IT’S EASIER TO RUN: in which we cut our losses and beat a hasty retreat

It was early evening and we were so tired. Zeno’s quick search of the area revealed that we were on the northeastern side of the Shark’s Tooth, meaning that we’d have to make it to the bottom of the peak in order to reach the entrance we’d used before and our cart. Awk did up his little weather dome to get an idea of what the mountains had in store for us, and judging from the translucent hemisphere above him it seemed like clouds and cold.

We set up watches. Yes, we were in the tiny hut and everything but we had no idea when Zuul was going to come back– and we all knew that for sure he would be back– and we didn’t want to be caught off-guard. Harry and Helli took first watch and noticed a dragon silhouette on the horizon, though it was hard to tell if it was flying closer or farther away.

Awk and I had the second watch. Having heard about the dragon from Helli and Harry, we kept a weather eye on the horizon, but the sky was dark with only a smattering of stars. Wolves howled in the distance and I asked Awk about them. If they were direwolves, then we’d know Erfwe was out and about.

But instead I got treated to some very juicy wolf gossip. While Awk couldn’t tell if they were dire or regular, he did fill me in on the sad longing howls of Chomper, a wolf who had been in love with another wolf, Moon Moon, for ages. Unfortunately, Moon Moon’s affections belonged to a third wolf named Gonder. No word on how Gonder felt about any of it, but Chomper was particularly lacrimose.

We woke up Zeno and Felegum at the end of our shift and I filled them in on the dragon sighting, mentioning that we hadn’t seen anything more beyond that.

“Do you hear him? That’s him,” Awk whispered as a lone wolf howled once more into the night. “That’s Chomper. It’s a love triangle.”

“Awk,” Zeno said, rubbing his eyes, “go to sleep.”

The rest of us woke shortly after. Lankin had just been totally wiped out after the endeavor, and he’d spent the whole night just passed out. We were in a depression, which afforded us some measure of concealment from Zuul’s cronies, but Felegum and Zeno’s eagle eyes had picked out shapes moving through the trees around us. We were surrounded.

“Okay, I have a plan,” I said, “I can make another illusion dome around us.”

“I can do Minor Illusion, but it’s only a five-foot cube,” the bard said.

“Mine’s fifteen.” I felt a little proud. Zeno usually did really cool stuff with his magic and while I didn’t have zero in the way of fanciness, I was also happy for an opportunity to show off. We had multiple illusionists in the party, after all.

“It’ll be a little smaller,” Felegum said, easily the most magically skilled of all of us. “The dome has a ten-foot radius and–“

It was at this point when I was feeling really smug and proud of myself that the Tiny Hut dissipated. I swore and got the Mini Dome up. It was smaller, like Felegum had said, and some of our bedrolls were outside the circle. We hastily collected them, and then I turned to Harry.

We’d talked about this briefly, a back-up plan in case Zuul and company were waiting outside or we couldn’t escape. I studied Harry’s face, how his back looked with the Aegis slung across it under one of his cloaks, and I cast Disguise Self to make myself look exactly like him.

I wasn’t confident that this was going to fool them for long, but it would buy us some time and maybe confuse them long enough for us to do damage. Zuul hadn’t been taken in by my Nightscale, after all, and I didn’t have the cadence of Harry’s voice or the way he moved memorized enough to fool a discerning observer. But Zuul had still taken a moment to figure out what was real and what wasn’t, and sometimes a moment was all you needed.

We moved out in silence.

Well, it was in silence until we hit the river, where Felegum stumbled and made some noise. We paused, but nothing seemed to have noticed us so we pressed on. Crossing over the river, we left the range of my illusion of the Mini Dome, and as I felt the magic slip away and vanish, there came the sound of thuds and projectiles.

I flashed a thumbs up to the others, still me-as-Harry. The Mini Dome had worked. We had a lead.

I’d passed the broom to Helli to scout ahead with since I needed to be on the ground. Flying just around the treeline so that she’d remain hidden, she reported back to us that there were wolves with orcs on their backs quietly stalking through the forest after us. Awk, on hearing this, asked for a piece of clothing from all of us, which we gave him, became a direwolf, and spread the scent around. He also smeared a strong-smelling plant all over us to mask our scent as we continued to travel south around the Shark’s Tooth.

About half an hour later, it seemed like we were slowly putting some distance between us and our pursuers. It was still dark outside, which was good for us, so we kept to the treeline.

Mostly, I was out of my depth. I excel in cities, especially cities that I know (which is one). And while I’d been able to make it to Greenrest on my own, the journey hadn’t exactly involved me mastering the wilderness on the way. Let’s just say that me learning magic and making liberal use of Sleep was a vast improvement on how I fed myself.

Anyway, it seemed like everyone was doing something to help and I sort of didn’t have much of an idea, not being a nature person. Felegum was covering up the tracks behind us, Zeno had changed his armor into camouflage, and I guess we had two Harrys, which was something.

The actual Harry took a ration from his bag and mixed in the dried meat with some of his caltrops, scattering them to the forest floor. Then Awk had a very Awk idea.

We could have someone cast a Thunderwave spell on the mountain, causing a rockslide and making a ton of noise, giving the orcs and troglodytes and whatever else was after us something to investigate as we made our escape.

Initially, Awk suggested I pilot Helli over there (the official rule with Set’s Broom on escape missions is now: no one brooms alone) and cast the spell, but since I only had one spell left after all that illusory magnificence before I bowed out. Just in case they caught up, I wanted to make sure I had something left.

So, the two gnomes hopped on the broom and fly toward the mountain to cause some chaos. Naturally, some of the forest caught on fire along the way, so I can only presume that Helli and Awk ran into unexpected enemies along the way. The flames spread quickly through the trees, illuminating a much-closer silhouette of an orc on a direwolf in the smoke. They held a bow.

And then there was Awk’s trademark Thunderwave resounding in the distance and the slide of rocks.

To add to the absolute mess that the orcs would have to sort through, Zeno conjured up a Minor Illusion of a small human child quietly crying and wandering through the woods as we continued walking.

“Guys,” Felegum whispered half-jokingly, “I think there’s a kid over there! We should help them!”

A beast bounded after the child as Awk and Helli flew back.

After narrowly avoiding confrontation that time, we pressed south. The going was a little tricky, but we were getting closer to the door in the rock face. Around this time my disguise spell faded and I went back to just being my normal self and not my Harry illusion.

Zeno squinted into the distance. “I perceive horses.”

A good sign.

Further exploration revealed we were right above the entrance on a cliff. It was also at this point that Awk realized that he had this spell called Pass Without a Trace that would make it really hard for anyone to track us without magical means. It sounded pretty sick, and it would have been useful a while back, but having it now was also pretty good.

He anointed us all with spruce tips and I felt myself become more a part of the forest. Nature, sometimes, in limited doses, could be cool.

Once again, Helli went forth on the broom to see what was going on. The door to the caverns where we’d first encountered the orcs (and been shot at) was wide open and there was one horse still standing by the cart. The other had been sloppily butchered and was in the process of being dinner. A small pack of direwolves and Erfwe also hung around the fire pit.

Last was Zuul, pacing back and forth with his greatswords. His eyes, according to Helli, were their regular, not-red versions.

Helli came back, but couldn’t see all of us at first. I had a brief moment of pride at my newfound forest stealth. “I am the darkness,” I whispered.

“Awful loud for being the darkness, child.” Harry, who had more experience being the darkness, replied.

Then Helli tried to hand the broom back to me, Felegum made to intercept it, and I melted out of cover to grab it first. This was exactly why I had two command words for this sucker: it was too cool.

At this point, the sun was almost above the horizon. We had a decision to make.

“Zuul was eating our horses,” Helli relayed with a grimace, giving us the details of what she saw.

“Was it Buttercup or was it Dave?” Awk asked, urgent.

Helli took a deep breath. “It’s better if you don’t know.”

There was some deliberation. Felegum and Harry were very uninterested in starting shit with Zuul for the sake of our cart. Zeno was tentatively in favor of a battle royale, as was I, but the others seemed less so. Lankin was also super out of it and barely awake. I guess the dragon battle and holding the dome really took it out of him.

Eventually, we opted to sacrifice one of Felegum’s many ropes to make it look like we’d climbed down to head to the campsite and then peace out under the cover of Pass Without a Trace.

“Felegum,” Awk asked, “can you read stars?”

We all looked at Felegum the Map-Maker expectantly. This was like, his thing. He was perfect for this. We had a navigator.

Felegum winced. “Sure.”

“Okay, so we head west,” Zeno said, eyeing the horizon for a direction back to Paripas, “and we stay off the road. West and south.”

And so, we walked, leaving the Sovereign Dungeoneering Cart. We had stolen it from Durnen and company and now someone had stolen it from us, and that had a poetic justice. It wasn’t until the afternoon, when we were all tired and hungry and Harry was exhausted from carrying the Aegis all the way, that we realized what we’d lost.

Zeno’s ten-foot pole and brewing supplies, a great travesty.

But also: the tablets. With all the locations of the conduits written on them.

There was a brief moment of angry silence as all of this sank in. Felegum got to work casting a flurry of spells– one to resurrect poor Dronie, then another Tiny Hut off the side of the road (in yet another depression) for us to spend the night in, and then Identifying things– and Helli went to gather some firewood.

Zeno and I took a walk. There wasn’t much in the way of fish here, but we did see some birds– tiny ones– so I cast Sleep on a magpie as it was flying overhead. It dropped out of the sky and hit the ground and I stabbed it discreetly. The trees had a thin layer of snow on them and animal pickings were truly slim.

Still, it beat rations for the zillionth time in a row.

“Look, Set,” Zeno said, “now you can make a mag-pie.”

“Fancy funny man,” I said, sheathing my knife.

It was a small offering for dinner, but there was one person who was not pleased.

“You know she had a name, right?” Awk said, arms crossed.

“I’m sure she did.” I sat down next to Helli, who had begun to make a fire inside the Hut, and set out the bird for preparation. “Now it’s Dinner. And you’re one to talk. I don’t see you making Goodberries or even trying to gather food. At least I’m trying.”

Awk stalked off into the woods, still clearly upset.

As I tried to figure out how on earth one did anything with a bird, and a really small bird at that, Felegum tried to Identify the Aegis. These spells were usually really cool to watch, with the pearl melting over the magical object before its properties sprang to the mage’s mind. But this time, the pearl couldn’t spread over the metal’s surface and the spell seemed to rebound.

“Did I just,” Felegum asked in a dark voice, “waste a pearl?”

A few moments of inspection confirmed that yes, yes he had.

He exhaled. “Well, we know why those mages wanted huge pearls now.”

Some things, apparently, needed heavy-duty unbreakable pearls to learn about. The Aegis seemed to be one of them.

Undeterred, he took out another pearl and cast the same spell on one of the sticks we’d picked up, finding that it was a Wand of Magic Missiles. It had six charges and would recharge a few at dawn, which felt very convenient. Initially, Felegum wanted it, which was understandable since it was magical and cool, but I pointed out that Helli could use magic items like this in battle faster than any of us, thanks to her deft thievery skills. Reluctantly, he handed the wand over to her. Helli flashed me a grin and looked genuinely pleased to get the ability to cast spells like everyone else.

Back to the magpie, Zeno had bullied me into cooking it. I guess he’d overheard me practicing my Thieves’ Cant in our room at Paripas or something before I talked to that sailor at the docks. Annoying. Naturally, he took what I was saying literally.

I’ll have to think of a good way out of that.

Anyway, I was also hungry so it didn’t matter for now. Awk had returned and brought with him an armful of crabapples that looked pretty good, so after I’d finished defeathering and prepping the bird, I took Zeno’s mag-pie suggestion to heart and stuffed it with crabbapple slices rubbed in crumbled up hardtack. I rubbed some of the tethis plant that M’Shel had given me on the bird for flavor, and rotisseried it over our fire, like I’d seen people do in shops.

I didn’t have a lot, but the skin was crispy and supplemented with a ration, it didn’t taste too bad. Gamey, but good. Even Harry, who had been looking quite bad, seemed to perk up a bit and I counted that as a culinary win.

I tried feeding some to Kheryph, but he didn’t want any and that made me sad, not like I’d actually say or show that. Zeno and Felegum had already jokingly thrown around leaving the lizard, but then the bard pointed out that he’d be an invasive species so he had to come with for now.

Awk made spruce tea and had that, and Harry fell asleep in the middle of his after-dinner meditations.

Awk, perhaps in an effort to mend things, cast Cure Wounds on Kheryph, to no effect. I also tried my healing thing on him again and got similar results. “I know!” Awk exclaimed after a moment of joint thought. “I think he needs a temple. It might be a Restoration kind of thing.”

“What!” I looked at Kheryph, still very pathetic with his broken back.

Where the hell was I going to get a temple out in the middle of nowhere? I barely was good at finding temples regularly.

On that note, we all settled in for rest. Felegum took the first watch solo, then Gnome Watch for the middle of the night shift, and me and Zeno watching the sunset. We traveled by night these days.

I’d expected the dreams to come back, after what had happened in Nightscale’s lair. And they did. Different this time, still whispery, but unnerving in a new way.

Wings in amber light.

I woke with a start. Zeno continued to give me shit about the cooking thing, and I threatened to cockblock him with every biddie he ran across, but we both knew that wasn’t a really effective threat. Zeno’s type seemed to be mermaids anyway.

Harry and Lankin we let sleep. Felegum had tried waking the elf, to no effect. “Lankin might have brain damage.”

“Probably does.” Zeno had said.

With Harry, Zeno’s approach was more abrupt. He got curled up a fist and let loose a punch at the monk, who grabbed it just before it hit him.

“How’s your girlfriend?” Zeno asked.

“Draining,” Harry replied, eyeing the Aegis. “You know the type.”

We had rations for breakfast, Awk cast Pass Without a Trace on us again, and once more, we were on the road. Last night we’d heard some wolves, but they’d sounded similar to wolves we’d heard before. We managed about three or four hours of travel before reaching a crossroads, and it was here that Harry’s stamina just gave out.

He had to set down the shield, struggling to even shove it off of him. There were dark circles under his eyes, and he just looked awful, like he’d looked last night before our meager magpie dinner. There was a gong-like sound as the Aegis hit the gravel of the road.

And it was an actual road this time, with ruts from wagon wheels in it. The more we had to travel with this damn Aegis, the more I missed the cart. It would have been nice not have an exhausted and clearly suffering Harry, as well as time in the cart to do stuff.

As we took a breather, Awk cleared his throat. “Maybe it’s connected to the conduits.”

We looked over at him.

“I didn’t have to ask,” he went on. “I was told– my patron told me in a dream that this is connected.”

The Aegis, according to Awk’s patron, could harness the power of the conduits. Also, there were two other things like it. Someone remembered that Zuul had had a tablet out that had pointed to us.

A magical means of tracking the Aegis, tracking us. Suddenly I felt a lot less good about our escape plan and a lot worse about not fighting Zuul back at the cave entrance.

Helli inspected the crossroads, which ran west-northwest to east-southeast, to try to determine a good path to take. Felegum and I noticed a cluster of torches coming toward us from the road we’d just traveled on.

They were catching up.

I swore, Awk cast Pass Without a Trace again, and Harry, with every bit of resolve in him, picked the Aegis back up, stumbling and walking on. After two hours of this, the trees thinned out in the darkness over the rolling hills and we discovered a small hamlet on the banks of a modest creek. There were farms and some lights on, but about as many as you’d expect at two or three in the morning.

“Oh good,” Zeno said. “I need some bodies–er, wait.”

He tried to find a graveyard. What we did find, though, was a common fire area in the middle of town, pretty well-burned down. No one was around, but I found a signpost that said Splinterwood, the town’s name.

I’d been hoping for directions to Paripas, but it was good to know where we were. We found the town center and Felegum knocked on a tavern door. “Where’s Paripas?”

An old man answered, clearly disheveled and fresh from sleep. “You must be traveling far,” he said, once the mage had repeated his question, “for it’s to the east.”

East. When we’d spent all this time going west.

This crushing feeling of map defeat was familiar to me, but didn’t seem to be familiar to the others, who were aghast. Sensing our collective angst, the old man hastened to add that we could always book passage from a nearby port city, Winterdale, to Paripas instead.

That didn’t sound half bad.

“We’re also being pursued by a war band of orcs,” Harry said.

The old man nodded somberly. “We’ve had issues with orcs before. Usually one or two at a time, but a full war band! That is troubling.”

Somewhere before we’d woken up the old guy I’d suggested stealing a horse and cart, since they must have them here, and when someone, perhaps Zeno, asked about how to acquire those things legally, the old man paused. “It’ll be hard to convince Old Ford to get rid of his horse, but if you can pay…”

He shuffled over to another house and yelled for Ford to wake up and consider offloading his horse. Ford was very not open to selling or to us and shut his window with a slam.

The old man shuffled back. “I have some stew left from this evening and bread if you’d like it.”

“How much?” I asked.

“Oh, one gold, fifteen silver?”

I handed him five gold and he was speechless.

“One of those golds is to that Ford guy,” Felegum added, as I shot him a dark look for giving instructions on how my own money was spent. Also I didn’t like Ford at all and didn’t feel like I wanted to give him anything. This old dude, though, was clearly very kind and deserved money.

Zeno asked if he’d heard anything about a mountain to the east and the old man had– sometimes they’d see a dragon pass overhead, though it never came here. He’d also heard that once there had been dwarves and forgotten mines hidden within the mountain. “But that’s just stories,” he said.

Zeno leaned in with a wink. “They’re still there.”

The old man looked at him, mouth wide.

I found out that his name was Samson, and that he was the general store owner. We wished him well and took to the road, intending to go west to Winterdale.

Except then we saw the pinpricks of torchlight coming out of the forest and creeping down the path we’d just taken.

Right toward the town of Splinterwood.

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