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Tag: milestone

Journey to the Last Sea Part 10: Past, Present, and Future
Having cleared the obstruction as best they could, the heroes pushed on through the narow tunnel ahead. The twisting and turning passage opened into a large, flooded cavern with a number of side-passages leading back into the water-filled labyrinth. Only one passage, on the far side, had anything of the distinctive architecture of the seaway remaining so the heroes quickly realized that this is the way out. There were jumbled stones scattered about the cavern, and many were once part of the walls and support pillars that formed the seaway tunnel. Slightly phosphorescent kelp grew from patches of silt that had settled between the piles of worn, broken stones, casting a dim illumination in the chamber. Rokkon swam ahead as quitely as he could, but the lapping water echoed off the ceiling of the flooded chamber.

Ahead, he saw figures moving in the dark water. They were scaled humanoids with sharp teeth and fin-like crests, all armed with tridents of sharpened coral. Two larger figures moved with them, dark creatures like cloud rays, with long, stinger-tipped tails. They swiam towards the heroes, ready to attack. The heroes engaged the scaled humanoids as they darted forward, deftly evading their spears and harpoons as they retaliated with blade, staff, and spell. Rokkon shrugged off poison stings from the diabolic rays, even as he and Gurthmore hacked at them with their axes. Chuka-Tet and Sark used primal and arcane magic to harry the ferocious cretures while Arshaka encouraged them with his music. Blood filled the water as the largest among them, a four-armed brute surrendered as Chuka-Tet demanded to know why they were attacked. He revealed that they were afraid, as other, darker things were stirring beneath the Mind Lords' hidden redoubt.

They were like cloud rays. Only underwater. And evil.

Following the long passage leading out of the cold, murky water, the hereos emerged in a circular, and partially flooded chamber. Piles of rock jutted out of the murky water in places, and Sark's inner light revealed what must be the remains of a stair spiraling up the side of the long shaft that led up and out. The stair was fully eighty feet off the ground, and apart from a few, spare handholds in the slick, stone walls, there appeared to be no other way up. As Gurthmore bounded across the mossy rocks, the flutter of wings could be heard somewhere above, and something stirred in the murky water. There was a blur of activity from above. Half a dozen man-shaped insect-like creatures with dusky blue-and-purple carapaces and long, sword-like forelimbs buzzed down from above. The murky water eruptedin a spray as two, strange creatures with fish-like bodies, long tentacles, and burning, three-lobed eyes emerged from below. Though they were caught off-guard, the heroes retaliated swiftly and decisively. Axes flashed as fire and freezing winds blasted through the chamber, felling the aboleths as the swordwings fluttered in and out, slashing with their sword-like limbs. Before long, they too were dropped out of the sky. With the aberrant creatures defeated, the heroes scaled the wall and surmounted the broken stairs.

Despite all appeareances, they were not Chuka-Tet's cousins.

The stairs spiraled up into a cave-like chamber behind a roaring waterfall. A pair of great, stone valves on the opposite end opened into a sort of memorial chamber. There were eight statues here, six man-sized ones carved from black basalt and two large ones carved from obsidian, with three of the smaller statues flanking each side of the central floor. All were carved to resemble what must be scholars or teachers of a past age. The two larger statues flanked double doors on the far end, and both resembled great warriors clad in spiked armor. A balcony ran around the periphery of the room, accessed by short stairs on either end,and doorways led off from the middle of each side.

The floor was tiled in white and black marble, with designs inlaid in gold. Sark recognized them as the patterns made by Athas's sun, moons, and planets in the night sky and what appeared to be a star-based calendar of some sort. The calendar appeared to mark events occurring over a 9,000-year span of history, with the calendar coming to an end on the current date. This was enough to rattle the heroes. Sark saw something else – a word that was incorrect, as if it were part of a misplaced phrase. Moving into the room, he saw another...and then the heroes all heard the sound of grinding stone. The statues begatn to move, and Gurthmore and Stonedarr moved in to attack, hammering the spiked, obsidian golems with powerful blows as Chuka-Tet shattered two of the smaller statues with fast-growing vines. Sark and Arshaka found the remaining parts of the phrase, which turned out to be a command. Saying it out loud, the half-orc wizard stopped the animated statues.

Continuing into the redoubt, the heroes began to explore the area. They found training rooms used in the mastery of the Way, and ancient scrolls scribed with powerful symbols and psychic enchantments. Beyond these, they found a laboratory of some kind. Theroom was split into two parts. The first, smaller section held a strange, stone table set with a lattice of crystals and precious metals that had a hollow receptacle on one end. Niches lined the wall, and a few held cracked obsidian spheres, while a few others had what appeared to be humanoid body parts carved from solid obsidian. The larger part of the chamber was lined with what appeared to be crystal cylinders or coffins containing the withered, mummified remains of nearly a dozen people. Nearly all were cracked and dark, though one appeared to be intact. Several figures stand there, stock-still, all of which appeared at first glance to be suits of metal armor. An odd arrangement of rods, plates, and gears of iron, brass, and gold was set in the center of the room in an upright stone cradle of some sort. Four large rods of iron wrapped in thick, copper wire topped by luminescent crystals satt near the corners of the room, equidistant from the stone cradle. Stone steps in an alcove on the far wall led down to a pair of huge double doors crafted from solid iron.

As the heroes investigated and moved towards the strange device a sudden flash of lightning from the four metal posts drove them back. One of the crystal coffins flew from the wall to embed itself amidst the metal components supported by the cradle. They folded up on it, forming a conveyance of a sort, one with four, clawed metal arms. It took a staggering step forward. And then another. And then it began to move with a strange, mechanical fluidity. The armored suits started to move as well, brandishing their wicked-looking spears.“None shall pass,” a hollow voice said in a mechanical rasp. “The Mind Lord has decreed that which was shall be no more, and all the sins of the past shall be undone. You will not be allowed to stop him.”

What was left of Arshaka apparently suffered from separation issues.

The withered figure seemed to look straight at Arshaka. “You are one of the greatest of those sins, Arhat Shathan Khan,” the mummified figure rasped in its hollow voice. “Or perhaps I should say that we are. Or do you not recognize yourself? You are the memory and the voice, a mind and a soul ripped free from its mortal shell and encased in unliving obsidian. You were to record the words and deeds of the Champions of Rajaat. Such was part of the price the Mind Lords paid to ensure Saragar would remain unmolested. But did you forget what you were? That you were once human? Did you forget the mortal remains you left behind, locked in a crystal coffin? I am what remains of you! I am your shell, the ghost of what you were, never allowed to die but unable to live. I will end our suffering!”

Facing the mad, mortal remains of the once-human bard, the heroes attacked the strange clockwork reliquary with axe and spell. Arshaka wove enchantments that blunted its attacks while Rokkon and Gurthmore drove it back with blow after blow. Chuka-Tet and Sark blasted the clockwork soldiers with spells and staff, destroying them all in short order. Despite tearing claws, withering blasts of psychic lightning, and strange pulses of radiance that withered flesh, the construct empowered by the bard's mortal remains was brought low by Stonedarr's axes as one blow shattered the metal framework and the other the crystal coffin. Thus laid to rest, Arshaka's body was set aside. After a moment of silent contemplation, the heroes went forward.

The doors led to a short hall, at the end of which doors of gold led into a circular chamber beyond. A lone figure stood in the room, peering into the pool at its center. Flashes of light from the cloudy, swirling waters reflected off crystal strands running through the stone floor and off the liquid in the nearly two dozen stone basins sitting around the circular chamber, each of which contained a brain, ranging in size from that of a child to that of a giant. But they did not seem to illuminate the male elf with silvery hair and sea-green eyes. He was dressed in a simple vest and blue kirtle, and his smile had a manic intensity. He speaks without looking up. “You are too late!” He laughed with anticipatory glee. “Oh heroes of the outer lands,” he continues, “I foresaw your coming. But I needed you here to witness my greatness. I will remake the world entire. Even now, my pool opens a window to the far distant past. Over nine thousand years ago, when the Green Age began to give way to the Cleansing Wars of the Red Age. I needed strong minds to stabilize the window. I will send a message to myself, undoing an age of ruin and devastation. I may even prevent the rise of the sorcerer-kings! While it is certain that you shall likely never be born, you will face oblivion knowing that you helped create a better world.” Power began to ripple through the air surrounding him. “Or you may try and stop me, though,” he looks at you with eyes aflame, “that would be a much shorter route to oblivion!”

Gurthmore wasted no time rushing forward, axe in hand, smashing one of the stone vessels. With a scream of rage, Kosveret transformed into a kirre made of living flame and leaped to attack. Sark realized the mind lord was insubstantial, a psychic projection, albeit one with enough substance to be hurt. But Kosveret proved a powerful foe. His form shifted, becoming a naga with brilliant scales and a horrid, clawed aberration. He seemed to be in a dozen places at once, unleashing attacks that could shred mind as well as flesh. Despite his power, the heroes fought back, evading blows and resisting his mental assaults until at last, Kosveret's form was dispersed.

A ripple ran through the air, and the world around them changed. The pool was dry, the doors hung off their hinges, and the cliff beyond had collapsed. Beyond, the valley of Marnita was naught but desert wastes and the Last Sea was nothing more than a sink of silt. The heroes found an obsidian sphere and a silvery blade in the rear of the chamber, and Kosveret's image flickered and flashed, appearing before them. Sark realized this was his phylactery, the repository of the mind lord's essence and power. Weakened as he was, Kosveret was only able to relay that the message he intended to send to the past was one that his master, the ruler of Saragar at the end of the Green Age, had already received! By defeating him, the heroes prevented the message from being sent in the first place, and the garbled warning he gave the ancient lawkeeper had never been received. As a result, Saragar had fallen to the forces of the crusading armies of Rajaat, the first sorcerer. Realizing what had been lost, the heroes agreed to set things right. They would travel in time and deliver a telepathic message to the lawkeeper, ensuring the future they knew.

There was a way to undo this. Using the heroes' own strength of will and vitality, he was able to send their minds and souls to the ancient past of Athas. They awoke as part of the armies of Borys of Ebe, the champion of Rajaat, miles from the shores of Marnita. Senaking out of the camp and shedding their uniforms, they rode through the night on phantom steeds to Saragar. Entering the city in illusinary disguises, they made their way the palace of the lawkeeper. After a misadventure or two, they were able to deliver the telepathic warning. With a flash, they awoke in their own bodies, the world restored to what it had been.

Thesik sent the heroes home with the artifact they needed. As long as they promised to never, ever monkey with time travel again.

A bald-headed man with vulture-like features in black robes awaited them. This was Thesik, chief of the mind lords, and like his comrade, a psychic projection. He explained that Kosveret had gone mad over the last nine thousand years, but that his mind might yet be healed. He agreed to aid the heroes in their quest, providing Gurthmore's horde with steel weapons and trade for the Bandit States. He provided them with Annulus so that their destiny could be fulfilled, and allowed them to transport back to Tyr via a magical portal.

The heroes arrived as the moons were rising, and presented the Annulus to Ushas. The sorceress emerged from her cocoon, healed and fully transformed. But the necrotic poison had tainted her, made her unable to fulfil her destiny. The mantle of the Child of Light had to be Sark! They had learned from Thesik that the first sorcerer, Rajaat, had been a half-orc. It seemed only fitting that one of his blood would take up the challenge of re-building the world he had helped destroy. Ushas revealed that they would have to find a key that was lost, to a place that is no more, and there they would find the power of the gods – or die trying!
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Journey to the Last Sea Part 9: Into the Deep
After about four hours of travel, the heroes arrived at the island known as the Lonely Butte. As they approached they saw the forested island plateau loom up from over the horizon, a wall of brown rock topped by a lush, green crown. There was no beach, only a wall of cliffs and reefs rising from the waters of the Last Sea. Their phantom steeds flew over the reefs, and they landed atop one of the stone quays jutting from the base of the cliff. A great cleft or chimney cut into the rock face rose nearly 200 feet to a huge, cave-like opening near the top. An elaborate mechanism consisting of wooden frames and platforms, giant's hair ropes, pulleys, huge stone counterweights, and an iron grate protecting the top of the chimney appeared to act as an elevator to the this cavernous cleft. A cluster of wooden and stone buildings squatted there, jutting out on rickety platforms over the sea far below. They were informed by a couple of men unloading a haul of fish from a nearby boat that this was Blufftown, and that if they were looking for drinks, the two inns above were always open. One was owned by a man named Sitko, and was generally safe. The other, owned by an old skinflint named Ordean, was a bit rougher. The heroes figured the rougher one was where they would find the dwarf. They dropped their illusionary disguises and headed over to the cliff face.

Approaching the elevator, they saw an obsidian orb floating above the winch mechanism that appeared to drive the elevator. Upon entering the great wicker basket at the bottom, the thing lurched to a start as the obsidian orb began to hum and the winch turned. Rising slowly and unsteadily, the heroes found themselves ascending the cliff. An unexpected complication reared its ugly head as the heroes ascended towards the trading settlement, As with the guardians and servitors that protected and maintained Saragar, the obsidian orb that controlled the lift was apparently old and prone to malfunctioning. When they were halfway to the top of the cliff, the orb slowly sank down to ground and the lift shuddered and stalled, threatening to plunge into the rough waters far below. Gurthmore used his enchanted boots to fly down to the winch, holding it in place while the rest of the heroes climbed off onto the cliff and anchored the lift. With Arshaka's telepathic guidance, the mul gladitator repaired the mechanism and they ascended to the top. They could only hope the orb would recover giving them a safe way back down.

Blufftown, overlooking the Last Sea. It was a long way up...and a long way down.

Consisting of two large inns and a handful of wood and stone buildings, the settlement was little more than a trading post used by the various hunters and scoundrels who eked a living off the island's flora and fauna. The two inns stood out, both being near the lift, and in the light of the lanterns hanging there, it was apparent one was in much worse shape than the other. Entering the run-down building with its creaking, stained floor and rickety walls, the heroes saw a motley assortment of hunters, pirates, ruffians, scoundrels, and thugs drinking cheap plantain beer from jacks made of dried gourds. A rough bar of bamboo and wicker ran along one wall, and a squint-eyed old man with stringy, white hair ppraised them as they entered. After plunking down a few gems to buy a round, the heroes saw a scruffy looking dwarf at a table in the rear corner, doing his best to go unnoticed. Despite his obvious fear the dwarf, Granuto, began to speak with Arshaka after the obsidian bard approached him in a calm, reassuring manner. . Before he could get his story however, the rough and suspicious crowd took issue with their presence. One, a scarred mul, stood up and began to challenge the heroes.

“You looking for a fight?” The mul growled. He was a ferocious looking mul with weather-beaten skin, squinted eyes, and several nasty scars lightly swinging a pair of cahulaks. A dozen or so pirates and ruffians stood unsteadily behind him, deep in their cups, making angry glares at the heroes. “Well, you got one strangers! I am Xiphos the Red-Handed, scourge of the Last Sea!”

He looked tough, but he didn't realize that Gurthmore and Rokkon looked TOUGHER!

Gurthmore and Stonedarr roared a challenge back, and a brawl broke out in an instant. There was an open hatch in the middle of the ramshackle bar's floor, one that opened to a two hundred foot drop to the sea below. With a mighty blow from the flat of his axe, Gurthmore sent the mul pirate flying after Stonedarr had bashed him upside the head with his twin blades. He had struck a couple of mighty blow with his swinging cahulaks, and they saved him from a long fall as he anchored them in the wood of the inn's floor before he could drop. The other patrons jumped in, but Chuka-Tet blasted some with sudden gusts of wind while Sark stunned the rest with a chain of lighting. Arshaka had punished a couple foolish enough to charge him, and managed to convince the scourge of the Inner Sea it was a better idea to just give up. He opted to take a dive – literally – and the fight was over. The heroes sat down to talk with Granuto, who was grateful for the plantain beer they provided.

Looking about furtively, the grubby dwarf began to speak in a harsh whisper. “It were about a month ago,” he rumbled, “that a feller came to Kharzdun, looking for a crew to do some digging up by Rivertown, at the base of Big Falls. He were a twisted, old half-elf or so it seemed, Said we'd be digging for some kind of old treasure, though he weren't too clear on what it was. Took us a week or so to get there and start to digging. It were tricky work, what with the Big River crashing down all around us and the like. But we cut through the rocks and found an old, worked cave beyond.

“Tunnels in the back wound down beneath the mountain, and he had us clear fallen rock from some of them places. When we was finished, he...the fella...he changed. It were Kosveret, sure as I'm sitting here. He laughed, and told us we was all done. But he also said, he couldn't have us talking. Old Arbanus dropped dead right there, blood leaking out his ears. The rest of us run, but a group of storm giants from up in the Thunder Mountains were waiting near the falls. They fell on us, with big hammers and lightning, and only me and Graucus got away. We knew it would only be a matter of time a-fore he got us, but I figured I could lose me self in drink until then. I don't know what he was a-wanting there, but I know that it were no good for anyone. But who would believe me? I guess you outlanders might, but the folks of the valley couldn't believe that one of the Mind Lords would ever do 'em harm. Even I still don't, and I saw the whole thing!”

When the heroes asked more about this hidden place, and the giants he had seen, Granuto replied, “It were a hidden place, buried under tons of rock, and located behind the Big Falls at the base. The tunnels looked old, like they hadn't seen the light of day in thousands of years. Saw all kinds of strange stuff down there, too. All kinds of crystal and metal stuff, and some skeletons. And them giants? One of the tribes from up in the Thunder Mountains most likely. They said they was serving him, the laughing lord, and that they'd see the world go back to what it was supposed to be. Said that nothing would get past them. That was a few weeks back. But,” he added, “old Arbanus said he saw tunnels down below that reminded him of the stories of the seaways, the passages that legend say the Mind Lords built beneath Marnita during the Green Age. Don't know if them stories are true. I suppose the Kuo-Toa might know more, what with Undertown being under the sea and all. I guess if you're looking to get there in a hurry, you could try and talk with the fish-men.”

With less than a day left, the heroes figured that was their best shot to reach the far-away mountains in time. After a sack of gems and a few words to Xiphos, the now-waterlogged scourge of the Last Sea, the heroes managed to get passage on his ship. He knew where to row to avoid the fish-men...and where they would likely attack. Leaving an hour later, under cover of darkness, the heroes, the pirate captain and his half-drunken crew rowed out from the Lonely Butte, looking for trouble.

The sound of wet feet slapping lightly on the deck could barely be heard over the creak of the mast and oars and the slapping of waves against the ship's hull. Through the half-light of the lanterns, Chuka-Tet saw several of the strange, slick-skinned, scaled humanoids the natives called Kuo-Toa moving over the rails and onto the deck. Their large, round eyes gleamed with ill intent under the light of the two moons. But the heroes were ready, both to fight and talk. After battering a few of the fish-men back into the sea, freezing them with gusts of icy wind and thunderous staff-blows well-placed alongside scaled heads, the Kuo-Toa were willing to listen to Arshaka's attempts at diplomacy. One of the fish-men cast a ritual using the Way that let them communicate, and after hearing what the heroes had to say about saving the Last Sea, he cast another that let them breathe in the water. He insisted they accompany him to speak with the Kuo-Toa's leader, and the heroes complied.

The Kuo-Toa took the bait. Get it? Fish-men? Bait?

The descent took several minutes, and the water grew colder and darker around the heroes as they dove hundreds of feet below the surface. Eventually the heroes saw strange lights ahead through the deep waters, and a city of sorts appeared. The buildings were constructed of stone and giant shells, and had odd, almost organic, shapes. Their large, round windows served as doors, and leering statuary was set everywhere. They were escorted to a huge, central dome-like building at the center of Undertown. After swimming up a channel into an air-filled, arena-like chamber, they were taken by trident-point to meet the Kuo-Toa's chief. While the heroes could not pronounce his name, enchantments translated it as “Deep Eyes.” A large, squat Kuo-Toa with relatively deep-set eyes, he treated fairly with the heroes, explaining that many of his people had died under mysterious circumstances over the last few weeks. Although he was initially unwilling to believe that one of the Mind Lords is behind these deaths, the heroes were able to convince him and gain the aid of the fish-men.

The heroes were taken to the entrance to the seaways running beneath Marnita. “Deep Eyes” explained that the tunnels were ancient and may be damaged in places, but the conveyance that ran through the tunnels should still allow the heroes to travel far more swiftly than they could by ship. An airlock-like structure beneath the great dome at the heart of Undertown opened into a vast chamber beneath the sea floor. Several huge tunnels intersected in this chamber, and a gargantuan, circular marble platform with an obsidian orb floating over its center sat there. The Kuo-Toa's leader informed them that the orb was used to levitate the platform down the tunnels at a high rate of speed, and he pointed out the tunnel that would take them to the complex under Big Falls to the northwest. He will explained that it would only take about two hours to reach the end of the tunnel, which is over 100 miles away, provided the tunnel remained intact. No one had ventured down the tunnel for more than two centuries though. “Deep Eyes” wished the heroes good fortune, showed them how to command the orb, and then departed.

"Hey Rokkon, why do you think these tunnels are so clean?
"No idea Gurthmore, no idea."

Although the platform lurched a bit at first, the heroes quickly fiound themselves flying down the 20-foot wide tunnel, which was pitch black apart from a dim glow emanating from the widely-spaced strange, green crystals set in the walls. The first hour or so went by without incident. At that point, the platform will slowed to a halt in response to a partial collapse in the tunnel ahead. One of the great stone lintels supporting the tunnel's roof broke centuries ago, and rubble had fallen around it, enough to prevent the passage of the huge, marble platform. Dripping water had formed a large pool that sat in the sunken floor of the tunnel. Gurthmore and Stonedarr made their way forward to investigate when, too late to stop the mul's forward progress, Rokkon and Chuka-Tet saw something shimmer and move in the passage. Gurthmore ran headfirst into a wall of translucent, gelatinous protoplasm and was sucked in. A huge, cube-shaped, gelatinous mass oozed forward with a wet, sucking sound, the gladiator suspended in it's bulk. Smaller oozes, nearly invisible in the pool of water, shimmered with iridescent color as they slid towards the heroes. But they overcame their initial shock quickly, and the two warriors' axes made quick work of the gelatinous cube as the rest blasted, slashed, and exploded the oozes under Arshaka's strident musical command. With the oozes dispatched, the heroes cleared the obstruction and continued on, until at last the tunnel began to rise slightly. But it came to an abrupt end, a few miles from their destination. A crack in the floor led to a waterway, one that had the promise of letting them through should the rest of the tunnel remain intact. Having come too far to turn back, the heroes dove into the cold, murky water, the enchantments of the Kuo-Toa enabling them to breathe underwater still....
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Journey to the Last Sea Part 8: The White City
It only took an hour or so to reach the village of Tola. The village consisted of a few dozen huts of bamboo, set on stilts, and thatched with tough, woven grass. They were all arranged around a central village square with a rock-lined fire pit and a communal hall. Askellios insisted that the heroes stay with him and his wife, Melina, saying, “If you wish to reach the city of Saragar, a galley leaves come the dawn, carrying produce and dried fish to Saragar in exchange for cloth, beads, and metal goods. Until then, we feast! Word of the outsiders' arrival and heroism had spread, and the villagers had decided to throw an impromptu feast in their honor. They served plenty of fresh fish, hearty stews, fried cakes, and beer all cooked and brewed from plantains. The heroes soon found that the folk of Tola were friendly and easy-going, though excited by their arrival. Over the course of the feast the heroes also found themselves the center of attention, especially Arshaka and Chuka-Tet. They were bombarded by dozens of questions and requests, though Askellios shooed them off before the heroes were overwhelmed. Both Gurthmore and Rokkon indulged heavily in the light, fragrant beer and were nearly in their cups before the night was half over.

As the impromptu feast began to wind down, Askellios and his wife Melina sat beside the fire pit. “I thank you once again,” the dark-haired woman said, “for saving my husband's life. We are not used to outsiders in the Valley of the Last Sea, but you will always be welcome here.”

“Would that we could say the same of Saragar,” Askellios said. “I have no doubt that you will be welcomed by folk of the city, and that they will be polite, but you will be marked as outsiders the moment you arrive. You must understand, there is no crime, no prejudice, no whispered rumors in the streets – everyone in Saragar is happy. They must be. Those who break the law, those who complain or cause trouble, even those who dare to be unhappy are harmonized. The lawkeepers enact the will of the Mind Lords while the proctors enforce it on the streets. The lawtenders harmonize those who become...disharmonious.” He took a long gulp of plantain beer and continued. “But the city is far from a paradise. Parts of it have begun to crumble and decay, and the peoples' smiles are often strained. The law is the law however, and we all trust in the divine wisdom of the Mind Lords. I hear whispers of those who do not, those who hide in the shadows and share their discontent. Some say they make plans to oppose the proctors, to bring some kind of true happiness, but those are just rumors.”

The village of Tola was beautiful and friendly. The heroes were waiting for the other sandal to drop.

Melina stood up and said, “Perhaps...I can do something to help you. There are old ways, ways that are...forgotten...ways to help hide your thoughts. Know that if some among you practice these ways, they are considered great crimes by the Mind Lords. Sorcery and such knowledge is forbidden on pain of death in the Valley of the Last Sea. Watch what you do or say when in the city.” As she moved around the fire, Melina said, “I have no doubt you seek to enter Saragar for some reason, perhaps seeking something lost. Why else would you come so far? If the secrets are related to this knowledge, you may find it in the palace of the Mind Lords. But I warn you that no one who goes into their palace comes out the same as when they left.”

The heroes had a few questions for Askellios and his wife, who explained that the lawtenders of Saragar used their mastery of the Way to remove evil thoughts and criminal behavior from those who were unhappy. They put them back in harmony with the community – even if they would wish otherwise. The lawkeepers included the proctors, who could be seen on the streets, from time to time. They wore metal mail and carried blades of steel. Above them were the robed lawkeepers, who oversaw the proctors. The heroes were also warned they might see the guardians about. They served all in the city, cleaning and repairing things as the proctors commanded. It was said that they were once criminals or traitors, but their minds were stripped from their bodies and placed in obsidian spheres. These spheres used the power of the Way to accomplish their tasks. Askellios also told them of the Mind Lords. “They are the divine protectors of Saragar,” he said. “There is Thesik of the black robes, who is the judge of the dead and protector of spirits. There is Barani, the all-mother who blesses the crops and sea to make them bountiful. And there is Kosveret the smiling, trickster and bringer of joy in a thousand forms. They have always been the Mind Lords, since the Green Age, long before the rest of the world was laid to ruin. Without them, the Valley of the Last Sea would wither and dry.”

With what questions they had answered for now, the heroes opted to get some sleep – or in Stonedarr's case, pass out for a time. Hours passed, and as dawn approached the village had grown quiet save for the lap of waves and the crackle of the fire in the great pit in Tola's center. Without warning, a horrid screeching bellow split the pre-dawn air, and it was immediately echoed by another. The sound of splintering wood was heard as the heroes jolted awake, and rushed out to see what had happened. Lit by the moons and the bonfire, they saw two, huge shapes trundling up from the water's edge. They were reptilian with slick, green, scaly hides. Steam and vapor curled from their nostrils as they bellowed again. The villagers fell back in a panic, running for long bamboo torches and heavy wooden shields so large it took two men to carry them, as the drakes snapped hungrily at them.

They were big, hungry, and hadn't been invited to the feast. Party crasher drakes!

But the heroes ran forward to fight the huge beasts. Rokkon drew his axes, charging one and laying a blow aside its head that caused the water drake to stumble back and fall prone in the surf. He unleashed a flurry of blows with his axe that left it staggered and bleeding. Chuka-Tet was close on his heels, staff twirling as he forced the creature further back with blasts of wind. Sark began to glow, his features elongating, transforming, his eyes becoming large, opalescent ovals as radiant wings unfurled from his back. He rose above the top of the nearby huts, unleashing a spell at the second drake that had if confused and stumbling, attacking things that were not there. Gurthmore leaped into the spray, striking the first drake with such force that the titanic beast was sent flying, crashing into the other, knocking both prone again.

Far from defeated, the two drakes lurched to their feet. With the power of the Way, they created doubles, which appeared farther back on the beach. Each conjured orbs of steaming or freezing water, the elemental globes exploding among the heroes. Gurthmore was frozen, ice rooting the mul barbarian in place. The creatures tore at them with claws and bites, but the heroes dodged and parried the mighty blows. Sark unleashed a terrific blast of lightning, chaining from beast to beast to psychic clone. Rokkon was slowed by the cold, but he sent his axes hurling into the scaled beasts time and again, their enchantments drawing them back to his hands. Chuka-Tet blasted them with cold winds and thundering blows, calling on the primal spirits to bolster his comrades. Rokkon slew one with a hurled axe, causing its clone to vanish, as Gurthmore drove the other back into the sea.

The grateful villagers cheered again, and Melina saw to their wounds. She also provided the heroes with a charm of protection, one that would fortify their minds against psychic attacks and casual scans by those trained in the Way to use telepathy. Askellios did not know why the water drakes would leave the deeps to attack, but surmised that if the Leviathan had been upset, that might be enough. When pressed, he explained that it was a huge creature, all tentacles and teeth, that had dwelt in the Last Sea since before any could remember. The Leviathan was capable of dragging down ships to the deep, but rarely troubled those who crossed Marnita.

Cleaning up and gathering their belongings, the heroes noticed that Arshaka was missing! The obsidian bard had vanished, without word. While this was not the first time he had left them, it was strange that their companion had left them without warning. With no time to spare, the heroes had no choice but to board the galley and head out to sea. While all of them found the pitch and roll of the deck beneath their feet unsettling, Rokkon was violently ill over the railing several times, though part of that might have been the effects of the plantain beer. Chuka-Tet had climbed the mast, and was watching as the horizon faded from view and soon all that could be seen was open water.

Yup. It was a mother&@%!@ sharktopus.

A breeze blew over the waters of the Last Sea, kicking up waves in the water and filling the sail of the galley. Apart from the lap of the waves, the creak of the mast, and the chatter of the men, the sea was quiet. All of that ends in an instant, as Chuka-Tet cried atop the mast. “There! In the water! It's the Leviathan!” Looking over the prow, they saw a massive fin break the surface of the water, followed by a wedge-shaped head with dead black eyes and rows of razor-sharp teeth. Tentacles from behind lashed forward with lightning speed, slamming into the hull and grabbing hold. The ship lurched to a halt, and all could hear the groan of the wood as it was squeezed by the gargantuan appendages. The ship shook, as if the impossibly huge creature were trying to pull it down. Gurthmore ran at the beast, but a tentacle snatched him up off the deck. He managed to get his axe free as Stonedarr followed, deftly avoiding a striking tentacle as he tore into its scaled, rubbery hide with his twin waraxes. Sark blasted the creature with a terrible spell, unraveling its flesh into energy in an attempt to disintegrate it. Chuka-Tet jumped down from the mast, undergoing a transformation of his own. The thri-kreen druid was swept up, becoming a huge whirlwind as he darted across the water, striking hammering blows at the Leviathan. It snapped at the druid, tearing elemental wind with rows of sharp teeth. The Leviathan hammered at the heroes with its flailing tentacles and the power of its mind. Sark realized the creature was intelligent, and impossibly old, doubtless the last of its kind. Despite its power, the blows rained down by the mul and the half-giant's axes hacked off tentacles and forced the creature to let go of the galley. Roaring in pain, it withdrew, sliding back into the depths. The ship's captain was grateful, and after some minor repairs, the ship limped towards the harbor of Saragar.

Late in the afternoon the nameless galley from Tola approached the city by the sea. Sails were the first thing they saw, dozens of them, as galleys, fishing vessels, and curious, curved boards capable of holding only a single person come into view. Towers of shining, white stone peeked up over the horizon next, followed by the stone and wood docks, and finally ringing beaches of white sand. The heroes noticed right away that there were no walls around Saragar and that broad, leafy trees and lush, flowering plants grew in broad lanes between the larger buildings. Drawing ever closer, they saw that the buildings were stained and pitted in places due to the water and salty spray, and that other structures farther from the docks seemed dingy and in ill repair. Some of the lots farther from the docks were choked with weeds, and the streets were cracked in places.

As the galley pulled into the dock a sphere of pure obsidian drifted out over the water towards the bow. A powerful, telekinetic force seized the ship and towed it gently up to the dock. The ship's half-elf captain thank the heroes once more as they disembarked, warning them to be careful. “Saragar is not,” he said, “as friendly to outsiders as it might appear at first glance. Trust no one completely, lest you be taken by the proctors for harmonization.” The docks were fairly crowded with fishermen, sailors, and traders, and the heroes saw stalls and tents of colored cloth and bamboo set up at the foot of the quays. Merchants were hawking a variety of foods and small goods in exchange for other items, shells, and metal coins. The heroes noticed the locals were all polite, though slightly hesitant or nervous, and few initiated contact with the heroes.

Realizing that time was running short, and that the artifact they were after – the Annulus – could likely be found with the Mind Lords, the heroes asked for directions towards their palace. An obliging local pointed up the long, sloped streets. The palace of the Mind Lords was a vast structure, situated atop the low hill to the east of Marnita's shore, that overlooked the city. A trio of colossal statues, one of each of the three Mind Lords, floated atop a stone platform suspended over the palace by incredibly powerful telekinetic enchantments. Thesik's statue was of obsidian, Kosveret's statue was of marble, and Barani's statue was of jade, and all stood nearly 200 feet high. Making their way around the narrow streets and back towards the beach, the heroes found a great, wide street that led from the harbor up the long hill towards the palace.

As they made their way through the streets, a figure beckoned to Chuka-Tet from a nearby alley. Despite the light cloak which obscured his features, it was apparent that it was an elf, albeit smaller than the tall, long-legged folk of the Tablelands. He ducked into the alley as the heroes approached. Rounding the corner, they saw he had vanished. But there was something there – the body of a dead man. From the smock covered with drying clay, he was doubtless a potter. Apart from a strange deformity to his skull, there are no signs of violence. The alley led to a dead end, and its walls were too high and bare for any to climb them in the blink of an eye, so there was no mundane way the elf could have gotten out. Kneeling to examine the body, Chuka-Tet felt that his head was unusually light, as if his brain had been removed. But there was no sign of violence, apart from a small trickle of blood from his ears and nose.

Before he could speculate further, a voice called out behind the heroes. “You there! What is this?” A wiry man with a sallow face wearing armor of metal links, a plumed steel helmet, a tunic and cape stood behind them. As they stepped out of the alley, he looked past them. “What have we here? A dead body! You have much to answer for, outlanders! Perhaps you are responsible for the others that have been found, eh? Perhaps you shall have to way or another!” He swaggered closer, his hand on the hilt of a steel sword hanging from his baldric.

Although Gurthmore itched to teach this proctor a lesson using his axe, and Rokkon's offer of ceramic coins was met with derision, cooler heads prevailed and the heroes chose to accompany him back to the watch station of the lawkeepers. Along the way they passed through a huge, central square, fully a mile across, with fountains spraying fresh water that was gathered without cost by the locals. They passed a mul carrying a yoke with gourds hanging off of it, gourds full of beer that he was selling. He followed at a distance, the heroes noticed, and they supposed he must be a member of the Underground.

Unused to dealing with those who might resist their authority, the proctor escorted the heroes to a small room with benches, manacles, and a stout door with a small, barred window. The proctor on duty, a paunchy fellow with an impressive beard, told them to wait as a lawtender would be summoned to have them harmonized. The door was left unlocked. As they tried to speak with the proctor the beer vendor, Tranicos by name, arrived outside the station selling his wares. With some encouragement from the heroes, the proctor began to drink the merchant's wares and even let the heroes out to sample the brew, after they insisted they pay for the stout brew. The proctor was soon intoxicated enough that the suggestion he sleep in off in the cell was well received, and the heroes left with Tranicos the mul before the lawtender arrived.

He revealed he was part of the Underground, and escorted them back to an abandoned house near the palace. Tranicos explained the old housing had been used by slaves ages past, and then by the poor under the protection of the Mind Lords. But with no slaves and no poor, the houses in this district had been empty for centuries but still kept up by the guardians. Going through a secret door in the basement, he told them to continue into the empty drainage tunnels beyond to meet with his contact. Shortly after a female dwarf with a ring of tattoos on her bald pate entered.

“Welcome outlanders,” the female dwarf said in an honest but solemn voice, “to the city of joy and peace. Or rather, the city of enforced joy and false peace. My named is Demetria. While we know little of the world outside the Valley of Marnita, the tales speak of endless deserts and dead lands. Saragar must seem a paradise in comparison, but it is not. The Mind Lords have ruled here for years beyond reckoning and maintained the peace and prosperity of the land, but their rule has begun to fail. Perhaps it is the weight of years afflicting them with madness or lassitude, or perhaps time has simply made them cruel and indifferent. Whatever the case may be, we suspect that one of them has begun killing the folk of Saragar for some dread purpose. Witnesses claim to have seen Barani, the laughing lord, appearing around the city. Wherever he has appeared, the bodies of the dead have been found. More than a dozen so far, and all with their brains removed.”She looked at the heroes with pleading eyes, full of sorrow and hope. “There are too few of us, and we are too scattered and weak to uncover this mystery. I believe that fate has brought you here to aid us, outlanders. I ask that you find out if Barani is behind these monstrous crimes, and put a stop to whatever madness has prompted them. We have learned that Barani has been seen elsewhere around Marnita, and that a sailor named Lanae witnessed him murder a dwarf aboard her vessel. She is being held by the lawkeepers, and has been sentenced to be harmonized very soon. Save her, and she will doubtless be grateful enough to share what she knows.”

They learned that Demetria was a lawtender, but what she saw in the minds of the people of Saragar encouraged her to try and reform the rule of the Mind Lords. She would draw the proctors away from the watch station, allowing them to speak with the sailor and get her out of Saragar. Allowing the dwarf to go ahead, Sark cast a spell that altered the heroes' appearance. Now looking like a group of proctors, they made their way to the watch station even as an older man in robes and a metal circlet was dispatching other proctors to search for the outlanders who had fled the watch station. The unfortunate drunken proctor was being taken to be harmonized, and one of the others addressed the older man as “Chief Lawkeeper Efkenu,” who Demetria indicated was second only to the Mind Lords themselves in power. Stopping the heroes he said, “You, there! Four outlanders have been seen, and the Mind Lords wish to speak with them. They were peaceable before, and if you see them, assure them the Mind Lords will treat with them fairly. If they resist, subdue them, but do them no lasting harm.” Nodding, the heroes made their way inside without a second glance from the chief lawkeeper.

Assuring the dark-haired, olive-skinned woman they were not, if fact, proctors she agreed to tell the heroes her story in exchange for her freedom. The heroes agreed, and she began to speak. “I was aboard my ship, the Red Dolphin, shortly out of the port at the base of Blufftown. We had picked up a cargo of timber and one passenger, a dwarf named Graucus. He said he wanted passage across Marnita, to the villages at the mouth of the Little River. He said he'd seen something he shouldn't have and that he needed to get out of the valley. It's my guess that he was likely to head to the South Pass, but I don't think he'd even thought that far ahead. He holed up in the ship's hold, waiting to make landfall. I went down on the first night out to bring him some bread and salted fish, and saw a figure standing over his dead body. It was an elf who looked like the statue of Kosveret that I've seen in Saragar! He laughed and vanished. All that was left was the dead dwarf. He had no mark on him, but his head was...light. Like it was...hollow. Graucus had mentioned that he was only one of two men in a dwarf work crew left who knew the truth, and that he had to get away before it killed him. I think the other one was in Blufftown, and he may still be there.”

The heroes escorted Lanae out of the watch station, and sent her on to the docks ahead of them. Night was falling and the heroes opted to head that way themselves. With ritual magic, they could summon phantom steeds that would carry them across the water under cover of darkness until they reached Blufftown, an outpost constructed along what the sailor called the Lonely Butte, a cliff-ringed island in the center of Saragar. With time running low, the heroes were ready to press on. But what of Arshaka....?
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Journey to the Last Sea Part 5: The Barrier Wastes
Leaving the mud flats and scrub plains at the bottom of Troll Grave Chasm behind, the heroes scaled the switchback trail up the side of the canyon and made their way back to the village of Ravage. A day had passed, and the moons were growing ever closer to their next alignment. Ushas was running low on time. Talid greeted them as the sun was going down over the bandit village. “We will make plans on the morrow,” he said. “The time is right to unite these lands under one banner – yours.” Gurthmore nodded in assent, and the heroes took rest in what quarters could be spared. Rokkon decided to waste no time, and took off under cover of night to guide the rest of Gurthmore's horde on to the village. Taking only a couple of gourds full of broy with him, the half-giant ranger strode off into the dark, vowing to return soon. Chuka-Tet meditated outside, as Sark dozed under the stars and Gurthmore napped following a prodigious amount of broy. Their reverie did not last.

Screams pierced the night as the shadows began to move independently of those cast by the men and beasts around the fires keeping the night's chill at bay. Two thin humanoids with pointed ears, rictus grins, and no eyes darted from the shadows, blades in hand, cutting down anything that moved. A voice echoed in the heroes' minds – it was Toranda. “Fools! Did you not think the Shadow King would find you? That I would find you? The choice is yours, join with the Child of Dark or die!” As one, the heroes rejected their fallen friend's offer. Having fought the shadowy assassins before, they knew to slow and stagger the vile creatures with their blows. Though the glooms were quick, heavy blows from Gurthmore's axe sent them staggering while Toranda froze them in place momentarily, only for Arshaka to set them dancing irresistibly to his music. Sark's magic turned the tide again as the burgeoning avangion's radiant power tore apart the legion of shadows falling on the village.

“It that all you have?” Chuka-Tet buzzed defiantly.

"I have a phane." "We have a Gurthmore."

“Not in the least,” Toranda's voice replied in their minds. “All who offer you succor shall wither and die!” The horrid, four-legged shadowy beast that had accompanied the glooms before flickered into view on the edge of the village, a rent to the Grey itself forming around it as a horde of shadows began to pour forth.

“We should go,” Arshaka told the rest, “lest all here suffer and die. If we can get the shadows and this wraith to follow us until dawn, the touch of the sun will banish them and spare your new followers.” Gurthmore and the rest agreed, and they fled into the night, the shadows close on their heels. On they ran until dawn, fighting off the umbral horde, until at last the sun rose. “They will not find us again with any ease, and we should be long gone before nightfall in any event.” Opting to use a sending ritual to communicate with Talid and his other lieutenants, Gurthmore and the rest pressed on. Arshaka's magical skiff carried them across the sands and into the barren wastes of the Scorpion Plains.

Great salt flats, baked into ceramic hardness and cracked by the merciless sun, stretched to the horizon. Scorpions of all sizes could be seen from time to time, preying on small reptiles foraging what meager fare they could from the tough brush surrounding the odd, alkaline pool seeping up from cracks in the salty earth. Flocks of kestrekels with blood-red feathers circled lazily overhead, looking for carrion. This was a land of death, and the heroes hurried through. The first day passed, and by noon on the second day the heroes found themselves nearing a low bluff, a broken bit of terrain breaking the monotony of the seemingly endless Scorpion Plains.

Slowing down over the broken terrain, clicks, hisses, and shouts reached their ears as the sand-skiff passed between the two small bluffs that jutted out of the salt flats like broken teeth. Monstrous figures could be seen scuttling around and over them. They were not men or scorpions but rather a horrid combination of both. Humanoid torsos and arms jutted from a scorpion-like lower body, complete with claws. All were armed with obsidian weapons. One stood atop the bluff to the south, a crude totem in one of its thick-nailed humanoid hands. “Prey!” It shouted. “Attack! Take those who survive as slaves. Feed on the rest.”

It was not love at first sting with these scorpions.

As Gurthmore leaped from the skiff and charged up the low bluff, Arshaka intoned words of protection and rhymes designed to infuriate the scorpion-men. Chuka-Tet and his scorpion fought from the back of the skiff and Sark took to the air, blasting fire and lightning on their foes. The scorpion-men were quick, and their stingers jabbed at any who drew near. Their crushing claws and obsidian weapons were fierce, but in the end they proved no match for the heroes. With the survivors driven off, the heroes caught their breath, bound and treated their envenomed wounds, and took off across the plains. A day later, they reached the badlands beyond.

With travel slowed, the heroes nevertheless managed to reach an oasis near sunset. The bubbling water indicated that they were hot springs, and three of the heroes washed the dust, grime, and salt from themselves as Chuka-Tet searched the area. The thri-kreen druid found the spoor of the ssurran merchants, who had separated from Gurthmore's horde several days ago. He reckoned them to be no more than eight hours ahead, and figured they could catch up with them if they pressed on through the night. Conjuring a pod of phantom cloud rays, Arhsaka took the lead. Though the sun dipped below the horizon, the air remained uncomfortably warm and a reddish-orange glow could be seen on the horizon. A vast gorge, plunging 1500 feet to a sea of churning magma, could be seen. Arshaka knew this was the fabled Lava Gorge, a wound in the world dating back to the war between the primordials and the lost gods of Athas. While the ssurrans could thrive in the heat, Chuka-Tet knew they were in deadly danger. A shift in the wind would bring heat like a blast furnace. Urging caution, they flew low and kept a safe distance from the edge of the vast sea of molten rock.

Journeying on, they came to a rent in the jagged, volcanic plains. Between the heat distorting the air and the ceaseless roar of the magma churning in the nearby molten sea, it was hard for the heroes to see and hear this close to the Lava Gorge. But the two titanic fire drakes climbing out the nearby magma vent were hard to miss, as were the roaring columns of flame that accompanied them. The two drakes roared with fury and stomped towards the companions, seemingly intent on destroying everything in their path. The fire elementals crackled with apparent glee as things that could burn at their touch drew close.

Yup, they tamed Devil Dinosaur and rode off on him. Ain't epic level awesome?

The heroes were not dismayed however, and Chuka-Tet and Gurthmore charged the titanic drakes as Sark burned them with his irresistible magic and Arshaka confounded them with his music. Gurthmore even managed to send one staggering back with his axe, causing it to crash into the other drake, knocking both prone. Despite their fearsome claws and rending bite, and the blasts of flame produced by the two burning vortexes, the heroes managed to slay one beast and render the other senseless. Losing interest with their playmates no longer active, the flighty elementals dispersed. With a bit of skill and coaxing, and plenty of physical intimidation, Chuka-Tet and Gurthmore cowed the remaining fire drake. The heroes mounted up on the scaly titan, and rode off, in hot pursuit of the Hassh'nek and the rest of the ssurran merchants.
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Journey to the Last Sea Part 1: Secrets of the King
Months had passed since our heroes had returned from the Lands Within the Winds. Gurthmore had led his horde of followers through the Tablelands, sacking client villages of the various sorcerer-kings, sparing those who sought mercy. Slaves that he freed were offered the choice to leave or take up arms and fight as part of his horde, and many chose to take up arms. Arshaka had joined him, becoming a voice of reason and sound advice to the barbarian warlord, even as he explored the depths of his hidden memories. Sark had traveled to the Valley of Shemmeth with Ushas and Khossus, furthering his transformation into an avangion. Rokkon Stonedarr had helped his people re-settle in the mountains near Tyr. Chuka-Tet had established an oasis off the main roads between Tyr and the city-states to the east. The druid was slowly becoming one with the land in body, as well as spirit, it seemed. Jin had remained in the Lands Within the Wind, consolidating his kingdom and working to restore balance to at least one world.

But events moved apace, and soon the heroes found themselves drawn back together. While Ushas understood what she and Sark were becoming, the nature of the transformation process was still a mystery. The Child of Light could feel a major change coming and needed a guide or formula in order to complete the process. There was only one change that could compare – that of the sorcerer-kings, all striving to become dragons. To that end, she and Sark journeyed to Tyr and sent out word to the orc mage's companions. There was only one place he and Ushas could find the answers they needed – the library of Kalak, sorcerer-king of Tyr. Gurthmore camped his followers at Fort Iron, an abandoned trade fort fifty miles southeast of Tyr, and the heroes made their way to the free city.

Tyr was a welcome sight after these many months.

With the dust of the road still on their sandals, the heroes made their way past the throngs of admirers and well-wishers who accompanied them from the Caravan Gate all the way to the Noble District. The message Sark received on the wind from Ushas, the Child of Light, instructed them all to come to a villa located in the shadow of the rainbow-hued ziggurat at the heart of Tyr. It turned out to be the home of Agis of Asticles, a nobleman of Tyr and one of the heroes who overthrew King Kalak.

A servant escorted them to a small courtyard at the center of the villa. They could see two women waiting below, near a small pool, alongside a man clad in silks with a steel blade at his side. The heroes recognized all three. The man was Agis himself, who they knew to be a practitioner of the Way and the organizer of the resistance to the deposed sorcerer-king. One of the women was Sadira, an auburn-haired half-elf woman and member of the Veiled Alliance. The other, of course, was Ushas. She rose in greeting and said, “My friends! I am glad that you have arrived. I need your help with a matter that is both difficult and sensitive. As you know I am...becoming...something more than mortal. But this transformation is not an easy one, and I do not have a template for what challenges I and those who follow in my footsteps may take. Through my meditations and studies I have come to realize that the only thing close to what I am going through is the transformation that the sorcerer-kings have undergone. To that end, I have returned to Tyr to consult with Sadira.”

The half-elf woman rose and nodded in greeting. “Yes, and it has been quite a conversation. We,” she gestured to Agis, “saw what Kalak was trying to become – a dragon. We think that all the sorcerer-kings are undergoing similar transformations, with some further along than others. No doubt Kalak was attempting to speed up his change by drawing on the life-force of the citizens of Tyr when we struck at the height of the last arena games. He probably would have killed everyone in the city to do it. Putting a spear through his heart put a stop to that, though.”

Agis paced near the fountain, a pensive look on his face. “Such a transformation could only be achieved through a powerful spell, one that must have taken centuries of study to perfect. Kalak would have kept his research, his notes, his tomes of lore somewhere in the palace. Those might hold clues to the transformation Ushas is undergoing.” A wry smile appears as he continues. “Our biggest obstacle to finding the tyrant's secrets isn't finding them however. It's dealing with the new king – Tithian.”

“Ah yes,” Sadira mocked. “our beloved King Tithian. He was Kalak's chief templar before the revolution, and he stepped in to take the crown.” She sighs. “The truth is our plot wouldn't have succeeded without him, and the templars wouldn't have fallen in line without one of their own in charge. We suspect that for all the good he's done, Tithian is biding his time, amassing power, and plotting to do away with the other factions in the city. If he learns the secrets of Kalak's transformation into a dragon, I have no doubt that he would attempt to become one himself someday. But without his permission and support, we won't be able to access the palace and find what Ushas is after.”

Ushas herself said, “To that end we have struck an agreement with King Tithian. Your heroism in defending Tyr and defeating Yarnath have marked you as either potential allies or potential threats to his reign. As such he is inclined to give you leeway in this matter, and will allow you to search the tyrant Kalak's sorcerous libraries in the Golden Tower. Provided of course that all of the items, scrolls, and tomes found are turned over to him once you discover the information we seek. I know it is a difficult bargain, but will you agree to this?”

Come dawn, the heroes made their way to the Golden Tower.

Agreeing to the would-be tyrant's terms, the heroes rested for the night and come morning made their way to the palace district of Tyr. After making their way through the gates a group of guards armed with iron-tipped spears met with the heroes. The guards escorted them into the entry of the Golden Tower and up a broad, curved stair to the third floor of the massive edifice. The chamber they entered is impressive and was once the throne room of the sorcerer-king Kalak. But the iron throne that stood here was gone, replaced by a low, hardwood table and cushioned chairs. The largest and most ornate chair sat at the head of the table, and it was occupied by a darkly handsome man in embroidered silk robes wearing a tall, gold crown.

“So the heroes of Tyr have returned,” King Tithian said with a degree of feigned politeness. “I am certain that Agis and Sadira have shared the arrangement we came to regarding the investigation of Kalak's library, so I will waste no time debating the point with you. I will simply state that your efforts are appreciated, and that the secrets of any of the sorcerer-kings could prove most dangerous in the wrong hands. It is my duty as protector and ruler of Tyr to ensure that my people are safe from these secrets. I urge you to remain cautious in your investigation, though I do hope that you will find what you are after. Still, the people of Tyr are grateful for your aid. But I am sure,” he said as much to his counselors as the heroes, “we can agree that the real heroes of the hour were those citizens who gave their life in defense of Tyr.” Gritting his teeth to ignore the slight, Rokkon nodded to the king and the others waited until the audience was finished. The king excused them, and the guards led them up a stair of polished onyx and onto the next floor.

The chamber they entered was tall and sub-divided via partial walls, but nonetheless impressive in its size and scope. Volumes of lore, mouldering scrolls, and crumbling tomes lay scattered about the room on tables, shelves, and bookcases. Strange instruments of metal, glass,and crystal were set on stands and in niches, and arcane glyphs were inscribed on the onyx ceiling and the malachite floor. And so the heroes set to investigating the king's library. It quickly became apparent that the secrets of Kalak's attempted transformation were not to be found here, but Arshaka and Sark found clues enough to indicate that the sorcerer-king had a hidden library somewhere on the palace grounds. With the aid of the others, they divined that it was hidden in the King's Gardens beneath a simple bit of masonry.

The King's Gardens were beautiful though they carried an unnatural taint.

Having made their way to the King's Gardens and down the paved paths between the trees and lush patches of vegetation, the heroes find the spot they were looking for. It was a large plinth of golden marble, set back along a smaller path that was flanked by six white marble statues of women warriors, each armed with broad, curved sword. Leafy trees and thick patches of bamboo lined the smaller path. Flowering vines grew from an earth-filled trench atop the plinth, flowing down its sides. A tracery of faint lines was etched into the golden marble of the plinth. Sark was able to detect a number of enchantments at play, and Chuka-Tet could tell they were bound somehow to the plants here...plants that had an unnatural foulness about them. With Arshaka's advice, Rokkon and Gurthmore managed to locate a door on the marble plinth and forced it open. Though Sark had revealed the door and broken the ward that kept it closed, a subtle magical alarm was triggered. Creaking and popping could be heard all around the heroes as the statues of the maidens broke free of the smaller stone plinths they rested upon and moved to attack. The vines atop the central golden marble structure animated, seeking to lash or entangle any living creature nearby. One of the large bamboo plants near the end of the path began to move as well, stumbling forward with an ape-like gait, a horrid fluting or piping drone issuing from the sharp, hollow stalks.

An intense battle followed as the stone statues moved in for the kill. Sark began weaving a counterspell to return them to their stony sleep as Gurthmore, Chuka-Tet, and Arshaka held them off. Rokkon leaped clear and began hacking away at the animated vegetation with his broad axes. With his spell finished, the statues were robbed of their animation, and the wounded trio fought off the droning bamboo plant. Shrugging off its sinister spell of sleep, the heroes managed to slay the monstrous plant and prune the vicious vines. With that obstacle dealt with, the heroes made their way down a set of steps and into the hidden library.

The stairs descended to a long, vaulted hall nearly forty feet across that ended in a pair of ornate, iron-bound double doors. Six pillars of obsidian lined the hallway, three to each side,. An ornate pattern of golden tiles took up part of the floor in a cross design. Iron doors led off the main hall at either end, and other chambers could be seen beyond, apparently running parallel with it. Sensing an arcane trap worked into the pillars and the design, Sark and Arshaka urged the rest to cautiously circle through the adjoining rooms. On one side, Arshaka, Gurthmore, and Rokkon found a pair of stone cages with naught but bones remaining inside. On the other, Sark and Chuka-Tet found a strange, spiral glyph worked into the floor and a dome of silvery force nearby. Each of the side halls had a summoning circle inscribed on the floor at the far end, near the door back to the main hall. Though their investigations proved fruitless, the heroes inadvertently triggered the wards the two companions had detected.

A glabrezu demon appeared. That always spelled trouble - for it at the end of Rokkon's axes.

A cloud of greasy, black smoke issued forth from the center of each of the summoning circles, and a gargoyle-like creature with skin like obsidian, long, talon-like claws, and a rictus grin appeared within. The air in the main hall shimmered and with a thunderous roar a huge, demonic creature with a thick, ruddy hide, four arms, and a horned head appeared. They immediately moved to attack. A terrible fight ensued. The heroes dealt with the gargoyle-like demons quickly as Sark and Rokkon could feel their claws ripping away at their living essence, their very soul, weakening them. Gurthmore slammed one into a stone cage, leaving it prey for Rokkon in one hall, while Sark virtually disintegrated another in the opposite hall. The huge demon proved a greater challenge. It spewed forth blasphemies in a language that tore at their bodies, minds, and souls even as it ripped at them with terrible claws and bolts of eldritch force. But the axes of Rokkon and Gurthmore proved equal to the task, and the demon was soon slain.

Passing through the door at the end of the hall, the heroes discovered Kalak's secret library. It was a large chamber lined with bookshelves containing moldering scrolls and crumbling tomes dating back thousands of years. Discarded arcane implements, many broken, lay scattered about the room. Strange alchemical and psionic equipment sat on dusty tables. A jeweled skull sat on the stone rail of a small stair that led up to a double row of bookshelves. As the heroes entered, the bejeweled skull rose from the stone balustrade and intoned in a hollow voice, “None may enter save Kalak, sorcerer-king of Tyr! You will pay for your trespass with your life!” There was a rush of air as loose pages and scrolls, broken rods and wands, artifacts and arcane debris swirled up into a pair of large, humanoid forms. Sigils of arcane power flared on their paper limbs, and they lunged forward with a quick, mechanical stride.

The scroll golems proved to be formidable adveraries, albeit a bit flammable.

A life-and-death struggle ensued. Rokkon faced the hovering skull one-on-one, his axes glancing off the supernaturally tough bone at first, then cracking it even as the thing fired bolts of darkness at him and tore at his life-essence. The rest engaged the scroll golems, which blasted them with spell after spell. But Gurthmore's blows sent them reeling as Chuka-Tet, Arshaka, and Sark surrounded the constructs and cut them down one by one. Rokkon finally shattered the sorcerous skull, and the battle was over. Gathering up what secrets they could, the heroes made their way back up to the Golden Tower. From what little they had seen, the transformation used by the sorcerer-kings was as much psionic as it was arcane. Whatever secrets of the Way Kalak had learned were now theirs...
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The Final Winter Part 5: The Mountain of Ice
Shrugging off the bite of the icy wind, the heroes pressed on, their shadowy phantom kank steeds running across the top of the packed ice that Arshaka called “snow.” What path there was could barely be seen as trees and falling snow rendered the forest as dim as twilight. But just ahead, they could make out a gap in the trees. Rokkon circled ahead, looking for a clearer way up the mountain as the others moved blindly ahead.

I know, trees and snow...but it's still a Dark Sun game, all right? Just trust me on that.

The trail up the side of the mountain was in clear sight. A pass, just beyond a thick copse of strange trees with needle-like leaves, offered a way up the steep-sided, snowy slopes. But as the group moved forward along the path, a strange sound could be heard. The branches rustled ominously, and a song was audible over the cold wind. It was wordless, but its tune was full of rage. Two vaguely humanoid figures with snowy feathers, ice-crusted hair, taloned feet, and wings sat on a frozen branch, staring down at the heroes.

“Up, up, up the mountain of ice they climb,” one began.

“But only a cold death will they find!” The other finished with a cackle.

“The trees they walk past will be what they see last,” both laughed in unison. The trees started to move, and the companions saw one ancient tree, its needles thick with ice, stumbled forward and its footsteps shook the ground. Two others, smaller and quicker, shambled out onto the path. With a bellow like creaking branches and breaking ice, they charged.

The harpies were ugly, man. Real ugly.

The smaller trees proved quick, and overran Sark and Jin, crushing them beneath powerful roots and driving them into the snow. Gurthmore ran forward, his axe biting deep in the larger tree even as it cracked him upside the head with an ice-crusted limb. Arshaka and Chuka-Tet battled the shrieking harpies, the thri-kreen druid springing up among the branches as the obsidian bard's song battled their hideous, icy dirge. The heroes could feel their vile song cutting through them, chilling them to the bone. But Jin vanished, bolts of eldritch force lancing out to strike two of the harpies as the enchantments on his ivory rod stripped them of their voice long enough for the heroes to turn the tide. Sark unleashed bolts and blasts of flame that set the trees aflame as Arshaka's charming ditties pulled the clumsy harpies from their branches, sending them tumbling to their deaths. Gurthmore finished the huge treant off with his axe, as Sark's flames, Chuka-Tet's staff and Jin's blade finished off the others. Resting for a moment, warming themselves around the burning fey trees, the heroes gathered their strength and continued on, up the mountain.

Their breath steamed in the frigid air of the mountain road. The way was covered with a thick layer of ice, and the climb was difficult even atop their shadowy, enchanted insect steeds. Stopping for a moment at the opening to a rocky pass, they felt a slight tremor from the ice beneath. Suddenly, the ice nearby erupted in a spray of shards and steam as it flash-boiled away. A monstrous figure emerged. It looked like a massive centipede with thick plates jutting up from its back. They glowed bright red and emanated a searing heat. It roared with a sound like the blast of a furnace and charged the heroes. It moved through the ice without effort, and overran Gurthmore, Jin, and Sark, searing them its back-plates and burning away their phantasmal steeds. The heroes scattered, though the fearsome remorhaz (as Arshaka would later name it) circled the obsidian bard and the thri-kreen druid. Gurthmore moved in and his axe bit deep into the creature, though it twisted its back plates towards him in response, searing the mul barbarian's flesh.

It was big, weird-looking, and really, really hot. And it wanted to eat them.

Even though the companions were used to (and even magically protected from) the hammering heat of the Athasian sun, the terrible heat emanating from the monster's back could no doubt melt steel, and they could feel their flesh starting to burn. Chuka-Tet's chitin began to crack, and Arshaka's glassy form began to melt from its mere presence. Jin and Sark blasted at it with spells, as Gurthmore slashed at it time and again. But the creature retaliated with dozens of raking claws and swallowed Gurthmore whole with one bite. Only the primal power he channeled through his tattoos and enchanted axe kept him alive inside that furnace. His axe cut into it from inside, and the creature spat him out in a torrent of burning fluid, narrowly missing Jin. The creature overran them again, lashing out with claws and bite, nearly swallowing Chuka-Tet. Jin moved back, evading the creature, only to plunge into an icy crevasse. But the companions were far from done, and the mul gladiator finally gutted the thing with his axe. Jin flew to the top of the crevasse, only slightly the worse for wear, and the heroes soothed their burns in the snow, with Arshaka's words and Chuka-Tet's primal power healing them far more effectively than any salve.

Rejuvenated for the time being, the heroes pressed on, up the glacial pass. Making your way up the top of the frozen mountain road, they spied a pair of forty-foot high stone tower standing on either side, near the base of the two hundred foot high cliffs. Wicked-looking fey with icy blue skin and vaguely insect-like features and wings flitted about the pass. One stood atop the tower to the left, an icicle clutched in one of its hands like a rod or wand. Two hulking creatures with a stooped gait, sharp features, icy skin, and hollow, black eyes moved out from behind the towers. They flexed their stony claws in anticipation.

Big, icy, and scary. And they were damned hard to kill. Maybe it's good that trolls were extinct on Athas.

“You would come to stop the Winter Queen?” The icy fey atop the tower laughed. “Run fools or we will take your frozen eyes to her, that they may see the final winter fall!” With that, they attacked. The iceling mage blasted them with frost as the others dashed in with icy claws, half-running, half-flying across the glacial pass. The ice trolls made a lumbering charge, engaging Jin and Chuka-Tet. Gurthmore fought free of the icelings as Arshaka and Jin vanished, their blades and spells cutting away at the wicked fey. The mul barbarian and the pale-skinned warlock dealt with the trolls as Chuka-Tet and Arshaka finished off the icelings. Sark's spells brought the enemy mage low, and the pass was clear. All that remained was the icy cliff – and the Winter Queen at its top.
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The Final Winter Part 4: Into the Cold Forest
A light snow had begun to fall in the glade where the heroes had settled down to rest, and an inch or two had accumulated by the time they were ready to leave. Despite the novelty and mild terror inspired by the newly-fallen snow, the trail back to the palace of the Summer King was easy to find, and after only a couple of hours on foot the heroes reached their destination. Signs of another attack were plainly evident and enemy casualties still lay on the field in front of the grand edifice. While the palace had suffered some light damage, its walls had not been breached again, and a number strange fey creatures were working swiftly to repair or reinforce what they could. Despite the activity there was a somber mood in the air, and the palace's defenders seemed frightened. When Jin stopped one of the eladrin sentries and asked to be taken to the Summer King, they learned that the fey monarch had been slain in battle.

As the heroes' fey escorts led them into the throne room, they saw that much of the damage from the last attack had been repaired, albeit hastily. Ione was there speaking with several other eladrin, soldiers and practitioners of the Way alike, apparently coordinating the defense of the Summer Court. She turned briefly as they approached, then motioned to the others to leave. Ione stepped up on to the dais of the malachite throne, but did not sit. Instead she began to speak.

The new Summer Queen did not have time to mourn.

“No doubt you have learned that my father has been slain in battle.” She said, her voice even, her emotions contained for the moment. “He slew one of a pair of frost titans ere he fell. One carried his bane.” Ione looks at them, the grief in her eyes giving way to hardness. “Heljka, the Winter Queen had recovered it with the aid from the mortal realm. A scout, recently returned, said a man wreathed in shadows had been seen leaving her palace. Though one of the titans was slain, the other spirited off the Frozen Tear. I fear that she may use it's power to bury the Lands Within the Wind beneath a hail of ice and snow, now that my father is gone.” She glanced down at the empty throne, and continued.

“The Winter Queen's forces are gathering to attack again. I plan to counter-attack, buying you the time to reach Heljka's mountain and stop whatever dark sorcery she plans to unleash. But we are few in number, and may not survive to see the Winter Queen's end. If our sacrifice is necessary, then so be it. I ask only that you slay the commander of this force, the remaining frost titan. I would see my father's killer die before I face the Gray. Do this, break their lines, and stop the Winter Queen before the ice takes us all. We will die in battle, and with our blades and our mastery of the Way, we will take many with us!” The fire in her eyes dimmed for a moment. “Perhaps we will live again, if hope remains in the world. But I see no other way.”

“We will see that it is done,” Jin replied with grim determination. “Hold on as long as you can.”

“This battle shall be our doom. If we had reinforcements, we could hold until you succeed. But where would we find such numbers in time to be of aid?”

“Khossus has a kingdom at his beck and call,” Rokkon replied. “And the dream hag we spared...she owes us. Call in the fey that serve her.”

“And I have a horde in the desert by Altaruk, waiting for battle and plunder!” Gurthmore let out either a low chuckle or a growl. “Bring them here, let the men and elves of the wastes paint the fields of this land with your enemies' blood!”

“Should you provide us soldiers,” Ione replied, “and I will see that they are armed. We have hundreds of bronze weapons that lack wielders. We will give them to those who fight for us.”

With that, the practitioners of the Way serving the new Summer Queen opened up long-unused passages and enacted powerful rituals that opened a bridge to the Lands Within the Wind. Gurthmore's horde came through, elves, men, muls, and tareks, and all were soon armed with weapons of bronze. At the mul barbarian's command, the warriors of the wastes prepared to defend the walls of the last stronghold of the Summer Court. They would not stand alone. Khossus had returned to them with a few dozen men.

“So this strange call brings me to a door into the long-lost Lands Within the Wind. I am not surprised to find you waiting here, my friends!” The warrior smiled, and clasped hands with his allies. “I'll be damned if wearing a real crown isn't more of a burden than the magic one we carried all those months.” He looked around. “Let me guess, this place needs to be defended against an army of savage foes. The odds are almost impossible, and death is certain. Ha! That's what we do best, isn't it? Fine, go and slay this witch of the winter. I will hold this place against your army!”

And so the heroes prepared to leave for the Winter Queen's mountain fortress. A group of eladrin scouts escorted them through the forested lands around the newly-crowned Summer Queen's demesne and over a small ridge to the plains and meres beyond. Snow had continued to fall, and the temperature had dropped. A crust of ice had formed over the fallen snow, and the shallow pools were all frozen. A rough camp was struck in view of the ridge, and many frost giants, Winter Court fey, and elementals of ice and wind could be seen milling about, preparing for their next attack.

Creeping up to the edge of the enemy camp quietly, the heroes saw a handful of giants with blue-white skin and ice-rimed hair moving about the huge, hide tents. Two other figures, armored humanoids seemingly carved from ice, stood near a large pit at the center of the camp. A titanic humanoid, its skin crusted with ice, emerged from one of the tents, a massive hammer clutched in one of its hands. As one, they spotted your approach, and a warning cry was shouted. The massive frost titan readied his hammer as the giants picked up their axes. Experienced warriors all, the heroes realized they had only moments before reinforcements arrived.

Forget the axe, his halitosis could kill you stone dead.

It did not matter. Sark raised his staff and called down a blast of lightning that leaped from titan, to elemental, to giant in turn, burning them all. Gurthmore charged the frost titan, his axe biting deep into its massive shin. Jin dashed forward, impaling the titan's other leg, as Stonedarr, Arshaka, and Chuka-Tet moved into position. The fight that followed was brief and brutal. The giants roared and charged in, their axes swinging as they bowled the heroes over. Icy javelins flew from the ice archons, and the titan swung his axe in two massive arcs. But a blow from Gurthmore, impossibly, sent the titan reeling and into the other giants, who were knocked off their feet. Sark rained fire down on them, and Rokkon's twin axes carved icy flesh. Chuka-Tet's staff and scorpion bashed and jabbed at the giants' huge feet, knees, and midsections, as Arshaka's music and blade finished them off. Jin was everywhere at once, vanishing as his blade struck home. The titan fell with a roar, and the giants soon followed. Yanking out a strange, pale tooth from the titan's mouth as a souvenir, the heroes fled as the Winter Queen's reinforcements closed in.

Moving swiftly along the frozen river, Jin and Arshaka used tales of ancient days to guide their actions. While winter had long passed on Athas, it's lore had not been entirely forgotten. At least not by them. Gurthmore bounded ahead, clearing branches and pulling the rest up a rough incline, Chuka-Tet and Sark covered their tracks. Arshaka used the fey magics inherent to the Lands Within the Wind to bend the wind and snow around them. Catching their breath, the heroes prepared to cross the frozen river.

Unearthly howls split the cold air as the Winter Queen's reinforcements gave chase. Four frost giants mounted on beasts with ice-crusted fur loped over the icy ground. Ahead lay the frozen river. While it was covered with ice, the heroes could still hear the rushing water beneath, indicating a swift current. A single, fallen tree lay across the channel. The lead giant leveled a crude lance, shouted a challenge, and began to charge.

Rokkon sprang first, axes at the ready. He checked the charge of the lead rider, and the rest broke ranks to charge the rest of the heroes. Gurthmore leveled his axe and, despite a skewering wound, sent one of the riders and his mount flying backwards with one mighty blow, tumbling three of the giants and their monstrous steeds into a gargantuan heap. Sark unleashed lightning and fire upon them, and Rokkon's axes cut the giants down. Arshaka's music paralyzed the monstrous beasts, and sent them scurrying into the swift current of the frozen river as Jin and Chuka-Tet drove off the last surviving giant. Jin felled him at a distance, leaving only the howling beasts to flee before the heroes' fury.

The image of the new Summer Queen appeared to them at that moment, like a shimmer of heat in the desert. “The Frozen Tear, the bane of the summer fey, was not on the slain titan. The Winter Queen has taken it again, and will no doubt use its terrible power to fuel this ritual. She will bring winter on the land forever unless stopped. You have less than a day to reach her, though it will take three afoot to reach her mountain.”

“This will not be a problem for us,” Arshaka said, as he called forth six black kanks wrought from shadow. Though the bitter cold of the wind and snow made flight above the trees impossible, the mounts could glide over the snow like phantoms. Taking the fur-lined bags of the slain giant, Rokkon fashioned crude coats for the heroes to protect them from the ice and wind, and they were off. Though they had to stop every so often to gain their bearings and warm up, the heroes made good time up the forested slopes.

After stopping a moment to rest after hours of travel, the heroes heard strange whispers from the trees and saw movement out of the corners of their eyes. Numbing fear began to creep over them. As if in response to the growing dread they felt, the ice-crusted snow burst, revealing nearly a dozen frozen corpses. They lurched hideously towards the heroes, blackened and frozen skin creaking as they moved, icy fingers clutching like claws. Figures moved out of the treeline, nightmarish figures. They were tall, nearly the size of a giant, but abnormally thin and covered in patchy white hair. Their heads were like those of a half-rotted animal of some sort with milky eyes and massive antlers. Worst of all they moved without touching the ground. Only the burned stumps of feet remained. They glided soundlessly across the snow, their monstrous faces contorted by rage and hunger. Eerie howls rose from them, and they swooped in to attack.

The wendigo, the wendigo, I saw him just a friend ago...

One grabbed Jin, carrying the pale-skinned warlock aloft. The other slashed and Rokkon, and moved back among the trees. They vanished as they moved away, becoming only blurs in the corner of the eye. But Gurthmore was not dismayed, and he slashed away with his bronze wrist axe, cutting the air in front of Jin. Its fey enchantment made it strike true, and the wendigo vanished, reappearing next to the mul barbarian. The frozen corpses moved in to surround the heroes, and though blows from Chuka-Tet's staff took them down, they got right back up. Arshaka realized only fire or pure radiance could fell them once and for all. The two wendigo darted in and out the trees, vanishing time and again like fog in the wind. They tore at the heroes with claws and icy gusts that tore flesh from bone. One unleashed a terrible hunger that overcame their will. Sark and Gurthmore were transformed for a brief moment, their eyes becoming blank white and their teeth sharp as they tore at Chuka-Tet and Rokkon with horrid bites. But the heroes were not done. Chuka-Tet drew them into his hive mind, and they could feel the very vibrations of the air. The creatures were revealed, and soon axes and fire had finished both wendigo and the corpses animated by their command. But several of the heroes felt an unnatural hunger growing in them, one that could only be satisfied by feeding their unnatural cravings. Depite the ice, the wind, and the gnawing hunger, they pressed on, determined to stop the endless winter from falling...

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The Final Winter Part 3: Heart of the Labyrinth
Having defeated the monstrosities guarding the way into the ancient labyrinth, the heroes made their way down the rough-hewn stone steps into the passages below. The maze was truly old, having been constructed by the lords of the Lands Within the Wind at the beginning of the Green Age. Due no doubt to both its great age and its current inhabitants, the labyrinth had deteriorated, though the art and architecture of its creators is still evident in places. The passages of the maze were all of constructed of worked stone tiles, had a uniform layout and size, and were decorated with a pattern of intricate friezes in a bold, geometric style with a naturalistic motif. The walls were cracked and crumbled in places however, and many of the patterned tiles had been defaced with gouges, scratches, and vile graffiti.

The heroes cautiously made their way down the twisting tunnels. Stonedarr and Chuka-Tet looked for signs of passage, and were rewarded with the scrapes left by hooves. More minotaurs, the size of giants, were down here. And something larger and heavier. “Gorgons,” Chuka-Tet buzzed in a worried tone. Arshaka used his knowledge of history and architecture to figure out the pattern of the maze, while Sark homed in on the arcane energies of the Shard of the Sun. Gurthmore moved aside fallen stones and helped his comrades clamber down broken passages and up piles of broken rock while Jin scouted ahead, silently searching the shadows.

As they drew closer and closer to the center of the maze, the companions realized they were not alone. The clack of hooves on stone could be heard in the darkness. There was a sudden bellow, and a group of large figures charged out of the darkness. They had the heads of bulls and monstrous, humanoid bodies. Their limbs were misshapen and gnarled, but their ancient bronze axes looked sharp. A pair of large four-footed creatures with hooves, horns, stony scales, and burning eyes trundled down the corridor alongside the warped minotaurs. The floor of the labyrinth shook with their every step. A vicious hit-and-run battle began, with the minotaurs and their gorgons striking from out of the shadows, then running off back into the labyrinth of tunnels before the heroes could respond. The companions were not rattled however, and after a game of cat-and-mouse in the ancient tunnels, the predators became the prey. With their trap sprung, the heroes surrounded the minotaurs and their stony allies, cutting them down one by one, until at last they reached the heart of the maze. The last minotaur fell, and the way was clear.

Did anyone get its license plate before it ran me over?

But time had broken and collapsed the tunnels that led to the resting place of the Shard of the Sun. Whatever cataclysm wrought that damage had also opened up a cleft in the wall that led to caverns below. Scrambling down a slope of broken rocks, the heroes entered a network of caves connected to the maze, hoping to find a way in to where the artifact lay waiting.

As they entered the caverns beneath the labyrinth, the heroes smelled a foul odor emanating from the chambers ahead. Foul residue clung to every surface, and a low, droning chant could be heard. Flickering lights cast monstrous shadows over the walls. Making their way past a ledge, the top of which was hidden by the darkness shadowing the cavern's ceiling, they could all see three pits at the center of the main chamber. One was filled with a viscous, black substance. Another appeared filled with liquid fire. The last was full of a vile, bubbling, green ooze. A lone minotaur with a braided mane and numerous demonic symbols burned into his hide sat there, swaying. A massive demon with ruddy skin, four arms, and a head like that of a beast squatted across from him at the base of the wall. Two smaller, scorpion-like demons covered with spines prowled the edge of the cavern. With a growl like an angry mekillot, the demon spoke. “Unworthy. You are weak! You will be destroyed!” Another demon, large and vulture-like, alighted from the ledge and swooped down to attack.

A horrible battle followed. Gurthmore drove the minotaur shaman back into the fiery pit, but a hail of spines from the scorpion-like fiends rained down on him. Stonedarr's axes cut into the massive demon, but despite its wounds it unleashed terrible magic. Words of horror issued forth, dimming the light and shaking the cavern walls as it unleashed bolts of darkness and rent and crushed flesh with its four claws. The vulture demon swooped time and again, tearing at Sark and Arshaka as Chuka-Tet and Jin moved in to fight the massive, four-armed fiend. Despite the ferocity of their foes, the heroes rallied. The great demon went down under a hail of axes, as the two smaller fiends were cut down by spell and blade. The minotaur shaman lost his head to the mul barbarian's axe and the vulture fell to Jin's icy blade.

Their strength at a low ebb, the heroes rested for a short time. Arshaka cast a ritual of solace and healing that restored them as if they had spent a night asleep, but none of the companions realized the strange energies of the far-off Pristine Tower would reach this far. Strange itching and burning sensations gave way to pain. Arshaka, not truly alive, noticed that even the stone of his obsidian form had begun to crack in places. But the others fared far worse. A third arm had begun to grow from Gurthmore's back. Grotesque and uncoordinated, it grabbed blindly at everything, hindering the mul gladiator. Chuka-Tet's carapace thickened, slowing him even as it made him tougher. Sark had sprouted thick claws, allowing him to climb and burrow through stone even as they hindered his movement and made him clumsy. Jin began to burn with an inner fire, sweat pouring down the pale-skinned warlock's flesh even as his touch seared unprotected flesh. Stonedarr's features had shifted, and one of his eyes was now more on the side of his head than its front.

Disturbed by their freakish mutations, the heroes opted nevertheless to press on. They climbed up a sheer cliff at the rear of the cavern, ending up in a higher cave. It led up into a large, circular chamber. A ruddy glow emanated from the chamber ahead, and the companions saw its source at the center of the vast circular space. A small set of terraced steps led down to the floor of the high, domed room. A shining crystal glowing like the sun hung suspended over a pit or well at the heart of the chamber. This place was obviously damaged by whatever cataclysm struck it long ago, and one of the cracks high on the wall revealed a ledge.

The chamber was not empty. A huge figure stirred on the far side as the heroes entered. It had a massive, bestial head similar to that of a minotaur, but its shaggy frame spoke of a primordial strength. A second figure was taking its feet on the ledge. It had a large, canine body with a jackal-like head, but the similarity to any sane being ended there. It had wings like those of a drake and a long, serpent-headed tail. Its eyes were nothing but yawning pits from which foul, greasy smoke constantly issued.

Demon or beast, it didn't matter. The heroes would still find a way to kill it.

“Humph,” the great titan growled, “you come to claim my shining treasure. You cannot. It is mine. These tunnels are mine. The minotaurs are mine. All that lives here – mine!” It stands to its full height. “I am Magog! I will rend you limb from limb for trying to take what is mine!” There was a flash of sickly light from around the chamber, and a number of horned, emaciated, beast-like humanoids armed with stone axes appeared.

The bigger they are, the easier it is for them to rip you to pieces.

A veritable slaughter ensued. Horned fiends fell, bursting into a shower of acidic gore as they died. The creature on the ledge spat poison from its tail as its very gaze warped and twisted Stonedarr, then Sark, into tiny animals. They fought off the enchantment as Gurthmore and Rokkon both charged the titan. It slammed them with its massive fists, tore at them with horns and fangs, and unleashed a wave of pure rage that tore at their minds. It rebounded their attacks, nearly slaying the half-giant ranger with the damage done by a stroke of his own axe. But the heroes prevailed. Chuka-Tet's primal magic restored them as Arshaka sang a song of victory. His words inspired Gurthmore to bury his axe in the titan's side as Stonedarr's twin blades gutted it, leaving it to bellow and sway, before it fell as its intestines slithered out on to the floor. Jin finished the strange beast, and Sark recovered the shining crystal, the Shard of the Sun. The well beneath had contained a vortex of elemental power that now changed, becoming a gate back to the Lands Within the Wind. Jumping down the well, the heroes found themselves in a forest glade as snow began to fall...
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Fortress of Bones Part 10: Return to the City of Spires
As the heroes approached Nibenay, a hooded, robed figure stepped from out of the sparse trees lining the old logging road. “Wait my friends, I would journey with you.” Sark revealed himself, throwing back his hood. The beast-man had changed. He no longer wore the hide skirt and bone ornaments of an orc witch, but was dressed in a civilized fashion. His eyes still shone with the same, fierce intelligence, but there was knowledge there now. “But we will doubtless,” he said, eying himself, Chuka-Tet, and Stonedarr, “attract a great deal of attention.”

“I believe I can help with that...provided I can borrow your services for a moment,” Arshaka replied. “Forgive my asking, but I believe you have changed. Your studies with Sadira and Ushas?”

“Yes,” Sark said. “I honor and respect where I came from, but I have learned much of how the people of your city-states work magic. And Ushas has taught me much about how nature and the forces arcane can be balanced. I have changed, both within and without. But you said something about help?”

The bard and the mage worked together, using an ancient ritual the obsidian man had re-learned in his recent reverie. A cloak of illusion fell over them all, and soon they appeared to be no more than tenant farmers heading in from the fields surrounding the Plain of Smoking Waters. Circling Nibenay, they approached from the Mekillot Gate. A bored guard halted them briefly, and though obviously illiterate, he made a show of going over the forged papers Arshaka had prepared. Waving them through, he gave them no further mind. Deftly avoiding casual contact lest the illusion falter, the heroes made their way into the winding streets of the Sages' District.

The narrow, crowded streets of the City of Spires did not seem as welcoming as they once did. The carvings on the walls of the various public buildings, private homes, and merchant houses seemed to leer down with knowing eyes. Sly courtesans on balconies gestured to merchants and travelers alike as vendors hawked their wares with eager desperation. Pushing through the crowd, past citizens and slaves alike, the companions saw a group of ceremonial dancers through a haze of incense smoke performing in a nearby courtyard to the sound of bells and temple gongs. They danced in celebration of the Festival of the New Moons, which would reach its height in two days. Snatches of conversation overheard from the crowd indicated that the Shadow King had proclaimed that a tournament be held in the arena to mark the occasion. Whispered rumors abounded that after a champion had been named, noble blood would be spilled in the arena in the form of a traitor's execution.

Speaking with the merchants and citizens crowding the streets, the heroes quickly learned that the Festival of the New Moons was a holiday marking the anniversary of the Shadow King's reign. Both of the moons, Ral and Guthay, would be dark and lanterns would be lit all over the city while processions of dancers would move through the streets to place his majesty's blessings on those seeking good fortune. Games were to be held in the arena the day of the festival. One of the great champions of years past, Abraxas, would face the winners, and the prize was no less than a favor from the Shadow King himself. Callides of House Tauron had been convicted of treason. Lady Xerena, the head of House Haxtes, produced evidence that had damned him in open council. Any members of the Veiled Alliance in the city were in hiding.

Realizing that allies would be in short supply, the heroes opted to head to the Shrine of the Sun in the city's Western District, but in disguise. They were unrecognized by Fedarramin, the shrine's priest, at first. After a few careful questions, the tanned and wizened half-elf realized who they were. With whispered apologies he asked them to leave the shrine and seek Nemeia, their sole remaining contact, in the slums of the Hill District. “I am truly sorry,” he said, “but I had to make certain declarations to avoid sharing Callides' fate. You should know the shrine is being watched. May the Child of Light guide your steps.” As they left Chuka-Tet and Stonedarr noticed that a number of the poor artisans outside the Shrine of the Sun had not moved since they entered, and that the routine tasks they seemed to be doing did not interfere with the close watch they kept on who entered and left the building. So they made their way to the ruins and slums that formed the city-state's Hill District.

With the setting of the sun the ruins at the heart of Nibenay's Hill District took on a menacing air. Past the hovels and crude shanties constructed from stones that were once part of a great palace, all that remained were the charred and gutted shells of once proud villas. But these structures were far from abandoned. Cutpurses and cutthroats, black marketeers and elves, villains one and all, crept about the area offering services that few honest citizens asked for – including a brutal death for the unwary. But the heroes were unafraid and invited attention at every turn. They made their way to the Elven Market at the center of the district, and despite shady merchants, claims of magical elixirs and curatives, and the odd pickpocket or two, they could not locate Nemeia. They did notice a group of thugs moving through the market, escorting a bald man in plain robes and a young noble rake in a poor disguise. Avoiding their attention, they inadvertently found the attention of another. A female form in a hooded cloak gestured to them, drawing them down a darkened ally. Wary for ambushes the heroes made their way to one structure stood out, as despite its poor condition it seemed secure enough for one person to defend – or hide in.

Moving inside, they were surprised by a voice out of the darkness. “I had begun to fear I would never see you again!” A female tiefling in the garb of a fortune-teller stepped out of the shadows. Despite the attempts to conceal her identity, they recognized her right away – it was the tiefling they were after, Nemeia. “Your timing could have been better,” she continued, “but your presence is most welcome. I believe you know what has become of our ally, Callides, yes? Well, we may all share his fate before too long if something is not done. Though he is strong willed and a skilled practitioner of the Way, it is best we assume that our enemies now know our secrets. But how much they know is the question, isn't it? There are only two ways to find that out – rescue Callides or learn what the head of House Haxtes has discovered. Bold as you are, you may try to do both, though I say take only what course you believe will succeed. I'm sure you have many questions, and I will give you what answers I can. After that I will be leaving Nibenay, probably for good. I would suggest you do the same, once you have done what's needed.”
“What can you tell us about what has happened?” Arshaka asked. “We do not know the whole story. Where is Callides? And what is the evidence against him?”

“Callides is being held in the Naggaramakam, in the dungeons beneath the Shadow King's palace. Only his templar brides, his half-giant guards, and high-ranking janissaries are allowed beyond the palace's gates. It's highly unlikely that you could sneak in and rescue him, let alone fight your way through his elite guards and templars. As far as the evidence, Lady Xerena now possesses an item that once belonged to Callides, a psionic Sending Stone that he used to relay telepathic messages back and forth for the Veiled Alliance. She hired a minstrel who charmed or coerced some of our noble friend's most trusted slaves into betraying their master. With their aid she managed to sneak into House Tauron's estate, where she then poisoned several members of Callides' household before absconding with the stone. It's likely she used some powerful practitioner of the Way to strip psychic echoes from the Sending Stone. They were convincing enough accuse and convict Callides of treason against the Shadow King in open court. As far as I know the lady of House Haxtes is at her estate. I have heard rumors that she has been experimenting with defiling magic and foul necromancy. It is likely she will be in attendance at the festival's games however, as Callides is to be executed at their climax.”

“I think I have an idea,” Stonedarr said. “We can bet that we won't be able to reach Callides in the palace. But we might get him out of the arena. I say we enter the tournament, have Gurthmore kill everything, then ask to be the ones to cut the traitor's head off. Then we grab him, cut our way out of the arena, and get him and you,” he said, pointing to Nemeia, “out of Nibenay.”

“I like it.” Gurthmore grunted. “It plays to my strengths. I bet they won't expect us to go after that noble witch right after. We hide here in the city, in her estate, after cutting her head off! Ha!”

“That could work,” Arshaka agreed. “We can slip into her Cliffside estate via the old sewers and tunnels beneath. It may get messy,” he said with a shrug, “but fortunately I have no sense of smell.”

A figure moved out of the darkness, at that moment, a woman with pale skin clad in a dark red hooded cloak that nevertheless shimmered like silk. “What have we here?” She asked with a bemused tone in her voice. “A spy and her accomplices? Or a fly in the ointment?” Two other women could be seen moving through the rubble, both in dark robes and carrying rods and obsidian-edged swords, no doubt templar brides of Nibenay. Shadows danced along the ruined walls of the shattered villa, indicating that more figures lurked just out of sight.

“Come now, children. Throw down your arms and come with us. The Shadow King will determine your fate...and I will have the truth that lies behind your eyes.” Chuka-Tet could see that the figure was not human. Past the mask of illusion concealing her true form, she was nude save for the cloak and her feet ended in cloven hooves. The charred stumps of wings sat between her shoulders and six, long, shadowy tentacles tipped with stingers writhed beneath her cloak. Her eyes were blank and small horns were visible on her forehead. She was a demon of the Abyss, and no doubt a servant of the Shadow King.

The heroes exchanged a quick glance, and a myriad of thoughts via Arshaka's telepathic voice. With sudden speed, Chuka-Tet cracked his staff against the base of Nemeia's skull, felling her instantly. “We are with you,” Stonedarr lied, “not this traitor! We will gladly accompany you to one we would call master, the Shadow King!”

“Step forward,” she commanded, and as the goliath ranger complied she brushed his cheek with her hand. Overcome by her unearthly charms, he blurted out the truth when she asked, “Is this so?”

“No, we plan on getting close enough to kill him or get Callides out of the palace.” With a groan, the rest of the companions readied to fight. The battle that followed was brief but intense. Gurthmore and Rokkon took their axes to Nibenay's brides while Sark's magic overcame the assassins hidden in the shadows. Chuka-Tet and Arshaka finished some of the combatants off as the two warriors hacked the demon to bits. With the fray done they hid the bodies and opted to rest in the burned out manor. Chuka-Tet's primal magics restored Nemeia, and they prepared to head to the arena on the morrow as she readied to leave the City of Spires.
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Tags: Milestone , Recap
Fortress of Bones Part 7: Yarnath the Skull
Arshaka, Chuka-Tet, Khossus, and Rokkon still battled their way to the top of the colossal construct as Jin and Gurthmore fought off a wave of undead attackers high atop Slither. The elves, gnolls, and tareks protecting the Crawling Citadel howled for blood and launched volleys of arrows and spears at the heroes. But they had help from an unexpected quarter as Sark flew down from the sky, raining frost and shadow down on the Skull's raiders. Though wounded by a gnoll's spear that pinned his leg to the bone fortress, Chuka-Tet waved the rest on, allowing Khossus and Arshaka to reach the platform atop the Crawling Citadel. Two figures bounded out of the fortress's huge eye-sockets, gaunt, horned demons with slick, black skin and claws dripping reddish ooze, and they charged the heroes. As Chuka-Tet and Khossus knocked one off to the sands sixty feet below, Rokkon held off another with broad slashes from his axe. Darok, the death knight servant of the Skull, strode into the melee atop the fortress and hacked madly with his axe before blasting the heroes with dark flames. “You hacked off my arm and left me to die! Now all of you will die as I hack you to pieces!” He roared madly.

Gurthmore had enough. With a roar of elemental fury he called on the spirits of the desert wind, blasting one of the warrior-wights fighting him as he vanished into the roaring tempest, only to appear a moment later. The desert wind around him tore the skeletal warriors atop Slither apart, and he, Khossus, and Rokkon moved in to surround Darok. The death knight was far from finished however, and he conjured a wall of freezing shadows, leaving him face to face with Rokkon. The wounded half-giant desperately parried as their axes clashed time and again, and he knew that one blow would finish him. Salvation came from an unexpected quarter as Jin, whose icy blade had wrought havoc among the dead and the living guardians, appeared next to Darok and then impaled the undead warrior through his black heart. Darok let out a strangled cry as his bones froze then shattered, and he was no more. Arshaka and Chuka-Tet joined the rest, clearing warriors out of their path as Sark soared to the top of Slither on the winds. Fire and shadow, hex and spell, all had fallen like deadly hail on the warriors in his path, burning them alive or hurling them from the fortress to the sands below. The rest had retreated in fear. The way to Yarnath's tower was clear.

Remembering their journey here many moons ago, Rokkon pointed to the tower perched behind Slither's head. “There!” He shouted. “That's the tower Kivrin pointed out. The Skull is there.” Approaching the seamless stone wall of the tower atop the bone walkways running on Slither's broad back, Sark's arcane sight revealed a door hidden in the stone. But some vile magic protected the entry to the lich's tower, magic that could disintegrate any living creature that dared try and enter. Jin, who walked the crossroads between life and death, used talents learned from a lifetime on the streets of Tyr to disable the runes scribed into the doorframe.

“This is only temporary,” he said, “so I suggest we hurry.” Stepping into a small, dark chamber the heroes could sense some movement behind the heavy curtain ahead. Khossus threw back the curtain and the light of the Crown of the Sun revealed a large, bisected chamber taking up most of this level of the tower. A pair of large statues flanked a circle of arcane glyphs scribed on the floor in the close half, and a curious-looking unlit bone chandelier hung directly above it. A bone chair stood behind an elaborately-carved desk in the far half of the chamber, and a robed figure rose as the heroes entered. It was a skeleton, clad in black robes, and all could see that its bones were carved with arcane symbols. An enormous ruby sat in one eye socket, a black diamond in the other. Two large figures stepped out of the shadows, one on either side of the room,and their skull heads and long, bony fingers marked them as undead of some sort.

The skeleton whispered in a menacing voice. “You were fools to come here. You will know fear. You will know fire. And then you will die.”

Gurthmore charged in to attack as Chuka-Tet buzzed a warning. “The bones above move!” Indeed, the so-called chandelier was in fact a massive, serpentine skeleton with a large, human-like skull atop it. It let out a ghastly, unsettling rattle that chilled the heroes to their core. Fighting off the terror it produced, the heroes rallied and shattered it with blow after blow even as its bite and hideous rattle wrought havoc. The huge skeletons moved in, attempting to impale the heroes with their spear-like fingers, but to little avail. The robed skeleton blasted them with fear and flame, but the heroes proved too much in the end. The guardians were defeated, and spiral stairs led up into the darkness.

Ascending them cautiously, the heroes emerged into a large, pillared chamber with a throne of bone, gold, and black stone set upon a large dais on the far side. A large, black crystal ball stood to one side on a stand of bone and gold. A figure sat on the high-backed throne, a tall figure wearing black robes and a crown-like helmet. His features were withered and skeletal, the tattooed skin stretched tight over the bone beneath. His eyes were empty sockets glowing with cold, red light. It was Yarnath the Skull, master of Slither, the Crawling Citadel. Despite his gauntness, his frame and bald pate beneath the crown suggested that he was, of all things, a mul in life. The heroes could hear a rustling movement behind the throne, and two large figures slithered from behind the dais. They were neither giant albino snakes nor giant women with six arms and half a dozen swords, but rather a combination of both. The rasp of steel sounded as they drew their weapons.

“You are here at last,” Yarnath said with bemused malice as he rose from his seat. “I must congratulate your persistence and your prowess. No others have dared fight their way onto Slither, let alone entered my presence unannounced. You have been a thorn in my side for far too long.” The Skull's voice took on a note of anger. “I am no longer amused by your attempts to interfere with my designs. I will take great pleasure in your deaths and what comes after.”

The final confrontation with Yarnath had begun.
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Valley of Nightmares Part 5: Betrayal on the Crimson Savanna
The heroes woke from a deep slumber to find the gargantuan cloud ray that had carried them to this strange grassland had vanished. Taking stock of their situation, the heroes realized they had few supplies, no idea where they were, and a dead comrade to attend to. “I have the power to restore life to Toranda,” Chuka-Tet began, “but I don't know if we should...” the thri-kreen druid's voice cut out as he looked around and discovered that the tiefling adept's body was...gone.

Across the clearing created by the cloud ray's landing, the man-high grass parted and Toranda stepped into the clearing. The noble appeared whole, though his eyes had become solid black orbs that reflected no light. “I am here, and I live,” he said simply. “The battle was difficult but...”

“But you were dead!” Khossus interjected. “How in the hells did you come back?”

“Yes,” Rokkon continued, “how indeed. You have some explaining to do. And we'd better like your answers.” His hands went to his axes, even as Gurthmore hefted his huge execution axe.

“You must explain yourself,” Arshaka said diplomatically. “Why did you defile...and how? And how do you live?”

“I do not know,” Toranda replied. “I only know that I needed strength, and drew it from all around me. The same thing happened after I was wounded during our battle with the sun drake. A voice came to me, and showed me the way back. It was the voice of my new master, the lord of shadows. He has shown me the path to true power. Join me, and you may walk this path beside me.”

“No,” Arshaka cried, “you cannot...”

“How dare you tell me what I can or cannot do!” Toranda roared in reply. His features underwent a diabolic transformation as his horns lengthened and a halo of dark fire appeared around him. “I should be leading you! Follow me, and power will be yours!”

“Never!” The heroes responded, and Gurthmore hefted his axe and charged the tiefling noble. But Toranda was faster. He unleashed a devastating psychic blast which left his former companions reeling, then lifted Chuka-Tet, Khossus, and Gurthmore with his mind, slamming them into each other and knocking the others prone. The thick grass withered and crumbled to ash in a wide circle around Toranda. His betrayal was complete. But the goliath ranger and the mul barbarian proved too much. Their axes slashed and slashed again, and as the killing blow was set to land...nothing. Toranda became an insubstantial shadow and vanished. He was gone. Gurthmore and Khossus, both of whom had felt the hand of the Shadow King, felt a cold chill move up and down their spine and for a brief moment knew that they were being watched.

As the heroes dealt with their feelings of anger and betrayal, confusion and sorrow, they gathered their strength and what supplies they had and set out for the smudge on the horizon that marked the great cliffs. No more than an hour later, they could see a figure wheeling through the air overhead. It was a great, black bird, and it circled closer and closer before coming in to land. A huge raven alighted on the sward, and riding it was a strange, gray-skinned man with bestial features. He wore black, feathered armor and a leather kilt and carried a staff of polished black bone. Skulls decorated his belt and piercings and strange tattoos decorated his flesh. He dismounted the huge bird, which immediately shrank until it was no larger than a normal crow. It perched on his shoulder, its milky-white eyes seemingly fixed on the heroes.

“You there,” he said in broken trade-tongue, “where have you come from? The land is defiled, not more than an hour's walk from here. Is one of you a defiler?” He asked with menace in his voice.

“No,” Arshaka replied, “there was one with his, but his use of such magic was a betrayal. He is now our enemy. We would choose to be your friends. What is your name?”

“I am Sark,” he said. “One of the last of the true people. You are in the lands hunted by the hoppers,” the bestial witch-man said as he pointed at Chuka-Tet. “One travels with you. Has it tried to eat you?” He pointed at Chuka-Tet as he spoke, and his eyes did not stray far from the thri-kreen druid.

“They are my clutch,” Chuka-Tet clicked, “and I protect them. We are from far away, and I do not know the...uh...hoppers who live here.”

Seemingly satisfied with this answer, Sark deigned to travel with the companions. The grass of the Crimson Savanna was thick, almost like bamboo, and had sharp edges where its stalks had broken. It grew in clumps reaching six feet in height in places, though it was apparent that the large grazers in the area had tramped paths through it and the thri-kreen who hunted the plains had cut a few roads and trails. The companions found that travel on foot was not as easy as it seemed, as soft patches of soil and hidden mud sinks grabbed at their feet even as the stalks slashed at their exposed skin. Sark advised them that sudden thunderstorms could arise and lightning ignite the grass, or that the rain could create flash floods, making death by drowning in a wash of mud a real possibility. Breezes kicked up clouds of blinding, choking red dust and rustled the tall grass, hiding the sound of predators moving through the sward. Occasional tremors would rock the savanna, and though these earthquakes were unsettling and could knock one prone, they were generally harmless unless they caused nearby beasts stampede or opened fissures in the surrounding plains. “It is a land of danger, but my people are strong. This is why we are here,” the witch-man said cryptically. As he spoke of his people, Arshaka realized that they were a race long vanished from the rest of Athas, a breed once known as...orcs.

While the omnipresent thick, green grass dusted in crimson presented a constant danger to creatures without a thick hide or carapace, as they could be cut by the tall stalks as they moved through them, it was far from the only danger they would face on that first day. A few hours of travel on foot across the humid, blistering plains, the heroes saw a large rock formation standing like a mute sentinel overlooking the crimson sward. The tall grass rustled slightly as they approached, even though there was no breeze. Without warning, half a dozen thri-kreen sprang out of hiding, weapons at the ready. They clicked and buzzed excitedly to each other. One at the rear led a large, black kank on a leash or harness woven from tough grass fibers. The big, black insect drooled a gob of sizzling foam that coated and burned the surrounding foliage. “Prey,” their leader buzzed, and they moved to attack.

“You will find we are not such easy prey,” Chuka-Tet warned the enemy clutch's leader, but the struggle could not be avoided. The clutch leader leaped around the field, deftly avoiding the razor-edged grass as his gythka slashed at Khossus and Rokkon. The others were nearly as fast, and they moved to surround Gurthmore and Chuka-Tet while their hunting kank spat gobs of foaming acid at the heroes. But the two gladiators and the half-giant ranger fought back, axes and blades cleaving exoskeletons and tall grass alike. Arshaka and Chuka-Tet used spell-song and primal evocation to good effect, dazzling and burning the enemy thri-kreen. Sark proved a worthy ally as he called forth shadow and cold, lightning and fire, and his hexes slowed and disoriented the hunters. Before long it was over, and the last two hunters opted to leap off rather than die and up the victors' dinner. Gathering what supplies they could from the hunters and their kank, including some strange, psychically-charged crystals, the heroes continued on their way.

The journey proved difficult, and the companions' fortitude was tested when a sudden tremor shook the plains, knocking almost everyone prone and nearly sending Sark and Khossus into a chasm that opened near their feet. But they persevered. The next day, Sark used his magic to summon a handful of giant birds, rocs, to serve as mounts for his new companions. For most of the day they flew over the Crimson Savanna, landing only when the sun began to dip towards the horizon. Sore from their new mounts, the heroes began to search for a campsite. A bellow reached their ears as they made their way down a trail of tramped and torn grass. Ahead, they could see a small clump of trees poking up out of the tall grass. A pair of huge, reptilian behemoths with long, spiked tails were there, protecting what appeared to be a small group of their young. Two huge scorpions with dusky crimson carapaces circled around them, claws clacking and tails jabbing. The scorpions wheeled about as the heroes approached, and the behemoths bellowed and stamped the ground aggressively. Circling warily around the beasts, the heroes ran afoul of another predator lurking in the grass – a hungry rage drake. The heroes made short work of the beast, and Sark conjured a wall of thorns which prevented the scorpions from pursuing them. After a restless night of sleep, Sark conjured more mounts the next day, and their journey continued.

After the third day passed, the heroes were on foot for the entirety of the next day, and gathered what herbs and components they could for the half-orc witch's ritual magic. The heat, the humidity, the insects, and the endless, razor-edged grass made the journey difficult but the heroes were slowly starting to acclimate to the strange environment. As the cliffs drew nearer, the heroes talked about using the rocs Sark had summoned to fly over the great precipice. “It will not work,” he told them, “as the great birds will not approach the area. That land is called the Misty Border, and it is taboo to my people as well.” As their march continued, the heroes came across a shallow, muddy stream that cut across the tall sward. Ponderous footsteps shook the ground ahead, and the sound of guttural voices chanting in cadence reached the companions' ears. As they rounded a bend in the trail, they saw a group of humanoids moving towards them across a muddy patch of ground. One rode a huge behemoth with a bony crest and three long horns. The rest had heavy hide chaps and breastplates and were armed with vicious-looking bone weapons. All were heavily muscled and had tusk-like teeth, snout-like noses, and gray-green skin. They were Sark's people, but not his tribe, and these orcs shouted a challenge, and moved to attack.

Fierce battle followed as Gurthmore charged the great behemoth, his axe biting deep into the beast's armored hide. The rest of the companions followed suit, as Khossus moved like a juggernaut across the muddy stream, slamming into one of the marauding orcs with his shield and knocking it prone. Rokkon dashed across the mud, twin axes slashing at all that moved. Arshaka and Chuka-Tet moved forward, the obsidian bard's song making his enemies dance to his tune as the thri-kreen druid's staff and scorpion wrought havoc among the orcs. Sark flew above the battle, raining darkness and cold down on the enemy tribe. The orcs fought back hard, bone axes and flails striking home with crushing force. Their shaman called down lightning and thunder as his behemoth trampled through the heroes' ranks. Arrows bit home as two orcs with bows fell back, and the heroes were almost overwhelmed. But Khossus moved like a sandstorm, protecting his allies. The behemoth and the shaman fell, and the orcs dropped one by one thereafter. Their deaths were not had cheaply however, and all struck with the ferocity of rage drake even as they dropped. As the last fell, the heroes were near exhausted. The cliffs began to loom over the plains, but were still many days away. Their journey would continue...

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Island of the Lost Temple Part 6: To the Heart of the Island
The thick overgrowth and the lack of landmarks had made further progress nearly impossible. Backtracking to the shores of the Sea of Silt, the heroes made their way along the sandy, rocky stretch of land as they looked for a clear trail. “I see no sign of a trail here,” Chuka-Tet clicked. “I will move up to the cliffs and look from there. I believe the island is shaped like a great bowl, and I may be able to see a trail from on high. I will take this one with me,” he said, pointing to Toranda. “That way we can talk with our minds. And I can make sure that he does not get lost in the woods.” Toranda scowled at first, then nodded.

“I can't say that I disagree,” the tiefling said. “All these trees are...unnatural.” The thri-kreen druid and the tiefling psion split off from the group and made there way towards the cliffs ahead as the rest continued to search the immediate area. Ahead they saw a clearing on the edge of what passed for a beach on this island. There, a large, gray-skinned humanoid wielding a club stood with his back against a massive tree on the far side. He was obviously injured, and was surrounded by a group of tan- or ruddy-skinned giants. One of them, a female, let out a low chuckle and said something menacing in the giant-tongue. Another growled a warning, and the rest turned to face the heroes, clubs in hand.

A brief, vicious battle followed. The wounded stone giant lashed out at the brutes surrounding him, shattering his stone club on one's skull even as he was battered time and again. Gurthmore and Khossus hewed about with axe and blade as Arshaka, spotting a sinkhole in the sands near the rocky shore, lured two of the giants into the deep pit with his cutting words. The female giant, whose skin was adorned with clay markings, seemed able to command the very rock and earth of the island. She unleashed a shockwave that took the heroes off their feet, and slammed Gurthmore will hails of rock and the grasping earth beneath his very feet. But the mul gladiator's axe hewed about, dropping giant after giant. None of the brutes died easily, and their clubs left the two gladiators with bruises, cracked bones, and ringing ears. But between their weapons and Arshaka's songs and spells, the hill giants were defeated.

“You have my thanks,” the stone giant said in halting common-tongue. “I am Daedros. I will take you to the Little Grandmother, and she will answer your questions. You may rest with my people.” Assenting, the heroes followed the wounded giant as he cleared a trail through the thick jungle. Marching up the steep trail through the thick forest, they finally entered a large clearing dominated by a rocky cleft with a pool of clear water surrounded by more than a dozen gargantuan huts. A smaller hut, raised on stilts, overlooked the pool. A stream flowed north from the clear spring, towards the heart of the island. Nearly twenty giants could be seen, many with smooth, gray skin and some with the heads of beasts, and all of them had weapons in hand and begin to surround the heroes as their escort led them into the village.

“Stop!” A powerful feminine voice intoned, and the giants halted. The heroes saw a tall, muscular female goliath emerge from the central hut, leap down, and stride across the clearing towards them. She had dark hair, smooth gray skin with symmetrical markings, and the firm body of a young woman. Her face was lined with age however, and there was wisdom in her bright eyes. “They are not our enemies,” she said to the giants, “and they should know that we are not theirs.” She appeared to size the heroes up, then nodded to them and said, “I am Mearedes, and I protect this island. I do not lead these giants, but they accept my wisdom. Although you are outsiders, the spirits say you intend no harm coming here. But no matter what your intent, you represent a danger to Shault and those who dwell here.”

Mearedes gestured to the lush forest that surrounded the clearing, and the crystal-clear spring at its center. “This island is one of the last places on all of Athas where green, growing things live in abundance. It is untouched by defiling magic. No one must know that this island exists, lest the sorcerer-kings learn of it and seek to claim it as their own. I would like to believe that you would not reveal this to any, but I cannot accept your word alone. This leaves you with three choices. First, we can kill you swiftly and mercifully with no malice or pain. I would prefer not to have to do so. Second, you can agree to stay on Shault for the rest of your lives. I think this is something you would not prefer to do. Third, you may willingly undergo a ritual that will bind your tongues and forever compel you to silence about this place. No enchantment, no enticement, no threat, and no torture could ever make you speak of Shault or its people. Should you accept this, we will be grateful and always welcome you here. You will be free to go where you will on the island, and we will aid you as we can. What say you all?”

Almost as one, the heroes assented to the druid's demands. “What, are we gonna have our tongues cut out or something?” Khossus asked, his hand on the hilt of his sword. “Because that ain't gonna happen!”

“No, it will be nothing like that,” Mearedes said. “A sacred circle will be prepared. You must drink a ritual potion while my apprentices, Shakka, Shola, and Hippolexes, join me in chanting and calling forth the spirits. You will come to no harm, but you will forever be unable to speak of the island's existence to others. Nor may this knowledge be written recorded by your hands. I only do this to ensure that this place remains sacred and untouched by defilers and their kind.”

“And what do we get in return?” Khossus asked.

“My people can guide you. We will give you food, healing, and shelter if you need them, and provide the opportunity to trade. You can tell us of the outside world, and we will tell you of Shault. You have come here for a reason, yes?” Mearedes replied, her voice calm and full of wisdom.

“What about the Crown of the Sun,” Jin asked, “It is an artifact we seek. We need it to help the Child of Light. Can you help us find it?”

“Wait,” Arshaka added after seeing a lack of recognition on the female goliath's face, “Let me tell you the story, and you can decide for yourself if we are worthy of your aid.” With that, the obsidian bard wove a magnificent tale of their discovery of the Crown of the Sun, the finding of the Child of Light, and the quest they were on to complete the artifact. He told them of the Child of Light's promise of a new dawn for the world, and of the return of hope to the world.

“I have not heard of such a thing,” Mearedes said after hearing the bard's tale. “There are ancient ruins at the center of the island though, and they may have what you seek. The giants shun this place, as it is haunted by strange beasts and evil spirits. While it is taboo for them to go there, you may do so freely. Just do not bring back anything that will cause harm to the people of Shault. I should warn you that it is a dangerous place though, and you put your lives at risk by going there.”

Made welcome by the giants, the heroes took their rest in one of the massive huts that stood near the center of the village. When the morning came, the heroes were escorted by one of the giants along a broken, old, overgrown road that led towards the heart of the island. “Here I stop,” the stone giant said when they reached an ominous totem. “Good luck to you.”

The heroes entered a large clearing. A steep escapement on the east side overlooked ancient ruins at the heart of the valley, below. A rough trail, apparently all that remained of a long-abandoned road, ran through the clearing. A great cleft or chasm divided the clearing, and there were patches of thick brush and a few trees scattered around the area. As they moved ahead, the heroes saw three of the larger trees and a few vines begin to move. One growled something in a voice that sounded like timber breaking. In elven it says, “No further! None shall pass!”

“We come in peace,” Jin said, kneeling before the ancient plant. “We would do you no harm.”

“This is true,” Arshaka added. “We come from the world beyond the island, one ruined by defiling magic. We understand all too well what arcane power can do unchecked. Although we use such power,” he said, “we understand how to control it and not burn the world. We want something in the ruins that will help restore the world to,” he pointed around in all directions, “this.”

Convinced by the words of the bard and the warlock (and the lashing that Khossus and Gurthmore took without lashing back) the ancient plant agreed to let the heroes pass. “There is an ancient evil in that city, one that prevents the jungle from overtaking the ruins. If you agree to clear this evil from the ruins, we will aid you and allow you to rest here.” The heroes nodded, and the treant called up roots from the earth below, pushing a withered, skeletal form up to the surface. It was a strange humanoid with a snake-like head, clad in black carapace armor and a black cloak, carrying an ivory rod and a wicked-looking bronze axe. “You may have these items,” the walking tree said, “if they will aid you.” Sensing powerful enchantments in these items, Jin took the rod, Gurthmore the axe, Khossus the armor, and Arshaka the cloak – after they were thoroughly cleaned first, of course. With the treant's gifts in hand, the heroes pressed onwards.

Toranda had wandered off the trail to heed the call of nature, and the heroes heard a yelp from the underbrush. Bounding over to investigate, Chuka-Tet soon returned, clicking with amusement. “Toranda said he went to answer the call of nature. I heard nothing. Anyway, he found a sinkhole and fell in.” The thri-kreen druid shook his head. “I can pull him out and catch up with the rest of you.” He looked back, his head cocked slightly. “Oh, and he is needing to be cleaned. Nature called all over him, it seems.” Going off to rescue the tiefling and his dignity, Chuka-Tet bounded off into the jungle.

After an hour of travel through the jungle the heroes came around a bend in the old, overgrown trail and stumbled across a frightening sight – a small group of large, hairy beasts rooting around a fallen log. They were massive, more than ten feet tall each, and their mouths opened impossibly wide, revealing sharp, shovel-like teeth that looked like they could bite a man in half. Wicked, hooked claws on their forelimbs could gut a man as easily as they could tear up the ground. With a snuffling sound, they turned towards the heroes. Around them they saw a scurrying swarm of black beetles, each the size of human fist. The giant creatures, which Arshaka recognized as legendary Athasian sloths, roared with hunger and prepared to charge. “Beware,” the bard shouted, “they are ferocious and fight even harder when wounded. And look out for the beetles! They are deadly poisonous, though the sloths are immune to such things!” A desperate struggle followed, with Jin, Gurthmore, and Khossus slashing away at the behemoths and the frenzied swarm as Arshaka directed their efforts and unleashed the thunder of his words. Jin's icy blade and storms of wintery magic wrought havoc on the swarm as the two gladiators fought the stay free of the sloths' massive jaws and raking talons. In the end, they brought the beasts low and the swarm was dispersed. Recovering from their wounds with Arshaka's music bolstering their spirits, the heroes made their way towards the ruined city.

It took them nearly another hour of hiking and cutting through vines and overgrowth on the trail winding down to the floor of the valley before they finally reached the outskirts of the ancient, ruined city. Clambering over the crumbled ruins of a massive outer wall composed of black stone blocks, each the full height of a man, the heroes saw the city open up before them. The ruins were overgrown with ferns, moss, and thick vines, and there were artificial hummocks created by centuries of erosion. As they made their way onto the cracked, stone streets the companions beheld a magnificent sight. Cyclopean stone blocks and the crumbling remains of ruined walls and foundations hinted at what must have been a truly massive city with many-storied buildings and a regular layout. Beyond the surrounding ruins they saw a colossal dome of white stone rising above the collapsed buildings. It was strangely intact and free of any overgrowth, and sat at the center of the lost city.

Making their way cautiously through the broken streets and ruined buildings, the heroes heard strange cries and roars echo throughout the ruins, eventually turning down the main avenue towards the shining white dome. Ahead, in the broken street, they saw two massive reptilian creatures circling each other. One was a huge biped, with short forelimbs and massive jaws full of dagger-like teeth. The other was a squat quadruped with an armored carapace and a tail topped with a mace-like knot of bone. They seemed to be unaware of the heroes presence. Moving quietly over the rubble and through the ruined buildings lining the street, the heroes were able to sneak past them.

Eventually the heroes reached the white, marble dome at the center of the forbidden city. As they approached, the heroes noticed that the dome was smooth and seemingly untouched by the ravages of time. No sign of a joint or a seam could be seen on the dome's exterior, though after checking the perimeter of the structure the heroes discovered a massive set of stone doors facing east that were carved with a frieze depicting a winged serpent with a blazing crown. East of the dome stood the crumbling remains of a small ziggurat decorated with statues of winged serpents. Jin discovered that doors are sealed however, and there was a small depression beneath the carving of the serpent where a disc-shaped object the size of a brooch or medal could fit. Closer examination revealed that the depression holds the negative image of a winged, crowned serpent. “The doors are warded...and cursed,” Arshaka explained after examining the stone portals. “I could unweave the magic, but failure might have dire consequences. I suspect that if we find a talisman or holy symbol that matches this,” he pointed to the depression, “we could open the lock. I suspect that is where we should look.” He pointed to the ziggurat, and the rest agreed. Slowly and carefully the heroes began to move through the ruined city to the ancient, crumbling temple.
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