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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 7: Fire and Water
The heroes awoke early, camped among the dead trees of the Somber Woods. Chuka-Tet had gone just before the sun rose, the tulgar calling upon his debt. Sark had returned though, in the gray hours of dawn, riding a giant, black crow. “There is no sign of this so-called sea yet,” he grumbled, “only more rock and sand. But we must hurry. This is the morning of the twenty-fifth day, and only five yet remain before the moons are once again where they were.

They met with Hassh'nek early that morning as the ssurran caravan master made his people ready to depart. “We grow closer to the next oasis, which lies more than a day's travel ahead in the desert of the Scorched Plateau. Once beyond that, we must choose which path to take to reach the Valley of Saragar. I would ask you to scout ahead, and make sure the way is clear.” Consenting, the heroes traveled over the sands on phantom kanks conjured by Arshaka's magic. As they approached the oasis, Rokkon saw strands of silk hanging from nearby palms, nearly invisible, drifting in the breeze. Arshaka knew that silk wyrms haunted the badlands of the Scorched Plateau, and the heroes were not surprised when half a dozen of the worm-like creatures with strange, armored heads wriggled through the air towards them.

“Ware that spot of ground,” Rokkon yelled, pointing to a shallow depression, “it's not solid!” Avoiding what was no doubt a pit covered by strands of silk and clinging sand and rock. He ran forward to engage a pair of the silk wyrms, which were normally solitary creatures save when they grew old enough that hunting alone became difficult and breeding was no longer an issue. It did not make them less deadly. Rokkon's axes slashed at one wyrm, and though they bit deep, silk strands that burned like fire sprayed from the silk wyrm and wrapped him up. Gurthmore had engaged another, sending it flying with a blow from his axe into another, as Arshaka moved up and used blade and song to harry two more. Sark stood back, blasting them with fire and lightning, as the silk wyrms closed in. They darted and bit, but the heroes were nimble and avoided the worst. But the wyrms wriggled with sinister power, their undulations unleashing a strange, psychic power that made them stumble forward in a daze. Sark and Gurthmore both nearly stumbled into the hidden pit, only to catch themselves at the last moment before falling in. Still, strands of the acidic silk clung to them, burning until it was scraped away.

Is that a silk wyrm in your pocket or are you just happy to see lunch?

In the end, Rokkon tore free of the strands holding him and rushed to join the others. The half-giant and the mul made short work of the wyrms with their axes, as Sark and Arshaka kept them contained. The last fled into the pit, becoming an insubstantial shadow that vanished beneath the sand. Resting and cleansing their wounds, the ssurran caravan reached the oasis as the sun set. Hassh'nek explained that two paths lay ahead, one through a pass in the Thunder Mountains two days ahead, or around their foothills and through a region known as the Burning Plains. Even with good time, the reptilian merchant explained, it would take at least four days to clear the pass. The mountains were the abode of giants, though they seldom molested the caravans passing through as the traders often brought them gifts. A smaller party would not fare as well, he thought. He said that the caravan would not take the Burning Plains, dry grasslands that would be hit by sudden thunderstorms. The grass grew quickly, but dried just as fast, and was ignited by lightning strikes. Fires would sweep the region every three or four days. The ground was a thick loam of ash, slow going for wagons, but he surmised that the steeds created by Arshaka's mastery of the Way would carry them across with no difficulty. Hassh'nek believed they could reach the shores of the sea in two days that way.

After careful consideration, the heroes chose the Burning Plains. They traveled day and night on their phantom kanks, gliding across the badlands as they gave way to scrub, and then to plains of tall, dry grass. The grass rustled, both from the breeze and the amazing speed of its growth. The first day was calm, but on the second the wind rose and they could feel drops of rain falling from dark clouds gathering overhead. Flashes of lightning in the distance instantly ignited the dry grass, and a wall of fire began to sweep across the plains. Racing ahead of it, the heroes were cut off by fire approaching from another direction. Two huge forms, beings of living flame, raced ahead of the fire igniting all in their path. They were elementals, summoned by the fury of the flames.

Fire swept across the Burning Plains, burning all in its path.

The heroes had no chance to go around them, and were forced into battle, Choking smoke and leaping flames surrounded them, but the heroes fell on the huge elementals with axe and spell. Shrugging off the worst of the flames, they dealt with the pair quickly, suffering only minor burns thanks to their supernatural fortitude. Their phantom mounts had been destroyed, rather than slog through the yard-deep ash and entangling grass, Sark cast a spell that lifted them on the wind. Flying ahead of the fire, they reached safety at the edge of the Burning Plains as the sun set.

Pushing on through the night, the grass grew short and thick around them and scrub trees could be seen. The land rose, and the air grew warm and moist. As the sun rose, they saw an unbelievable sight. The horizon seemed aflame, as the sun shone off a great body of water, more than ten miles distant, but stretching beyond what they eye could see. The day grew hot and humid, moisture clinging to them all like an uncomfortable shroud. As they rode, their steeds stopped as if hitting an invisible wall. The ground burst, and an obsidian orb rose. A voice shouted in their heads. “Halt! You may go no further! Entrance to the Valley of Saragar is forbidden to all outlanders. Only the Lords of Saragar may grant passage. You will leave now, or be destroyed!” Arshaka spoke with it telepathically, trying to convince the strange construct that he was one of the so-called Mind Lords of Saragar. He did notice a crack in the orb, as if it was very old and somewhat damaged. But this only served to confuse the orb. With a telepathic cry of alarm, four silvery humanoids materialized around it, constructs of pure astral energy.

The strange obsidian orb rose from the ground, issuing a challenge into the heroes' minds.

Rokkon and Gurthmore charged as the orb unleashed torrents of psychic energy, waves of pure force, and crushing psychic surges. Arshaka unleashed a powerful song, allowing his allies to strike as one, damaging the orb. He realized that once damaged, he may be able to reach out and manipulate the magic that animated the guardian orb. As the heroes fought on, destroying the astral constructs with lightning and blade, the obsidian bard and the orc wizard managed to unweave the spells controlling the orb, shutting it down.

The heroes learned what they could from the reanimated orb, namely that the city of Saragar lay on the north shore of the sea, some 50 miles distant. It was ruled by a trio of Mind Lords, ancient and powerful psions, and they had reigned for more than nine thousand years. They were Thesik, a grim male human, Barani, a beatific female human, and Kosveret, a mercurial male elf. Lawkeepers kept the word of the law and passed judgment, while lawtenders ensured that the people kept correct thoughts and remained happy. The proctors were beneath both of them, footsoldiers of the Mind Lords that sounded much like the templars of the city-states far to the south. Villages were found on the shore of the last sea, and the heroes decided to head there. They figured they could follow the shore line north, until they reached the city of Saragar.

As the heroes approached the shore, they could hear the strange sounds of the crashing surf and pounding waves, then above that came something else – shouts of panic. Cresting a sandy rise choked with grass, they saw a trio of men with dark, bronze skin retreating from a group of strange humanoids with silvery-green, slick skin, large, bulbous eyes, and lank, webbed limbs. A small vessel, perhaps a skimmer of some kind, sat on the edge of the water and nets on the ground held small, silvery animals flopping about. “Help,” one of the men shouted, “they are devils of the deep!” The strange humanoids burbled menacingly, raising barbed coral spears, hooks, and daggers as they moved to intercept the heroes.

The men called the strange humanoids "Kuo-toa," but the smell they made as Sark roasted them made Rokkon call them "dinner."

Arshaka wasted no time, and rode in on his phantom steed chanting a song of protection. Rokkon and Gurthmore followed, axes singing a song of death as Sark called down fire and lighting. The fish-men were fast and slippery, striking with blinding speed and razor-sharp coral weapons. But the heroes proved too much for them, and one managed to slink back beneath the waves, leaving the rest to die. The men thanked the heroes profusely, and their leader invited them back to their village to eat and rest. Expressing their need to travel to Saragar, he told them a trading vessel taking dried fish (whatever those were) and other goods to the city would leave early the next morning. He would gladly see that they could get passage across Marnita, the last sea. Agreeing, the heroes accompanied the man, named Askellios, back to his village of Tola.
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Journey to the Last Sea Part 3: The Stuff of Nightmares
The entire area had become increasingly desolate, and as the heroes continued north, the plants they came across were stunted and dying. Strange shapes were evident in some of the rocks and the air was either eerily still or carried a foul breeze and the sounds of far-off moaning or wailing. After a day on the march, they set camp in a sandy wash near the center of the badlands. A few hours after sunset, a couple of scouts returned with news of the abandoned wagon. They said that they had heard faint cries for help from within. Two of their number went to investigate while the others chose to return to camp and inform Gurthmore. Worried about what the scouts had found, the heroes mounted up on kanks and rode out into the night, with Stonedarr taking the lead.

They came across the abandoned merchant's wagon as they followed its rough trail through the badlands. It was gargantuan, fully forty feet long and twenty feet high. Located in a large stretch of sandy terrain, the only things near the wagon were the bleached bones of the mekillot that once pulled the huge conveyance. As they dismounted, a quick search turned up the splintered bones and broken weapons of the guards that once escorted the wagon. More importantly, the heroes saw that there were lanterns lit inside the wagon, casting a dim illumination over the area. They could also hear faint, pathetic cries coming from within.

The heroes rode out into the badlands shortly after dark.

Arshaka mounted the steps up to the huge caravan wagon and stepped inside. Somewhat comically, an obese human was crouched behind the small table in a wholly ineffective attempt to hide. He wore the garb of a merchant, those his clothing was stained and torn, and jeweled rings decorated his fat fingers. “Please,” he whined, “don't hurt me! I am so hungry and so scared. Do you have anything to eat?” Gurthmore tossed him a pack of rations, which the merchant devoured in mere seconds.

Arshaka began to reassure the merchant that they would not hurt him, but something struck him as very wrong about the situation. When asked how long he had been here, the merchant replied “I don't know. It came out of the darkness, you see. It's eyes were like lanterns, its teeth like spears! It fell upon my guards, and I hid. I ate all the food, though. And I am still so hungry.” It was then that Chuka-Tet noticed bones piled almost out of sight under the large, messy bed at the end of the wagon. They were clean, stripped of all flesh, and had been cracked open and the marrow sucked out. And worse yet, they were fresh. The tattered remains of the scouts' armor and their broken weapons were piled there as well. Silently speaking to Arshaka in his mind, the obsidian bard realized what they faced. It was a fael, a hungry ghost, and it would devour them as well as whatever food they had.

“No more talk,” the obese merchant whined. “I am so hungry. So hungry.” His flesh became pallid and his eyes darkened as his mouth widened impossibly. His broken teeth gleamed in the half-light. “Feed me!” He stood behind the table, his hands grasping greedily towards the heroes. Outside, there was a rush of wind as three clouds of dust rose from the sand, taking on vaguely humanoid shapes. Burning embers, like eyes, lit the dust like eerie, spectral lanterns. “Guards! Guards! I need their food! I need their flesh! I am so hungry!”

It was so hungry! If only Dark Sun had heard of Weight Watchers...

A vicious struggle followed. Those close to the fael were gripped by hunger pangs so intense it left them shaking. The wraiths radiated stark terror, driving the heroes back or making them lash out at each other in a blind panic. The fael passed through the wall of the wagon like smoke and swallowed Gurthmore whole after one bite. But the heroes fought back, scattering the wraiths to the four winds and hacking away at the fael with desperate strength. The creature met its final death after Rokkon slashed its belly open and Gurthmore's axe sent it flying back through the wagon. They found a few, scattered jewels and an ancient, bronze scepter with some powerful enchantment. Heading back to the camp, they thought the worst was over.

They were wrong. They traveled deeper into the badlands as they followed the old merchants' trail north towards the Bandit States. A day past an oasis with barely-potable water, the column of the ssurran merchants, the heroes, and their followers marched through a valley that lay in the shadow of a small range of low mountains. The shadows lengthened and the sense of dread that they all felt continued to mount. Over the next two nights the heroes, the merchants, and the members of the mul barbarian's horde started to suffer from horrible nightmares. On the first day, four of Gurthmore's followers did not wake up, apparently dying from fright before they could wake up. On the second day, ten more followed. Morale began to suffer and, on by the third day only the combination of Gurthmore's iron discipline and Arshaka's honeyed words kept the men from deserting. Sark's divination magic revealed that the effect was being caused by a powerful arcane source of some sort, something akin to a sorcerer. That night, the attacks began.

Shadowy creatures struck out of the darkness, dragging some men off and slaughtering others around their fires. It was a pair of tembos, with skin as black as night and eerie, opalescent eyes. As the heroes ran to catch up with the horrid beasts, a huge creature appeared on a nearby ridge. Its eyes glowed hellish yellow-orange in the darkness as the lightning of a desert storm illuminated it briefly. It was a nightmare beast, and no doubt responsible for the desolation that had settled on the area. The heroes had no choice – they began to track the creature into the night. They had to eliminate the threat once and for all, or else none of their men would leave this land alive.

The crumbling sphinx sat under the night sky, a silent sentinel to the terror of the nightmare beast.

Their pursuit of the nightmare beast led them to a small valley where a cyclopean, crumbling sphinx marked the entrance to some sort of ruined temple. Scattered rocks, shattered statues, and dead trees were everywhere, and a foul pool seeped up from the ground. The pair of tembos circled the area, and the moan of restless spirits rose from the ancient temple. The two beasts charged, claws and fangs tearing at the heroes even as the spectral dead raced across the sands. Axes and staff, spell and blade, all flashed in the darkness and the tembos fell along with the spirits. A flash of lightning illuminated the top of the sphinx. The nightmare beast was perched there, its eyes glowing like hellish torches in the darkness. With an ear-splitting roar, the great beast prepared to attack.

In a flash of lightning, the nightmare beast appeared!

With a slash of his enchanted axe, Gurthmore struck from a distance, collapsing the head of the sphinx and sending the nightmare beast tumbling below in a hail of stone. It rose in an instant, shrugging off the debris and blasting the heroes with black fire. Arshaka warped space, allowing the rest to teleport next to the creature. The battle was joined in full at that point, with axes slashing at the beast even as it tore with fangs, claws, and tusks. It blasted the heroes with black lightning, tore at their minds, and drained their very life force. But the heroes stood firm, and finally Arshaka's blade pierced its eye, ending the nightmare once and for all.

With the land cleansed, the heroes stripped the creature of its hide and bones, preserving them with magic even as the corpse rotted away into foulness. Chuka-Tet fashioned a suit of armor and Gurthmore and Stonedarr fashioned axes charged with the beast's killing power. Returning to camp, they rested well for the first time in weeks. The next day they left the badlands and pushed on into the Glowing Desert...
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The Final Winter Part 6: The Winter Queen
The climb to the top of the icy cliff was difficult, but Sark's magic bent the wind to the orc mage's will and the heroes scaled the sheer surface in mere moments. The terrible wind snatched up Arshaka as the obsidian bard moved from crag to crag, and he was dashed upon the icy rocks and shattered, his pieces caught up by the wind. “He will pull himself together,” Sark yelled, “but we must continue on!” Rokkon had already been separated from the group, as the battle with the fiery worm had shattered the glacier and blocked the path. The four pressed on though, Upon reaching the top of the cliff, they saw that a series of ledges lead up to a rough-hewn stone shrine. An eldritch blue-white light radiated from the shrine, and all could see the Winter Queen standing there, chanting a terrible spell. She was beautiful, but it was the kind of beauty that carried no hint of softness, mercy, or compassion. No, it is the beauty of the storm or the mountains. Stark and magnificent, but uncaring and merciless. A shimmering curtain of the blue-white light covered the entrance to the shrine.

She was not alone. Two eladrin with silvery mail and flowing white hair were here, along with a pair of the wicked-looking, icy fey. Two fierce, four-footed creatures with snowy feathers, tearing claws, and sharp beaks stood next to the wintry eladrin. A single, horrific beast with a leathery hide, white fur, savage tusks, and jagged spikes of ice growing from its back and limbs waited near the shrine, and it roared with elemental ferocity. “Let none interfere with the Winter Queen's work!” One of the eladrin shouted. The rest prepared to attack.

“But wait,” Jin said, “we have come to serve the Winter Queen!” So convincing were the pale-skinned warlock's words that they all paused long enough for the heroes to get in position.

It was all ice and fur and teeth!

“Slay them you fools!” The Winter Queen commanded, and they obeyed. The winter-white owlbears charged, even as Jin vanished from sight. The battle was on! Gurthmore and Chuka-Tet held the line as the fearsome, ice-clawed demon was driven back to the edge of the cliff by a powerful blow from the mul barbarian. He and the thri-kreen druid stood at the edge of the cliff, batting the winter fey, the icy demon, and one of the owlbears. Despite raking claws, freezing breath, and horrible wounds, the druid managed to send the demon tumbling from the cliff with a sharp blow from his staff as the gladiator's axe reaped a heavy toll. Jin charmed one of the winter eladrin, and she was unable to shake the enchantment. Her loyalty was with him, no matter what. While his blade was of limited use, he struck time and again until at last one of the icelings fell. Sark blasted them all with lightning and fire, weakening the barrier protecting the fey monarch until at last it began to waver.

“Enough!” The Winter Queen shouted. There was a shimmer and a flash of blue light, and the arcane barrier disappeared. The heroes had only the span of a few heartbeats to pause and catch their breath. The Winter Queen stood before them now, and her coldly beautiful face twisted into an icy rage. “Fools! Insects! How dare you interfere with my designs!” She screeched in her fury. “I have been patient with you, but my largess has reached its limits! You have been warned, but still you persisted. And now you will pay the price for your meddling. You will feel my touch. You will freeze. And then you will serve me forever. This world has suffered enough. Your suffering has only begun!” A sword with a blade composed of black ice appeared in her hand.

Beautiful but cold and deadly, the Winter Queen was ready to do battle.

“I call forth the dead, those who died in the winters of an age long past. Fight now, for an end to all!” A creaking and popping could be heard as the ice around them broke, revealing frozen, shambling corpses. They moaned horribly, and then moved to attack. Two charged Sark as the rest moved in against Chuka-Tet and Gurthmore. Despite their icy claws, the heroes faced a greater threat – the Winter Queen. She vanished and reappeared at will, her blade of black ice slashing and freezing flesh even the poison it contained burned in their veins. She let forth blasts of ice and cold, ranting all the while. Sark staggered and nearly fell after a slash, while only the primal magic at Chuka-Tet's command kept he and Gurthmore alive despite the frost and the venom. Jin was a ghost, invisible to her sight, as his blade struck her from all angles. Gurthmore stuck her a powerful backhand blow, mocking her as she was knocked off her feet. Struggling to rise, defiant to the end, Sark cast a simple cantrip in the from of a bolt of force that blasted a hole in her chest. Jin stood above her, a look of sorrowful resignation on his face. The Shard ofhte Sun became a spear of light, and a single blow consumed her in a rush of radiant fire. Her crown rolled to his feet, and the remaining winter ghaele kneeled.

“Your majesty,” she said. A stair opened, sinking into the top of the mountain, and it descended to the heart of the Winter Queen's citadel. The heroes descended, and what fey remained bowed to Jin, recognizing that the one-time street urchin and bastard child of sorcery had by virtue of his pact become heir to the throne of the Winter Court. Messengers were sent, and the forces of winter retreated. The war within the Lands of the Wind was over. The demons and elementals serving Cryonax fled, and though they were gone, the damage had been done. A day passed as Jin and the others rested. A procession was formed, and over three days, they slowly marched across the land to the demesne of the Summer Queen. A grand ceremony was held, and Jin and Ione were wed as per their pact. They would rule together in a land where hope had been restored.

Hope had been restored to the Lands Within the Wind.

“I will rule both courts in your name while you are gone,” Ione told her husband. “Hope is not yet gone from the world. Despite the darkness of your heritage, there is yet light within you. Go and save this world, all worlds, and then return. Home will always be here for you. We are fey. We have all the time in the world.”

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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 13: The Dark Lady
A voice from the hall and the sound of armored feet interrupted the heroes' immediate plan. “Kathrik! What has happened here? Where is my Aunt Xerena?” A dark-haired young nobleman with an aquiline nose who was clad in fine silks with a steel saber at his side was there, along with a bald man in robes clutching an obsidian orb. A pair of thuggish half-giants and two of the house guards accompanied them. “You!” He laughed. “The very ones my aunt was after! The ones who killed my brother Dahak in the desert! I am Abaddon of House Haxtes and I will deliver your carcasses to Aunt Xerena!”

“Yeah, we've heard that before,” Gurthmore rumbled, “and killed everyone who said it. That makes you next!” Abaddon sputtered, drew his saber, and sprang at the heroes. He slashed at Arshaka, who met the nobleman's lunge with a solid punch to the nose.

“You dare lay hands on me!” He shouted as Gurthmore circled him and slashed with his axe. The noble barely evaded the stroke, returning three of his own as his footwork carried him back into the hall. “Hold them here!” He yelled to the guards, “I will bring reinforcements!” The bald man turned out to be an adept of the Way, though the heroes' mental defenses proved strong enough to withstand his power. Gurthmore meanwhile had slammed into the half-giants and the guards, staggering them as Jin dashed through the opening to engage the fleeing Abaddon. Sark, Chuka-Tet, and Arshaka followed them out into the halls as one of the guards fell back and opened another door.

“Get out here! Invaders are in the house!” But the time he took to call reinforcements left him open, and he was soon cut down. Sark and Arshaka unleashed their magic on their foes, causing the half-giants and the guards to freeze. The orc mage stunned the adept with a word as Arshaka distracted them, allowing Gurthmore and Jin to cut them down. Jin caught up to Abaddon, narrowly avoiding the noble's blade before placing him under a spell. The dominated noble helped cut down the adept before falling to the heroes' blades.

But the battle was far from over. Chuka-Tet glanced into the door the guard had opened. Beyond he had heard the sounds of butchery, and the smell of dead flesh and rot almost overwhelmed him. He saw nothing but horror. A massive ogre with a leather hood wielding a huge steel cleaver was dismembering a body as a pair of large men in simple loincloths hauled discarded parts towards a large pit in the center of the room. Both of them moved with an odd, stiff gait and their bodies were covered in stitched scars, as if they had been cut apart and sewn back together. Two bloated jhakars with heavy bronze chains and collars were positioned to either side of the pit, gobbling up what bits of flesh fell their way. A large, hollow statue of iron lined with spikes sat in a nearby corner, and dried stains around its base suggested a sinister function. Feeble cries reached the thri-kreen druid's antennae, and he could see a handful of human prisoners in cells with hardwood bars on the far end of the vast room. Worst of all was the horrid, four-armed humanoid in stained robes standing over another table on the far side, madly cutting and stitching body parts to a writhing figure strapped to the wooden surface. It had four bone knives with obsidian edges and used hooks on the bronze chains wrapped about it to stitch as it whistled and hooted a cacophony of tuneless sounds. It looked up and what must pass for a chilling, toothy smile crossed its face. “Ah, more flesh to work on. The lady is kind!”

A vicious melee ensued as the ogre made its way into the all. It traded blows with Gurthmore, though the mul gladiator held fast. Jin and Arshaka vanished, reappearing in the room, and the pale-skinned warlock kicked over a table covered with alchemical and necromantic supplies, catching the four-armed demon-spawn in a fierce explosion. One of the shambling, stitched men entered the hall while the other engaged Chuka-Tet. The druid's spinning staff sent one of the jhakars into the pit at the center of the room, while the other pounced on him. Sark blasted lightning at their foes, sending them staggering back, as Gurthmore and Jin felled the ogre. Arshaka's song sent the demon-spawn stumbling forward into the pit, and the wounded fiend opted to retreat out one of the narrow waste drains. With their foes defeated, the heroes caught their second wind and prepared to confront the dark lady in her private sanctum. They opened the doors at the far end of the hall and stepped into an ancient cavern.

Flickering red flames from a massive stone brazier set before a pyramidal stone platform topped by a squat, stained, toad-like statue cast eerie illumination over the vast cavern before them. A sinister-looking pool of inky black liquid sat in the center of the cavern, before the brazier, and it was lined by crude altars fashioned from broken stalagmites. Parts of the ancient cavern had been worked but the rest was smooth, as if the tread of countless thousands of feet had worn down the stone over countless thousands of years. Vile-looking mushrooms clung to bare rock in places, and the crumbling bones of ancient sacrifices still littered the floor.

Two tareks clad in armor fashioned from braxat carapaces stood near the stone brazier, their eyes blazing with demonic fire. A pale-skinned, dark-haired, coldly beautiful woman wearing diaphanous emerald silks and gold ornaments was near the stone platform speaking with a well-dressed male tiefling whose horns had been decorated with gold foil. Both turned as you enter. The tiefling had a sardonic look on his face, while the woman's contorted with cold fury.

Lady Xerena was not amused. The heroes would either have to apologize or just kill her.

“You!” Lady Xerena sneered. “Do you really think breaking into my home surprises me? You have done it before after all, though with far more charm and wit. Now you come in as assassins, seeking to murder me? Fools! You have only delivered yourself into my hands. While I would take great pleasure in your demise, I will take greater joy in turning your broken bodies and souls over to the Shadow King.”

Toranda smiled, “Friends, I do not wish to intrude, but this matter could simply be resolved if you simply agree to surrender. I am certain the lady of House Haxtes would be willing to lend me guards enough to ensure your safe arrival at the Naggaramakam. The Shadow King could use such powerful servants. What say you?”

“I say it's time for you to die, defiler!” Jin shouted and his icy blade appeared in his hand. He and Gurthmore charged across the cavern, evading the tareks and Lady Xerena as they went after the traitorous tiefling. Xerena would not have this however, and as Toranda barely dodged their furious blows, chains of infernal fire wrapped around the barbarian and the warlock. Toranda vanished into shadow and was gone.

“You will have a chance to change your mind, friend Jin!”

But Xerena was not compelled to show any restraint. “Servants, come” At her command, winged, demonic shadows rose from the inky pool. They swarmed Sark and Arshaka, and one poured into the orc mage, possessing him. Chuka-Tet found himself slashed at by one of the tareks' burning swords, as the other engaged Gurthmore. Xerena was sent staggering back by Arshaka's words, and fell prone next to the pool. Enraged, she turned her magic on Gurthmore, turning the gladiator into her infernal puppet. He struggled with her control, and fought back with strokes of his enchanted axe. Jin unleashed his eldritch bolts on the shadow demons, tearing them apart, even as Sark expelled the one possessing him. The tareks fell, giving their lives to protect their mistress, until only Xerena was left.

She was almost more than the heroes could handle. She vanished in shadow and numbing cold, unleashing bolts of hellfire on the heroes. Her command of shadow and fear were unmatched, and it took everything Chuka-Tet and Arshaka could muster to keep them all alive. Sark had tapped into the demonic power inherent in the squat, toad-like statue and unleashed torrents of power on the dark lady. Gurthmore and Jin were caught in darkness, about to die, when Chuka-Tet sprang on her from behind. Channeling all of his primal power into his staff, he drove it through her back like a spear, killing the head of House Haxtes.

Nearly collapsing from exhaustion, the wounded heroes did not even have a moment to catch their breaths. Without warning, the great cavern began to shake. An unearthly laugh echoed from all around them, and the pool of black liquid at the center of the ancient temple started to bubble over, flooding the place at an alarming rate. Scrambling up onto the stone platforms, they saw that Xerena's body had risen into the air. Her form convulsed as inky clouds of shadow poured from bloodless wounds, destroying what was left of her finery, cloaking her in darkness. Her eyes snapped open, and they were hollow voids revealing only blackness. Shadowy tendrils extended from her back like wings, and she alighted on the black liquid. It seemed as solid as obsidian to her. Xerena pointed an inky, claw-like finger towards the wounded companions.

“Death is not the end for me. It is only the gate through which I step to be reborn! I now see what life blinded me to! I live as part of the darkness...and the darkness lives as part of me. I am the Child of Dark, and I will rise and claim my throne. You? You will now die!”

Bracing themselves for a battle that would no doubt be their last, the heroes were surprised when a sudden boom echoed through the cave as the doors flew open A dozen armored half-giants carrying obsidian-edged halberds entered. They were escorting three figures – Toranda, a half-elf woman in diaphanous black silks that you recognize as High Consort Djena, and none other than the Shadow King himself. The goliath guards moved in and formed a half-circle about the heroes. “Stay there, my friends,” Toranda said with a grim smile. “I would not want to see you...hurt. That would be not be fortunate. And you are, you know, fortunate indeed. After all, you are about to witness the birth of a new age. And as I recall, one of you has also received the Shadow King's blessings.”

Gurthmore had raised his axe, a defiant snarl on his lips even as Jin readied his blade. But with a mere gesture from the Shadow King, the tattoos on the mul's broad back animated, becoming chains composed of pure darkness. In an instant, the heroes were restrained. He remembered accepting the sorcerer-king's blessing after the battle of Altaruk, and cursed inwardly. As the tiefling spoke Djena paused by the guards, a look of fierce exultation on her face. “My lord! It is as you had foreseen!”

“What is this?” The Child of Dark hissed. “You come to challenge me? I have grown far more powerful than even you could have ever suspected, Shadow King! Do you think I was blind to your machinations? Even you will kneel before me!”

Wordlessly Nibenay moves toward the creature that was once Xerena, and as he did his form blurred and changed. He grew to nearly twice the height of a man and his head, neck, and limbs elongated. His features became like those of a drake, and his skin darkened into purple, reptilian hide. His hands and feet became claws and a long, spiny tail sprouted behind him. He was still clad in his night-black toga and gold jewels, which appeared to have grown in size along with the sorcerer-king. He became a blur of motion and acted almost faster than the eye could see. Wordlessly he plunged the talons of one massive hand into the Child of Dark's chest, ripping forth her heart, before even she could react. Soundlessly she fell, darkness spilling forth. The Child of Dark's corpse lay there, the shadows that still clung to her form now formed a shroud.

He looks like this but he still has, what, a few hundred wives? You wish you had that kind of mojo.

“Yes! Yes! The prophecy was true! Xerena was the Child of Dark! And now,” he reaches down and tore the darkness away from the body, which writhed and twisted into a crown or diadem that the sorcerer-king placed atop his head, “I claim that mantle!” He stood and the darkness blazed about his snake-like head like a halo. “All hail Nibenay the Shadow King, Child of Dark, and savior of Athas!” With a tremendous roar the black liquid drained from the cavern and back into the small pool.

“No!” Gurthmore shouted, and with an act of supreme defiance he sundered the chains of shadow with all his strength. The rest could see horrible scars burn into his back as a result of tearing the magic free from himself. As he staggered, Chuka-Tet grabbed him.

“Run!” He clicked, and the others did not argue. They ran up the back stairs, the new Child of Dark's laughter echoing behind them. Fighting their way past what guards remained, they ran out the front gates and to the Serpent Tower. Down the winding structure they ran, Gurthmore staggering but alive.

“When I can no longer stand long enough slay,” he growled through swings of his axe as he hewed down the janissaries foolish enough to block their path, “it's time to die!” They made the base of the tower and ran towards the gates, where a cart was waiting.

“Inside! Quickly!” Nemeia and Callides were waiting, and with luck on their side they managed to slip out the gates along with a group of woodcutters headed to the Crescent Forest ere the alarm could reach the guards posted there.

They were alive. One enemy was dead. But now a far worse one had risen in her place...
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Fortress of Bones Part 8: The Fall of Slither
Battle was joined, and Gurthmore and Stonedarr charged headlong at the Skull and his demonic servants, axes at the ready. Arshaka, Chuka-Tet, Khossus, and Jin followed, and the lich and the two snake demons, or mariliths, were soon surrounded. Only Sark remained back, using his witchcraft to hex Yarnath and his servants. Khossus and Gurthmore soon had Yarnath cornered near his throne, while Jin, Chuka-Tet, and Rokkon battled the two demons. Rokkon's twin axes dismembered and decapitated one marilith even as he deftly avoided and parried its lightning-fast blades. The other moved around the throne room, slashing away, though Arshaka's protective wards turned many of its blows aside.

But Yarnath was not so easily defeated. He blasted the heroes with dark flames that withered and burned, jagged purple lightning that rotted the flesh, and howling blasts of cold with spectral claws that tore exposed flesh. His very touch sapped the life-essence of his enemies, and he vanished and reappeared like a shadow. But Khossus's blade, infused with the power of the Crown of the Sun, blinded the lich and sent him reeling even as Gurthmore's axe bit into iron-hard flesh and cracked adamantine bone. “You fools! You cannot defeat me! These are not my only servants!” Yarnath remained defiant even as the second demon fell to Jin and Arshaka's blades.

A shadow had crept down the spiral stairs leading to the top of Yarnath's tower, a shadow that swelled to titanic size in the chamber below. It reached out and attacked the heroes, its chilling touch freezing flesh and weakening them. Its very presence drained their resolve and spread a chill through their bones. But the heroes did not relent. Khossus's blade was glowing with radiant flame, and every blow made the shadow titan somehow more solid, more real – real enough for Jin's icy blade to bite deep. It was a fearsome foe however, and Khossus was enveloped in shadow, swallowed by the void of the shadow titan. He clawed his way out of the darkness, chilled and pale but alive.

Arshaka hurled taunts at the lich, his words compelling the undead wizard to hurl vile epithets back as he took an involuntary step forward, leaving himself open for Gurthmore and Rokkon to slash away with their axes. Chuka-Tet and his scorpion engaged both, his primal magics striking blow after blow at both foes, to seemingly little effect. Sark blasted both with his own shadows and frost, lightning and hexes of woe. But he had saved his most powerful spell for this combat, and unleashed it to startling effect. The lich and the shadow titan were both transformed into tiny desert lizards, one coal-black and one skeletal, and for a moment they were rendered helpless. Arshaka and Chuka-Tet rallied the others, using their restorative magics to flood them with strength and vigor. “Now is the time,” Arshaka shouted triumphantly, “to end the Skull once and for all!” But the shadow titan swelled and resumed its form even as a blow from Khossus broke the spell on Yarnath. His tiny skeletal form twisted and grew, and with a howl of indignant outrage, he blasted Sark with dark lightning and laid the savage witch low. The distraction was all Rokkon and Gurthmore needed. The half-giant buried his axes in Yarnath's sternum, staggering him and driving him to his knees even as Gurthmore buried his execution axe in the lich's spine.

“You think you have won,” Yarnath sputtered, “but this is not over...unmarked one! You will join the rest of your people in my dungeons and share their fate. This body is a shell, a shell that will be restored. For Slither and I are one, and as long as it lives, I live!” With that, the mul barbarian took his head. Sticking the skull on his axe, he grunted contemptuously at the fallen wizard. “Not if we can help it!”

But Rokkon was already looking around. “We must find the rest of my people! They are here! We must save them!” Sark had been roused by Chuka-Tet's magic, and saw that his companions were hurt badly. Burns and necrotic wounds, cuts and bruises – all were greatly injured and fatigued. And the Crawling Citadel was still moving.

“Our strength may not be enough,” the witch said. “And this monstrosity flees to the desert. We may not have time. We must make time. It is time to use the woman-of-light's gift.” All stood in agreement, and for a moment they felt a warm, comforting breeze and an inner glow suffused them all. Their wounds were gone in an instant, their limbs flooded with strength. A small, gold butterfly glowing with its own light drifted across their vision and they all...changed. Sark could see veins of light beneath his gray skin, Stonedarr felt as strong and immobile as the mountains themselves, and Chuka-Tet felt a connection to the very world beneath him growing with every step. Arshaka could see the living history of what he was, what he had seen, and what the world had been opening up in his mind, while Khossus and Gurthmore stood tall and proud, one the epitome of a civilized king, the other the very embodiment of the savage warrior. Jin...vanished. And reappeared. His garb had changed, his features had grown finer and more like the fey of old, and he stood with serenity and purpose. “It has been a long time,” he said. “Or perhaps a few moments. I have had much time to think. And I know that now is the time to end this. We should destroy the foul heart of this place first, then free all who we can.”

The heroes were in agreement. Only Khossus remained. “We need a way out. I will carve one!” He smiled and ran down the stairs to hack a path off the Crawling Citadel. Sark moved over to the arcane circle scribed on the tower floor, and in his minds' eye he saw two empty towers that served as barracks, a tower with some sort of lab and a cage of bones holding several emaciated half-giants, and a furnace of some sort manned by charred corpses and ash-skinned giants with horns. “I can take us there,” he said confidently, and as one the heroes stepped into the circle and vanished.

They reappeared in a chamber suffused with a red glow that was brilliant and pulsated like the heartbeat of a living thing. They saw a massive machine dominating the center of the circular chamber that appeared to be a furnace of brass, obsidian, and petrified bone set with strange crystals. It looked to have been grown rather than constructed. A half a dozen charred corpses with leathery skin stoked the engine with a variety of strange controls, and they were overseen by a pair of ashen-skinned giants with horns and fiery eyes. A collection of blackened bones rose from the floor atop a column of flames. They said nothing, but all turned to attack.

But the heroes were faster. Despite the punishing heat and the fiery fists of the cinder zombies, they battered the corpses aside and Sark transformed them all into ashy lizards for a moment. Rokkon, Jin, and Gurthmore charged forward to engage the ashen giants and the column of flame and bones. Arshaka realized the giants were efreets, creatures of the elemental chaos, but now undead and drained of their sustaining fire. They unleashed searing ash, chilling flames, and powerful blows even as the demonic creature of bones and fire raked at all that came near with fiery claws, but to no avail. The heroes were too strong, and the last fell. Chuka-Tet freed some captive elementals from a cage of bones inscribed with strangle glyphs at the far end of the chamber, but he could not rescue one already being consumed by the furnace at the chamber's center. “Monstrous,” he clicked, “they burn living elementals to power this walking death. They shall no more!” He brought his staff down like a thunderbolt and the fiery heart of Slither cracked under the blow. The heroes rushed to the teleportation circle and vanished, and they could feel the whole fortress shake as they reappeared elsewhere. The engines of Slither had exploded, and the Crawling Citadel was wounded, if not destroyed.

They appeared in a dimly-lit chamber on the upper level of one tower. Rokkon could see several emaciated half-giants crammed into a cell of fused bone to one side of the large chamber, a small room to the other, and a cage of bones suspended over a pit at the far end. A lean figure in robes with dark, scaly skin, small horns, and eyes like burning coals stepped out of the chamber and pointed a crooked staff at them.

“Invaders here? You fools will suffer for daring to interfere with the master's plans!” He gestured and three tall emaciated figures that appeared to have once been half-giants emerged from the shadows. As that happened, a greasy cloud of black smoke boiled in the air and a huge figure that was an unwholesome combination of a boar and an ape stepped forth, a jagged pole-arm clutched in one massive claw. “Tear them apart, but save some pieces for...experimentation.” Rokkon roared with fury and charged the huge demon, his axes slicing into the nalfeshnee's unearthly flesh before it could react. Gurthmore followed and his axe blow knocked the demon back and off its feet. It rose and let out a screeching grunt of anger, unleashing dark lightning, a pair of powerful backhands, and a burst of sickening radiance that staggered both heroes. Sark, Chuka-Tet and Arshaka had engaged the cursed half-giants, while Jin vanished and reappeared next to the demonic thaumaturge. The cambion wizard had blasted them with necrotic fire and sickening rays like freezing lightning that left burning, poisonous wounds. But Jin spoke a single word, and the cambion's will vanished, replaced by the pale warlock's words. He threw his staff into the pit below, and in a fit of inspiration Arshaka made him dance into the hole after it. Jin had him toss the staff up even as the demon fell to the half-giant's axes. The rest had cornered the undead half-giants, and soon cut them down mercifully, laying them to their final rest. Compelled by Jin's enchantment, the vile cambion answered what queries the heroes had, before the pale warlock ordered him to sleep...and then ensured that slumber was eternal with a swift jab of his icy blade.

“I was wrong about you,” said Skkarn, the chief of Rokkon's tribe, in a haggard voice as the arcane locks holding the cell of bones shut was undone and the half-giant ranger freed what remained of his people from their captivity. “You are not weak, son of Granikkus. Nor was my son's death your fault. You are the unmarked stone, unmoving in the path of the sandstorm. Despite his pride, he was but the wind. You have freed us.”

“No,” Rokkon replied. “I was weak. Now I have become strong.” With that, he carried the old chief and his people out of Slither, into the light. The great fortress had begun to shake. Rokkon and the rest of the heroes could see that the tide of battle had turned. The Crawling Citadel lurched beneath them as it slowly turned towards the wastes, driven by the unnatural force of the lich's will. Yarnath's raiders let out a collective howl of despair as their morale broke, and the defenders of Tyr rallied. All who wore the snake-skull tattoo began to flee into the desert.

Ushas could be seen atop the walls of Tyr. She raised her arms, and her voice rang out like a peal of thunder over the din of battle. “Enough!” She said with finality. “This evil will crawl the land no more!” The sorceress began to glow with an inner light and transformed. Her arms lengthened and extended becoming wings like those of a giant butterfly, while her features became smooth, elongated, and alien. She rose into the air and her voice could be heard by all within sight. “A new sun will rise! Its light will wash away all such filth as this! The Skull is no more!” The Crawling Citadel shook beneath them, and as the heroes ran to leap from the edge a powerful wind rose and carried them all to safety. The radiance streaming from the Child of Light swelled until it consumed all of Slither. The bones of the citadel charred and splintered and were torn apart by a whirlwind that could consume the entirety of Tyr. With a monstrous roar, the light and wind subsided as the remnants of Yarnath's citadel were swept out into the desert. Slither was no more. A ragged cheer erupted from the walls, growing in strength until it echoed across the Tablelands – Tyr had been saved!

In the wake of the battle, the heroes aided Tyr's soldiers in hunting down the raiders that escaped. Many surrendered upon seeing Gurthmore, the lich's skull still impaled on the spike of his iron axe, and swore to follow the mul barbarian through the gates of the Abyss rather than risk his wrath. Stonedarr saw to his people, ensuring they would be safe in the mountains to the north of Tyr. Arshaka contemplated the visions he had seen, and began to understand that his role in events to come was far greater than he had imagined. Sark sought the tutelage of Ushas, and began to unlock the radiant power that now burned in his veins. His magic no longer stripped the land of its life, but instead replenished it even as he began to transform. Jin was there and not there, as if he had stepped between worlds. And Khossus and Ushas opted to head west, back to the Valley of Shemmeth. “It needs a leader, one who will protect them from the sorcerer-kings!” After a few days enjoying the hospitality of King Tithian – and being warned by Sadira and the other champions of Tyr that the king kept his friends close but his enemies closer – the heroes opted to leave Tyr. The lady of House Haxtes still lived. They would have to change that...
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Epic × 2!
Fortress of Bones Part 4 & 5: The Shadow of the Skull
The heroes had arrived in Tyr no more than two days ahead of the Slither, the Crawling Citadel. The column of refugees pressing to enter the city-state were directed through the Caravan District to the slums of the Warrens and the Artisan District where citizens and soldiers alike directed them to temporary shelters erected amidst the urban decay. But the heroes had other plans for the moment. A familiar sign stood out – the Golden Inix, a tavern and inn where they had stayed many months ago. A few veiled threats by Gurthmore and a pair of large gemstone later and Rowan, the half-elf proprietor, had cleared out the inn of all its other guests. Ignoring hateful glances from the merchants turned out into the streets, the heroes planned their next move.

Jin had decided to break from the group in order to reach his contacts in the Veiled Alliance. Arshaka and Khossus felt it best that the rest of them should work on locating Ushas, wherever she might be hiding in the Free City. Heading to the Warrens early in the day they began their search, looking for tales of healers or wise-women among the poor and the former slaves. Many subtle questions, veiled threats, and outright lies later, they had tracked rumors of a mysterious woman healing the sick to a run-down part of the Warrens known as Sand Street. Chuka-Tet turned his wilderness lore to the task at hand, and carefully examined the countless tracks that overlapped on the dusty street. Tracks belonging to women led to three locations – an abandoned broy shop, a potter's shop called the Ruddy Wheel, and a surprisingly intact manor house at the end of the street. The tracks of an old man with a staff and a dwarf accompanied the woman's prints leading to the old manor house. After a brief stop at the broy shop – occupied as it turned out by a pair of mul pimps and their stable of “companions” - the heroes headed to the old manor. A knock on the door brought out an old man with a wispy white beard and long mustache. “You are looking for a woman?” He asked. “Come in, I may be able to help you.”

The interior of the house was old and dusty, and the floorboards creaked underfoot. The old man. who named himself as Orbanus, stroked his thin, white beard. “Or you may be able to help me. Yes. You do know the one who has been healing others in the Warrens. Her transformation is of interest to us.” The heroes saw a dirty-looking human woman and a grimy dwarf wearing grubby clothes step in from the other room. “You will tell us what we want to know.” With that, all three began to change into horrific worm-like creatures with rubbery purple-gray skin and sharp, black claws. The creature's voice echoed in their minds, “And then our use for you will be at an end.” With that, the horrid creatures attacked. Arshaka recognized them as psurlons, and ancient race of aberrant creatures from a distant realm long trapped on Athas. Two broke through the floor, burrowing through the loose earth beneath only to emerge for a moment to slash with their claws. The other unleashed a wave of psychic pain, driving the heroes back. Suddenly, the floor erupted outward as two massive psurlons, each the nearly the size of a mekillot, emerged from the ground. Weakened by their emergence, the floor collapsed into a huge pit that had been excavated beneath the old manor house. The battle continued beneath, and though the psurlons proved terrifying foes, the heroes triumphed as Sark's magic and Gurthmore's axe disoriented and destroyed the aberrants.

Emerging from the shell of the manor house, the heroes made their way to the pottery shop. The proprietor was a surly female mul named Narisel, who despite her rough demeanor made a deep impression on Gurthmore. Despite the smitten barbarian, the heroes managed to convince her they were trustworthy, and she revealed her secret lodger – Ushas, the Child of Light. The sorceress was glad to see them, but said the time for joyful reunions was not yet nigh as the lich's forces closed in around the city. Agreeing to accompany them, she joined the heroes as they returned to the inn. Jin's absence had begun to worry Arshaka, and he and the rest set out to find him or get in touch with the Veiled Alliance themselves. Following an exhaustive trek through the back alleys of the Elven Market, the heroes had made their presence known to those who wear the veil.

Unfortunately they had drawn the wrong sort of attention as well. A crowd had formed in the market, whipped into a frenzy by a half-elf with wild eyes wearing desert robes. He spoke of a defiler, a witch among the populace, who had called the lich to raze the city. Sark, naive to the ways of the city-states, stood out as a likely target to the angry mob. Driven forward by fear and anger, the mob surged around the heroes. Their threats did not dissuade them, and the heroes were forced to crack skulls and bloody noses as they fought free of the crowd. Sark called on the cold and the darkness, raising cries of “witch” and “defiler” but helping scatter the crowd in the process. Gurthmore and Khossus managed to put down the instigator of the riot – hard – buying them all time to get off the streets. A friendly voice from a nearby alley directed them to safety, and the heroes were soon back at the inn in the company of Sadira, a high-ranking member of the Veiled Alliance and one of the rebels who had helped slay the tyrant King Kalak in the arena of Tyr.

After quick introductions were made, the heroes' reputation and the seriousness of their demeanor convinced he half-elf woman that they had come at the right time to help save not only Ushas, but the Free City as well. She agreed to watch over Ushas as the heroes took matters into their own hands – they would sneak back into Slither and end Yarnath's threat once and for all! Ushas, worried for their safety, promised them aid “when the hour is right.” She gave them a blessing as well. “Call my name when the moment is darkness, and the warmth of my presence will be with you and fill you with strength.” Sadira knew of a labyrinth of tunnels and caves called Under-Tyr that ran beneath the city-state and even outside of its walls. She would contact her allies, some of whom guarded these secret ways against possible infiltration, and sneak the heroes out behind enemy lines just before the dawn. The heroes opted to get what rest they could at that point.

No more than a few hours later, the sun had set and the sounds of far-off battle could be heard as Tyr's defenders and the forces of Yarnath the Skull skirmished along the walls of the city-state. Although the assault had not begun in earnest, Tyr was under siege, and the wild desert nomads and raiders under the banner of the snake-skull seemed disinclined to wait patiently for the Crawling Citadel to reach the gates. Suddenly, the far-off clamor was replaced by one close at hand. An explosion reverberated from the outer room as timbers burst and stone shattered from some terrific force. Rushing from their rooms, the companions saw two lightly armored skeletons blazing with arcane energy near the sundered doors and a withered, humanoid form clad in shadowy robes circling through the air near the ceiling. “There,” the one whispered in a sepulchral voice, “the enemies of the Skull! Slay them!” As the heroes moved forward, two shadowy figures, distinct only by burning eyes and blades, detached from the gloom and moved in to strike. The battle that followed was brief and bloody. Khossus had run upstairs to protect Ushas, and Gurthmore was dead drunk on strong broy, leaving Arshaka, Chuka-Tet, Sark, and the recently returned Jin to fend off the assassins. Jin's magics charmed the shadowy demon to fight in their defense for a moment, allowing the heroes to overcome the other dire assassins.

Racing upstairs they heard a loud crash from the room where the sorceress was supposed to be. They arrived to find a broken, black stone tablet and an unconscious gladiator on the floor. Looking out the window, under the light of the twin moons they saw a group of demonic figures leaping to a nearby rooftop. They were led by a strange, greenish humanoid with smooth, featureless skin and large, burning eyes wearing robes carrying a bronze blade. A large, ape-like demon moved ahead, and all could see Ushas clutched in one of its arms, seemingly unconscious. Two black, gargoyle-like creatures swooped overhead, screeching madly. The heroes leaped out in pursuit, chasing the demons across the rooftops as they headed towards the walls of Tyr. Barely managing to cut them off before they could escape, the heroes managed to slay the fiends and recover the unconscious Ushas.

After a few fitful hours, the heroes rose before the sun. Sadira escorted them through the cramped tunnels and warrens running beneath the city and past a handful of armed warriors that Gurthmore and Khossus recognized as gladiators. This group, part of the so-named Crimson Legion formed from the city-state's gladiatorial stables in the wake of Kalak's assassination, helped to protect Tyr in ways that regular soldiers could not. Sadira spoke briefly with one of them, a powerfully-built, pale-skinned human woman in black armor named Neeva, and led the heroes out into the steely, pre-dawn light. They emerged near a crumbled monument of some sort, and ahead they could see a patrol of desert elves marked with the snake-skull tattoo of Yarnath moving through the rocky gulleys surrounding the Free City. Slither loomed close at hand, and the heroes could feel the very ground beneath them shake with each colossal foot step of the Crawling Citadel...
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Tags: Level Up , Recap
Fortress of Bones Part 1: Road to Ruin
After departing Celik aboard Arshaka's wondrous sand-skiff the heroes made good time along the Trade Road north towards the twin villages of Ledopolus. The obsidian bard's songs kept the wind at their backs and the sturdy little vessel cruised across the flat, sandy wastes at a steady clip. After two days of travel, the heroes passed a small oasis, used mostly by the infrequent caravans and travelers making their way south along the Trade Road, and turned north towards the low hills on the horizon. As they did, the air began to stir and the hot, dry smell of dust and sand rose with it. Across the horizon, a wall of blowing sand appeared and began to bear down on the heroes and their small skiff with tremendous speed – a sandstorm! Quickly disembarking from their vessel, the heroes donned their filter masks and Arshaka shrank the skiff down until it fit in his pocket with but a single word. In mere moments, the blowing sand had overtaken them. Rough, humanoid figures seemingly made of stone and sand moved in the stinging haze, overshadowed by a huge whirlwind that moves with a malign intelligence. Arshaka and Sark were caught up in the blowing sand and dust and cut off from the rest of the group for a moment – but a moment too long. The fearsome elementals fell on the travelers with unchecked fury. Two warriors of living stone hurled rocky missiles and then charged forward with crude picks clutched in their monolithic fists. A pair of humanoids composed of living sand surged up from the desert, lashing with crude arms and dragging their opponents beneath the sand to choke and suffocate. The whirlwind moved forward and spat out a half a dozen smaller copies, then tore through the group with ease.

Gurthmore was lifted aloft by the whirlwind as Chuka-Tet and then Jin were pulled beneath the sands. Khossus was assailed by the stony warriors and the small, cyclonic elementals. But the heroes fought back with all their might. The mul barbarian tore free of the whirlwind, his enchanted axe battering it as if it were a physical foe. Khossus held the line against his foes, shifting across the desert sands. He was drug under at one point, but fought back and burst from the sand, sword swinging. Jin and Chuka-Tet pulled free as well, and the warlock blasted his foes with ice as the druid laid about him with his staff. Rock cracked and broke, sand was dispersed, and the wind stilled as the elementals fell. But the sandstorm did not abate, and Chuka-Tet realized they must quickly find shelter. Through the blowing sand he spotted an outcropping of sorts. It turned out to be a huge caravan wagon, half-buried in the sand. Making their way through the blowing dust, the heroes climbed up into the back of the wagon.

As they clambered down through the wreck of the overturned caravan wagon, the heroes found themselves sliding down into a dark, sandy cave. Chuka-Tet realized that this tunnel was a sinkhole or burrow of a sort, and by the damage to the wagon, it was the work of some colossal insect. The howl of the storm above was muted by the thick, rock walls and ceiling. Though a fine trail of dust and sand falls down the opening behind them, the heroes suddenly realized that is not the source of the rustling and clicking sound that greeted their ears. Khossus commanded the Crown of the Sun to glow, and its light fell on a disturbing sight. A huge, many-legged insect with a glistening black carapace and luminous green eyes uncoiled and began to scuttle and slither across the sandy floor. Two other worm-like insects with dark blue shells, many legs, long, whip-like antennae, and a single, glaring eye writhed towards the group from the other side of the cave. All three moved with a hungry intent.

A fierce struggle ensued as the heroes rushed in to attack the monstrous insects. The cilopses barreled through their opponents, knocking Khossus and Chuka-Tet off their feet and tore at them with their pincers even as their whip-like antennae blasted them with lightning, leaving them senseless for a moment. The huge megapede engaged Jin and Gurthmore, lashing out with its hundreds of legs, its venomous mandibles, and withering blasts of psychic force. But the heroes were not overcome so easily. Jin vanished and reappeared at will, his icy blade impaling the monstrous insects time and again. Gurthmore lashed out with his axe, staggering his foes and driving them back time and again. Khossus struck measured blows with his glass blade as Chuka-Tet delivered smashing blows with his staff and used his primal magics to keep his companions on their feet. Bloody and battered, the heroes nevertheless prevailed and waited out the storm in the safety of the megapede's cavernous nest. Several hours later, the emerged and set forth on their journey once again.

A few days later the heroes arrived in Ledopolus. They were greeted warmly by Bruthambar, the village's dwarf headman, who had not forgotten their heroism many months ago. He arranged for quarters overnight and the grateful villagers provided them with plentiful food and drink before seeing them on their way early the next morning. Shortly before dusk on the seventh day of travel, just past the twin villages, the heroes came across a horrific sight. A slaughtered caravan lie just off the road. Bodies were strewn around the area, and all were bloated and covered with vermin. Each wagon had a dead inix or two lying in front of it, and there were several dead crodlus nearby. Clouds of fat, black flies buzzed around the area, thick enough to choke out the sun. Goods and ruined supplies were scattered everywhere, and no other tracks could seen entering or leaving the area. As his companions searched the scene, Chuka-Tet quickly realized that this carnage was not the work of raiders, as no tracks could be seen leaving the area. As they picked through the slaughter, the heroes saw a robed, masked figure clutching a staff kneeling near one of the wrecked caravan wagons. It slowly rose as they approached. A buzzing voice issued from the voluminous hood.

“My master has sent me to greet you,” the eerie, inhuman voice grated with malevolence. “Yarnath has grown tired of your interference. Your bodies will soon lie here and rot along with all the rest.” The mask slipped, and all could see this creature had no face apart from the mask, and no body apart from what its robes provided. It was an amalgamation of buzzing, crawling, flying, and biting insects given a man-like form. Two of the clouds of insects nearby coalesced into roughly humanoid forms and began to circle through the air. The doors of two caravan wagons nearby burst open, and a pair of large figures, seemingly a cross between a monstrous fly and a giant, took to the air. “Feast on them!” The creature commanded in a myriad of buzzing voices.

Slaughter followed slaughter as the demonic vermin attacked the heroes. The buzzing clouds of stinging flies, demons of ruin bound in the form of a swarm, fell upon Chuka-Tet. One cloud forced its way into Khossus' mouth, threatening to overwhelm him and command his body, but the thri-kreen druid's power drove the entity out of the gladiator's form. Gurthmore leaped up on the rocks and broken wagons slashing at the monstrous fly-like demons, dropping one with savage hews as it flitted about biting and tearing with its razor-sharp proboscis. The obscene, undead larva mage blasted the heroes with rays of deathly cold and blasts of consuming fire even as its gaze unnerved them. Vermin appeared crawling on the heroes, overwhelming their senses as they bit and stung them around every open orifice. But the heroes took the fight to their foes, blasting them with cold and sweeping their weapons in wide arcs. Khossus used the power of the Crown of the Sun to burn and sear them with solar flame as Jin wrapped himself in a cloak of radiance that burned all nearby. Ere long, the last of the vermin had fallen and the heroes stood among the wreckage. They claimed a pouch of strange dust and a pair of glassy orbs from the remains of Yarnath's servant. One carried a powerful enchantment, and Jin set the bauble to orbiting his head, its power enhancing his presence and the force of his will. Cleaning themselves and resting for a short time, the heroes decided it prudent to press on lest more of the lich's servants lurking in the area fall upon them. The day wore on, and their journey turned north and west towards Altaruk and Tyr far beyond...

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Valley of Nightmares Part 11: Lord of the Land
Making their way into the lower levels of the haunted keep, the heroes found themselves moving through the living chambers of the lord's family. Gurthmore and Rokkon fell back, superstitious dread making them wary. “The dead have a way of rising again in place like this,” Gurthmore said hefting his axe. “I will make sure that none follow.” A long hall ran through the lower level and past several rooms, including a bath, bedchambers, a dining room, a library, a shrine to the lost gods, and the lord's opulent personal chambers. Muted voices could be heard coming from rooms that proved empty when checked. Phantoms could be seen walking down the hall, vanishing just as fast as they appeared. These restless spirits were not alone. As the heroes moved down the pillared hall, a sound like rushing flames reached their ears and an explosion of flame engulfed the hall behind them. Several diabolic forms stepped out of the flames. Half a dozen were hunched, scaled humanoids with serrated glaives, two were devilish women with horns and ruddy skin wielding burning two-handed swords, and one was an icy, insect-like horror wielding a long spear. Two enormous, coal-black hounds with fiery eyes stood by its side. The roiling flame behind them did not diminish, but rather seemed to surge forward as the devils moved. “The prey is here,” one of the infernal women mocked. “Then the hunt is on,” the other laughed with wicked abandon.

A chaotic melee followed as the devils charged recklessly down the hall. The heroes were prepared for them however, and the fiends' advance was quickly checked. Khossus knocked the ice devil prone as one of Sark's spells overwhelmed its senses. The two female devils were caught in the press among the hounds, each driven into frenzy by the orc wizard's magic. Chuka-Tet and Arshaka formed a rear line, protecting Sark, as Khossus and Jin hewed the devils with their blades. Despite the ferocity of their counter-attack, the fiery breath of the diabolic hounds left the heroes burning and the battle seemed lost for a moment. But while they wavered, the heroes did not fall and managed to slay the last of the devils, condemning them to return to the netherworld they had come from. Among the bedchambers the heroes found the only treasure worth having – a third fortune stone, marked with symbols of light and darkness. They also found something even more amazing. Ancient stone bas-reliefs along the walls presented portraits of the ancient lord and his family, and they all bore a remarkable likeness to Khossus!

“But I was raised a slave,” the warrior said with confusion. “The leader of the Black Sands raiders said I was taken from a noble caravan as a child, but this...” he looked on with wonder. “Were my parents some kind of nobles?”

“It is possible,” Arshaka assured him. “It says on these ancient tablets that the younger brother of this...king...left before the land was cursed. He may have wandered east, to the Tablelands. You may be a descendent of kings, my friend.”

“You may need an adviser,” Jin said thoughtfully. “I will volunteer my services. Perhaps a crown would suit you. We will talk more later,” the pale, roguish warlock said with a certain cunning charm.

Doors at the end of the hall opened into a large chamber, part throne room and part tomb. As they entered the ancient tomb, a huge stone braziers in the center of the room flared to life with unearthly flames. Columns stood near the center of the room and each was carved to resemble a coiled, feathered serpent. They flanked an enormous sarcophagus lined by canopic jars and a white marble throne. Niche-like shrines lined each side of the room, offering mute testimony to the faith of the tomb's inhabitant. Slowly, a dusky figure rose from the throne. This mummy wore the crown and garb of an ancient king. Two winged, feathered serpents slithered from behind the throne, their eyes burning with cold light. Two shadowy figures stepped into view, each wearing bronze armor and wielding corroded bronze axes.

“Defilers,” the ancient figure said in a sepulchral voice, “you will pay for your transgression.”
“Wait,” Jin interjected, “this is the heir to the throne!” He pointed at Khossus, even as he lifted the Crown of the Sun from Chuka-Tet's head and placed it on the human warrior's brow.

“But I had no sons,” the mummy replied. “My brother...he had children. But he left. He betrayed me! As did my people! Usurper, you will not have my throne!” During the long-dead lord's rant, the heroes had managed to move into the room and take up positions. And and that point, they struck.

A battle royal followed, with Khossus taking up his blade and the Crown of the Sun against what may have been his long-dead kinsman. The dead guardians moved in, their opalescent eyes reflecting the fire at the center of the room. Their cold axes bit deep and their gaze chilled to the bone, sapping vitality and promising death. The undead, winged serpents moved as if made of light, burning their way through the heroes. The dark pharaoh laid his curse upon the heroes, his very touch carrying doom and death. But the heroes fought back with purpose. Khossus' glassy blade exploded with the fury of the desert sands. Jin vanished and reappeared at will, the warlock's icy blade striking deep. Chuka-Tet and Arshaka stood on opposite sides of the room, offering support as primal fury and arcane song overcame their enemies. Sark called up shadows and cold, storm and lightning to blast his enemies with wild fury. The battle was over as the pharaoh fell at last. His crown rolled to one side, and Khossus picked it up, plucking out the last fragment of the Crown of the Sun. Sark saw a final fortune stone set into the throne itself, one engraved with the symbols of storm and wind.

The last fragment fused with the rest of the Crown in a brilliant flash of light. "At last,” the Crown of the Sun exclaimed in a voice that could not be heard, only felt, “I am complete! But the nightmare that shrouds this land has been roused by my presence. The last fragment of my being, hidden here for so long, was used to bind the creature when it first appeared. The four Fortune Stones were imbued with the power of the elements and acted as anchor points for the primal magics that should have imprisoned the nightmare beast for all time. But the creature was too powerful and it was able to return from its prison in the Grey when the moons Ral and Guthay were in alignment and a door was opened into the world of shadows and death. Now that I am whole, the ritual can be used to weaken the creature, allowing you to slay it once and for all.” The Crown went silent for a moment, as if it were attempting to sense or determine...something.

“The nightmare beast is angry,” it continued, “and the creature's ability to warp and twist all things that fall under its shadow increase as does its rage. Soon all things in the valley will fall into a perpetual nightmare as the line between this world and the next blurs and finally disappears altogether. You must hurry back to the center of the Valley of Shemmeth, to the standing stones where the creature was first bound. Once there you must stand in one of the four sacred circles with the corresponding Fortune Stone and speak the proper incantation. Once that is done the nightmare beast can be slain by you. Listen carefully. Whoever holds the Stone of Earth must say, 'By the power of the very earth, I chain you.' Whoever possesses the Stone of Spirit must speak, 'By the power of our spirits, I call you.' Whoever has the Stone of Storms and Wind must incant, 'By the storm and the wind I lash you.' Finally, whoever holds the Stone of Light and Shadow must chant, 'By the power of light and shadow, I abjure you.' When these things are done, my power will be unleashed and the creature can be defeated.”
Thus armed, the heroes gathered their strength before setting out across the Valley of Shemmeth. Sark called forth a murder of crows from the sky and caused them to grow to giant size. “This will speed our way,” the orc witch said, “and get us to Esgul, then the stones beyond.” As they winged over the vale, the heroes saw that a shadow had fallen over the land. Darkness had descended on Esgul, and cries of terror and shouts of panic could be heard through the cloud of shadows that had engulfed the village. Drawing close to the outskirts, the heroes landed their mounts. Arshaka began to radiate a magical light, one that barely penetrateed the omnipresent gloom at first. As the light swelled, they saw something in the darkness move. A shadowy giant strode forth, four other shadows flitting from hut to hut nearby. A flock of ravens seemingly composed of darkness followed the shadow giant, their unearthly cries chilling the heroes to the bone.

Determined not to let the village fall, the heroes fought. Shadows raced ahead, one grasping Chuka-Tet, causing the thri-kreen druid to dance about like a puppet. The shadow giant pulled him into the darkness, and he disappeared from view. Sark fought shadow with shadow, checking the giant's advance as the shadowy ravens tore through the companions with their flashing claws and rending beaks. Khossus moved forward, his blade burning with the power of the Crown of the Sun, and he tore through the shadows like a juggernaut. Jin and Sark used cold and darkness to fight the shadow, sweeping the flock aside. Chuka-Tet clawed his way back out of the darkness, tearing free from the shadow clutching him in the process. Arshaka strode forward with purpose, his thunderous song blasting shadows apart. The shadowy giant fell at last, the shadows flitted off into the gloom, and the last of the ravens took to the air as the darkness rolled back from the village of Esgul. Belinna and her people came forward, torches in their hands and looks of relief on their faces. “The darkness is not gone,” she said, “only driven back for a moment. You must press on, end this nightmare before it is too late for all of us!” The heroes nodded as one, and prepared to head to the center of the Valley of Shemmeth to confront the nightmare beast for the last time...
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Valley of Nightmares Part 6: Through the Misty Border
Pushing on through the sweltering afternoon after fording the shallow, muddy stream, the heroes stopped for a fitful night's rest on the Crimson Savanna. The next day, rain such as they had never seen began to fall from a suddenly darkening sky. Pelted by the downpour, the heroes quickly discovered one of the savanna's other hazards, as Khossus was struck by a bolt of lightning, attracted by the steel blade on his back. The blast knocked a few of the heroes off their feet, but they quickly recovered. As the sudden downpour passed, they heard a strange, rushing sound and a wall of muddy water overtook them. None had even heard of a flash flood, but as the water swept them off their feet and threatened to drown them, the heroes understood that even life-giving water could be deadly here. Mercifully, it was over in mere moments, and caked in thick, red mud, they slogged on. Sark took to the skies mounted on his magically-enlarged familiar, saying “I will scout ahead, as we near the lands of my people.” The others wondered briefly about Jin as well, as the pale warlock still had not returned after his mysterious disappearance from the back of the cloud ray.

As the mud dried and flaked off under the afternoon sun, the heroes came across a strange tableau. Sounds of combat could be heard from the grass ahead. The trail opened up in to a small clearing, doubtless created by some past fire. A pile of rocks stood at the far side. Perched there, they saw a small group of savage-looking, gray-skinned humanoids fighting off a band of thri-kreen. Dead bodies of both lay scattered around the area. With a start, both sides turn as the companions moved into the clearing. The thri-kreen clacked and buzzed threateningly, and some charged the heroes as Gurthmore rushed past them. The mul gladiator soon found himself fighting alongside the outnumbered orcs, though he took a blow or two from their war-leader's savage axe initially. Rokkon, Chuka-Tet, and Khossus engaged the thri-kreen shaman and a handful of skirmishers while Arshaka directed their efforts. Despite the superior mobility and numbers of the insect men, the heroes were able to turn the tide and slay the lot of them. The wounded orcs eyed them warily, but their leader finally grinned and, in broken common and heavily-accented giant-tongue, thanked them and welcomed the heroes to accompany him to their camp. Sark returned shortly thereafter, and introductions were made between the companions and the tribe of the Bloody Teeth. After exchanging stories with Rhugor, the tribe's massive, one-eyed chief, and an elderly witch-woman, the heroes learned that these orcs had long ago been driven from the Tablelands. They had a prophecy that one day they would return and once again pillage and slay to their heart's content. Knowing now that there were such mighty warriors as the heroes among the people of the far-off land, the orcs admitted that such battles would be the stuff of legend.

The heroes also learned that the lands surrounding the cliffs were a place where, according to the witch-woman, “Earth, fire, and water all become as one.” They also learned that a canyon split the great cliff, though the “hoppers” as the orcs called them, had built a great wall across the long defile and controlled the passage to the lands beyond. After drinking, resting, and feasting, the heroes opted to head for the cliffs. They traded with the orcs for supplies, and set out for the Misty Border.

Nearing the edge of lands the orcs claimed was taboo, the heroes were initially frightened by the sound of rushing water. They discovered it was not a flash flood, but rather something none of them had even dreamed of – a mighty river, cutting across the plains. They found a point where the wide, muddy river ahead shallowed and began to plan their crossing. The river's muddy banks were choked with rotting vegetation, thick clumps of bamboo, and obscuring reeds and rushes. As they drew closer to the water, the thick mud sucked at the heroes' feet and rather than the familiar sound of the breeze rustling the grass, a strange trilling or piping reached their ears. What appear to be two large mounds of rotting plant matter and bamboo shambled forward, droning as they moved. Several smaller creatures rose near the banks of the river as a large, reptilian figure burst out of the water, steam and vapor curling from its nostrils.

“Water drake,” Chuka-Tet warned as the creature called forth an orb of freezing water that exploded in their midst. Khossus was frozen in place for a moment, as a shimmering, psychic clone of the creature appeared nearby and charged Rokkon. Evading the duplicate, the goliath ranger charged the large reptile, his axes hacking away at its scaly hide. Gurthmore ran up the other side, slashing away at the plant creatures even as their sharp, bamboo spines pierced the mul gladiator's skin. They trilled as they died, dazing him briefly. The two larder ones let out a droning song, and the heroes began to feel drowsy and overwhelmed. Fighting off the urge to fall asleep, Chuka-Tet and Arshaka used staff and song to batter and distract the creatures as Gurthmore continued to slash away. Khossus and Rokkon battled the water drake, blades striking home even as the creature blasted them with scalding steam, freezing water, and raking claws. The beast soon fell under their unstoppable assault, and Gurthmore cut down plant creature after plant creature. Soon the field of battle was empty. Cleaning themselves in the warm waters, the heroes moved past into the mist-shrouded lands beyond.

Formed by the waterfalls cascading down the face of the cliffs, these swamps were heated by magma pools, lava tubes, and hot springs that sent clouds of steam and vapor into the air. Rife with defiling magic, pure elemental chaos, and rampant, uncontrolled transmutations, the very land proved perilous. Jumping over hot springs, magma channels, and mud pits or scrambling over hummocks created from collapsed lava tubes, Rokkon led his comrades safely through the hellish landscape. Khossus kept pace, hauling supplies and gear through the hellish landscape. Gurthmore, relying on his incredible stamina, simply ignored the terrible, stifling heat and slogged through the thick, hot mud, cutting a trail for his allies. Using what knowledge he had of the hazards that bubbled and boiled within the mists ahead, Chuka-Tet guided the group to avoid them, while Arshaka remembered remnants of tales, stories, or rumors of the lands beyond the Ringing Mountains to provide him with clues of what to expect. The mist grew thick around them as they traveled, becoming a steamy fog that cut visibility down to almost nothing.

A mournful bellow echoed from seemingly everywhere in the mist that surrounded them. It was a wordless, hateful dirge that spoke of doom and tragedy. The fetid mire sucked at their feet as the heroes tromped through the steaming mud. Out of the mist ahead, a dark bulk appeared as the clouds parted for the briefest moment. It was a four-footed creature with a long neck, horned head, and matted, black fur. Its face was a mask of tragedy, its blank eyes staring sightlessly forward. Taken aback for a moment, the group almost missed the movement around them. Five eyeless, scaled humanoids with toothy maws and slick skin slithered through the mud, hissing with hate as their razor-sharp teeth clacked with hunger.

Almost immediately, the heroes found themselves in a life-and-death struggle. The fearsome demons, called mahataa, burrowed through the mud faster than a man could run before exploding upward with tremendous force, knocking the heroes prone or stunning them with the suddenness of their savage bite. Gurthmore charged the shaggy, black beast, called a catoblepas, his axe biting deep as the beast's clubbing tail hit him upside the head. Rokkon and Khossus followed, as Arshaka and Chuka-Tet tried to hold off the burrowing demons. Things looked grim for a moment as Gurthmore fell, the beast's dooming gaze tearing at his very soul. But he rallied at the sound of Arshaka's music. Not giving in to the sheer terror of the beast's presence, Rokkon slashed away. He knocked its tail aside, pinning it with his axe, as it snapped at him with its goring tusks. Khossus lunged up from the ground, impaling it through the bottom of the head, slaying the deadly beast. Rallying, the heroes turned on the mire-lurking demons, and Khossus moved through them like a desert wind, slashing time and again alongside the goliath ranger and the mul barbarian. Ere long it was done, the last of the demons retreating into the mud to avoid death at the heroes' hands. Despite their wounds, Chuka-Tet was able to cull the elementally infused mud for medicines and restoratives. Pressing on, the heroes avoided any further encounters and reached the base of the Jagged Cliffs. Finding shelter in a cleft at the base, they rested and prepared for their ascent...

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Valley of Nightmares Part 3: The Ancient Library
The doors to the great library of Celik were slightly ajar, and Jin slipped between them with practiced ease. Like a ghost, he glided silently across the threshold into the hall beyond. Moving into the great hall, the pale-skinned warlock could see that much of the upper floor had collapsed, Broken stairs stood to the right of the entrance, leading up to what was left of the upper level. The shattered remnants of columns and statues lined the hall, and the chipped and marred remains of elaborate friezes adorned its walls. There were great chasms or holes in the floor of the hall, where the fallen ceiling had shattered the building's foundations. As he slowly climbed the broken stairway, he overheard a few guttural voices coming from an adjoining chamber. Peering through the dim recesses of the hall Jin saw a band of savage-looking gray-skinned humanoids – tareks – slouching around a fire where they appeared to be drying skins. They were armed with bone picks and blades for the most part, though a few carried heavy-looking horn bows. As one stepped out into the main hall Jin cast forth a bolt of arcane force, a bolt that struck the wall beside its head as the tarek unexpectedly turned to say something to one of its comrades. Startled for only a brief second, the savages recovered quickly and brought their weapons to bear. The one that Jin had just missed returned fire with its horn bow, its arrow raking the pale-skinned man's leg. One cried out for blood, and the rest howled with fury as the heroes charged into the debris-strewn hall.

Fierce, bloody combat followed as Gurthmore leaped into the fray, his axe swinging in wide arcs. Jin unleashed a blast of cold that swept his opponents off their feet and knocked two into one of the pits beside the broken stairs. Khossus charged in, his steel blade slashing with precision at the brutish humanoids. Chuka-Tet nimbly leaped over debris and pits, his staff and scorpion striking with equal precision. And Toranda calmly walked up the broken stairs, his thoughts lancing at the tareks like surgeon's scalpel. But the tareks did not fall easy, and their arrows, blades, and picks drew their share of blood. The tareks' leader channeled spirits of rage, boiling both gladiators' blood in their veins and making them see red. He fought without fear, as did his followers, but in the end the heroes stood bloodied but triumphant. They found little of value in the tareks' possession but did note that the hides they were curing were, in fact, the scalps of gith the hunters had slain during their sojourn into the ruined city. Pausing to bind their wounds, the heroes gathered up their arms and made their way down a spiral stair at the end of the hall to the chambers beneath the library.

Upon descending the spiral stairs the heroes found themselves in a darkened hall that was flanked by two galleries. Both were once decorated with intricate murals and their tile floors were inlaid with elaborate designs. “Doubtless these galleries were once used as halls of learning, where the history of Celik was laid out in pictorial form,” Arshaka surmised. They had fared badly over the long centuries however, and were mostly faded, chipped, and broken. The hall ended in double doors that opened onto the south wall of a large room. The chamber at the end of the hall was shrouded in darkness, and the heroes' light revealed a wide balcony lined with bookcases running around the room twenty feet off the ground. A huge, ornate structure of brass and crystal sat in the center of the chamber, surrounded by tables and bookshelves. Stairs on the far side of the room led up to the balcony.

A figure on the balcony hissed slightly as the light fell upon it. It appeared to be a human woman with pale skin and dark eyes. She pointed down to them, and the closest of them noticed that her fingers were unusually long and flexible, and had sharp, black nails. “You would interfere with my research,” she chided. “That is unfortunate for you. There are secrets here that I, and I alone, would have.” She smiled, and her smile was predatory, her teeth sharp. “But all is not lost. You do have something I want. Your life's blood.” Two armored figures stepped into view from behind the strange device, while the shadows coalesced in the corners of the room. “Now,” she growled, “I will have it!” With that, she raised her hands and unleashed a blast of black flames that engulfed the heroes and a blistering torrent of purple-black lightning that struck Gurthmore and Khossus full in the chest, nearly knocking the wind from both of them.

Jin flew up to the balcony, his icy blade in hand, only to be met by the eerie woman's gaze. He felt his will drain away, replaced by hers for a brief moment. Khossus, Gurthmore, and Chuka-Tet moved in to engage the wights and wraiths under her command with axe and blade, primal power and staff, as Toranda stood back and unleashed blistering thoughts and bolts of pure force on the undead. The battle that followed was hard-fought but its outcome seemed as predestined as the movement of the heavens charted in the great brass and crystal orrery at the center of the room. The woman was no mere defiler, she was a t'liz, a life-draining undead sorceress. As Khossus, Toranda, and Chuka-Tet battled the wights and wraiths, Gurthmore clambered up to the balcony to aid Jin in combating the wicked defiler. Blasted by eldritch lightning and flame, their lives draining away by her touch, and their will failing under her gaze, the pair nevertheless managed to wound her grievously. She vanished for a moment, reappearing on the other balcony, but Jin charged her with his icy blade and drove her back. Toranda unleashed a blistering thought upon her, blinding the t'liz with the fire in his mind. She fell to her knees and begged. “Spare me! I can share secrets with you that others would willingly die for!”

“There will be no mercy for such as you!” Jin's icy blade struck home, and she was done. Rifling through the documents in the chamber and searching the remains of the t'liz, the heroes found a single, glittering black sapphire and a magnificent cloak that appeared to be the finest silk, but was actually woven from pure shadow and threaded with starlight. As wondrous as these items were, the The t'liz also carried a magnificent blade seemingly carved from stone that Khossus claimed as a prize. Gathering their strength, the heroes made their way through one of the doors leading out of the orrery chamber, only to find the passage blocked with rubble. Leaving through the opposite door, they entered a long passage that led to sealed bronzed doors. Jin determined that they were locked physically and protected magically. He began to work the lock as Toranda began to undo the psychic enchantments within the metal. There was a brief flash of cold from the doors that shook Jin to the core, but the work was done and with a flash of light great bronze doors parted.

The space beyond was pitch black. The heroes' light revealed a great, cross-shaped hall lined with statues of monks or scholars guarding niches set into the walls. These niches were filled with a variety of chests and containers or racks of bound scrolls and ancient volumes. A robed skeleton sat on a stone chair set up on a dais on the far end of the hall. Its hollow eyes and rictus grin seem to mock the heroes as they stepped forward. Without warning, two scattered heaps of broken items and tattered scrolls near the dais swirled up into the air and formed two humanoid figures, their eye-sockets blazing with arcane fire. “Leave,” the robed skeleton intoned in a hollow voice. “Now. Or I will make you leave.” Having come this far, the heroes opted not to leave.

Ever at the fore of battle, Gurthmore charged one of the scroll-mummies. Jin followed, narrowly avoiding being grabbed by one of the stone statues lining the hall as they suddenly animated. Toranda was not so lucky, and the tiefling noble found himself in a crushing grip of unbreakable stone. Chuka-Tet avoided the grasping statues and leaped forward to engage the other scroll-mummy as Jin vanished and appeared next to the mysterious robed skeleton. Khossus moved into the fray, and seeing the deadly threat posed by the constructs as they moved to surround his allies, the gladiator became a whirling dervish. He struck out in all directions, statues crumbling under his blows as they ran in to attack. He stumbled for a moment on the reliquary pits lining the hall, and felt a chill creep up his legs, a chill he quickly shrugged off. The scroll mummies were powerful foes however, and their chilling claws immobilized the heroes as they struck. Spells flared to life on the parchments that composed them, blasting the heroes with fire, lightning, and ice. The crypt thing on the chair vanished and reappeared, and forced the heroes to vanish and reappear as well. Despite its tricks, Gurthmore used one of his own and ripped it back through space with a blow from his enchanted bronze wrist axe. It fell, its skull crushed by a blow, but the scroll mummies fought on. Despite their arcane might, the two constructs soon joined their master in oblivion.

The heroes took the opportunity to rest, and Arshaka began to skim the volumes of lore and the scrolls placed in the niches of the long-forgotten vault. From the crypt thing's neck, Jin claimed an onyx pendant that seemed at one with the shadows. Hidden behind the great, stone seat was a cunningly-designed adamantine and gold puzzle-box holding a shard of pure elemental fire. After a welcome rest in the still vault, the heroes awoke to discover that Arshaka and Toranda had found the information they had been seeking all along. With the knowledge of how to reach the Blue Shrine firmly in hand, the heroes departed and returned without incident to the settled portion of Celik. Korsun greeted them warmly, and was overjoyed at their find in the library. “The wonders of a past age lie there, and perhaps one day we will discover them all again.” After enjoying the merchant prince's hospitality and being provided with supplies, they left Celik and headed west towards the location of the shrine.

Three days passed, and the heroes saw what appeared to be a small oasis in the sandy barrens that lay beyond the ruins of Celik. As they approached, they realized too late that the oasis was a trap. A loud war-cry rang out from the surrounding rocks, and suddenly the barren wastes were not so empty. More than a dozen dragonborn warriors in scale armor and desert traveling cloaks rose from the sand, their weapons drawn. One carried a scourge while another, obviously their leader, stood nearly seven feet tall. He growled at the rest, “Take them alive if you can!” Seeing the manacles at his belt, they realized that the dray were slavers...and that they meant to take them as a prize. A vicious battle followed, and no quarter was given. Gurthmore beheaded the female dray with the flail, prompting a roar of vengeance from the leader. Jin summoned forth a wintry wind, blowing the dray about the oasis even as Toranda unleashed blinding thoughts on many of the rest. Khossus moved faster than a man in heavy armor should, and his blade was everywhere, striking down the slavers with impunity. Chuka-Tet faced the leader for a moment, calling on the power of the earth and stone to protect him as he lashed out with his staff. At the end, Gurthmore faced their leader and cut him down, forcing the handful left to flee. Jin followed, taking to the air, and cut them down from a distance with his arcane bolts. Flush with their victory, the heroes pressed on and set camp that night on a low, sandy rise.

They all drifted off to sleep peacefully, and even Arshaka was lost in his reverie. Shortly after the companions awakened, they noticed that the air seemed clearer and thinner somehow and that a relatively cool, dust-free breeze had kicked up. The ground beneath them lurched and quaked slightly, in a rhythmic fashion. All too quickly the group realized that what they were on was not ground at all, but the leathery, sand-encrusted hide of some great beast. And that beast was flying. Standing cautiously, they could see the ground was nothing more than a swift-moving blur of rocks, sand, and scrub plains far, far below. Far to the north they could see a huge range of mountains, and to the west naught but and endless horizon that seems to drop off into nothingness. The creature the heroes stood upon was enormous and flat, its body extending outward in a wing-like shape to either side and trailing off into a long, thin tail like a stinger behind. Three smaller creatures trailed behind it, though small may have been a misnomer as each was roughly the size of a wagon. Their wings undulated gently through the air though a distant roar, like that of thunder far-off on the horizon, echoed from all around them...

“That's a long way down,”Gurthmore said with his customary insight. “I don't think I can jump that far!”
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Island of the Lost Temple Part 8.2: Into the Labyrinth Part 2 (or: Serpents of the Earth)
The heroes woke after a few hours of rest in the white dome at the heart of the ruined city. It had not been an easy rest, though their flagging strength had returned. Though Gurthmore had pushed ahead and come back wounded and poisoned, the mul had shrugged off the worst of his injuries and was ready to press on once again. “I can take you back to where I went,” the burly mul said as Khossus and he slid back the bar on the door that led to the labyrinth of tunnels beneath the ruined city, “but there are more snake-men to kill down there.” With that the heroes descended into the darkened tunnels below.

After passing through a number of tunnels and galleries shrouded in gloom, the heroes reached the large hall with the brackish pool where Gurthmore had slain several yuan-ti. Wary for the sounds of movement in the dark corridors beyond, the heroes moved silently through the eerie, green light emanating from the strange crystals overhead. They reached an intersection in the hall beyond, and the mul barbarian pointed to the north. “That's where I slew the wizard and his ghosts.” Realizing that there was nothing to find that way, the others decided to head down the passage to the southwest. Jin crept ahead of the party and the warlock quietly opened the brass-sheathed doors at the end of the hall. The silence was split by the slightest squeal from the ancient valves' rust- and verdigris-covered hinges. The chamber ahead was lit by the same, strange gems that shined in the depths of the labyrinth. A gilded throne sat at the far end of the long room on a marble dais. A sunburst design was inlaid into the floor in elaborate detail. On further examination, the heroes realized that it is the image of a feathered serpent coiled into a circle. But the chamber was not empty. A figure was seated on the throne, a scaled woman with a crown of serpents in place of her hair. She was gaunt and her eyes gleamed with cold hunger. A trio of mummified yuan-ti warriors armed with bronze khopeshes stood at attention at the corners of the room.

“Trespassers,” she hissed, “you will not leave this place alive. Your lives and souls are forfeit.” With that, her eyes began to glow with cold light. From beneath the throne, a swarm of vipers slithered into view. Gurthmore charged into the room, his massive axe swinging a wide arc as it bit into the shoulder of one of the mummies. Chuka-Tet and Jin followed as Ashaka's rousing song lifted their spirits. While the thri-kreen druid and his scorpion engaged another mummy, the pale-skinned warlock ran up to the throne – only to have the floor give way beneath his feet! Tumbling deftly to one side he glimpsed a nest of vipers writhing at the bottom of a fifty-foot deep pit. His relief turned to shock as he inadvertently met the medusa's gaze, and the look of shock did not leave his face as he turned to stone. Khossus moved ahead, his sword and shield keeping two of the mummies at bay as the swarm of vipers slithered around Gurthmore, Chuka-Tet, and Arshaka. Toranda moved into the room and unleashed a single, brilliant thought that wrapped the medusa in burning light. She hissed, blinded by the adept's power, but was still able to hurl ghostly serpents at both the tiefling and the obsidian bard, infecting them with supernatural venom.

Jin shook off the effects of the medusa's gaze following an infusion of primal power from Chuka-Tet. He vanished and reappeared by the snake-tressed fiend and though his icy blade bit deep into her side, her gaze locked the warlock in place again. He shrugged off the stony curse as Gurthmore leaped over the pit and his axe slashed the medusa deep along one arm. But she did not bleed, and they both realized this medusa was already dead. Gurthmore caught her gaze as he fell, and only his axe saved him from doom as it caught on the lip of the pit, supporting his stony body over the drop-off. The mul's vitality allowed him to overcome the medusa's cursed gaze and he scrambled up from the pit. He and Jin slashed at the medusa as Toranda burned and blinded her again with the power of his mind. Khossus, Chuka-Tet, and Arshaka managed to dispatch the mummies as the warlock and the barbarian slew their undead queen. The rest of the vipers slithered away, directionless at her demise, and the heroes were able to catch their breath. After searching the medusa, Toranda purloined a fine robe from her throne while the rest grabbed a few precious jewels that her now-headless body still wore. A small chamber beyond held a large sarcophagus topped, bizarrely, by a fresh pomegranate. Chuka-Tet realized that it was no ordinary fruit, but rather one that had been infused with a degree of necromantic power, enough to enable any who ate it to resist deathly energies and poisons, for a time. Inside the burial cask they found an ornate object, much like an ankh, made of entwined metal serpents. While Arshaka could not find any religious significance to the item, Jin realized that it must be some sort of key.

Backtracking down the corridor, the heroes made their way down the passage to the south. Once again, Jin moved silently ahead. And once again, ancient hinges squealed as he opened the door, betraying his presence. He saw roaring flames burning in massive stone braziers set at the corners of the large chamber ahead. A short flight of steps led down into the large room. Its floor was scribed with ancient glyphs that surrounded a serpentine mark scribed into the floor at the heart of the room. A huge, snake-like form rested there, but it raised its human-like head, hissing a low warning as the warlock and his allies entered, and it spread its large, cobra-like hood displaying its fearsome countenance in all its glory. A trio of yuan-ti moved into view. Two were armed like warriors, each with a bow in hand and a curved blade at their side. The third was an abomination – it had the body and head of a snake and two muscular arms, though one of its scaled arms was flexible and ended in a second serpent's head that stared with blind eyes and hissed madly. Two large snakes emerged from the writing flames of the braziers on the far side of the room, each seemingly composed of molten rock rather than scaled flesh.

Again, Gurthmore leaped into the room, axe in hand with an oath on his lips. He was splashed with burning venom as both the fiery snakes spat at him, but the mul gladiator chopped away at one of the snake men, driving him back. Jin followed on his heels, engaging the naga and then vanishing before it could strike. Arshaka sang a song of victory and death as Khossus moved in to meet the naga, a snake-man soldier, and the yuan-ti abomination in battle. Toranda blasted the naga with a brilliant thought as it sprayed venom over Khossus and Chuka-Tet's scorpion. The druid bashed one of the snake-men with his staff as he used his primal powers to invigorate his allies. The naga was knocked prone by powerful blows from Jin, Khossus, and Gurthmore, though it rose time and again, slithering out of reach with lightning speed. It rained burning venom down on the heroes and blasted their minds with a magical word of pain. The berserk abomination lashed about with its tail, bowling foes over, as its snake-headed hand struck time and again to deliver venom. The fiery snakes darted around the room, leaving a trail of flame in their wake. But the heroes proved too fast and strong for the serpents, and ere long cut the naga down alongside its servants.

Recovering a pile of ancient coins and jewels from among the chamber's recesses, the heroes also discovered a sealed door. Jin realized that the key he had found would open the sealed, stone door, and after opening it the heroes discovered a tunnel that wound down into the depths beneath the ruined city. Jin took the lead and this time the stone doors at the end of the darkened tunnel opened silently at his touch. A vast chamber opened up in front of him. A large pool of brackish water lined by serpentine columns dominated the center of the sanctum. On the near end, at the foot of the pool, he and the others saw two statues. Both were of young men, one with a serpent-like appearance and the other with the look of a bird of prey. On the far side of the pool they saw two other statues, one of a man with a hawk's head and one of a woman with an owl's body. A circle of sigils surrounded an altar with serpentine designs located between the statues. They could all see a single pedestal rising from the center of the pool. An object there glowed with a rosy light. “The Crown of the Sun,” Arshaka whispered, “or at least another piece of it. The statues are of Ral and Guthay,” the obsidian bard said as he pointed at the statues by the door. “The twin moons of Athas. And the other statues are their parents, the ancient gods Ur and Ne, day and night. I am not surprised to find their images once again associated with this broken crown.”

As he whispered, Toranda crept ahead. “I think I can get this without too much trouble.” The tiefling psychic concentrated and the fragment of the artifact began to rise from the pedestal in the pool. As he turned back to the others with a grin on his face, a figure rose from the altar, a magnificent winged serpent with radiant feathers. The creature slid through the air with grace, light radiating from its eyes. “You cannot have the crown,” it hissed in a strange language that all understood,, strangely enough. “No, you shall not, for it is mine. I have guarded it for uncounted ages, and no one else may claim it! A huge shape could be seen moving in the murky water. As Toranda turned back towards the pedestal, a look of shock and horror crossed the tiefling noble's face. Four huge, serpentine heads broke the surface of the water, and all of them were attached by long necks to a single, reptilian body. Venom dripped from fanged maws, sizzling where it hit the stone floor.

A fierce struggle followed. Chuka-Tet moved in to protect his ally as the creature bit at them and spat poison at Khossus and Arshaka, knocking them from their feet with the impact of the venom alone. Gurthmore, and Jin moved to engage the beast, the wily warlock vanishing and reappearing on the pillar behind the creature. He clutched the fragment of the Crown of the Sun in one hand, only to hear the artifact whisper in his mind. “I can give you power,” it said, “feel my warmth.” He realized that even his blade of ice could be made to burn with the light of the sun with this object in his possession. But his realization was short lived, as the feathered serpent winged through the air. It let out a cry of rage and vengeance, its shriek hurting and dazing some as it became naught but a trail of rainbow light and flashed through Gurthmore, Arshaka, Toranda and Khossus, burning and overwhelming them. The mul barbarian and the warlock battled the feathered serpent as the rest held off the many-headed terror before them. It snapped at them, its venomous fangs biting through armor as its poison seared flesh with a touch. The couatl lashed out with bite and tail, but its rage was no match for the two warriors as axe and icy blade felled the creature. Despite the failure of one guardian, the other had yet to fall. The heroes slashed away, heads severed by sword and axe blows, only for two more to spring up in their place. “Fire,” Arshaka yelled, “it's the only way to prevent the stumps from growing new heads!” Jin tossed the fragment of the crown of Khossus.

“Use this! Light your blade!” Instinctively the gladiator let the piece of the Crown of the Sun fill him with its warmth, and his blade erupted into shining fire. The warrior and the barbarian moved to flank the beast as Arshaka distracted it with his song. Toranda tried to overwhelm its mind, but was only partially successful as it had too many brains for even a psi of his caliber to dominate at once. But it gave the heroes the moments they needed to surround the beast. Blade, staff, and arcane power all struck home. The beast struck one last time, its three remaining heads lunging forward, only the heroes had its mark. They dodged, and blade, axe, and staff slew them as an icy skewer reached its heart. Exhausted, the heroes slumped by the pool, gathered their strength, and prepared to leave. Arshaka realized that the heart of the couatl still pulsed with power, and he consumed it in a single swallow, rainbow light infusing his obsidian form. Though Chuka-Tet was disturbed by this, the druid said nothing and the heroes left the labyrinth, and then the city itself.

While the journey back through the thick, island rainforest was exhausting but uneventful. The heroes returned to the treant's grove where the ancient, talking plant thanked them for helping lift the dark shroud that had cloaked the ruined city for eons. Shepherded back to the giant's village by the walking trees, the heroes were met by a handful of giants with shouts of welcome. Ere long they stood before Mearedes. The half-giant druid appeared impressed by the fact that they had returned from the ancient ruins alive. The “little grandmother” was also in awe of the Crown of the Sun, incomplete as it was, and realized that its fate was not to lie on the island of Shault. She knew the heroes were bound by both their word and the magic of her ritual, and that the secret of the island would be safe with them. As captain Minron and his crew never came close enough to Shault to see the lush forest that covered it, they would be free to sail on – as long as they did not seek to return. Mearedes promised that a member of her tribe would wade out across the silt to bring the Silver Zephyr close enough for the heroes to be ferried to it come the morning. The heroes ate well and slept even better that night.

Come the morning, the young giantess sent by Mearedes ran back into the village, nearly out of breath. “We are under attack,” she shouted, “giants from another island! They have come ashore and destroyed the settlement at the rocky cove. They are led by one of their chiefs and...and....a defiler! The very land burns at his footsteps! He was shouting something about a gem and a crown.” The other giants began to shout as they dropped what they were doing, their hands reaching for nearby clubs and spears. “Hold!” Mearedes yelled, the word carrying like the note of a bell. Cold fury burned in her eyes, her voice as resolute as a mountain, as she strode to the center of the village. “We must defend this island! But we cannot rush blindly ahead! Break into small groups and head towards the shore. We will use surprise and our knowledge of this island as weapons. But we must be cautious of the magic they have brought with them.”Mearedes turned towards the heroes. “This cannot be a coincidence. For this defiler,” she spat, “to come here seeking a crown when you have found this,” she gestured to the fragment of the Crown of the Sun in their possession. “This is your responsibility. But I cannot make you fight. I can only ask. Will you help us defeat this evil and save Shault?” As one, the heroes agreed and set out for the shore...
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Island of the Lost Temple Part 5: The Island at Last
The long journey of the Silver Zephyr across the Sea of Silt continued. Two days passed after the chance encounter with the silt pirates, but the heroes found little rest as the skimmer pressed on through the stifling gray haze that stretched from horizon to horizon. Eventually they saw something to the west as the horizon came into view. “The ruins of Guistenal,” Captain Minron said as he pointed to the line of broken towers and tumbled walls that jutted from the fine, gray dust. “It sank into the silt long ago, destroyed by who knows what. Some say the sorcerer-kings turned on its ruler, fearing his power. We will steer as wide as we can. The Bay of Maray is not safe for most, but few things can catch the Silver Zephyr!”

Jin sat atop the crow's nest of the lean vessel, his eyes on the horizon. He saw what appeared at first to be a dark cloud overhead, a cloud that began to move. It revealed itself to be a flock of vulture-like birds with black feathers and serrated beaks. As they wheeled overhead, their mocking screeches and cries took on a sound like malevolent, maniacal laughter, for the silt around the Silver Zephyr began to churn as a huge maw and several long tentacles emerged from the fine, gray dust. “Silt horror!” The minotaur captain yelled, and oath on his lips and his blade in hand. “Push on! Cut anything that comes close! We must fight and run, or else we die here!”

The screeching birds swooped down, their beaks and talons tearing at the crew, at Khossus, and even at Arshaka as they tore bits of shiny obsidian away from his stone body. Meanwhile tentacles exploded from the surrounding silt, clutching at the hull, tearing at the rigging, and yanking members of the crew off the deck and into the maw of the hungry silt horror. Gurthmore grabbed a rope, secured himself to the gunwales of the ship, and with a roar of challenge leaped straight at the huge beast. His axe bit deep into the side of the silt horror's maw, and his yell of triumph was cut short as the beast submerged beneath the omnipresent dust. Toranda, Jin, and Chuka-Tet blasted, cut, and smashed every tentacle that came in reach. They were grabbed more than once, the barbed suckers tearing at their flesh as the creature tried to yank them towards its vast, hungry mouth. Gurthmore emerged from the silt, gasping as he hauled himself aboard the skimmer with the rope he had tied to his waist. Axe in hand, he began slashing away as the silt horror reared up again, snapping at the mul barbarian and the thri-kreen druid. It submerged again, only to rise next to Khossus. He, Toranda, and Arshaka had dispatched the fearsome scavengers. The gladiator hewed about with wide sweeps of his blade as the tiefling psion blasted them with psychic fire and the obsidian minstrel shattered flesh and bone with the thunder of his voice. But now they found themselves confronted by the silt horror itself. The Silver Zephyr's hull creaked and groaned under the grasp of the silt horror's many tentacles, and the situation looked dire. The heroes rose to the challenge. Tentacle after tentacle was cut down, their death-throes nearly knocking Khossus and Gurthmore from the deck of the skimmer. But in the end, the heroes prevailed and the silt horror dove with roars of pain, retreating beneath the dust. A ragged cheer went up from what remained of the minotaur captain's crew, and the silt skimmer pressed on. Only Arshaka's calming music and appeal to the bravery of the crew kept them from certain mutiny. Bolstered by the glassy minstrel's performance, the ship drove ever onwards.

Nearly a day later, as the Silver Zephyr skimmed over the top of the silt, more land came into view. In the distance, to the south, the heroes saw the shores of a rocky island. “That's Lake Island,” the minotaur captain said, “not our destination. It is inhabited however, and if we can, we should stop there to resupply and let you land-walkers get some real rest! It's inhabited by minotaurs, half-giants, and dwarves. I'm sure my people will give you a fine welcome. Provided you have the coin!” He laughed heartily, and continued “All in all, things aren't looking too bad. We haven't even run into the worst that the Sea of Silt can – “

“Captain!” A shout interrupted the minotaur. “There's a wake forming behind us!” A panicked sailor pointed behind the silt skimmer, where a great furrow appeared to be forming in the gray dust. Suddenly, a massive, white worm with a vast, toothed maw rose from the surrounding silt.

“Me and my big mouth,” Minron mutters. “That's a sink worm! We need to run!” The minotaur captain urged the crew to make haste, to raise the sails and crank the wheels. Gurthmore and Khossus took a wheel apiece, cranking the mechanism as hard as they could without breaking it, causing the inflated hide wheels to turn faster and faster over the silt. Arshaka and Toranda exhorted the crew, encouraging their haste. Chuka-Tet and Jin scaled the rigging, setting sails and pulling ropes to catch what wind there was. It was not enough, and the white worm closed in on the vessel's stern.

Just then they spotted a a pair of bizarre, vaguely humanoid creatures that had been just out of the skimmer's line of sight gliding across the top of the silt. They were large, nearly 15 feet long, and moved on all fours as if they had somehow devolved into a quadruped. Their hands and feet were clawed and webbed, and each had a broad tail with a pair of flukes. Their skin was gray and leathery, and their wide mouths were lined with many sharp teeth. “Ruktoi,” Chuka-Tet buzzed, “careful, lest they pluck you from the deck!”

What followed was the stuff of sagas, as the heroes fought the white worm and the two predatory beasts while driving the Silver Zephyr ever on, around the rocks and across the deadly deep of the silt. The sink worm's massive bulk slammed into the ship, knocking Toranda off his feet as it crashed into the rigging with a thunderous roar. Then swallowed Khossus whole with one gulp! The human warrior fought free of its mouth, crashing to the deck, as Gurthmore and Chuka-Tet attempted to knock the ruktoi off the prow of the ship. The creatures clutched at the mul gladiator and the thri-kreen sentinel, their clawed hands attempting to drag them off the ship and into the silt. But the heroes fought back, slashing and bashing away. Jin dashed between the two beasts and the massive worm, his icy blade and rays of arcane power driving them back. Arshaka bolstered them all with his music as he appealed to the crew, turning fear into resolve and despair into courage. The minotaur captain bellowed, his hands hard at the wheel, as the Silver Zephyr pressed on. Time and again they tried to pull away from the sink worm, only for the vast, white bulk to slam into the ship and slow them to a crawl again. The worm thrashed with every strike from Khossus and Gurthmore, knocking them to the deck and nearly from the ship. Khossus found his way in and out of its gullet again, tearing free with his blade and his spike arm-bands. Jin flew at the beast, his icy blade skewering its white flesh, only to find himself snatched up by its toothy maw. His cold blade bit into the creature's throat, and the worm spat him out, sending the warlock crashing through the rigging and over the side. He nearly plunged headlong into the silt, unconscious, but his foot had tangled in the skimmer's rigging saving him from certain doom. Toranda blasted at the titanic worm, locking up its muscles and slowing the pursuing hulk as Arshaka sang songs of courage and triumph. Chuka-Tet nimbly scaled the mast, straightening the lines and allowing the sails to fill as Khossus and Gurthmore drove the ruktoi to the bow of the ship. The white worm was wounded, too wounded to follow as the skimmer pulled out of the rocks and caught the wind. One of the ruktoi fell to the heroes' blades as the other was gravely wounded by sword and spell, and chose to retreat with no meal for its troubles. But Jin would have none of it, and soared on the wind raining arcane might down on the creature until it sank beneath the surface to rise no more. The sink worm fell into the distance, the Silver Zephyr free of its hungry maw. The crew cheered, all having survived one of the greatest terrors of the Sea of Silt. “That was as close as I've ever come,” Captain Minron yelled, “and I know we owe our lives to you! I swear, our journey will become a tale to be remembered!”

The ragged cheers gave way to sighs of relief as the skimmer pulled into the silt-choked harbor of Lake Island. They were met at a great, stone pier by a group of minotaurs and dwarves who hailed them and helped the skimmer set anchor. Many hearty greetings were given, coins changed hands, and the dwarves set to repairing the damage the Silver Zephyr had sustained. The heroes went ashore with some of the crew and a few guides as a number of minotaurs and half-giants began to unload trade goods and load the ship with whatever Captain Minron had bargained for. They followed a steep trail up the side of the dry, rocky island and found themselves looking down into a vast lake taking up the caldera of an inactive volcano. The inner slopes of the caldera were thick with vegetation, and curls of steam rose up from the water below in places. “A bath for your troubles?” The minotaur captain laughed. With whoops and hollers, the heroes stripped their grimy, dust-caked clothes and plunged into the warm waters below, stripping gray silt and dried sweat from their bodies. After emerging from the pool, they dined on fresh produce and game from the island, then slept under the shady trees. Refreshed, they rested and were ready to go on the morn.

The next day passed without incident, and the Silver Zephyr rolled across the silt with no problems. As the day drew long, a rocky shore came into view over the horizon. “We've sailed beyond where other ships ever have,” the captain murmured, “as far as I know at any rate. I would never have suspected an island was out here.” The skimmer drew closer to the island, which was surrounded by hundred-foot high cliffs. The vessel circled, until a rocky shore blocked by jumbles of sharp, reef-like rocks and crags, came into view. “Well, it looks as if we'll have no easy landfall. I suspect we can circle and have you climb the cliffs or drop anchor here and let you hop from rock to rock to the shore. What will it be?” In the end the heroes chose to take their chances across the silt and the rocks. Many had mastered the talent of balancing their body's equilibrium under Toranda's careful tutelage. The trip had no surprises, save for Jin's near-slip from one rock into the silt.

As they struggled to reach the safety of the island, the heroes saw a female half-giant and a pair of younger goliaths fighting off a pair of large, winged insects. The two young shouted as they were grabbed by the huge, black bugs. “Help us, please,” the female goliath shouted. “Before it's too late!” Gurthmore and Khossus charged ashore, their blades hacking away at the large beetles. But the appearance of each goliath began to shift and waver, their features and limbs melting and enlarging as they each transformed into a large, winged, insect-like creature with a long proboscis. “Feed!” They buzzed in a tone full of malice and hunger. A horde of buzzing insects a mere fraction of their size emerged from the rocks nearby, swarming the beach. Khossus and Gurthmore were grabbed by two of the larger creatures, which Chuka-Tet named as pakubrazi. As the two gladiators were swept up into the sky, the rest of the heroes made their way ashore, Arshaka's song filling them with resolve. Toranda found himself swarmed by the cloud of stinging, biting flies and unleashed shining ectoplasmic fire in response. Jin dashed across the silt, his icy blade stinging the female pakubrazi as her droning song threatened to overwhelm the heroes with sleep. Chuka-Tet swung away with his staff, driving one of the beetles back as a chemical explosion from its hindquarters engulfed the thri-kreen druid in flame. Gurthmore split the head of the creature that had borne him aloft, falling twenty feet and landing on the sandy beach like a great cat. Jin had circled the other beetle, as Khossus landed at its feet after Gurthmore's enchanted axe tore the pakubrazi holding him aloft from the sky. That beetle exploded with flame as well, but the two endured the brunt of the fire and quickly slew the creature. The heroes batted the rest of the swarm from the sky as the last pakubrazi fell. Clearing their heads and catching their breath, the heroes headed inland.

The rocky, sandy shores quickly gave way to a lush forest. The air was humid, and thick ferns and clinging vines covered the broad-leafed trees. The island was shaded and cool compared to the dry furnace of the Sea of Silt, but the heroes found themselves sweating as they hacked through the underbrush. Even the lush Crescent Forest was poor with life in comparison, and both Chuka-Tet and Jin found themselves in awe of the teeming forest around them. Eventually they came across a trail, which the thri-kreen druid recognized had been left by the passage of giants.

The forest trail gave way to a small clearing. A few, small trees and patches of thorny vines could be seen here and there, and a fallen log sat off-center in the tiny grove. A strange, twisted tree stood in the center of the clearing. It was old, and its bark appeared withered in places. Thorny vines snaked around the old tree. The heroes could see a cluster of what appeared to be crystals of dried or petrified sap clinging to the uppermost crotch of the tree. Arshaka and Gurthmore began to move in, Chuka-Tet close on their heels, as the rest hang back. Without warning, the vines clinging to the old tree began to writhe and lash out at them. A strange amber glow appeared in the crystals clustered together at the top of the strange, old tree. It seemed like nothing so much as a malevolent eye glaring down at them. A handful of twisted humanoid figures emerged from the surrounding woods, and they appeared to be some sort of bramble-covered trees, forced to walk like men. “No, we don't want to fight!” Jin yelled, as Chuka-Tet made a gesture of peace. But the druid realized these plants were old, old enough to remember the Red Age and the devastation wrought by men as blade, fire, and spell razed forest and grassland alike. And so they fought. The thorny vines lashed out, time and again, their poisonous touch burning the mul barbarian and the tiefling psion, and brambles exploded from the forest around it, impaling Jin and Gurthmore. The walking plants tore at the others with bramble-claws, only to be driven back by mighty blows from Khossus. Toranda threw one through the air with the power of his mind and then lanced time and time again at the ancient heart of the forest with his thoughts. It retaliated, the cluster of crystals at its crown tapping his life-force, attempting to drain his very soul. He fought back, as Jin's icy blade and Gurthmore's axe cut at its thick roots. The tiefling spared the sentient plant though, knowing that Jin and Chuka-Tet valued such things. His mental onslaught forced it to retreat into the earth, roots and all. The walking plants shambled off in confusion and despair, the fight gone out of them. All that was left was the cluster of amber crystals. “There is power in these,” Toranda whispered as he picked them up. “But the crown says this is not what we seek. Let's see what the rest of this island has to offer.” With that, the heroes began to follow the old trail leading out of the clearing...
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Island of the Lost Temple Part 3: Champions of the Criterion
The roar of the crowd and the heat of the morning sun washed over the heroes as they stepped into the great arena of Balic, the Criterion. One of the city's praetors, dressed in a resplendent toga trimmed with purple, looked down from a marble platform set high in the stands. His voice reverberated from the stone walls, reaching every member of the cheering crowd.

“The games have begun! To the victor, glory! To the loser, death or dishonor! Let heroes stand tall, let legends be made! Fight!”

The day's events began, and the heroes faced their first challenge, a group of savage tareks. As fierce as they were, the ferocious humanoids proved no match for the heroes. Their second match proved to be more of a challenge. The heroes saw a group of three large muls and two sturdy dwarves enter the arena from the side opposite them. One of the muls twirled a pair of cahulaks with practiced ease, while the other two carried two-handed axes with heavy, stone heads. One of the dwarves wielded twin short swords with deadly precision. The other dwarf wore heavy carapace armor and carried a keen, stone axe. “Death to them, glory, for us” he shouted!

Both groups ran headlong into battle. Chuka-Tet bounded across the Criterion, narrowly avoiding a trap he saw hidden beneath the sands of the arena floor, and smashed his staff into one of the ax wielding muls. The sword-wielding dwarf circled, slashing at the thri-kreen druid with both blades and opening up a deep gash in his carapace. Gurthmore ran headlong into the fray, slashing at the mul with the cahulaks, who deftly shifted back and snared him with the spinning hook. Gurthmore tried to escape, but his powerful foe knocked him prone. Khossus moved into the middle of the fray, threatening all who came in reach of his blade. Jin ran in like a desert zephyr, his icy blade biting deep into the side of the dwarf with the stone axe. Arshaka and Toranda moved in last, assailing their foes with arcane music and the power of the Way. The blade-wielding dwarf moved deftly around the battlefield, but despite his footwork he triggered the trap Chuka-Tet had managed to avoid. A set of large bone jaws set with obsidian teeth snapped like a bear trap and reset. Toranda stumbled across a second trap hidden beneath the sand as he moved across the arena. A post set with whirling obsidian blades levered up and began to spin, slashing the tiefling adept. The post began to move around the arena, though the combatants deftly avoided its erratic movements. Gurthmore threw off the mul holding him as he rose, and his axe swiftly took the other mul's head. Arshaka taunted one of the other mul warriors who rashly took a few steps forward and triggered the bear trap. He howled in pain as his head was caught between the heavy, bone jaws, and he could not break free in time to prevent being cut down.

The two dwarves were doughty foes, but Khossus felled the one wielding twin blades with a powerful stroke of his steel bastard sword. The other dwarf proved to be a powerful psychic warrior, lashing out with powerful ax-blows as he used the Way to distort the perceptions of the heroes and tear at their minds. At the end, only he faced the wounded but wrathful heroes. The dwarf dropped his weapon and offered himself up to Praetor Krallides' mercy, only to find the crowd did not want mercy. They wanted blood, and the heroes delivered.

Upon entering the arena for their third match, the heroes could see that the sand that covered the floor of the Criterion has been altered, and now glistened with a crust of salt. A series of plank bridges no more than two feet wide had been set up on posts twenty feet above the arena floor in a crisscrossing pattern. Ladders had been placed strategically at the corners of the lashed together structure, allowing the combatants to climb the twenty-foot height. On the far end of the arena they saw a group of a half-dozen thri-kreen bound towards the structure and effortlessly scale the ladders to take up positions on the walkway.

“Proud citizens of Balic,” the Praetor in charge of the games shouted to the crowd, “the next match is ready to begin! Let the combatants dance the dance of death over the arena floor. Let them beware the deadly touch of the poison sands below. Let the battle begin!”

The battle that followed was indeed a dance of death, a dance the thri-kreen proved most adept at performing. Two were wielding hook-like trikals, and one managed to pull Khossus off his feet and send him plummeting to the toxic salt-crusted sand below at the cost of a broken weapon. Toranda began to move but lost his balance, and nearly fell as well. Gurthmore moved cautiously across the planks, drew his enchanted bronze waraxe, and pulled one opponent next to him through the Lands Within the Wind. Two of the enemy thri-kreen bounded over the heroes, their claws slashing, as Chuka-Tet moved forward carefully. “Why can't you leap like that,” Gurthmore yelled. “It would come in handy now!” One of the enemy was a canny veteran, and this mantis warrior leaped around without hesitation, his razor-edged gythka slashing out and knocking foes back and threatening to send them spilling to the arena floor below. Jin drew on the power of his fey patron and flew about the planks, his icy blade skewering foes as he moved. The pale warlock vanished from sight, confounding the mantis-men and laughing as he fought. Khossus scrambled to his feet and up a nearby ladder, as did one of the thri-kreen who had been sent below by a carefully timed word from Arshaka. Toranda regained his footing and immobilized two of the enemies with the power of the Way, then promptly stunned two more with a powerful psychic blast. Gurthmore had enough, and flew into a rage. He moved like a wildcat, slashing his foes as he moved past. Before long, it was over and the enemy thri-kreen had all fallen.

As the arena was cleared the heroes were able to rest briefly. Ere long they were escorted back to the floor of the Criterion. Gates on either side of the arena opened, and they saw two large, horned cats with green and black stripes pad onto the arena floor. They were tethered to stone pillars on either side of the sandy field by heavy bronze chains long enough to give them a degree of mobility, but short enough to prevent them from reaching the center of the Criterion. They appeared to be here as a hazard for the unwary, not as combatants. A gate on the far side opened, and the heroes saw their opponents stride onto the field. Two armored half-giants armed with massive bone swords flanked a dark-skinned human wearing scale armor and carrying an oblong hide shield and a wide-bladed obsidian-edged short sword. This gladiator was no doubt a warrior of Gulg by the look of his feather-lined wooden mask and painted shield. He raised his arms and danced about the arena with fierce pride, exhorting the crowd. Strangely, the two beasts seemed enthralled by his movements.

“Here is the champion,” the Praetor shouted from his box on high in the stands, “Ajaga of Gulg!”
With a shout, Gurthmore charged across the field of battle and slashed twice at Ajaga with his obsidian execution axe. He battered the human gladiator and opened up a cut on his chest. Ajaga howled with fury and kicked the mul gladiator in the crotch, doubling him over before knocking him off his feet with a blow from his shield. He then slashed at the barbarian as he fell, opening up a bleeding cut on his thigh. But Gurthmore was not alone. Toranda warped space around the rest of the companions, depositing them around the three enemy fighters. They had allies from an unexpected quarter however, as the two kirres snapped their bronze chains and moved into attack, seemingly under Ajaga's command. Chuka-Tet realized that the gladiator was gifted with some form of animal empathy, and that his control of the beasts would only end when he was dead.

A fierce battle followed, and it was a contest that would be remembered as one of the greatest matches ever fought in the Criterion. Ajaga and Gurthmore fought with a combination of savagery and skill that marked them both as champions. Khossus stood in the center of the arena, his blade holding kirre and half-giant alike at bay as he wore them down one cut at a time. Toranda threw one of the fierce cat-like kirres across the floor of the Criterion with his mind, sending it crashing into one of the half-giants. Arshaka moved around the field like an obsidian storm, the thunder of his words crashing into foes as they bolstered his allies. Jin's icy blade cut deep as he vanished and reappeared, seemingly at will, all over the floor of the arena. Chuka-Tet and his scorpion moved about the field of battle, staff and sting dealing punishment as he channeled the forces of nature into his allies, fortifying them in the face of their foes. In the end, the heroes stood triumphant as Gurthmore took Ajaga's head in a single blow.

“Here stand your champions,” Praetor Krallides shouted to the crowd. “Balic honors them!” Light shone forth from his hand, and the heroes could feel strength flow into them. They had won the crowd through their efforts, and had been marked as champions. Sacks heavy with coins were thrown to them, and with their reward in hand, they departed the Criterion. Jin had noticed the watchful eyes of Praetor Darian Haraxes from the stands on him and the rest of the heroes as they departed, and knew that no good would come of this. He had used his arcane talents during the battle, and the templar may have known him for what he was....

With the tournament in the Criterion behind them, the heroes made their way back to Petreus, and the dwarf cartographer was able to arrange a meeting with representatives from House Rees to pay off his debt. They headed to the Agora, in the Market Precinct and met with House Rees' agent, a dragonborn woman named Charra, who was waiting there with a small contingent of guards. She curtly accepted payment of Petreus's debt and wished the heroes a swift, if not safe, journey.

Upon returning to the Harbor Precinct, Petreus gladly greeted the heroes and let them know that he had contacted an associate of his who was willing to transport them to their destination. The dwarf also revealed that he had used the map found beneath Bitter Tears and the deciphered passages from the Codex of the Dawn to find where the last two fragments of the Crown of the Sun could be found. The first was on a long-forgotten island on the Sea of Silt to the north and east. The second lies far to the southwest, beyond the Tablelands.He warned the heroes that while his associate was amenable to providing them with passage to the north, it will cost them an exorbitant amount of money due to the danger involved.

The heroes then made their way to the Furled Sail tavern in the Harbor Precinct, which is where they met Minron, the captain of a silt skimmer named the Silver Zephyr. He was a peg-legged minotaur sailor, smuggler, and former pirate with one broken horn. They could tell that despite his boisterous and brash demeanor, Minron was actually very shrewd and somewhat ruthless. After negotiating a price for passage that would have bought them their own skimmer, the minotaur captain told them they would be responsible for their own supplies and provisions. He did agree to wait until noon the next day, giving the heroes half a day to purchase supplies. “We will sail the silt farther than any others ever have,” Minron boasted. “It will be glorious! Provided, of course, we survive!”
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Tags: Level Up , Recap
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