Chapter 10

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The Evergreen Company's away team continued their exploration of the Gnarlwood Forest. Arina caught a glimpse of something out of the ordinary amidst the foliage. She then felt a cold, but familiar, presence brush beside her cheeks. Her old friend, Mister Angelcakes, helped sharpen her eyesight, allowing her to recognize what caught her attention: the upper tip of a bow.

"Beware, ambush!" she cried out. Now alerted, the Company noticed a total of five figures hiding in the surrounding foliage and up in the trees, all aiming longbows at them.

"They see us, boys! Take them down!" cried out one of the attackers.

Argus reacted first. He urged his horse forward at the nearest attacker. Just as he came up to him, the mercenary hopped off his horse, and used the momentum to slam his earthbreaker at the archer's chest. There was a sickening crunch of bone as the bandit crashed against the tree he was hiding behind.

Cethin began reciting poetry, enhanced with bardic magic, that viciously mocked their attackers which encouraged his own team. Sky conjured a snowball, and thanks to Cethin's encouragement, accurately threw it into the face of one of the archers. The sylph wizard followed up with the cold by firing rays of frost at their attackers.

Arina aimed towards another attacker. She flashed out of her saddle in a crimson blur, and appeared behind her target. Her blade was already, its tip reddened with blood. The archer looked down in disbelief at her wet and reddening chest to realise that she was already stabbed.

The ambushers returned fire, hitting Arina, but missing the others. Arina briefly saw red, and called upon Mister Angelcakes. All of the archers were wracked with sudden pain from her imaginary friend's sudden embrace. The young woman then stretched her open hand out, then suddenly closed it into a fist. The ambushers screamed as a mist of minute droplets of blood were ripped out from them into the air. The individual strands of crimson mist then coalesced into one, then flew into Arina's wound, which then healed.

Cethin began to play riff on his lute in the direction of another ambusher. As the notes left his lute, they formed into sharp, glassy shards in the air. They shot forth at Cethin's target, shredding into his skin.

On the other side of the fight, Argus jerked back as an arrow finally slipped through his psionic armor, and hit flesh as opposed to all the others plinking off of him.

"Finally!" roared the archer.

"Nice, but you only get one," Argus rumbled as he stomped towards his attacker. He made good on his promise, and smashed his opponent's head into wet, bloody chunks.

Nearby, Arina finishes off another attacker. She initiates shattered mirror's left-hand strike, and a hundred little mirrors manifest around the bewildered archer, each mirroring Arina's rapier in her grip. When she thrusts her rapier at her opponent, so do her reflections emerge from the phantom mirrors, impaling him from many different directions. He collapsed to the ground with a hundred bleeding holes.

"Oh gods, they're monsters!" cried out one of the remaining archers. He turned and ran, but came just in range of Argus. The towering man swung his earthbreaker in the way, and crumpled in the man's chest, sending him crashing to the ground.

The last attacker tried to flee as well, but Cethin swapped out his lute for a loaded crossbow. He fired, and the bolt pierced through the man's neck, from the back and out the front of his throat. The man tumbled into a roll, and fell still.

All of the attackers were now dead. A quick inspection of the bodies revealed a silver amulet in the shape of a stag's head. This confirmed what the team suspected, that these were more of the Stag Lord's minions.

"Well, at least these attacks allow us to thin out their numbers," Argus said. They collected anything of value from them, and disposed of the bodies, then made camp for the night.

The next morning, Argus and Sky woke up to a bizarre, and somewhat gruesome, scenario. They found themselves surrounded by the bodies of the slain bandits, with their cold, dead hands placed on inappropriate parts of themselves. The two prank victims finally gave in, and grumbly offered a small fortune to the hidden fairy pranksters. They finally seemed to have appeased them, as there were no subsequent pranks in the following days.

 

Back at Onestrio’s, the former kitsune noble scion was at a loss at what to do. All of Ayaki’s efforts had led her to this outpost in an untamed land. Yet the only other kitsune in the region refused to believe that they are siblings. It did not help that the young kitsune calling himself Cethin proved adept at being elusive.

After securing the lone survivor of Ravenna’s assault in the trade post’s makeshift prison, Ayaki sought out Cethin’s companions, hoping to learn more about him. Maybe then he’ll be more receptive to her approach.

Rishoi the bounty hunter was nearby crafting some guns to sell, but she was a newcomer like she was, so she was out of the question. Fortunately, two of Cethin’s traveling companions had remained at the trade post.

Ayaki stared down the dug out ramp going into the earth with a bit of trepidation. But she was noble warrior, and she steeled herself like the enlarged katana she wieleded. The underground structure was completely dark, as its excavator had no need for light. Ayaki did, so she lit a lantern, and descended into the cramp and damp artificial cavern. Within it, she found Jupus using his inherent gnomish magic to excavate the earth for his planned mushroom farm.

“Cethin? To be honest, I can’t really say much about him,” Jupus answered her query. “Sure, we’re part of the same company, but we didn’t get together to be friends. He doesn’t make it easy to get to know him, either.”

Ayaki found Davona instructing the guards of the trading post. The recent fight inspired the hired swords to improve their skills, and Davona welcomed the chance to show them the training of Rochefort’s guard, as well as earn a few extra coins in exchange. Ayaki approached her during a break in their lessons.

“Jupus is right, we haven’t really gotten to know one another so far,” Davona told her. “But I get you. If Sky was taken away from me, I’d cross the world to find him too. I’ll try talking to Cethin next time we go traveling, and try to convince him to at least hear you out with an open mind.”

“Thank you, Lady Davona,” Ayaki said sincerely.

With no other recourse, Ayaki spent the rest of her time at the trade post’s forge. It was an unladylike skill that she picked up, but one that proved useful as an abandoned ronin. Moreover, it allowed her to hammer her frustrations away while letting her ponder her next steps.          


Almost a week of exploring the Gnarlwood past since the attack. It was mostly uneventful, except for a fight with a pair of giant mantises. Giant, carnivorous insects were a common hazard in the wild. Thankfully, well-armed adventurers like the Evergreen Company were present enough to cut their numbers down to manageable levels. The team made sure to do their part that day.

That was all the excitement in the past several days until the away team found a set of tracks. They followed them further south in the forest. They discovered that the tracks led them to an encampment of treehouses. "House" was a bit of an exaggeration, they were mostly platforms with a roof and maybe a wall or two, built ten, twenty, thirty feet up, using the trees as supports. Ladders connected them to the ground, and rope bridges connected them to each other.

All seemed quiet in the camp, and there was no movement to their approach. Arina climbed up to explore one of the treehouses, while the rest of the team spread out to investigate the camp grounds. However, that would soon prove unnecessary.

From their hiding spots in the surrounding bushes and from other treehouses, the bandits emerged, bows drawn. The Evergreen Company was finally caught unawares. A rough, woman’s voice cried out.

"Attack!"

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