Kast

Chapter 50: Seriously now, the calm before the storm
Parts unknown

Somewhere far off, perhaps in the far future, perhaps in another plane, a group of figures observes a scrying glass. The glass shows a boggy forested river delta from above, as if viewed by a bird. But as if the bird is diving, less and less area is visible in the glass, and more and more details can be picked out, until an elven village suddenly becomes apparent. One of the figures — call him Nar’Ator — speaks.

“The small village of Dae’ostar. In many ways, it is like any other village.” The scrying glass shimmers and changes to showing an aged elf repairing a fishing net, shimmers again to reveal elven children climbing trees.

“But this land is unwelcoming,” the glass shows in sequence views of hydras, jaguars, giant spiders, and treants, “and eking out a living here is hard”, we see some sort of gruel being slopped into a wooden bowl.

Nar’Ator continues, “So why choose to live here? And why do they treat strangers with such paranoia?” The scrying glass shows a large group of what can only be “adventurers” entering the village, and then moments later a larger group of elven warriors appear, as if from nowhere, with blades at the adventurers’ throats.

“Elder Shoyuen explains,” says Nar’Ator, and the glass provides a close view of the face of an ancient elf, whose words are easily understood by those observing.

“In the past, the Deus Clariel was a bane to all the land. And so the other Dei banded together to imprison Clariel. No normal prison would suffice, so Clariel was bound in the very blood of the people of this village. Our three great families, Glimelion,” the glass shows a woman of middle years who gives the impression of steel covered with velvet, “Deymagrin”, now we see a scarred veteran, standing straight despite seeming to bear a great burden, “and Shoyuen”, the view is again of the ancient elf, though now from further away, and we can see a younger female who bears some resemblance sitting next to him, “keep Clariel imprisoned. If all our blood should be spilled, Clariel will surely be freed.”

Nar’Ator takes over the story, “And so they came to this desolate place,” fog rolls through a bog, “and they trained in the martial arts,” pairs of young elves can be seen sparring. “Still they paid a heavy price in blood,” the glass shows a stone bearing the words “To those who have fallen”, and then begins to move down, revealing a list of names. As the view drops, it also moves away from the stone, revealing more and more names. Eventually we see the edges of an obelisk, and the view begins to rotate around the obelisk, revealing more names on its other sides. As soon as the view is far enough away that the obelisk fills only about a quarter of the scrying glass, lines appear diving the glass in three, and views appear of two more obelisks, clearly in other parts of the same village.

“And even that price may not have been enough. A long-range scout has just returned,” the glass shows a large image of a younger elf, clean shaven, with dark brown skin and brown eyes, “bearing word that an attack is indeed imminent. An army of gnolls bears down upon the village.”

“And so the village prepares, as best it can. Those who cannot fight, flee.” we see a strapping young human helping a family load heavy sacks onto a cart, then a shimmer and a line of elves plodding away from the village. “Fighters prepare themselves with a few more drills, both martial,” a pair of elves sparring, “and mystical”, a young half-elf meditates in the woods as vines writhe around him. “While honor prevents the warriors from running, it does not stop them from using every weapon in their armory.” A foreign-to-the-village elf hands a vial of sickly green liquid to the human we saw earlier. The glass shifts, and reveals the half-elf scattering duff over a pitfall.

“But will it be enough? Will this village manage to beat back the gnoll threat? Or will the scout’s joyful homecoming,” the glass shows an elf girl play-fighting with the scout from before, then shifts to a scene of the scout surrounded by other elves, who lean in to hear the tale he tells, “be cut abruptly short?” The glass is again providing a view like of the village from above, when suddenly the earth shifts, trees sway, and a flock of birds takes wing, squawking in alarm.

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Chapter 49: The calm before the storm
Lucky

Wet, cold, and mostly exhausted, we found ourselves floating in the water a ways from shore. But we’d gotten away from the gnolls and had a moment to catch our breath.

We made the sensible decision to go ashore. Since Telsin was dragging the corpse of one of the gnollish lieutenants we killed, we headed back North and West towards the Masked Midnight.

Though we were sure we were being pursued, the trip through the forest by day was fortunately uneventful. We dodged some spiders and hydras — Tharn and Telsin recognized the signs — found some zombies that were already dead, and avoided a huge crocodile. Like massively big. As big as our old boat. We left the gnoll’s body there in hopes the huge beast would destroy the remains.

Previously, of course, we’d claimed the gnoll’s heart which we intended to exchange for the blessing of the Masked Midnight. That exchange was peculiar, as dealing with such beings often is, but largely went off without a hitch. I think the biggest problem was my struggle to swim down into the Midnight’s weird upside-down water bubble cave. Well, or maybe it was when Tuiz tried to read the Midnight’s intentions and got intimidated into compliance. Or maybe it was when a bedraggled Tharn nearly drowned trying to swim back out.

Anyway, we weren’t sure quite what we were doing but it worked out well for us. The Masked Midnight even gave us a wonderful magic blue firefly guide after gulping down the gnollish heart. I considered eating the firefly in response, but it’s just as well I didn’t. It was much more useful as a guide in one of Tuiz’s spare bottles.

Returning to the Grey Forest, we saw signs of the pursuing gnolls and their new brimstone hounds but we were safely across the water and away without them noticing us. After a long day’s travel, and still bearing many of the strains from the morning’s combat, we finally settled down for the night.

Fortunately, the night passed uneventfully. No wait, uneventfully isn’t the right word. It went un…badly. It was not bad; things happened but they were good things. There were no gnolls, or nasty monsters, or other evil. Most notably, this is when I finalized the fruit bond with Indigmarionassimo. Or maybe it’s a food bond? I still don’t really know how it works. Did we finally bond over bacon under majestic starlight? Was it the purple monk mind synergy tea? Did I just dream about the bacon? Maybe it was Indy who was dreaming about bacon… (it can be hard to tell our thoughts apart sometimes). Anyway, I gained a familiar friend. Telsin spent the night practicing Monk techniques, like they do. Everyone slept and rested and recovered before the battles that would follow.

In the morning, we traveled to the center of everything in the forest: the Hidden Monk village. The firefly helped. It was rather larger than I expected, I remember. Plenty of nice, natural architecture; it really fit into the forest and it’s easy to understand how they could hide so well there. And then… no wait; this is its own story in its own right. We’ll get to that another time.

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The Worst Good Day
Tharn

I’m wet, I’m tired, and I’m in serious pain.

I didn’t expect this day to go smoothly, but I also didn’t expect it to be this bad. It started out fine, with us trapped at the bottom of a tunnel, the entrance of which was surrounded by hundreds of gnolls. That we could handle. When Lucky forced open the scrollcase we found, nothing evil came out (as I had expected). It was just some fancy elven martial technique that means nothing to me. The day didn’t get interesting until I talked to Braxtol.

We were planning to flee the gnoll camp while Braxtol etc. created a diversion. If, in the ensuing chaos, we managed to capture or kill Cad Bane, that would be a nice bonus. Braxtol’s reaction to this plan was definitely not what I expected. He said the army had left. Good news for us?

No.

After taking the lift back up the tunnel, we were surprised to find that none of our magic worked. The next surprise was that we were confronted by two figures, one gnoll and one humanoid with more than a hint of demon. The demonic figure addressed us, calling herself Aurra Sing, and she offered us a deal. We could trade one of our number as a prisoner to receive as a prisoner one of the gnoll commanders.

While this would be an easy means to obtain the heart of an adversary, we had two major problems with it. One, we weren’t particularly keen on sacrificing any one of us. Two, what good is us getting to the village if the gnolls also do (and probably faster). And then the fighting started. It turns out that in addition to those two (who happened to be gnoll lieutenants), the rest of the gnoll leadership was there, waiting outside. We managed to mostly hold our own until Braxtol and his followers arrived, pursued by the fang.

From there, things got nasty. I don’t think I’ve ever been so close to death (and I have had plenty of experience with that), and I wasn’t the only one.

After a brutal fight that we were clearly not going to win, Braxtol opened a portal and urged us all through. Just as the fang closed on us, we all managed to slip through the portal, even dragging an unconscious gnoll with us.

And that’s how we got into the lake. And why I’m wet. But at least we have a gnoll, who probably has a heart?

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Chapter 47: Blasted, Gassed, and Slashed
Tuiz in dialogue with Telsin

“Ooh, treasure” says Tuiz.

“Step aside,” says Telsin, “and let me examine the artifacts of my people the ninjas.”

“Wait, what?” interjects Tuiz. “You want first shot at the items?”

“Why not? It was my final kick that drove the statue into submission.”

“Sure, you got the final kick”, said Tuiz, “but only after passing out twice. If Caleb and I hadn’t healed you, you’d be lying on the ground right now.”

“I wouldn’t have passed out if you guys could be a bit more careful.”

“Oh, you mean it’s Tharn’s fault that his phoenix’s blast knocked you out after the statue had grabbed you?”

“Yes that, but also when I thought I was safely recovering behind you, you dodged to the side and let the statue skewer me!”

“It’s not my fault you didn’t dodge as well as I did.”

“I don’t think it was my fault either — that statue was casting powerful curses as the seals on its sword were broken.”

“I didn’t notice the curse making it any harder to dodge.”

“Whatever. You are still in my debt from earlier, in the room with the four statues that fired opposed elemental beams. You turned the negative energy beam on me, knocking me out.”

“Because you didn’t dodge! Besides, that blast blew up your happy-light-magic statue. Which by the way I haven’t forgotten that we let you get the happiness statue while I took the evil one.”

“You didn’t seem pleased by the so-called ‘happiness beam’ when you were in the force of it. Perhaps you’re particularly susceptible to radiant energy?”

“Are you calling me evil? Come on. Are you forgetting that I saved you from the poison gas room?”

“I credit Lucky with saving me. He’s the one who stealthily approached each station, getting us to the first scarf. And as you tell it, he spotted the real lock, dispelled the magic ward on it, and picked past the mechanical aspect. All you did was lift the door up.”

“I’d have liked to see you lift that door with the gas sapping your strength. Plus I also kept Lucky alive so he could do all those things. I bled for him so that he could stay up long enough.”

“So your argument against being evil is that you used blood magic? Not very convincing.”

“Be careful what you say, as someone with powers that only work in darkness.”

“You’re the one who tried to convince us not to eat those delicious dumplings.”

“Because I don’t trust magical dumplings summoned by ancient ninjas that are trying to kill us! I was trying to keep us safe!”

“Not doing a very good job of it. You also caused us to lose Tharn’s rope, trying to bind the statue.”

“Excuse me for having the idea to prepare for an obvious ambush. And remember that I lost my bedroll to that cursed sword.”

“Mm-hmm. Didn’t you heal the statue near the start of combat?”

“What, you mean when I figured out that fire healed it? You can hardly blame me for being the first one to deal fire damage to it. And I warned you all. If I hadn’t, Lucky would have healed it with those meteors, or the phoenix that Tharn accidentally summoned from Master Roshi’s rock would have used more fiery attacks.”

“Hey by the way guys”, interjects Lucky, “that phoenix was pretty terrifying, right?”

Tuiz and Telsin look at each other, then back at Lucky. “Uh, not really,” says Tuiz. “And hey, what are you doing those those?” At this point Tuiz and Telsin notice that while they were arguing, Lucky, Tharn, and Caleb have done an inventory of the item’s in the golem’s chest:

  • A cloak of deep blue-black like the night sky, with silver inlay
  • A golden chalice
  • A wooden staff with a metal ball that seems to detach from it and return as if tethered
  • A basin of a strange silvery liquid
  • A small bag covered in runes that seems to hold some type of powder
  • A giant scroll, bound and locked shut.
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Chapter 46: On time, luck, and beetles
Lucky

As you’ll remember from before, we gained entry to an old monk stronghold in the Grey Forest and were testing ourselves against the ninja trials. We spent quite some time down there, some of it more effective than others.

One particularly odd room was full of strangely colored trees. Lavender grass, blue wood, orange leaves, silver edging… it was an odd pastel dreamland. It was also really annoying. There were traps everywhere that shot these annoying little darts and periodically a swarm of large, crystalline beetles would buzz around and try to bite us. They did that a fair lot but despite their size — they were roughly as big as me — they didn’t really hurt much.

But, I mean, we also couldn’t hurt them either. Not that we didn’t try. But it was like trying to break rocks; really hard rocks. We got a couple of cracks a couple of times but never did manage to break one open. And so, we never got the key to unlock that crystal-studded chest.

Oh, right, I should have mentioned that before. In addition to the oddly colored plants there was also a large golden beehive and a pair of sturdy chests. We got the gold-and-black inlaid chest open when Tuiz used his cloak to catch all those annoying darts and we found one of them was striped gold-and-black like a bumblebee. RIght, see? Beehive, bee-dart, bee-chest? That key let us open the chest and get the focus rune which was one of the six we needed to challenge the steel sentry in the anteroom.

But the beetles? We punched, kicked, shot, stabbed, tackled, dragged, slammed, rode, slashed, scared, flipped, and even caused one of them to crash head-first into the chest but never got the key. I tried to shatter them with spells and barely caused a pair of cracks. Tuiz even dragged one out into the anteroom, across the way, and tried to dunk it in the lava we’d seen in one of the other trials. Nothing worked. Remind me to tell you about the lava and the binding constructs another time.

The beetles? We just didn’t have the skill we needed. Or maybe we did and we just didn’t have the luck necessary for it to work when we tried it? Anyway, we tried across a couple of days because Tuiz adeptly figured the more runes we collected the easier it would be when we had to fight the golem.

You see, the steel golem had this huge cursed sword and every trial we passed caused a glowing rune to appear along the blade and ultimately shielded us from some of the power. We also made some preparations of our own, eventually, to try to hamper the sentry before fighting it. As Telsin said “the rules of the ninja are… there are no rules.”

Between attempts fighting the beetles we spent the night in the Earthsong monastery room. Whereas it was high noon when I recovered the balance rune, when we entered the room again we found it just after dusk. We later figured out that the trials had some sort of shifting time mechanism but we stumbled into finding the perspective rune mostly by luck.

You see, the trick in that room was you had to be there at different times. You could climb the invisible balance beams to the sun during the day but you needed to be there at night to get the shovels and dig up the perspective box. It was fortunate we decided to rest there when we did. Lest you think the rooms were just reflecting the outside time, know this wasn’t so. We took a good long rest in the Earthsong room and the sky didn’t change nor did the monk’s campfire burn out. I never thought of monks as particularly magical, but they had some cool magic working for these trials.

After we rested, we battled the beetles again and checked out the other two rooms. While the others explored the lava room, which wasn’t actually lava but just painted stone like the monastery room, I explored the grey forest room. That room featured a number of stone pillars that looked like trees and required sneaking around and triggering a set of hidden switches. Of course, I found the first such switch entirely by luck, but I mean, I’m Lucky. What do you expect?

But anyway, we’re out of time for today. Remind me next time and I’ll tell you more about the trials.

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Chapter 45 - The First Trials
Tharn

After the ordeal of getting down here, we all needed a rest. It also gave us some time to ponder the riddle “Ten skills define the way of shadow. Bring proof you have mastered six to challenge my might. The trials are deadly to the unprepared. Look twice before you decide which paths to take.” Clearly we’ll have to face the giant statue, but what are these ten trials? Lucky figured that one out quickly. While there are only five doors leaving this room, each door has ten runes next to them. These are probably our trials. Each rune is a word, in elvish, that presumably indicates one of the skills of a shadowy fancy-fighter, like Telsin.

Having located the trials, we still had many questions. How many people can participate? How deadly is “deadly”? Can any of us other than Telsin actually complete them? We decided to start by trying to do them all together. We picked “perspective,” since that seemed like one where multiple people would be a boon, and sent in Tuiz first, in case the door shut once everyone was in.

The room on the other side was surprising, to say the least. The door opened onto a mountaintop, and based on the view, we determined that we were near the Earthsong Monastery. However, down in the valley below us, we could see the rivers and plains we’ve been traveling, but no sign of habitation. No towns, no farms, no Glissana.

With no idea of what to do, we headed along a path. That is, until we smacked face-first into a wall. Closer inspection revealed that everything in the distance was painted on the walls of the room, and they were enchanted to appear to have depth. Assuming the same was true of the ceiling, Tuiz used his polearm to try to find it. He wasn’t able to reach the ceiling, but he did hit some sort of beam rising at an angle from the wall. Further poking revealed a second beam. Lucky and I did some climbing, and were able to mark the two beams, but couldn’t find any more, or the ceiling.

Next, Lucky used his broom to fly up. (Why didn’t we think of this sooner?) Somehow, he managed to reach the ceiling without hitting anything, and he immediately went to investigate the “sun”. When he returned, he was holding a scarf with the “balance” rune on it. Odd. We sent him back up, this time trailing rope, and used that to find the rest of the beams. The beams were floating mid-air, and formed, when “viewed” from below, an asterisk with an arrow pointing to it. Unable to make any sense of this, we left the room.

Then we decided to try the accuracy challenge. As the archer, I went first. About ten feet into the room, the walls came alive, and a giant blade swung at me. It hurt. Having a clear point from which to shoot, I fired at where I expected the target to be, even though I couldn’t make it out from my position. After a few tries, I noticed that my arrows were striking a barrier some distance from the back wall. I figured I needed to get to the other side of the blade, and began walking forward. Unfortunately, there were more than one blade, so it quickly turned into a run.

Finally, after being cut a few times, I made it past the blades. And then the ceiling started dropping. In sections, like giant pillars trying to squish me. They were too fast for me to avoid completely, but I managed to get past that section without being pounded too badly. Now that I was closer, I could make out the object at the end of the hallway. It was a carved head, with glowing eyes, and it was radiating an aura of magical fear. I was able to resist long enough to get a good look at it, but it quickly took over my mind and drove me back into the pillars.

This visit didn’t go as well as the first. I remember a pillar falling toward me, and then looking up at the ceiling near the head. Nothing in between. Telsin, who had apparently followed me through, thought more quickly than I had, and threw a dagger at one of the glowing eyes. This caused the head to shrink, and the aura to intensify. We were on the right track! I was able to compose myself long enough to shoot the other eye, causing the head’s mouth to open, into which Telsin threw a second dagger. With that, the traps shut off, and we were able to safely return to the main chamber. As we walked back, Telsin showed us two pieces of cloth he’d found, labeled “mobility” and “accuracy.” Passing through the door caused the runes to illuminate, then disappear. Lucky pulled out the one from “balance” and it had also lost its rune.

With three of our six tasks complete, we moved on to “precision” and “focus.” At this point it was clear to everyone that the trials were in pairs. This time, the room was a woodland scene. A few things stood out. First, we noticed two chests in a clearing in the woods. One looked crystalline, and the other had a yellow and black pattern. Then, we saw holes in the trees. Vertical rows of holes, like those made by a woodpecker, were on all the trees. Finally, we saw a golden beehive.

Having learned my lesson from “mobility,” I stayed behind while the others explored. As soon as someone passed in front of the holes, we discovered their purpose. A dart shot from each of the holes in the column, making it clear that these were traps. Lucky went straight for the hive, to discover that it was metallic (but not gold) and hollow. He tried a few times to remove it from the tree, but was unsuccessful. That was when the giant beetles showed up. I don’t know where they came from, but they flew in and started attacking us. Our blows seemed to have little effect on them, but they were also unable to hurt us much. After a short while, they grouped up and flew between the four corners of the room before departing.

With this threat gone, I ventured into the room. The first dart trap I triggered revealed another secret. One of the darts caught my eye as I dodged them. This one was different from the others, with a yellow and black pattern. It must be significant, but we don’t yet know how.

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Chapter 44: Elevator Boss Fight
Tuiz

Pfft Pfft Pfft Pfft Pfft. “Ow! Stupid darts.”

“At least that’s the last of the gnolls, right? So it should be just the darts and fire traps until we reach the bottom. I think we can all handle those. I hope there aren’t any worse traps”

“Speak of we all, are we missing someone?”

“Lucky! Where’s Lucky? Did anyone see what happened to him?”

“Nope”

“Not I”

“I think I saw him summon a horse — maybe he rode away?”

“No, I saw the horse bolt on its own and get cut down by gnolls, without Lucky on it. He didn’t ride off. At least not on a horse, but maybe on a broom? But there were a lot of gnolls out there, I hope he can get away.”

“He can turn invisible.”

“Yeah, but that bear shaman guy had some spell that made the two of us glow, right? It seems like that spell could be trouble for anyone invisible. And if they have magic alarms set up like we thought, they’d know roughly where he is.”

“Maybe he escaped back through the tunnel we entered through, and is going to meet back up with Daevon who should still be holding it open.”

“Could be. If so I bet he’ll go out to the B team, so Braxtol should tell you about that with his evil enchantment ravens.”

“I’ll ask him to let us know if he gets any sign of Lucky.”

“Good idea. But… did you see any way to make that platform go back down? I didn’t, though it’s not like we had a lot of time to look. And I don’t think he can teleport anywhere he can’t see. On the other hand I guess—” Fssshhhht. “Yow! I wish we could predict where those fire traps would go off. I guess maybe he could be farther up this… shaft on the broom; this thing seems to be going pretty fast. I hope all those gnolls we pushed off are dead, if he is coming after us. Is the entrance still open?”

“I can’t see it now, but I think it closed behind us.”

“If it is closed, do you think he could reopen it?”

“No, it took the two of us activating runes at the same time.”

“Oh, is that what did it? What was with those runes anyway, how’d you know to press them?”

“Right where we entered was a pretty easy riddle in Elvish, something like ‘Two sisters, one gives birth to the other, and she in turn gives birth to the first.’ Clearly the sun and moon.”

“Oh, yeah, even I could get that one. I guess it’s mostly a filter for who speaks Elvish. The gnolls clearly don’t; it looked like they’d been in there a while.”

Pfft pfft pfft pfft pfft. “Hey I think we lie down the darts will just shoot over us. How much longer is this thing going to go down, anyhow? It seems a bit too much; I don’t think anyone would—” Click. “Hey, it stopped. And, whoah, look at that.”

“That’s a big scary warrior statue.”

“Why can’t we ever find statues of kittens? I wouldn’t mind statues of kittens coming to life.”

“Hang on, it says something up there. Loosely translated it’s something like ‘Ten skills define the way of shadow. Prove mastery of six of them to challenge my might. The paths are deadly, so proceed cautiously.’”

“Challenge my might? That statue’s definitely coming to life later. I don’t suppose we can skip all that and just smash our way into that chest it’s guarding?”

“Hey guys, didja miss me?”

“Lucky! I am glad you weren’t eaten by gnolls.”

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Chapter 43: If at first you don't succeed...
Lucky

Once again, we found ourselves hiding in the forest, looking upon a large gnollish encampment.

Of course, this particular camp was significantly smaller thanks to the Kingsguard’s excellent service, but there was still far too many for us to fight and hope to win. That didn’t stop Brunt from being Brunty and advocating for a direct assault, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Got to set the stage first…

After traipsing through the forest we’d found our way to the end of the Lorian. There, the river ceases to really be a river and becomes mostly a swamp. On the eastern edge of the last open water, the monks of the forest had built a training area. They had a very nice stone tower with built-in vines and trees; an elegant blending of construction combined with nature. You’ve seen similar structures in the lower crown district. Of course, the gnolls got there before we did and had knocked down most of the nearby trees as they set up camp around the tower. Their camp also had some broken ship parts scattered about as though some angry child had thrown them into the forest and broken them.

So anyway, the gnolls outnumber us 100-to-1 or so and most of us aren’t, at this point, willing to personally challenge a hundred gnolls to a fight. I mean, if we could have carefully separated them and planned a perfect ambush… but of course we didn’t do that. Even if we had wanted to try it wasn’t likely to work. We settled for trying to bait out some of the gnolls and waiting together in ambush.

In particular, we tried to sucker out the leader gnoll and his standard bearer. There was a big, burly slave-master gnoll we remembered from the northern encampment and a smaller — though still burly — gnoll following him around with a big, bloody fang banner. They clearly commanded respect in the camp but we were unable to draw them out with our first attempt.

We didn’t really have any good ways to set traps, at least not without days of hard work, so we picked out a muddy section of forest and took up positions. When Telsin indicated, I sent up signal lights like we had seen the gnolls do. We were hoping the leader would rush out with some nearby gnolls and we could surprise them. That obviously didn’t happen. I already told you the leader didn’t come. But also, the gnolls were surprisingly orderly about the whole thing. Telsin watched them call out the lights, call together some of the leadership, organize more than a hundred gnolls into search parties, and for those parties to fan out into the forest to search.

Wanting nothing to do with hundreds of organized gnolls, we left our muddy position and tried to get out to the edge of the fan. I’m not sure if the plan was to fight anyway or just avoid the gnolls, but it didn’t really matter. Heading through the forest someone thought they heard something and we froze, hoping to spring an impromptu ambush on the coming gnolls. I took the broom and invisibly flew a low pattern through the forest but didn’t find anything.

Figuring we shouldn’t waste too much time, we followed Kimya’s nose to the gnolls. And in the third ambush situation of the day… everyone failed. Or, everyone succeeded? Turns out the gnolls were hiding in an illusion but we were moving so carefully and passing without a trace that we got right into their midst before anyone noticed anyone.

And then in a flurry, like twenty things happened nearly all at once. Arrows went flying, weapons were swung, spells were cast, gnolls appeared from hiding, gnolls disappeared into the void, a tree started flailing its limbs, … and, like, no more than 20s later it was all done. The last surviving gnoll tried to flee and was captured by Tharn’s new magic and Telsin’s amazing quickness.

We were largely unharmed but the gnollish mage managed to throw up a distress signal before he got drowned in acid and a flurry of blows. I tried to fool the gnolls with an “all clear” signal but when we saw them continue to advance we decided to flee rather than risk getting surrounded. We definitely could have fought a bunch more gnolls but the goal had been to get the leader and that clearly wasn’t in the cards.

We took our captive and headed further east, towards the sea. Once the others were tired of running — I was still on the broom — or they knew we’d lost our gnollish pursuit, we took a break. Tharn tried to question the captive but all he did was howl until Tharn killed him. Tonias then tried some evil magic to make the dead gnoll answer questions. That didn’t work either.

And so, we circled back around to the gnoll camp to try again.

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Chapter 42 - Three days later

By the time we left the Masked Midnight’s domain, the sun had risen and it was almost noon. Clearly time passed differently there, since we couldn’t have been there for more than an hour. We then spent a while discussing what to do next, with no clear option presenting itself.

With our new task from the Masked Midnight, we had an incentive to track down a gnoll commander or to turn on Braxtol’s crew. However, we didn’t have reliable information on the gnolls’ movements, and Braxtol was still a useful ally.

We eventually decided that the best course of action was to head to the elven training grounds. Because of our round-about path to this point, we decided to head there on our own, instead of going to find Alkin. With that discussion out of the way, we rested until nightfall to make travelling easier.

That was when we got our first real shock. The regular check-in from Braxtol came as expected, but its contents were strange. Apparently we hadn’t responded in the last three days. After confirming with each other that we had responded the previous night, we realized that we must have been in the Masked Midnight’s realm much longer than we had thought.

With a new sense of urgency, we headed toward the training grounds, splitting the difference between the two towers on the way. When we were about halfway between those towers, we came across a well-worn path that seemed to run between them. In an effort to gain information on the gnolls, we sent Lucky (invisible on the broom) to investigate the path to the south.

While Lucky was gone, a group of creatures came down the path from the north. They looked like gnolls, but weren’t moving or making noise like they normally do, and Kimya reacted strangely to their scent. When I went up for a closer look, I saw they were clearly undead. Unfortunately, they noticed my presence and began advancing toward my position. To confuse them, Telsin broke from his hiding place and began running directly away from me. This caused the group of undead to split, with half following Telsin, and the other half still coming toward me. Seeing no easy solution, I used my cloak to fly away, back the way we had come. Seeing the confusion, Tuiz also ran, and he was easily pursued by gnolls.

After running for a time, Tuiz turned to face them. Kimya, who had been tracking them on foot, and Telsin, who had circled back, ambushed them from behind, and I dropped in from above to assist. Together we were easily able to defeat the small group.

After that encounter, we headed back to the path to wait for Lucky, who showed up shortly after we arrived back. Lucky told us he had found one of the towers, as we expected, and that it was full of gnolls. They had somehow managed to detect his presence (I suspect an Alarm spell), but had fortunately been unable to pinpoint his location. We discussed the possibility of attacking the tower, considering several avenues of assualt, most including the pellets full of water we found a few days ago. Eventually we decided that an assault wasn’t worth the risk, and continued on our path.

We neared the camp around dawn, and found a somewhat unexpected, very unfortunate sight. Between us and our destination was the bulk of the gnoll army. I guess we’ll get to fight those lieutenants after all.

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Chapter 41: The Life Aquatic
Tuiz

“Hey Daevon, we’re back.”

“Mmm.”

“You must have been worried about us.”

“Mmm?”

“We left in the early evening, to go to the Shadowfell. It looks like it’s mid-day now, I guess of the next day…? You must have been worried.”

“I had a book.”

“I know you had a book. I can see you reading it now. I remember you reading it all yesterday morning when we were looking for the Masked Midnight. That’s why we took that long walk around this end of the river, by the way. Not sure if you picked that up. I also remember you reading it yesterday midday, when the rest of us were trying hard to find some way to safely get to the bottom of the river, held back by the fact that we all need to breathe. I appreciate that yesterday evening, after Telsin made his way to the bottom of the river and through the veil into the Masked Midnight’s domain and didn’t return as planned, you stopped reading for an hour to help locate him. Really, I appreciate that. We got him safely back, by the way. Do you want to hear what happened to us in the Shadowfell?”

“Almost done with this chapter.”

“You’re impossible.”

“Mmm.”

“Okay, I can take a break. Tell me about the Masked Midnight.”

“Right. The Masked Midnight is odd. He — or she, it’s not clear — said that our adversary — presumably the Fang — already stopped in and got his blessing. He offered to help the Fang with a dark ritual to steal the Sun King’s blessing, and to do it he needs the heart of one of the Fang’s rivals, like us. But the Masked Midnight says he doesn’t really want the Fang to succeed because he’d rather have Clariel’s power for himself, so he offered us a similar deal: bring him the heart of one of our rivals and he’ll give us his blessing.”

“The big question we were discussing on our way back to camp is whether we can trust him. His motives don’t quite make sense to me, and while he claimed that he would be honest with us because he doesn’t want to be a mysterious fae, I don’t think someone called the ‘Masked Midnight’ is known for being honest. Also even within his realm there were a bunch of warnings in Guttergab carved into the stalactites”

“Stalactites?”

“Oh, right. So when you go underwater and pass through the shimmering barrier into the Shadowfell, weird things happen. First, gravity flips. Also the surface of the river becomes hard; you can’t get through it. So this leaves you trapped underwater, walking upside-down on the surface of the river. Fortunately we could breathe water in there, though it wasn’t fun. Anyhow, the bottom of the river forms a sort of a cavern and it’s got stalactites — which I guess are stalagmites here, if they exist on this side — with weird faces carved on them along with generic warning graffiti. Also there are merpeople there, and Telsin said some were friendly but the one we saw was bone-chillingly terrifying.”

“And speaking of creatures there, you know how I’ve been feeling watched? Well the others said they saw a shadowy black dog standing right behind me as soon as we got there. Once we started talking about it it ran off, and I caught a little glimpse of it. And now I don’t constantly feel like I’m being watched any longer. I’m not sure if the dog-thing had anything to do with the Masked Midnight, but maybe.”

“But anyhow, I don’t much trust the Masked Midnight. He was kind of a dick, except to Kimya. Why not send us a guide to actually get us into his realm? Why wouldn’t he let Telsin exit to tell us it was okay? Why require this quest of us if he really does want us to stop the Fang? Why not answer any details about what sort of heart would suffice, or even be straight with us regarding that he really does mean “the Fang” when he says “adversary”?”

“But we have maybe made a deal with a powerful fae, so I guess we should get him a heart. We need a heart of a ‘rival’, and he was clear he didn’t think we’d bring him the Fang’s. I think he said ‘rival’ so it would include the B team; I’d be happy to bring him Braxtol’s or Brunt’s heart. And the Dark Huntress probably deserves to die too; though I guess we should get some evidence first. Or we could go looking for a gnoll lieutenant.”

“So anyhow, if you could see your way to not reading for at least a bit longer while we pick which rival to cut the heart out of their chest, that would be great.”

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