Al, speaking in gnomish, thanked and introduced the party to the gnome that had led us away to apparent safety. The language he used in reply was slightly odd – Al recognised it as being from a group of gnomes that live underground. The gnome offered us healing, and led us along a passageway. We were unable to tell whether or not the passageway was natural or gnome-made, due to the overgrowth of fungus. We asked the gnomes how they keep safe from the troglodytes, and they say they have several forms of defence – some magic, the rock troll, etc.
There was a pulsing feeling from all around us… almost like something breathing very slowly. Cog and Maul noticed that they felt especially aware of the whole party. And Maul noticed… something else, too. The rest of us could feel calming vibes coming from Maul. We passed another large troll, also with fungal growths, just watching us, and on we walked into a larger cavern, with quite a lot of little gnomes (30-40), huts carved out of mushrooms, clothes made from mushroom skins.
All the gnomes were bald – except the really old ones – and rather timid. They appeared to be curious, but not there to harm us. Maul then explained to us that she had noticed that we are sharing thoughts, and that the old gnomes don’t have hair – it’s fungus. Perhaps we should not stay here for too long. The gnomes seemed to behave with an unusually common purpose… almost as if they are of – literally – one mind. We could feel a large presence, but it was not clear what. Was the fungus sentient? Al greeted all the surrounding gnomes, and thanked them for welcoming us into their home. They ALL replied, in unison, that we were welcome here.
That was just a little creepy.
One of the gnomes came forward, and began speaking to us in broken common (although she tried dwarvish first) with occasional words of deep gnome thrown in… words that we found inexplicably much easier to guess than we usually would.
She asked if we came from the surface, we said we had, and she mentioned that there were earlier visitors from the surface – the second of which was Floriane. About 18 sporings ago (however long that is). She asked if we’re looking for Floriane, and we say that we’re looking for a weasel. Since the telepathic connection was becoming somewhat obvious by this point, to explain what we were looking for, Maul thought really hard about what a dire weasel looks like. The gnome said that there was something like that in the area… near the troglodytes. We asked for some help in finding the weasel, and she proposed that we could come to an arrangement… but first she needed to speak with their leader. She then walked about ten feet away, sat on a toadstool and meditated.
Al decided that having a sleep was the best option, and did so – there were convenient gnome-sized beds – and had some seriously weird dreams: she felt that she was in a gigantic forest with no up or down, a warm glow, a feeling of nourishment and growth. In the distance, something conflicted, hostile. Huge plants fighting a great slow battle against each other, trying to steal the sunlight and nutrients from others.
While Al slept, the gnomes offered Cog some fungus for healing and for food (we couldn’t really tell which was which, but the gnomes seemed to know). After a while and with help from the gnomes, everyone was fully healed. Maul was verging on paranoid about the fungus, putting a wet cloth over her nose & mouth. Mel chatted to the gnome children, and offered them some flatgoat, which they received with appropriate puzzlement. The children appeared to have limited options for fun, but don’t seem to mind.
On thinking about where we’d found ourselves, Cog considered that one of the problems with large dungeons tends to be the food chain: not a lot of nutrition naturally comes into caves. But this section of the caverns seems to produce even more than it consumes. It’s possible that it is even the ultimate source of much of this dungeon’s food.
The party figured out that the previous visitors had been Kristian and Floriane, and that we were in the presence of a very large, sentient fungus. The older gnomes seem to be halting of mind, slow to think, gaps in speech… and there just aren’t very many of them.
Cog learned that there are a few other communities of gnomes around… but none with the kinship to “the master” that our current hosts have. Their people had fled into the caves a long time ago; the caves were very dangerous, but eventually they had found the area where the master lives. Thereupon they had made a… friendship? Symbiosis? An arrangement, with the master. "We serve the master, and the master protects us. When we are old, and our time is come, we go out into the caves…” It seems the old gnome finds something fierce which could be used to defend their colony, and then… they get eaten. Thus allowing the fungus to take over the creature which has eaten them.
After we had all slept, the spokesgnome returned to us. She had spoken with the Master: “we believe we can assist you in finding the weasel, and would like a favour in return”. Al helped Mel armour up. Taking advantage of our group cognitive ability, Cog watched through Al’s eyes… which Mel could also see. She flexes. Cor!
The favour the gnomes ask in return: they would like assistance in dealing with the troglodytes. Because troglodytes seem immune to the overtaking effect of the fungus, the gnomes can’t neutralise them with a walking fungus-bomb like they do trolls. Normally they’re still ok, but once in a while there is a demonic leader born into the troglodytes, and there has been just such a leader born: Slaugh-grack? Which we’d heard the troglodytes chanting. And that seems to cause problems.
Despite how we would like to see ourselves, we are still too puny to take on the troglodytes as we are… but the gnomes can help with that, if we’ll follow. We do so, and the brightness grows… we find our personalities bleeding into each other. Eventually it gets overwhelming, but then dims as we continue. We’re not as close as we were – distinct personalities – it’s dark, but it feels “like we’re wearing someone else’s clothes”.
Al comes to her senses, opens her eyes, and can see three rock trolls opening their eyes. The other three members of the part can each see two rock trolls… and a slug. I’m a slug! But I’m a HUGE slug.
The spokesgnome returns: “I hope you find these bodies appropriate”.
So these are bodies of monsters which elderly gnomes have sacrificed themselves to be eaten by, in turn allowing the fungus to control and subdue the monsters… but they still don’t have the level of control they’d need to go attack the troglodytes, which is why they need us to pilot the bodies for this sortie. Next-level meat-puppeteering! Well, this will be interesting…