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    Concentrating on the upper reaches of the trees, Scott found no windows or doors until he came to the first branching, where four limbs split off at roughly equal height, two of them joined by a rope bridge; each of those two branches appeared to have a door leading into the tree. He moved higher but found nothing else beyond a couple of birds' nests. Rather large ones.
    The three of us found a good place hiding place about a half mile from the tree, staying in vapor form--the spell would last until shortly after sunset. A trail ran through the woods near our tree; late that afternoon we saw a couple of gnolls on their wargs riding back toward the tree. They barked and grunted at one another, oblivious to our presence.
    An hour before sunset there was more noise, this time from the direction of the big tree. We saw four slaves being led by a pair of gnolls, moving along the trail into the woods. The slaves were packing bags full of fallen leaves, twigs, and branches.
    "Unholy mulching?" I murmured, bemused.
    "Yes, but if Gretchen is mulching it's not good," Talon muttered.
    "It's the compost of EVIL," Scott affirmed.
    I drifted down to keep an eye on them. One of the slaves fell behind; a gnoll lashed him with a flail. The slave fell to one knee, tried to stand, fell again. The gnoll hit him again, the other one barking something to the other slaves, who dropped the sacks and had no choice but to watch their companion killed.
    We could do nothing; it takes several minutes to end the Wind Walk spell, and by then it was far too late. The remaining slaves started to pick up their deceased companion; the gnolls barked at them; they tried carrying their three sacks and the body, to more barking, then all four sacks as well as the body, and finally resorted to dismembering the corpse and putting it into the bags. After which they all trekked back to the tree and vanished inside.
    The sun set.
    We moved. Phoenix Talon and I went up to the rope bridge to attempt entrance that way; once inside we would work our way down until we found the person we were looking for; meanwhile, Scott would create a distraction down below. He's good at that. He's also immune to most normal weapons, so we weren't too worried about splitting up, though we would have felt better with Thunderbolt along.
    Talon and I went up to the rope bridge, avoiding the anchor branch that held the nest (which contained two massive eggs), and I dismissed the Wind Walk. Phoenix Talon disappeared--he does that. [Phoenix Talon has a +30 Hide skill. He rolled a 20.] I hid as best I could, which was not nearly as well of course. We could see the door into the tree, set in about five feet from the outer bark.
    A screeching heralded the approach of the nest's inhabitant--a monstrously large raven. We kept an eye on it and Phoenix Talon crept over to the door, where he listened intently. He could make out someone groaning and crying for food.
    "I hope they're slaves and not ravenous zombies," he sighed, and opened the door. It was not locked, just slightly stuck, no doubt to keep it from blowing open in the winds. I remained where I was as he slipped within, keeping the door barely open, until he beckoned for me to join him. The raven noticed me moving and cawed harshly, flapped over in my direction. I dashed for the door; the enormous black shape swooped past me, the wind from its wings almost buffeting me from the branch. I dove inside, and Talon shut the door. It made a clicking sound as it locked; we would deal with that later.
    A corridor lay before us; it continued straight for a short distance then turned to the right and began sloping up, following the curve of the tree. Loud groans and cries echoed down it toward us.
    Scott observed that the slaves continued working after dark, and went looking for the woodpecker holes Talon had reported. In passing he disturbed... something, rather like a mad hybrid of a raven and a mosquito. They poked quizzical heads out of their nests and screeched at one another before concluding that the invading fog-cloud did not represent food, and going back to sleep. From there, two doors led south and south-west. Scott selected the former and poked a gaseous tendril underneath; darkness, and a ramp going up. Behind the other door was darkness, and a ramp leading down. He went down, just a fog cloud rolling along....
    Through another door. It led into a cavernous room, from which two doors let out into the woods and two others looked like they might lead deeper into the tree. He watched for a few moments, saw a couple of slaves with empty buckets walk up to a hole in the westernmost corner of the room, near one of the doors, lower the buckets down and haul up some sludge, which they carted outside. What the hell? He moved toward the hole, and was halfway there when a couple more slaves entered the tree through the other door with a bucket of water and a bag. They went out again through a door leading south, paying no attention to Scott. Down in the hole, about fifteen feet down, was a layer of sludge. A few moments later came bubbling, gurgling sounds as if someone had dropped something into it from some other adit.
    He took the nearest door; at least there was light here. Twenty feet down it the corridor took a right-hand turn, with a door to his left. He looked under it; very thick, bound with iron and an intricate metal lock. Behind it appeared to be the tree's armory. Interesting.
    Phoenix Talon and I moved cautiously through the near-darkness, up the ramp. After a bit the corridor flattened out a bit, and there we found a human chained to the wall by his wrists and ankles, spread-eagled. Ten feet further on, on the other side, another one.
    "Food... please... help." He was emaciated, clearly near death, and his eyes had a certain mad gleam.
    I snuck over to him and made hushing motions. Phoenix Talon put a hand on his mouth to ensure silence and poured a little water on him; as soon as he was touched the prisoner went slack. The water dribbled down; the man started jerking his head back and forth, trying to reach the water.
    "You going to be quiet?" Talon asked. "I've got some more, just be quiet."
    "Wait, over here! Over here!" the next prisoner shouted.
    "Sh," I hissed. "Quiet."
    "Water, please... help."
    There were more of them around the way, still making quite a bit of noise.
    "Food..." the one Phoenix Talon had begged.
    "Why are you chained up here?" he asked.
    He continued staring as if he did not understand.
    "Guards? Are there guards down there?"
    "Food. Food, please...."
    We would have to come back and help these people later, when we'd cleared out Gretchen's forces; they were in no condition to help us. We continued up the corridor, trying to ignore the screams and wails; no one came to investigate. Eventually the floor began to slope up again, and we passed a door on the left-hand side. Phoenix Talon listened for a moment and murmured to me, "There's somebody sharpening a weapon, then slamming it into something. Probably a sword-tester, or perhaps a chef of some kind."
    Scott glanced around to make sure there was no one approaching, then solidified and spent a few minutes fiddling with the armory's lock. He felt a shocking jolt from the glyph of warding set on it, which did absolutely nothing to his quicksilver form. Behind him a couple of slaves came in, saw a six-foot figure in a dark cloak looming there, and skittered away about their sludge-moving duties; asking questions was not a good survival strategy for people in their position.
    Scott finished with the lock, put it inside the door, returned to mist form and continued down the hall. He figured he was nearing the western limit of the tree, and the corridor now ran north-south with several branches. To the north, beyond a door, was a ramp running down; directly in front of him another ramp running up. He decided that down was good, and then heard motion behind him.
    A quartet of gnolls was coming down the corridor toward him. Scott continued his ground fog impersonation, rolling slowly down the slope. In the middle of him, one gnoll paused.
    "What the hell is this?" He sniffed. "You smell anything?"
    "No. But... oh, my..." The other reached down and tried to scoop some Scott. "Does it smell like shit?"
    "No. I really don't want to have to go through that again."
    "We're lower down. What have they been doing..." The four of them hurried forward to a door and slammed it open.
    "What have you been up to?!"
    Scott followed them into the room. There were some slaves curled into balls, chained together in pairs, around the outside edge of the room. A single gnoll watched over them, along with a very large wolf.
    "Whattayou mean, what have I been doing?" the startled gnoll asked.
    "Not you, them! Where is this coming from? I do not want to have to have them dig another hole!"
    The wolf padded over and stuck his nose into Scott, made a canine shrug; he didn't smell like anything.
    "Well, hell," the gnoll snarled.
    "Where'd it come from?" the room guard asked.
    "It was up there."
    "What, on the ramp?"
    "Yeah, on the ramp. It poured down in here after us."
    "I don't know what it is."
    Obviously, the Revolution's reputation had not yet spread this far.
    "All right, it flowed down here... down there is lower than down here... is it moving?"
    Scott continued his drift in that direction.
    "Well, it seems to be going out on its own...."
    "I think we better tell somebody," the room guard opined.
    "Tell him what? By the time you go get him and come back here, it will be gone. Go ahead, tell him. Yeah, you wanta be a pussy, go ahead."
    The gnoll hesitated in the doorway, encouraged by the jeers of his comrades, as Scott poured slowly out of sight, where he paused. The warg seemed to be snickering.
    "Fine, all right, it's gone. It couldn't have been that big a deal."
    "I was checking to see if there any more...."
    More laugher, more jeering.
    Scott found himself back outside the tree, in the flat area where the slaves worked. Some carried bags of mulch and buckets of water inside, others carried sludge out. He waited until the four gnolls who had followed him down had gone on their way again, into the bowels of the tree, leaving the one who had wanted to go for help and the wolf.
    "We should find a way down," I whispered to Talon, worried that the corridor we were in seemed to lead only up.
    He nodded, one hand on the door handle, swung it open. There was a gnoll alone in a large room. A couple of hand axes lay on the table next to him, where it appeared he had been sharpening them and then throwing them at a wall target. Talon dove into the room and unleashed a flurry of blows and kicks at the startled gnoll. I poked my head around the door, surprised to see him still standing after that, jumped in and whacked at him with my quarterstaff. He blocked the first strike but not the second, which hit him in the throat.
    Talon finished him off with slightly more enthusiasm than I found appropriate--both action and reaction being entirely normal--and we looked around. This appeared to be a personal chamber, well furnished by gnoll standards. Off to one side were two huge casks, one of water, one of gruel, for the prisoners one assumed.
    "Help me put him on the cot."
    "Okay..." We did so.
    "The problem is that when Gretchen starts looking tomorrow, we've got to make sure she doesn't get suspicious, so we have to keep the gnoll corpses in fairly good condition. So it can look like they're just sleeping. This is going to be a problem." This had been a bloodless death, at least. In our search of the room, we also found a large key-chain.
    "Think it's worth untying those guys out there?" Talon asked. "I think they're going to have to wait a while longer. We have a schedule." He bundled up the keys with a length of cord so they wouldn't make too much noise.
    "Still no way down," I observed. "Keep going up."
    We did so. After passing a couple more prisoners we found a female dwarf who wasn't in nearly as bad shape as the rest of them.
    "Did the old man send you?" she asked immediately upon seeing us.

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© 2003 Rebecca J. Stevenson