The mage did some magical scouting in the morning, and was able to confirm every part of Hrod’s story except for the existence of the path he supposedly used to escape and traverse the forest. I put forward my theory that it was a magical path created by the gnolls specifically so Hrod could escape and lure in more victims, but Runimar hushed me and I don’t think anyone else was listening.
We decided to split off from Runimar’s men. They would attack the main gnoll encampment to get their attention while we approached somewhat more stealthily to rescue the prisoners.
The first problem we encountered was finding the path. Hrod led us to where he emerged from the forest, but the path no longer seemed to be there. We searched around for a while and Tim eventually found it. It was obvious once you were on it but invisible from the outside. I was at this point firmly convinced that we were walking into a trap and that we were all going to die.
Not much to say about the journey through the forest. We saw a pretty rock and that’s about it.
At last we came to the clearing in which the humans were being kept prisoner. They were fenced in pretty tight in some kind of crude wooden enclosure, and there were two gnolls accompanied by mutant hyenas patrolling around it. The humans looked pretty badly off. Dirty, exhausted, starved… it didn’t seem like the gnolls were interested in keeping them alive for very long. Many were crying, and all of them looked like their spirits had been crushed. I knew that look well, and I think I started shaking at about that point.
There was another building nearby, which I tentatively identified as a barracks after a mob of gnolls poured out of it. Then there was a large explosion in the distance, followed almost immediately by a second. The group of gnolls started jabbering and took off running to find the action, leaving behind the original guards.
We took this as our cue to attack. Ajaisa and Londel started shooting at something I couldn’t see on top of the building while Tim and the Boss went to attack the two sentries on the right and Hulg and Xavier went towards the two on the left. I noticed that while some of the humans looked excited and hopeful, many were still crying and focusing on the building.
That’s when it struck me: no kids. There were at least a hundred or so humans in the crude wooden enclosure, and all of them were adult-sized. No children or infants to be seen. I looked towards the building and started shaking again.
I was going to have to risk it. I told myself that there was a good chance that all the hostiles had left the building and that it was a good place to hide from the gnolls while the rest of the group did the fighting, but I didn’t find myself very convincing. I had to know. So I willed myself to remain unseen and sprinted across the battlefield. At about the time I reached the doors a gnoll with large bat-wings came swooping down from the roof of the building and started firing arrows at my companions. I told myself that I had made the right decision and ducked inside.
Just inside the door I found a metal cage full of human children. A locked metal cage. An extremely durable looking locked metal cage. I’m not very good with locks. Maybe I should work on that. I’m sure Tim could give me a few pointers.
On the far side of the room was a frog-man holding a staff and dressed in an elaborate priestly outfit. With a hat. Hell, it was almost two hats. I think they’re called miters. He had two fish-man bodyguards. They were standing next to an altar with a human draped over it and the frog-man was chanting. They had ignored me when I walked in but froggy was looking at me now.
Dreading the alternative, I decided to pretend they might be friendly and pantomimed asking Frog-guy about the keys to the cage. He shook his staff at the cage and said “Mine.” It was at this point that I noticed four more of those damned Shards dangling from the end of his staff, and more embedded in his hat. It was also at this point that one of the children in the cage collapsed and started screaming. The Frog-man went back to chanting.
I looked back at the cage. The kid was convulsing, still screaming. I looked at the door. The sounds of battle. No help on the way. I looked back at the frog-man. Ignoring me, focused on his chanting and whatever he was doing to the human on the altar.
At this point I probably should have ran outside, acted like I was helping with the battle, then provided moral support while the group entered the building and fought the fish people. But I knew the boss would want the children rescued. And there was something else…
I owed the humans nothing. They were not my people, they had never helped me, and they would probably stone me if I were to venture alone into one of their towns or cities. But the kid was still screaming. Something about children in a cage gets to me. It reminds me of my own childhood. I knew all about cages.
I yelled out the door, “Tim, I need you!” and ran towards the altar and the fish-people, knowing that I was about to die foolishly.
I started with alchemist’s fire. It ignites on contact with air, so as I ran towards them I threw one of my vials at the chanting frog-man. It hit him, shattered, and he went up like a torch. I don’t think he even noticed. I crossed fire off of my list of ways to deal with bipedal frogs.
They were still a good distance away, but I tried throwing one of my knives. No luck. I was getting closer now and the two fish-guards were readying some manner of polearms and looked eager for battle. Still running towards them, I focused my ki and threw another knife. Bingo. Perfect hit, right in his… let’s call it a torso.
Mister Miter stopped chanting, and the kid stopped screaming. At about this time Tim made it into the room, and the rest of the group was following him. I guess the gnolls hadn’t put up much of a fight.
The frog-man looked towards me, lifted up a small leather bag, and said “They are mine. Even if I leave, I know who they are. But if you let me leave, I could forget.”
Mages. He had something in the bag that would allow him to form a link to the children. A list of true names? Maybe. A lock of hair from each one? Perhaps. There are any number of ways that a gifted mage can use something of theirs to form a link via sympathetic magic and then control, curse, or kill the target. Elven mages did it all the time, and I read about it in one of their libraries.
He dropped the bag, it bursts into flames, and he and his guards disappeared into a cloud of smoke.
The kids were alright.
Tim managed to pick the lock on the cage and we got them outside. Hrod was quite excited to see them, and Runimar made it to the clearing and let us know that the raid was a complete success. We reunited the kids with their families and Runimar’s men escorted them back to our camp.
Runimar asked us about the second explosion. He wanted to know how we did it. He seemed confused when we denied responsibility.
Our group stayed behind for a little while to loot the gnolls’ possessions and we found some truly horrible art I’m not even going to describe. Once back at camp we got Runimar’s mage to identify the magic stuff we found left behind by the gnolls. The Boss got a pair of gloves that are supposed to let her catch arrows. I got a vial of grey viscous fluid that’s supposed to increase the combat potential of any small rocks it coats.
But I wonder…
Who enchanted the path that Hrod used to escape and bring us back? Who caused the second explosion? Do we have an ally in the area, or do the gnolls merely have another enemy? Or is someone just messing with us as part of some convoluted scheme?