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Flight from Stalkbrow

The Shadowelves

The former prisoners of the Stalkbrow entity lay strewn against the hillside. Among them, utterly exhausted, were Valen and Damareen in addition to six other elves clad in the fur and leather attire of the Longrunner clan. Two other elves wore lighter, green-hued garb - possibly belonging to the Grunalf clan.

Adriana gave her younger brother a look that could kill, while clutching an open wound in her side which evidently pained her though she did not care to complain.

"Hi sis," Valen mumbled, his tone sluggish. "Looks like you found me..."

"Wait 'til I get you home,’ Adriana muttered through gritted teeth.

Damareen gave a gasp as she pointed to a group of elves all decked in sheening plate armour, blue cloaks billowing from their shoulders. These twenty or so individuals seemed unnaturally relaxed, far from drained like their fellow captives. On closer inspection these elves exhibited unmistakeable differences to any other elves the party had encountered. Their skin bore a pallid, unhealthy tinge, their eyes were an icy shade of blue and their pointed ears extended farther than those of their surface cousins.

"Shadowelves!" Damareen breathed.

The party could not believe their bad luck. While the malicious entity born from Stalkbrow's magic had weakened their allies, the embittered Shadowelves had been sustained by their inborn hatred for the surface dwellers. The companions had barely survived the fight against the wyrds, the killer trees and the imps. Now a fresh challenge presented itself...

Chanting was heard; before the party had a chance to react a wave of magic washed through them. Lana and Drewen managed to shrug off the effects of the spell, though Vasily's eyes took on a glazed look. In his mind he found himself in awe of this impressive group.

The largest of the Shadowelves stepped forward to face the party, clearing his throat before speaking. When he did it was only Lana, Betula and Damareen who understood the words he spoke. The high-pitched whine of his voice carried on the breeze, grating to listen to, a dialect of the Elvish tongue a hundred times more alien than say the Calarii dialect spoken within Karameikos. A tongue which for centuries had not been spoken openly within the forests of Alfheim, nor above ground for that matter.

"Thank you for freeing us," said the lead Shadowelf, in his piercing tone.

"You are welcome," Lana responded in Elven.

"Give us the boy."

Lana's eyes widened in shock. "We did you a favour releasing you from that prison. Be in no doubt, this boy is under our protection and we will not let you have him."

The lead Shadowelf's face remained devoid of emotion. "If you do not give us the boy, we will take him from you."

"Why?" Lana demanded. "What could he mean to you?"

There came no response. Only –

"What's 'appening?" Drewen muttered by Lana’s side, bored his inability to follow the exchange which was taking place in Elvish.

"They want Valen," Lana said miserably. "We’re in no position to resist if they try to take him, which they say they will. I have no idea why he's matters to them..." She eyed the other group warily. As she did, one of their number strode forward - a strapping individual who unsheathed an immense two-handed sword from a scabbard on his back. Reaching the midpoint between the groups the Shadowelf stopped and began swinging his weapon around his head as if warming up.

Lana glanced at Drewen who, unlike his companions, had survived the previous fight relatively unscathed on account of his natural resilience and enchanted armour. "Drewen," she whispered, "would you fight that Elf?"

The dwarf hefted his hammer, eyeing his opposite number with dislike. "S'pose," he muttered, stepping forward.

"We challenge you to a duel of honour," Lana called to the lead Shadowelf. "You have sent forward your chosen one, now we send forth our champion - Drewen Goldenhammer!’

"On what terms do we duel?" came the haunting reply.

"Should you lose, you relinquish the boy and leave at once. Should you win," – Lana swallowed a lump in her throat – "you may take him. In either case you will leave at once. During the fight there will be no interference whatsoever from external sources."

Damareen clutched Lana's sleeve while the Shadowelves murmured among themselves. "You cannot strike a deal with their kind," she whispered. "They have no honour!"

"We have no other options," Lana replied.

The lead Shadowelf turned to face the party. "Your terms are accepted."

Drewen closed the distance between himself and the towering Shadowelf, giving a brief nod to acknowledge his adversary. The Elf raised his huge sword and gave an ear-splitting battle cry. A moment later the blade swept downward in Drewen’s direction. Drewen dodged, judging his foe momentarily off balance and swung his heavy hammer in what was bound to be a crippling blow... The Elf parried however, his blade catching the handle of Drewen's hammer and blocking the attack. With a twist the blade came free then a heartbeat later Drewen felt pain in his side. The Elf's blade penetrated a small gap in the magical dwarven armour, blood welling out as the sword came away.

Drewen roared with pain and swung his hammer, catching the Elf fully in the chest to give as good as the dwarf had received. His follow-up attack was again parried, before a further blow from Drewen took out the Elf’s legs from beneath him. Then the Elf sprang backward, taking a brief instant to extend one hand and intone words of magic. To Drewen’s surprise flickering green flame spread across his body, not burning him but illuminating the battle for all to see.

Countless more of Drewen’s attacks were dodged or deflected, the dwarf's frustration steadily increasing until one powerful blow brought the Elf to his knees. With a swift follow-up Drewen’s hammer connected with the side of his foe's head, sending the Elf sprawling backward to land in a lifeless heap.

A cry of rage rose from the assembled Shadowelves. Swords were unsheathed as the group charged toward Drewen.

"About time," came Karnus' disdainful voice. "I was expecting this." With a snap of his fingers the mage sent a jet of flame racing toward the group of advancing Shadowelves, followed moments later by a jet from Lana’s wand. Drewen felt the beams of heat shoot over his head, then two fiery explosions rocked the hillside, engulfing every one of the treacherous Shadowelves. For a moment everything seemed still - only the dancing flames were moving - before a single figure emerged defiantly through the blaze. The lead Shadowelf. With his companions decimated, the leader withdrew his sword and closed to do battle with the party, his hands and lips moving in spellcasting as he advanced.

Drewen moved to engage the leader in close combat, though he bore serious injuries from his previous fight. Stones rained from Vasily's catapult and Lana hurled daggers however the Shadowelf proved as proficient as his fallen comrade and effortlessly deflected the incoming missiles. Realising they were achieving nothing, and that a single blow from the Shadowelf might prove fatal to Drewen, Lana and Vasily joined their companion in the melee.

The fight continued for what seemed like ages, the Shadowelf managing to deflect every blow. At one point the Elf cast a spell to summon a single Mirror Image, though this was instantly disrupted by Drewen's hammer. Then as a naturally perfect blow followed from the dwarf the Elf howled with pain and cast a second spell, causing himself to lift into the air and out of the reach of melee weapons. Casting another spell three glowing missiles appeared by the Elf's shoulder, one to hurl at each of his assailants. Both Lana and Vasily were brought close to death by this onslaught, but managed to stay standing.

Lana for one had suffered enough of this spellcasting foe. Remembering that the Staff of Lucinius was intended for use against enemy magic-users she released a charge from the Staff to cloud her attacker's mind, robbing him of the ability to concentrate. The Elf howled from the impact of the Feeblemind, bobbing awkwardly in mid-air, but shook off the effect. His glare fell squarely upon Lana as he intoned further words of magic, a red glow coalescing between his palms before shooting in a ray toward the group. Lana gave a defiant cry and raised the Staff of Lucinius. With a flare the ray of magic was caught by the Staff, turning from red to amber, before shooting back to strike its caster. Amid bright radiance the Shadowelf disappeared to be replaced by a small lizard which dropped to the ground. Drewen and Vasily lunged to catch the creature but it proved too fast, scarpering into one of the burrow-holes which permeated the hillside.

"We need to catch that bastard," growled Drewen.

"I agree," Vasily nodded, "but how?"

"We'll smoke him out," Lana muttered, though she suspected the tunnels extended through the hillside into the surrounding landscape for miles. Foremost in her mind however was that the Shadowelves had wished to abduct Valen. It was of utmost importance that their leader be apprehended, to ascertain why the young lord of Karameikos mattered to them.

Fragments of wood from the fight with the killer trees were collected, to enable fires to be lit at the mouth of every opening which could be found. As smoke wafted through the hill, small shrieks were heard and the heads of dozens of annoyed wood imps appeared at other openings. Horrified, Lana realised that the hill likely housed hundreds of the tiny malicious creatures.

Flight from Stalkbrow

"Fall back!" Drewen roared as the imps began firing arrows from their miniature bows. The party had no option but to retreat. A group of imps which Karnus magically Charmed turned angrily on their fellows, but more kept coming. Arrows fell like rain as the companions tore down the hillside toward the cover of the forest, where they collapsed exhausted and soon fell asleep.

The party woke the next morning feeling the ground shaking beneath them, and hearing a sound like distant thunder. One of the fur-clad Longrunner elves sat up and gave a look of relief. "We will be safe," he announced, "the Southguard have found us." Sure enough a while later a hundred or so riders approached the party, with Dmitros and the animals in tow. The party were provided with mounts and were soon speeding away to the north, happy to watch the twin slopes of Stalkbrow become an unpleasant memory on the landscape behind them.

Little was said on the ride, though one of the Grunalf elves revealed that the companions were being taken to Pinitel - clanseat of the Longrunner clan - where they might receive healing. This prospect cheered the companions so greatly that they ignored the fact they had no say in what was happening to them.

Guests of Clan Longrunner

Later that day the base of a gigantic tree opened to reveal a stairway into Pinitel, a town of colourful splendours and seemingly reality-defying architecture. The companions were escorted to a wooden structure which resembled an upside-down pyramid, where they were introduced to a beautiful dusky-skinned elfmaiden by the name of Coolhands. Coolhands laid eyes on the party's wounds and began assembling ointments and salves, professing that she had dedicated her life to the study of the healing arts. She was the lifemate of the Clanmaster Beasthunter who was presently absent on a hunting expedition. Should Beasthunter have arrived back, the companions thought, they might not have been so welcome since the ethos of the Longrunner clan, and of Beasthunter’s friend Starwatcher in particular, called for the non-tolerance of outsiders. Appropriately enough, Coolhands exerted something of a calming influence on her mate.

The companions spent several days resting in Pinitel, enjoying magically enchanted beds which provided deep and dreamless sleep (in which Drewen for one took a particular interest), before departing to the northwest toward Desnae, then onward to Alfheim Town. Following trails and the river to ensure they would not become lost, the party's journey proved uneventful, until back in Alfheim Town a notice was found fixed to the door of a tavern in the Karameikan quarter of town, indicating that a Great Monster Hunt was to be held. Keen to take part, the party wasted no time contacting Arloen Treelife in the Offices of the Seven Clans of the Government District to obtain the necessary licence.

The Great Hunt

The next morning the party rode out, refreshed and eager to begin the chase. Hours later a set of monstrous prints were uncovered, confusing the elven guides who indicated that one and a half tracks had been found. Pressing on, a clearing was found where a moose was trying hard to evade a pack of brown-furred large-jawed canines who appeared to fade from one location to another in the Blink of an eye. Lana's heart skipped a beat as she realised what these creatures were.

Any wonderment was cut short when a huge panther shot out from the undergrowth, six-footed with tentacles protruding from its shoulders. The dogs instantly turned from their quarry to engage the displacer beast, while the onlooking elves reported excitedly that this beast had escaped from a nearby Magic Point several months before and had managed to evade capture ever since.

The great cat bounded out from the undergrowth catching one of the blink dogs unaware, its horned tentacle impacting with a crunch into the hound's side. The blow lifted the dog off the ground, hurling it into shrubs where it whimpered audibly then lay still.

The cat turned slowly, sunlight glinting off its tentacles. Arrows were loosed from the bows of half a dozen elves, though only Adriana's shot found its target. The Karameikan party knew from their past experience of displacer beasts that some property of the cat's fur warped light rays, giving the impression that the beast was several feet away from its true position.

Lana cast Haste upon her comrades as Drewen advanced to engage the cat in hand-to-hand combat, his hammer grasped in one hand. Vasily cursed in Traladaran after two of his sling bullets missed their target. Lana too was vexed as she expelled a volley of amber shards, the majority of which failed to impact.

Drewen roared merrily as his hammer crunched into what appeared to be thin air, causing the cat to roar in return though audibly from several feet away. With a snarl the cat leapt through the air to sink its fangs into Lana's side. Moments later as further arrows bit into the cat's side a spear sailed through the air and skewered the cat whole. It sagged to the forest floor, its tentacles dropping limply at its sides.

"My kill!" Adriana declared triumphantly, and the elves were happy to agree as they cheered the red-haired noblewoman’s victory. The Karameikan princess drew her hunting knife and began skinning the magical fur from the cat's corpse.

Vasily made his way to the far side of the clearing, where the fallen blink dog lay crumpled in the undergrowth. A few hounds from the pack were nearby and observed warily. Growls emanated from their oversized jaws as the companions approached, but faded as Vasily reached their comrade. It was still breathing, just, causing Vasily to kneel and murmur words of healing. A few moments later the dog brought itself to its feet and yapped merrily. Its companions responded in kind, seemingly conducting a conversation. They permitted Vasily to administer a short pat then, having finished feasting on the felled moose, bounded into the forest and were gone.

As the party rode on down the trail some of the elven scouts discussed theories regarding these two types of creature. A pride of displacer beasts had appeared from the magic point at Dragontree some months ago - indeed several of the cats had been hunted by the Karameikan party during their last exploits through neighbouring Darokin. One wily and troublesome beast, the last of its pride, had eluded the elven patrols for a long time. Shortly after the cats’ appearance a small pack of blink dogs had been seen emerging from the beneficial magic point at Turnclaw, as if maintaining some sort of cosmic balance. Indeed, elven sages theorised that blink dogs and displacer beasts, being natural enemies, might originate from the same faraway plane of existence, and waged war against one another throughout time and space.

The hunt resumed. The next day found the forest path occupied by a hideous creature - half bird, half hag - perched on a low branch. As the party approached the harpy began to sing in hideous screeching tones, causing all present save Vasily and Lana to become glossy-eyed and lethargic. Additional voices joined in and it became apparent that the creature was not alone. A trio of the winged menaces descended from the higher branches on mangy wings, long curving blades in their claw-like hands. Lana and Vasily gave battle, Vasily summoning an area of silence which the singing could not penetrate, but found himself struck from behind by a harpy which he had not seen, and had not managed to silence. As one of the Erendyl elfmaidens fell bleeding from her saddle Lana watched horrified as Vasily took on the same vacant expression as the remainder of the party. Slowly however her companions came around, and all but one of the harpies were slain. Lana invoked a Fly spell and took to the air to pursue the fleeing creature which had ensorcelled Vasily. High in the treetops the pair battled until the harpy met its fate, an amber-hilted dagger embedded in its scrawny breast.

Not long after the party reached the town of Elleromyr, clanseat of the Erendyl elves. The party were praised for their kills during the Hunt, being the only party to rival another group which had encountered a manticore, and Adriana was toasted by all present for having slain the fearsome displacer beast. The companions received hand-carved wooden medallions bearing the insignia of the Erendyl clan - a rampant crown-bearing unicorn.

Out of Alfheim

Confusion was rife as to the source of the unusual creatures which had been appearing for weeks in greater numbers than ever before. Many attributed the appearances to the magic points within Canolbarth, but an increasing number of reports suggested that the beasts were originating outside the forest, from Darokin which was only a day’s ride to the west. Curious to investigate, and since they would need to travel through Darokin to return to Karameikos, the party set off to the west. The immense oaks of Alfheim gave way to regular trees and more mundane plantlife, until the party found themselves riding through sparse woodland and into Darokin. Camping one night they managed to obtain directions from a local homestead whose occupants spoke a little Thyatian but managed to convey a sense of local disturbances and 'strange times'.

Riding on, the party reached the farming town of Favaro, which based on the party's rudimentary awareness of Darokinian geography they believed lay to the north of Darokin City. Here an elven guard advised that she too had heard tale of strange creatures roaming the lands – not only were the local orcs restless, but villages had been levelled by hill giants, hellhounds and even dragons of varying colours had been spotted in the skies. Strange times indeed, the party mused. Tempted though they were to investigate the source of the mystery, the combined forces of Darokin's militia, magic-users and clergy were reportedly dumbfounded despite weeks of planning and reconnaissance. In any event the party were obliged to return to Karameikos to ensure Valen's safe return home. And so following the mighty Streel River toward the south the companions reached Darokin City only a couple of days later.

Farewell to Karnus

Thanks to Adriana's political influence (chiefly, her ability to access the coffers of the Karameikan Embassy) it was in Darokin’s capital that the party was treated to rest and relaxation at the most affluent and luxurious of the local inns. The companions indulged in a spot of shopping in the great market (which included Lana replacing Karnus's water-repelling robes, which she had rendered non-magical by experimenting with a mystery magical item acquired in the course of one of the party’s past adventures).

The blue-robed mage announced that he and his dryad apprentice wood take their leave of the party to strike out in the direction of Glantri, far to the north. Mention of the Principalities sent shivers along the spines of cleric and dwarf, while Lana's eyebrows rose despite her curiosity about the land known to be ruled by Wizard-Princes. Karnus would be in his element in such company, she knew, and would likely return a changed individual. Karnus informed the party that he would reconnoitre the locale by enrolling at the Great School of Magic in Glantri City, before sending word as to whether his companions should follow. After all, Vasily would soon be commanded to travel to Boldavia, within the Glantrian borders, to rescue a missing artefact for the Church of Traladara. Karnus seemed unswayable from this course of action, thus a fond (and hopefully temporary) farewell was bid to the party's male magic-user at the City docks.

The Elemental ... Vasily to the rescue!

The remaining party-members waved farewell from their ship, watching the blue and green forms of their friends blend and disappear into the milling throng of cityfolk. Scarcely moments later a cry of alarm went up, accompanied by sounds of splintering wood, and all present turned their heads to gaze far upstream. There, at the upper end of the river, an eight-foot tall tidal wave could be seen sweeping downstream and obliterating any objects in its path. Lana decided she would try to tackle this threat. Spreading her arms wide she summoned a vortex in the river between her craft and the oncoming menace. The waters churned and an identical tidal wave formed under Lana’s control. She deduced the foe to be an uncontrolled water elemental. Could this too be one of the freakish monsters which had randomly appeared inside Darokin... or followed the river from somewhere else?

Lana mentally commanded her elemental to engage its foe, and the two waves collided. The bond between Lana and her summoning strained as she became aware of the anger and power behind the enemy elemental. Her grasp on the spell waned, and she watched in dismay as her summoning was torn to pieces, soon dissipating into a layer of foam floating on the waters of the Streel river.

Noting this failure, and realising his own clerical abilities could provide a satisfactory resolution to the threat, Vasily stepped forward and began a prayer to Halav. As the rogue elemental drew to within feet of the party's boat, there came a sound like a thunder clap and the elemental's form appeared to implode, sending a spray of foam in all directions. Moments later the surface of the Streel River resumed its calm.

The remainder of the journey to Specularum would, with any luck, prove uneneventful.

To Be Concluded!

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