Aldion is a world in upheaval. Everywhere, beings are wrestling with the aftermath of The Arrival - the event that just 77 years ago brought magic, monsters, and extraplanar visitors to roost in a realm that until then had been mundane. Portals to other planes of existence open and close seemingly at random, bringing curious and power-hungry denizens with them. Ancient societies rear their heads in retaliation, existing monarchies attempt (and often fail) to consolidate their power from threats they cannot possibly prepare themselves for, and a select few common folk have begun to show signs of inherent magical talent. Even items and locales that were once mundane are showing signs of magical activity. Aldion is a realm aflame, actively being colonized by outside forces while existing power structures struggle to keep order.

A few powerful individuals could guide this world back to relative peace, or tip it over the edge to damnation.

In Expanse, the adventurers of the F.I.A have been hired by a Janavian princess to locate and recover her brother - the crown prince of Janav - after he went missing while investigating strange behavior among the high Yalban clergy. The party will have to survive the Sea of Teeth, the Great Expanse, and the city of Yalba - a place of both great religious piety and political corruption alike. Meanwhile, from the desert itself, sandstorms begin to brew seemingly out of nowhere, bringing both chaos and destruction in their wake...

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Book 2, Chapter 9: Crypt Walking and Slick Talking
Note to the Editor: I understand you prefer it when I number the chapters according to the last book, but for the last time I am not interested in releasing a version of my adventure novels where they are condensed into one book. I am aware that this could be Chapter 21 if we did that, and that it would be more affordable for the masses, but I simply don't like the aesthetic of it. If they were released at one time, the readers wouldn't feel invested in the adventures.

Much love, T
P.S. This one gets a little more saucy than previous issues, but I tried to leave it to subtext. And trust me, after meeting some of my fans, a lot of people want to see this finally happen, Hagar is a fan favorite.

As Midzaynov’s desperate speech rang out in the silent, but crowded slave pens, my party began to feel something between both inspiration and dread. The slaves appeared only to feel the dread. She carefully removed the head of the half-elf from her body, and as the face turned towards us I made note of two things. Almost all half-elves are beautiful, their carefully crafted features are at once both sharp and welcoming, their human blood softening the aloof serenity of an elven parent. Half-elves know their lives will end one day, and one day soon, as their sanguine inheritance is too strong to not be fleeting. But this face, Ejool’s face, was not stricken with the fear of death that freezes so many in their final moments of combat, elf and human alike. Instead his face had become completely calm, aloof and serene in his last moments, so much so that had I not seen him in life, his heritage would have been entirely lost in death.

My eyes roved the room surrounding us, the two-hundred slaves embattled in the corner in fear of these five strong-hearted adventurers who had hideously marred their status quo. It was then I understood the depth of our situation, my dear readers. For fear did not exist in this place from the swinging pendulum of death, ever rotating nearer, that was becalming, it was a release. Instead, fear came from the unfamiliar. The biting question of what will come to us next, shall our current routine be destroyed. The slaves we had come to save had been so devastated by Siaval’s magics and mind-numbing labor, that I began to wonder if there was anything left to save, or if they, like Ejool, would prefer the certainty of death.

Knowing that we could not find success in this crypt without honesty, I made the decision to reveal to the party my knowledge of Phanalan, his past treacheries to my family and I, and my deep distaste for the kind of sorcerers who abuse their divinely bestowed gifts to reap wealth and power from the sowings of others. I’ve spent many a passage detailing him to you, dear readers, and so I will spare you from that again, but to suffice my party was rather fearful when realizing that someone who could escape even my pursuits, may turn out to be a foe. I believe it was this act, baring my heart so readily for this audience, that inspired one of the slaves to approach us.

Her face was hardened, nothing new in the crypt, but where others had been hardened by woe and horror, grounded down until they felt nothing but hardship, she had been steeled with resolve. It was clear from her gait and her posture that this Tiefling woman was a leader among the slaves, and our fears for the strength of this group began to be assuaged. However, she was also noticeably unmarked. Although her horns did not gleam with the polished and careful smoothness of Yalban Tieflings, they weren’t chipped or scuffed like many of the other slaves. Nor did she bare marks of torture or punishment, which adorned so many that cowered behind her assured step. She may be ally or spy, but given my missing focus, I had only the choice to wait and see which she would reveal herself to be.

She began to lay down a series of warning for us, no guff, no pride, just simple direct statements of fact. These were the rules she lived her life by, and it appeared to keep her relatively safe, though her code allowed for zero progress in our goals. We were to do the labor given to us, and when we were expected to work, we would need to work. Rebellion of any kind on our parts would not lead to our torture or execution, but instead the slaves would be punished as surrogates. Siaval understood the passionate selflessness that burned in all of our hearts, and new that would keep us wary of crossing any lines. However, the woman, whose name was Aym, did give us some information she had gleaned as to the nature of the crypt’s keepers.

These were not regular humans, but instead fiendish jackalweirs, who would immortally serve Siaval, and had unnatural durability. She had some idea of the different rooms of the crypt, and its general build, but nothing substantial beyond the fact that slaves were free to roam the first floor, thought he second and third were off-limits. She also revealed that the guard of Siaval Zari had slain, was in fact a slave conscripted to duty, and now Zari was at odds and feared by many of the slaves. Zari was initially shocked by the news, and I’m sure the memories of her abolitionist past formed a cruel reflection of her bleak present.

Left wrestling with the guilt of our actions, and the exhaustion of the day, we decided that any more investigation would only merit more destruction, and that we should instead play along in Siaval’s game. As our heads cleared from the different charms and curses we had been bestowed with, Midzaynov had a sudden revelation. She knew the nature of the beast we were fighting, and knew it well. Whether from her research before our trip, or ghost stories told to her as a child by mischievous adults, Midzaynov recalled the name of Siaval’s form. Lamia.

I recalled to the others that a lamia was a form of cambion, a half-human, half-demon breed or monster, one created by an especially powerful demon out of one of their dedicated followers. She recited that lamias could weaken a person’s resistance to charms and mind-controlling effects with physical touch, which explained why all of our party members, even the stolid Wykeera, had fallen to the weaker enemies. She also told us of the great scrying powers of a lamia, honed through a magical mirror they could use to view almost anyone of interest.

Keeping secrets would then be hard, as it would be very difficult to know if Siaval was ever watching us. The next day we were awoken by crude bangings at the door, though not the crudest bangings that occurred at this palace, as you’ll know soon. The guards entered our domicile, and proceeded to hand out assignments to each of the slaves. Jafar asked for one volunteer to conduct a special cleaning task on the second floor. I knew immediately that as risky as it may be, this was my best chance at subterfuge. Siaval would likely be occupied, and expect us to be well supervised by guards. If I could somehow delude or evade being guarded, I had an excellent chance to perform some much needed reconnaissance of the second floor.

My party and I were then separated, and I’ll give you a brief detailing of each of their activities, as many of them will become important later in our tale. Hagar was luckiest of the four, he was first assigned to the library, and then was moved into the zoo for cleaning. It was their he had an emotional reunion with Deductible, and in that indescribably gregarious way of Hagar, he managed to make a new friend. Although visually unassuming, his new friend’s circumstances were rather severe.

The young man to whom Hagar acquainted himself appeared to be a young black human, no more than twelve years of age, but he was in a cage many sizes larger than him, embedded with interior spikes as if to prevent forceful collision between himself and the prison bars. His voice was of an incredible depth, and appeared mature beyond all conceivable years. He said to Hagar that he had been in this cage for fifty years. He had been there so long his name had become a distant memory, so Hagar named him Peter, and promised his salvation.

Wykeera and Zari were shipped off to perform similarly mundane and regular cleaning duties, though Zari’s were of nominally higher interest. She was taken to a gallery where many of our prized, magical possessions, and perhaps countless other aids to long past adventurers, were on display in thick glass cases. There lay her holy symbol, and the monocle gifted to her by Raha, tantalizingly close, only separated by an inch of fragile glass. And, of course, two hundred armed guards and a magical lion. Midi was directed to the workshop, where she studiously and carefully selected material components that she would need for her spellcasting, absconding with them when the backs of the guards were turned.

My situation at first turned out to be even greater than I had expected, for what did I find when Jafar was finished leading me to my assignment? That I was in the same familiar bedroom as we had spent our first night. Not only that, but Jafar had turned away and left me to prepare the bedroom for the next guest all alone, not feeling the need to supervise me. I felt a momentary pang of guilt that Jafar would hold my responsible character so highly, only for me to take advantage of his naivete. However, I simply had to take advantage of this chance at valuable information. Little did I know, that Jafar’s confidence was not in me, but in the disciplinary skills of the arriving guest, whose wrath I would face if I were to fail in this task.

But as we cannot know a mistake till it has been made, I set off about the second floor, searching for any clues as to how we could regain our power and make our escape, no longer simply with Abdul in tow, but with as many of the slaves as possible. I knew that this graciousness might mean the downfall of my party, but I simply could not go on allowing such injustice to fester in this defiled crypt. I delved into the unknown, through a second exit in the bedroom.

For safety, I checked the window of the guest bedroom’s bathroom, which looked out over the main room of the ruin, which I imagine was once a temple. It was alive with activity, guards and slaves hurrying about, loading crates of vials onto scaffolding, all at the behest of Siaval. I suspected he was too busy for any scrying and left the room quickly, hoping I would have a window for clandestine action. Each door I encountered was locked, but I knew I could easily teleport into the adjacent rooms without the aid of Tritus’ gift. I spoke a command, and my body morphed temporarily into a bolt of lightning, which shot through the locks of each opposing door as I crept further and further in.

I found myself outside of the door of an articulately robed figure, who slouched over a set of tomes, his sweaty fingers leafing through the already stained pages. He appeared important, and human, so I felt there was a likelihood that I could convince him to help us, or at the very least, pry some information from him through conversation. I cast a spell on myself that would disguise me as one of the guards, thus avoiding the endangerment of myself, my party members, and any slaves. I knocked at his door and entered, and began to play the ignorant guard. He was easily convinced by my performance, for if people are cut from a cloth, the jackalweirs were cut from a blacksmith’s rag, dull and greasy.

The man introduced himself as Skamos, a former slave who had backstabbed, schemed, and threatened his way into the position of a guard lieutenant. He gave me some information on the politics of the crypt, but for the most part appeared to be the result of a dishonest life. Fattened by luxuries earned through greed and cruelty, I was disgusted, but unsurprised to know that these were the caliber of men leading the slaves I had grown to care so much for. As I made my way out of the chamber I heard shouts and cries, muffled by many walls, coming from the direction of the bedroom that I had been assigned to clean. My heart fell at the possibility that my ruse had been discovered, knowing that although I could steel myself against punishment, some other person would be harmed for my reckless action.

I bolted back, literally and figuratively, as quickly as I could, expecting Jafar and some armed guards to be waiting in the room, standing right next to my punishment. Instead, I was presented with a grimmer sight. I now understood why Jafar, had left me to my own devices, for before me was a being that could almost certainly exact any punishment he chose upon me in my weakened state.

He was tall and broad, the build of a warrior whose technique outstrips his need for bulk. He had the sinewy muscles and lithe stance of a tiger, though he currently stood relaxed, and unperturbed by the body lying across the room from him, it’s chest opened up into a still and dark diorama of the human diaphragm. There was a black lance strapped to his back, the body of the weapon completely smooth yet nonreflective, and the tip swirled into a hideous concoction of points, still wet with blood almost as dark as the fiendish material it was wrought from. The tip of his spear was accompanied by a rack of sharp, stark white antlers that spread from his elvish head. He was coldly and aloofly beautiful, and Ejool’s face flashed through my thoughts, the body in the room was yet another reminder of our first failure.

His eyes drifted from the body he had been contemplating, and slowly swept up my body until he focused on my eyes. At first he regarded me with the same empty look he had been giving the body, before he spoke, his voice in measured dulcet tones as deceptively beautiful as his face. He asked me if I would mind cleaning the body out of his room, and explained that it was the body of a slave he had found right outside of the bedroom. He had asked the slave why his room wasn’t clean, and upon hearing the slave’s unsure answer, had killed him out of dissatisfaction.

I was shaken, but if my time as a sailor in Vallsa had taught me anything it was a poker face. I focused on two things, the possibility that the slave may not be dead yet, and that I knew what kind of creature this man was. He was another cambion, though of a different nature than Siaval. In fact, what stood before me did not appear some sick manifestation of a human’s darkest desires, granted to them by a powerful demon, this cambion was of an even more elite breed. This was one born to a demon through a non-demon partner, someone trained and refined in their demonic strength and heritage from birth. The only gap in my knowledge was that the being standing before me had a pale grey skin tone, whereas my knowledge of cambions dictated that they would have crimson skin.

The being introduced himself as Batu, and explained he was the brother of Siaval. He winced slightly as he admitted this, and I wondered if even Batu found Siaval to be an abomination. We began to have a conversation, my intention to distract him from the body, hoping that I would be able to get a chance to leave with it before he could inspect it and insure its demise. He was well-spoken, and even had some lofty ideals, but they were all perversely guided so that he had become a philosopher of destruction. He tried to ply my mind with his evil fascinations, going so far as to compare our actions. He felt a kinship with me, a claim that chilled my bones deeper than anything insofar.

I understood his need to cling to someone like myself, as I believe he found my power and his to be of a similar degree. To that he could not help but pay respect, and a part of me even understood that our goals and character were somehow intertwined. Reflections across the spectrum of light and dark, two forces that would grow together, forever opposed. I told him how I felt, and I saw the first emotion I had seen yet pass his face, as a smile grew from ear to ear. And I make no figurative statement, my dear reader. What was once a stoic and chiseled face stretched farther and farther from a semblance of normalcy, rows of sharpened teeth revealing themselves to make for a macabre vision of satisfaction. In it I saw the cruelty of every smile wrought by every evil man in my life. I saw Skamos, I saw Siaval, I saw Phanalan, and more than I could possibly count. All paled in the glinting face of the purest evil I had ever seen wrought into shape.

Batu’s satisfaction was a result of contentment. My party had long been one that he had watched from afar, along with his brother, and the thought of our imprisonment left him giddy with victorious pride. He told me his only regret of our defeat and enslavement is that I would not be in Yalba to see the streets run red with the blood of its citizens. From the spreading dye of the man on the ground near me, I knew this was not hyperbole. I had successfully put myself near the door, and between Batu and the slave, so I decided to end our dreadful conversation and leave with the body.

But as I picked the body up, he stopped me. He did not mean the body was the mess to be cleaned, he meant the bloodstain on his lance. He unstrapped the the foreboding instrument, and handed it to me, the weight of it astoundingly heavy, imbued with the weight of his total horrors inflicted. He cleared up the confusion by telling me he would prefer the body be left in his room, as it would provide a good meal for him before he had to get back to business. He smiled that otherworldly smile yet again, and I summoned a grimace back at him, utterly defeated in our encounter, unable to save the slave who had paid my punishment, serving the beast who did it.

I was led away back to the slave pen, and spent the rest of the day exploring the first level, doing any work I could find to keep my mind off the horrors of before, knowing that unless we strove forward, things would only get worse. Over the slopped gruel of our nightly slave meal, my party began to discuss future plans. Midzaynov used her powers to message the Artificer and the Crown Princess, notifying them of our dire straits, and asking Saadia to send back up. However, we all knew it was a futile effort, as the loss of Xeridal’s ring, Siaval’s power, and Batu’s cruelty would likely coalesce in unimaginable sorrow by then, and we would likely be dead or mentally imprisoned like Abdul.

Hagar kept things light among the party though, by engaging one of the nearby guards in conversation. The guard must have been relaxed, and of course who can say no to Hagar, as he quickly opened up to Hagar. Do you recall, dear reader, the aforementioned crude bangings? Well, I’ll save you the displeasure of hearing any exact details, but the guard entertained Hagar for the remainder of dinner, regaling him with tales of mixed doubles, furry friends, and something they referred to as “yiffing”. Our slaver may have been an actual demon, but some of those stories qualified as more evil than any of Siaval’s plans could have been.

Left in a light and confident mood by Hagar’s good cheer. I decided to visit the barracks I had located on the first floor, as Aym had mentioned some of our equipment may have been relocated there. I approached the door, only to be met by Jafar, who’s eternally nettled demeanor only became more enthusiastically annoyed when he saw that I wasn’t as miserable as expected. I spoke to him, asking him some innocent questions about the crypt, when one of my jokes went too far astray. I believe I was in the middle of an admittedly raucous line about the nature of his furry hindquarters when I was promptly put to sleep by him and two other guards. As my vision faded to black, I realized that his only goal would be for me to wake up as miserable as he had dreamed I would be.

I was surprised to awake unharmed, only bound to a roughly hewn table, my arms and legs spread and tightly chained against the sandstone. The roughness of the stone on my back contrasted sharply with the feeling of fur along my abdomen from the hulking beast straddling my chest. Siaval had put his legs alongside the edge of the table, giving his torso the illusion of sitting upon my stomach. He leaned forward, the crushing weight of his massive body pushing against me, and began to detail the terrible things he could do to me to make me conform. He warned that although I had only defied him minorily, that he would only be crueler with future infractions, holding a blade to my fingers and tongue in turn as he spoke about his plans for my party and I.

We had no idea that since the Tournament of Champions Siaval had been lying in wait for our delivery, hoping to make us into his playthings, watching us battle in his coliseum until we dropped dead from injury or exhaustion. The rebellious streaks in our blood was nothing knew to him, and my fiery resolve only seemed to provoke his enjoyment of the situation even more, as he felt that he dominated me spiritually as much as he was physically. I kept my bravado, not allowing a glint of fear as he inspected me for weaknesses, holding with him, bantering calmly as if he were an old friend.

His capacity for wit was impressive, and if I had not been currently crushed by the weight of his form, it would have been easy to forget his true intentions. That is, until he revealed one of the reasons for his expertise on my life. Whereas he had been a fan of mine since the tournament, he had been getting information from a longtime viewer. For on his hand was the gleaming band of silver I had taken from Xeridal.

We had feared that losing the ring could lead to trouble, but Siaval obtaining the ring, and communing with Xeridal, was far worse. She had been whispering secrets to him, promises, undoubtedly belying her intentions for freedom. But of course, there was the possibility that their evil kinship could lead to their union, two forces combined to create an age of Darkness beyond what Hell could even imagine. My façade fell through, I could no longer play along with his game. I urged Siaval of Xeridal’s cunning and treachery, but he ignored me, believing himself to be in control, much like Ostan Gerrickstan in the Garden of Deliverance. The only problem being that Siaval was a lot more dangerous, misguided or not.

Feeling as though he had broken through my confidence, he released me, and as I walked back to the slave pen I spied shadows darting outside of the crypt’s exit, shadows with no bodies, and a glimpse of green bulbs like eyes with no sockets. The situation was growing worse by each second, though I knew then that at the very least, Xeridal was not going to be working with Siaval.

The next day I spent with Wykeera, sneaking through the networks of the crypt, charting out the layout of the building to the best of our ability, using her in her beetle form, and my teleportation. The party managed to create some ash from burned leaves to help Wykeera cast a shifting shadow that masked our movement, and we evaded any untoward eyes. Nothing of note was found in our ventures, besides a desecrated chapel to the Demon Lord Yalpak, which we easily deduced as a feature for the fearsome fiends’ father. I was also able to dart through the barracks, and found that the items they had stored were simple weapons and items of clothing, none of our magical tools or foci.

On the edge of the barracks was a door leading to a kennel of monsters, growling many-headed dogs, legged, lurching snakes, and shimmering wind creatures prowled and railed against their cages, almost leading to my discovery by the adjacent guards, before I managed to escape through the door’s keyholes again. By this time we had returned to our starting point of exploration, and my arcane energy felt completely depleted. I had teleported nine times in the previous hour, a feat of excessive magical performance, and had I a weaker constitution, I may have collapsed.

We decided to end our efforts of exploration for the day, and I returned to the slave pen to meditate upon my powers bestowed by Moroden, in the hope that the great Djinn would renew my strength for the trials ahead. As you know dear reader, I grow wary of power given for free, but I knew that Moroden was a truly kind being, whose intentions were clear, and that he would not hesitate if it meant saving the lives of the innocents around me. Many paladins and clerics have done far worse with the powers given to them by their gods, whether through the negligence of the god, or their hidden spite, but Moroden would never falter in his vigilance and care for our plane.

While I was meditating, Hagar apparently had run into the same guard from the previous night, who was sitting by the cistern outside the barracks. The guard was cagey at first with Hagar, feigning anger and coldness in the attempt to lure Hagar away from him, but truly, the guards heart had begun to call out for Hagar in a completely unfamiliar way. Hagar had begun to show this being kindness, this jackalweirs born from a festering broth of evil in some far away Abyssal plane, and yet Hagar had found beauty in him, and perhaps had the first interested conversation the guard had ever experienced. He pushed him away, but Hagar was persistent and gentle.

The cool emptiness of the cistern suddenly felt intimate as Hagar sat next to the guard. He spoke his name breathily, Raam. He admitted that he had pangs of unhappiness in this ancient place, that he felt a calling for a different life. But he had been born from darkness with his only purpose being service to his Lord Siaval. All he had known was evil, and yet Hagar inspired light from him. The still water of the cistern’s pool made the guard only thing of how dry his lips were as Hagar embraced and kissed him for the first time.

That night Hagar was contentedly asleep when he experienced a dream. And not a dream of Raam’s rippling muscles, but of the young boy, Peter from the zoo. And no, not his rippling muscles either, thank Moroden. In it, Peter communicated with him telepathically about the growing dark forces outside of the crypt, confirming our fears of Xeridal’s imminent attempt at resurrection. He also informed Hagar that Siaval’s scrying implements, and likely many of our magical items that weren’t on display were contained somewhere on the third floor. Before he could say anything else, his face contorted with pain and he screamed as the dream cut off and Hagar awoke, the echo of the scream still ringing in his ears.

He awoke the rest of the party, and we dashed towards the zoo, carefully avoiding any guards with Wykeera’s shadows and our fleet feet. To say we arrived just in time would be incorrect, in fact to say we were late might have been too kind. Two of the jackalweirs were dead on the ground before us, savagely torn open by something that we could not see. The animals thrashed in their cages, the lions slashing at empty air as strips of their pelts peeled themselves off and fluttered to the ground, ribbons in celebration of bloodshed.

Deductible cowered in the back of his cage, safe, but clearly in danger of the savage invisible attackers. I became confused initially as we looked over the carnage and chaos, as none of the roiling cages appeared to contain a boy of Hagar’s description, and the cage Hagar pointed out as Peter’s contained only a massive, spiraling serpent with scales splashed with every color on the spectrum, rippling down its muscular back, past its folded wings. The majestic beast was trapped in its medieval cage, and I immediately moved towards it to begin opening it up.

Hagar split off from me, making a rapid approach to Deductibles cage, prying the bars open with his bare hands and taking the squirrel into his rags, folding his body around the small animal to protect him from the enemies’ vicious blows. Midzaynov conjured a cloud of faerie fire, billowing will-o-the-wisps that settled on any enemies in the area, revealing their form to us in glittering blue silhouettes. Wykeera summoned her column of moonlight and eviscerated some of the enemies, while I decimated a few others with the humming eldritch blast from Moroden’s mark.

I turned a few of those blasts towards Peter’s cage, busting the corner of it open wide enough for him to fly through, unfurling his wings, and pouncing on the remaining enemies in the room, even locating and reducing some of the still invisible husks to shreds. While Zari was analyzing the situation, trying to figure out the nature of these enemies, she was struck by two of them simultaneously, their coordinated and vicious attacks critically wounding her, and almost taking her down. Hagar leapt forward and ripped them apart, Zari’s retaliative spiritual weapon attacks clearing out what he left behind.

On one side of the room were a pair of small hanging cages, which at first appeared empty, only to begin shaking and convulsing wildly as the battle continued. Soon a set of magical vines crept through the floor of the room and wrapped around two invisible forms, one clearly the body of an attacker, and the other left a much smaller, indiscernible gap. Midzaynov rushed over to the now active cages and drew her breath to blast the cage with lightning. Fortunately for her and her conscience, she misfired, and instead only breathed her crackling bolts into the space right below, killing the invisible attacker, and sparing the occupant of the cage, who sprang into existence right afterward out of fright.

The cage was now inhabited by a pixie with short pink hair. The contents of the other cage became quickly apparent, and I cracked them both open with the force of my eldritch blast, revealing another small pixie, palette-swapped for black. The action subsided for a second, a lion unwittingly rending the last enemy. Zari, as she recovered from her wounds, informed us of the beings we just fought, our only hope of knowledge, given that even after death they did not reveal their forms.

These beings were called skulks, the undead remainder of souls lost in the Shadowfell, travelers who had been subsumed by the esoteric powers of the plane, and turned into wandering invisible monsters. They usually would attack anything around them, but could also be controlled by a powerful enough figure, and were likely the vanguard of a more serious infiltration. She knew that there were only three ways to see a skulks form, reflective surfaces, the candlelight made by a human’s fat, and by any child aged ten or younger.

So I warn you, dear reader, you may have felt that you weren’t faint of heart when you picked up a book like mine, but if you were to see one of these aberrations true forms, you would certainly feel differently. The next time a child of yours tells you of the monster under their bed, listen. And don’t look, take your child, and ask Moroden for deliverance. Who knows, I may be the one to save you.

Once we had insured the security of our room, we knew it was a necessity that we retreat quickly back to the quarters, as we were the only visible evidence for the dead guards and ruined room before us. Before we left, the rainbow serpent before us shapeshifted back into the form of Peter Hagar had described, and explained that he was a coutl. A Celestial being that possessed the ability to heal, despite the impressive show of damage with which he had waylaid the enemy.

Hagar suddenly became distressed as we all knew that Deductible would need to be placed back in his cage to avoid suspicion on our party. Instead, Peter graciously took the responsibility upon himself, and morphed into a form identical to Deductible, save for some small details only close friends of the squirrel could pick up on. He climbed into the cage, and Hagar bent the bars back in place. Imprisoning our friend for what we hoped was only a short duration.

We made our way back to the pens carefully and hastily, evading any suspicion, and collaping onto our beds in exhaustion, virtually devoid of all magical or physical ability. As my consciousness faded into that deep pool of our sleeping mind, I felt one last feeling race through my body. We had been beaten down, tortured, cornered, and made to feel trapped by Siaval. Every part of our plan had been dismantled by the sheer magnitude of his operation. And yet, here was a gap. A chink in his armor.

The days that were to come undoubtedly had more chaos and violence in store than we had seen so far, but these gathering forces, the beings from the Shadowfell? Well, they were at least familiar territory. And although Siaval had read my book on our previous adventure, he was completely unprepared for what was to come. The last feeling I felt, the one that jolted me out of my semi-conscious state, if only to lull me back, was excitement. Even good men feel excitement the night before battle. Because they know that this challenge will be one step closer to a better world.

Of course, if I had known that the guards were going to burst into the room, panicked at the previous nights’ elusive assault only three hours later, interrupting a particularly splendid dream about the lights in Felsira’s port, I would’ve likely felt annoyance instead. I couldn’t have known as I was sleeping that the assault had been more brutal than we had known, and not contained to the zoo, but also the kennel, and the other defenses of the temple. I couldn’t have suspected that as we rose out of bed and walked towards the door, we would see the shadows and green orbs flittering past the door, even in the harsh Janavian sun, disregarding the natural rules, as the power of the Shadowfell seethed and boiled around us.

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Session 20: Into the Lion's Den
“Where do I start? Sorry? Yeah. Sorry seems like the place that I need to start. I’m sorry, Ejoon. I’m sorry I couldn’t stop it. I tried. You remember, right? You remember that I tried?
It was hard. It hurt. I thought he was going to kill me. I was ready for him to kill me. It was me that was challenging him, not you. I know he probably kills people all the time. And that he’s to really blame. But maybe it didn’t have to be you, that day. Maybe you could have gotten one more day, one more month. One more year? If we were smarter, maybe it would have gone differently.

We could have been smarter. Been the people in Thane’s book, in my song. I want to be the people in the song. Smarter, braver, tougher. Nameless. Loved. Loved. Yeah. Loved. My entire life, everything I’ve ever done has been to get people to like me. I’d make up stories about my birth parents. I’d do all the chores for everyone. I would play into the kids’ taunts about my tail, scales, size, whatever. I made sure not to get mad. Not to show anyone that I was getting mad. That would have scared them. And even if they were making fun of me, they weren’t scared of me. Believe me, it is a lot better to have people throw rocks and laugh than have them throw rocks and run away.

That’s why I became a bard. If I was entertaining, if I sang, if I danced, if I used a sock puppet, people would smile. People would like me. And it was easy. It was a performance. It was everything I had done my entire life, just better, controlled. And oh, I was so good at it.

I had so much fun back then. I met Hagar then. I don’t know if you saw him. The big guy? Smaller than me but still? Doesn’t matter. He came joined us and he was so sweet and so innocent. People thought he was dumb you know? And he’s not. He might seem that way at first, but he’s got a different kind of intelligence. He can speak Draconic better than I can. And he has an ease with people that I could never match. He’s just too trusting you know?
Well, at least I thought he was too trusting.

I hate this place. You know, I never had any interest in coming to this continent. None. And I really have no interest in staying any longer than I absolutely have to. It’s hot. It’s hot and I’ve had sand in my scales since we got here and I just want to leave.
I had a plan, ok? I was going to research dragonborn history in Thesia so I wouldn’t look so dumb when I went to Kelkenheim. And I was going to go up there and learn about my people first hand. But then Hagar needed us to help him with his dad, and I can’t say no to him after all he did for me and Anitia. And then Princess needed outsiders to come and find Abdul. And of course I can’t disappoint anyone. Even if they don’t actually give a damn about what I decide to do. So of course, I agreed to go on another adventure.

And then we get here, and nothing good happens. Nothing. Literally from the moment we arrived in this oversized city. The first time I talked to someone, I got pranked into saying dumb things. Then we meet a guy who seems nice, Galmranian, and he’s some big bad who may or may not have made Thane kill someone. Because honestly, who the fuck knows with Thane? He’s never said anything true in his entire life. And the slavery. God the fucking slavery. What is it with people thinking that it’s ok to own people? And not even the bad guys. Allies. The guys who are apparently super close to the prince we’re saving also don’t mind keeping slaves. And we’re supposed to just accept that? Can’t say we dislike it. Can’t help one person without being yelled at for it. Because only certain people are worth helping, obviously. If they aren’t directly useful to you their lives are worthless and you can have them walk into the desert for hours and so what if they don’t make it back alive. They weren’t helpful.

And oh god. Gavriel help you if you so much as say a word here. Try to find out more about the priests? No! People might know Abdul was looking into the church? Tell people on another continent your group’s name? A friend gets tortured. But not just tortured by anyone. By the adoptive father of your 'best friend.' Did you know about this father? Or any of the fathers? Or cursed sword? No, of course not. Why would he tell you about his family? You’ve only lived together for 4 years. I mean, some people introduce you to their family within in weeks of meeting them, within days of arriving in their city. But that’s a bad idea too, we’d meet this very loving family and almost get them killed over our own distorted sense of self-worth.

But I can’t say any of this to them you know. I can’t. Because they already don’t like me. And I’m that pathetic. I can’t tell them that I like Aldrich, that he’s never failed to give me advice or help anyone who asked for it, that he got Mop a flute because of me. If I did that, then I’ll be lumped into the 'undesirable' category with him. Though to be honest, he should hate us way more than we hate him. We all took turns selling him out and none of us can just be straight with him about it. I know I should tell him. But I don’t want to disappoint him. Or anyone. I’d rather just suffer in silence then disappoint anyone. I can’t yell at them for being stupid enough to walk into the front door and letting themselves become prisoners. What was the point of only sending Hagar and I in as captives if they were just going to stroll up and become targets too. Seriously, they couldn’t at least try and be sneaky?

Not that I have any legs to stand on when it comes to dumb ideas. I thought it would be just fine and dandy to give my song hammer to Siaval. Because I’m just in the habit of giving away my most precious items. We’re really doing a super job saving people. We literally walked into the lion’s den. No real plan. Nothing to make sure we didn’t lose our weapons. Completely unprepared. And even when we do have the upper hand we don’t. Because at any moment they can make us fall asleep.

No way to defend ourselves because the second we try to we just fall asleep. Or at least enough of us fall asleep that Wykeera has no choice to surrender.

Maybe we could have used Jafar as a bargaining chip. But let’s be honest, huh? Ejool, you and I both know Siaval doesn’t give a damn about anyone’s life. He killed you just to prove that point, didn’t he? Tried to prove that everything is meaningless and that there is no use fighting.

I still don’t know what his schtick with the seer was. Like. Why? Just to get our weapons? They were just going to put us to sleep. Did he do that to you, too? At the time i thought it was some weird cult nonsense, to determine what they would do to us or what torture to use. It might still have been something like that.

What was that god he said he followed? Zielyr? I wonder if he even does follow that god. It’s easier to lie when you base it in truth, you know. Makes you more consistent. I wonder if he prays to anyone. I never prayed much before. We weren’t very religious growing up. I think my grandparents were raised religious, but then the Arrival happened and it all seemed so fake. Our village only kept the holidays going because of tradition.

But sitting in that temple, praying at the altar. I’ve never felt so warm. So at peace.

May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness;
May all be free from sorrow and the causes of sorrow;
May all strength be tempered with kindness, all justice tempered with mercy
May all live in balance, without too much attachment or too much aversion,
And live believing in the equality of all that lives.

It’s nice isn’t it? 27. That’s how many times we’re supposed to say it. It’s easy to lose track, so you use prayer beads. I had prayer beads, but you saw what happened to them, right?

Sorry, I don’t mean to cry. You probably think that they’re just some dumb beads. But they’re not. Heskan gave them to me. It was his way of welcoming me to the faith. They helped me save Hamza. The only good thing to happen the entire time we were here. Just another gift from another mentor, taken away and taken apart.

What am I going to tell Heskan?

You don’t care about this, do you?

Maybe he’ll take the news as well as Vernerz did. “You’ve never once disappointed me,” that’s what she said. She added some colorful language, too. But you get the point. Well, maybe not actually. You wouldn’t know about it. About the drum. Or how I lost it. Or why...Or why.

Ejool, Siaval made a big fuckin mistake.

He thinks I have nothing to lose. He thinks this is the first time I’ve failed? The first time the whole goddamn world has been against me? Punk-ass-almost-sphinx doesn’t know shit about me. Or what I’ve done. Or what I can do. He thought I left Lidda alone. He thought I didn’t give away my gold. He didn’t know about my drum. He doesn’t know about Tanya, or Yoseph, or my family. He doesn’t know shit. “Meaningless” “Worthless” “Fruitless”

Fuck him.

So he’s what, going to give the world’s worst migraine every time I disobey him? It’s still not as bad as Thane’s stand-up. As if a pesky headache is going to make me kill someone.

Life isn’t meaningless. And even if I die here, I’m not going to lose."

Midi stands up from the bed she’s been sitting on, holding the decapitated head of Ejool, the half-elf in her hands. She turns to her party-members while tucking him under her arm.

“I have an idea”.
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Session 19
An Excerpt From Zari's Journal

I'm beginning to question my decisions over these past months. Raha and I were so confident that The F.I.A. would be able to help us find Abdul. While we have found many leads, and even uncovered some other political scandals, I am losing trust. I nearly watched my family die last night.

They never should have been in danger, at any kind of risk. Especially not because of events I've only read about in a book. I've come to realize that every member of the F.I.A. sees themselves as a hero and will go so far as to mislead others and warp their realities to make this true.

Thane elevated each of his actions in Deliverance From Evil and put us all in danger by hiding the truth about Xeridal's presence from us. Midi consistently flaunts our name and cause even having agreed not to. Wykeera withholds her opinions and ideas from a group who so clearly needs them. And Hagar, the dumbest of them all, is the only one capable of understanding team work.

I am beyond frustrated with the avoidable mistakes that we have made and how often I am left in the dark.

This week we were forced to take refuge in Moroden's Domain as our indecision led Teoshi to realize exactly who we are. Safe for a moment, I convinced the group that we should speak with Madame Raven to learn more about the Palace of Pleasure. For the first time, we were able to keep our motivations discrete.

She told us that there was a group who visit the city at the end of every week. 12 agents in traveler's garb wait in The Crescent for would-be victims to be delivered to them by cart. We decided we would meet them at the end of the week. Only four days to make a mess and ruin a holiday.

After a failed attempt and then some negotiation with Vorimbor at Iomine, Midi was able to sketch out a rough map of the ruins that could possibly contain the Palace of Pleasure. We regrouped at the Athenaeum where we realized that we were being tailed by Teoshi's slaves.

We met with her to work out a compromise. She offered to trade information for our silence. She was able to corroborate the information that Madame Raven gave us about the Palace of Pleasure. i think it is wise for us to keep her as an ally for now and not make a fuss about her tendency towards human sacrifice. Although I should discuss this later with Raha after we have found Abdul.

Not much occurred in the two days before the Sacrament of the Passage. Everyone did some individual research and prepared for the excursion. I bought a shield from the F.I.A.'s friend Dak. His shop does not seem to be doing well.

The Sacrament of the Passage was lovely to a point. I got everyone to dress up for the event and it was so good to see Hamza again. Mother's cooking is always incredible. I feel so blessed on this day. This year was the first time that I saw anything bad come from the blending of the line between the Shadowfell and the Prime Material.

I don't think any of us but Thane knew that Xeridal was still a threat. Her attack nearly worked and I'm sure my fatehr and brother would have passed if not for the strength of my mother's bond with Kielel. These shadowy figures could have ended our mission to find Abdul. Even worse, they may have been able to bring Xeridal back to her full power.

In involving the F.I.A. in our affairs, I believe that I have become a part of something far greater than saving Abdul and the stability in Janav. If Saadia's knowledge can be trusted, Xeridal is an unimaginably powerful force. Thane, who I am more and more keen on not trusting, told us that her plan is to colonize the entire planet. The Garden of Deliverance was just a test of her plague. She is not working alone.

I believe that we are fools to preserve her soul at all. No we do not solve the greater issue in killing Xeridal but we prevent her from gaining an edge on us. We are the only ones who know her plan and just how powerful she is. If we become so conceited to believe that we can control her or trick her, we become her pawns. Freezing the ring is a temporary fix, and we will fight over this issue again.

Maybe it is not my place to have an opinion on what should be done with the ring as I was not there to fight Xeridal originally, but I do believe the whole world shale feel the impact of our decisions. At least for now, I'm glad that Wykeera holds the ring instead of Thane.

Now, we are about to meet the agents of the Palace of Pleasure. I hope that this is the last leg of our adventure and I hope that it concludes so that my sense of dread is not justified.

To travel in the desert for a week and a half with only villains and a party, whom I no longer trust and whose abilities I doubt... my nerves are reaching their limits.
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Session 18: The Dragon, the Djinn and the Serpent [Part 2]
Locating Teoshi's estate was a simple enough task. Nestled comfortably in the Gold District, her property stood out from the surrounding golden arches and high spires of the structures that surrounded it. Teoshi’s manor, Zari explained as the party approached it, was commissioned by a famous Yalban architect to resemble as closely as possible an actual Zeharian ruin. Surrounding the complex was a five foot high black wrought iron fence. The courtyard that led to the central building was decorated in lavish topiaries and priceless Zeharian relics that had been scavenged from expeditions out into the Great Expanse. The estate was, for all intents and purposes, as close a re-creation of ancient Zeharian culture as Teoshi could muster. Speaking from personal experience, she had done an honorable job.

The party devised a plan for how they would handle speaking with Teoshi. After some deliberations, they decided that Zari, Midzaynov, Hagar and Thane would enter the estate with the intention of buying one of Teoshi’s many slaves. Meanwhile, Wykeera would assume an animal form and perform reconnaissance on the interior of the building proper. As the F.I.A approached the front gate of the complex, a well-dressed halfling man exited the house to greet them. This man introduced himself as Souz, one of Teoshi’s slaves. The party asked Souz for an audience with his owner so that they could pursue the slaves that she had at her disposal to see if a deal could be made as far as purchasing one. He tentatively agreed to their proposition, and opened the front door to let them inside of the estate.

The interior of Teoshi’s estate was garish and overbearing. Green-colored furniture, gold trim and priceless artifacts kept behind glass containers were carefully arranged inside of the complex. The walls themselves resembled the Zeharian ruins that the party had explored below the Greenbough Oasis during their journey to Yalba, complete with ancient inscriptions, pictographs and other carvings. In other words, it matched the description that Abdul had given to Saadia in the early days of his confinement of a well-decorated Zeharian ruin. Souz asked that Zari, Midzaynov, Hagar and Thane wait in the parlor while he summoned his mistress. They complied.

Meanwhile, Wykeera began scouting the building in the form of a desert beetle. She initially scouted the upper floors, but found nothing other than servants’ quarters while crawling along the outside of the building. Unsatisfied by this, she entered the kitchen area through the servant’s entrance on the side of the house and managed to remain undetected as she entered the main hallway. As she passed by an innocuous-looking section of wall, she felt the slightest breeze emanating from a crack in the bottom of the structure. Investigating further, Wykeera discovered a shrine to Lalwenye without any offering inside it on an adjacent bookshelf. Wkyeera, ever-knowledgeable on the subject of common religious practices, noted that it was considered an offense to have a shrine to the Lady of Coins with no coins inside of it. Searching for an entrance to what Wykeera had deduced was a secret door, Wykeera shifted back into her halfling form to place a coin in the shrine in an attempt to open it, to no avail. At this moment, the rest of the F.I.A could see Wykeera through the open door to the parlor on the opposite side of the hallway. While Wykeera puzzled over what to do next, she heard loud footsteps descending the main staircase in the foyer she now found herself in. Wykeera was alone in the foyer for the moment, but someone was coming. If she didn’t do something soon, she would be discovered. Wykeera, taking another look at the bookshelf, noticed that one of the texts had worn edges around its bound cover. Pulling slightly at it seemed to trigger a mechanism within the wall itself, and a door appeared as if from nowhere on the wall next to her. Wykeera signaled to the rest of the party to follow her, and then disappeared behind the door the moment before Teoshi al-Surai herself reached the bottom step.

Teoshi, a woman with human features in her late forties, wore an elegant emerald raiment with matching eye shadow as she approached the party that waited in the parlor. Upon her entrance, Zari politely stood up, introduced the two parties, and then promptly left the estate, hoping not to draw any suspicion to the rest of the party due to her princess’ views on slavery in the city. Striking up a casual conversation, Thane and Midzaynov remarked on Teoshi’s estate. Almost immediately, Teoshi launched into an exposition on its origins. She explained that her money was not merely old - it was ancient. Teoshi was a direct descendant of the Soakosh, one of the two factions in ancient Zeharian society thousands of years ago before the split that seemingly destroyed their civilization. Both her money and her bloodline had been tightly regulated in the thousands of years since the fall of the Zehari. Teoshi was proud of her ancient Janavian heritage and was unafraid to flaunt it. She spoke of the Rakou - the other Zeharian sect that was created at the same time as the Soakosh thousands of years ago - and informed the party that their descendants had become halflings who roamed the Great Expanse and lived a nomadic lifestyle. When the party offered to buy one of Teoshi’s slaves, she scoffed and left to collect a few. She was cruel and dismissive to her slaves, slapping Souz with her ringed hand when he spoke out of turn, causing a wound above his eye.

While the party waited for slaves to pursue, Wykeera explored the area behind the secret door. Being now in the pitch dark, Wykeera used her druidic magics to create a candle-sized flame on her thumb to help her see. She carefully descended a ladder that was directly behind the door, arriving on a landing in a new room. The air here was stuffy and hot, and Wkyeera could hear a vague shifting noise deeper into the room. Due to the darkness, however, she could not see the noise’s source. Taking stock of her surroundings, Wkyeera took note of the stonework and carvings on the walls of this place. It resembled that of the estate proper, but parts of it had eroded away over time. Wykeera found herself in one of the Zeharian ruins that run beneath Yalba, and it was right beneath Teoshi al-Surai’s estate. Wykeera opted to wait for her companions to join her rather than explore further.

Back in the parlor, the party reviewed the slaves that Teoshi had brought for their consideration. There were three - Souz, the halfling who had greeted them at the door and brought them to the parlor; Kriv, a large red male dragonborn; and Akila, a small blue tiefling girl. Upon questioning the slaves to determine who might actually be helpful in learning new information about Zeharian ruins, the party discovered that Akila had actually worked in the Atheneum before her parents were forced to sell her to put food on the table, and had worked with Sekmet. Kriv was not much of a philosopher, but he was eight feet tall and built like a tower. Teoshi offered to sell Souz for 400 gold pieces and the other two for 1000 gold pieces - a price several times the going rate for even skilled slaves in the city. Before an agreement could be made as to which slave to buy, Thane asked Teoshi how one might go about making someone disappear in Yalba. Teoshi replied with a grin that she would be happy to do it herself. Thane insisted that he was looking for other avenues to make such an exchange happen, and Teoshi asked Thane who he was trying to make disappear. Thane responded by claiming that he needed something from her to prove that she was trustworthy. He was trying to draw a line to the Palace of Pleasure, but he made the error of trying to make a bargain with a powerful figure without offering anything in return, and then implying that she was untrustworthy. Teoshi became visibly annoyed. Thane, Midzaynov and Hagar were unable to decide what their plan was, so they asked Teoshi to leave so that they could deliberate. With a defeated gesture, Teoshi left the parlor and closed the door behind her. When Teoshi left, Midzaynov noticed amongst the Zeharian artifacts in the parlor was a glass panel that seemed to act as a window into the walls of the house. As she examined it, a large green snake slithered behind the glass, seemingly travelling through the walls of the estate.

Meanwhile, Wykeera waited below the manor for her allies to arrive. During her wait, a small black snake made its way towards Wykeera from the darkness in front of her. Using her superior druidic animal handling skills, Wykeera successfully charmed it and gained a temporary serpentine ally. Inspired by her own success, Wykeera pressed on into the darkness, ready to face whatever awaited her below the Surai estate. As she made her way into the darkness with her candlelight, Wykeera became aware of the presence of dozens and dozens of black snakes that filled the large room she now found herself in. Yet again, Wykeera utilized her talents in animal handling to calm the beasts, and was able to move freely without fear of retribution. Wkyeera still could not see very far into the chamber, so she decided to cast a sunlight spell in order to get a better view. Her spell caught on a stained glass motif embedded in the ceiling, causing streams of multicolored light to shine from the ceiling and reveal the horrible visage that stood before her. Wykeera could now see in agonizing detail the centerpiece of this chamber: a massive stone figure with the head of a manticore, the legs of a great spider and the body of a snake that held a black stone slab horizontally in its coils. This was a sacrificial altar to Atriel, the Goddess of Nightmares.

Upstairs, the party invited Teoshi back into the parlor and Midzaynov offered to buy Souz, after some disagreement from Thane. Thane wanted to buy Akila for her supposed knowledge of Zeharian ruins and claimed that Souz was worthless. Midzaynov reasoned that the party could simply visit the Athenaeum or talk to Sekmet to gain more information. Fed up with their bickering, Teoshi asked the party to leave her estate. Midzaynov bought Souz with a small discount from Teoshi, who was seemingly impressed her resolve. The party was escorted out of the estate, and regrouped with Zari outside of the perimeter of the fence. The party wasted little time in questioning Souz as to the contents of the secret door they had seen Wkyeera enter. In return, Souz demanded for money for passage on a ship to Galmran and the promise of safety. Once the deal was struck, he admitted to the existence of the secret door and told the party that there was another entrance to the estate that was activated when certain bricks were pressed in a certain order. Souz went on to tell them that he was fairly certain that six months ago, Kurat left the estate without a scratch. The halfling immediately made a beeline for the north gate of the city, seemingly convinced that Teoshi would have him killed if she knew that he had leaked information about her covert dealings. Midzaynov cast a sending spell to Aldritch to ask him to meet a halfling named Souz at the Attessalian docks in about a month. He was happy to accept.

Wykeera, still alone in Teoshi’s secret basement, heard a noise coming from the secret door behind her. Fearing discovery, she shifted her form into that of a black snake to hide amongst the swarm that now surrounded her. Teoshi al-Surai entered the chamber from the direction of the secret door, took notice of the daylight spell that still lingered in the space, and then promptly left. While Teoshi was gone, Wykeera found another secret door in the back of the chamber that her strange telepathic powers allowed her to activate, similar to her experience beneath the Greenbough Oasis. She travelled down a long, halfling-sized tunnel in her snake form until she arrived into a larger room with even larger snakes inside of it. Wykeera returned to the original room only to find that Teoshi and her slaves were combing the area, searching for her. After searching for about thirty minutes to no avail, they returned upstairs and closed the door behind them.

Meanwhile, the rest of the F.I.A relocated to a building adjacent to Teoshi’s estate to formulate a plan to save their companion. Midzaynov wanted to cast an unseen servant to enter the complex and open the secret door, while Thane wanted to cast suggestion on a slave and ask them to open it that way. Unfortunately, the two of them argued for too long to be of any use.

Wykeera eventually ascended the ladder that led to the entrance to the secret door and decided that she would pull the lever that led to the house proper and immediately shift her form into that of a beetle to abscond from the manor as soon as possible. Immediately after pulling the lever, however, Wykeera heard Teoshi’s voice screech from elsewhere in the house “IT WAS THE FUCKING PONY!”. Teoshi had recalled from the Tournament of Champions that Wkyeera had transformed into a pony for children to ride on during the halftime show, noticed her absence from her party members during the negotiation to purchase one of her slaves, and deduced that Wykeera had taken the form of a snake to avoid detection in the ruin beneath her home. Teoshi ran to the secret door, saw that a beetle was waiting inside the archway, and immediately tried to crush it. Wykeera was faster than Teoshi’s heels, however, and managed to dash outside the front door of the manor and hide inside one of her topiaries. Using the brush as cover, Wykeera managed to make her way to the front gate while remaining hidden from Teoshi and her slaves, who were now combing the courtyard for Wykeera’s beetle form. In order to keep Teoshi distracted, Midzaynov cast an unseen servant to destroy some of Teoshi’s priceless Zeharian pottery by smashing it over Teoshi herself, causing her to wail in rage and confusion.

The F.I.A left the estate in a hurry, hearing the frantic yelling of Teoshi behind them. Fearing immediate retribution, the party decided to permanently vacate the House of Champions. Before they left, however, Hagar punched a hole straight through the one of the house’s interior walls, lashing out at Midzaynov and Thane for letting their egos stand in the way of the mission and putting Wykeera’s life at risk. Feeling tense and frustrated, the F.I.A left for the Temple of Gavriel to find refuge, with Atka in tow …
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Session 18: The Dragon, the Djinn and the Serpent [Part 1]
Spirits of The Maker, I thank you for joining me here at the shores of the Endless Sea. In the Realm of the Endless and the astral sea that lays before you, the limitless possibilities that take form in every realm of existence shape themselves into reality. These currents are fashioned from ever-expanding waters of unfathomable depth, and new events lap onto the shoreline with the tides. In this place, all known history is archived and nothing is forgotten. Every single event that has come to pass has its place in the Endless Sea, adding to the beautiful tapestry that represents the legacy of all that we have created. Who am I, you ask? I am the divine spirit that has been charged with tending to the Endless Sea. The divine light of The Maker still shines in my eyes, all so that I may tell you now of what has come to pass. So sayeth I, the Historian of Eternity, the Keeper of the Endless Sea, the All-Knowing - so sayeth Racha!

The events that occurred on the 29th and 30th of Latea in the year 77 P.A. are as follows. Thaddeus Terroc the Second, the Marquess of Tarsia, the Once-Winged Jade (but known to his friends simply as Hagar) reunited with his friend and mentor - a human man named Bana-Kye - after six long years of separation. Once Hagar’s identity was confirmed, the Yalban gang leader wasted little time before ushering Hagar to his private box seat above the Leviathan's Pit, where the two of them could find seclusion from the remaining members of the F.I.A and Jade Dragons who awaited in the pit below. Given the fact that Hagar had been banished from Yalba after killing two people in the Levithan's Pit approximately six years ago, Bana-Kye’s emotions fluctuated between love and concern towards the man before him as he asked Hagar why he had decided to return. Hagar was evasive about the details of his mission, but told Bana-Kye that the members of his party were searching for someone. Bana-Kye told Hagar about a place he'd heard only rumors of - a Zeharian ruin masked in mirage and illusion where corrupt Yalban factions sent people whom they wished to make disappear. This place was known as the Palace of Pleasure. Bana-Kye did not know how to find this place, or even if the person that Hagar was seeking would be there. For all Bana-Kye knew, the Palace of Pleasure was naught but legend.

Once Hagar mentioned that the person they were looking for was known as Kurat, Bana-Kye's eyes widened with comprehension. Bana-Kye had remembered the conversation that transpired between the two of them six months ago when Kurat had visited. Bana-Kye told Hagar the same thing that he had told Kurat: not only did no one in his organization have anything to do with the abnormal behavior among the Yalban high clergy, but nobody in their right mind would dare cause such a thing on purpose. Bana-Kye went on to explain that organizations like the Jade Dragons can only thrive between the lines of society if there is a semblance of order to keep things in balance. Bana-Kye reminded Hagar that the clergy of Yalba counter the general corruption of the city itself. His face darkened for a moment as he said "if something is happening to the clergy in this city, it could mean terrible things for everyone who calls it home."

The conversation then briefly turned to Hagar's past adventures in Drasek before Bana-Kye reiterated the danger that Hagar would be in if his true identity were discovered. Six years ago, before the events that have come to be known as Deliverance, Hagar's death was demanded by the leaders of the Pit Vipers and the Bloodbroods after an incident in the Levithan's Pit. Bana-Kye, who had come to love Hagar like a son, traded his territory in Bloodfall Row for Hagar's life. This exchange of territory was known only to the gang leaders and a select few members of the Jade Dragons. If Hagar's true identity were discovered now, it would give the impression that Bana-Kye deceived the Pit Vipers and the Bloodbroods six years ago. This would leave the Jade Dragons open to swift retribution from the rival gangs, the majority of which would require little provocation to unite against a common enemy. Bana-Kye confided in Hagar that while the Jade Dragons have declined in manpower and territory since Hagar’s departure six years ago, the members that they have managed to retain have increased in might. Bana-Kye let slip that he was having success letting certain members of the Jade Dragons near an interdimensional rift in their headquarters in an attempt to increase their power, and that Bana-Kye himself was one of them. As his eyes emitted a glow that demonstrated his new arcane power, Bana-Kye told Hagar that he was devising a plan involving both the Pit Vipers and the Bloodbroods, and that if this plan were successful, Hagar may not have to hide his face in Yalba ever again. Bana-Kye neglected to mention any details, but he did tell Hagar that this plan may involve him and to stay alert. Hagar nodded, and Bana-Kye grinned.

Before their conversation ended, Hagar introduced Bana-Kye to Deductible, Hagar’s squirrel companion. As is recorded in the endless divine annals that make up our shared history, Deductible is objectively adorable.

Meanwhile, in the fighting pit below the box seat where Bana-Kye and Hagar spoke, Midzaynov the bard questioned Lidda Hilltopple as to what she was doing in Yalba and how she had come to be a prisoner of the Jade Dragons. Being a denizen of Kelkenheim, you see, she was quite a long way from home. Lidda explained that she had been captured in Gallius by unknown agents and brought to Yalba. She had been discussing Hagar's true parentage in a tavern in Galmran's capital the day before the abduction. Apparently, Hagar's warning to Lidda to keep his father's identity discreet did not sink in. During this, Thane had attempted to strike up a rapport with the Jade Dragons who watched them while their leader spoke with Hagar - he mostly failed to ease the tension, but he did seem to entertain one particularly dull member of their company.

When Bana-Kye and Hagar descended the stairs of the Leviathan's Pit to rejoin the others, Thane bequeathed a copy of his adventure novel to the gang leader for later perusal. Despite Thane’s best efforts to stop her, Zari was able to give Bana-Kye her ongoing list of truths and falsehoods regarding Thane's character to cross-reference with the often-exaggerated accounts in his novel. It was then that both Thane and Midzaynov began to conjecture the details of Hagar and Bana-Kye's relationship. Thane's tale was tall: he conjectured that Bana-Kye was in actuality the brother of Thaddeus Terroc I. It seemed a plausible theory; after all, Hagar had told the party how his father had most likely had his older brother killed when he was a boy, and it would explain why Hagar had referred to Bana-Kye as "dad" when they met. Bana-Kye laughed so hard he almost cried, and told Thane that if the imagination that went into writing the novel he'd been given was half as outlandish as the theory he had just heard, he was sure that he was in for quite the treat indeed. Midzaynov asked if the situation resembled something more of an adoption. Bana-Kye grinned, nodded, and told them that Hagar could tell the story in his own time later if he so chose. Hagar asked Bana-Kye if Lidda could be released, and he complied without a moment's hesitation. Now free to leave, the party was warned by Bana-Kye that it was important to hide Hagar's identity for the time being for his own safety. Before Hagar left the pit he had spent so much time in at a younger time of his life, he traded in his wooden Fang shield for one with a stronger motif of jade.

The F.I.A left the Leviathan's Pit with Lidda in tow. They told her that she could stay in their abode in the Victory District if she needed a place to stay, and then Midzaynov used her bardic magic to send a message to Lidda's companion Zaeshir to explain her whereabouts and to ask him to retrieve her. Zaeshir was shocked by the news that Lidda was in Yalba, and Lidda set off through the shanty town to her new temporary home in the Victory District. She seemed ashamed that she had allowed herself to be captured and angry that her former employer had seemingly had her kidnapped, and left in a clouded state of mind. As they discussed their next move, a strong breeze tore through the city streets, kicking up sand and forcing the adventuring party to cover their eyes. When the dust settled, Thane found a note sticking out of his pocket from his djinn patron, Moroden. The note asked the group to meet him at Paha's Garden at their earliest convenience. At the same time, Zari received an arcane message from Artificer Saadia, who informed her that if any members of her party did not speak the Firan tongue, to send them to her workshop at once.

The F.I.A visited Artificer Saadia's study in the Sultan's Palace first. When they arrived, she gave both Midzaynov and Thane magically-infused rings made from archalium that allowed them to understand Firan. Saadia was truly proud of her handiwork, and told the party that the future of arcane technology lied in archalium, as the magically-infused ore speeds up the enchanting process tenfold compared to other materials. Thane then offered Saadia a proposition that she could not refuse - she was given the mass of raw archalium that the party had retrieved from the mines beneath Fort Kulpa in the Garden of Deliverance and told that she could experiment with the material as much as she wished, as long as the spoils of her tinkering went directly to them. She happily complied, but warned that the ore may take some time to refine to a usable form. It was then that Thane revealed to Saadia that the man known as Moroden was in actuality a powerful djinn. Saadia was confused, but appreciated the seemingly-random piece of information. Before the party left for their next errand, they asked Saadia about the Palace of Pleasure. She had never even heard of it.

On their way out of the palace, the F.I.A engaged themselves in some truly ... inspired dancing. Rashad walked by them during their foreign ritual, poked fun at Zari for getting along so well with the Gallians in her company, and reminded them to please save the crown prince of his country as soon as they were finished. They complied.

The F.I.A's final trip of the day was to Paha's Garden to meet with Moroden. When they arrived, they realized that Paha's Garden lived up to its name - it was a small park in the Gold District filled with domesticated cats as a tribute to Paha, the God of Cats. Hagar immediately found a familiar cat from his past, while the rest of the party went to find Moroden. They found the djinn at the center of the garden in his human guise; he was facing towards the central fountain and reading a copy of Thane's adventure novel. After some pleasantries, Moroden led the party to an isolated utility closet near the back of the complex, explaining in his airy fashion that he wanted to show them something spectacular. Moroden pushed open the wooden door, demonstrating that behind it was a mundane closet filled with gardening tools. With a specific sequence of knocks applied, however, the door led to something much more.

With the secret knock applied, Moroden and the F.I.A stepped through the archway into a gargantuan, ruined cathedral made of white and black stone. All around them, a constant draft whipped up the bottoms of their cloaks, and dozens of servants wearing gold bangles worked on what appeared to be the reconstruction of the cathedral. Wherever they were, it was certainly no place in Yalba. The party elected to look out the window into the blue sky that surrounded the cathedral to ascertain their surroundings only to realize that the sky continued on in all directions, including downward. As the party began to realize that they were in a place that had been touched by magic, Moroden exclaimed "Welcome to the Plane of Elemental Air!" with a grin and a flourish. Moroden's Domain spread for miles in all directions. Dozens of towering structures huger than anything the party had ever witnessed dotted the cloudscape, most of them in a state of disrepair.

Once their stomachs had settled, the party began to ask Moroden about the leads that they had managed to accumulate thus far in their journey. The F.I.A informed Moroden that they were looking for an ornately-decorated Zeharian ruin based off of the description that Saadia had gleaned from Abdul several months ago after he went missing. Moroden knew of two places that fit that description in the area: a Zeharian ruin called the Palace of Pleasure, and the estate of Teoshi al-Surai, one of the wealthiest people in Yalba. Moroden did not know how to find the Palace of Pleasure, but he did know that it was a place that seedy organizations sent individuals they disprove of to be erased. Once someone is sent there, he explained, they are never heard from again. Then ... interesting. I know that the annals of the recorded history here is absolute and unwavering, but I simply find it unlikely that Moroden would fabricate a ... pit of balls literally out of thin air. Strange are those djinn.

Once the pit of balls had been created and both Wykeera and Zari found themselves busy entertaining themselves with it, Moroden assumed his imposing djinn form, scooped Thane up with a gust of wind and dramatically flew out of a newly-created hole in the ceiling, which sealed up the moment they were out of sight. While Moroden and Thane were flying away to have a private conversation, Midzaynov found one of the workers scattered around the cathedral and began questioning him. The servant that she spoke with was an impressively-aged human man who wore a golden bangle. Midzaynov asked the man about the conditions he worked in and if he was being treated fairly by the djinn. He responded that he quite enjoyed his servitude; he was paid very well, was allowed ample time for sightseeing across Aldion, and suffered none of the effects of old age while in Moroden's Domain. The man went on to explain that he was born in Yalba as a slave, and was eventually bought by Moroden and given a choice of freedom or servitude. The man chose servitude. He seemed happy with his life, and confident in the fact that he could leave whenever he so chose.

Meanwhile, hundreds of feet above the party, Moroden had constructed an ornate room with a glass floor with which to have a discussion with Thane. Thane had several questions for his patron - he asked Moroden about the group known as Iomine, but he was not very helpful in answering. The sorcerer-turned warlock then asked the mighty elemental what had happened to the ruined palaces and cathedrals that now surrounded them. Moroden explained that his domain had been destroyed by none other than Eldamas, the God of the Sky. Moroden was evasive when asked what caused the god to wreak havoc, but did reveal to Thane that he himself could not become a god ... or at least did not wish to. The damage caused by Eldamas prevented Moroden from using his powers to repair it, hence his focus on servant labor. Thane then asked Moroden about the book that he had acquired from Artificer Saadia earlier that week. According to Moroden, the book was written by a close friend of Nimlaser in the time before her ascension. Moroden added with a grin that he knew her while she was still mortal, and implied that he may have helped her on her journey to godhood. Continuing on his mischievous streak, Moroden leaned in very close to Thane and told him of a secret that lies deep within the Atheneum of Yalba: behind the large white door on the second floor of the main building lie secrets to ascension that could help Thane in his quest to achieve godhood. Moroden warned Thane that there was also a great beast that guarded this knowledge, and to be careful if he planned to attain it.

Perhaps tired of being talked at for so long, Thane then turned the conversation to his previous encounter with Phanalan. Thane explained that he was pleased with the power that his pact granted him, but he needed more if he was going to take on the devil from his past. Moroden chuckled and explained that he could not simply bequeath power onto people as he wished - the vessel in question requires refinement and training to be able to receive the highest potential of power that he can grant. One can only place so much water into a glass, after all. Before their conversation ended, Thane asked Moroden if he could try controlling the winds and clouds of Moroden's Domain in a similar way that Moroden was able to. In response, Moroden dissipated one of the walls of the floating room they shared and beckoned Thane to stand near the precipice with him. After a brief explanation of the theory behind controlling the whims of the plane, Moroden shoved Thane out of the floating chamber with little fanfare. It was time to see if Moroden's falcon had yet learned flight.

Thane attempted time and time again to control the clouds around him into something tangible as he fell, but Moroden's constant distractions as he fell proved too challenging. Thane even went as far as to fling off Moroden's bangle, which seemed to grant him a spark of excess power. Alas, Thane was unable to summon the concentration necessary to control the cloudstuff around him, and he impacted the ground at full force. Thankfully, Moroden's Domain is made of cloud-like material, so the only wound dealt was to Thane's pride. Moroden summoned a great gust of wind to lift the changeling back to his feet, and told him that Thane’s next challenge would be to find a strong center in the midst of chaos, and that great power cannot be controlled by passion alone. After all, even the greatest of storms require calm in their center. Moroden and Thane returned to the rest of the party in the cathedral, and Moroden explained to the party as they departed that they were welcome to come back at any time if they wished to peruse any magic items from Naima that were in his shop.

By the time the party left Moroden's Domain, night had fallen on the city of Yalba. The party went home to the House of Champions, partook in a meal prepared by Atka, and discussed their plans for the next day. It is also written here, somehow in bolded script, that Atka was displeased with Thane's table manners. Strange. Anyway, Lidda, who was told to wait for Zaeshir in the House of Champions earlier that day, made it known that she was sleeping in one of the guest rooms on the second floor for the time being. While the rest of the party rested, Midzaynov took the trek through the Duneshadow District to visit Kimbatuul Heskan, where she aided with a soup kitchen that was operating out of the Temple of Gavriel that very night. She took the time to ask him his opinion on slavery in the city. He told her that he disliked it very much, and they continued to distribute food to the poor late into the night.

On the morn, Hagar explained his relationship with Bana-Kye over breakfast. He told his fellow party members that following an incident in Sidun several years ago, he had travelled to Janav in search of new purpose. It was here that he learned the Firan tongue and eventually met Bana-Kye. Hagar acted as an accountant for the Jade Dragons for a time before the incident in the Leviathan's Pit that would lead to the leaders of the Pit Vipers and the Bloodbroods to call for his execution. Once Hagar had finished his tale, the F.I.A decided to start their day by paying a visit to Teoshi al-Surai, one of the wealthiest individuals in all of Janav. After all, Abdul had gone to visit Teoshi while disguised as Kurat several months ago before his disappearance, and Moroden had described her home as sharing aesthetics with the Zeharian ruins that were scattered around the Great Expanse. Perhaps, the F.I.A reasoned, Abdul had been kidnapped and taken to Teoshi. Following their instincts, the F.I.A left to find the complex.
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