SET MY CLOCKS EARLY ‘CAUSE I KNOW I’M ALWAYS LATE: in which trees move, sleep is had by all, and Harry and Awk take to the woods

You might think that the residents of Splinterwood would be happy that we’d defeated everybody in the warband and literally saved their town, but no. As usual, nothing was easy and all my best efforts to not make small towns hate us forever seemed destined to go astray. While Zeno was playing a stirring tune on his bagpipes at, granted, three or four in the morning to raise his zombies, I received a chewing-out about inviting orcs and danger and all manner of nastiness into the town from the previously nice Samson.

I would like to point out that we could have just continued running and let the town be totally smashed under the Stoneblood orcs and company’s roving curiosity but whatever. I tried to do one good thing and look where it got me.

Just what happened when you protected stuff you weren’t supposed to protect, I guess.

My eyes drifted to poor mangled Kheryph on my shoulder.

It was just… how were you supposed to know what to save and what not to? It was stupid and unclear and no one was helping me decode it, I thought, as I stuffed my hands into my pockets as Felegum and Harry returned from their inspection of the one half-caved in building that the ogre had smashed.

“What was in there?” I asked.

“Just a warehouse,” Felegum shrugged. “Not much.”

“Like food storage,” Harry added, and I nodded, setting off in that direction.

Zeno finished his ritualistic droning and, now two zombies richer for it, followed behind me. A quick sweep of the first floor revealed your typical small town warehouse: winter provisions, pickled everything, and a very interesting looking trap door.

I opened it and headed down.

This place was better suited for storing foods at colder temperatures, a modest set-up not very full and probably for keeping the townspeople supplied through the winter months. There were three carcasses hanging from hooks on the ceiling, two that seemed to be beef or deer or some other recognizable bovid and one that I had no idea about.

Zeno was peeping down the trap door to the basement as I unhooked the mystery meat. “Give me a hand with this, will you?”

“Happily.” The piper grunted as I shifted the heavy carcass up the ladder to him and climbed out, leaving a gold at the bottom of the cellar for good measure. I had no idea what the meat was worth, but I was pretty done with rations and figured that something was better than nothing.

Along the way, I snagged a jar of pickled whatever. Life was an enigma and no one labeled anything anymore. We would just have to find out what both of these things were later.

“Hey, help me with this!” Zeno called out to his two zombies, both of which were kinda sorry looking troglodytes we’d slain. I also stepped in to help, and the additional weight of the meat and the weird positioning of the pickled stuff was almost enough to make me drop the jar. Luckily, I remembered Zeno cheering me on in battle earlier and was able to channel that positivity into maintaining my grip on it.

Helli had, in this time, acquired a wheelbarrow. We put the mystery meat and pickles below the Aegis in the wheelbarrow, and Lankin took the helm. Thanks to Zeno’s ability to pilot anything remotely resembling a land vehicle, he gave Lankin driving advice as the elf maneuvered the wheelbarrow through the town square and out.

Once out of Splinterwood, we debated our next steps. Namely, whether or not we wanted to pursue the orcs and take back our cart.

There was also the issue of us being one, possibly two, horse down.

“I could become a horse for a few hours,” Awk offered. “Or if that gets too heavy.”

“Let’s keep that in our back pocket,” Lankin said.

The little gnome looked up at the gladiator elf. “You keep a horse in your back pocket?”

Felegum face-palmed. “The concept of a horse.”

We continued to toy with the idea of going back east toward the Shark’s Tooth as the sun rose, and the terrain gradually become more and more difficult. Lankin was doing his best with it and the somewhat limited mobility the wheelbarrow afforded, but even an arena-hardened fighter had his limits after a long night and a brawl in darkness.

“I’m ready for a nap,” he said.

Zeno sighed at the oncoming dawn. “Our schedule is so backwards.”

We began the process of making camp, hoping that we were far enough away from the town that no one would come after us. Awk asked if we had any firewood and Harry dolefully slumped into the woods. A while later he came back even more tired-looking than before and sat in a heap by the fire, no firewood in tow.

“Felegum,” he asked, “can you check in on me? Magically?”

“Sure,” the mage replied and cast Detect Magic. He narrowed his eyes. “I don’t think there’s anything magic going on with you, Harry, but this thing is definitely bad mojo.”

Harry sighed. “I don’t know if that’s more or less horrifying.”

It was at this point that Awk and Felegum, both being in close proximity with the Aegis, had felt their connections with their magics severed. Zeno and I hastily moved away from it, not wanting to be next. We’d had some idea that the Aegis redirected magic during our battle with Nightscale (yours truly had experienced that firsthand), but this absorption thing was still new and unknown and probably part of why Letitia and her cohort wanted it so badly.

In the meantime, Helli examined the tablet she’d taken off Zuul’s body and determined that, while once it would have been usefully attuned to the Aegis, it was now, having fulfilled its purpose, done and of no threat to us as far as tracking went.

Seeing Harry succumb to exhaustion bereft of firewood, Lankin set out to retrieve some for us instead. He came back with an entire tree and a full rosemary plant, sending Awk into spasms and lectures on how to be more respectful to nature in the future.

Meanwhile, Zeno and I pondered how to prepare the mystery meat.

It had seemed like a good idea, when I’d been in the cellar, to take something that I had absolutely not the slightest clue about just to broaden my taste horizons, but now that it came time to actually prepare the damn thing, I was out of luck. Thankfully, Lankin had some experience in cooking and was able to cook the meat in a pan he’d bought. My job was to toast the rest of the bread.

Together, we made sliders. It was the first time we’d had meat in a while, and it was a little gamey and stringy. There was probably a better way of cooking it, but it was just so nice not to have a ration I didn’t care in the moment.

Felegum tried to cast the dome for us again, but couldn’t– we weren’t sure if it got sucked into the Aegis or what. Awk seemed unperturbed and was carving a spear out of some of the excess wood that Lankin had gotten. I had taken some rosemary from the bush Lankin had brought. You know, for spices.

Zeno, as usual, bemoaned the fact that he was still in his fancy purple dress shoes, Felegum tried again and cast the dome this time, and I checked in on Kheryph. His front two legs seemed to be okay, but I couldn’t tell if he was healing the rest of the way. I felt so bad for hurting him and bringing him into such a terrible place and then not being able to do anything other than make sure he didn’t die.

And from the way the others had talked about it, I wasn’t even sure if I’d made the right decision there.

Some things to protect and some things not to protect.

What if they’d meant Kheryph?

I balled up Felegum’s old bedroll and went to sleep.

It was Lankin who woke me and Awk up a few hours later to keep watch: we’d agreed to Lankin and Helli for the first watch, me and Awk for the second, and Zeno and Felegum on the last one. Harry needed to sleep pretty badly, but we still wanted someone on watch in case the town rioted and came after us. It felt unlikely, given that only one person owned a cart and horse, but you never knew. Before all this, I would have said that it was unlikely we’d be followed so many days from the Stone Tooth, but here we were.

Anyway, Lankin went to sleep and Awk and I took watch. We hadn’t wanted to risk the Aegis inside the dome, so we’d left it outside to no disturb Felegum’s mojo. Except when Awk and I went to check on it…it was gone.

“Shit,” I hissed and swept a leg over the broom. “Awk, try to find it on the ground, I’m going up to look for anyone leaving.”

I kicked off and ascended, flying to see if anyone was leaving at a fast pace with our stuff. Lankin hadn’t seemed worried, so it must have happened soon. My hands were sweaty on the broom. Unless Lankin hadn’t noticed.

I thought about it.

Very possible.

Returning to the ground, I checked in with Awk, only to find that he’d passed out in the snow. Annoyed, I tried to wake him back up, but he wasn’t responsive, so I dragged him back into the dome. While I was in there, I noticed that Helli was missing too, adding to this total disaster. Maybe she’d gone after the people who’d stolen the Aegis– she was one of the few in this group I could trust not to miss important details.

But when I left the dome, there she was, propped up against a tree by a flat spot of ground. She looked pretty cold, so I woke her up and asked about what had happened with the Aegis.

Without disturbing anything, she pointed out where she’d hidden it, expertly, and I congratulated her on some fine work. She headed off to sleep in the warm dome, and I took over the rest of second watch solo.

I still had a few hours left. It’d be fine.

Except, for some reason, I was woken up a few hours later by an angry Zeno. I was in the snow, by the same cozy tree that Helli had fallen asleep against. I didn’t feel too cold thanks to my Thuggs, but this wasn’t the way I’d intended to sleep.

Zeno delivered a lecture about personal responsibility like he wasn’t secretly glad to have a few extra hours to sleep in. What, so I catch shit for being exhausted but Awk gets off scot-free? Miss me with that, dude.

Zeno wasn’t interested in hearing it, though.

“Set, sometimes you have to be a rough man,” the bard finally wound down, “and say enough’s enough.”

I wiped a grain of sand out of my eye sarcastically. “And am I a tough man?”

“No,” Zeno said, “you’re a boy!”

“Oh.” I scowled, unable to think of anything clever. Rest assured, buddy, we’d see who was the tough man soon enough.

Anyway, everything was obviously fine, everyone was just cold. Helli found the Aegis again, probably the only one of us who could. Zeno made a Minor Illusion on the Aegis since it was super bright in the sunset light, and Helli checked in on Harry, who was still exhausted, by means of a stick poke.

“Wake up, Awk!” Lankin called. Awk was irresponsive. Harry groggily chcked on him, and it seemed like he was having another of his cavorting-with-spectral-dragon warlock trances. It figured.

“It seems his ki is in turmoil,” Harry murmured.

“I’ll have a zombie carry him,” Zeno said and snapped his fingers. “You, Awkbearer, carry him.”

I crossed my arms. Not like I wanted to get close to the zombies again after Zeno and my escapade down the river, but this seemed like unfair treatment. Awk got carried around and even escaped being yelled at, the dick.

We mostly reconstructed the night, between the sum of us.

“There was a bear, though!” Helli said as the rest of us spluttered. “Did no one tell you?”

Lankin whistled and pushed the wheelbarrow along as we walked.

“No,” I said, “no one did.”

It was pretty easy going for the most part. I hopped back on the broom to scout ahead so we’d have some advance warning of anything coming, and we made it back to the same fork in the road we’d visited before as the night grew colder and colder.

Perhaps because of his inferior footwear, Zeno especially was feeling the chill and shivered pitifully as I soared overhead. And because I am not a total dick even after being yelled at for no good reason, I said, “Want to ride on the broom?”

He looked up, teeth chattering. “Yes.”

So, that’s how we ended up with me and Zeno on the broom, him clutching around me for warmth like his life depended on it as I tried to steer. Despite his nonfunctional back legs, Kheryph seemed to enjoy being the middle spoon in-between us. Zeno even warmed up enough to look around and help me scout.

“What is that!” He pointed in the distance. “The trees are walking!”

I swore. “I fucking hate nature.”

“Is this normal?”

“I don’t know, bro,” I said, “I’m from the desert.”

Zeno frowned. “Do you not have trees in the desert?”

“Not really, we have more succulents and cacti and whatever.” I sent a message to Felegum back on the ground about the trees and what we wanted to do. Neither of us were proficient in tree, especially not moving ones, and answers seemed unclear.

“If only we had someone who knew about nature,” the mage messaged me.

“We do,” I replied and grimaced, “he’s just out.”

“I think I could fix that,” Zeno said.

So, I landed, deposited Zeno with Awkbearer and the other as-yet-unnamed zombie, and watched as Zeno commanded Awkbearer to drop Awk.

This was enough. Awk snapped awake. Unfortunately, Awk tended to do exactly one thing when woken unexcpectedly, which was cast Thunderwave.

He himself was launched fifteen feet in the air, Awkbearer and Unnamed Zombie 2 fell backwards, and Zeno skidded into a snowbank.

“Awk!” Zeno yelled as Awk crashed back to earth. “Trees are walking! Is that normal?”

“Depends on the type,” Awk said, thoughtful and not at all perturbed. He turned to Lankin mischievously. “My campfire story about the trees taking revenge for cutting down too much firewood is real.”

Harry narrowed his eyes. “I am a campfire story.”

I did not disagree. It didn’t seem like Lankin took Awk seriously, so Zeno and I hopped back on the broom and kept an eye on the weird trees. They seemed to only move when the other, regular trees were swaying in the wind. Judging from the way they were heading, it seemed like we were destined to intersect with them if we held our pace. We could either stop and let them pass or speed up and try to make it through this forest ahead of them.

“Yo,” I Messaged down to Felegum, “trees.”

Awk cast his Pass Without a Trace spell on us and I reveled in my stealth as Felegum and I continued to message back and forth about the trees and we eventually decided to outrun them. It seemed to be tough going for Lankin and the wheelbarrow, but we made it with maybe a minute to spare. I landed just as the path behind the group closed over, completely overgrown with new plants in the wake of the trees passing.

They were evergreen trees, each with three main trunks, walking on two legs with rooty feet. Without stopping, they continued to walk on and on and on, erasing all trace of the path. Awk called out after them in some weird language, but I guess they didn’t respond, or at least I didn’t hear it.

He started off after them.

“You can stay here with them if you want,” Zeno called.

After some intense consultation with Felegum, Lord of Maps, we were able to work out that the trees weren’t heading in the direction of Splinterwood either, so the town was safe. In the distance, the Stone tooth loomed over the horizon once again. At that point, we decided to make camp. Lankin had some good ideas for making stew this time, which would require some simmering and a longer prep time, so we got to work.

While we were preparing things, I cracked out the pickle jar, which had miraculously survived. I twisted it open and was hit with the reek of alcohol.

“Oof.” I winced. “Hey Zeno, it’s for you!”

“What is it?” he asked.

I shrugged. I had no idea. Certainly nothing from back home or anywhere I’d been before. It just had some spiral, forked things that were probably root vegetables floating in it. They were off-white and had some brown streaks in them. They’d looked cool in the dim light of the cellar but now that it actually came to eating them, I was not totally sold on Past Set’s decision.

“May I, Set?” Zeno asked.

“Sure, go for it.”

It turned out to be some kind of grain alcohol, and Zeno was immensely fond of it. He spoke so highly of it that I scooped out one of the root vegetables and bit in, eager to experience a new flavor.

“How is it?” he asked.

Horrible. My mouth was going numb from the bitterness and no matter how many times I tried to swallow I couldn’t get it out. “Not good,” I went with, eventually. “Let’s not put this in the stew.”

Awk, perhaps inspired by his tree encounter, headed into off to the forest. Seeing this, Harry crept in after him. The rest of us shook our heads and carried on with dinner prep. At least if Harry was looking after him we wouldn’t have to worry.

Lankin chopped up more of the meat, expertly seasoning it with rosemary from last night. I added a little of the pickle water, hoping that it would be better than the bitter-ass roots, and the stew that resulted was actually really good. The meat was much more tender and I had to hand it to Lankin for actually knowing what to do with this stuff.

Since two of the party were gone, watches looked a little different: Felegum and Lankin took the first watch, then me and Helli on second, and Zeno by himself with dawn patrol.

At the end of my watch, Awk and harry stumbled back from the woods, Awk looking a little frustrated and Harry stoic but possibly smug.

“What did the stones tell you, druid?” he asked at the border of the treeline and the field where we were.

“Uh,” Awk said, “nothing?”

Harry nodded. “You should head back to camp. You have a bad habit of passing out alone.”

I shook my head and settled in for sleep.

Unsurprisingly, Harry was still tired the next morning.

“Why didn’t you sleep?” Felegum said, exasperated. “We’re not putting you on watch so you can sleep and recover.”

“Well,” Harry said, “it was either lose him or he falls asleep in the forest.”

Zeno shrugged, in a way that clearly said lose him.

Awk, though, appeared touched. “Harry, do you care?”

He went in for a hug, though Harry resisted it all the way.

We continued to travel southeast for a good while until we came to a cliff face about forty feet high. Everything behind us was vast forest, while everything before seemed to be more of the same flat cold land that had led up to Paripas when we’d first traveled to it. We were getting close.

We just had to navigate the Aegis up the cliff, which was stupidly more challenging than you would have thought it would be and involved both me and Awk trying to persuade Lankin to cut down (or not cut down) an entire tree to assist.

Eventually, Zeno and Felegum evolved a plan. Felegum sent HFVNN up to Zeno, who took the eye balls out of it and put in the pickle jar, meat, and whatever else we needed carrying up. Helli was particularly interested in the wheelbarrow making it up the cliff, so maybe that too. I took Zeno up to the top via the broom, and Felegum summoned a floating disk to try to transport the Aegis.

It seemed to work: Lankin put the Aegis on the disk, it didn’t fall through, and he and Felegum coordinated their way up the steps, Lanking still keeping an eye on the shield and carrying it at times. Lankin was exhausted by the time they reached the top, though. “It was like I’d gone ten rounds against the Centipede!” He slumped down. “And then ten rounds against the Monkey-Ape!”

For some reason, Awk changed into a giant frog. Maybe it was to carry the Aegis.

“I’m not going to let him do that,” Felegum said darkly, and the two of them proceded to have the lamest tug-of-war over the shield possible.

It was at this point that the wheelbarrow was revealed to be at the bottom of the cliff still, so Helli had harry go back and get it. And with that, we were all at the top of the cliff. The sun set early, and a cold wind blew over the steppe, a promise of things to come.

We slept, recovered, and Felegum once again had the disk out to carry the Aegis. It sunk about a foot above the ground, but it was still functional and the day passed without issue. Our resident mapmaker was able to track the course of the sun with a paper and shadows to ensure we were heading in the right direction.

For me, it felt like home, or closer to it than I’d felt in a while. It was almost like a desert night.

I looked down at Kheryph, and inspired by the sky, asked, “Are you her?”

Kheryph licked his eyeball.

The next few days passed without much fanfare, just a lot of travel. Helli got Felegum to identify her shield, which we found was a Shield of Kelp, useful for boosting defense with spirals of kelp around its bearer.

Then, one day, the clear skies turned to clouds, the clouds turned to thick snow, and the sky got dark. Sound around us was muffled and Harry tensed as a monstrous shape emerged from the gloom, a bluish aura emanating from it.

I flexed my fingers, ready to go for either spells or daggers as Zeno stepped forward with his trademark swagger to attempt to diffuse the situation.

So much for an easy trip back to Paripas. We’d run right into an ice giant.

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