We have to go through the Deadwood, said Johnny. The dragon rumbled. Lawrence wondered if he was hungry but considered the trouble a dragon might have in a forest. Accidental fire catching branches. Wings catching.
I get it, said the dwarf Ashen. We're at the deadwood stage.
There was a deep silence in the Deadwood.
This is wrong, whispered Johnny. Woodlands make noise. There should be birds singing, things rustling about, animals trying to eat each other. The Deadwood was part birch forest but part other things, mephitic oaks, diseased climbing vines, the stumps of trees that rose from small clearings where hosts of swarming insects danced in light.
There was a stink also. A metallic stink that Lawrence couldn't identify at first. It reminded him of the great wurm's dying.
They stepped into a clearing twenty yards across, light falling through a canopy of green leaves, dapplign the woodland floor in light, grey and brown trees rising up to meet the light. The clearing was still and quiet.
Four human figures had been tied to trees. The two apparently male had terrible wounds at the groin, and the ground beneath them was dark red with drying blood. The other two, apparently female, had been torn open, and piles of something unimaginable lay in the leaf litter at their feet.
Nasty, he said. Haven't seen anything like this for a while.
What could have done this, said Lawrence, fighting back bile.
Search me, said Johnny. I wonder who they were.
So long as we aren't next, said Ashen. Oh look.
A dark figure stepped into the clearing. Not just darkly robed but apparently made of darkness, as though it swirled between the trees like a mist rising off the moorland in the early morning.
Cat hissed, her back arched.
The dark figure walked towards them. Lawrence felt the crackling of bad magic around it like static electricity, his hair standing on end.
You could ask me, came a voice. You could ask me who they were. The voice was inside Lawrence's head and had no identifiable timbre, nor accent, nor tone. It was simply there.
Who, said Johnny.
Ah, said the voice. You can hear me. I wondered about your talking menagerie, mister Lawrence.
You know my name, said Lawrence.
I know all sorts of things, said the voice. The dark swirling creature was closer now, its long arms reaching out to encompass the band of adventurers.
They, it said, were mushroom-pickers. Peasants.
So, said Lawrence. What did they do wrong?
Wrong? said the voice. They existed in the Deadwood without my permission.
And who are you, said Lawrence.
I am the Deadwood, said the voice. The dark figure faded. Something huge and hunched shambled into the clearing instead, between the trees where the peasants had been crucified.
A bear, said Johnny. I don't care for bears. Vicious things. Kill you as soon as look at you.
It isn't a bear sir, said Link.
And it wasn't. It was a huge shaggy creature with tusks and brown fur, red eyes that stared from under a beetling brow. Lawrence felt an old, old fear, as though the very sight of this creature latched onto something from thousands of years ago, when the ice sheets retreated and the Deadwood first grew. Although no stories were told of this being, they did not need to be. Lawrence remembered old manuscripts his Master had directed him to, that spoke in cagy and hesitant terms of the ones known as the Dwellers. There was an intimation that they had not originated on this Earth at all, that their ancestors came from the stars, or from another Earth parallel to our own.
And more frightening than any such speculation; it was clearly intelligent. The Dweller shambled across the clearing and stared into Lawrence's eyes.
He'd seen looks like that from class bullies, town drunks, the ones who elbowed you into the gutter or made gestures that while incomprehensible were clearly an insult of some kind. Actual attack he could deal with, and his quick reactions honed by training under his Master had spun the occasional assailant into a wall with a satisfying thump, or twisted an attacking arm and slammed an unpleasant individual to the ground, long before he ever had to deal with the Wurm; but the rich texture of stupidity and low-level threat was another matter.
Hello, said Lawrence.
The Dweller reached up a hefty paw and pushed up the tip of its own nose.
That wasn't even funny before you did it, he said. The Ancient stared at him and snickered.
Then the Dweller opened its tusked mouth and screamed.
Lawrence looked down.
Cat was swinging happily from its exposed genitalia, hanging on by her teeth.
There was a sort of cough that Lawrence realised was the Deadwood's voice biting back a chuckle.
The Dweller ran about the clearing with Cat taking a free ride like some kind of demonic circus performer hanging onto a trapeze by her pearly whites. Rather than grabbing Cat - which might have done it no good after all - it waved its hands about and crashed into the undergrowth. Lawrence thought he could hear Cat's teeth grinding together in the Dweller's flesh.
Fun and games, said the voice in his head. I think your Cat understands.
Understands, said Johnny. Understands what?
Being in the moment, said the voice. The freedom to butcher peasants. The liberty to help your friends by going for the undercarriage of a primeval terror. Now tell me what it is you want.
We must pass by this Deadwood, said Lawrence.
We, said Johnny, want your permission to pass by your Deadwood.
That's better, said the voice. What you need is to go through. What you want is my permission. True?
Yes, said Lawrence. Please.
Somewhere a bird started chirping.
A host of figures appeared in the trees. Pale, greenish-skinned, and eerily humanoid.
Forest wraiths, sir, said Link. Okay but don't trust 'em. And never let one get you into water.
There was something at the back of Lawrence's mind about this. An engraving of a dark lake, ringed by birch trees. Something in it. A swan, drifting, hook-beaked.
Then there was a voice behind him.
You are welcome, it said.
A woman almost his height, her skin pale and greenish, her hair long and coppery. She was dressed in forest green and emerald green.
I am Tellervo, daughter of Tapio and Mielikki. This is my forest.
And the voice? said Lawrence.
That? said Tellervo. Ajatar. He is also the forest. There is light, there is dark. Do you not see how the light flows through the trees, how there is brightness and also shadow?
I do, he said, following her hand as she pointed.
Follow me, she said. You will become lost and die otherwise. Oh, and there is your cat. Precious.
And she was. Cat was scampering towards them, grinning happily.
Tellervo smiled and walked between Lawrence and Johnny.
Follow, she said again. Follow.
Lawrence let the magic swirl around him to point the way they needed to go; but he was quite prepared to admit that there were other magics here, that his light magic could be bent and warped and distorted by the dark.
From what he could tell Tellervo was leading them on the right path.
But as she led he became aware of the blood stink again, or something worse, a charnel long since forgotten. Ahead the trees gave way to - what?
Cat yowled and something in the trees barked twice and was silent.
There was a lake. Long, low, black, mists lying low on it. And in the lake a maiden sat, braiding her shining blonde hair, her breasts covered only by vagrant strands of that hair.
The maiden smiled.
Come, she said. I am Nakki, of the lake. Come sit by me.
Lawrence found himself pacing forward, drawn to her. But Johnny stuck out a tail and tripped him. Lawrence fell forward onto the edge of the lake.
Fried fish today? said Johnny, and blew an experimental tongue of flame towards Nakki. The maiden shrank back and the travellers could see her lower body, how she became a fish at the waist, how her tail was coiled beneath her. Nakki snarled and floundered away into the water.
Lawrence stood up, fortunately not too muddy. He looked around. Tellervo was nowhere to be seen.
And the Swan came gliding; black, silent, shrouded in mist, the size of a bull calf. Its beak as black as its ragged feathers, its eyes the deepest orange staring into his. Once again Lawrence felt drawn but Ashen put something into his hand. Lawrence looked down and found he was bearing Ashen's crossbow, a single black-shafted and sable-flighted quarrel loaded and ready to fire.
He looked up again and the Swan had spread its wings, the terrible beak looming over him ready to strike. He raised the crossbow and fired. The quarrel hit home in the Swan's chest and it screamed. The beak came down and struck Lawrence in the shoulder. He stepped back and the Swan fell onto the shore, the quarrel driving up through its body and out through its back.
There will be others, said a woman's voice. We must go.
Tellervo, leading them onward. They walked paths between birch stands, over streamlets that tinkled and rushed.
Wood of the dead, said Lawrence.
Indeed, said Tellervo. You have successfully passed its tests, but you have many still to come. They had come to an edge; where the wood ended, and a path led on along a rocky mountain edge, red rock, climbing ever upwards.
I shall, Tellervo said, bid you all fare well here. She kissed Lawrence lightly on the cheek.
We thank you, he said.
Thank me when your quest is over, said Tellervo.
My lady, said Lawrence. We shall.
And the adventurers walked onward. When they turned to look at the Deadwood it was an old stand of blackened trees, and no spirits walked within it, but Lawrence knew it was keeping its secrets and biding its time.