Journal Posts

Tag: cunning_plan

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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Fortress of Bones Part 12: Out of the Arena and in to House Haxtes
The heroes' flight from the arena continued as they ran down the steps to the labyrinth beneath. The remaining janissaries and the last goliath guard were all hot on their heels. “Run, I will slow them down for a moment!” Jin laughed with reckless abandon, and the pale-skinned warlock vanished. The rest made their way into the tunnels and saw the path split in twain. Arshaka was there waiting for them, and the obsidian bard said, “I have prepared a way out for us! We must first get past the gate ahead.” He pointed down one corridor where they saw a wooden platform with a lever in front of it. The other had a large, closed gate. Before it there were four large men in heavy hide armor wielding pole-arms ending in open crescents set with inward-pointing blades. They were attempting to wrangle a three-headed, winged beast with features like that of a drake, a goat, and a lion, and they swore as the heroes came charging down the steps. To the other side, they saw one of Nibenay's templar brides accompanied by several janissaries armed with spears enter from a door atop the wooden platform.

Arshaka telepathically shouted “Hold the line here! Let them come to us!” His song caused several of the janissaries to stumble forward in a heap, falling on their own spears. The way to the lever that, no doubt, opened the gates was clear. Chuka-Tet took advantage of the opening and charged the wooden platform.

“I'll open the gate! The rest of you draw them in!” The thri-kreen druid buzzed as he slammed the lever down, unlocking the gate, and smashed part of the platform. Gurthmore was right behind him, and with a mighty blow from his axe, the mul barbarian collapsed the platform sending the templar and the janissaries to the floor in a heap. They rose, and the mul batted aside their spears as Chuka-Tet moved back. The templar bride unleashed a bolt of darkness at him, a curse on her lips.

Meanwhile Rokkon, Arshaka, and Sark held the line. The orc mage unleashed fearsome phantasms on the beast handlers and the chimera, slowing them for a moment. As the rest ran forward, Stonedarr slashed away at them with his axes and sent them flying back towards the enraged beast, which tore into them with its fangs, claws, and horns. Two of the beast handlers goaded the creature forward and commanded it to attack. Its drake head spewed burning venom even as the rest gored, bit, and tore at anything that moved. More janissaries ran down the stairs behind the heroes, slashing away at Arshaka and Jin. The obsidian bard used his mastery of language and inflection to copy the beast-handlers' commands word-for-word, and goaded the chimera into attacking the soldiers of Nibenay! With the chimera distracted, the heroes surrounded the beast and cut it down in short order. The rest of the beast-handlers were cut down and the janissaries fell to Chuka-Tet's primal magic as the templar fled to gather reinforcements. But by then it was too late, and the heroes lost them in the maze. Gurthmore broke open several cells and yelled to the gladiators and slaves below, “You are free! Pick up your weapons, fight through all who would stop you, and run for the exit!” Many took the mul champion up on his offer.

Exiting into the Western District, the heroes ran into Nemeia near the gladiators' entrance to the great pit. The tiefling warlock quickly presented them with cloaks and crude disguises, and they simply walked off as part of the confused mob leaving the arena under the janissaries' watchful eyes. Reaching safety in an abandoned potter's shop nearby, the heroes gathered their wits and planned their next course of action. Callides was hurt, but ready to flee the city-state, and Nemeia agreed. But one bit of business had to be taken care of first. “The sending stone I used,” Callides explained, “can be used against the whole of the Veiled Alliance. The Shadow King and his servants can use it to track down the members I have been in contact with, even use magic against them from afar. It must be recovered. From what I know, it still lies within House Haxtes.”

“We have unfinished business with the lady of House Haxtes,” Arshaka communicated. “We can deal with her as well. They will expect us to run, not to go into the estate of our enemy. We should strike now.”

“We need some rest,” Stonedarr countered. “Do we have time?”

“With this,” Nemeia said, “you do.” She presented Arshaka with a scroll that contained an ancient fey spell, one that raised up a tree that opened into a restful space in the Lands Within the Wind. Only an hour had passed, but for the heroes it was as if a day had come and gone. Rested, they decided on a course of action. Nemeia and Callides would wait near the West Gate for no more than three hours while the rest entered House Haxtes' estate. Arshaka used magic and his skills as a performer to disguise himself as none other than Djena, High Consort in charge of the Temple of King's Law, while the rest were disguised as janissaries or, in Stonedarr's case, a goliath guard of the king. Sark used his spells to call forth giant vultures, as he did long ago on the plains of the Crimson Savannah, and cloak them in clouds and shadow. They flew forth, over the Serpent Tower, to land on the upper balconies of House Haxtes' estate in the Cliffside District.

A pair of surprised guards stammered out a fearful welcome as the now-disguised bard strode forth majestically from the back of a giant vulture and commanded, “Take me to Lady Xerena – now!” The guards called up one of their captains, who nervously explained that the head of House Haxtes had not returned from the arena yet. The heroes would be escorted to a salon below to await the lady of the house. Dismissing the slaves left to serve them, the heroes hit on a plan. As the sending stone was not here but, as the captain of the guard explained, held below in the lady's private sanctum they would have to descend the Cliffside estate to reach the dungeons below. Arshaka remembered them well from last time, and knew they would have to somehow get past the guards, slaves, and lesser members of the noble house before Xerena returned. Climbing down the outside balcony to one more than sixty feet below, the heroes slipped back inside the estate. Using a combination of brazenness and bullying, they pushed their way past all until they reached the entrance to the lower levels. Quietly making their way down the stairs, they discovered something they had missed their first time through – a secret door at the end of the stairwell!

“This must be the way,” Arshaka surmised. With more luck and muscle than skill, Gurthmore managed to pry the hidden lock open and slide the stone door back. Creeping down the steps, the heroes reached what must have been the estate's cistern or reservoir. The chamber itself was roughly circular and more than sixty feet across. A narrow wooden bridge led from the cramped entry to what appeared to be an arched door and a spiral stair beyond. Wood-and-rope mechanisms on either side of the far ledge were doubtless used to carry water up to the estate proper. As they crossed the bridge, Chuka-Tet and Arshaka saw numerous, tiny, bat-like reptiles clinging to the ceiling some thirty feet overhead. It wasn't until the halfway point that the Thri-Kreen sentinel realized the water was clean, crystal clear, and free of droppings. At that moment, something rippled in the water below. Without warning a massive, translucent worm-like creature with a serpentine hood and multiple, grasping tentacles lunged out of the pool in a spray of water! Screeches and the rustling of hundreds of tiny wings were heard overhead as a swarm of the small, flying reptiles descended.

“A cistern fiend!” Stonedarr yelled. “Beware its tentacles!” Though the creature stayed back, Arshaka's trilling song pulled the fascinated beast forward. That was all the opening Gurthmore needed. The mul slammed his axe into the side of its head, lifting the gelid bulk halfway out of the water to flop onto the bridge ahead. With a word, the bard teleported him to the other side of the cistern fiend. The cistern fiend retaliated with its lashing tentacles and blasts of psychic energy that inflicted horrible pain. Sark blasted the flying reptiles and the monstrous aberrant creature with searing flames, weaving them about his comrades with his mastery of the arcane arts. As hundreds of tiny bodies sizzled and fell into the water below, Chuka-Tet swung about with his staff, knocking more of them out of the air even as he pulled up a wall of water to protect his comrades against the stinging tentacles.

Though the fiend fought back, Gurthmore and Rokkon slashed away with their axes, spilling the gelatinous mass of the creature's organs back into the water. Despite a number of venomous stings and bruises from where the cable-like tentacles had lashed them, and lingering pain from the creature's innate ability with the Way, the heroes were in good shape and pressed forward. Descending the second set of stairs, they entered a long, wide hall dimly lit by a pair of guttering torches. On their left the heroes heard chopping and tearing sounds along with an occasional mad cackle, and a draft of air that carried with it the smell of an abattoir or mortuary. To the right they heard a low, monotonous chanting and caught the whiff of burning flesh and cloying incense. Doors were on either side of the hall, and a set of double doors at the end spoke of something great beyond.

“That must be it,” Arshaka said as he and his companions moved to the door on their right. Sark nodded, adding that the chanting sounded much like a ritual to cast a curse on enemies from afar. Gurthmore barred the other door temporarily with his spare axe, and the heroes burst into the other room.

Obscene chants and vile utterances echoed down the short hall to this large chamber. Down a short flight of stairs the companions saw a huge room. A circle of strange symbols was scribed into the floor and there were several robed figures around it, chanting and dancing in unison. A male tiefling in robes stood on a raised platform on one end of the room, to the left side of the entry, and a robed woman was standing next to him. Two other robed men crouched in alcoves on the opposite end of the room, one trilling an eerie-sounding flute and the other banging a brass gong. Incense smoke hung heavy in the air, and a nude body was bound to an altar atop the platform. Blood was running off into a brass bowl on one side, and hot irons were in brazier on the other.

Gurthmore charged into the room, his axe levying a terrible toll on the cultists. Though the fanatics struck with their obsidian daggers as they fell, the mul gladiator left few standing. Chuka-Tet was beside him in an instant and he and the mul cut down the warlocks with the flute and gong shortly thereafter. Stonedarr engaged the tiefling, who shouted “The Child of Dark returns! She will make you pay for this violation of her temple!” Despite his skill with sorcery and the blade, he proved no match for the goliath ranger. Sark had engaged the defiler witch, and unleashed a phantasm so terrifying she threw down her staff rather than risk what she thought was certain death.

“Lady Xerena's sanctum lies beyond that door,” she said, pointing to a simple door on the other side of the altar. “She will return at any time. Let me live, and I will tell you what you need to know.” Spying the sending stone on the floor in the center of the magic circle, Arshaka grabbed it.

“We have what we came for,” he said “but we have a chance to end the Child of the Dark's evil here and now. I say we take it!” The others agreed, and prepared to move forward...
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