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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 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 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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Tags: Boss Battle , Recap
Journey to the Last Sea Part 3: The Stuff of Nightmares
The entire area had become increasingly desolate, and as the heroes continued north, the plants they came across were stunted and dying. Strange shapes were evident in some of the rocks and the air was either eerily still or carried a foul breeze and the sounds of far-off moaning or wailing. After a day on the march, they set camp in a sandy wash near the center of the badlands. A few hours after sunset, a couple of scouts returned with news of the abandoned wagon. They said that they had heard faint cries for help from within. Two of their number went to investigate while the others chose to return to camp and inform Gurthmore. Worried about what the scouts had found, the heroes mounted up on kanks and rode out into the night, with Stonedarr taking the lead.

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

The heroes rode out into the badlands shortly after dark.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a flash of lightning, the nightmare beast appeared!

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

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

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

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

It was all ice and fur and teeth!

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

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

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

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

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

Hope had been restored to the Lands Within the Wind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A veritable slaughter ensued. Horned fiends fell, bursting into a shower of acidic gore as they died. The creature on the ledge spat poison from its tail as its very gaze warped and twisted Stonedarr, then Sark, into tiny animals. They fought off the enchantment as Gurthmore and Rokkon both charged the titan. It slammed them with its massive fists, tore at them with horns and fangs, and unleashed a wave of pure rage that tore at their minds. It rebounded their attacks, nearly slaying the half-giant ranger with the damage done by a stroke of his own axe. But the heroes prevailed. Chuka-Tet's primal magic restored them as Arshaka sang a song of victory. His words inspired Gurthmore to bury his axe in the titan's side as Stonedarr's twin blades gutted it, leaving it to bellow and sway, before it fell as its intestines slithered out on to the floor. Jin finished the strange beast, and Sark recovered the shining crystal, the Shard of the Sun. The well beneath had contained a vortex of elemental power that now changed, becoming a gate back to the Lands Within the Wind. Jumping down the well, the heroes found themselves in a forest glade as snow began to fall...
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Fortress of Bones Part 13: The Dark Lady
A voice from the hall and the sound of armored feet interrupted the heroes' immediate plan. “Kathrik! What has happened here? Where is my Aunt Xerena?” A dark-haired young nobleman with an aquiline nose who was clad in fine silks with a steel saber at his side was there, along with a bald man in robes clutching an obsidian orb. A pair of thuggish half-giants and two of the house guards accompanied them. “You!” He laughed. “The very ones my aunt was after! The ones who killed my brother Dahak in the desert! I am Abaddon of House Haxtes and I will deliver your carcasses to Aunt Xerena!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were alive. One enemy was dead. But now a far worse one had risen in her place...
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Fortress of Bones Part 11: Champions of Nibenay
In the steely, pre-dawn light the heroes were awoken by a familiar figure – Jin, returned from his sojurn to the Lands Within the Wind. “Enjoying a late snooze, I take it? Come, we have work to do, tyrants to overthrow, and a world to save!” With that the rest rose for the day and quickly shared what had transpired. With their plan of action set the heroes made their way to Nibenay's arena, forgoing any disguises. Though the sun was just creeping over the horizon as they arrived, the heroes saw that many of the city-state's citizens were already jostling for entry to the arena.

“Many more will attend the games during the course of the day,” Gurthmore said, “those arriving now – trusted house slaves and the poor – will generally be pushed out of the arena by mid-afternoon as merchants and the like arrive. Entry to the games is always free during the big festivals, though merchants, nobles, and the like can pay for seats on the lower levels, closer to the action. We should not have that problem.” He pushed his way through the line, stopping to offer a brief intimidating comment here and there. “Ever try and get blood off an axe?” He asked a large fellow standing in his way. The fellow quickly moved.

Guards stood near the upper entrance to the arena, shepherding the mob to their seats. The arena itself was a massive pit, more than a hundred feet deep, excavated from the bedrock beneath the city. Terraced ledges were cut into its sides, though the lowest levels were reserved for the nobility of Nibenay alone. One of the guards spoke in a bored tone as the heroes approached, no doubt repeating his words for the hundredth time. “Make your way in an orderly fashion. Seats are free for all.”

“What about for competitors?” Gurthmore asked brusquely, towering over the startled guard.

“Uh, the competitors have already been decided. The noble houses and merchants have paid to have their stables fight. Even some big names from other city-states have arrived. I'm afraid there's no...” he stopped as another, wide-eyed guard grabbed his shoulder and whispered in his ear after forcing his way over through the mob. The first guard's eyes went wide as well. “Ah, just a moment.” He ran off, and returned no more than a moment later with one of Nibenay's templars. The woman cast a shrewd eye on the large mul, and nodded.

“That is Gurthmore the Executioner, fool!” She snapped. “He is an arena champion. He and his team are welcome to compete in the games. Escort them to the entrance for gladiators.” The guard complied, and though the heroes were suspicious at the ease of their entrance, they followed.

“No doubt the Shadow King expected our arrival,” Arshaka whispered to the rest in their minds. “This could be a trap. Or perhaps an opportunity. I will separate myself from you and hide in the crowd. If the time comes, I will provide you with a way out.” With that his image wavered and changed, and he appeared to be no more than another merchant making his way to his seat for the spectacle. The rest were led to the readying chambers in the labyrinth beneath the arena after descending a long series of stairs. They were introduced to a stocky, one-eyed, white-haired human slave named Zanto. Gurthmore could tell that he had been a gladiator in his day, and allowed the gruff old man to help them get ready.

As Gurthmore had been named as a champion before, he and his so-named team were seeded higher in the matches and would not fight until the afternoon. Jin took the time to scout the arena, speaking with the slaves and attendants working to prepare the matches. He learned they would be facing a team from Raam to the north, a tiefling gladiator of some renown and his hand-picked team. An exhibition match against a pair of two-headed giants would follow, then perhaps another match against a seasoned team from Nibenay...provided they survived their exhibition match, of course. The winner would go on to face Abaraxas, said to be the greatest champion in Nibenay's history, brought back out of retirement by the Shadow King himself. Gurthmore had made his way through the barracks as well, talking with the gladiators who survived the opening matches, learning more about who they would face. He also saw the giants being led into the arena by a mysterious gith clad in hooded robes, and heard tell of a three-headed beast the other team would face, one with the heads of a kirre, a drake, and a goat. Stonedarr attempted to learn the layout of the arena in order to prepare for a hasty exit later on, only to become lost. The others managed to find him in time for their first match however, and soon found themselves headed into the arena.

The roar of the crowd echoed off the stone walls of the great pit that formed Nibenay's arena, drowning out the sounds of the city beyond. The cloying scents of blood and sweat hung heavy in the hot air. As they stepped out on to the sand of the arena floor the heat of the sun pounded down on them like a hammer. The crowd roared again as the doors on the far side of the arena opened. A team of tiefling gladiators clad in the armor and linen kilts of Raam, armed with wicked-looking khopeshes, and flanked by a par of enormous slate-colored hounds with large, pointed ears and eyes blazing with fire entered and moved towards the center of the arena.

As the heroes moved forward, a group of slaves carried out large ceramic jars, spilling a thick trail of salt behind them, forming a crude ring at the center of the arena floor. Salt landed on one slave's arm and he screamed, his flesh searing, and one of the others quickly grabbed him and dragged him off to the tunnels below. The rest carefully placed the large jars, leaving the heroes and the other combatants in the center of the ring. Djena, High Consort of the Temple of the King's Law and mistress of the games, stepped out on to the balcony of the king's box and spoke. “Let this next match between these brave souls and the cursed warriors led by the diabolic Volkanth of Raam begin!” The crowd roared again, hungry for blood.

A fierce contest followed. The tiefling gladiators danced around the ring to the command of their leader, Volkanth, champion of Raam. The great hounds tore at the heroes with slavering jaws and spat flames, and the champion himself blasted them with fire and shadow as he slashed away with his double-bladed obsidian sword. But in the end they proved little match for the companions. Gurthmore and Rokkon tore into them with their axes as Jin vanished and appeared seemingly at will, stabbing exposed backs and flanks with his icy blade. Sark moved around the ring, blasting his enemies with fire and lightning. Chuka-Tet stood in the center, his staff a whirling implement of destruction. The last of the tieflings was disarmed and he fell to his knees, asking for quarter. After a glance at the crowd and the nod of the High Consort, Gurthmore offered none and struck the devil's head off with one blow of his axe.

The heroes were escorted from the ring back to the chambers below the arena to rest while the next match got underway. A slave arrived shortly after the match, carrying a small box. “Compliments of my master, Giovvo of House Shom. He won a considerable sum betting on you, and would like to give you these. He also offer ten thousand coins worth of credit at his emporium in the Sages' District.” There were two fruits in the polished hardwood box, and Chuka-Tet realized they were enchanted with healing magic. Before long though, they were ready to head back into battle.

Cheers greeted them as they stepped out on to the arena floor. On the far side they could see a pair of two-headed giants with leathery gray skin armed with spiked clubs lumber forth. A single gith clad in a leather harness moved behind them, as if the giants were on an invisible leash. Disturbingly, the gith had a second, vestigial head sprouting from his neck and his gait indicated his limbs are malformed. The heroes noticed that a pair of thirty foot deep pits had opened in the arena floor. Djena, the High Consort in charge of the games, spoke again. “And now, for the pleasure of his majesty, the Shadow King, an exhibition. Should this group of gladiators prove victorious where the blood of others has stained the sands, they will go on to face the greatest champion in Nibenay's history – Abraxas!”

Battle was joined and the heroes charged the monstrous, two-headed giants with axe, staff, and icy blade in hand. The mutant gith stood firm as the ettins stumbled about, bashing at the heroes with their spiked clubs. More pits opened as the match progressed, dropping in a sudden rush of sand. The heroes nimbly avoided them, though Chuka-Tet took a mighty blow from one ettin and was knocked head-over-forelimbs into one of the pits. He staggered to his feet however, and quickly rejoined the battle after Jin used the bond they shared to rouse him. Though the gith blasted at their minds Jin used a lost treasure they had found, a tiny black bead that exploded into a globe of force, to imprison him for a moment. The gith blasted the sphere apart, only to find himself surrounded. Though he lashed their minds, the gith quickly fell to their massed blades. The ettins were felled as well, for despite their size and strength, they proved no match for the faster gladiators. With the match finished, the heroes were allowed to rest. They quickly found out their competition did not survive their match against the three-headed beast, and that they would face the champion of all champions for the greatest of prizes – a favor from Nibenay himself.

The very walls of the arena shook with the thundering roar of the crowd. As they stepped out onto the arena floor they saw all of the spectators save the Shadow King himself were on their feet. High Consort Djena stepped forward on the balcony of her liege's box once more, her voice audible even over the shouts of the mob. “This is the final match of the Festival of the New Moons! Here we have brave heroes, champions one and all, ready to stand and face the greatest warrior ever to set foot in the arena of Nibenay! Abraxas, the breaker of wills! The winner receives the largess of the Shadow King himself! Let the match begin!” The doors on the far side of the arena opened and a powerfully-built man clad in armor crafted from the shell of a braxat emerged. The gladiator carried a steel sword in one hand and a whip studded with shards of obsidian in the other. He drove a small mob of feral humanoids on rawhide leashes ahead of him with his whip. His helm hid his face but his eyes blazed with controlled fury. Gurthmore had learned that he did not slay all his foes, but rather chose to break their minds, turning them into savage beasts in human form driven forward by his will alone.

“Gurthmore Spikefist,” he growled at the mul barbarian, “I have heard of you. I will take pleasure in making you no more than a beast.”

“Just try,” Gurthmore countered. “My axe says otherwise!” With a roar, the battle began. Rokkon danced around the frenzied, broken thralls of the gladiator, knocking one prone, before engaging Abraxas. He took a slash across the face from an obsidian-edged whip, but his axes struck home and drove the champion back. Gurthmore was right behind him, but Abraxas had already slashed at the goliath ranger and driven him back into a nasty surprise. A stone post covered with whirling obsidian blades had sprung up near one column, and Rokkon had stumbled into it. He unleashed a barrage of mental bolts that nearly blistered the air, staggering the thri-kreen druid and the orc wizard. Jin vanished and appeared near the champion, but the gladiator moved as if he could see the pale-skinned warlock, dodging his thrust handily. Chuka-Tet stayed back, composing his wits, as Sark blasted Abraxas and his thralls with ice and flame. The battle became a game of slash and parry, thrust and dodge, whip-crack and axe-blow as Abraxas and the axe wielding barbarian and ranger maneuvered around the arena floor. Jin and Chuka-Tet put his thralls down, mercifully, until at last Abraxas stood alone. Despite their wounds, the mul and the half-giant rallied, driving him back against the arena wall, until at last Stonedarr finished him with a flurry of slashes. Abraxas laughed as the last took his head. It was over. They had won.

Dusk had fallen and the heroes were escorted back to the torch-lit arena floor by several of Nibenay's janissaries. The Shadow King rose from his onyx-inlaid, throne-like chair and strode majestically to the balcony overlooking the arena. He was as tall as a half-giant and the oiled ringlets of his beard and hair cascaded over the night-black silks he wore. His eyes were pools of shadow and the black diamonds on his tall crown glittered coldly under the torchlight. His voice was at once a sibilant whisper and a bass roar. “You stand triumphant. Ral and Guthay have hidden their faces in awe of your prowess. The world lies in shadow. Champions, name your boon.”

Gurthmore rose his axe and spoke. “I want to strike the head from the traitor, Callides, with my axe! I am loyal to Nibenay, and would see his head roll!” Smiling coldly, the sorcerer-king assented. A stone platform rose from the arena floor via hidden mechanisms, and slaves brought out a set of wooden stairs. A small group of janissaries escorted Callides to the execution platform, and one of Nibenay's shadow brides walked behind, flanked by a pair of armored half-giants carrying obsidian bladed halberds. Callides was forced to his knees, and Gurthmore stood over him, axe at the ready.

“I regret nothing,” Callides spat, “except for freeing you from your chains in the arena, mul! Let us finish this!”

Gurthmore laughed as he hefted his axe – and swung it full into Nibenay's templar, driving her back into her half-giant guards with a horrid gash in her side. Chuka-Tet conjured a wind that swept Callides off the platform and into his arms. “Any regrets now?” Gurthmore asked, laughing as carnage ensued. The rest of the heroes were ready, and blades struck home as Sark rained ice down on the steps, slowing the soldiers of the Shadow King.

The templar cast a spell that attempted to imprison them in her shadow, but the wound had thrown off her concentration. Jin appeared next to her and plunged his icy blade through her heart. He yelled “First Tyr, now Nibenay! Down with the tyrant! Down with the Shadow King!” Driving their foes back, the heroes dashed into the entrance to the labyrinth tunnels beneath the arena. Arrows rained down from the stands, and the janissaries gave chase. The heroes would either find a way out or perish, there was no going back now...
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Fortress of Bones Part 8: The Fall of Slither
Battle was joined, and Gurthmore and Stonedarr charged headlong at the Skull and his demonic servants, axes at the ready. Arshaka, Chuka-Tet, Khossus, and Jin followed, and the lich and the two snake demons, or mariliths, were soon surrounded. Only Sark remained back, using his witchcraft to hex Yarnath and his servants. Khossus and Gurthmore soon had Yarnath cornered near his throne, while Jin, Chuka-Tet, and Rokkon battled the two demons. Rokkon's twin axes dismembered and decapitated one marilith even as he deftly avoided and parried its lightning-fast blades. The other moved around the throne room, slashing away, though Arshaka's protective wards turned many of its blows aside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the wake of the battle, the heroes aided Tyr's soldiers in hunting down the raiders that escaped. Many surrendered upon seeing Gurthmore, the lich's skull still impaled on the spike of his iron axe, and swore to follow the mul barbarian through the gates of the Abyss rather than risk his wrath. Stonedarr saw to his people, ensuring they would be safe in the mountains to the north of Tyr. Arshaka contemplated the visions he had seen, and began to understand that his role in events to come was far greater than he had imagined. Sark sought the tutelage of Ushas, and began to unlock the radiant power that now burned in his veins. His magic no longer stripped the land of its life, but instead replenished it even as he began to transform. Jin was there and not there, as if he had stepped between worlds. And Khossus and Ushas opted to head west, back to the Valley of Shemmeth. “It needs a leader, one who will protect them from the sorcerer-kings!” After a few days enjoying the hospitality of King Tithian – and being warned by Sadira and the other champions of Tyr that the king kept his friends close but his enemies closer – the heroes opted to leave Tyr. The lady of House Haxtes still lived. They would have to change that...
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Epic × 2!
Fortress of Bones Part 7: Yarnath the Skull
Arshaka, Chuka-Tet, Khossus, and Rokkon still battled their way to the top of the colossal construct as Jin and Gurthmore fought off a wave of undead attackers high atop Slither. The elves, gnolls, and tareks protecting the Crawling Citadel howled for blood and launched volleys of arrows and spears at the heroes. But they had help from an unexpected quarter as Sark flew down from the sky, raining frost and shadow down on the Skull's raiders. Though wounded by a gnoll's spear that pinned his leg to the bone fortress, Chuka-Tet waved the rest on, allowing Khossus and Arshaka to reach the platform atop the Crawling Citadel. Two figures bounded out of the fortress's huge eye-sockets, gaunt, horned demons with slick, black skin and claws dripping reddish ooze, and they charged the heroes. As Chuka-Tet and Khossus knocked one off to the sands sixty feet below, Rokkon held off another with broad slashes from his axe. Darok, the death knight servant of the Skull, strode into the melee atop the fortress and hacked madly with his axe before blasting the heroes with dark flames. “You hacked off my arm and left me to die! Now all of you will die as I hack you to pieces!” He roared madly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The final confrontation with Yarnath had begun.
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Valley of Nightmares: Epilogue & Fortress of Bones: Prologue
As the heroes exited the Blue Shrine they quickly realized that they were no longer alone. A rough but handsome man wielding a steel broadsword stood atop a nearby rise. His muscular frame was crisscrossed by a number of scars that were evident despite his scale harness. Despite the brutish cruelty of his leering smile, his eyes revealed a cunning mind. They recognized him right away – it was Dahak of House Haxtes! A number of armored men stood in formation around the entrance to the shrine and all of them could see a tarek armed with a bone bow and a human clutching an obsidian rod on the short bluff next to Dahak. A huge humanoid with an armored carapace, a braxat, stood below, a massive stone maul clutched in one of its monstrous fists.

“Ha! I was right to believe you would find this place eventually. The trail grew cold after Celik and I thought you lost for a time. But my faith in your strength and cunning has been rewarded. It looks as if you have found the last part of that crown that my aunt Xerena wants. I will make you this offer: give me the crown, throw down your weapons, and let me drag you back to Nibenay in shackles. You may just live if you do so. Either that or we will engage in battle, and once again I will win. But this time I will have your heads.” He bared his teeth in a wolfish smile and said, “I hope you will choose to fight.”

“You'll get the fight you want,” Gurthmore snarled as he raised his axe. But Khossus was faster and the armored human warrior charged straight at the braxat, driving his sword and shield home and knocking the brute off its feet. Chuka-Tet and Jin moved to engage a number of armed warriors circling the group's flank, even as the tarek scout ran off, wanting no part of this battle. Arshaka moved forward, a dirge sounding from his obsidian form as Sark levied chilling shadows against the remaining soldiers of House Haxtes. Gurthmore charged across the sands and buried his axe in the braxat's shoulder, but the monstrous humanoid rose to its feet. It sprayed a gout of acid even as it swung at the mul gladiator with its huge maul and grabbed Khossus in one meaty fist. The beast swung Khossus like an improvised club, bashing Gurthmore as he evaded its crushing hammer. Dahak moved in behind them and a well-placed kick caused Gurthmore to double over as he slashed at both gladiators with his steel blade. The warlock stood back to blast fire and curses at Khossus and Arshaka, though both seemed to shrug off his power even as the plants around him withered and crumbled to ash.

A duel to match any spectacle in the gladiatorial arenas of the city-states followed. Arshaka and Sark smote all the remaining soldiers of House Haxtes as Gurthmore and Khossus slashed away at the monstrous braxat. The creature fought back but stumbled at the force of their blows. It unleashed its terrible psychic strength in withering blasts, but in the end it proved no match for their blades and at last fell. Arshaka's arcane music had the warlock dancing uncontrollably, placing him in range of Khossus's sword in a final, fatal performance. Sark used shadows and fear to slow and harass Dahak even as he slashed and bashed Gurthmore time and again. But the mul would not fall, and slowly the tide turned against the fierce nobleman. The three warriors traded blows, and Gurthmore and Khossus nearly fell to the Haxtes noble's blade, but in the end Khossus slashed Dahak from crotch to sternum. He choked and spat blood as he fell, his blade lashing out wildly. “It's a shame,” he croaked to Gurthmore, “that we'll never know if you could have taken me on your own.”

“I'll say hello to your aunt for you,” Gurthmore spat in return, “when I show her your head!” He brought his execution axe down, cleaving Dahak's head from his shoulders. Sark found an odd stone in the nobleman's possession, and realized it was a communications device. He activated its magic, and found himself facing the visage of Lady Xerena. She was, to say the least, furious. The stone burned and blackened as she learned the fate of her nephew. To add insult to injury, as they rested, the half-orc witch took the head of Dahak and shrank it to preserve the grisly thing. It became a leathery trophy that the mul gladiator Gurthmore carried close at hand from that point onward. After resting and gathering their loot and pack animals, the heroes left the Blue Shrine and headed east towards the ruined city of Celik. After no more than a week, they arrived at the rebuilt outer city run by House Mareneth. Much time and hard-won coin was spent at the taverns and pleasure-halls of Celik's outer quarter, but the heroes had earned a respite from their long quest. The Crown of the Sun was complete, and the future looked bright. For a time....

Nearly two weeks had passed, and the heroes began to plot their next move. As they debated, they spent much time in Celik's markets, seeking out news from the city-states to the east. Arshaka had purchased a well-crafted sand-skiff and had even gone so far as to enchant the craft, allowing it to shrink so that it could fit in the folds of his robe and grow again at a word's command. “We should ride in style, not trudge across the sand,” he said with a laugh.

A day later in the market, events caught up with the heroes. “Hello my friends!” A familiar voice called out over the din of the crowds bustling about in Celik's market. A lean, weathered half-elf with bright, blue eyes wearing the light, desert robes of a caravan master made his way towards the heroes through the throng of drovers and merchants, citizens, and slaves milling about the wagons, stalls, and doorways of the busy square. They all recognized him right away – it was Abradel, a caravan master sometimes in the employ of House Tauron, and a member of the Veiled Alliance.

“It has been far too long since last we met,” he said, his bright teeth flashing as a smile split his lined face. “You have friends in Nibenay who have been wondering where you were, and more importantly, when you would return to the City of Spires.” His voice lowered as the smile faded from his face. “Things have taken a dark turn in the Shadow King's city as of late. Old friends have been accused of treachery and conspiracy with the sorcerer-king's enemies, and of seeking to rebel against his lawful rule. Callides of House Tauron is the victim of these allegations, and should they be proven true he and his house will find that the Shadow King is not known for his mercy.” He cast a subtle glance over the market square before continuing.

“House Haxtes has brought these allegations against House Tauron in open council.” He shook his head for a moment, then said “Forgive me. I forget you have been out of the city for a time. The Shadow King has begun meeting every month with the heads of the noble families and the merchant dynasties of Nibenay, to hear and address their concerns. It has created opportunities for the city's so-called upper classes to try and earn the Shadow King's favor...or to turn his ire against another. Some believe that it is all a ploy of the Shadow King's to keep his nobles in contention with each other, rather than seeking his downfall. It appears to have worked.”

He sighed and continued. “Regardless of the Shadow King's motives, Lady Xerena of House Haxtes has taken this opportunity to move against her rival. She claims to have evidence proving that Callides and his house support the Veiled Alliance. Now some of us know the truth,” he said with a wry, knowing smile, “but his lordship has taken scrupulous pains to appear loyal to the sorcerer-king. Whatever evidence she has is doubtless in her family's estate, as mere words would not be enough to prove Callides' guilt. Should this evidence reach the sorcerer-king's court in the next half a moon, Callides will doubtless be imprisoned until the Shadow King decides his fate, and the fate of House Tauron. Should that evidence disappear...” he smiled again. “So may the problem.”

But Abradel's smile faded again, just as fast. “But that is not the only problem facing our mutual friends right now. There are many who wear the veil stating that a shadow has fallen across the free city of Tyr, and that is the shadow of Slither, the crawling citadel. Villages and farms west of Altaruk have been burned and the inhabitants slaughtered or marched off to slavery...and worse. An attack on Tyr is imminent, and should the free city fall, many of the Veiled Alliance's plans for combating the tyranny of the sorcerer-kings will be laid low. While some wonder why Yarnath has made so bold a move, we know there is something in Tyr that the Skull seeks to possess above all other things – the Child of Light.”

He paused for a moment, letting the gravity of his words sink in, as he pulled a wineskin from his belt and took a long drink. “The necromancer's walking fortress will reach the free city in less than a month's time. He has gathered an army of savage humanoids and desert tribes, all of whom now bear the mark of the serpent-skull. Even if the master of Slither cannot hold Tyr, he will sack and burn the city, leaving it vulnerable to the armies of the sorcerer-kings. While Tyr has high walls and many defenders, they do not have the might of a sorcerer-king behind them. The Child of Light is in danger.”

Abradel lowered his head, and a resigned look crossed his face. “You are the only ones who can save Callides and the Child of Light. But only one can be saved, while the other is most likely doomed. But perhaps, if you are swift, you may yet save them both. You must decide who you will help first. Will you go to Nibenay, or will you journey to Tyr?”

“We should get to Tyr then,” Khossus said. “I want to see Xerena dead for what she's done, but this...this is too important to ignore.” The others agreed.

“Although Ushas is powerful, she is not invincible. The lord of Slither commands an army and can call up demons. Yarnath the Skull will hold the Child of Light prisoner while he tortures her and attempts to discover, or even steal, the source of her power. Then he will kill her. While Callides is a noble of the City of Spires, even he is not above the Shadow King's justice. If Lady Xerena's evidence even comes close to proving that his loyalties lie with the Veiled Alliance, he and his family will be executed and his house's properties divided among Nibenay's other noble houses. Doubtless most will go to House Haxtes. Ultimately it is not for me to decide. While Callides is a loyal member of the Veiled Alliance, and without House Tauron's support many of those who wear the veil will put at risk, Ushas provides all of Athas with hope of rebirth. The prophecies surrounding her are vague and ill-understood. Should we sacrifice the present for hope of a better future? The Veiled Alliance will accept whatever you decide.”

“How long do we have?” Gurthmore asked. “We might be able to save both.”

“In half a month's time, either Callides will be imprisoned and await death at the hands of the Shadow King's servants, or Ushas will be in the clutches of Yarnath the Skull and Tyr will be in flames. You may have time to save one, then the other, but the chances of success are....well, let us say that a man has a greater chance of walking from here to Nibenay without water first.” Abradel replied with a resigned look on his face. “I can tell you that those who wear the veil are not without resources, but they may have precious little aid to spare right now. Nemeia remains in Nibenay, though she has gone into hiding. We have a contact in Tyr as well, a half-elf woman named Sadira. She was among those who helped depose King Kalak, and can provide you with some help in dealing with the situation in the free city.” He looked around the marketplace and continued. “You are the greatest champions the Veiled Alliance can call upon. Those who wear the veil are not great in number, and they have to hide their presence lest the templars serving the sorcerer-kings find them, torture them, and slay them. You have been able to operate outside their reach, and have grown strong and wise. No others could stand against an army, as you did at Altaruk. Without you, all is lost.”

Having reached a consensus, the heroes prepared to leave Celik's market square. Before that could happen, the heroes saw an unusual sight – a troupe of traveling minstrels, dancers, and acrobats entering the bazaar. Four painted harlequins in gaudy costumes bounded and tumbled around and over the market's patrons and stalls as a pair of colorfully-dressed half-elf performers on stilts danced through the crowd. A costumed minstrel strolled through the bazaar behind them, strumming on his lute and singing a festive melody. Before the heroes could react, the street performers had surrounded the small, outdoor tavern where they and Abradel were seated. The minstrel's jaunty song quickly turned to a funeral dirge, and he stopped singing to say “Life's quick steps turn into a dance of death at the end. Someone has paid rather well for yours. Let us dance.” With that, they moved in and attacked.

A colorful battle followed in the middle of the market square. The stilt-dancers moved with surprising speed and power, and their long stilts swept through the heroes sweeping feet and bashing heads with incredible force. The harlequins tumbled and dodged, their poison blades biting deep. The minstrel's tunes warped and twisted the heroes' perceptions and wore away at their minds. They were deadly assassins, one and all, and the heroes were in trouble. But they did not surrender to death and fought back with all they had. Khossus was a whirling dervish to rival any tumbler, and his blade seemed to be everywhere at once. Gurthmore hewed about with his axe, sending his opponents staggering back under his hammering blows. Arshaka played a counter-tune that forced the assassins off their rhythm, his own poison blade striking home with equal facility. Sark used his charms and mastery of shadows to immobilize the nimble killers, leaving them vulnerable to his allies. In short order, the assassins were defeated. The two survivors ran off into the crowds, but the heroes knew they would not be back. With that, they cleared out from the market and got a night's rest. They would be pushing hard over the next few weeks to reach Tyr ahead of Yarnath's forces, with no guarantee that they would get there in time...
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Valley of Nightmares Part 12: The Nightmare Ends
The heroes pressed on, racing across the Valley of Shemmeth towards the circle of standing stones at its center. Only there could they bind and weaken the nightmare beast, allowing them to slay the vile creature, or die trying. As they moved further on towards the sacred site, the wind began to rise and the ground started to shake, as if the nightmare beast realized that the Crown of the Sun was drawing closer. It was as if the very land had turned against the heroes. While the heroes were descending a rocky slope, the tremors suddenly increased in frequency and magnitude as the ground shook and the stones buckled. A chasm formed in front of them. Wind and rock tore free from the surrounding earth, animating in a crude semblance of life. A pair of four-footed beasts with horns, hooves, and scales of stone emerged from the chasm, their breath clouding the air with toxic fumes. All bellowed with fury, and prepared to attack.

Two large, rough, semi-humanoid creatures of stone stomped into the fray, and one charged Jin only to meet his icy blade. A pair of whirlwinds tore up the ground, each vortex carrying stones aloft, stones they hurled at Khossus and Chuka-Tet. Stones which exploded. The two stone-scaled beasts breathed blasts of poisonous mist and the heroes felt their limbs stiffen and slow from the poison. “It can turn you to stone,” Chuka-Tet buzzed with alarm, “avoid the vapors!” But the two horned creatures were not finished, and each charged like an earthquake, running over the heroes and knocking them prone. The very ground turned against them as the quakes continued, causing the ground to pitch and heave.

But the heroes were not so easily beaten. Gurthmore hewed stone as easily as flesh, wounding one of the hoofed beasts and Chuka-Tet shattered it with his staff. Khossus and the thri-kreen druid hammered one of the stony humanoids as Arshaka caused it to dance madly over the edge of the chasm and fall. Though the creature climbed out, it proved no match for their blows. Sark flew above the battle, darkness and frost weakening stone and slowing or binding the raging elementals. Though he was knocked from the air once by a shower of rock and debris, he quickly took wing again. Jin vanished and reappeared, his icy blade cracking stone and felling one of the creatures in turn. Gurthmore leaped across the chasm, and a savage swipe of his axe blasted one of the whirlwinds apart. The other vanished into the earth, reappearing nearby, only to be swept into the chasm by Arshaka. The mul gladiator leaped the chasm again, dealing death to the other beast as it reeled from wounds inflicted by Khossus and Chuka-Tet.

Catching their breath, the heroes raced towards the sacred site that stood at the heart of the Valley of Shemmeth. The sky rage, the ground shook, and vile black ooze welled up from cracks in the earth. Dark clouds roiled overhead and lightning flashed across the ebon sky. The ring of stone monoliths at the center of the vale was there, and the heroes could see that four sacred circles outside the stones glowed with unearthly radiance. Howling spirits could be heard over the roar of the wind. A flash of lightning illuminated a huge figure on the bluff overlooking the ring of stones. It's bulk, armored hide, massive tusks and hellish, yellow eyes were unmistakable – the nightmare beast had arrived. Spirits, their features twisted by madness, descended from the sky and moved forward with malign intent. The heroes were surrounded.

The nightmare beast charged, spewing forth a globe of dark fire that exploded among the heroes, setting them alight. Purple-black lightning danced across its form and arced towards them, striking Khossus and Chuka-Tet. Gurthmore charged, his axe biting deep into the creature's shoulder. Jin and Khossus moved to the circles of earth and twilight, chanting the ritual revealed to them by the Crown of the Sun as they drew the fortune stones marked with the matching symbols. The beast roared in agony as symbols burned into its hide, and it was weakened. Chuka-Tet blasted the spirits with a sweep of his staff as Jin and Sark turned their magic against them, finishing the rest. Arshaka tuned his charms against the nightmare beast as he ran to the circle of the spirit, and weakened the beast further. Sark landed in the circle of the storm, and the ritual was complete. The nightmare beast could be slain.

It was far from dead. It slashed with tusks and claws, bit with rending teeth, and blasted the heroes minds and bodies with ragged lightning and evil thoughts. Khossus and Gurthmore were horribly wounded and driven to the ground, though Arshaka's music and Chuka-Tet's primal invocations kept death at bay. The pale warlock's icy blade stabbed at the creature as the two gladiators rained ax-blow and sword-thrust on its armored hide. Sark and Arshaka hexed and enchanted the beast as Chuka-Tet and his scorpion jabbed and stung at the weak spots in its armored skin. The beast raged and Khossus fell again. Gurthmore leaped at it with a shout, his axe swinging once, then twice, and the nightmare beast was slain. A gout of black flame erupted from its corpse, dispelling the storm overhead as the sacred circles flashed with searing radiance. The earthquakes subsided. The sun returned as the darkness was dispelled. The nightmare was over.

Cleansed of the nightmare beast's evil, Chuka-Tet knew the Valley of Shemmeth would return to its natural state in a few, short days as the nature spirits of the place came to their senses. The mutations and warping caused by the nightmare beast's presence would fade as well, and in a few days all creatures affected by these changes would likely return to normal. The damage done by the creature's defiling magic, and the attacks by its unwitting servants, would remain however. While it would doubtless take the folk of the vale a lot of hard work to rebuild their destroyed farms and restore their defiled land, they were eager to put forth the effort as they knew that the beast would never return.

Returning to Esgul after the nightmare beast was vanquished, the heroes were given a joyful welcome by the grateful villagers. Belinna thanked them with tears in her eyes. “You have saved the Valley of Shemmeth and the people of Esgul,” she said with deep emotion in her voice. “You have a home here. You will never be forgotten.” She pulled Khossus aside and took him to the village's longhouse, where she revealed a stone recovered from the ruin long ago, an icon carved into the likeness of the ancient lord's eldest son. “Your blood lies here,” she said to the grim-faced gladiator. “We are your people. The castle is yours, this land is yours, and we are your people now. Though we have not been ruled for an age, we would gladly have you lead us.” At long last, Khossus had found his heritage and his path.

Two weeks passed as the heroes healed and helped the villagers recover their homes. Chuka-Tet walked the valley, noting where the damage had been done and healing the land where he could. Belinna had gifts for them, and presented them to the heroes at a feast the day before they planned to depart. Two suits of armor were made from its hide and bone. One was a suit of mail composed of bone plates and thick hide, and one was a suit of supple leather. Both allowed the wearer to slip into the edge of the Gray for a time. Khossus took the plate armor while Jin took the leather, and both promised to wear them with pride.

They departed the Valley of Shemmeth under the guidance of the Crown of the Sun and headed east towards the mysterious Blue Shrine. It will took the heroes nearly a week of travel across the Hinterlands to reach the area where the shrine was said to be located. The journey was uneventful despite the dust, heat, and wind. Coming over the top of the last of innumerable rises, the heroes saw the shrine standing on a mall promontory overlooking the dusty scrub plains. Its white, marble walls appeared completely untouched by the ravages of time and shined in the light of the crimson sun. Approaching the ancient structure, the heroes heard nothing but the quiet stir of the breeze through the dry grasses.

The great, golden doors to the Blue Shrine will swung open with a single touch, revealing a grand hall beyond. Upon entering the mysterious Blue Shrine the heat of the scrub plains beyond gave way. The air was cool and the shining, white marble floor and walls were pristine and appeared untouched by time. A large pool of crystal-clear water stood beneath a vaulted ceiling painted brilliant blue and set with an ornate, golden sun. An altar and a massive throne of marble wreathed in blue-gray smoke stood on the far side of the pool. Gold braziers to either side of the throne were lit, though the brilliant flames within seemed to produce no smoke. An obsidian mirror hung on the far wall, and as the Crown of the Sun crossed the threshold, it shattered.

The fragments whirled about in the air and took the shape of a man seemingly carved out of solid obsidian. The figure spoke.. “At last, the prophecy comes to pass. It was seen that one day the crown of the gods would return to their last shrine. Thus could they one day be born again.” He pointed and spoke directly to one of the heroes at that point; Arshaka. “So, you have returned, Arhat Shathan Kahn. Once we served the Champions of Rajaat, and recorded the glory of our masters' crusade. Born out of the ashes of the Dawn War, the mongrel races of the Green Age needed to be purged. A crusade to rival that of the primordials' war with the gods at the end of the Blue Age created a tide of blood that drowned the world and ushered in the Red Age. But where is your glory now? Have you abandoned the work of our masters? Though they have abandoned us as the gods abandoned this world, I have not forgotten the work we did in service of the first mage. Flee now and I will spare you.” Arshaka declined. The obsidian man on the throne gestured and the air churned, the water rose and the flames leaped from the brazier, forming armored warriors composed of the elements. “Then my masters will not allow this to pass! Their hated enemies were slain or cowered in the shadows of the Grey and faded to nothingness! I was the least among their heroes and so I vowed to wait. I became their memory...and their voice...and now I strike in their name!”

Archons, elemental soldiers composed of fire, lightning, air,, storms, and stone, rose to meet the heroes in battle. The tide surged in the pool as one composed of water rushed the heroes, striking at them all as they stood near the door with its bronze spear. One of flame surged forward, striking at Khossus as one of air flew in to blast the group with tearing winds. Gurthmore charged the figure on the throne, only to have his attack checked by a simple dagger-thrust that left him stunned and reeling. The obsidian man lashed out with punishing thoughts while the archons of storm and stone attacked. The heroes fought back however, and the archons fell one by one as their leader was shattered for the last time. Arshaka could hear the remnants of his thoughts and absorbed one of the fragments into his form. “I know carry his memories. This is much for me to absorb.” As the obsidian bard was quiet with contemplation Khossus, now bearer of the Crown of the Sun, sat atop the marble throne.

As the human warrior sat upon the smoking, marble stone, the Crown of the Sun flared to life and the blue-gray smoke parted, revealing visions of times long past. Images of warriors clad in shining armor led by what appeared at times to be a king in a resplendent crown, and at others a great, feathered serpent with radiant wings, battled mighty creatures of living fire, stone, water and wind. While the destructive nature of this war shook and ravaged the land, other parts of the world were pristine and verdant and the sky overhead was a brilliant blue. “Long ago,” the Crown intoned in a voice that echoed in the mind, “the gods and the primordials warred for all of creation. This war was fought at the end of the Blue Age of Athas, when the world was young.”
The image shifted and it was apparent that the world had changed. The world was now inhabited by the races of men, some of which were unfamiliar. While the land had healed it has also been permanently scarred by the war between the gods and the primordials. “A second age arose after the Dawn War. The gods had been banished from the Athas but belief in them had not faded. The races of men built shrines and temples to them and strengthened the gods with their worship. But the primordials had not forgotten their enemies. The defeat of the gods created a flaw in the world that allowed men to draw upon primal power without the blessing of the spirits. Arcane magic was came into being and the primordials taught it to those who would listen. The first user of magic was named Rajaat and his power came at great price. To fuel arcane magic life must wither and die. He gathered great champions and sought to purge the world of all races but the first. And with this the Red Age came to Athas and world burned and the worshipers of the gods fell during the Cleansing Wars.” Images of endless war flashed by as the land withered and died under the taint of defiling magic.

“But the gods foresaw their end. Ur, the god of the sun, created a crown that would one day be the key to his rebirth. At the twilight of the gods a prophecy was made that one day a Child of Light would be born. This child would bring about the return of the gods and restore hope and life to all of Athas. Through the power of the crown the Child of Light can open a gateway to the lost realm of the gods when the time is right. But there is another possibility. As with all things there must be balance. Not all of the gods were good and some embodied corruption, darkness, and hatred. So was born the Child of Dark. Should this child gain the power of the crown and claim the lost power of the gods, hopelessness and death shall across Athas forevermore. Nor will the primordials allow this to pass without struggle. Though they are no longer united and their struggles amongst each other threaten to tear the world apart, they would see Athas destroyed before the gods return.” The visions faded and the blue-gray smoke returned as the Crown ceased to glow. “You must return me to the Child of Light so that when she is ready the gate to the realm of the gods can be opened. What will you do?”“We should get the Crown of the Sun to Ushas as soon as possible,” Khossus decided. “We can't go back to Nibenay with it in hand. If Xerena really is the Child of Dark, it would be stupid of us to practically hand it over to her. We should get moving.” After a rest, the heroes prepared to depart the Blue Shrine. As they stepped out into the sun however, they realized that they are not alone. A group of armored men awaited them, accompanied by a huge humanoid with a thick carapace armed with a massive stone maul. A muscular, scarred man it armor waited there as well. The two gladiators recognized him right away – it was Dahak, of House Haxtes...
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Valley of Nightmares Part 11: Lord of the Land
Making their way into the lower levels of the haunted keep, the heroes found themselves moving through the living chambers of the lord's family. Gurthmore and Rokkon fell back, superstitious dread making them wary. “The dead have a way of rising again in place like this,” Gurthmore said hefting his axe. “I will make sure that none follow.” A long hall ran through the lower level and past several rooms, including a bath, bedchambers, a dining room, a library, a shrine to the lost gods, and the lord's opulent personal chambers. Muted voices could be heard coming from rooms that proved empty when checked. Phantoms could be seen walking down the hall, vanishing just as fast as they appeared. These restless spirits were not alone. As the heroes moved down the pillared hall, a sound like rushing flames reached their ears and an explosion of flame engulfed the hall behind them. Several diabolic forms stepped out of the flames. Half a dozen were hunched, scaled humanoids with serrated glaives, two were devilish women with horns and ruddy skin wielding burning two-handed swords, and one was an icy, insect-like horror wielding a long spear. Two enormous, coal-black hounds with fiery eyes stood by its side. The roiling flame behind them did not diminish, but rather seemed to surge forward as the devils moved. “The prey is here,” one of the infernal women mocked. “Then the hunt is on,” the other laughed with wicked abandon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Determined not to let the village fall, the heroes fought. Shadows raced ahead, one grasping Chuka-Tet, causing the thri-kreen druid to dance about like a puppet. The shadow giant pulled him into the darkness, and he disappeared from view. Sark fought shadow with shadow, checking the giant's advance as the shadowy ravens tore through the companions with their flashing claws and rending beaks. Khossus moved forward, his blade burning with the power of the Crown of the Sun, and he tore through the shadows like a juggernaut. Jin and Sark used cold and darkness to fight the shadow, sweeping the flock aside. Chuka-Tet clawed his way back out of the darkness, tearing free from the shadow clutching him in the process. Arshaka strode forward with purpose, his thunderous song blasting shadows apart. The shadowy giant fell at last, the shadows flitted off into the gloom, and the last of the ravens took to the air as the darkness rolled back from the village of Esgul. Belinna and her people came forward, torches in their hands and looks of relief on their faces. “The darkness is not gone,” she said, “only driven back for a moment. You must press on, end this nightmare before it is too late for all of us!” The heroes nodded as one, and prepared to head to the center of the Valley of Shemmeth to confront the nightmare beast for the last time...
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Valley of Nightmares Part 10: Halls of the Dead
Shouts echoed from the courtyard ahead, along with a monstrous bellow. A crashing sound followed, again and again, and as the heroes entered they saw what was making that sound. A group of warped dray, all seemingly infused with the elements of the desert, were directing a monstrous behemoth to bash down the doors to the main hall with its bony, mace-like tail. They shouted an incoherent challenge as they entered the courtyard and prepared to charge, their weapons raised. Rokkon and Arshaka fell back to cover the entry as more shouts came from behind. A brief skirmish followed as Gurthmore leaped into the fray, his axe biting deep into the behemoth's hide. Two of the dray took up positions on the castle's walls, their skin crackling with lightning like a desert storm as their bows rained down bolts of electricity on the party. Two other dray, their skin seemingly turning to stone, ran headlong into Chuka-Tet and Khossus, but the thri-kreen druid and the human gladiator stood firm against them. Another dray, sand falling from its hide as it moved, danced among the heroes as its glass-bladed scimitar slashed time and again. Jin was already moving however, and he vanished, reappearing near the storm-skinned dray, the pale-skinned warlock's icy blade taking a heavy toll. Sark soared up to the roof of the castle, raining darkness and cold down on the combatants. The battle was over swiftly, and the heroes stood triumphant over the corpses of their foes – or at least what was left of them. Some exploded with thunder and sparks of lightning as they died, while others became stone or swirling sand. But even their death-throes were not enough to stop the heroes.

After no more than a moment, the sounds of fighting near the gate had increased. “There are more,” Rokkon shouted from outside, “and they are getting past me! Kill them!” Though the goliath ranger and the obsidian bard had held the gate for a time, another band of warped dragonborn forced their way into the small courtyard. A cacophony of cries, shouts, and wails echoes from the entry passage and three more dray, two with salt-crusted scales and one with with crimson scales that seem to smolder, drove a throng of warped humanoids before them. One was nearly as large as a giant, while most of the others were no more than a shambling mass of misshapen flesh and flailing limbs wielding crude, bone spears.

The salt-crusted dray moved forward, cruel scourges in hand as the other followed behind, blasting the heroes with solar flame. Gurthmore was overcome, and began to swing wildly, his mind addled as if by a sunstroke. But the mul gladiator threw off the madness and was quickly among his foes, his wild axe cleaving warped flesh with fury. Jin was a wraith, darting amongst the group's twisted foes and striking time and again with his sword of enchanted ice, then vanishing before he could be hit. Chuka-Tet and his companion were in the thick of the fight, and the sentinel's staff shattered skulls as his scorpion stung all who came within reach of its tail. Sark remained on his perch, his raven on his shoulder, and cold light and grasping darkness crippled his foes from on high. The battle was hard fought though, as the sun dray vanished and reappeared in a burst of blinding light and radiant heat time and again, the rays from its hand as deadly as the crimson sun. But its companions fell, one by one, until it at last was consumed by its own fiery rage.

Exhausted after the fierce battle, the heroes rested in the castle's courtyard. Gathering up their strength a few hours later, they found that the main doors to the fortress-like keep were sealed. They were able to force open a smaller portal to one side of the yard however, and soon found themselves in an ancient barracks of some sort. Making their way into the halls once occupied by the castle's slaves, the heroes began to feel a sense of wrongness emanating from the very walls. An unearthly chill filled the air, and as they moved through an old guard chamber and storeroom into the empty barracks they heard the cries of the tormented dead. The halls were partially choked with rubble and spectral fire burned in places, and they reflected the slaughter that took place here when the castle fell.

The unearthly moans and wails echoing down the halls of the spectral castle came into sharp focus as they entered the chamber ahead. Once a barracks of some sort, the ruined bunks and furnishings had been piled up and set alight, forming pyres in two places. Bodies wrapped in iron chains dangled from the rafters overhead, writhing and crying in anguish, but they appeared spectral and distorted. Figures moved into view through the flames, and the heroes saw two hunched humanoids, each with rust-colored skin covered in cruel barbs, slouch into view, their clawed hands scraping the stone floor. Above, two pale woman-like figures with dark, feathered wings flitted from rafter to rafter, burning weapons clutched in their hands. A tall, horned humanoid with chalky skin in brazen armor and a metal mask twirled a wicked-looking flail or scourge in its hands. “Ah,” it seethed behind the mask, “fresh meat! Fresh sport! Fresh pain!”

Vicious battle followed as the devils moved in to strike. Sark and Jin took to the air, moving from rafter to rafter as the cruel-featured females flew about, burning bows and blades raining down on the heroes below. The two barbed devils pounced, claws ripping at Khossus and Gurthmore as the armored fiend moved in to lash Chuka-Tet. But the heroes fought back. Jin danced among the rafters, icy blade and bolts of eldritch force striking at the wicked furies. Sark used shadow and cold to pin their foes in place as Gurthmore and Khossus battered the devils back into the fire. Both gladiators became entangled in the hanging chains, damned souls clutching at them, but each managed to tear free. The brass-armored devil fell before Chuka-Tet's staff and their blades, and the other devils soon followed suit, their essence fading back into the Grey. Apart from a handful of ancient jewels, the lead devil carried a strange-looking stone carved with a simple symbol of elemental earth. “This,” Sark realized, “is a fortune stone. Powerful psychic and primal magics have been bound within.” Curious as to why the devils had it, the heroes found themselves short on answers and made their way deeper into the keep.

Moving quietly into the great hall ahead, Jin saw dozens of spectral revelers and courtiers babbling and whispering before a dark, marble throne inlaid with gold and jade. A dusky-skinned, regal-looking woman in silks and an elaborate crown sat there, glowering. In an instant, the room went dark and the babble was replaced by whispers and cries and the crunch of dry bones underfoot. They all sensed, rather than saw, something moving in the darkness. Two sets of burning eyes can be seen moving amongst the pillars that lined the great hall. Calling forth the light of the Crown of the Sun, Chuka-Tet illuminated the hall. A roiling mass of darkness was in the center of the room, and the mummified queen turned to face them on her throne. Two ancient warriors, their mummified flesh clad in rotted armor, raised corroded bronze khopeshes and advanced on the heroes.

“You dare,” she said in a raspy voice, “to enter my lord's court unbidden? You will pay for such effrontery.” With that, she laid a dire curse upon the heroes as they took up arms. Battle ensued, and the heroes were nearly outmatched by the dark queen and her guardians. Khossus and Chuka-Tet were gravely wounded by the warrior mummies as Jin reeled under the queen's curses. Even Gurthmore fell, blackness swallowing him as the cloud of shadowy souls engulfed him. But they managed to rally, and axe and blade, spell and evocation, all struck home and the queen and her followers were laid to rest. Apart from her finery, a second fortune stone marked with the symbol for spirit was found in the ancient lady's possession. The crown fragment was nowhere to be found, but a passage led to stairs that descended beneath the ancient palace. The heroes had nowhere to go but down...
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Tags: Boss Battle , Recap
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