Some days, traveling from town to town, dungeon to dungeon is boring. The journey becomes mundane. Life’s story has some forgettable sections. But having passed warnings of circling predators between shifts on the night watch, today was not one of them. Hoping our travel troubles ended with an earlier scrape with a pair of manticores, our day started with something circling us in a thick fog that had rolled in off of nearby Lake Norka. Waking early, our danger magnet of a traveling company formed a simple plan to make for the nearest town and hope we could shake our mysterious, circling foe.
Between the heavy fog and the warbling screams of our pursuers’ probing dives, our group made slow, quiet progress as we followed along the coast of the lake. Set had pulled some solid illusion work to keep us cloaked in fog as the natural cover burned off in the early morning sun, and Awk did his best work to keep our scents covered with some burning spruce tips and an effort of will. Their work held right up until we arrived at one of the major tributaries that fed the lake.
It was the last barrier before we could make it to the city limits. A slow moving tributary that spanned out into the fog, its far coast out of sight in the slowly thinning morning fog. A last hurdle before we made it to town, far enough from the open plains of whatever was hunting us, far enough to no longer be a meal worth hunting.
At least we hoped we wouldn’t be followed into town.
We hoped we wouldn’t be a meal worth following.
We hoped the town was near.
Facing a slow moving but fog covered river nobody was familiar with, everyone sprung into risky whispers and hushed tones, offering suggestions and weighing options. Set offered rides on his broom to ferry members across. A floating disk from Felegum was only ten minutes of ritual chanting and hand waving away. Even a nightmarish trip with a monstrous toad Awk was offered as the druid puffed and shifted into the over-sized amphibious form. Everyone grasped for a clean solution to the blurry river crossing, but the fog kept thinning, and the wing beats kept getting closer.
Amid our quiet cacophony of indecision, I loosened my quarterstaff from its safe place across my back and strode out into the river. Time was not on our side, and progress needed to be made. Plus, my size generally made me the odd man out for plans of rides and carrying. My staff probed out ahead of me, hoping to catch any loose stones or extreme depths before my feet found them. The water was cool as it gradually soaked up my loose-fitting monk garb. Silence was still the only thing we could rely on to keep us safe from our hunters, which made it especially pressing as the cool water wicked up to my waist, not to make a noise.
Progress continued with the water levels peaking just under my arm pits when the wing beats and screeches swooped almost close enough to be seen in the fog. A dark form rapidly sharpening and scattering as it passed closer and peeled away to safety. The currents from the massive wing beats stirred the fog above us, gently pulsing wing gusts across the water surface. Still unable to make out what was terrorizing us, my feet found stable ground and I chanced a look back for my party members’ progress.
The fog disagreed.
Where my sight failed me, my ears picked up the quiet sounds of busy feet and hushed whispers.
The quiet struggling and indistinct whispers at least told me what shore I needed to move away from to keep my bearings in the fog covered river. My party members were capable of caring for themselves, but with the closer and closer calls from whatever death waited for us above, and the memories of our last attempts at waterlogged combat in the nearby lake bubbling back, there was no time to waste. Knowing that we only needed time to make it across to safety and throwing subtlety to the wind, the far shore was the only thing on my mind. Sloshing away from the sounds of my traveling companions, the water level quickly fell away and a gravel covered shore grew up out of the fog. A high-pitched shriek echoed off the mossy stones as my heavy boots struggled to stay under me during the transition back to dry land, but no creature followed the call down. It was time for my half-baked plan to buy everyone time.
I roared back a challenge at the flying beasts.
I certainly tried to roar.
I gave my best attempt to make a noise with my voice.
In actuality, despite my size and penchant for combat, loud isn’t something normal for me. This isn’t a prideful boast about my stealth, or physical skill. Cries of pain, smashed doors, failed stealthy missions through abandoned dungeons are all in my noise “vocabulary”. Sounds of failure and triumph, a whole bunch of sound. But when I needed a roar, when I needed to be the sound in the darkness that drew away our attackers, I hissed? I sputtered? I failed. So, I switched tactics, and switched out my inspirational party member.
Not as loud as Zeno, but maybe as bright as Set.
Rooting around in my shrugged off pack, my hand grasped a torch. With an overly aggressive series of clicks from some flint, the torch sprung to light and a small gleam in my pack caught my eye. Snatching the small flask of oil from Paripas and bouncing it gingerly in my hand, I began waving the torch in the fog.
“Here! Over Here!” My voice, emboldened by the flame, decided to arrive for the party. It was quickly drowned out by the low thump of a manticore slamming into the ground in front of me.
At least the mystery of what wanted to kill us was now solved.
It seemed the rest of the pack was either hungry, or eager to avenge their fallen members we left back at our teleport circle landing. With the haze over our entire run, and our desire to not be seen ourselves, we failed to gauge how many things were coming for us. Now, in the murky gloom the manticore’s predatory glare locked onto my torch as a second “whump” rumbled up through the ground. The first manticore opened its wings, puffed up its chest, and screeched a challenge at my light show. As the cry spilled out over the sudden stillness at its arrival, the spine covered tail flicked menacingly in time with my torch. The taunting ticking and sudden deafening silence proudly declared itself predator and me prey. Savoring the looming ending of its morning hunt, it waited for me to decide which way to run.
And as someone raised with strong beliefs about fair fights, I immediately sprayed my acid breath at its face and rushed the confused creature.
A fight is never fair.
Combatants are never perfectly balanced, a stronger opponent struggles to catch a quicker opponent. A smarter fighter tries to outwit a dimmer foe. Adapting and overcoming is always the key. Know yourself, know your enemy, and make best the situation presented to you. Philosophy and morality, honor and discipline, balance and strategy: all concepts that can only be debated by those who survive. We’d amend that statement if Zeno got better with his necromancy, but until then, surprise was the advantage freely offered to me by my opponent, and surprise was what it was going to get.
Blinding the creature with the acrid hiss of the deep green liquid of my dragonborn breath, the creature failed to move as my flask of oil shattered against its exposed flank. Blinded with acid, and now smeared in a slick coating of lantern oil, the creatures stumbled and swung its tail blindly, leaving a clean opening for me to close the gap and strike it with my lit torch as my feet carried me clear of its wild flailing. And thus was born Lake Norka’s angriest candle. If my party didn’t know where the shore was, and if the manticore hunting parties’ focus wasn’t pulled to me, then at least my best effort had been put forth.
Sadly, there was little time to appreciate my handiwork as the horrific scent of burning hair and piercing cries struggled to get airborne and fly for the river. The attention of that second beast wouldn’t be held forever. Following on my curved run, I loosened my quarterstaff from its straps and gave a firm poke to the distracted hunter. The second manticore rewarded my efforts with some angry swipes that hit the air once filled with dragonborn, but the tail found my clever footwork wanting.
Spinning to the ground with a nasty gash from the barbed tail, a blurred sorcerer suddenly snapped into focus at the edge of my fog-reduced vision. Felegum had arrived, and from previous experience, he tended to share that unnatural speed with others when he made use of it. The party had made it, or at least two of them had. Progress was being made. Now it was time to make sure I didn’t die. Steadying my reeling form, my quarterstaff and torch probed for weaknesses among the famously amalgamated flesh of the manticore. My weapons used to safely check for weaknesses among the spines, scales, and fur of the target. The dance continued until a small figure snapped into form near the snarling maw, her hurried approach a blur of motion until she struck the beast.
“Should have been watching the gnome.” I stammered in disbelief as the scene before me unfolded.
The dagger that followed didn’t make a sound. No characteristic flicks, or unsheathing scrapes. No warnings of an approaching blade. Helli might have mumbled a command word for her empowered dagger, but even she was surprised by the speed with which she plunged her silent dagger up to its ornate hilt into the creature’s eye. With a glint of metal and an awful spray of whatever horrifying mix of fluids came from the destroyed eye, a second blade slashed the creature’s flinching face. The creature was extremely displeased with its ruined vision and deep gashes.
Its day only got worse.
Its flailing as the pain of its eye reached its brain kept it safe from my first blows, but a series of kicks knocked it from its feet and clipped its remaining good eye. The manticore crumpled before us, limbs splayed out to one side, let loose a final pained huff as Helli stepped wide of its lolling head and drove a final blow into its spine, blood barely able to keep up with the blade as it withdrew to prepare for its next target. The singed leader of the pack, now dragging its soaked frame from out of the river, let loose a screech at the sight of its fallen packmate.
Well, it tried to.
Instead of the strange piercing cry that tried to intimidate me, a massive wave reared up from the river.
Normally, this would be Felegum’s handiwork, but the wave was hiding something.
A mighty bellow blasted forth from the river, drowning out the posturing of the wounded manticore.
It was the kind of sound that you felt in your chest. A bellow that forced the air up out of your lungs. Even Felegum’s normally solid wall of water wobbled with the echoes of the trumpeted blast. With a series of aftershocks that threatened to take my feet from me as well, the hulking form of a mammoth followed the crushing wave. The singed manticore didn’t even have a chance to turn and see what hit it. The wave swept the half-burned creature from its feet and the mammoth did the rest. The rumbling mass of fur and tusk didn’t really hit the manticore as much as it came to a gradual stop where Felegum’s wave crashed and broke, gore decorating its tusks and feet.
With an entrance like that, and the fact it only turned to trumpet happily at us, it had to be Zeno. We waited in a few breaths of stunned silence at the pile of viscera and crumpled manticore before us. Luckily, Lankin’s warcry and splashing in the river caught Helli’s attention and she went dashing off. It seems the rest of the manticores had drifted low into the fog for their meal, allowing Lankin to catch one and Helli’s newfound speed meant she was doing her best to bring in the other. With a tremendous leap fueled by her increased speed, she flew at the remaining loose manticore. Sadly, she failed to gain purchase, daggers glancing off the thick hide as she tumbled past into the river, but I was only a few steps behind her. With ki fueling my own unusually high tackle, my body caught the creature near the base of its wing. Holding tightly to the bristling creature as it thrashed me with its free tail, the grappled wing sent the creature plummeting to the river.
Landing beast first, my years of training in falling once again proved useful. However, it did little to prepare me for the sudden bolt of pain that followed. A large gash lanced across my back-tearing flesh and cloak as my limp frame was torn from my opponent and thrown into the river. Being lost in the deep red tinge of the silty waters, a free hand found my quarterstaff, now driven halfway into the riverbed. The solid wooden post gave me a precious anchor needed to find which way was up and drag my head back above water. Shakily rising to my feet, the situation around me seemed to have come to a quiet calm. The final beasts slain and the air quiet of any more hunting cries, only an apologetic honking from our mammoth announced my successful drag back to my feet. In the confused tussle, Zeno had caught me with an errant tusk, nearly knocking me unconscious. Gathering my own rattled ki and focusing it inward, my burning back wound slowed its bleeding and the edges began pulling themselves together as my form barely held itself erect in the shallow river water. To the outside observer, my stoicism held. My teeth gritted, holding back any cries of pain as the flesh knitted itself together.
“Sorry about that, man, have a heal on me,” Zeno cheered, a hint of apology sneaking into his light-hearted banter, as his healing hand slapped down reassuringly on my back.
The touch of his hand shattered my calm, breaking the damn of pain held back by the slowly organizing ki.
“Oh, my bad. Feeling better?” Zeno seemed taken aback by my cry as he slapped onto my open wound to apply his healing spell. He stooped down after the quick infusion to rinse off his hand that I had so impolitely soiled with my blood. He then meandered off, eager to collect the praise and admiration of our party for his new woolly maneuver.
It took some time, but my quarterstaff held me aloft through my quick cry of pain, the healing of my own technique and Zeno’s spell took hold and gradually settled me firmly in the land of the living. Our party set about discussing the potential of two shapeshifting members, as well as cutting free the tails of the manticores in the absence of any other profitable spoils of battle. This gave me ample time to wait and rest before prying my quarterstaff loose from the river and returning to shore.
In the end, my plan was a vague success, enough time was passed for our party to safely cross to battle positions and we all made it out alive. Some days traveling from town to town, dungeon to dungeon are boring. The journey becomes mundane. Life’s story has some forgettable sections. Zeno assured me though, the story of surviving a goring from a mammoth will be remembered.