Spacer Trapped in a World They Never Made352
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    The Minotaur's people were hard at work stripping gnoll corpses of armor and chucking the bodies into the sludge pools. We showed them around the various defenses, which they would want to leave in place to better maintain the illusion that the tree remained occupied by her forces.
    Then we headed up again, this time with the commander and a couple of almost-identical elven men he'd brought with him; they didn't talk much, but one of them kept eyeing me. Passing the mound in the wall brought us at last to the level of the branch we still had not been to yet, and a number of doors.
    Scott looked behind one and found... nothing. Odd. "Doesn't seem to go anywhere."
    "I don't trust this worth a damn," the commander said.
    "Neither do it. I can't see any traps, but I would assume it would be trapped to heck and gone. You got Detect Magic on you today?" he asked me.
    "Yes. There's something back there."
    "We're just gonna leave that door shut," the commander decided. We worked our way around to the door leading onto the raven's branch. There was a room there, blocked off by a thin wire mesh and a half-door, with a lever on one side. Inside were a rather large number of giant rats. Throwing the lever opened a door further in, letting a single rat into a small interstice. The commander thumped it on the head and tossed it to the raven, which gave us a baleful look but seemed content with its snack.
    We crossed the rope bridge and were back on familiar territory.
    In passing, "Don't look in the pool."
    The commander nodded a lot and muttered to himself, figuring how many people of what kind were supposed to be here under normal circumstances.
    "What did you do to the spider?" he wanted to know as we passed through the mushroom chamber.
    "It bit me," I replied casually.
    "Your blood does that?"
    "That would be the wrath of Tempest."
    My admirer kept his eyes strictly to himself after that.
    More figuring, more counting. The elves studied the bodies, fixing gnollish features in their minds.
    "You ripped this guy's heart out!"
    "Oh, that was me," Talon admitted.
    "You would not believe the time we had killing these guys," I informed them tersely.
    "And here's the cleric," Talon directed them.
    "Make sure you know what she looks like," the commander ordered. "Did the other one look like her? The one that took a header?"
    "All gnolls kind of look alike to me," I shrugged.
    "We do what we can. So now what, you can talk to the dead?"
    "Yeah. You only get six questions though, so think about it for a while."
    "Is it a waste of a question to ask about the composting?" Talon wondered.
    "What about the composting? It's how the tree got big," the commander shrugged.
    "Your standard evil horticulture," I supposed.
    "It's not evil, we've been doing it for centuries."
    "It seems to have backed up by the way," Scott told him, giving directions to the water room--
    "That's supposed to be the well!"
    "There was something over it, they capped it with something jelly-like, if you broke it, it forced water up."
    "So you broke it?"
    "By accident," I confessed.
    "So we have a well again."
    And a compost room, it appeared. We discussed questions to ask the dead gnoll. Phrasing is important when you talk to unfriendly dead; they can and will mislead you. We already knew that Gretchen scried the place, and that she could not read thoughts at a distance. We did need to know if they planned to restore the withdrawn troops.
    "I think the gentlemen left behind in the city will be able to keep them busy," Scott said; he can't smile, but sometimes it sounds like he is.
    Once we had our questions, "This is going to to take me a while," I told the others, kneeling down beside the body. Her body was intact enough for the spell to take hold, but she wasn't in good shape.
    "Whhaaaat?" came the hissing response after some time.
    "We have some questions for you."
    "How does Gretchen normally contact you?"
    "Couriers," the gnoll hissed.
    I frowned, annoyed with myself; too vague. "Does she contact you via magic?"
    "Who is normally present when she does so?"
    "Whomever she wishes to speak with...."
    "Who is present when she looks from afar?"
    "My sissster and I. Our pack leaders."
    Good. "How many pack leaders?"
    I glanced at the commander to see if he had more. "Are you expecting the troops she has withdrawn to return?"
    "The troops alwaysss return."
    "In your face, dead bitch," Talon remarked smugly.
    The commander did some more adding up. "Do you guys have that?" he asked the elves, who nodded.
    "How are you guys planning on doing this, anyway?" I asked. The two gave us all that smug, inscrutable look we're so good at.
    "Illusion?" Scott guessed.
    They looked less smug.
    "These two and their other brother are all experts at generating phantasms," the commander told us. "We should be able to produce enough of an artificial reality here. It means putting three of our key assets inside this base until such time as we're about to make the attack, in order to maintain this on a once every twenty-four hour basis, but...."
    "But it gives you the place back," Scott concluded.
    "Exactly. That's the important thing. Assuming we can hunt down and kill all the gnolls that made it out into the woods. Are any of you trackers?"
    "Our tracker is unfortunately in Harborview."
    "We would appreciate your support regardless."
    We would, of course, be happy to help.
    Before sunset, we gathered again in the high chamber; it was easier for the illusionists to cover existing people than to create them from scratch. For a time there were gnolls everywhere, slaves being whipped, a giant spider lurking; we were duly impressed.
    Then Samantha tapped one of the mages on shoulder. "It's done. It worked. I don't believe that worked!"
    At least, we were going to have to assume it had worked, while remaining ready for anything....

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© 2003 Rebecca J. Stevenson