dim light cast by the town’s ornaments. Sprokit’s eyes were used to the dark and he could see it easily, but his friends might never notice it, out there in the depths of the darkness. Rohvu had said if a tree could be found, she could return them to the grove. He had to make sure they saw that tree.
Sprokit had his plan, sneak his way to the tree, and then get his friends' attention. He began plotting his route through the small village when it hit him. There didn’t seem to be any people. There were lights burning in the windows, but no signs of life. No people in windows or on the streets. Even the nearby stable seemed empty. Strange. Sir Bertrand would say, “One can never be too careful around ‘strange’.”
Sprokit opted for camouflage. He nabbed a wreath of woven branches and holly sprigs from a door and wound it about himself. The supple branches laced about his arms and legs in a crude mockery of a ghillie suit. He made his way around the back of buildings, sticking to the darkness, until he came to the stable.
Sprokit began to carefully detach a string of enchanted lights hung along the supports and roof of the stable. He scuttled along the beams with ease, winding the string around and around himself as he went until, when he was almost done, he looked like a short rotund ball of light. It was then that Sprokit heard a rustle from deep in the darkness of the stable.
Tucked into a far corner and chained to a stake, Sprokit found a young reindeer.
“Oooo,” Sprokit whispered in awe. As he tried to approach the foal recoiled, straining at the chain. Sprokit took another step forward, “It okay. I not hurt you.”
A jet of red light lanced out of the reindeers’ nose and missed Sprokit by a hairs breadth. The beam left a smoking hole a half inch around where it struck the ground. It didn’t burrow deep but the dirt was scorched.
“That rude...” said the Kobold. Then he noticed, all around the reindeer were similar scorch marks. They lined the walls, the ceiling and there were holes in several of the stalls.
“Oh,” said Sprokit in a hushed tone. “You different.” The baubles on his strand of lights tinkled as he slumped a bit, his chin resting on his tiny chest if not for the dense ticket of lights wound around him. He plucked one off and straitened. “That okay,” He said, calm and bright. “Sprokit different too.”
As he spoke, he began to fiddle with the tiny crystal ball he had pulled from the string and edged slowly closer to the reindeer. “Sprokit has a pet, skunk, Spritz. He so cute. But he smell. Bad.” Sprokit saw the twinkling light in his grasp seemed to entrance the foal as it moved back and forth while he worked to open it without breaking it. He edged closer and continued in his quiet, friendly tone.
“So, Sprokit ask his friend Corrin for help. Together, we make Spritz a charm.” Sprokit unstopped the small globe and the enchanted flame within twinkled out. The reindeer chuffed and pawed at the ground, but no blasts ensued. “Now Spritz’ tail is fancy and he smell good.”
Sprokit inched closer with the now empty crystal bauble. He had learned a lot from the wizard as they worked out how to make the charm function. Now Sprokit used some of that to help this unfortunate creature.
The bauble glowed with a faint white light as Sprokit whispered and incantation, then carefully fixed the bottle over the reindeer’s nose. It stuck. Even when the foal tried to shake it loose, it stuck. Then the foal panicked and reared against his chain. The bauble on his nose lit up with the same deep red light as a moment ago. Now, instead of a beam of destructive energy, it cast a diffuse, warm light around the stable.
“See,” Said sprokit. “Now you cute. No more rude... I call you Rude-off. You like that name?” After a moment the reindeer calmed down. He began to nuzzle at Sprokit’s snout while the kobold un-tethered him from the stake.
“Now you free, Rude-off.” Sprokit pet the reindeer one last time as it padded quietly to the edge of the stable, now aglow with a bright, warm light. The deer took a few tentative steps outside then leapt into the night air and took flight up into the storm beyond the barrier.
Sprokit sidled along the last building as he grew closer to the lake and the tree beyond. As he rounded a corner he noticed a door standing ajar, leading into the large barn-like building. He snuck up and took a peek inside. It wasn’t a barn, it was a workshop. Sprokit slipped in and ducked into a dark corner, branches rustling and lights tinkling as he crept. None of the rooms many occupants seemed to notice though.
Each gnome was sitting at a workstation, blank faced. Their small figures dressed in garish red and green outfits topped with pointed jingle bell hats. They assembled a slew of small toys, in a fevered trance. Never stopping and never turning away from their work. They made dolls, carved figures, dice, games and a myriad of other small objects. As they finished each one it was dropped into a shiny brass tube and whisked out of sight. As Sprokit watched, a chill ran up his spine that had nothing to do with the cold.
“Hello, little one.” A velvet voice slunk out of the darkness behind Sprokit.
The little kobold stiffened and pretended to be an ornament.
The voice chuckled and the ghost of a young woman floated in front of Sprokit. “You have nothing to fear from me.” She said, smiling. “Though, if you’re here, I should be the least of your worries.”
Sprokit glanced through her at the gnomes toiling away. They were no larger than him, but the ghost of the woman was tall and full figured. He asked, in little more than a whisper, “What happen to them?”
“They’re cursed.” She replied. “We all are. I am Nymphadora. My husband, Nicholus, was a wizard who wanted to do good, but he took a shortcut and made a deal with a demon. Thinking he could trick the demon into using his powers for the good of people, my husband didn’t read his contract closely enough and it doomed him to an immortal life here. I was not so lucky. I was cursed as well, as was our staff. I was set to oversee them, but not given immortality. Now I watch them make toy after toy for children who will never receive them. They think that one more toy will always be the last they need to make. Being dead gave me a new perspective, but they are still trapped, made immortal by the curse.”
“How I free them?” Asked Sprokit, his face turned from surveying the gnomes to looking up into her pale, translucent visage.
“I’m not sure you can and why would you want to? I thought kobolds hate gnomes.”
Sprokit stared at her puzzled.
Nymphadora gave an ethereal shrug. “Even if you lift this curse, the other prisoner will never willingly let us leave.” As she said this her iridescent form dimmed a bit.
“Yes. Pray you don’t meet it. We are but decorations here. We are trapped, yes, but not the only prisoners. The being we are locked in here with is an ancient horror. Thankfully, it is cut off from most of its power. ”
“So, then how I lift curse?” Sprokit knew he couldn’t leave them here. After all, Gnomes and Kobolds got along famously ever since the Gnome god built a maze for the kobold god. Rayke sang him the song all the time, it was his favorite.
“They always need to make one more, make them think they’re done and they should wake up.”
She only shrugged in response.
Sprokit looked up and down for a way to wake them up. He tried shaking them, yelling, slapping their faces, anything he could think of, but nothing worked. They remained steadfastly at their toil. Then he saw a stack of skins for making a drum and an idea struck.
He grabbed a skin and fixed it over the mouth of the brass tube the toys were going into. It caught them and after two or three toys piled on top it looked like the tube was backed up from being full.
“Hey. Look.” He said to the gnome. “You done. Good job.” Sprokit pointed to the now overflowing tube.
The gnome blinked and seemed to come out of his trance. “Thanks.”
Sprokit nodded and began to fix a skin over the next tube and showed his new gnome friend how to do it. One became two; two became four; and so on until soon the whole workshop was back to normal.
“We can’t thank you enough, but we need to go give Nick a piece of our minds.” Said Goober, the first gnome Sprokit had rescued. With that, the small army of gnomes made their way out of the workshop and across the village to a massive red and white striped tower. Sprokit stayed for a moment and looked up at Nymphadora. “Where you go?”
“If you and your friends free Nicholus, I think I’ll be free as well. I wish you luck, Sprokit.”
Sprokit smiled the best he could at her as she faded back inside and left him standing at the door he had come in through. It clicked gently shut behind him and he was alone in the silence of the night. With nothing left between him and the tree but the frozen lake, he set off at a brisk waddle. The woven branches and string of lights made his movement awkward, but didn’t slow him much.
Out over the ice he crept, quiet and determined. Sprokit was in the middle of the lake, far from either shore when he heard it. There was an explosion in the distance, on the opposite side of the town, near to where he had found himself alone. Then Sprokit felt the ice quake beneath his feet. A deep, resonating thump camp from below the ice, muffled only by the frozen air. Then another. A third. The ice held.
You will not escape.
The voice slithered into Sprokit’s mind. A sound like gravel poured over churning, grinding hate. A voice he did not hear, but that he could not help but listen to. There, below the ice, almost obscured by the thick sheet of frost was the shape of a nightmare. It was at least ten times his size, on one end Sprokit could make out a wide toothy maw, filled with row upon row of serrated teeth. On the other, a writhing mass of tentales squirming and straining against the ice. It shifted in an awful underwater ballet and pointed its attention at Sprokit… Through him.
Your friends have no faith in you. They fill your head with lies. Come, Krampus will show you true friendship.
“No. You trapped. You stay trapped. Sprokit will find his friends.” At this, the kobold continued on towards the tree. His steps were quicker now; he wanted to be off the ice. He looked down and found that it didn’t look like ice he was standing on. It looked like the night sky.
Sprokit froze. He closed his eyes and prayed that when he opened them, it would be gone. He was just seeing things.
Yes. The voice slunk through his thoughts in a long drawl. Your fear feeds me.
Sprokit opened his eyes and there it was, reflected in the sheet of ice at his feet. Stars. Thousands of stars. Sprokit felt his tiny chest tighten. He glanced up. There they were. Shining through a hole punched clear through the storm. He dug his clawed feet into the ice.
I feel your fear. You know, the story Rayke tells you about the maze? It’s a lie. The gnome god did build a maze for your kobold god, but it was to trap him. To seal him away forever. Not to help him protect his treasure.
Another distant explosion shook Sprokit form his frozen state. He took one shaky step closer to the tree.
Sir Bertrand just wanted you out of the way, that’s why he told you to stay back. Lyra doesn’t even think you’ll live. None of your ‘friends’ want you around.
Sprokit tried not to listen, tried to just keep taking one more step forward. Krampus was echoing his own deepest thoughts. Things he didn’t want to think, but that were his secret fears. In his despair he felt his grip on the ice loosen. In a rush of momentum, Sprokit felt himself start to fall up into the open sky, cursed to tumble up into the vast nothingness forever.
Then, he felt himself slow and a warm glow shone across his face. Sprokit opened his eyes to find himself astride the back of his reindeer friend. Scooped off the ice and hovering ever closer to the tree.
“Rude-off!” Sprokit smiled and stroked the neck of his caribou companion. “Thank you! You amazing! We make tree shine now.” Sprokit pointed to the lone fir and the reindeer jetted off. As they neared the tree, Sprokit untangled the string of lights from around himself and wound it ‘round and ‘round the tree instead. He and Rude-off flew around higher and higher. Sprokit took the sprigs of holly from his camouflage and poked them in among the branches of the tree.
I see what you intend. You will not escape, I will see to it.
In the sky, a shooting star flashed. It burned closer and closer until Sprokit took notice of it. When he saw, Sprokit’s eyes widened. It was heading straight for the tree. If it crashed down, they might never find another way back home. Then he saw them, a whole flock of reindeer flying through the air. Rude-off flashed his nose toward the incoming missile and the herd turned in coordinated unison, their hooves beating at the cold empty air. The coven of caribou unleashed a combined blast from their noses, each reindeer adding a different hue to the rainbow of destruction.
The beams collided and formed a massive twisting helix of light and color that shot up and impacted the surface of the comet streaking closer. As it hit, the beam exploded and cracked the meteor into thousands of tiny glistening particles.
Across the empty town, another explosion rocked the front of a warehouse and smoke poured out along with Sir Bertrand and the rest of Sprokit’s friends. Behind them were all the gnomes Sprokit had rescued surrounding a tall slender man in red robes and smiling along with a red-haired young woman. The group seemed to be celebrating.
You will see. Your victory will be your undoing.
Sparkles rained down over the tree, twinkling with an astral beauty Sprokit had never noticed before. That and the lights wound around the bows of the tree soon grabbed the attention of Sir Bertrand. When the tall knight spotted the tree, he alerted the party and they began to make their way to the exit Sprokit had found for them.
From his vantage in the sky, Sprokit could see the disaster and realized his miscalculation too late. His friends were taking the straightest path to the tree, the same way he had. Directly across the frozen lake.
When the group was in the middle of the ice, the steel of Sir Bertrand’s armor was heavy enough to put a tiny crack in the ice. It was only a small pop. “Stop! Back!” He shouted before anyone else could step farther out. But it was too late. A low, resonating thump echoed through the night punctuated by a deep, groaning CRAAACK!
The ice shifted and a tentacle probed its way into the chill night air, then snaked back down below the ice. Sprokit watched from Rude-off’s back, circling down back towards the lake when all of the sudden the ice erupted tossing chunks and people into the air. Rohuv transformed into a giant eagle and snatched Bertrand and Rayke out of the air. Lyra leapt in graceful arcs from one piece of ice to another then landed lightly on the shore while Corrin simply blinked and found himself on solid ground near where the others were forming up.
Tentacles lashed about in every direction while Krampus worked its massive body up onto shore where he could point his jaws of horror at Sir Bertrand and Lyra. The two were back on the ground and stood sentinel, shielding the rest of the group as best they could, but Krampus’ reach with his limbs was extensive.
Each appendage seemed to have a mind of its own and was trying to grab anyone looking the other way. Corrin and Rohvu lobbed spells in every direction trying to turn the tide, but they only seemed to annoy Krampus rather than actually hurting it. Nicholus and Rayke were doing their best to shield Nymphadora and the gnomes with spells and incantations. Sprokit was floating high above on Rude-off, taking in the chaos. There had to be something he could do. The storm was back overhead, looming closer and closer. As soon as he passed into it, the cold grew much more intense.