Shipwrecked... up the river without a paddle... burned out on boating... that pretty much described the situation. Our boat was a total loss, as well as everything we'd left with it. No sense dragging everything we have up the hill to camp, right? So most of it was left behind with the boat. To burn. Nice barbeque.
But we did have some decent tracks heading downriver a ways: a trail to follow.
But it quickly disappeared. We followed our tormenters downriver for maybe a mile or three and then the trail just abruptly went poof. It was as if they just disappeared directly into the river. No clue where they actually went. Flying? Sailing? Swimming? Shapechanging? Its anyone's guess. So we continued in the same direction, downriver, on the logic that either we run into something or we hit the coast and continue with our primary mission. Either one would be good.
Several days trudging downriver. Along the way we find an awesome stretch of shallows that would make a good ford. But no tracks or trails. Until we're at least half a week downriver, and then Demeyo spots it: a weedy little trail heading due south away from the river and into the underbrush. A real "what the frack" moment for us. Naturally, we followed it.
Due south into the rolling hills and woods, mile after mile, the trail gets wider and more recognisable until it is clear we're on an obvious well-travelled path. When did that happen? Dunno, but lets get off it. We decided to dogleg out a few hundred yards to the southeast and then try to parallel the direction the trail seemed to head in before doglegging back to the southwest to maybe intersect it. Seemed like a bright idea, and nobody was keen on marching along blisfully unaware on a blazed trail that could be well travelled by individuals we'd prefer to encounter on our own terms.
But our new path offered us a new vantage into the woods, and up ahead in the distance we saw a shimmering light. No, wrong song. It was a thin wispy trail of smoke up into the sky, miles off, that just happened to catch the light or the shadow or something because almost all of us saw it. Now we had something to walk towards! Trudging through the underbrush, trying to close on this wisp of smoke in the distance, we ended up crossing a trail (perhaps the same one as before) obliquely. Lack of compass, GPS, and satnav really makes it tough to guesstimate this stuff.
Suddenly! The woods... DISAPPEARED! We entered... a clearing. We entered a dimension of sight and sound. A clearing, around a lake, with an island, and a castle filling 99.99% of the island right down to the water, and SMOKE coming from somewhere inside of the castle.
One wispy trail of smoke. For a decent sized castle.
I'm really not sure how we got talked into this, but for some odd reason our first reaction was to assume that the inhabitants would be friendly, receptive, habla ingles, and have hot food. So Reuben stood on the shore and waved his arms to get their attention. Demeyo disappeared around this time to do some swimming with a water-breathing spell.
For his efforts, they shot arrows at him and tried to turn him into a shish-kebob. I don't think he was amused. Then we heard drums, drums, drums from deep in the castle. Or maybe it was a horn. Yeah, I'm sure it was a horn not drums. The gate, a portcullis right down on the waterline, opened and a barge started heading out. Meanwhile we're hiding in the woods like rabbits.
Maybe this is all a big misunderstanding. Surely diplomacy and reason can rule!
We waited. The barge-people used magic to create a huge thick rolling fog. The barge got closer. The mist expanded. We retreated out of the mist, stood around, Reuben and I both buffed some defensive spells on me, and I tried to diplomatically explain that we came in peace.
LUUUCY! Youse gots some esplainin' to do!
I don't think my efforts were well recieved. I think we stumbled into the same back of idiots that torched the boat and tried to cripple Freddy. Come to think of it, did we ever head Freddy from last time? I think we just put him in my pack with some food and asked him to heal naturally. Just concussion damage, right?
It ended up a crazy fight in the woods. Piecing it together from after action reports we were on a north-south trail facing northwards, roughly, give or take a few points of of the compass, towards the lake. Our assailants disembarked from their barge and circled to attack us from the east out of the woods. There were 4 of them, described in hindsight as 2 mages and 2 warriors. Well, 2 who fought primarily with spells and 2 who fought primarily with melee. I never saw more than 1 warrior and 1 mage, maybe 2. Hard to tell.
It was a rough fight, but not too bad. Winterlion was really carving up one of the warriors with his eversharp ginsu bastard sword. I got started on a bit of a wizards' duel with one of the mages, but then abruptly they broke off the fight and ran like scared little children. Thats a tactic I wish we'd have used more often in the past.
While Reuben was busy chasing them down through the woods, I spent about a minute repetetively casting 'Dispe Essence" with no effect. Until finally, I dispelled the fog. Woot! But just as I dispelled the fog, Reuben had bluffed his way onto the boat as everyone was escaping and had fooled them, at least temporarily, as accepting him as a crewman. He was busy infiltrating like a spy when my dispel ruined his cover. Sorry, Reuben. Didn't know. That looked to get ugly. I tried to fireball the boat, but couldn't heft the range and the spell fizzled. I tried to cover his escape with a firewall, but again I couldn't heft the range and had to cancel the spell mid-cast. It was a bad day to be a fire elementalist. Demeyo was able to rescue Reuben because his waterbreathing spell was still in effect. Pretty cool stuff.
Night, we camped. Elise & Demeyo went back to scout a bit. Matt the Knife had swam to the castle earlier and was holed up outside of the wall. The three of them had a little side adventure with some scouting, and returned with some bleeding. Matt apparantly almost died, but this all happened while I was supposedly on watch back at camp and I didn't even catch a whiff of them leaving.
So I'm thinking now as we ponder attacking these people...
We're linking the attack back at the hillfort and this attack on the basis of:
1. the signal flare spell
2. the icebolts
Is there a link between these fellows and the necromancer(s) who made the zombies we fought? Is there a link between these fellows and the demonologists who formed that ritual and sent 21 disguised demons into the Margrave's court? Are all three incidents from the same source? They don't have to be.
Obviously this crowd is attracted to spellcasting. We attracted their attention at the hillfort by our magic, we attracted their attention outside their castle with our magic, the demon summoning or the zombifying could also have attracted their attention. That seems pretty obvious. So we could be dealing with 2-3 seperate groups. Or this might be all the same group.
As we broke off last time we were starting to formulate an awesome master plan for an assault on this keep. But I can't help but think that maybe, just maybe, this is all one group. They can do some direct damage elemental spells, we've seen zombies, and we've seen demon summoning. Could we be walking into a viper-pit of all three inside the castle? We have a rough count of 11-12 defenders. Living defenders. Thats all we've seen, and the one wispy smoke trail from a cookfire or kitchen seems consistent with that. A dozen defenders. But what about defenders that don't eat, like undead or demons? What else could we be getting ourselves in for.
Maybe instead what we need is a plan to lure them out in the open, away from the keep, and then go back into the keep to find the demons and zombies.