Sage was missing.
After the eagle (still as yet unnamed) had eaten all their meat rations, the kender had offered to head out into the wilderness and hunt them up some game. Being a ranger, that was a reasonable enough propositon, and although the kender had never had to do it before since they were usually within a couple of days of a built-up area, it was good to know that someone with survival skills was on the case. Besides, even if Sage couldn’t find any meat, it wasn’t the end of the world. Odate could pray up some nourishing gruel. This was more about morale than it was nutrition.
But the sun had gone down, and Sage hadn’t come back. Then a couple of hours had passed into the night, and Sage still hadn’t come back. Something was wrong. Sage wouldn’t normally disappear for this length of time. Yes, she might get distracted by things she thought were pretty and cool, but she was as likely to run back to camp and tell them all about it as anything. And there were ankhegs and tigers and stuff out there. So just to be sure, the party sent Hunter and Odate to track the kender down, while Ashana and Reichstag stayed with Soncho back at the camp.
It wasn’t long before Hunter and Odate got their answer. Sage had clearly gone out hunting, but couldn’t find any game. Hunter thought this unsurprising – there was a large bird of prey in the camp that was likely keeping away vermin and anything that felt threatened by its presence. They followed the footsteps, and eventually found them crossing with the wheels of a cart, the hooves of an ox, and the round, suctiony tracks of a myconid. This made absolutely no sense – why would there be a slave caravan out in the middle of the wilderness like this? No-one lived out here! Why would the myconids be trafficking slaves to the swamp mountains? And yet the tracks didn’t lie.
They did, however, grow colder with every passing moment. The two headed back to camp and let the rest of the party know what had happened, and pressed on them the urgency of action. The cart would move at about their pace, given the goblin, and that meant they would never catch it if they didn’t pick up the pace. Perhaps if they marched all night they could catch up the caravan and clear up this mess.
However, that was without taking into account the cripplingly slow hopping of the massive eagle with the equally massive paralysed wing. Odate had told them that by his estimation the wing should be fine by morning, but they needed to get moving now. Moreover, the eagle was asleep, and seemed very reticent to be disturbed. It was really enjoying its little kip, and it was well into the night now, when such a bird would normally sleep. But Ashana was loathe to leave it behind, and they didn’t have a good way of communicating with it, especially without waking it. It wasn’t like the eagle could read a note. So Ashana reached down to her belt, took her eating knife, and raised it to her head. With one smooth stroke, she cut her long, black hair from her hand, and left it in the direction they would go. Surely the eagle could figure that out, and with its newly working wing, could come after them.
And so they ran into the night, pulling Breakfast with them. It quickly became apparent that if they kept up this pace, Reichstag was going to be exactly useless when they arrived, so they ended up loading him into the packmule and distributing the rest of its gear between the other party members. It was a long slog, and hard. It was dark. They were tired. But Sage was relying on them, and they would not leave anyone behind. Even Soncho was prepared to take up this marathon effort – which for the humans at least was not as huge an effort, since they were only moving at half their normal pace anyhow. But as the hours rolled on and sleep was deprived them, everyone began to suffer. Reich’s eyes were bleary. Ashana’s legs faltered at least once – unsurprising given the weight of her armour. Odate flagged, and his face grew long with the wearying trek. But Hunter was the one that suffered most. He vomited more than once at the exertion, and more than once they had to ask if he wanted to stay behind and catch them up. But each time he shook his head, stood up again, and kept going. For Sage.
When the sun finally rose, everyone felt that twist in their stomach that told them they were going to pay for the lack of sleep, and soon. But they were also rewarded with a vision of the caravan on the edge of the horizon. It was still miles away – it must have been moving slowly all night – but they could make it. They had to. So they kept on pushing. When they got within identifiable range of the cart, they began to fall apart. Soncho was huffing and puffing and clutching his chest – he wasn’t an old man, but he was also not an athletic one. Ashana and Hunter pushed themselves, and very nearly came up empty. Odate went forward more slowly, but grimly, quietly determined. And Reich, who hadn’t walked all night thanks to Breakfast, was able to put in a good effort to make the trip. They arrived at the cart in dribs and drabs, and given what happened next, it would be fair to say that their memory of things was more than a little blurry for them afterwards.
There were some definities though: Sage was in the caravan; the myconid claimed Sage had sold herself into slavery, and that Sage was not for sale; the myconid attacked them, and they killed it. Hunter would probably remember more – apparently he had been immune to the crazy spores of the mushroom man – but he was also nearly catanonic from sleeplessness afterwards, and that did its own damage. What they clearly knew was that the bird had come and saved them, swooping the myconid and distracting it; and that there were charred bits of it all over the place, so Reich had probably ended up magicking it to death.
They then must have freed the kender from the slave cart, because they had later ended up with about ten other freed slaves as well – about half were elves, and the other half pretty elvish-looking humans. They had likewise been under some sort of fiendish spell or spore from the myconid slave trader to keep them passive, which had thankfully not worked on the whole of the party, or else they would most likely have shared Sage’s unknown future fate.
So things were fuzzy around the myconid. But there was a lot more clarity around when Kensaku and his crew arrived. Apparently, they had seen the combat going on some ways away, and so approached to see what was going on. What they found was Soncho Aretz and his companions: the very person Kensaku was competing against to find the new gift first. Now, normally the party would have ponied up and stood their ground. These mercenaries were pretty dirty, after all. But after a lot of posturing and some snarky comments each way, two things were clear. One, no-one really wanted to fight. On the party’s side, they were exhausted and weak, and also marginally outnumbered (sure, they had a bunch of slaves, but they were unarmed, half-naked and also weak). But on Kensaku’s side, while he had a good number of mercenaries, the party had a very angry looking large eagle, and he probably just couldn’t be sure that a rogue arrow or a peck from that beak might not just find him and end his wandering sage career before it truly began. That wasn’t a risk he was prepared to take unless he was sure he could get his mercenaries to kill all these people without suffering in return.
Two, Kensaku had pretty excellent blackmail material. These people had just killed a myconid. If word of that got out, they would never be able to buy anything in a city again. Certainly not from another myconid, but probably not even from anyone who traded with myconids either. They were the master traders, and few could afford to be on their bad side. With that tasty little tidbit of information on his lips, Kensaku could simply turn his back and walk away, telling them not to bother following. Perhaps going home in failure was better than trying. No-one in the party was really sure they wanted myconids as enemies. Enemies was the one thing that they had in spades.
Oh, that and freed slaves. They had a whole bunch of them. Not a lot of food to feed them with, or stuff to give them, but the newly freed elves and humans were certainly there, with absolutely no idea how to get home.