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DM Lauren has a pounding pain in her skull. The world is creaking and swaying, which isn't helping her head at all, but at least it still seems to be dark.
The last thing she remembers is having been clobbered upside the head by one of the slavers in the lobby of Nalf's Slave Market.
She does not appear to be inside Nalf's Slave Market anymore. From the bumping and rattling of her surroundings, she appears to be probably on a cart. Face-down on a heap of sacks of what smells like potatoes, under some sort of blanket.
There is a secondary pain in her wrists, which she finds she cannot move from behind her back. Tied or shackled, probably. She seems to be able to move her legs freely, though.
All her articles of clothing seem to be in the right place, untouched, though her other possessions seem to be absent from their customary storage places.
As I come round and gradually assess my condition I try and lie as still as possible. The desperate last moments in the slave market are a hazy blur - getting surprised by the big brute - setting fire to the security desk - my nearly successful bid for escape... At least I don't appear to be seriously injured, though the pounding in my head is going to be annoying, and I wince what I assume to be a cart goes over a particularly heavy bump. Ow! There's a reason I tried to avoid the fighting drills back home...
I review what I know - I appear to be a captive on a moving cart, which means that if I were to make a break for it I may not be surrounded by enough defences to stop me. Then again, how long would I last in a wilderness with my hands bound? And if the terrain turned out to be clear I'd be an easy mark for even one archer... It would also mean abandoning my spellbook, a course of action terrible to contemplate. I still have most of my spells prepared, and their swirling arcane presence is reassuring in my mind, but none of them I can actually cast whilst my hands are bound.
I'm reasonably dexterous, and my wrists have always been slim - If I'm only tied with rope there's a chance I could wriggle free. That seems like a good idea for the moment.
I'm also still alive - considering I tried to steal Nalf's slaves and burn down his business that's a surprise in itself. Perhaps the best course of action would simply be to ask what he wants? I'll maybe keep that in reserve for now, as I try to wriggle out of my bindings without attracting attention.
Lauren struggles with her bonds, chafing her wrists until they're raw. She soon deduces three things:
1. She's bound with manacles, not rope. (Depending on how good Nalf is with rope, this may be either good or bad for her chances of success.)
2. It is not within her power to free herself without doing something dangerously painful, like dislocating her thumbs.
3. It is more difficult to be silent about trying to free oneself from manacles than one might expect. They jingle and creak a little, no matter how gentle you try to be with them. One might hope it would go unnoticed in the bumping and rattling of the cart and the clop-clopping of some hoofed animal, but nope, no such luck.
After Lauren has been struggling for quite some time, the rattling of the cart comes gradually to a stop. Then the blanket is pulled off her. The world doesn't get much less dark -- it must still be nighttime. From what Lauren can see from facedown in a sack of potatoes, they appear to be on a simple open farmer's cart. The sound of crickets is louder than in the city, and the everpresent oppressive stench of unwashed masses is absent -- it would seem they are out of the city.
Nalf the Prevaricator, sitting on the driver's board and looking distressingly uninjured, contemplates Lauren for a few seconds. "Please stop that."
So much for Plan A I think. Ceasing my attempts to wriggle free, I roll over and sit up in a kneeling position. I check for anyone besides Nalf, and if it's a clear night I'll attempt to orient myself by the moon or any common star constellations I can spot. I also reach out with my feelings in an attempt to locate Leonora. I hope Nalf doesn't spot me doing too many of these things.
Nalf allows Lauren to sit up. She sees nobody but herself and Nalf in the vicinity.
Lauren recognizes the northern constellation of Sequoia at 1 or 2 o'clock. She's pretty sure they're heading pretty much due northwest. There are a few things of interest in that direction. The Tiv-Beckett Cold Iron Mines are in that direction, and she's heard of recently-uncovered ancient dwarven tombs. Serpent Pass conveniently gives access to the northernmost region of the continent. From the motion of the moons, it's been a few hours since the raid on the slave market.
And she can feel Leonora nearby, in the sky a few hundred feet above her, circling slowly.
It would seem Nalf is feeling perhaps less cooperative than Lauren? His response is, "Nothing. I have absolutely no interest in you whatsoever."
I half think about going down the "In that case you won't mind if I leave" route, but decide I'm not yet ready to endure any more pain today. "Fair enough." I say as I continue to kneel in the back of the cart.
Leonora's presence is reassuring, and I suspect Nalf doesn't know I can be traced so easily. I send an emphatic warning not to approach, not that I think she needs reminding judging from her careful distance. I think about the others and hope they all managed to get out ok and how they're getting on without me. I faintly regret not expounding on the next stage of the plan, but my doubts over whether they'd even remember it was the reason I didn't in the first place.
Well whatever it is Nalf is up to it isn't getting anywhere as long as the cart is stopped., which suits me just fine. I decide to stare at him in silence and see how long it lasts.
After a few moments of this, Nalf shrugs and turns back to the old nag pulling the wagon, directing it with a twitch of the reins to continue on the way northwest.
Leonora obediently remains at a healthy distance. She should be safe enough from Nalf, at least; she's virtually impossible to see in the darkness.
But then, Nalf isn't necessarily the most dangerous thing in the vicinity, for Lauren or for Leonora. Most citizens of Endeesy prefer to avoid leaving the city at night, citing bogeymen that stalk the darkness and eviscerate the unwary.
I use the opportunity to take stock of what else is in the cart. Even if I were to escape, it would be terrible to lose my spellbook. When that's done, I investigate the possibility of slipping my bound hands past my thankfully skinny bottom and back in front of me - a far more favourable situation. With those tasks either completed or interrupted I'll sit and watch the countryside until Nalf becomes more forthcoming or I get a better idea of where we're going.
Lauren doesn't happen to see anything on the cart but Nalf (and the things he's carrying, which don't seem to include her possessions) and the sacks of potatoes.
But, elves being very patient creatures, Lauren is free to take her time carefully inspecting each potato sack from her vantage point sitting on one of them. Eventually, she discerns that one of the potato sacks, the one closest to Nalf, is a different kind of lumpy. There's a kind of square lumpy bit and a kind of tube-shaped lumpy bit and some other bits that aren't right. These may be her possessions.
Having identified this sack, Lauren takes her time about getting her hands in front of her. Eventually, she successfully manages this too. Nalf looks at her, shrugs, and goes back to ignoring her. He's paying more attention to the road than he is to Lauren, but he's paying more attention to the sky and their general surroundings than he is to the road. It's hard to tell if he's nervous or just cautious.
And so they continue on for quite a while. The road gradually, over the course of miles, curves to the right. Lauren recognizes few landmarks. After about half an hour, they pass a fork where a second road splits off and heads southwest; they keep right, going almost true north by now.
After another half-hour, they pass a sign identifying Serpent Pass, and the road changes over to going downhill and northeast.
But Nalf doesn't stay on the road for very long. After a time, he turns to the right, heading off the road entirely, almost due east.
After another little while of this, there is a great CRACK as the wagon abruptly breaks and collapses, spilling potatoes. Sounding entirely unsurprised, Nalf announces, "I did not expect that to happen."
Nalf grabs the sack containing Lauren's stuff and jumps down from the wagon. He unceremoniously cuts the old horse free of her harness with a knife, then whacks her on the haunch with a fist, startling her into bolting in a random direction.
Then Nalf orders Lauren (if she hasn't already) "Off the wagon."
"I don't intend to!" I say with a passion, as I lightly step from the ruined cart with typical elfin grace. I manage to keep a straight face for only a couple of seconds before the corner of my lip starts to twitch. I vaguely wonder how long it will be before he tries to slip something that's actually the truth past me after I've become inured to his pathological lies.
I look around at the dark landscape around me, and though a bound and defenceless prisoner travelling with a man who probably wants to kill me, I find myself curiously calm - much unlike Nalf. I wonder if this is a trait I've inherited from my father, Thranduil, and whether this is how he'd feel venturing into the unknown. It's been many years since I saw him, and I wonder whether his travels ever took him through Gus.
I stoop to pick up a loose potato as I scour my brains for information about our current rough location gleaned from past school lessons in Miranda.
If the potato is good I'll pocket it for later, if not I'll drop it again.
Knowledge Local (Max10): (1d20+5)
Knowledge Geography (Max10):(1d20+5)
Nalf gives Lauren a curious, appraising sort of look when she imitates him in his prevarications. He might be amused. It's hard to tell.
The potato Lauren picks up seems fresh and good. A solid idea, and Nalf doesn't stop her.
Nalf shoulders the potato sack of Lauren's stuff, and points in the direction they had been going (i.e., east). "March."
Lauren doesn't happen to recall any details about any nearby settlements or peoples, but the most obvious conclusion is that, if they were bound for a settlement, they probably would have kept on the road. Travel on a road by wagon is much faster than travel by foot off-road.
She recalls only one notable landmark nearby: the Don't Drink This River. But everything she figured in school that she'd ever need to know about the Don't Drink This River is conveniently indicated by its very name. She does vaguely recall that, unlike most rivers (which collect from numerous tributaries from an entire watershed), the Don't Drink This River originates in a cavern within Mount Dis and bursts whole from the mountainside.
And, as they march, it becomes clear to Lauren's sensitive elven nose that, even if the Don't Drink This River isn't their ultimate destination, they are certainly heading towards it now. The rancid, unpleasant stench slowly becomes overpowering, until, after about another half-hour, they top a small hill and the oozing river becomes visible in the moonlight. It turns out that what Lauren learned in her studies was true: the river flows directly from a cave, fast at the narrow entrance, quickly widening and slowing downstream.
They appear to be making directly for the cave itself.
Lauren undoubtedly also remembers the following posting from the last time she looked over the bounty board:
Lord Yuz-Perry, First Viscount Noodleton, seeks Aid for his Township:
The Donít Drink This River, also called the Poison River, has been foul and fetid since the Colonization of Gus, hence the Riverís Name. However, in the past few Months, the Horribleness has seen a marked Increase. A Man can no longer venture within a Mile of the River without becoming nauseated. Crops have begun to wither and die on the Stalk. Even Wells accessing Groundwater far from the River have become tainted and unpotable. Moreover, perhaps unrelatedly, Serfs and their Livestock have begun to vanish from their Fields, even in broad Daylight. (warning: wrackspawn demons)
Anyone who can venture to the Source of the River and render its Water fit for Consumption shall earn the undying Gratitude of the House of Yuz-Perry, as well as a Grant of Land and may choose among the Viscountís many Daughters and Sons for their Hand in Marriage.
By order of Terek, Second of His Name, King of Gus, Vice-Admiral of the Dread Fleet, Ninth Count Rogan, and Emperor of the Mongrelfolk:
The King endorses this undertaking, and has ordered one thousand platinum coins laid in escrow, to be awarded to whomsoever achieves this task to the satisfaction of the Viscount Noodleton.
The warning about wrackspawn demons is in a different handwriting and a different colour ink.
None of the information Lauren has read particularly disagrees with any information presented in the bounty.
I'm reasonably content for the moment to follow Nalf. I wonder if he even knows about the demon warning? I weigh up the odds of an encounter with an unsuspecting Nalf giving me enough of a chance to escape against the odds that we'd just both be made to suffer and decide that overall I'd be better off giving a warning than not. I fiddle with the potato absently in my pocket as I swiftly work out how to phrase this in Nalf's particular cadence:
"So. There definitely aren't any wrackspawn demons around these parts," I say, affecting a rather uninterested tone.
Nalf looks contemplatively at Lauren as they walk. "Wrackspawns? None at all. Certainly none wandered in from across the mountain to eat a pack of adventurers. What we really have to worry about is stumbling upon the sleeping place of the tarrasque."
They approach the river where it bubbles from the mountainside. As it turns out, there's a ledge to one side of the river, offering a convenient way to walk into the cave.
Which, just as the sun begins to peek over the horizon, is what they do. As they enter the damp cave, they startle what sounds like a family of rats, which scamper and skitter off into the darkness, before leaving, as before, no sound but the whooshing of the oily water.
Nalf seems perfectly at ease in the darkness. After a few minutes, Lauren's sensitive elven eyes manage to start picking out details of her surroundings in what orangey dawn light filters dimly into the cave.
To the south, both the river and the passageway continue, though they appear to separate from one another. To the east, across the greasily flowing water, there is what appears to be another bit of dry (well, moist) land. The walls and floors are bare and rounded, scattered with the remains of shells and corals.
Nalf tosses the potato sack containing Lauren's stuff to the moist ground, sits cross-legged next to it, and declares, "Now we keep going until we get there." He carefully watches the deeper recesses of the cave to the south without any further movement.
Lauren can feel Leonora flying purposefully southwards, having apparently concluded there's nothing she can do to help by sticking around. She'd have a hard time staying out of sight in the relatively close confines of the cave. Maybe she has a plan.
Lauren has heard of the Tarrasque! It is a colossal monster of myth and legend, said to be undefeatable and unkillable. Legend has it that, when awoken, it rampages across the land, eating everything it comes across, leaving an expanse of bare rock in its path. Some legends say it was the first offspring of the Burning Hate; otehrs that the Burning Hate itself was birthed from the Tarrasque.
But, as far as Lauren has read, it hasn't been seen since before the Inundation, if ever. It could well be nothing more than a myth.
I'm not entirely reassured by Nalf's suspiciously specific wrackspawn denial, but at least I can consider it highly unlikely we'd stumble upon the Tarrasque! I acknowledge Leonora's actions by conveying approval through our link.
"So are you ready to tell me what we're doing in this cave?" I ask Nalf, not really expecting a straight reply but feeling a need to make conversation. "Because if you need a code breaking, I'm all over that." This last surreptitiously gives voice to a half-suspicion that the slave market raid was a setup designed specifically to capture me or someone like me.
Nalf at first responds with a, "We're certainly not headed to a complex controlled by some friends of mine or anything. Nor waiting for them to wander out and find us; not like it's dangerous in the river cave. Sure, code-breaking, let's go with that, no interest in melting you down for goo or anything."
Then, after a moment, he seems to reconsider, "Actually, now that you mention it... ...nah, if we even make it to the complex, make your case to Absterbossk, not me. It won't make any difference, you'll be sent to be harvested without delay, potentially useful skills or no, foolish even trying to talk to the old squid. But try it, see where it gets you."
"Who is Absterbossk? And why drag me all the way out here if I'm just going to be killed anyway? You could have killed me at any point since the market, you could have saved yourself the effort."
I pace up and down by the river's edge. It crosses my mind to attempt escape by throwing myself into the waters, but the foulness puts me off. Then, half out of curiosity as to the properties of the river, I crouch and dip the chain of my manacles through the surface, careful not to get any on my hands.
"Absterbossk is..." Nalf searches for an appropriate word to describe Absterbossk as not being. Eventually, he shrugs and gives up. "You won't find out."
"You don't need to be harvested live." It seems Nalf is apparently completely comfortable having a conversation and conveying information, as long as every statement he makes is technically false. A little bizarre, but there you go.
The foul water smells overpoweringly like a zombie's armpit, but is perfectly clear. Lauren approaches and dips the chain of her manacles in. The water is not instantly corrosive. Probably if an object were left in the water for a prolonged period of time -- weeks, say -- it would begin to corrode and/or dissolve, but these effects are not instantaneous.
When Lauren pulls the chain from the noxious river, it brings with it some water that has set around it, like gelatin. Clear fluid oozes viscously from the chain in dollops rather than droplets.
Nalf watches the cave entrance speculatively. "Do you suppose your companions will be coming to try to rescue you? I hope so. I relish the idea of fleeing unescorted through these caves with you."
I grimace at the foul gelatinous waters stuck to my manacles. I had been considering eating my potato, but I dare not get anything I want to ingest near this stuff. Nalf is seeming quite chatty though, which I consider a plus.
"You've made us pretty difficult to find," I say with a shrug. "In any case I think you could have picked someone larger to harvest. I've barely any meat on me." I flex a non-existent muscle for emphasis. Meanwhile I wrack my memories for any kind of arcane ritual I've come across in my studies that requires the sacrifice of someone sensitive to magical energies, or even simply of high intelligence.
Nalf shakes his head. "Yes, it's about how much meat is on your bones."
There are a number of rituals Lauren has heard of in passing that might involve "harvesting" a person live.
Human sacrifice to any number of demons, devils, or dark gods is always a possibility. There are probably some powers that specifically desire intelligent sophonts or mages or elves for sacrifices, but that's really more of a theology question, which isn't exactly Lauren's strong suit.
There are certainly any number of monsters that eat intelligent beings or their parts. Absterbossk and the rest of Nalf's cadre could plausibly be one of these. But that's more of a dungeoneering question, the practicalities of which Lauren is also not entirely up on. She can, of course, think of plenty of demons, devils, and other extraplanar monstrosities that are more than happy to consume creatures or parts thereof.
Lauren is familiar with the idea, and even a few of the basic practicalities, of using spells powered by sapients' souls, pain or strong emotions, blood, fingers or tongues or bones or brains or eyes or hands or hearts or other particular parts, or even more obscure things, described in the literature only in the vaguest terms. Some of these things require specifics, like a particularly intelligent brain or a hand that had been used to cast spells or the ears of an elf. But evil is infinitely resourceful, so the list of these rituals, spells, and techniques is long indeed.
The problem is not that Lauren can't think of what it might be. The problem is that she can think of so many that it would take a great deal of narrowing-down to determine the actual answer.
Eventually, having waited for quite some time, Nalf seems to reconsider his original proposition that they sit and wait, saying, "They come out during the day. Time is on our side." So he stands and... tosses the bag containing Lauren's things to her feet. "Prepare to fight monsters."
I immediately reach for my spellbook, trying for the required mental state even as I issue instruction to Nalf. "I don't need at least an hour and a quarter, preferably an hour and a half without interruption. I'll also need you to remove these when the time comes, or I'll be entirely useful. The sword's not just for show!" I hold up the manacles for emphasis, before taking my bag of things and retreating to a corner of the wall and cave to sit cross legged and study. Even if Nalf's monsters arrive, I'll ignore them unless they get past him - it's critical I'm not interrupted.
Lauren hasn't had rest immediately prior to preparing, so she needs an hour to acheive the required mental state. She then needs 24 minutes to prepare her unused spell slots or at least 15 for the preparations to begin to take. If she gets more than that she'll start swapping out utility spells for combat.
Nalf gives Lauren as much time as she needs. He watches the valley outside the cave entrance for a time. Then he paces to the south, where the caves extend deeper into the mountain, and watches there. Then he paces back to the cave entrance. He does this several times, until Lauren judges herself completely ready, or until two hours have passed, whichever comes first.
When Lauren is ready, Nalf unlocks her manacles (on which the goopy water has begun to crystallize), draws his rapier, and gestures to the south. "March."
To my slight amazement, I remain uninterrupted for the entire time I'd requested. Having refreshed my expended spell slots, so I use an extra 15 minutes to adjust my other spells to the current situation. Having completed my study, I take a quick inventory of my things before strapping my spell component pouches and rapier to my belt, though leaving the latter undrawn.
It seems Nalf has lost his patience with waiting, so I duly follow his order. The darkness of the cave reminds me of a poem I once heard, and I begin to sing softly in draconic to lift my spirits.
Perform (song): (1d20)
See how far I get before Nalf stops me.
<mitne batobot shilta qe cirau. mitne batobot shilta keefum nhee. mitne batobot shilta qe seltur.
mitne batobot shilta qe porcelain. mitne batobot shilta qe ssej. mitne batobot shilta renthisj.
mitne batobot shilta jilg throden kluchuduunic. mitne batobot shilta qe romantic. mitne batobot shilta qe harsh.
mitne batobot shilta qe gul. mitne batobot shilta qe warm. mitne batobot shilta qe dry.
mitne batobot shilta qe haiyear. mitne batobot shilta qe itov. mitne batobot shilta qe eluithol.
mitne batobot shilta qe gliiwr di dastudr. mitne batobot shilta qe taq. mitne batobot shilta qe whedab.>
Nalf... doesn't seem to mind the singing. It doesn't sound like he understands it, but he doesn't seem to mind it. Not even that it could potentially attract monsters. Maybe it's that her singing is quite nice indeed.
Nalf leads Lauren to the south with one hand on her shoulder, and doesn't bother to light a light (or permit Lauren to light one, either because he doesn't want to attract unnecessarily many monsters, or perhaps because I don't feel like copying over the map for the entire distance it turns out you'll be travelling, or probably both). He apparently doesn't need light, navigating unerringly in the pitch darkness. It's difficult to judge distance and space. The ground feels very slightly sloped upwards.
From the echoes of their footsteps and the rising and falling of the volume of the noise of rushing water, always to their left, it sounds like they pass through a small, relatively narrow cave, then a wider one (In this cave, Nalf instructs "Mind the hole", and diverts Lauren around something that, from the faint whistling, might be a very deep hole in the floor). Then a longer, narrower cave that sounds like it opens up on the river itself again ("Mind the arrow trap"). Then through a short, narrow passageway, slick with moisture, with the rushing of the water only a few feet away (Nalf directs Lauren to stay away from the water, with a "Mind the dinosaur"). Then through a medium-sized bit of cavernry, and finally into a low, narrow, length of cave ("Watch your head."), turning left and stopping at what definitely sounds like the river.
Lauren is fairly sure that they're still only maybe 250' deep into the mountain at this point. But she's starting to see spots and hallucinate a purplish glow from sensory deprivation. Oh, wait, no, there's just a small patch of phosphorescent fungus on the walls in this little bit of tunnel. It allows Lauren, with her keen elven eyesight, to just see Nalf and a few feet of her surroundings.
"I am enthusiastic about crossing this river. Though it is not a very short distance to swim. We are not deep enough into the mountain for the probability of encountering my compatriots, or yours, to have changed. So I am disinclined to wait here."
# - rock
. - bare ground
≈ - noxious river
L - Lauren
n - Nalf
"I completely understood that," I say, dubiously. I have no idea which bits of his latest statements were affirmative or not, so I remain where I am. I certainly have no intention of going anywhere near the water unless forced after seeing what it was like earlier.
Nalf considers this question, then decides answering it is no harm. "Some of my compatriots do not use it to communicate, and probably cannot detect it from a great distance away."
Lauren peers into the darkness. She can see spots of faint illumnination where little patches of phosphorescent fungus have taken hold, but there's nothing like enough of it to be able to see anything but the fungus itself.
Then they wait, for what seems like -- and, in fact, is -- several hours!
Eventually, Nalf speaks again, saying, "Your companion lied about your singing voice."