You check out a book from the Johnson County Library’s Central Branch and head out driving west onto I70. The prairie is beautiful until you notice black clouds coming up behind you. Your engine light comes on, so you take the next exit, a rest stop you don’t remember ever seeing before in which the sign reads, Night Forest 1 mile…
Normally, rest stops along I-70 are swarmed with semitrucks and their sleeping drivers. The smaller stops will at least have one or two trucks parked haphazardly on the gravel parking lot or at least one mini van filled with cross county travelers bickering about what roadside attractions are worth stopping at. The vacancy of this rest stop is not ominous, but is of no comfort either. Still, a check engine light can be pretty serious if not investigated so you pull into the parking lot and park in front of a small, newer building.
You climb out of your car and prop the hood open hoping the issue would be obvious, but aside from some stray leaves, everything looks and smells like a car that has been running should. You are just about to close the hood of your car when you hear the door to the small building get thrown open violently causing you to jump and lose your grip on the hood. The combined sound of the door hitting the exterior wall and the hood crashing down into place sends a wave of anxiety into your stomach.
You quickly turn to see who has burst forth with such gusto and are surprised to see a little girl no older than eight standing with one hand one hand in the front pocket of her muddied jeans and the other still on the door. A strange red insignia was printed on her baggy black t-shirt that was two sizes too big and rippled like waves as the wind blew. The girls eyes drift upward and a malicious smile creeps across her face as the black clouds try to block the sun. You swear you can hear the sound of muffled cracking and popping coming from the girl’s jaw as her grin grows unnaturally wide, revealing a set of sharp canines.
“Your roll on the encounter table resulted in wolves, Adventurer,” the little girl snarls at you and she lets out a howl that echoes across the empty parking lot and back into the Flint Hills behind you. In a flash, the girl leaps up onto your car preventing you from taking shelter inside. Patches of chestnut fur have starting sprouting on her arms and face. “Oh no, Adventurer,” she laughs, “I won’t let you take the easy way out of this.”
Two more kids in the same half-wolf state as the girl come tearing out of the building. Your fight or flight instincts kick in and you turn to start running away. Your parents didn’t raise you to fight children. There is a cluster of trees about 100 yards away with a small house barely visible through the privacy forest. Your best guess is that the kids must live there which means their parents can’t be too far away. Its time to channel your inner Tyreek Hill and run. You take two seconds to look behind at your pursuers and to your utter surprise all you can see is trees.
Suddenly you realize you are kind of lost. It seems really dark for afternoon and you find yourself in a forest. Toto, you for sure aren’t in Kansas anymore. You are thinking of getting back in your car and ignoring the engine light when someone comes up behind you...
Instinctively you turn around with your fists up ready to teach these kids or pups maybe, a lesson for messing with you. Instead you find yourself face-to-face with an actual wolf-man.
“Ope, sorry to startle you like that, Adventurer,” the wolf-man says throwing his hairy hands up. You notice he is wearing a necklace with the same insignia as the one on the girl’s shirt from before. “Humans like yourself find themselves lost in here every now and then so whenever I come across one I like to point them in the right direction.”
“I need to get back to my car,” you manage to spit out while your mind still tries to process the impossible creature standing before you. “And I am being chased by...”
“I’ll stop you there, Asdventurer,” the wolf-man says with a laugh. “Those are my pups and I’ll have to apologize on their behalf. They get bored easily and don’t always make the best decisions. Doctor says they are on the chaotic side of the chart and I blame their mother.”
You look back over your shoulder into the forest behind you expecting to see the pups come crawling out from behind the trees, but the wolf-man grabs you by the shoulders before you can get a good look.
“Hey I have an idea, why don’t you come wait in the house for a bit till the wife gets back from Night Forest and then she can drive you back to your car,” he says excitedly brandishing his sharp teeth.
Not wanting to be rude, or eaten, you halfheartedly agree and start walking with the wolf-man to his house. You make a point to remain vigilant and take mental notes of your surrounds which unfortunately amount to very little other than trees and the occasional squirrel.
You and the wolf-man finally arrive at what looks to be an ordinary farm house.
“I don’t remember catching your name,” you say stopping in front of the steps leading up to the porch. The wolf-man has his hand on the door when he freezes and slowly turns to look at you with his piercing yellow eyes. A sudden shiver of fear crawls down your spine.
“Parents named me Louis, but folks around here just call me Lou,” he replies. All you can do is nod in response as the tension between you and Lou grows uncomfortable.
Somewhere behind you in the forest a twig snaps sending a flock of birds flying off and Lou shifts his gaze from you into the forest. A gentle breeze comes rolling through the clearing and Lou sniffs the air for a minute.
“Is something wrong?,” you ask with an obvious tremor in your voice.
“What is that insignia on your clothes,” Lou asks glaring at your Kansas State University shirt.
“A wildcat,” you say looking down at you shirt and pointing to the mascot.
“My pups were right, you are the enemy. You are Catfolk, and I must destroy you.”
Just when you think things can’t get any stranger, the rain and lightning start, the sky turns greenish yellow, and you hear strange winds whistling like a train coming. You don’t panic. You try to remember what to do from scout camp, back in the day. You are deciding between hiding under an enormous pine tree or laying down in a ditch you see up ahead, which you distinctly remember is for lightning or tornadoes (and at this point you could be in danger of both). You are leaning toward making a break for the pine tree in the hopes you could also climb it should Lou find you when you notice two things: a small cave in a little green hill to your west and a hot air balloon parked on top of it with no one inside. You immediately run to...
The cave to seek shelter from the coming storm. Trying to operate a hot air balloon with no experience is one thing, but to try and do it during a storm with no experience is a death wish.
The hill you have stumbled across is void of trees which leads you to believe that someone cleared the area themselves for the soul purpose of parking their hot air balloon there. You stop at the tree line to try and scope out the area, but the heavy rain fall is making impossible to see if anyone is around. A web of lightning crawls across the sky followed by an enormous clap of thunder that shakes the ground. Even if there is someone hiding in the cave, dealing with them will be better than standing out in a storm.
The cave smells like your basement back at home which is oddly comforting to you as you press you back against the wall close to the opening and slide down it so you are sitting on the ground. You keep thinking about Lou and the pups. Why did they call you Adventurer? What is an encounter table? What was the weird insignia? What about your car? Are you going to die out here? Before you mind can continue to race with these thoughts, you see what appears to be a lantern light from the back of the cave. There’s also a pair of glowing yellow eyes staring at you.
“You smell vaguely of those dogs living in the forest,” a female’s voice echoes from the back of the cave, “but I can see you are not of their pack.” The eyes and lantern start moving closer to you at the mouth of the cave. Another bright flash of lightening reveals what looks like a silver tabby cat walking towards you on two legs.
“I need to get back to my car,” you say, soon remembering that you said the same thing to Louis and look where that has gotten you.
“Consider yourself lucky, Adventurer,” the silver tabby says setting the lantern down at your feet. “It is not every day you get so lucky with random encounters.”
“Lucky?” you shout, “how can you call me lucky? My engine warning light is on, I have been chased through a forest by what I think are werewolves, and now I am in a cave during a bad storm talking to a bi-pedal cat.” The cat bursts out laughing.
“Werewolves? HA. Dogkin hounds maybe, but Werewolves? Trust me if you had run into a werewolf at your current level, you’d be dead and starting over.”
“Are you going to help me?” you ask the tabby.
“In this rain? No, I am neutral so there’s no obligation for me to help. Dogs are scared of thunder so I wouldn’t waste anymore time.”
You take the tabby’s advise and get moving. You run past the house with no incident and soon can see your car though the trees.
Just when you think your day is turning out rather well considering everything, you realize the jig is up. They’ve found you. Should you fight back, run, or prepare a very zesty speech to get them on your side?...
Lou is standing with his pups growling at you. The storm is still raging on and the young pups are visibly scared.
“Pack code is to destroy any Catfolk on sight,” Lou grows at you. “There is no place for you in Night Forest or anywhere.”
“I don’t even look like Catfolk!” you yell back at Louis. “I am human! I don’t even like cats! I have a Labrador named Chance at home!”
The pups gasp collectively and look up at their father.
“First you conceal your alliance with Catfolk and now you admit to keeping Dogkin as pets?! Adventurer, you have made two grave mistakes today.”
“The Wildcat is my school’s mascot, it has nothing to do with Catfolk, and Chance is just a regular dog,” you try to explain, “I didn’t even know Dogkin or Catfolk were real until my car broke down and I ended up in this, this mess!”
The oldest of the pups is shaking something in her fist and drops what looks like a rock onto the ground. Louis bends down to look at it.
“Looks like you failed your persuasion roll, Adventurer.” Lou lets out a howl that drowns out the sound of the rain.
“The pine tree,” you whisper to yourself. You can easily climb it to get out of reach. Dogs can’t climb well if at all. For the third time today you find yourself running away from angry dogs.
Once you reach the tree, you clumsily make your way up into its branches. Lou, despite his humanoid build is unable to climb up after you. Which is puzzling cause you know he has thumbs, but that isn’t the puzzle that needs solving right now. The pups, however are trying their hardest to make it up past the second row of branches.
A pine cone comes into view as you near the crown of the tree. A tame enough projectile that could disrupt the balance of the pups and send them back to the ground. You yank the pinecone off the tree and throw it at one of the pups hitting one on their snout causing them to lose their grip on the branches and fall.
A snicker comes from the branches of the tree adjacent to you and you look over to see the silver tabby standing among the branches with a handful of other Catfolk.
“Tree climbing was a smart move Adventurer,” the silver tabby says while silently applauding. The other Catfolk are nodding in agreement and clapping their paws like observers on a golf course.
“Will you please help me escape?” you ask as desperately as possible. “I can’t do this alone.” Discussion breaks out among the group and you hear a dice being rolled.
“Bastet be praised,” the silver tabby groans. “Alright lets go.”
The Catfolk leap off the branches towards the Dogkin giving you the perfect distraction to escape and two of the Catfolk lead you to a hideout where you can sleep for the night.
Morning finally comes. When you wake up, you find your car safely parked at the rest stop in Kansas. There aren’t many trees, if any, around. Inside your car, you find your library books and a note that reads...
“Adventurer, you should have mentioned sooner that you were allied with the Wild Clan of the Catfolk. I saw the insignia on your garb, but did not believe you to be a true ally. Upon examining your car and seeing the insignia on it I decided to call upon my clowder to see if you would ask us to aid you. Give thanks to Bastet that we arrived when we did or you would have become a chew toy for Cerberus.”
You tuck the note inside one of your library books and start up your car. No engine light. Must have been a fluke or weather related thing. You make a note to call your dad and ask his opinion on it when you get back to your apartment in Manhattan.
The drive is uneventful and you start to forget about the wild experience you had at the rest stop off the highway. The Flint Hills blur by and are soon replaced by farmers fields and barns used by the University’s Agricultural department. You park in an empty spot at your apartment complex and quickly carry your things and library books up to your home.
Your roommates are in the kitchen making brunch when you come through the door. They are happy to see you and ready to start your apartment’s traditional table top gaming weekend.
“Did you get the books I asked you to pick up while you were at the library,” one of your roommates asks as you throw your overnight bag into your room. “We can manage if you didn’t, but it would be helpful for all the first time players if we have all the manuals on hand.”
“Yeah I got all of them,” you reply looking down at the stack of books in your hands. You look down at the first book’s cover and your jaw drops. There on the cover is the same red insignia that the Dogkin had been wearing. It is the dragon ampersands from the Dungeons and Dragons manuals. Your experience suddenly comes rushing back to you and and you turn to look at your roommates in the kitchen.
Standing over the stove flipping pancakes is a person you have never seen before.
“Oh before we get started,” one of your roommates says, “this is my cousin Louis, he’s going to DM for us!”
You drop the books as Louis turns and looks at you with a smile.