The Cat & The Rapids
With feet turing over my head and a mouth full of river water, I tumbled down the churning rapids. I couldn’t hear or see anything except crashing water. There was a sharp tug as Anastasia tried to yank me back onto the land. How had she already caught up to me? By Lathander, that girl can swim.
My cloak came loose in her hand but it was enough to alter my course. I crashed into the riverbank. It was full of sharp edges and thorns, but still preferable to plummeting over a waterfall.
I crawled out of the river and wiped the water off of my face, my armor heavy and water-logged. That’s when I saw the giant cat.
It was a monster of a feline, a Dire Lion I think. Stargrove and Anastasia must have been fighting with it while I was trying to escape the river. Its shoulder was smoking and charred. There were gashes across its face and a sticky weblike resin swathed its hind legs.
The lion was twice as tall as Stargrove and was batting at him with it’s massive paw. The ranger ducked under a blow and lashed out with a handaxe. The cat knocked the weapon aside and sank her teeth into Stargrove’s thigh. It lifted the warrior off the ground and tossed him into the river.
I drew my cutlass and charged at the beast, swirling my blade in an intricate pattern, better suited for a duel. None the less my cutlass slashed upward crossing its side, then once again as it came down across its chest. The animal cried out in pain and swept its heavy paw in my direction, just as I darted to its right to reposition myself. As my feet slid to a hult my eyes narrowed on the broad side of the large beast in front of me. I felt a powerful force swelling in my chest and instinctively I raised my hand. To my surprise the large cat was thrown across the river bank and into the tree line. I expected it to turn back for another attack but it instead dashed deeper int the forest to escape.
I breathed a sigh of relief and sheathed my sword when an arrow whizzed past. There was a yelp and the animal fell. I turned. Stargrove was on one knee, his longbow in hand.
“Why kill it? It was running away,” I asked.
The ranger put the bow back over his shoulder. He gave me a confused look. “We hurt it and it knew our scent. I didn’t want it tracking us or coming after us in the night.”
Something doesn’t sit right with me about that, but I let it go. The ranger pulled out a hunting knife and went to examine the downed cat, I expect, to make use of some of its parts.
Anastasia strode out of the water, clutching three squirming silvery fish. “I got us lunch,” she said at my bewildered stare.
“Water's kinda' my thing," she shrugged.
The Old Man & His Trinket
We made camp under the boughs of a willow tree. The curtain of green leaves offered us some shelter. Bedrolls laid out. A fire started. Anastasia cleaned and cooked the fish. I hung my leathers from a branch nearby hoping the heat from the campfire would dry them.
As we ate a figure carrying a lantern approached. We readied our weapons, jumpy from the early encounter but it ended up being a kindly Gnome.
He carried a large walking staff. Wore a leather vest, and a simple pack. Mushrooms spilling out his pockets as he told us his name was Juniper. He lived nearby and invited us over.
Juniper's stone cottage was modest. We sat on mismatched furniture surrounded by shelves of glass jars full of pickles and jams. In front of the hearth was a fur rug that resembled one of the Dire Lions we had encountered earlier.
Juniper slid his staff into a notch in the floorboard that held it upright. He then hung his oil lantern from it. twisting a nozzle to lower the flame to a pleasant glow. It was comfortable and I’d be lying if I was to say I was not tempted to fall asleep right there in that cozy chair. The pillows were goose feathers or something similar.
The gnome spread blackberry jam on hot toasted bread. He asked about our travels as he passed slices to us.
Stargrove told a confusing story that circled in on itself and then stopped. “I am out of the practice of social niceties and civilized conversation, “ he said. Clearly this was true.
“We’re on a quest from the Magician Sallos.” I told Juniper. “We’re looking for a gnome in these parts who’s borrowed something from him. Does that describe anyone you might know?”
Both of my companions' faces dropped. I guess I shouldn’t have been so forward.
Juniper passed off the last piece of toast and sighed. He reached in the small satchel on his back and pulled out another jam jar, this time the glass container was filled with small pale crystals. The gnome quick covered his eyes and smashed the jar over the hearth which exploded in flash of bright light and smoke. I shielded my eyes. Juniper darted out the front door, heading towards the wood.
“You might have tipped our hand too early,” Anastasia said.
“I saw no reason to lie,” I told her as I leaped to my feet and dashed out the door.
“Hurumph,” said the dragon born as he threw open the window and drew his bow.
“I guess that IS him,” Anastasia proffered. "That would've been a reason to lie."
"We don't mean you any harm," I yelled, as I followed Juniper.
“No harm! Ha!” The gnome scoffed. “If you’re coming from the wizard you mean harm. He wants me dead if he wants anything.”
"All he wants is his trinket back." I said. I still didn't know what the trinket was.
“His trinkets, feh.” Juniper said. “He makes these trinkets but at what cost? There is so much harm to me if I give it back.”
“We cannot let you leave. We need to return it” Stargrove said from inside. “Everyone seems to need something from someone and we need this to find a friend of ours.” He notched an arrow.
The four of us now faced off just outside the small cabin in the woods.
“Fine” Juniper looked more defeated and sad than angry. He drew a line in the dirt then reached beneath his vest to yank off a cord necklace with a stone ornament attached to it. He threw the necklace down behind the line he had etched in the sand.“You’ll have to come and take it then.”
His body started to bend and twist and grow. Black feathers sprouted from his flesh. His nose stretched outward, ripping apart to make way for a dull grey beak that pushed out from his skull. His hands bent and distorted, each began to morph into single barbed hooks.
Stargrove released his arrow.
“No!” I screamed
The monster that used to be Juniper shrieked when the arrow sunk into its stomach. It pushed past me and charged at Stargrove scraping and wailing.
Two more arrows loosed form the rangers bow and a brilliant arcane light erupted from Anastasia’s quarterstaff. By the time the bright flare from anistatian subsided the beast was already on the forest floor smoking and incapacitated.
With the beast, unconscious Anastasia returned the trinket to the thing’s neck. It writhed and convulsed until it transformed back into the battered gnome Juniper. He was now covered in bruises. We brought him back inside and tied him until the morning.
When the sun rose the next day we spoke to the now conscious gnome, and after some persuading he shared his story.
As it turns out young Juniper had stolen from a witch. She cursed Juniper for his crime, turning him into a Hook Horror. He traveled the land as a monstrosity for years before coming across the wizard Sallos. The mage recognized Juniper for what he was and took pity on him. Creating the magical trinket allowed Juniper to return to his gnome form.
As a payment Sallos asked that Juniper elimnate an old wizard who was a rival of Sallos. Juniper agreed but when the time came he felt pity for the wizard and couldn't do it. Instead,, he let the mage live. Juniper fled into the forest to live in hiding, fearful that one day Sallos would come to collect. And here we were.
“We cannot take it now that we know it will turn the gnome into a monster against his will,” I said.
“I disagree,” Stargrove said. “We made an agreement with this Sallos. Juniper's tale illustrates what happens to those who don't keep their promises to him.”
The water genasi agreed. “We have to take it. More is at stake than the life of one gnome. Umm. No offense Juniper.”
“Fine. We go back to Sallos but we bring Juniper with us. We argue for letting him keep the item that allows him to remain himself.” I say.
“No. My life is forfeit if I go to Sallos. He will kill me as soon as he sees me. I'd rather stay a monster.” the bound gnome said as he stared blankly at the wall.
The Dragonborn ranger nodded in agreement “It is done then. Too much depends on this for us to dally longer. Lead us back to the river and then we will take the item and be off.”