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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 9: Into the Deep
After about four hours of travel, the heroes arrived at the island known as the Lonely Butte. As they approached they saw the forested island plateau loom up from over the horizon, a wall of brown rock topped by a lush, green crown. There was no beach, only a wall of cliffs and reefs rising from the waters of the Last Sea. Their phantom steeds flew over the reefs, and they landed atop one of the stone quays jutting from the base of the cliff. A great cleft or chimney cut into the rock face rose nearly 200 feet to a huge, cave-like opening near the top. An elaborate mechanism consisting of wooden frames and platforms, giant's hair ropes, pulleys, huge stone counterweights, and an iron grate protecting the top of the chimney appeared to act as an elevator to the this cavernous cleft. A cluster of wooden and stone buildings squatted there, jutting out on rickety platforms over the sea far below. They were informed by a couple of men unloading a haul of fish from a nearby boat that this was Blufftown, and that if they were looking for drinks, the two inns above were always open. One was owned by a man named Sitko, and was generally safe. The other, owned by an old skinflint named Ordean, was a bit rougher. The heroes figured the rougher one was where they would find the dwarf. They dropped their illusionary disguises and headed over to the cliff face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The heroes escorted Lanae out of the watch station, and sent her on to the docks ahead of them. Night was falling and the heroes opted to head that way themselves. With ritual magic, they could summon phantom steeds that would carry them across the water under cover of darkness until they reached Blufftown, an outpost constructed along what the sailor called the Lonely Butte, a cliff-ringed island in the center of Saragar. With time running low, the heroes were ready to press on. But what of Arshaka....?
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Journey to the Last Sea Part 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 6: Out of the Fire, Into the Woods
Mounted on the impressive fire drake they had pummeled into submission, the heroes rode hot on the trail of the ssurran merchants. Rokkon had rejointed them, and the half-giant ranger's tracking skills had been more than sufficient to follow their fading trail over the ash and cinders covering the rocky ground around the Lava Gorge. Sark had called down a reptilian behemoth of some sort with his magic, and flew overhead on leathery wings, scouting for the reptilian traders. They rode for a couple of hours, following the fading trail.

Cries of alarm from somewhere ahead could be heard, and meant that trouble had found the ssurran merchants. Rushing down a small rise, the heroes saw the edge of the Lava Gorge ahead. The air was like a furnace and the heat distorted their vision, but they clearly saw half a dozen giants with dark skin and hair like flames alongside a titan with skin like obsidian and molten flames for hair rise from a steaming vent nearby. One inix was dead and a wagon had been set alight, but the rest of the merchants seemed unhurt for the moment. But it was clear to the heroes that they were the only thing standing between the ssurrans and a brutal death at the giants' hands.

The fire giants charaged in, ready to slaughter the merchants.

Charging into battle atop their mount, the heroes engaged the giants in close combat. Gurthmore's axe cleaved into two of them, staggering the pair, as Rokkon cut one down in short order. Chuka-Tet and his scorpion leaped into their midst, claws and sting biting flesh even as his staff cracked a giant's skull. The titan roared, swinging its burning sword and unleashing a wave of flame. But the heroes endured, and Gurthmore sent it flying with a swing of his axe. Rokkon was on the titan in an instant, his axes cracking its stony skin spilling out magma-like blood. It brought its sword down at the goliath, but he parried with his axe, slashing a tendon in its arm before gutting the primordial creature. The remaining giants fled, not seeing any profit in further battle.

Hassh'nek and the other ssurrans thanked the heroes profusely, and expressed amazement that they had survived the shadowy assassins that attacked them in Ravage. The wily merchant was happy to see them though, and explained they would soon camp on the edge of a mysterious forest, the Somber Woods. They reached the woods no more than a day and a half later, and set up camp near nightfall. The forest was pale, the trees twisted and their dying bark covered in phosphorescent lichen and strange fungi. Chuka-Tet could sense the place was unhealthy, and that the spirits considered them intruders. The ssurran merchants set up a tent, explaining that they would sleep further from the edge. The heroes braved a small clearing.

The Somber Woods really lived up to their name.

As the moons rose, eerie wails sounded from the forest and ghostly figures emerged from the trees. They glowed like the strange, phosphorescent lichen that clung to the bark of the gnarled trees. All were powerfully built and had bestial faces crowned by jagged horns. They were armed with crude spears and axes, and a kirre with ghostly pale fur ran alongside them. "Tribute," the leader growled, "give us tribute, outsiders, or pay the blood price for entering our woods." Chuka-Tet could sense these were tulgars, primal spirits bound into mortal flesh. Dangerous and powerful, he thought it best to negotiate.

The tulgars emerged into the light of the heroes' campfire.

"We come in peace," he clicked, but his overtures were met with stony silence. Rokkon and Gurthmore put on a brave face, trying to intimidate the primal warriors, with mixed success. But Arshaka's words and Rokkon's insight were enough to get them to stay their attack. The goliath realized they would have to each give a mighty tribute. More than goods, each would have to be a personal thing, a part of what and who they were. Rokkon gave up Champion's Fang, the axe with which he slew Yarnath, the master of Slither. Gurthmore showed the moves he used to defeat the champion of Nibenay in the arena, exhausting himself in the process. Arshaka told the story of the heroes' struggle, sharing a piece of himself with the tulgars. And Chuka-Tet promised to serve them for a year and a day, coming when they would beckon without delay. Although spiritually linked and perhaps vulnerable, the heroes' tribute was deemed worthy. The tulgars vanished back into the Somber Woods, and the heroes rested in relative comfort, watched over by the spirits of that forlorn place.
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Tags: Recap
Journey to the Last Sea Part 5: The Barrier Wastes
Leaving the mud flats and scrub plains at the bottom of Troll Grave Chasm behind, the heroes scaled the switchback trail up the side of the canyon and made their way back to the village of Ravage. A day had passed, and the moons were growing ever closer to their next alignment. Ushas was running low on time. Talid greeted them as the sun was going down over the bandit village. “We will make plans on the morrow,” he said. “The time is right to unite these lands under one banner – yours.” Gurthmore nodded in assent, and the heroes took rest in what quarters could be spared. Rokkon decided to waste no time, and took off under cover of night to guide the rest of Gurthmore's horde on to the village. Taking only a couple of gourds full of broy with him, the half-giant ranger strode off into the dark, vowing to return soon. Chuka-Tet meditated outside, as Sark dozed under the stars and Gurthmore napped following a prodigious amount of broy. Their reverie did not last.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was not love at first sting with these scorpions.

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

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

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

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

The heroes were not dismayed however, and Chuka-Tet and Gurthmore charged the titanic drakes as Sark burned them with his irresistible magic and Arshaka confounded them with his music. Gurthmore even managed to send one staggering back with his axe, causing it to crash into the other drake, knocking both prone. Despite their fearsome claws and rending bite, and the blasts of flame produced by the two burning vortexes, the heroes managed to slay one beast and render the other senseless. Losing interest with their playmates no longer active, the flighty elementals dispersed. With a bit of skill and coaxing, and plenty of physical intimidation, Chuka-Tet and Gurthmore cowed the remaining fire drake. The heroes mounted up on the scaly titan, and rode off, in hot pursuit of the Hassh'nek and the rest of the ssurran merchants.
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Journey to the Last Sea Part 4: An Unexpected Opportunity
New challenges awaited the heroes and their followers as they crossed into the region known as the Barrier Wastes. The wind began to rise as they made their way out of the badlands, and it would not cease for days. Dust and sand kicked up constantly due to the furnace-like gusts of wind, though actual sandstorms were rare. The wind tore at clothes and gear, ripping things loose to fly off without warning, and dust and grit stung eyes and exposed skin. Worst of all was the maddening howl of the wind, which varied from a dreadful moan to a wail like that of a thousand banshees. Though most of the pack animals endured the wind, the mekillots became skittish, and it was feared the huge beats would panic and trampling anything underfoot. One did during the journey, and a few dozen men were trampled to death. About that many broke off as well, unwilling to continue.

The temperature in the Glowing Desert varied wildly as well, becoming hot as a blast furnace during the day and plunging below freezing at night. Strangest of all, the heroes discovered that the Glowing Desert had earned its name due to its sand, which did indeed sparkle and glow with an eerie iridescence when the sun went down. The effect was disconcerting however, and it was hard to rest at night. The heroes did what they could to keep morale high and the men moving forward despite the incessant, maddening wind. Arshaka's honeyed words and songs kept the column moving in step, while Gurthmore's barked commands and iron will kept them from turning back. Chuka-Tet and Stonedarr used their desert lore to protect the horde from the wind. The thri-kreen druid called on the elemental spirits to turn aside, while the goliath ranger had them march along the lee side of the ever-shifting dunes to break the howling gales and blowing dust. Sark calmed the beasts of burden, which reminded him of the behemoths his people tamed and rode on the great Crimson Savannah. Four days they pressed on through the Glowing Desert, and at last Hassh'nek proclaimed they had reached the Bandit States.

The Glowing Desert now lay behind them.

The wind had died down to a light breeze, and the haze of blowing dust and sand subsided enough to reveal a small village on the horizon. A half dozen riders mounted on crodlus approached. Their leader, a tall, muscular, human woman with dark hair bound into an elaborate knot, hailed the heroes. “Hold there,” she said with authority. While she wore little apart from silks and carried no weapons, her two spiked gauntlets suggested that she knew how to handle herself in a fight. “We are Lady Cesti, ruler of Wrath.” She pointed back to the cluster of mud-brick buildings and huts on the horizon. “And we bid you welcome to our lands, and invite you to come to our court. There you may explain to us what your intentions are,” she gestured back to the column of Gurthmore's followers, “and why you have brought an army to our lands.”

“We seek no trouble with you,” Gurthmore said in response, taking his cues from Arshaka. “We are merely passing through. But your hospitality is appreciated.” The obsidian bard bowed low and spoke eloquently, promising that no harm would come to the self-proclaimed lady's people. With that, the heroes accompanied the outriders back to the village of Wrath.

Having reached the center of the small village, the would-be noblewoman dismounted and made her way to a small platform of brick and wood at the center of the village square. A pair of very large and brutish looking jhakars sat patiently on the platform, though they perked up as Lady Cesti approached Sitting on a low-backed but regal-looking chair, she raised one gauntleted hand and the dozens of villagers crowding the square bowed. “You may remain standing in our noble presence outsiders,” she said. “For we are nothing if not accommodating to our guests. But I would ask, why you have come to Wrath and what it is you seek here? Be warned that we value our freedom, and have told our people that none will ever take our lands. We have earned our freedom in the arena and would fight to the death to avoid slavery again. Now...what is it you wish?”

Lady Cesti wasn't much of a lady, if you take my meaning.

“Nothing from you,” Stonedarr said curtly. “We will be on our way soon.” He gazed around warily, noting the number of weapons the villagers had at hand. Most looked like former slaves and bandits to his trained eye, and were no doubt capable of handling themselves in a fight. They were greatly outnumbered and would be in trouble if the conversation turned sour.

Lady Cesti seemed skeptical and was not convinced by Gurthmore's claims. “Do you come here as a conquerer?” She asked bluntly. “We have earned our freedom with blood spilled on the arena floor. Oh, and we remember a young mul they called the executioner. How far you have come! But should you wish to take the Bandit States for yourself...we would be willing to aid you. Provided, that is, that we are given our due.” Arshaka realized that a great opportunity had presented itself. Here, among the rude villages of former bandits, nomads, slaves, and wanderers, Gurthmore's horde could carve out a land of their own. He also realized that the horde of followers was slowing them down. Almost half a month had passed, and Saragar was nowhere in sight. The mul's lieutenants were loyal unto death, and would never cede command to an outsider. But with an ally, they could sweep through and conquer the villages in the region within a few weeks.

It was decided. Lady Cesti informed them that their greatest obstacle would be Talid, the chief of Ravage, to the east. He had ambitions to conquer the Bandit States himself and would no doubt oppose their army. But if he could be turned to their side, he would be a valuable ally. After a night spent at Wrath – a loud and sleepless night for Gurthmore and Lady Cesti as it turned out – they made for Ravage come the dawn. With the wind filling the sails of Arshaka's magic, folding sand skiff, they crossed the more than fifty mile stretch of desert by the end of the day.


As the red sun began to dip towards the horizon they saw another village appear on the horizon out of a shimmer of heat. Drawing closer the heroes could see that it was larger than the last village but still far smaller than the big trade towns of the Tablelands. The mud brick buildings were surrounded by a wide ditch and a low wall of earth and brick. A few dozen villagers armed with javelins formed a small cordon near the heavy wooden gates as a tall, scarred, and heavily muscled male mul stepped out to greet you. “I am Talid,” he rumbled, “and Ravage is my village.” He put his hand on the heavy-bladed waraxe hanging from his belt. “What do you want here?” A second round of diplomacy began, and with grudging respect, Talid invited them through the gates. Between Arshaka's words and Gurthmore's iron determination, Talid signed on with the promise of being Gurthmore's second-in-command. Talid also informed them that Densis, the leader of the village of Spoil, was a powerful defiler and probably the fiercest foe they would face. “But this foul sorcerer has been seen going into Troll Grave Chasm during the dark of the moons. He seeks some ancient knowledge in the ruins found at the heart of the canyon. Should you fall upon him before he returns to his village...” With the dark of the moons starting on the morrow, the heroes wasted no time. They left Ravage after the sun went down, and by morning they had reached the Troll Grave Chasm to the north.

Broken ground gave way to a vast canyon. Sheer cliffs, fully five hundred feet high, dropped to the canyon floor. The rising sun revealed that the canyon's floor was covered by relatively lush scrub plains, and that the center many miles ahead appeared to be mud flats thick with brush and trees. Chuka-Tet and Stonedarr could see a crumbling ruin barely visible at the heart of the mud flats, and realized that at this distance it could only be what remained of a great city. Rather than climb, Sark used a ritual to call forth birds of prey and caused them to grow to giant size. Riding the great birds to the canyon floor, the heroes discovered a defiled oasis littered with the bodies of large, goblin-like creatures with armored hides. Sligs, Chuka-Tet named them, and all had been slain by magic. The defiler's tracks were visible, and they made their way deeper into the canyon.

After crossing several miles of scrub plains, the heroes entered the mud flats. The air was humid, the mud sucked at their feet, and thick brush slowed their progress. Biting and stinging insects were everywhere, and soon sweat, mud, and filth caked the heroes. A startling bellow sounds from ahead. Pushing through the thick grass and grasping mud they saw a pair of huge beasts with shaggy, black fur, long necks, horns, and tusks trudging ahead through the mire. Their heads rose a fraction, revealing horrid, blank eyes. Rustling behind the heroes revealed a trio of scaly, demonic figures with webbed claws and without eyes emerging from the muck.

Caught off-guard, the heroes quickly rallied. Avoiding the deadly gaze of each catoblepas and the poisonous fumes of their breath, the heroes took the fight to the shaggy beasts. Despite their fearsome gore and clubbing tail, the two beasts did not prove a match for the axes wielded by Gurthmore and Rokkon. Sark blasted them with fire and lightning as Arshaka and Chuka-Tet held off the eyeless demons with blade and staff, song and primal evocation. Though wounded and weakened from their deadly gaze, the heroes slew both of the beasts and one of the demons, causing the rest to sink back into the mire and retreat.

The catoblepas was as deadly as it was ugly...and smelly...and did I mention ugly?

Pressing on through the foliage and the mire, the heroes reached the outskirts of the ruined city. But they were not alone. Flickering light could be seen among the foliage, and movement rustled the underbrush. The trees parted as a huge figure stomped into view. It was a massive giant with warty, green skin, hollow eyes, and a hooked nose. It had two heads and five arms with thick, clawed nails. If the legends are true, it could have been only one thing – a troll. Perhaps the last troll on Athas. A cluster of glowing lights danced in the air around the monstrous giant. It roared in hunger and rage and prepared to rush the heroes. Rokkon and Gurthmore pushed past the sparking will-o'-the-wisps and met it with their axes. Sark blasted it with fire, causing it bellow in pain. It tore at Rokkon and Gurthmore with its massive, hooked claws and grabbed both. One head bit at Stonedarr while it hurled the mul at the orc mage who had taken to the air, and both crashed into the mud in a heap. Arshaka and Chuka-Tet fought of the wisps as the rest battled the last troll. The beast took a heavy toll on the heroes, tearing with claws and literally wielding them as clubs against each other. But the resilient and tenacious goliath and mul hacked away as Sark burned the giant time and time again. Chuka-Tet's staff and Arshaka's blade struck at its knees, and eventually drove the creature back. It finally fell, and the heroes continued to hack and burn until naught was left. Rokkon had felt the blood of the troll seep into his wounds and it felt...good.

The last troll shambled out of the murky ruins. It was as hungry as it was...okay, it was ugly too, all right?

After resting briefly, the heroes reached the heart of Troll Grave Chasm and the ruined city. Cautiously making their way past a stagnant, muddy pool and up the cracked and worn marble steps into an ancient dome, they saw ancient arms and armor scattered here and there, rusting away in the mud. A flickering gold flame burned in the air above a central plinth, where a statue once stood, lighting the entire area. They heard a voice echo down the long-abandoned halls. “Who are you? Mercenaries or spies sent by Talid or one of the others? Not that it really matters. You are too late, you know. I have found the secret I sought. Would you be smart enough to flee if I gave you the chance? Well, that doesn't really matter either.” A pair of figures, humanoids seemingly made of mud, rose from the surrounding muck and poured into the ancient armor and picked up the corroded weapons. And something stirs in the stagnant pool outside, something large. A creature with three legs and long tentacles ridged with suckers and hooks rose, its eyes located on a single stalk – an otyugh!

The heroes wasted no time with words. In an instant, Stonedarr was on the foul, aberrant creature and his axes bit deep. The beast was grievously wounded and stunned, and in mere moments he had cut it down. Gurthmore was on the defiler, and sent him flying with a blow from his axe. Sark froze the mud archons in place as Arshaka and Chuka-Tet fell upon them. Though Densis fought back with horrifying spells, Gurthmore shrugged them off long enough for he and the thri-kreen druid to surround the sorcerer. As the mud archons fell to Arshaka's song and sword and Rokkon's axes, Sark burned the defiler to death with arcane fire. He claimed a great prize – the staff the sorcerer was carrying was actually a cunningly-wrought book of spells. The ivory staff was carved with an intricate arcane design that spiraled seemingly into infinity. What was recorded there was no less than the sum of an entire culture's arcane knowledge. Whatever the defiler had sought, it was best out of his hands. He also carried a simple scroll inscribed with lost words of power, words that could slay any living being. There was no doubt the heroes had ended a great threat. Secure in that knowledge, they rested, and made ready to depart come the dawn.
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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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Journey to the Last Sea Part 2: The Race Northwards Begins
Later that evening, as the sun was setting, Ushas summoned the heroes to meet with her at the Asticles estate. Looking out over Tyr from the balcony of the noble villa they could see the sun set, casting long shadows over the streets of the city-state even as it illuminated the brilliant, rainbow-hued ziggurat at the heart of the Free City. Ushas gestured for them to sit even as a servant brought a pitcher of chilled wine. “We have a problem,” she said without preamble. “The lore you recovered from Kalak's hidden library is remarkably complete...and somewhat disturbing. The transformation the sorcerer-kings are undergoing is, at its heart, defiling magic on a grand scale. Their change into a dragon does not draw upon the power locked within plants and living soil. No, this change can only be fueled by draining the life-force from other beings.”

She shook her head and continued. “But that is not the problem I mean. The transformation is as much a function of the Way, of psionic enchantment, as it is of arcane ritual. The sorcerer-kings are not just defilers but powerful practitioners of the Way, and such a change requires mastery of various psionic disciplines. I have come to the conclusion that my transformation will be similar, but will draw upon primal magic to fuel it rather than the life-force of others. What I cannot replicate is the psionic mastery needed.”

The sun was setting over Tyr.

She stood and turned to watch the sun set. “That may not prove as much of a barrier as we thought. When Kalak and the rest of his ilk began the process of changing, they had assistance in the form of an outside boost that enhanced their power and mastery of the Way. A unique psionic artifact called the Annulus was used to make the necessary psychic adjustments to enable their change. They found it in a city called Saragar, far to the north, by the shores of a great sea of water.”

Ushas turned to the heroes. “Saragar still exists. I heard tales while I stayed in the village of Freedom of ssurran merchants and traders who venture there. Some say that these are only stories and that no such place exists. Others swear they have seen items of metal and obsidian brought back from some place far beyond the known city-states. Through communion with the spirits of the natural world, I have determined Saragar is real. I would like you to accompany me to the north, to find this place, and use the Annulus that Kalak described so that I and those who follow in my footsteps can complete our change. Someday others will undergo this change as well, and what we learn will be of great benefit to them. With this knowledge I believe that one day we will see a force rise to equal the might of the sorcerer-kings, a force devoted to life and the preservation of the world rather than its defilement and subjugation. This must be accomplished soon. Nibenay is now the Child of Dark, and even now his plans are unfolding. Will you help me in this?”

Without hesitation, the heroes agreed. “I think anything is possible.” she said. “Even if the city no longer exists, the artifact should be there. You alone have the skill, the determination, and the ability to recover it, no matter what the truth of Saragar may be.” Come the dawn they would leave and begin the long journey to the north. But the night was far from over. As Chuka-Tet sat in the villa's courtyard meditating, the slightest of sounds – a cry cut short and the rasp of a blade – alerted him to the presence of danger. Springing up over the balcony and into the hall of the villa he saw a pair of strange humanoids near the entrance to the room where Ushas was staying. They were clad in long, black robes and their smooth, dark skin was stretched tight over their skulls. Each was bald and sported a rictus grin. Even more disturbing was the fact that they were completely eyeless. A ripple in the nearby indicated they were not alone. Chuka-Tet's cry of alarm roused the rest of the heroes, and all heared a familiar voice whispering in their minds. It wasToranda. “Fools...did you think my master would allow the Child of Light to live? Join us or join her in death.”

The heroes fought against the shadowy assassins and their confederate, a large centaur-like humanoid composed of rippling shadows that seemed to distort time around it. Though the gloom-shrouded assassins dashed in and out with blades of pure darkness, striking time and again, Gurthmore's axe and Chuka-Tet's staff kept them off balance as Sark blasted them with radiant lightning. Arshaka's words and songs kept the heroes on their feet even as the shadowy, immaterial humanoid froze them in time with icy rays. The mul barbarian's axe and the orc wizard's spells tore at its shadowy form, wounding it grievously. The creature vanished as space and time rippled around it, and the assassins followed after. But the damage had been done.

The shadowy assassins were sent by Nibenay, of course.

Rushing to her room, the heroes found Ushas lying on the floor of her bedchamber. The sorceress's skin was pale and clammy, and her eyes appeared to be clouding over with darkness. “The poison they is too strong. I will not survive long...unless...” She looked at them with feverish hope. “Find the Annulus! Bring it to me before the moons once again show these faces, and I may yet be saved.” She pointed out the window to the faces of the moons Ral and Guthay. Ral was full and green, while Guthay presented only half its amber light to the world below. Ushas began to glow with a weak radiance and rose into the air, her appearance blurring and changing as she assumed her true form. Her limbs became wings, like those of a butterfly, while her features elongated and became smooth. Her eyes became large and opalescent. “I can preserve my life, but only for a time. My transformation must be completed before another cycle of the moons passes. You must hurry, or all hope will be lost.” With that, the Child of Light's wings wrapped around her, forming a cocoon that slowly descended to the floor below.

There was no time to waste. With aid from Agis and Sadira – who promised to keep Ushas safe – the heroes departed Tyr with the dawn and arrived at Fort Iron just before sunset. Gurthmore readied his horde to leave and by the light of the next morning they were on the road to Urik. Not more than three days later they came within sight of the walls of the city-state. Wisely leaving his men out of sight and well away from the walls, Gurthmore, Arshaka, and Sark made their way towards Urik disguised as traveling merchants. Chuka-Tet was ahead of them, his primal magic masking his features. Passing through the Obsidian Gate and by the twin statues of the city's sorcerer-king, Hamanu, he found the city-state's Foreign Quarter. The ssurran merchants Ushas mentioned proved remarkably easy to find.

The caravansary in Urik was busy despite the early hour.

He spotted a small group of reptilian humanoids with sand-colored scales milling about in the yard of the nameless caravansary. They wore loose robes and had scarves tied around the long, horn-like crests that jutted back from their heads, possibly more out of convention than actual need for protection. A few of the ssurran merchants were loading a pack inix here, a few more were securing a wagon there, and a pair of them were supervising the whole scene. Oddly, they seemed to be taking their time and paying a great deal of attention to the comings and goings of the other travelers and merchants in the caravan yard, as if looking for something. Taking note of the heroes approach the taller of the pair turned and said, “Are you perhaps headed north? We are looking for drovers and guards, and no one here seems to be interested. While the journey will be long there are riches to be had. I am Hassh'nek and this is my second, Sess'kala. What do you say? Are you brave enough to venture beyond the city-states?”

Disposing with any pretense, the heroes told the ssurran merchant of their quest to find Saragar. The wily merchant nodded and said, “Yes, there are places far beyond the city-states. That is a place we venture to, though the journey is long and treacherous. Word has reached us that many caravans have disappeared, either slain by raiders or vanishing in the wastes. I hope you have many men to protect us.” Gurthmore revealed his identity, and the wide-eyed merchant made ready to depart the City of Lions with all due haste.

Crossing the desert and the badlands north of Urik with the mul's horde of former bandits, freed slaves, and mercenary nomads proved a challenge. The heroes aided them tirelessly, resting little over the next few days. Chuka-Tet scouted close by, while Rokkon ranged far and wide. Gurthmore moved among his men, helping move stubborn beasts and push wagons over challenging terrain. Sark flew on the winds, on the lookout for threats, while Arshaka helped lighten spirits and resolve disputes among the mul's barbaric followers. A column of dust on the horizon a few days out from the City of Lions indicated that they were not alone. Fearing attack in the night, they set camp early and prepared their defenses. Shortly after the sun went down, the camp came under attack.

Savage howls split the night and shouts of alarm could be heard all over the camp. Emerging from their tents and wagons, the heroes saw a horde of gnolls charge down a shallow rise to the west. A huge figure borne on a litter crafted from bones and hides borne by a dozen cackling gnolls was at the head of the savage raiders. A monstrous voice bellowed, “Blood and slaughter await! Feast on their flesh! Slake your thirst on their blood! Death to all!” Rising from its primitive conveyance, an ape-like figure with stunted wings, massive tusks, and piggish features threw its head back and roared as dark purple lightning danced and crackled across its claws.

A horrid nalfeshnee demon led the gnoll horde.

Gurthmore wasted no time and charged the beast with his axe high, shouting to his men as he did. Three massive blows staggered the demon, driving it back, but it did not die. A savage backhand knocked the mul gladiator prone and the huge demon tore at him with its claws and blasted him with black lightning. Arshaka, Chuka-Tet, and Sark held off the advancing gnolls, allowing the men at their backs to rally. Gurthmnore rose with fury in his eyes, and dispatched the demon with aid from Sark's magic. The demonic shaman leading the gnolls fled as the savage humanoids' morale broke. A terrible toll of death had been dealt to the feral creatures, and Gurthmore lost only a few dozen men out of his nearly two-thousand-strong horde in the process. Cleaning up the carnage in the wake of the battle, they managed to recover several huge wagons pulled by mekillots, supplies, metal goods and weapons, and other valuables looted from caravans in recent weeks. By morning, the horde was on the march north once more.

Two more days passed, and as Chuka-Tet tended to the injured, the footsore, and those suffering from sun-sickness, Gurthmore went among the men and kept them in line with an iron hand. Flush as they were with victory, he wanted the men sharp, not indulging in their spoils as they would have in the days when they were mere bandits. Arshaka remained among the men, encouraging good spirits and mediating what disputes arose over the sharing of loot. Rokkon remained far ahead, scouting trails, as Sark scanned the horizon. He could sense a great disruption ahead, as if swaths of defiled land lay ahead. He did not know what could cause desolation on such a scale, but he knew that it had driven bands of humanoids south to seek release and sustenance. They would likely find more, not less, roving bands in the very near future.

The orc wizard's assumption proved prophetic. As the horde marched up a narrow gorge that was once the bed of a mighty river in a past age, a screaming horde of tareks fell upon them. War cries could be heard from all around them as the heroes took point in the narrow, rocky gorge. The horde of tareks charged forward, sliding down the steep, gravel-strewn slope. A cacophony of growls and snarls and a roaring bellow reveaedl a greater threat. A huge humanoid with an armored carapace carrying a great, stone maul lead a pair of lean, vicious reptiles on rawhide leashes. It lumbered past the shattered remains of a bridge that once spanned this now-dry waterway. It was a braxat! The huge humanoid let the leash go, and the pair of slavering dagorrans growled and charged, vanishing from sight as they ran.

This is a braxat. Are we afraid yet?

But Gurthmore was faster, and met the creature after hal-climbing, half-leaping up the rocky slope. He sent it tumbling down the slope with a mighty blow from his axe, no doubt knocking the now-invisible dagorrans prone in a shower of rock and debris. Sark and Chuka-Tet blasted the onrushing tareks with freezing winds, befuddled them with illusions, and sent many to their deaths. Arshaka called upon the magic of his music, rallying the men and beating back the horde. Gurthmore went toe-to-toe with the braxat, trading mighty blows. The creature seemed unimpressed, and slammed the mul to the dirt time and again. It even picked him up and swung him at Sark twice, sending the orc wizard sprawling as the huge barbarian slammed into him. The wizard unleashed a terrible spell, disintegrating the braxat in part, and the mul finished it off with an axe-blow that clove its skull. The dagorrans were subdued. It looked like Gurthmore would have new hunting hounds! And the tareks were routed at last. Despite the loss of nearly a hundred men, the horde had stood strong. They recovered a great deal of loot, including many wagons and slaves. The slaves were freed, and apart from a dozen or so who decided to their chances in the desert, the rest joined the horde as warriors or camp followers.

Victory had been theirs again. The horde pressed on, full of hope and confidence. How that would have changed if they knew the horror that awaited them....
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It is good to be back!
"The Gannon clan needs more supplies. They have few warriors following their release from slither.

My axe burys deep into the glabrezu leaving a wide opening for Gurthmore, "Hit the damn thing you daft mul! If you don't hurry up, I'll let him kill you!" best friend I ever had.

The glabrezu is dead, or in some tormented hell I don't understand; not my problem. Gods! It is good to be back! I have duties to my people, but Gabbro can handle things in my absence. I feel alive here. I feel alive.

"Can someone get this claw out of my shoulder? Hey, Arshaka, what did you do to that demon? Thing just ran into my axes!"
Session: Game Session - Saturday, Jul 13 2013 from 3:00 PM to 8:00 PM
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Journey to the Last Sea Part 1: Secrets of the King
Months had passed since our heroes had returned from the Lands Within the Winds. Gurthmore had led his horde of followers through the Tablelands, sacking client villages of the various sorcerer-kings, sparing those who sought mercy. Slaves that he freed were offered the choice to leave or take up arms and fight as part of his horde, and many chose to take up arms. Arshaka had joined him, becoming a voice of reason and sound advice to the barbarian warlord, even as he explored the depths of his hidden memories. Sark had traveled to the Valley of Shemmeth with Ushas and Khossus, furthering his transformation into an avangion. Rokkon Stonedarr had helped his people re-settle in the mountains near Tyr. Chuka-Tet had established an oasis off the main roads between Tyr and the city-states to the east. The druid was slowly becoming one with the land in body, as well as spirit, it seemed. Jin had remained in the Lands Within the Wind, consolidating his kingdom and working to restore balance to at least one world.

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

Tyr was a welcome sight after these many months.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The harpies were ugly, man. Real ugly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new Summer Queen did not have time to mourn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Something for the Group
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Epic × 2!
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