Kast

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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Chapter 40: Tricks of the Light
Lucky

As you know, we spent many days in the forest. What follows is the tale of a slightly bizarre… evening before our encounter with the Masked Midnight.

We’d been following this merfolk shapeshifter that had guided us northward. We’d followed her for most of the day across the river, around some gnolls… the details aren’t so much important to this particular narrative if you get the point that it’d been a fair amount of walking through the forest. It was foresty. This particular part wasn’t that marshy, it was more of the shrubberies and trees you get in the northern part of the forest. There were some patches where it was clearer and almost pleasant — as though we got a momentary respite in a garden from our past — but mostly it was dense trees and underbrush.

Around dusk, we lost track of the merfolk. While Tharn split off to try to find her, the rest of us received a magical sending from Tonias. Him and his crew had found some Kingsguard holed up in an old tower and besieged by gnolls. Their reconnaissance indicated that the Fang herself was coming to the tower.

Of course, we heroically set off to save them. Daveon drew upon his power to provide us with guidance and we quickly cut through the forest to the tower. Lest I be left behind, Tuiz was kind enough to carry me.

When we arrived at the tower the sun was just brushing the tops of the trees and we found the …

Eh? What’s that?

I said it was dusk earlier?

Oh, how should I know what time it was? In some places the forest was so dense I could barely see three feet, let alone the sun. It doesn’t matter what time it was. We were there to do hero stuff. There was enough light.

So anyway, as I was saying… we arrived at the tower and found the tower as described: containing soldiers and being attacked by gnolls. As soon as we were close enough, we engaged.

Tharn and I were going to hang back and rain destruction from afar but in our haste to arrive we failed to notice a pack of dire hyenas and their gnollish packmaster. Fortunately, Tuiz had paused to use his crown of destruction and was there to help us hack, stab, burn, shoot, shock, and generally kill the hyenas. In the meanwhile, the others charged into melee. Telsin, Caleb, and Kimya focused their effort on a big, armored, magically-enhanced gnoll who was leading the assault; though they got knocked around they took him down and beat him up pretty good. Daevon went right past and into the main battle line. Though he got surrounded by gnolls, they could barely scratch his light-infused self and his bravery undoubtedly single-handledly saved many of the soldiers.

With the help of those in the tower, we cleared out all the immediate gnolls and gained ourselves a few moments of rest. In the siege, the soldiers had lost most of their officers and so they were somewhat disorganized. Daevon effectively assumed command and we had the soldiers quickly pack up so we could leave before the rest of the gnollish forces arrived. We left Braxtol and his crew to harass the gnolls and escaped back the way we came with the soldiers.

When we reached the river, we crossed southward to the less gnolly side and then sent the 20 or so remaining soldiers home in our magic, inflatable boat. They’d come for intel and we sent them home with a bit more; their work in the forest was done.

As for us, we headed back around towards the lost-merfolk spot. As it grew dark we decided to camp for the night. I have no idea where we were, somewhere in the forest. I also have no idea what time it was by this point. It was dark and so stopping to sleep seemed reasonable. Unfortunately, but also fortunately, the Dark Huntress found us while we were resting and alerted us to a large group of incoming gnolls. Too many for us to fight. We didn’t get to finish our rest but we were able to pack up and flee before we had to fight.

After a time we changed directions and crossed the river again. This time Tuiz took the broom and Telsin was kind enough to carry me (he’s so cool he can walk on water). Tuiz flew off because he thought he was being watched and the way things played out he probably was. Of course he came back though.

Anyway, we eventually make it back into the strange, dark forest around where we lost the merfolk. There were some gnolls across the river and they shot something that looked like lost Kingsguard trying to cross the river; I’m not sure how we saw this in the dark, maybe some trick of the light. Anyway, it happened, just like we saw a big bird soaring about in the sky. But that’s a story for another time.

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The Trek
Tharn

We left the grove of the Sun King dark and late, as our guide recommended traveling the woods at night. Fortunately, I was able to use my magics to allow all of us to see despite the darkness. Since I had failed to avoid dangers previously, I stayed close to our guide so that I could observe his methods.

The forest had transformed dramatically from its daytime appearance. The fog had cleared, and we were surrounded by lights, some dancing between the trees, and some still on the ground. Closer inspection revealed the ground lights to be phosphorescent mushrooms which had not been present during the day, and were rapidly growing once night had fallen.

The darkness made it difficult to see dangers, but Alkin kept his eyes on the lights, noting when some of the dancing ones seemed to get stuck, and following the mushrooms along the ground. After a short while, we came across a different sort of light, this time from a few rocks on the ground. Alkin didn’t seem to pay them any mind, and continued on. I would have liked to learn more about them, but wasn’t sure that disturbing them was wise.

A couple hours later, I noticed Kimya tense, and Daevon called for us to halt. He had seen two humanoid figures, shambling in a direction roughly opposite ours. Telsin volunteered to get a closer look, and returned to let us know that these figures were more of the undead lizard-like beings we had seen before. Alkin wouldn’t tell us what they were, but suggested that we avoid contact. I wasn’t about to argue with that.

Eventually, we came upon a gnoll encampment, as we had suspected we would. Rather than try to fight our way through, we decided to take a loop around, and successfully did so without attracting attention. This added several hours to our march, but it was worth the time to avoid a large fight. After continuing a distance from the gnoll camp, we reached a point where the river dispersed into swampland, more mud and water than solid ground. I couldn’t find a dry spot for us to rest, so instead of pitching tents, we used our boat.

I set up a canopy on the deck so that I could sleep outside without fear of rain, and we settled in for the day. Towards the end of the night, a storm rolled in (Daevon said it was during his watch), and I was very glad for my makeshift shelter. Also, Daevon spotted something in the water. According to Tuiz, who investigated, it was a mermaid, which swam away as he approached. Also, it was undead. How pleasant.

After we had all slept, we still had several hours before dusk. I decided to spend the time exploring near our camp, trying to learn as much about the forest as possible while staying within a safe distance of my fellows. At the furthest point from them, I was surprised by a voice from the bushes. It spoke to me, calling me “Hunter”, and told me to follow it to its mistress’s domain. I was very wary of a disembodied voice speaking to me, and found the source to be a black fox. While certainly surprising, this reassured me somewhat. After it told me to travel north, I returned to my comrades to tell them about that strange encounter.

As this clearly seemed like an invitation from the Sun King’s opposite, we didn’t want to miss this opportunity. Alkin wanted no part of it, so he headed away after telling us where we could find him. And then we set off again. This time north along one of the river branches, following a mermaid that stayed right at the edge of our vision. Along the way, Kimya heroically fought off a hydra, and we had to fight another tree. Traveling at night was definitely a better choice than this.

While walking, we saw some signal lights being sent up north and east of us. Series of flashes as, we assume, gnoll parties communicated with each other. This repeated a few times, but we were unable to gain any specific information other than the location.

Our path took us all the way to the main branch of the river and across it. A few of us used the boat to cross, and the rest walked or swam. We were careful to stay away from the lights we had seen, not wanting to run into any gnolls, and so we were able to cross the river without incident. From there, we continued north along another branch of the river, always following the mermaid.

As night fell, we received a message through the sending stones, in Tonias’s voice. “Humans, soldiers, trapped in this tower. Gnolls have them surrounded. A larger force approaches. We see the Grim Fang, what should we do?”

Just then, I noticed that we could no longer see the mermaid. I used my wings to fly out over the water to where we had last seen her. And that is where everything went wrong.

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The Sun King Also Rises

Clearing, quite large, filled with many forest creatures and sylvan races

idyllic

“We Seek the Sun King (Brewery)” -Tuiz

Northern river investigation fruitless but working fine

Big tree turns out to be a woman and the sun king, reference Mr Kaplan

each spring I am dressed in my colorful best
in warm summer air more layers I wear
the colder it grows I fling off my clothes
If winter is here naked I appear
what am i?

A deciduous tree, reference puss in boots riddle episode

The sun king concentrates power grows a flowery garment and then attacks

the Sun King attacks

Sun King continues to grow and grow as the fight continues

miraculously at one point Kimya is able to bring them down to the ground

Tuiz ends the first season of spring, ‘seasoned combatant joke’

Evening gown, animating other tree

bloodied but un-boughed

huge boulder crushing tharn

Sun King gets lit up and the party lays into her, the animated tree is burnt to the ground by lucky and finished off with a radiant bolt

Daevon caused the Sun King to Fall, but in falling they rose, growing leafy wings and taking to the skies, reference carver kings

Telsin teleporting up and superhero landing

gets blinded by radiant beam

Telsin rips off the wings and drives the sun king to the ground

The skies are completely dark, there is no light,

The Sun King is only a withered naked form, everybody lays into the withered form

Withering frost attacks, including a ring of frost around them

Caleb withers away with the sun kings withering

winter storm takes over the area

Then lucky

Then Tuiz

Telsin runs in and goes unconscious, Daevon drags him out

Tharn goes down

Kimya runs in and goes down

Daevon drives forward dropping shield, swinging with the warhammer two handed and fells the final form of the sun king

It was a test, all Daevon’s allies are restored

Fang seeking a long imprisoned Deus, Clariel of Chaos and Bloodshed

Elders of the hidden village are protecting the imprisoned Deus, stained by his shadow the elves defend it

Elves have a secret cache, training ground, hidden temple

Should the fang succeed, the land will be torn by war

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Chapter 37: Yeti Too, Brute?
Tuiz

Alkin the Elf
Southwestern Gray Forest

Hello Alkin,

Thanks again for helping us find the Sun King’s Grove. I hope you’re doing well. Say hi to Miranda from us next time you see her.

You’d asked us what we were doing in the forest, and though we gave you an answer about what brought us to the forest, I think you also ought to know what we were doing at the yetis’ cave. Since you were so helpful and since, well, we might have made that yeti even more ornery than usual.

You probably figured that we were there for the everfrost fruit, which you saw Lucky share with the pair of fruit-loving faerie dragons. But that’s not actually the main reason we went to the yeti cave. We’d met up with a satyr who called himself “Doctor Tummibelli” who’d promised us a reward if we helped him do some weird things he said he wanted to do for fun. It sounds dumb of us to agree to that I guess, but he did seem to know where some things were in the forest, while we were totally lost, so we want along with him partially for lack of better ideas. Anyhow, one thing he wanted to do was “prank” a yeti. He sort of had stealing the everfrost fruit in mind, but wasn’t set on it, and when we pointed out that theft wasn’t much of a prank, he quickly got excited about our example of something prankier: putting a funny hat on the yeti.

So that’s why we were there. To put a funny hat on the yeti. And also steal the fruit, at least for the dragons.

We spent a while planning, but in the end picked a pretty simple plan. Most of us would go up to the yeti in a friendly way and try to talk to it and keep it distracted while Lucky got the fruit and Tharn snuck the funny hat he’d made onto its head. We hoped that the smell of most of us would let Lucky and Tharn go un-smelled. And we were prepared to run if we had to.

So we dove into the yeti’s cave from the pool of water that you later saw us come out of. It’s a long cold swim on one breath, but eventually it gets so cold that a thin layer of ice stops the water, which you can punch through. This will put you — and put us — in a cave filled with cave rock formations, and no obvious signs of yetis living there. I don’t know if they use that entrance actually, because the only way we saw to go was through a narrow little squeeze that I don’t think a yeti could make it through.

Once through that squeeze, then you get to where they live. This is a bigger cave, with no rock formations, a shallow pool of water for washing or scrying or something, and the everfrost fruit. Also we could tell yetis lived there because there was a big yeti sleeping there, in front of the fruit. Lucky went through first, invisible and with darkvision, but he couldn’t really do much before the rest of us arrived.

As soon as we were all in there, the yeti woke up, and Tummibelli the satyr betrayed us. It seems he was actually from the Bitterroot Court, a fae court that we’d crossed several weeks beforehand. It wasn’t that impressive as betrayals go — he threw out some coins, which turned out to be cursed, seemed to make the way we’d come through disappear with an illusion, and disappeared himself, probably back out through the illusion. I discovered the illusion and discovered the coins were cursed right away, so they weren’t much trouble. But we were in a small space with an angry yeti, and that is a pretty good trap.

Lucky tried to let us avoid the fight by hypnotizing the yeti with magic. But Lucky’s spells don’t always go right. This one dropped a statue of some large river beast on the yeti. (If you want a statue and don’t mind it being in bad shape, you know where to find it now.) There was no avoiding the fight after that. Those yetis are vicious, with an icy stare that can paralyze you and frost breath that’ll chill you to the bone. If you have some way to protect yourself against the cold you should use it, if you ever have to fight one. And if you know the Crimson Rite of the Flame, I recommend it — it was a big help in wearing the yeti down.

While most of us were fighting, Lucky was still intent on getting that fruit. Oh, but I forgot to tell you about the mug. Tummibelli had a magic novelty mug that would punch you when it got close to your face. As another part of the “prank” he wanted us to leave it in the yeti’s cave. I guess Lucky forgot he was holding it, because when he went for the fruit he accidentally brought the mug near him and it knocked him on his ass. It would have been funnier if we weren’t fighting for our lives.

Anyhow, eventually we had the yeti on the ropes, and it saw it was in trouble and climbed away through a tunnel we hadn’t noticed in the ceiling. They can climb quick. I took a paw off it as it left, so if it’s real ornery now that might be why.

I’d told everyone that the coins were cursed, but I guess the curse can attract people to the coins even from a distance, because once the yeti was gone Daevon, Tharn, and Lucky all started fighting over the coins. Fortunately the faerie dragons have some sleep magic, and after being knocked out my friends got over the curse.

Once that was cleared up, we headed quick out of the yeti’s cave, which is when we ran into you. You must remember that well — everyone remembers where they were when they heard the Necromancer King was defeated. Thanks again for staying with us as we rested, and for leading us south to the grove of the Sun King.

We were quite taken aback by that grove, by the way. All those animals hanging around peacefully — we were a bit nervous about the owlbears. You could have told us more than “temper your expectations.”
Anyhow, now you know what we were up to in the yeti’s cave. Sorry for causing trouble. If you ever need a contact with the Order, just let me know.

Sincerely,
Tuiz Burden-bearer

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Chapter 36 - Interlude (Part 1)
Excerpt from Tharn's Journal

Now that Braxtol and his gang were safely away, we set about our task of finding the Grove of the Sun King. Using our tried and true method of looking around (from above), we discovered that in the arc east to north of us, there are three towers, southwest there is a building surrounded by a region with sparser trees, and almost directly south there is a series of hills with caves in the side. With only a vague description of the place to go on, we decided to start by heading to the hills. After that is when things started to get weird.

After a short while, we noticed a group of … things … walking toward us in the opposite direction. They were a bit like fish, and a bit like lizards, but totally unlike either. They walked (or shambled) on two legs, and seemed completely focused on whatever their destination was. Thankfully, this made avoiding them easy. After they had passed, we were surprised by a voice from above saying that we had made the right decision. While this phrase might sometimes refer to a god or other omniscient and omnipotent being guiding us in our lives, in this case the voice belonged to a comparatively normal person.

A man, with the legs and horns of a goat, jumped out of a nearby tree and introduced himself as Dr. Tummibelli. TB, as I will refer to him from now on, said he had decided to come to this forest on vacation. He said a friend had recommended it as a location to find adventure. While I cannot argue with that, it doesn’t seem an ideal vacationing spot. He also said that Christmas (the queen of our fairy allies in Glissana) had recommended our group as one that would be sure to find much excitement. That is also true, as much as I wish it were not so. Anyway, he had a deal for us. If we agreed to help him complete his vacation to-do list, he would point us in the direction we wanted to go.

Knowing that satyrs (like TB) tend to be tricksters, I knew we would be in for a wild ride, but they are generally not mean, so it should be a good deal of fun. After a brief discussion, we agreed to help him as we could.

First up was to find a spring where nymphs were known to frolic. On the way there, we avoided some of the common dangers of the forest, but still had to fight our way past a displacer beast and a tree. As we got close to the spring, I noticed some tell-tale signs of dryads, indicating that TB’s information might be good after all. When we got to the spring itself, we saw an elf with relaxing in the water. Before we could greet him, TB sprinted past us and leaped into the spring, sending water everywhere and terrifying the elf. Before we could apologize, the elf had run off. As he ran past, we noticed tatoos much like Tuiz’s covering his body. Unfortunately, we were unable to calm him and didn’t get a chance to speak. Then, with no obvious threats around, we took the opportunity to rest and relax in the soothing water.

Next on the list was pegasus tipping. Why you would want to do that to a noble beast like a pegasus, I don’t know. I also didn’t know how you might go about “tipping” a creature that sleeps lying down and can fly. On the way, we discussed possible strategies, none of which seemed particularly promising. When we finally found the pegasus, we went with “do anything and everything, and hope something works.”

First, Lucky cast a hypnotic pattern on it, but it seemed unaffected.

Then, Tuiz tried to persuade it to stay, but it didn’t seem convinced.

Then, Lucky cast another hypnotic pattern, I tried to stop him, and the spell went off, sending cloth streamers flying from Lucky’s hands. It was certainly impressive.

The pegasus was completely captivated, giving Tuiz and TB an opportunity to try pushing it over. Unfortunately, they were unable to topple it.

As the pegasus tried to fly away, Tuiz grabbed it and kept it aground.

The second attempt to push the pegasus over was a success, and TB, Tuiz, and the pegasus all fell to the ground in a great heap.

With the task done, TB pulled out a golden apple and offered it to the pegasus. The pegasus now seemed more amused than anything else, and flew off with the apple.

Before we had a chance to move on, we noticed that there were two Luckys. Having seen this before, we happily greeted Indy. Strangely, Indy was behind us, in his normal tiny dragonling form. Before we could become too confused, he introduced the second Lucky as his cousin Marion Vynwood-Levander. We were of course happy to see Indy and his brother, but didn’t know why they had come here of all places. TB’s next task answered that question for us. It was time to steal magical fruit from a grumpy Yeti.

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Chapters 34 & 35 - Miranda's Rights
Lucky

We’d been traveling through the Grey Forest when we were besieged by gnolls. In an amazing confluence of events we ran into Braxtol, Telsin, Tonias, Brunt, and the Dark Huntress and shortly thereafter noticed a small curl of smoke rising into the sky. Remember? Well, we pick up our story there anyway.

Telsin and Tharn had gone ahead with the scouting. We were waiting for them until Kimya and the Dark Huntress warned us about encroaching gnolls. Not really surprising, but it would have been nice if we’d been able to wait for our foresty scouts. We followed Kimya, Daevon and I, and everyone else followed behind.

It was a brief and uneventful journey until I felt something just brush the top of my head while I was distracted by a colorful bug. Attention snapped back to the task at hand, I realized I’d avoided a tripwire entirely by luck — or at least mostly by luck and perhaps slightly by the hand of its creator. In any event, I was able to avoid triggering the trap and stop the others before they triggered it either. Once clearly illuminated, Daevon disarmed it.

We followed Kimya through the forest and the fog until we approached a small cottage. This clearly was the source of the smoke. Ignorantly, we set off an alarm we didn’t know was there, but it ultimately didn’t matter since the house’s owner already knew we were there. Turns out, the owner was hiding in the house the whole time; it just took us a long time to figure out her hiding place. But hold that thought. We’ll get to Miranda eventually. For now, play along and see if you can figure it out.

We had to duck to enter the cottage under some swinging log trap one of the scouts had triggered. From the outside the cottage looked quaint for you or me. Maybe about the size of this room. Big enough for a small inhabitant to have a bed, a bathroom, and maybe a small table but not much more. Inside, it was surprisingly large though. More like Malcom’s cottage up north. Kitchen, workroom, sitting room, a couple bedrooms. It was obviously magical and I obviously liked it. Inside, everything was also clearly proportioned for someone like us. A little chair kinda like that one, a workbench about the size of that desk, a ceiling maybe seven feet at the peak. The big people had to be ducking under beams and careful not to bump their heads.

It was pretty open inside, other than the bedrooms. The work area and sitting area were separated by just some shelves. The sitting area and the kitchen were separated by just the space available for walking. As I mentioned, the roof supports were exposed so it felt a bit bigger than it was. Which is kind of funny if you think about it since it clearly was bigger inside than outside and the inside seemed even bigger still with the open ceiling. Anyway, nice place. Skylights, cozy fire, some comfy rugs.

It was also a mess. Telsin was sure there was an inhabitant and had been rummaging through things trying to find evidence. He’d even gone so far as to dust most of the open space with a thin coat of flour in hopes of catching an invisible resident. It didn’t work. A few of us double- and triple-checked the rooms, especially the second bedroom, and found no evidence that anyone lived in the home; you know, other than the neatly kept flower beds and garden, the whole host of traps outside, the stocked kitchen, the partially-complete project on the workbench, and the cozy fire in the hearth. Besides that, we found nothing but a fairly friendly cat. Rather than track flour everywhere, Caleb and I cleaned up. It was the right thing to do.

Since we’d been looking for a place to camp, I suggested we spend the night in the cottage. There was some disagreement, but ultimately we decided to stay. While we were making plans and dividing up the watch, it became obvious that Telsin wasn’t entirely crazy — the voices he claimed to have heard eventually resolved itself into a single voice that was fairly obvious to everyone inside. Poor Miranda really needed to pee. Once that was sorted, we turned in for the night. In hindsight, once it was clear someone did reside in the house we probably should have left, but we didn’t.

The night passed uneventfully. We split watches between the front and back of the house and Daevon wandered around inside reading. By morning, he’d heard enough of the muttering to narrow our focus to the fireplace. When someone finally pulled back the rug, we found Miranda. She greeted everyone with a shriek and those close enough also got doused in holy water. You see, Miranda had been hiding from undead and the Necromancer King in her cottage for many years. Turns out she’s a Wizard. It took a lot of explaining and convincing to get her to calm down and accept that we weren’t there to capture here and take her back to the Ex-Malo Meloria. The whole time she was clearly flustered and spent half the time talking to herself as if we weren’t really there.

As we prepared to depart, we asked Miranda for some information about the forest. She confirmed there were ruins to the south. She told us of the Grimalkin, a legendary beast that is all too real. She also told us of the Sun King’s domain — an elusive, magical holy place to the south. That garden turns out to be very important later in the story.

Before we got everything settled though, Tharn’s alarms went off and Miranda tried to bolt from the house screaming about approaching undead. Her being the little gnome she is, it was easy to restrain her from rashly charging into what we assumed were approaching gnolls. Though Miranda had claimed the house was protected from detection by magic-infused soil from the Sun King’s garden, I guess the gnolls could track us to it anyway. When Daevon decided to go fight the gnolls, there was no turning back.

We split to cover the front and back of the house as gnolls had circled around to both sides. Things were going pretty well on our side — with Brunt and Tuiz holding them off, Caleb supporting, and Braxtol and I dropping spells — until a magic gnoll stabbed me in the back and another gnoll set the house on fire. The front side was similarly organized — Telsin, Daevon, and Kimya up front, archers in the back, Miranda supporting — until Miranda remembered that half-finished project on the workbench was a half-finished explosive project, and well, she had a really bad feeling about the fact that the house was now on fire!

At that point I was trying to fight the fire and trying to not bleed too much, Braxtol definitely confirmed the project was dangerous and….

… then with a roar we heard such a clatter. I was tempted to go outside to see what force had shaken the whole house but I decided it was safer to stay inside and more important to fight the fire and try to save Miranda’s house. Ultimately, we did succeed at saving the house with the help of some animate shadows from Daevon.

However, the real heroes of the day were outside. They told me all about it afterwards as we rested and worked to repair the damaged house.

You see, the commotion was the arrival of more gnolls. In particular, a huge monk-y brute of a gnoll had charged across the clearing, right up and over the house, and waded into combat on the Daevon-and-Telsin side of the house. They tell me he literally left a trail of fire as he charged into battle. Though I’ve seen a lot of fantastic things, I’m not entirely sure I believe them. The subsequent fire on the roof of the house could have instead been from the flaming barrels.

Well anyway… it’s probably a better story with the flaming trail. Next time I’ll just have to tell it that way. So, in addition to this big brute, a bunch of gnoll ninjas showed up. Poisoned throwing stars, bladed chains, dark costumes, the whole bit. Telsin showed the impostors who’s boss, literally eviscerating one of them with its own weapon. He also chased down and single-handed ended the stealthy magic gnoll that stabbed me in the back.

Ultimately, it turns out most of the gnolls were just standard-issue strong survivor types with ninja gear. The real battle was with the brute monk gnoll. Even blinded by Daevon’s magnificent radiance, the brute was delivering impressive hammer blows. This undoubtedly was due to his raw upper body strength but also to a neat magic belt that dulled our blows and allowed him to utilize our own force against us.

By all accounts, it was a wonderful duel and contrast in styles between Telsin’s training and cunning versus the brute’s brute force. Though obviously others contributed, the blindness and Telsin’s cunning use of shadows to lure the brute into Miranda’s traps were the highlights of the battle.

With the brute temporarily trapped, we worked on mopping up the other threats. Miranda and I were still in working on the fire when the workbench animated into a vaguely humanoid elemental. Wanting nothing to do with that in addition to everything else, I banished it while Miranda bolstered my strength. Outside, Tuiz cut down a gnoll right through the defending weapon and several people tracked down the gnolls with launcher backpacks that had been lobbing flaming barrels into the clearing.

After a bit more battling, some sort of stinking cloud bombed the melee outside. When the smoke finally cleared, we’d managed to put out the fire and defeat the gnolls. However, the big brute — and his magic belt — managed to escape. It was a shame to lose out on such a powerful item.

As I mentioned before, we then spent the rest of the day helping Miranda fix her house and recovering from the battle. While this was kind of us and the right thing to do, it wasn’t entirely to just be helpful. You see, the day held another surprise. In the aftermath of the battle, Tuiz suddenly realized that the Balthazar we met back in the Hanged Tower was none other than Lord Balthazar Pendergath, former lieutenant of the Necromancer King!

This spawned a whole discussion of mental whammies and some consideration of what we knew about the remaining lieutenants. It was during this discussion that we realized with surprise that Brunt might very well be the Brunt from the stories. You know the stories. So while Braxtil’s team was resting to head out at dusk, we investigated and discovered that Brunt was undead and thus very unnatural. Not ready to throw down with the cursed betrayer-prince of the ashlands — and his possible allies — or let them turn on Miranda once we headed south, we helped Miranda with her construction, let the B-team finish their rest, and saw them off at dusk. As I said, it was the right thing to do.

Next time? Southward to the Sun King’s domain!

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Chapter 33 - For whom the Braxtol?
Tuiz

“Hey guys”, Tuiz addressed Daevon and Lucky, “walk this way with me.” The three split a bit from the group as they hastened through the woods. “Okay, I think this is far enough away they can’t hear us, even with elf ears or whatever. I want to talk through this Braxtol thing.”

“I don’t like it,” Tuiz began. “I don’t like him, and I don’t like it. There’s too much suspicious about it all. I mean first there’s the timing. His party arrived right at the same time as those gnoll reinforcements. Is that a coincidence, or are they working together? Could he be the one giving the gnolls magic tattoos? The white tattoo that made that shield didn’t seem quite like his style, but the red and purple ones seemed to be some sort of combat magic, though they failed so we don’t know what. Failing is only kind of Braxtol’s style. And the warlocks with the gnolls — did they make a pact with whatever same dark master Braxtol is drawing power from? The gnoll with the crippling arrows — could they have been pact magic? Plus he looked like he’d been in a fight recently; maybe Braxtol beat him into submission. And could be the archers were trained by the dark elf huntress of his…”

“But Tuiz, if he’s in league with the gnolls, why did he fight them?” asked Lucky.

“Did he really?”

“That fireball-”

“Yeah, the fireball seemed to kill a bunch of gnolls, but what if they were more illusions? You remember that first group that tricked us for a while. I didn’t get a chance to check out any of the corpses of the ones he fried — because Tenaius wanted us out of there so quickly, also somewhat suspiciously — and then he sent his cronies supposedly to collect gnoll ears but maybe to cover for the illusion.”

“Wait,” said Daevon, “did he send them? I thought they collected ears of their own accord.”

“We can’t be sure,” Tuiz grumbled. “Oh, and that trained owlbear. You remember in the monastery Braxtol had a bunch of gargoyles with him. Owlbears and gargoyles are both ugly sorta bird-like things, so maybe he summoned it.”

“Tuiz,” explained Daevon, “owlbears and gargoyles are so unlike-”

“Maybe it was a gargoyle, charmed to look like an owlbear. We just don’t know.” Tuiz earned a skeptical look from Daevon. “And now we’ve made some sort of alliance with him. To not kill each other until 12 hours after the Fang is dead. Do you think he’ll follow it? Should we?”

“Well, my mother-” began Lucky.

“Rhetorical question, sorry, I need to get more off my chest,” cut in Tuiz. Lucky rolled his eyes. “When we do fight him, I don’t want him to have any backup, so let’s run through the members of his party. Telsin I think we can assume will stand with us. {TODO(mike): Determine if Telsin warned us about Braxtol with the sending stones.} Tenaius also seems like one of the good guys, though it seems like he has some long history with Braxtol? Could Braxtol be blackmailing him? We need to get him alone and press him for information.”

“Then there’s the mercenaries,” Tuiz continued. “Brunt seems like a straightforward guy, not that he’s said much. The dark elf — whose name we still haven’t gotten, right? — has also been pretty quiet. We’re pretty sure she’s not our guide from Lacuna, but it seems weird to encounter two dark elf huntresses in the space of about a week. Either way, if they really are mercenaries we should make sure our offer is better than Braxtol’s. Hopefully we’re still rich enough to do that.”

“Well, after our last foray into the marketplaces of-” Daevon began.

“Still going here, sorry,” Tuiz cut in. “Tell me later. Because I need to go over his story. He says that this whole time he’s just been hunting artifacts. I guess that could be true, he was reading those books about your pal Death, right Daevon? And now he says that one of the shards of death is in an elf village here in the Grey Forest. I never heard of any elves living in the Grey Forest. Could be true I guess. Hey maybe Telsin would know about elves, we could ask him. If we trust him. Braxtol says the gnolls might be here hunting the same artifact, and I did think they might be here looking for something, so maybe that is true. Or maybe he just knew what we’d suspect, and crafted a convincing story. Come to think of it, are we sure that Kimya actually smelled gnolls approaching? We’re taking Braxtol’s word that he faithfully translated what Kimya told the dark elf.”

“You are really paranoid, have I told you that?” asked Lucky.

“Shh, we’re getting close to the source of that smoke. Talk more later.”


Meanwhile, Tharn and Telsin, not more than a swallow’s flight away, had discovered something. Namely, a small cottage near a clearing, the source of the smoke we were approaching. Tharn went ahead, deftly avoiding tripwires and pitfalls. Telsin chose to proceed despite an Alarm spell, and not-quite-as-deftly avoided getting smashed by the trees released by the entryway pressure plate. Inside the cottage was much larger than it appeared from the outside, with quite a few bedrooms, though built to a scale for someone Lucky’s size. It seemed to still be lived in, or else hastily and recently abandoned. Yet its only apparent occupant was a drowsing cat.

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Chapter 32 - Spiders and Owlbears and Crocs, oh my!

I had expected to find gnolls at the towers. Instead, our approach was uninterrupted. When we got to the base of the first tower, we couldn’t immediately discern an entrance. Only after brushing aside some vines were we able to locate a door. Two large iron barriers prevented our entry. At least until we put Tuiz on the job. With the screeching and cracking of well rusted hinges, the door swung open just enough for us to squeeze inside.

The interior of the tower was clearly deserted, as a thick layer of dust covered everything. The air was permeated with a rich, musty scent of death and decay – not overpowering, but enough to make it clear that things had lived (and consequently died) here.

None of that would have been threatening if it weren’t for the contents of the tower. The floor and walls were lined with coffins. According to my companions, the tower’s architecture bore strong resemblance to some of the old buildings in Glissana, dating this structure to some time within the reign of the Necromancer King. With this knowledge, we were wary of dormant undead that might still be in the tower.

We decided the best course of action was to examine one of the coffins. At a safe distance, that is. It was easy enough to remove one of the coffins from the tower, but the coffin was locked. Who locks a coffin? Lucky for us, one of us was prepared with some lockpicks, and we were able to open the coffin. Inside, we found nothing. The smell of decay coming from the coffin was a bit stronger with the lid open, but otherwise, nothing.

With that out of the way, we walked around the bottom floor until we found the stairs up. The second floor was an open area without much in the way of furnishings, so we continued up. The third floor was clearly the living quarters for the troops at this tower. There were ten beds, each with its own desk. Some of these beds and desks were in rather poor repair, but that was unexpected, given how long we estimated it had been since this place was inhabited.

Unlike the previous floor, this room had a door. The light seeping in from cracks around it suggested that this probably led to the bridge we had seen. Once again, Tuiz managed to force the door open, we were able to see the path across to the other tower.

The second tower was far more interesting. The top floor had two rooms. The first of these that we entered was decorated as I would expect a commander’s quarters, except that in place of a bed, there was an ornate coffin on the floor. We ignored this, but searched the rest of the room, finding nothing of interest.

The other room turned out to be more exciting. While most of us looked at the room from the doorway, Lucky walked over to a desk and started to examin its contents. When he opened the top drawer, a fountain of water erupted, covering Lucky and quickly filling the room before draining out the door. However, the fun wasn’t over. Away from the source, we could feel the water around our feet solidifying and holding us in place. Lucky, well, wasn’t. He’d gotten a face-full of the stuff and was quickly turning into a Lucky-shaped statue. Not wanting to be exposed any more than necessary, I threw him a rope, and we were able to pull him out.

Fortunately, the substance quickly grew brittle and crumbled into sand, freeing all of us. With the danger passed, we completed our search of the desk, finding a pouch and a scroll case. The pouch contained 9 of what we assumed was used dust of dryness, while the scroll case contained what had probably been a scroll, before it was drenched and solidified.

Moving on downward, we came to a room with a large map of the surrounding area, showing the terrain and various points of interest. Everything on the map concurred with the information we had, making it a nice find, but largely useless.

The bottom floor of that tower was much like the bottom floor of the first, so with nothing left to see, we left the way we had come.

From the towers, we proceeded east along the river. I had expected to feel at home in the woods, but these woods were anything but welcoming. First we came upon an owlbear, which I scared off using my newly acquired ring. Then we had to fight of a tree. From there, I scouted ahead, only to walk face-first into a giant web. Once my friends arrived, we were able to dispatch the spider, but that is an experience I hope never to repeat. Just past the spider web we found a clearing with bright red flowers, under which were the bones that once belonged to the spider’s victims.

From there, we continued, fighting trees and avoiding any clearings with those red flowers. Around that time, we decided it would be a good idea to look for a suitable place to spend the night. The first place we found was on a small pond, which unfortunately contained a very large crocodile. We were able to escape, but still needed a place to sleep.

We split up to search, and while looking, found not one, but two gnoll patrols. Fortunately, they didn’t seem to have noticed us. We planned to move away without alerting them, but one of the groups definitely spotted us, and we saw a blue and red ball of light fly up through the trees and descend in an arc. They were alerting someone, which probably means it’s time to stop writing.

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