Pathfinder 1E JollyDoc's Jade Regent


The Thundercaller

2 Pharast, 4715-4 Pharast, 4715

The companions gathered their wounded and their dead, and left Ravenscraeg, making their way back down the winding stair, and then into the marshland below. They found a secure location to make camp, and set up a watch schedule to look for signs of pursuit. They had found Boris still on the stairs, apparently having bumped his head on a stoney outcropping while stumbling around invisible, and knocked himself unconscious. No one was really in any mood for conversation until Lucian at last cleared his throat.
"So, what should we do about Yannus?" he asked.
"We could return him to Sandru and Koya," Piotr suggested.
"That would take too long," Mazael snapped. "Two days to Kalsgard, and two days back. Who knows what kind of reinforcements that place could have by then?"
"Well we can't just leave him here when we go back up there," Lucian said. "Scavengers would find him."
"Why don't we bury him here then?" Piotr asked. "Koya wanted to bury Koman on the road, in the Varisian way. This would be the same, wouldn't it?"
The others remained silent, but no one disagreed.
"Though I am Desnan, and Yannus was a Shelynite," Spivey offered, "I can perform the rites."
They all nodded, no one having the stomach to speak the words over their friend.

They buried the young evangelist there in the marsh, and Spivey appealed to Desna to guide him on to wherever his travels now led him. Boris sniffed and wiped at his nose with his sleeve.
"Yannus liked oatmeal for breakfast," he said. "He was good eater. He talked to Boris about war when he eat in Boris' kitchen."
The others stood in silence for awhile, and then it was done. They went back to the camp, none of them voicing what all of them were thinking: next time it might be them.


Later that evening, Boris and Lucian stood watch. The others slept on their bedrolls, save for Neko, who had retreated to a nearby tree. The normal night sounds droned on about them, but as Boris poked absently at the fire, a distant noise caused his large ears to perk up. He stood, cocking his head from side to side.
"What is it?" Lucian asked.
"Boris hear something," the goblin whispered.
"I don't," Lucian replied.
"That why Boris not know why you on guard duty," Boris sniped. "Wake others. Boris be back."

Before Lucian could protest, the goblin slipped quietly into the woods and disappeared from sight. He moved swiftly, but with almost complete silence, his eyes rapidly adjusting to the darkness, picking out shapes and shadows as if it were a moonlit night rather then overcast. He drew up shortly as he spied a slender figure moving among the trees, headed for the light of their campfire. Boris waited for the figure to pass before he fell in stealthily behind. He could tell it was a woman, young, and if he was not mistaken, Shoanti, one of the native barbarian nomad clans that roamed Varisia. She looked lightly armed and armored, though a large pouch hung from her belt. Boris moved up closer, and deftly sliced the strings holding the pouch, letting it fall into his hand, before touching the tip of his dagger to the woman's back.
"Hello pretty lady," he said. "Boris wondering what you doing out here in dark woods all alone?"
The woman stopped abruptly, stiffening, her stance tense.
"I'm a simple traveller," she said. "I'm not looking for trouble. I saw the fire ahead, and thought I might see if I could find shelter for the night."
"What your name, Lady?" Boris asked.
"Zula," she said, glancing around behind her, her eyes widening when she saw the goblin.
"Boris," he said by way of introduction. "Sure, you come to camp, but you leave weapons on ground."
"I'm not walking unarmed into a goblin camp!" Zula hissed. "Do you take me for a fool?"
Boris looked perplexed for a moment, then grinned his needle-toothed grin.
"Not goblin camp, pretty lady!" he laughed. "Boris not regular goblin. Boris' friends human, and elf-man, and angel-man, and butterfly-girl, and monkey boy. You come meet. Boris cook you special meal!"
Zula still looked dubious, but she could see activity around the campfire, and none of the individuals there looked like goblins.
"Lead the way," she said at last.

The companions watched Boris and his prisoner enter the camp with suspicion. For her part, Zula looked about with amazement at the assortment of individuals she was seeing.
"What have we here, Boris?" Piotr asked
"This Zula," Boris said. "She Shoanti-lady who just walking through dangerous woods alone at night. No big deal!"
Zula grimaced at him.
"That's not how I would phrase it," she said.
"Then why don't you tell us what you're doing out here?" Piotr asked. "Boris is right. This is not a safe place. We've just buried one of our own."
"I am sorry to hear that," Zula said, honestly. "I am not here by happenstance. I have heard rumors of a steading nearby called Ravenscraeg. I have heard its previous owner was a notorious pirate, and that he may have stashed some of his treasures there."
"That may be true," Piotr said, "but its current occupants might have something to say about that."
"Current occupants?" Zula asked. "I heard that it was empty."
"You heard wrong," Piotr replied. "Ravenscraeg has been purchased by a trading guild called the Rimerunners. For some unknown reason, their leaders have taken issue with us, and targeted us on more than one occasion. We came here seeking redress, and we were met with...hostility. They killed one of ours. We killed two dozen of theirs. We plan to return tomorrow and kill more."
Zula pondered this for several moments.
"I look around and I see symbols of goodly deities," she said at length. "I also can see that your companion there," she indicated Spivey, "is a celestial creature. I still don't understand why you are traveling with a goblin...,"
"He is an impetuous fool," Spivey laughed, "but he is good-hearted, and he is our fool."
"Thank you butterfly-lady," Boris nodded around a mouthful of food.
"...but I get the feeling you are good people," Zula continued. "I propose an arrangement: you lost one of your party today. I could aid you in your quest, in exchange for an equal share in whatever wealth you recover."
"I'm glad you feel that way," Piotr nodded, "but we don't know anything about you. Why should we trust you?"
"She is not evil," Helgarvarl said, helpfully.
Zula's eyebrows raised when she heard the helm speak.
"It's a long story," Pitor waved it off.
"Your...helmet is correct," Zula said. "I am no agent of evil. Among my people, I was a shaman...a thundercaller. However, there came a time when I felt the need to leave my tribe in search of answers to long-held questions. My quest led me to these lands, where I have made my way as an adventurer. I have no ulterior motives. You have my oath on this."
Piotr looked to his companions.
"Sure, why not?" Mazael shrugged. "We're dropping like flies. Another warm body can't hurt."
"She seems honorable to me," Haroldo said. "She has a warrior spirit."
"I don't think we have anything to loose," Lucian said, "as long as she understands that if she betrays us, she dies."
"Boris think she ok," Boris said, "but she need to pay more attention when people sneaking up on her."
"Neko agrees with Master Boris," Neko offered unnecessarily.
"She is a fellow traveler," Spivey smiled. "I welcome her upon our road."
"It seems we are in agreement then," Piotr said. "Welcome to our little band."
"Thank you," Zula said. "There is just one thing, however..." she turned towards Boris, "...can I have my pouch back now?"


The next morning found the group scaling the high stairs once more to the gates of Ravenscraeg. To their surprise, they encountered no resistance on their ascent, but the gates of the steading were again closed. They positioned themselves in a battle formation, and pushed open the portals. Inside the great hall, all of the bodies were gone, only the blood stains remained. High above in the rafters, the raucous cawing of the ravens could be heard.
"Beware the birds," Haroldo warned Zula.
"And you," Lucian said to Boris,"if you decide to turn invisible or some such again, warn us! Last time you nearly got me killed because Piotr didn't know where to cast his glitterdust spell without catching you in it!"
"You big crybaby!" Boris snapped back. "If you no can take or yourself, why you not go back home to Shalelu?"
"I'm only saying that you need to be more of a team player!" Lucian countered, his voice rising.
"Boris have team you can play with!" the goblin snarled.
"Both of you shut up!" Mazael growled. "Before you bring this whole place down on us!"

As if on cue, the air overhead exploded with the black beating wings of ravens, once more descending on the companions in great swarms.
"Here they come!" Neko shrieked as he began firing into the flocks.
Haroldo slashed a dozen or more birds out of the sky as they whirled around Mazael, Piotr and himself.
"Damn it! My eyes!" Piotr screamed as talons scored his corneas.
Haroldo continued to hack at the birds, until over a hundred lay at his feet, momentarily giving him and his allies some breathing room. Suddenly, a woman's voice rose up above the cacophony, followed by a deafening boom that sounded as if a thunderclap had gone off inside the hall. As the noise rolled into silence, every last one of the ravens lay dead on the floor. As one, the companions looked at Zula. The shoanti woman gazed at her handiwork, and simply shrugged.
"It's what I do."

Piotr rubbed furiously at his eyes, relieved that the damage appeared to be minimal.
"Was that it?" he asked, looking around, expecting ninjas to come streaming over the balconies.
As if in answer, one of the doors under the balcony burst open, and a lone Ulfen warrior charged into the room.
"They're here!" he shouted in Skald.
It was the last thing he ever said as Haroldo's sword took his head from his shoulders.
"I think you're going to get you wish," the blood-rager winked at Piotr.
He wasn't planning on waiting for reinforcements to come to him, however. He began stalking down the hall, throwing open doors as he went. Behind the second door he opened, he was momentarily taken aback to find himself face-to-face with a black-clad ninja, simply standing there, motionless. The man's eyes went wide when he saw the beg warrior, then he screamed and ran towards Haroldo, driving with his wakizashi. Haroldo deflected the blade at the last moment, suffering only a glancing blow. The ninja stiffened a second later as Neko sent three arrows into his back.

At that moment, another door on the far side of the hall flew open, and eight more Ulfen's swarmed into the chamber. One made straight for Piotr, his battleaxe whistling towards the sorcerer's head. Piotr ducked, and the axe slashed his arm instead, but to his credit, he reflexively brought up his staff in defense, and managed to score a glancing blow at the thug, driving the man back a few vital feet. Lucian then put the man down with a well-placed arrow. Haroldo and Mazael rushed across the room to meet the new attackers, but before they'd gone more than a dozen feet, another thunderous call from Zula struck three of the Ulfen thugs dead in their tracks. Mazael and Haroldo each took down another, and Neko finished off the last two with well-aimed shots from his bow.


"Maybe we hurt them more than we thought," Piotr said as they celebrated their relatively easy victory.
The companions went room-to-room off of the great hall, searching for more lurking enemies. Several of the chambers appeared to be empty dormitories or guard rooms. Upstairs, off of the balcony, they found a small armory, and a locked cloakroom. In the latter, they found several rolls of leather scrolls covered in tiny, cramped Skald runes stuffed into a chest. Piotr tucked them away to peruse later. At the master's table, on a raised dais near the back of the hall, Boris found Skald words roughly carved into the wood with the tip of a dagger.
'Time is the coin of fools, rendered due unto the gods,' it read.
Finally, in one of the abandoned dormitories, they came upon an iron trap door in the floor. Nearby, a closet had been turned into some sort of shrine, where a painted stone idol depicted a man with a fearsome scowling red face, bulging eyes, and a long beard, wearing red Tian robes and an iron crown. In one hand he held a noose, while the other held several shuriken. None of the companions could identify which deity it was meant to represent.

Boris moved to the trapdoor and inspected it carefully for any signs of booby traps. Finding none, he lifted the door, revealing a narrow chute sloping downward.
"Tight squeeze," he observed. "Butterfly-lady could fit."
"I could," Spivey agreed, "but why would I want to?"
"To explore," Boris shrugged. "Why else?"
"I don't know if you will fit," Spivey looked skeptical.
"I could make him...slippery," Piotr offered.
"Boris like the sound of that!" the goblin cackled.
"Ok," Spivey agreed,"but only on the condition that you wear a rope around your waist."
"Why?" Boris asked.
"So you can be pulled back up if we get into any...trouble."

Shortly, they were on their way down. The chute was dark, cramped and sooty, but thanks to Piotr's grease spell, Boris slid down easily enough. After perhaps fifty or sixty feet, the shaft terminated at another metal door. Boris pressed his ear against it.
"Boris hear something," he whispered. "Sound like ugly talking. Boris not understand."
"Let me try," Spivey said, changing places with him.
She listened intently for a moment.
"They are speaking in the Giant tongue," she said, her expression wary.
"Boris always wanted to kill giants!" the goblin grinned. "What we waiting for?"
Spivey jerked on the rope.


The others saw the wisdom of Spivey's advice to find another way down to the lower levels and whatever waited down there, even though Boris pouted for a long time after. Behind the great hall, they found a service corridor and a covered kitchen off of it. A door there led outside to a picturesque dell squeezed between the steeply sloping flanks of the nearby crags that rose a hundred feet overhead. A narrow waterfall rushed in a torrent down one of those slopes and collected in a catch pond next to the kitchen. A small torrent exited this pond, and wound its way towards the great hall, where it disappeared into a metal grate in the hall's foundation. A path from the kitchen led over a narrow bridge of rough-sawn logs that arched over the stream and farther down the defile, until it was lost among the rocky outcropping beyond. A half-dozen sheep grazed in the pasture. It seemed the companions may have found a back door to Ravenscraeg, but they had no idea how to find it from the outside.

The companions went back inside and followed the service corridor to its far end, where it terminated in a large room hewn from the rock of the crag. A wooden stair rose along the walls to the north, while tables and workbenches filled the chamber, holding all manner of alembics, crucibles, burners, and assorted tools, as well as a large glass case. Within the case was what appeared to be a humanoid body. A variety of dried herbs and plants dangled in profusion from hooks on the bottoms of the stairs, and sacks and chests which held additional equipment and components, had been shoved underneath the stairs. A single torch mounted on one of the stair posts illuminated the chamber with a flickering glow. Boris walked over to the glass case, his head cocked curiously to one side. He reached out one hand and rapped his knuckles on the glass. To his shocked surprise, the body moved, lurching into a sitting position. He could see what looked like insects crawling beneath its skin. It opened its mouth and spoke in a strange, droning voice, whose words he could not understand.
"It is the language of the Hells," Spivey said, her nose wrinkling in disgust.
"What it say?" Boris asked.
"It's asking to be released," Spivey replied.
"Well that certainly has 'bad idea' written all over it," Piotr offered.
"It is Evil," Helgarvarl said helpfully
"What are you doing here, creature?" Spivey asked the thing in its own language.
"I am...beinnnng...helllld captivvve," the thing droned.
"By whom?" Spivey asked.
"Wizzzzzard...," it replied.
"And what would you do if we freed you?" asked Spivey. "Try to kill us?"
"Nnnnno," it buzzed. "Revennnnnge!"
"We aren't seriously considering letting it out, are we?" Lucian asked, incredulous.
"Why not?" Boris shrugged. "It say it help us kill enemies."
"That is NOT what it said," Lucian snapped.
"I agree with Master," Neko said.
"It is a fiend," Haroldo said. "Let it out, and then we can kill it. I don't like the idea of leaving a potential enemy behind us."
"If it could get out, don't you think it would have already?" Piotr asked.
"Who knows what tricks wizards are capable of?" the blood-rager asked, pointedly. "Suppose it was left here as a trap for the unwary?"
"You obviously have no idea how magical bindings work!" Piotr sniped back. "If it's been bound here, I'm sure it's for a very good reason."
"Didn't we hear about wizard named something-runeshaker?" Boris asked.
"Gotti Runecaster, Master," Neko supplied.
"Yes, that him!" Boris said. "Maybe he put dead bug-man in cage."
"So what if he did?" Piotr asked. "Even more reason to leave it where it is!"
"I agree," Lucian said.
"Big surprise!" Boris raised his hands in the air. "Cry-baby no want to fight! Run home to Momma Shalelu!"
"Enough!!" Mazael's voice boomed, and then the big man strode purposefully over to the cage and smashed the glass with his sword.

Everyone held their breath as the glass shattered to the floor. The figure inside began to writhe furiously, its mouth opening wide as if in agony. Then, a evil buzzing rose to a high-pitched drone as thousands of red and black wasps, each the size of a man's thumb, came pouring out of its throat. Mazael stepped back, swinging his sword furiously in a futile effort to beat back the swarm. Haroldo joined him, but their blades met nothing but air. In seconds, the swarm was upon them, stinging furiously. Haroldo felt something like liquid ice streaming through his veins as the virulent poison of the hellwasp swarm took hold of him. Spivey tried to cast a soundburst spell on the wasps, but it seemed to have little effect, and she found herself quickly overwhelmed by the swarm, along with Piotr and Lucian.
"Master, run!" Neko shrieked as he bounded back down the service corridor, snatching up Boris as he went.
Zula watched them go, then turned back to her newfound partners. Spivey was doubled over with nausea, her face pale from the effects of the poison in her system. Piotr had also broken out in a cold sweat from the venom, but he had managed to move himself clear of the swarm and then sent a cone of flames through it. The fire seemed to just wash mostly harmlessly over the fiendish insects. Zula drew in her breath and gathered her power to her. She opened her mouth, and thunder rolled through the chamber and the hall beyond, setting the glassware rattling. For the briefest of moments, the swarm broke apart, and several dozen individual wasps dropped dead to the floor. Then, it reformed and, as if possessed of a malevolent intelligence, it came directly at the thundercaller.

Things began happening very quickly after that. A hundred stings pierced Zula's skin, and she felt the venom turn her muscles to jelly. Again and again she summoned her magic, blasting the swarm apart, only to have it reform, though significantly reduced each time. Spivey managed to briefly regain her composure and try another another soundburst, this time with better effect. The swarm was momentarily stunned, flying about in random directions. Mazael took the opportunity to send Helgarvarl flying towards the wasps, where he unleashed a small blast of frost from his eyeholes. Haroldo was able to call upon his blood magic to set his hands aflame and send it into the swarm, before his eyes rolled back in his head, and he collapsed to the floor, rigid from the venom. A moment later, Zula loosed one last thunderclap before she too succumbed to the poison. The swarm was only a fraction of what it had been, but all of the companions remaining in the chamber were reeling from nausea and envenomation, save for Mazael. One last time he released Helgarvarl, and the brave little angel flew directly into the hellwasps, cold and frost pouring from him. When the frigid mists cleared, the last of the fiendish insects fell frozen to the ground.


Lucian used his healing magic to revive Zula and Haroldo, and to stabilize the others, including himself, though they were all still weak as kittens. The group gathered themselves, and limped back to the great hall, where Boris and Neko crouched in hiding behind one of the pillars. The pair rejoined the others. No words were spoken, but the air was thick with tension. They left Ravenscraeg for the second time in as many days and made their way slowly and painfully back to their campsite. There, oddly enough, it was Neko who broke the silence.

"If were back in the circus," he said, jabbing his finger towards Mazael, "that one would be stripped and flogged!"
"If you want to keep that finger, and the arm it's attached to," Mazael growled low, "you better take it out of my face, monkey-boy!"
"This is not the time for this," Piotr said, stepping between them.
Neko turned to Boris.
"Master," he said, "I am loyal to you, but I'm afraid with friends like these, they will be the death of you! I cannot stay and watch that happen. I will go back to Kalsgard and tell the others what we have found here. I hope to see you again."
"Wait...," Boris said, reaching toward the varra, but Neko clambered up a tree and disappeared into the canopy above.
"Good riddance," Mazael sneered.


It took two days until the heroes were recovered enough to even consider returning to Ravenscraeg. During that time, Piotr had time to read the scrolls they had recovered from the cloak room. They turned out to be personal diaries of Snorri Stone-Eye. They were the writings of a mad man. The Mad Reaver claimed that his magical artificial eye gave him the 'second sight,' allowing him to peer into both the past and the future and see the way things were and the way things would be. He predicted that there would come a time when the very gods waged war against each other upon Golarion, and the Rough Beast would slip his chains to ravage the world. Stone-Eye claimed that only those who were prepared would be spared the devastation and enjoy the fruits of a world ripe for conquest when the gods had destroyed themselves and the dust had settled. The Mad Reaver would weather the storm in his safe-hold, from which he would emerge as the strongest power in the North.
This was the place that the companions would be returning to for a third time: the fortified keep of a psychopath...

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The Blood-Feather Raven

4 Pharast, 4715-5 Pharast, 4715

It was after midnight, but only Piotr and Mazael slept. The others sat near the campfire in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Thus, it was quite unexpected when Helgarvarl, who rested atop Mazael's backpack, suddenly began to speak.
"I sense something...," he said, but his thought was interrupted by a high-pitched whine.
Haroldo abruptly pitched forward, grunting in pain, and when the others turned towards him, they saw why: a long, black-fletched arrow protruded from between his shoulder blades. Boris cursed and rolled off the log he'd been sitting on, disappearing into the underbrush. Spivey spread her wings and rose into the air, gazing into the darkness from whence the shot had come. She saw a shadowy figure crouched among the trees several dozen feet away, and as she watched, it put a flask to its lips and vanished from view. The tiny priestess quickly began casting a spell, sending a quartet of dancing lanterns hovering over the spot where she'd last seen their assailant.
"There!" she pointed.
Piotr awoke rudely after Zula kicked him roughly in the ribs. Though his thoughts were still fuzzy, months with his traveling companions had taught him the value of quickly adapting to a situation. He rose to a sitting position and looked around for a moment before seeing the floating orbs of light out in the trees. Acting on his first impulse, he wove a glitterdust spell and detonated it in that vicinity. As the gold sparkles settled over everything in the blast radius, a woman's form was revealed. She wore a chain shirt, and carried a large, curved bow. Haroldo charged towards her at the same time that Lucian fired his own bow, striking her in the leg. She pivoted as the blood-rager closed and put a shaft into his shoulder at point-blank range. Then she cried out in pain as Boris suddenly appeared out of the darkness and drove a blade into her back. Before she could recover, Haroldo reached her, ignoring the pain from his own wound and slashing savagely at her with his greatsword. She fell, twitching, to the ground.

They searched her and found nothing identifiable. She was Ulfen, but she did not carry one of the jade raven statuettes that the thugs at Ravenscraeg bore. The following morning, Zula was able to follow her back trail, which led, strangely enough, towards Karlsgard. After a half-mile or so, they came upon a riding horse, saddled and picketed in a small clearing. In its saddle bags were 500 gold coins of Chelish mint.
"Didn't that damn wasp corpse say something about being captured by a Chelish wizard?" Mazael asked.
"Looks like someone has put a price on our heads," Piotr replied.


Once more, the intrepid heroes returned to the stairs of Ravenscraeg. This time, however, they had climbed no higher than the second landing, when bricks, rocks and other debris began raining down on them from above.
"Looks like they were expecting us this time!" Mazael growled as he ducked for cover.
Spivey quickly took to the air from her perch on his shoulder, and flew to the upper landing, where she saw four Ulfen thugs crouched behind the railing, throwing detritus over the side.
"There are only four!" she called. "Move quickly!"
Her friends wasted no time. Pitor cast a spell of haste upon them, and moving like the wind, they hustled up the switchback stairs, dodging falling rocks as they ran. Lucian guarded the rear, periodically sending arrows flying up at their assailants to buy his allies a little more time. Mazael was the first to reach the top level, but he was quickly followed by Haroldo, and even Boris. The Ulfens reached for their axes, but it was simply a formality. The war-priest and battle-rager tore through them, with the goblin taking advantage of the chaos to slip his sword into an exposed flank here and there. By the time Zula, Lucian and Piotr reached the top, the battle was over.

They found the doors to the great hall were again closed, and when they pushed them open, the evidence of their last battle had been swept clean. Above them, however, the ravens called, and both Mazael and Haroldo spotted black-clad figures hiding atop the balcony.
"Alright boys and girls," Mazael sighed, "we know this music. Let's dance!"

The companions had indeed learned from their past experiences. As the ravens swooped towards them, Piotr conjured fire to deter them, while Zula blasted them out of the air by the dozens with her thunderous voice. Mazael and Haroldo took the fight to the ninjas who sniped at them from the upper tier, while Lucian returned fire, and Boris crept through the shadows unseen until he was upon the assassins. Though the ninjas got off a few lucky shots, none were vital, and the heroes gave far worse than the received. The battle was over quickly, and this time, it seemed no further reinforcements were forthcoming.


After dealing with their minor injuries, the group returned to the lab where they had faced the hellwasp swarm. Here, as in the great hall, there was little evidence of their previous battle. The wasps were gone, and the broken glass of the case had been swept away. More proof that the Rimerunners' resources were far from exhausted if they had time to tidy up after two incursions into their stronghold. There were two doors that led from the lab, as well as the broad stairs that wound further up into the keep's tower. The first door they tried gave onto a stairwell going down.
"Giants down there," Boris affirmed.
"All the more reason to take care of business up here first," Mazael said.

Boris pressed his ear to the second door, and then drew back with a look of surprise on his face. He had distinctly heard the sounds of weeping on the other side.
"Boris hear cry-baby," the goblin grinned. "Boris think it Lucian, but he standing right here."
Lucian just scowled at him.
Zula cleared her throat. "If you would allow me," she said, "among my people I was a Speaker. I have some skill and experience in handling...delicate...situations. Whoever is behind that door has surely been traumatized in some way. We may need to handle this with a bit more finesse than you are accustomed to."
"Huh?" Mazael grunted.
"She says to let her do the talking," Piotr sighed," and don't kill the first thing you see."
The war-priest shrugged. "Whatever."
Zula nodded, and Boris quickly worked the lock on the door, then pulled it open. A cramped cell, ten-feet deep and no more than five-feet high, had been excavated in a corner of the tower's foundation. It was rank with the smell of sweat and urine, and a pair of rats scurried among the rib cage of some former inhabitant. A middle-aged Ulfen man, who appeared to have once been corpulent but was now a wasted shadow, lay curled up on the floor, his face battered and bruised.
"Please...," he said in a ragged, hoarse whisper, "don't...kill me."
"Tell us your name," Zula said calmly. "We mean you no harm."
"Lute," he rasped. "Lute Haggersly. I'm from...Karlsgard."
"We are here to deal with the masters of this hall," Zula told him. "We will take you from here when we leave and return you to Karlsgard safely, but it would help us if you could tell us everything you know about this place and its occupants."
Lute nodded, a hopeful look in his eyes.
"I am a merchant," he began, after he had finished half of a water skin Zula offered him. "I serve on the Rimerunners Guild's board of shareholders."
"The Rimerunners?" Piotr interrupted. "They are who we have issue with. They have made several attempts on our lives, and we have reason to believe their leader is here. Why would they hold one of their own prisoner?"
Lute shook his head.
"I'm not certain, but I believe I earned the enmity of Thorborg Silverskorr when I voted against a measure that she had proposed. I was returning from a business trip to some of the outlying villages when I was abducted by brigands and brought here. I have only had contact with three individuals since."
"Can you describe them?" Zula asked.
"The main one was a wizard of some sort. He is not human. I...can't say what he is. Perhaps some species of orc? He never questioned me, only threatened. He kept saying that he was going to infest me with some sort of demonic wasps."
"Not any more," Zula said. "We destroyed them."
Lute nodded.
"Another was some kind of bear creature," he continued. "He didn't ask me questions either, just beat me periodically."
"We met him as well," Piotr said. "He's dead too."
Lute nodded appreciatively again.
"The last was a hideous purple ogre!" he said. "You won't believe me, and I can't prove it, but I would swear on my life that she was none other than Thorborg Silverskorr herself!"
"Why do you say that?" Zula asked.
"Because as soon as she left my cell," Lute said, "I heard first her monstrous voice, then suddenly, it was the voice of Silverskorr. I know her voice well."
"Intersting," Zula pursed her lips. "Well, in any case, we will discover the truth soon. It's not safe for you to come with us now, so I suggest you stay here. If we have not returned for you in three hours, leave this place and flee as best you can."
Lute looked frightened but he nodded again.
"Please, don't forget me," he said. "I will make it worth your while if you can get me back home."


Single file, with Haroldo and then Mazael in the lead, the companions made their way cautiously up the tower stairs, passing a second floor landing. Ultimately, the stairs gave onto an airy chamber with windows open to the elements, bringing a chill to the room. A fireplace stood against one wall, its ashes cold, next to a stack of firewood. A trap door with a wooden ladder leading to it, opened in the ceiling. Several cots were spaced about the chamber, with small footlockers next to each. Crouched in combat stances about the area were seven of the bird-headed tengu ninjas.

Haroldo didn't hesitate. He rushed headlong into the room, hacking savagely at the nearest assassin, while Lucian squeezed past Mazael on the stairs and positioned himself in a corner so that he could have a clear line of fire with his bow. Spivey flew in as well, and when she saw a trio of ninjas closing in on, she quickly cast a sonic blast in their midst, leaving all of them reeling. She whirled suddenly as a familiar noise reached her ears...ravens! Before she could shout a warning, a cloud of birds swarmed into the room from an adjoining chamber, engulfing her friends. Haroldo and Mazael beat at them, but they were rapidly in danger of being overwhelmed. Still on the stairwell, Zula saw the situation deteriorating, and she knew that she had to act.
"Cover your ears!" she cried in warning, and then she unleashed the full fury of her thunder call.

The results were devastating. The ravens were completely obliterated, but Haroldo, Mazael, Lucian and Boris were all caught in the blast as well. The four of them were left staggering and stumbling about, all bleeding from their ears and noses. Piotr quickly conjured a cloud of glitterdust in the center of the room, hoping to keep the ninjas from using their disappearing trick, but it didn't matter. Stunned from the thunder clap, the heroes could not defend themselves when the assassins came for them. Two of them flanked Haroldo, stabbing and slashing at him repeatedly until he collapsed to the floor. Another drove his sword into Lucian, and the oracle felt his blood begin to burn as the poison that was on the blade soaked into him. Still another came for Piotr, and though the sorcerer was not as helpless as his friends, he was unable to ward off the attack, and when the ninja struck, the sorcerer's skin first flushed and then paled as he reeled back, the toxin taking rapid effect.

Suddenly, a whooshing sound began in the same small adjoining chamber from whence the ravens had come. It grew in intensity as it drew closer, and then the air in the room began to whip about as if a strong wind had sprung up. Abruptly, two small whirlwinds, no bigger than Boris, came spinning into the main chamber, twirling through the air straight towards Spivey.
"Elementals!" she cried as they slammed into her.
They circled around her, buffeting her to and fro, but her angelic make-up made her all but impervious to their blows. The bigger problem to her mind, was who or what had summoned them, and was that same individual controlling the ravens. Her question was answered a moment later when a large, black bird, about three-feet tall and with a single blood-red feather, came flying into the chamber from the adjoining room. As she watched in amazement, it began to speak the words of a spell, and a small ball of fire appeared at the tip of one wing.

Mazael was the first to shake off the stupor from Zula's blast. He raised his sword and squeezed himself between Piotr and his attackers. From behind him, the sorcerer began to cast, and a sheet of flames arced over Mazael's shoulder, setting four of the ninjas ablaze. The reprieve was short-lived, however, as the other assassins surged forward, pinning Mazael, Piotr and Boris in the corner. Lucian, in the opposite corner, and feeling himself growing weaker by the moment, snatched a brittle snapleaf from his belt and crushed it, instantly rendering himself invisible. As quietly as possible, he began extricating himself from his precarious position.

Spivey, completely ignoring the ineffective elementals, hurled another concussive soundburst into the midst of the trio of ninjas who had her comrades locked down. One of them fell dead instantly, while another staggered away, his head spinning. The last paused for a moment in his assault, and that was all Mazael needed. The war-priest slammed the pommel of his falchion into the tengu's head, and as it fell back, he ran it through cleanly. Spivey turned, trying to see the blood raven in the midst of the melee, and caught sight of it just in time to see it loose the ball of flame in its wing. The projectile sailed towards Piotr. Spivey cried out, and the sorcerer turned, but it was too late. The fire struck him in the chest, sending him careening into the wall, where his head struck with a sickening crack. His eyes rolled back in his head, and he slumped limply to the flagstones.

Boris was the next to fall. The goblin moved sluggishly from the poison flowing through his veins, but he still managed to shank one of the ninjas who was busy trying to fend off Mazael. Blood erupted from the tengu's mouth as Boris's blade pierced its heart, but a moment later it was the goblin's turn to bleed as another assassin slid its blade through his back.
"That...hurt...Boris...," he wheezed just before he fell.
The ninja stood over him, and prepared to deliver a coup de grace, but then a bowstring twanged as Lucian reappeared. The arrow took the tengu in the throat and if died strangling.

Spivey could see that things were unravelling rapidly. Besides herself, only Mazael, Lucian and Zula still stood, and the former two were unsteady on their feet. Three ninjas were still up, not to mention the blood-feather raven and its pair of summoned elementals. The odds were not in their favor. She risked channelling her divine power to try and heal her allies, though she knew it would also benefit their enemies. She had no choice. She breathed a sigh of relief when she saw both Piotr and Boris open their eyes. The sorcerer didn't waste time getting to his feet, knowing he would only be cut down again. He snatched a snapleaf from his spell pouch and promptly vanished. One ninja stared at the spot where he'd been, confused for a moment until Mazael ended his confusion permanently. Lucian snapped off an arrow at one of the remaining pair, and Zula quickly followed with another thunder blast, thankfully missing her friends this time and only catching the killers. One of them wobbled, and Mazael opened his throat. The last one danced away, slashing Mazael's sword arm as it went, but as it moved past Boris, the goblin stopped playing possum and rolled to his feet, driving his own wakizashi up through the tengu's groin. It opened its beak to shriek in agony, and that's when Lucian sent an arrow right down its throat.

And then it was only the blood-feather raven. Even its elementals had disappeared, their summoning expired. Zula wasn't about to risk letting it escape, and she hurled the power of her voice at it, buffeting it as it flew. Piotr then reappeared as he sent a volley of arcane missiles flying at the bird. It's raspy voice croaked out another spell, and a billowing fog engulfed it, hiding it from view. Zula didn't care. She didn't have to see her enemy to bring it down. Another thunderclap exploded in the middle of the mist, and then the fog was swept away as Piotr sent a blast of wind through the room, nearly knocking the raven out of the air. The bird screeched again, but this time it was in fear as Mazael charged towards it. The war-priest swept his falchion before him, and blood and feathers flew. The raven shrieked again, and flew out one of the windows, reaching down with its beak to draw a small scroll from a band around its leg as it went.
"Not this time, you little bastard!" Piotr snarled.
He thrust his hands out, and another barrage of missiles flew, streaking through the window unerringly towards the raven. They struck the bird full on, and it fell, tumbling through the air to the valley far below.


The companions gathered around Haroldo, his face pale, his lips blue and lifeless.
" was my fault," Zula said softly, her voice breaking. "I...I'm so sorry...,"
"It was the right call," Mazael said. "We'd all be dead if you hadn't."
"What we do now?" Boris asked. "We got no monkey-boy. We got no angry man. Boris still not feel so good."
The others had no reply. All of them, save Spivey and Zula, were still suffering the after effects of the ninjas' poison, and their numbers were getting smaller, while the resources of their opponents seemed limitless. Their prospects looked bleak...



7 Pharast, 4715

Once more, the companions took their leave of Ravenscraeg, this time carrying the body of Haroldo Seigfreid, and with the merchant Lute Haggersly in tow. Recently, after the deaths of Koman and Yannus, the group had a frank discussion among themselves about what their wishes would be should one of them be next. Haroldo had made it clear that he wanted to return to the land of the living if at all possible. However, the Amatatsu Seal had last been used to try and revive Koman, who's spirit had refused, and it could not be used again in that way for another three weeks.

"We can't just leave him out here in the woods for the wolves," Mazael said.
"I can lay a blessing upon his body to preserve it," Spivey volunteered.
"That won't protect him from scavengers," Piotr noted, "and as much as he and I had our disagreements, I do not wish to see him become wolf scat."
"If you will give me a horse," Lute spoke up, "I will take him back to Karlsgard, and to your people there. I do not want to stay out here a moment longer than I have to."
The others looked at one another questioningly.
"We have no reason to doubt you," Piotr said at length, "but we have no real reason to trust you, other than that you were being held captive by our enemies. However, we also have limited options. Know this: if you fail to do this for any reason other than that you died in the attempt, we will find you and you will wish that the Rimerunners still had you."
Lute nodded.
"I understand. You have my word that I will do this or die trying. Find me when you return to the city."

They gave Lute the horse of the hired assassin they'd dealt with, and sent him on his way with Haroldo's body strapped across the back, then settled in to lick their wounds. A day and two nights passed with Spivey, Mazael and Lucian tending to themselves and their companions. It was during the second night, with Boris and Lucian on watch, that a slim figure slipped quietly and unseen into the camp.
"Where are Yannus and Haroldo?" a female voice asked quietly.
The two watchers whirled, their weapons coming up, and the others jolted awake, only to see the lithe form of Shalelu warming herself by the fire. Lucian's face went from alarm, to relief, to shame at being so easily taken by surprise.
"Shalelu!" he cried. "What...why are you here?"
"To make sure all of you where still alive," she replied. "It appears I have arrived too late."
"We have had more...resistance...than expected," Lucian said, his eyes downcast He then proceeded to tell his mentor all that had transpired since they left Karlsgard.
Shalelu listened in silence until he finished.
"This is grim news indeed," she said. "Koya will be distraught at the loss of another son. I'm afraid the tidings I bring are no better. Not a day after you left, the body of the Varki woman Uksahkka was pulled from the harbor. Her throat had been cut. Four days later, several members of our caravan took ill after the evening meal. It was determined they the food stores had been poisoned. Unfortunately, two of our drivers succumbed."
"Ameiko?" Piotr asked.
"Unharmed," the ranger replied.
"Did Boris' monkey-boy make it back to big city?" Boris asked.
"I did not see him before I left," Shalelu said, "but it is possible we missed one another on the road."
"We are glad you've come," Lucian said.
"I intend to stay," she replied. "It would seem that you need all the help you can get."


Ravenscraeg again. The doors were shut and barred this time.
"I'd guess they're still expecting us," Mazael growled.
"Then let's give them something they do not expect," Shalelu said, looking up towards the roof.
"What do you have in mind?" Lucian asked.
The ranger glanced at Spivey. "How are you at tying knots?"

A few minutes later, the companions had scaled the wall of the keep and made it onto the slate tiles of the roof. Quickly they made their way to the back and lowered the rope again, clambering down into the hidden glen below. The kitchen door was unlocked, and the chamber itself empty. As quietly as they could, which was still like banging pots together as far as Boris was concerned, they crept down the service hall, and then through the wine and food stores which opened onto the main hall.
"Ready?" Boris asked as he gripped the door handle and looked back at his companions
Mazael nodded.

They were not disappointed in what they found. A group of seven Ulfens stood gathered around the front door expectantly, while on the balcony above, three black-clad ninjas crouched in the shadows. What was conspicuously absent, however, was the cawing of the ravens. Apparently, they were not as inclined to aggression without their blood-feathered master. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. The Rimerunners agents were caught completely off guard, and though well-trained and coordinated, they never had a chance to recover. Spivey and Zula worked in concert to stun their opponents with their magic, as Shalelu and Lucian picked off the ninjas above, leaving Mazael, Boris and Piotr to clean up the rest. It was over in less than a minute.


The forces in the great hall seemed to be the only reinforcements in evidence. The companions met no further opposition as they made their way back to the laboratory where they'd found the stairs that led down to whatever lay below. The stairway descended into a plain room of mortared stones. The walls dripped with condensation, giving the air a cold, clammy feel. Plain, wooden doors stood to the north and west. Boris went to each of them and pressed a large ear against them.
"Boris hear water," he said of the northern door. "Boris hear nothing," he said of the west.
"Do I look like I'm built for water?" Mazael snapped, indicating the full plate armor that encased him.
Boris shrugged indifferently, and pulled open the western portal.

The door opened into a natural cavern thirty feet across and fifteen feet high. A waterfall poured in through a small aperture high on the south wall, filling a turbulent pool in the floor and sending a cold spray throughout the room. A smoothed ledge extended outward from the door, and two large barrels had been set to the right of it. Another ledge sat on the far side of the pool, with a smaller cask sitting upon it next to a heavy wooden door. Boris turned and looked over his shoulder at Mazael.
"You bad luck all around," he giggled.
He then turned, took three quick running steps, and leaped the entire length of the pool, landing nimbly on the opposite ledge. He barely glanced at the cask, but the glint of metal caught his eye. He reached out, almost as a reflex, and snatched a silver ladle that sat atop the barrel, then deftly shoved it in his pocket. He listened at the door for a few moments.
"Boris not hear nothing," he called back to his companions.
"Do you need any help?" Spivey called back.
"No, butterfly-lady," the goblin replied. "Boris call you if he need you."

On the other side of the door was a small, musty room hewn from solid rock. Near the far wall stood a low well. A winch and chain with a rusty steel bucket hung from the wall above it. In the far corner sat a pile of old wooden buckets and other debris, rotten and broken, with several different kinds of fungus growing on their remnants. No sooner had Boris opened the door than a flickering glow began to emanate from the depths of the well. In its glow, he could see that the ceiling appeared to be moving. Amorphous, black shapes creeped and undulated along its surface. Carefully, Boris backed out of the room.
"Ok, butterfly-lady," he called, "Boris need your help now! Bugs on ceiling, and fire in well!"
It was Zula who stepped forward on the far side of the pool.
"Stand back!" she warned.
Boris ducked behind the cask as the Shoanti woman unleashed her power, setting off a sonic boom in the middle of the small room. Boris peaked around the corner and saw a half-dozen creatures laying twitching on the floor. He smiled broadly back at Zula and gave a thumbs up. A moment later, Spivey flew across to join him. She peered into the room, focusing on the well.
"I sense no evil there," she said, concentrating, "but powerful magic is present."
She flew to the lip of the well and looked down.
"There is something aflame down there," she said, and then she dove in.
A moment later, she reemerged, a sword bathed in fire gripped in her hands.
'Scion of Amatatsu,' Boris heard a gravelly voice speaking in his head. 'I have been waiting many years, and had almost given up hope. I am Suishen, the ancestral blade of our clan. I sense three other Scions nearby. Who shall claim me?'


"Well, looks like we got what we came for," Mazael said as he held Suishen reverently.
"We still haven't found the Ulfen guide," Shalelu noted.
Mazael shrugged. "One guide's as good as another."
"Except there are none other available," Lucian interjected. "Besides, if the Rimerunners have this man, we can't just leave him here to die."
Mazael shrugged again. "Guess we'd better get moving then."

Boris turned to the second door leading out of the room at the bottom of the stairs. Opening it, he found himself looking down a long, dark corridor. A deep channel of flowing water crossed the hall about midway down. On the opposite side lay a heavy timber plank. A brass bell and clapper hung from the wall on the near side. Though his first inclination was to ring the bell and see what happened, Boris thought better of it and instead got a running start and hurdled the stream. Landing softly as a cat, he snuck down the corridor to where it ended at a T-junction. To his left stood a heavy door, while to the right was a large chamber, oppressively hot compared to the rest of the cellars. A coal furnace roared in one wall, giving the room a dull, red glow. A heap of coal was stacked against another wall, and an iron door opened in the ceiling above it. Three crude beds made of poorly cured bearskin and wolf pelts were thrown on the floor before the fire, and a hogshead rested between them, next to the bloody bones of some unfortunate creature. Warming themselves by the fire were three green-skinned, hook-nosed giants. The smell coming off of them was overpowering. Boris pulled back around the corner, then glanced back down the hall at his friends. He grinned broadly, and held up three fingers, then raised his hands as high as he could above his head. He then mimed shooting his bow and running.
"What in the Hells is he up to now?" Mazael growled.
'What are you doing, little one,' Suishen spoke into Boris's thoughts.
'Boris see three giants, glowey sword!' he giggled back. 'Boris going to shoot one and then run away! Then they come to Boris's friends! Good plan!'
"Prepare yourself," Suishen sighed to Mazael.

Boris drew back his bowstring and let fly an arrow. It struck the nearest giant with a satisfying thunk, and the brute grunted in pain and surprise. It turned and saw the goblin just as he darted around the corner. Mazael and the others saw Boris sprinting back towards them, and leaping easily back across the stream.
"Here they come!" he cackled.
Sure enough, from the far end of the hall, the three giants came lumbering, single file.
"Trolls," Shalelu snarled. "Careful my friends. They can heal their wounds. We will need fire to defeat them."
"Good thing we found our friend here," Mazael sneered, holding Suishen aloft, flames flickering along its blade. Then, to the amazement of his companions, the war-priest rose into the air, walking upon it as easily as he would the ground.
"Another little trick the sword showed me," he laughed.

Mazael began walking towards the trolls, and as he went, Lucian and Shalelu sent a volley of arrows past him, dropping the lead giant in its tracks. It went down just as Mazael reached it, and then Helgarvarl loosed a gout of fire upon it, searing its flesh black. It did not rise again. By the time the second troll reached him, the war-priest was hovering above the water, and the brute had to wade out to meet him. He gripped Suishen in both hands and brought the katana down in a wicked slash, the blade feeling completely natural in his hands. The troll roared in agony as fire danced inside the wound, but then it lunged forward, locking its jaws around Mazael's arm. He tried to pull away, but the beast was too strong. It dragged him towards itself. Then, the air whizzed with arrows again, and the troll abruptly fell back, burning as it died. That just left one. Mazael rushed towards it, and Boris went tumbling through its legs, coming up behind it. The two of them struck as one, and troll keeled over like a fallen log.
"See?" Boris grinned. "Good plan!"


The door opposite the coal room was locked, but Boris had no trouble bypassing it. On the other side was a grand chamber, the ceiling of which rose twenty feet overhead, its heavy beams serving as both rafters and supports for the great hall above. Teak paneling covered the walls, and the floor was of polished wood. Along the walls, wooden columns rose to the ceiling, bearing banners emblazoned with pictograms from far-off Tian Xia. Above these hung small oil lamps that gave off a dim glow. A small porcelain bowl rested before the center column to the south, and several reed mats were arranged before it. It was Zula who saw them first: figures clung to the columns at a point near the ceiling. She opened her throat and sent the thunder towards the nearest one, who recoiled from the blast, but did not fall as she'd hoped. Then, one by one they let go of their perches, falling deftly to the floor, and landing as softly as if they were made of air. They were all Tian, male and female, and they were dressed in simple, loose fitting robes. Their heads were shaved, and they each carried only a simple spear. The closest one hefted his and sent it flying at Boris, impaling the goblin cleanly through his thigh.

Suddenly, a door opened on the far side of the room, and two more of the monks quickly entered, followed by a woman dressed in a flowing black, silk robe with a half-mask concealing her hair and lower face. In one hand she carried a black-bladed dagger, glowing with dark light. Shalelu quickly snapped an arrow off at her, but she simply reached out her free hand and batted the shaft from the air. Abruptly, her form shimmered, and four shadowy clones of her separated from her body, surrounding her on all sides. This didn't bother Zula in the least. She simply blanketed the newcomer, as well as one of the monks, with her thundercall, killing the underling, and stunning the knife-wielding ninja. Spivey followed up a moment later with her own soundburst, stunning another pair of monks. Shalelu and Lucian took advantage of the distraction to go to work on the leader with their bows. Shalelu's shots stripped away the phantom images, while Lucian's struck home, leaving the ninja reeling.

One of the remaining monks summersaulted across the floor, and landed in a crouch before driving her bare heel solidly into Mazael's inner thigh. Boris went tumbling the opposite direction, trying to get behind the female ninja, but she shook off her stupor a moment too soon. As he tried to dart past her, she slashed down with her black blade, stabbing the goblin in the back. He screeched as he felt liquid venom pour into the wound. She raised the dagger to deliver another blow, but another sonic blast from Spivey staggered her again as well as another trio of the monks. Another deadly volley of arrows from Shalelu and Lucian finally put her down.

Mazael, limping on one leg, stabbed out with Suishen, impaling the monk at his feet. A barrage of magic missiles from Piotr finished another stunned one, while Lucian fired an arrow through the eye of a third. The last one fell to Mazael again, rage and Suishen's power overwhelming any pain he felt with the joy of glorious battle.


The Return of the Monkey-Boy

7 Pharast, 4715

Neko was troubled. It had been more than two days since he saw Shalelu walking through the woods beneath his treetop perch, headed in the direction from which he'd just come. He had not called out to her, and that was part of what troubled him. She was going to find them...Boris and the others. She was going to help while he...well, he didn't quite know what it was that he was doing exactly. When the hellwasp swarm had attacked, he'd felt helpless, and all of the fear and trauma that had been a part of his daily life with the circus came back to him. He couldn't face that again, so he had let his fear turn to anger at his new friends, and then it had been easier to leave them. But the anger was gone now, and only the fear remained. Fear and shame. Those were the feelings that had kept him rooted in his tree for the past two days. Fear at rejoining his comrades, and shame at not. Ultimately, however, it was that image of Shalelu, striding purposefully and completely without fear, that made his mind up for him. He leaped from his branch to another one nearby, and then another, and another until he was racing through the canopy back towards Ravenscraeg.


The monks' cells that ringed the dojo were largely empty, save that each of them contained a shrine to a strange Tian deity that Spivey identified as the Yama King, a death god. However, in the chamber that seemed to belong to the ninja woman, they found a large trunk that contained, among other things, a set of peasant clothing, a disguise kit, and a handwritten writ signed by Sveinn Blood-Eagle himself that gave the bearer the authority to commandeer any of the Linnorm King's huscarls within 2 miles of Kalsgard for up to 12 hours. Boris, being the only one able to read Skald, tucked this away in his pocket after telling his comrades that it was simply a grocery list. Finally, in the last of the cells, Zula noted a large amount of grit and dust on the floor, as well as faint footprints that led to one wall. A careful inspection of it revealed a hidden seam, and with a little effort, she was able to push aside an entire section of the wall, revealing a corridor beyond.

A single door stood in the lefthand wall of the passage before it continued on into darkness and then turned a corner. Mazael paused at the door, and then shoved it open before Boris could have a chance to examine it, earning himself a scowl of disgust from the goblin. A brazier in the corner of the room beyond glowed faintly with red coals, its smoke reminiscent of the stench of scorched flesh. A short bed with a headboard carved with the image of an open-mouthed demon stood against one wall, and a small table cluttered with books, scrolls, and a stuffed and mounted stirge sat across from it. A magic circle had been scribed in the center of the floor with chalk. Torn papers, bits of old food, and other debris were scattered about the room, collecting in corners and under the bed and table.

"I sense something," Helgarvarl spoke from Mazael's brow just as the war-priest heard a faint scuttling sound coming from under the bed.
Suddenly, a severed hand, easily the size of a shield and crawling along on its fingers, launched itself from beneath the bed towards Mazael. As it became momentarily airborne, it curled into a fist and slammed into his mid-section, forcing the breath out of him in a whoosh. It landed back on its fingertips, but before it could leap again, Lucian sent a pair of arrows into it. This gave Mazael time to regain his composure and bring Suishen crashing down on the horror. As the blade nearly split the hand in two, it erupted with putrid fluid that doused the war-priest, leaving him retching and gagging.


The secret hall continued around a corner and ended in another descending stairwell leading into Ravenscraeg's sub-cellar. Boris took the lead, not trusting Mazael's ham-handed tactics. It was lucky for the group that he did, for just at the bottom of the stairs his sharp eyes spotted a small tripwire from which several small bells dangled.
"No step there," he pointed out to the others as he hopped over.
His companions followed his lead.

Another hallway lead off the stairwell, and at a point, it widened into a small chamber with a door on the south side, banded with wide straps of iron and bearing a large, heavy lock. A single brazier provided dim light to the area. Before they had even gotten a good view of the chamber, however, the heroes could hear moaning and shuffling. In the dim light, at least a dozen walking corpses milled aimlessly about, all Ulfens in various states of decay. As the zombies turned towards the intruders, Spivey flew above them, her body aflame with holy light as she channeled Desna's power. The walkers recoiled in pain, and boils and blisters erupted from their putrid flesh. They didn't pause for long, however, and came shambling forward en masse, completely clogging up the hallway ahead. Mazael stepped forward and held aloft his own holy symbol, channeling Desna's might again. This time, all but four of the zombies erupted into flames and fell into piles of smoldering ash. Those final four fell a moment later as they were blasted apart by Zula's thundering voice.

Shalelu stepped forward past the ruined corpses, her brow furrowed.
"What's that?" she asked pointing towards the wall opposite the one with the door.
She had spied a small crack there that seemed to be widening before her eyes into another doorway. Suddenly, she felt the ground moving beneath her feet. She looked down as a pit, ten-feet across and at least twenty-feet deep opened right under Lucian and herself. Both of them jumped clear, with the elven ranger landing on the far side, but separated from the rest of her companions. From within the new doorway, a solitary figure had appeared. He was humanoid, but beyond that Shalelu could not guess his race. His skin was mottled and green, and large tusks grew from his lower jaw, but he was tall and lanky, not like an orc or hobgoblin. He carried a large pickaxe in one hand, and a necklace of small bones and fetishes hung from around his neck. She didn't wait for an introduction before she drew and loosed three arrows. Two deflected off the creature's chain shirt, but the third found its mark, knocking him back a pace or two. She turned to see what had become of the others, and was relieved to see Mazael walking on thin air over the pit, while Piotr got a running start and leaped, though not particularly gracefully, over the pit. As he landed, his hand flared with light that he threw into the rival spellcaster's eyes. The creature reeled, rubbing at his eyes, and clutching at his throat at Piotr's magic momentarily stole his breath and robbed him of his voice.

At that moment, a brown-furred blur streaked over the heads of the companions and landed crouched on the far side of the pit.
"Neko??" Boris gasped, his mouth hanging open.
The varra grinned and winked over his shoulder at the goblin.
"Looks like I came back just in time to save you again, Master!" he laughed, and then darted towards the mute and dazzled Goti Runecaster, for that was whom the heroes faced.
Neko came to a stop right beside the sorcerer, his bow drawn tight from point-blank range.
"Not so big when you can't speak spells, are you?" he taunted.
Goti's still-watering eyes turned on Neko balefully, and then, disconcertingly, an evil smile spread over his face. His features clenched in concentration, and then, before Neko's startled eyes, he abruptly grew to twice his original size, his arms rippling with muscle like corded steel. The little varra took a step back, and then pumped three arrows in rapid succession into Goti's chest. He grunted, but it was rage that showed on his face rather than pain. As Neko tore more shafts from his quiver, Goti raised his now-enormous pick in both hands over his head.
"Neko, move!" Boris shouted, but it was too late.
Goti Runecaster drove down with the pick-axe, burying the point through the top of Neko's head. The varra went at first rigid, and them completely limp, sliding to the ground, blood and brain tissue leaking from his eyes and nose.
"Damn it!" Lucian cursed as he ran towards the pit and leaped.
His boots touched the far side, his arms pinwheeling. He struggled for a moment to catch his balance, but then the weight of his pack and quiver pulled him back, and he toppled over the edge.

Zula cursed as well, but she formed her words into a sonic blast that rocked Goti on his heels. Then Mazael was there and he slashed with Suishen, the sword shouting its encouragement into his mind. Piotr followed this up by conjuring a rolling ball of fire and sending it into Goti's feet. The giant sorcerer roared, his voice returned. He raised his pick again, this time over Mazael's head, but before he could strike, Zula spoke the words to a spell, and covered the haft of the weapon in a greasy coating. It slipped from Goti's grasp and clattered to the floor. He snarled and cast his own spell, opening another pit beneath Zula and Piotr. Both of them leaped clear at the last second. He then bent to recover his weapon, and Mazael struck him again. As Goti rose to his feet again, he swung back, connecting solidly with the war-priest, driving him back. Mazael, blood dripping from his face, gripped Suishen in both hands and charged back in, driving the katana through the sorcerer's heart. Goti toppled, returning to his normal size as he died.


Boris stood silently over Neko's ruined form. The others kept a respectful distance while the goblin bid his friend farewell.
"Boris come back for you," he said. "Bury you in special monkey place with lots of bananas."
He sniffed, wiped his eyes, and turned back to his companions.
"Boris ready," he said flatly. "Let's see who left here to kill."

The large padlocked door proved to be a challenge. When Boris examined it, he found faint runes etched into the locking mechanism, a telltale sign of a magical ward. Fishing through his lock picks, he found a specially enchanted rasp and set to work scouring the rune clean before opening the lock itself. He was rewarded when he found that beyond the door was a veritable trove of valuables gathered into one place. Chests overflowed with gold and silver ornaments. Crates held trade bars of precious metals. Ornate, gilded drinking horns peeked out of a burlap sack, and coffers spilled forth gold and silver coins in quantities rarely seen in that part of the world. It looked they had found the bulk of the funds that Thorborg Silverskorr had been diverting from the Rimerunners.
"If only Neko still alive to see this," Boris bawled, tears of sorrow and joy streaming down his face.

The hallway continued on and rounded another corner, revealing yet another stair that descended to a trio of alcoves flanking an ornate double door. Standing in each alcove was a bronze statue depicting a warrior dressed in the ornate garb and armor of a warrior of distant Tian Xia. Beneath their broad helmets, the statues wore demonic face masks with snarling, fanged maws, while their hands clutched gracefully curved swords in poses of battle. Boris led the way to the doors, eyeing the statues in distrust as he passed between them. He listened at the door, and then pulled back.
"More water," he said.
Mazael grimaced, and then grabbed one of the opening rings. Just as he began to pull, however, the noise of stone scraping on stone drew his gaze upward. The statues had begun to move! One of them lumbered out of its alcove towards Shalelu, who snapped off a shot as it approached, only to see her shaft bounce from its stone hide, leaving only a small nick behind. Lucian tried the same trick with much the same results. Another one next to Mazael brought its katana down, slashing into his arm. He spun on his heel, counterstrikeing with Suishen, though when the sword connected, Mazael felt the reverberations all the way in his teeth.

Boris found himself trapped in the middle of all three statues, a place where he absolutely did not want to be. He ran, ducking into a low tumble, trying to dart through the legs of the golems, but he was just a hair too slow. As he darted past the last one, its katana opened a gaping wound down the back of his leg. The guardian turned to follow the limping goblin, but then Piotr hurled a flaming sphere into its path, trying to slow it down long enough to let Boris make his getaway. The ball bounced harmlessly off the statue, and it continued to lumber inexorably forward. Zula, seeing that Piotr's magic had no effect on the construct, tried another tactic. She conjured a puddle of slippery grease beneath its feet, as well as a second one. The first's legs came out from beneath it, sending it crashing to the floor, while the next in line simply couldn't gain any purchase to keep moving.

Lucian tried to ply his arrows again now that the momentum of the guardians had stalled, and though his shots were true, they failed to do more than scratch the surface of their stoney hides. The fallen golem climbed laboriously to its feet, but as it did so, Mazael lunged towards it, slashing with Suishen again. However, when he took his eyes away from the third guardian, it struck, driving its own blade deep into the war-priest's spine, sending him to his knees. Then, it was Piotr's turn to learn from his mistake. Following Zula's example, instead of trying to ply his magic directly upon the golems, he instead created a glitterdust cloud, unsure if statues could, in fact, be blinded. His question was answered a moment later when all three of the guardians began to stumble about aimlessly. Zula quickly followed this with her thundercall, and the impact of the blast sent one of them to the ground again as it slipped in the grease. Mazael, having levered himself painstakingly back to his feet, drove Suishen into that one's head, shattering it completely, and it did not rise again. After that, Boris darted back into the fray, stabbing at the joints of the remaining golems. Zula's voice blasted them again, and Mazael continued to deal devastating damage with the Amatasu ancestral blade until the last one crumbled.


After the companions had a chance to tend their wounds, they turned once more to the pair of doors the samurai statues had been guarding. Mazael pulled them both open wide, revealing a vast, impressive chamber. The interior had been transformed into a multilevel architetural wonder. The room was divided into two tiers, the upper one lying twenty feet above the lower, and rotated forty-five degrees. The peak of the ceiling rose to a pyramid sixty feet above the floor. The diagonal orientation of the upper tier formed four twenty-foot high ledges above teh walls of the lower tier. A fountain issued from the southernmost of those ledges, pouring in a waterfall to a decorative pool in the floor containing several ruby-hued koi. Black-lacquered folding screens had been set at various places about the room, creating a veritable maze of panels. As soon as the doors were opened, the companions heard a female voice from somewhere within the labyrinth.
"Welcome to Ravenscraeg and my twisted pagoda," she said. "You have been very busy, and you have caused me no end of trouble."
Abruptly, the voice changed. Though there was still something about it that identified it as female, it had become deep, guttural and booming.
"I trust you have enjoyed my hospitality," it continued, now seeming to come from somewhere above them. "Prepare to enjoy it one final time!"

Boris quickly darted into the room and disappeared into the shadows of the lacquered screens. As he passed a passage between the barriers, he glanced down it and spied a figure crouched in the gloom. It was a ninja, but it did not seem to spot him. As quietly as he could, the goblin crept towards the assassin, and before it realized he was there, Boris slid his wakizashi between the man's ribs.

When the others heard the commotion from within the maze, they all began to move, spreading out among the screens. As Shalelu stepped around a corner, a flash of movement caught her eye as another black-clad ninja darted at her and thrust a blade into her belly. She grunted and fell back, trying to bring up her bow to deflect the assassin's next blow, but then she heard a small but powerful voice call out from above her.
"HALT!" Spivey shouted, clutching her holy symbol in her hand and pointing it at the ninja.
To Shalelu's amazement, the man complied, coming to a stop and simply staring up at the azata. A moment later, the ninja erupted into flames as Piotr stepped into view, fire spewing out of his fingertips.

At that moment, the air above the companions filled with frigid air and razor-sharp ice crystals, blasting aside several of the screens, and rolling over Lucian, Shalelu and Mazael. As the blast cleared, a giant could be seen hovering on high. Clad in beautiful armor, the exotically garbed creature roared, its tusks glistening and its eyes afire with murderous intent. She carried a large bow in her hands, and across her back rested an enormous spiked club. Mazael, his joints still stiff and frozen, ducked for cover, but found his path blocked by a pair of ninjas.
"Swift as the wind. Quiet as the forest. Conquer like the fire. Steady as the mountain," Suishen spoke into his mind.
Mazael grinned viciously as he crouched low and thrust the blade through his first enemy's chest, then rose, spinning, and took the other man's head from his shoulders.

Boris's opponent was bleeding profusely from the goblin's first cut. His second solved that problem by opening the ninja's throat. Behind him, two more ninja appeared. One of them slashed at Piotr, but then both of them were blown off their feet by Zula's thundercall. One of them did not rise again, and when the other tried to, Piotr blasted him with a volley of magic missiles.

Lucian tried to shake the chill from his bones as his numb fingers gripped his bowstring. He brought the bow up and loosed at the giantess still hovering above the fray. To his amazement, on of his shafts went straight through her left eye. She screamed a high, ululating cry that chilled the oracle even more than the cold blast had.
"Keep her distracted!" Mazael shouted at him as he ran past.
The war-priest closed to Boris, and touched the goblin with Suishen.
"The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim," Suishen said to Boris as the little rogue suddenly felt himself become lighter than air.
"You're with me!" Mazael snarled.
Lucian kept up his barrage as Mazael and Boris charged into the air. Mazael reached the ogress first, but as he closed, she dropped her bow and drew her massive club in one swift movement, smashing it into the war-priest's chest. Boris used the opportunity to somersault through the air behind her, where he slashed viciously behind her knees. She screamed again as she flew towards the floor, swinging wildly at Lucian, whose arrows still peppered her. He club connected solidly with the oracle, flinging him against a far wall, where he lay stunned. Shalelu quickly took up where her apprentice left off, sending her own volley at the fiend. The ogress turned towards her, only to find Mazael, blood dripping from his mouth, standing above her. Suishen's flames flared as the war-priest swung, and the blade practically sang with power as it opened the oni's throat, spilling her life's blood to the floor. She sank to her knees, her remaining eye going dim before she collapsed completely.

"What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease," Suishen said. "You have earned the title of Scion of House Amatatsu. I shall continue to reveal my full power to you."
Mazael's eyes opened wide as the sword disclosed another of its secrets: the ability to resist even the most frigid of colds. He had the feeling this would be invaluable where they would soon by journeying.


The Coming Storm

7 Pharast, 4715-7 Desnus, 4715

A thorough search of the twisted pagoda of Kimandatsu turned up no sign of Ulf Gormundr, but Boris did come across a secret panel hidden away in a far corner. It was securely locked, but fortunately they had found of a set of keys on the oni's body. There was a passage beyond the door that carried a noticeable chill. Around a corner stood a pair of heavy wooden doors, one on each side of the hall, both secured with large locks. The companions paused before the first door, and Boris found a key on the ring that fit that lock. He unlatched it and pushed open the heavy find himself face-to-muzzle with a white-furred wolf the size of a grizzly bear, with a rime of frost around its snarling mouth.

Boris waited for the wolf's jaws to clamp down over his head, his eyes squeezed shut. When his death did not immediately come, he partially opened one eye and saw that the beast was still poised, a low growl emanating from deep in its chest.
"That's a winter warg," Piotr said quietly from behind Boris. "They are highly intelligent. Let me try and speak with it. Keep your mouth shut, and don't move."
The sorcerer stepped forward and cleared his throat.
"We have no quarrel with you," he began. "We are here searching for a friend, and we have been accosted continuously by the denizens of this keep. Judging by the large lock on the outside of your door, I assume you may have been held prisoner by these same individuals. If so, then our interests may be in alignment."
"If not, then we kill you like we kill them!" Boris burst out, puffing up his chest.
Piotr hissed, and Zula snatched Boris behind her.
"Please," Piotr continued, "ignore that. I assure you that we mean you no harm...if you can say the same."
The wolf's cold, blue eyes glittered in the torchlight, but the growl grew quiet, and its lips once more covered its fangs.
"What has become of the ogre mage?" he asked in a distinctly masculine voice.
"She is dead," Piotr replied, "at our hands. You can see for yourself if you like. May I ask how you came to be here?"
"I was taken unawares from my home at the Crown of the World by that treacherous creature," the wolf replied. "She thought to tame and train me as one might a dog. I showed her differently, so she left me here to rot."
"The Crown of the World?" Piotr asked. "The man we are looking for is to be our guide for an expedition there. Do you know of other captives here?"
"I have heard pathetic human screams from further down the passage," the wolf replied. "You're going to the Crown of the World? Do you wish to die so fervently?"
"Not at all," Piotr shook his head. "But we must traverse it to reach the lands of Tian Xia. Is there anything you can tell us of the dangers we might encounter?"
The wolf issued a short bark, which might have been a laugh. "The dangers are as many as the hairs in my coat! Your human guide might know the way, but only one such as I can truly prepare you for the perils you will face."
"Is that an offer, Mr....?"
"Skygni," the wolf said, and then shrugged his massive shoulders. "I am returning home in any event. There is strength in a pack. I could accompany you, seeing as how you have done me a service this day."
Piotr looked to his companions, who nodded their agreement.
"It may be several days before we are ready to depart Kalsgard," he said to Skygni.
"Fine," the wolf replied. "I will meet you outside the walls of the human settlement in a fortnight. If you do not come, I will leave without you."
With that, he shouldered his way into the passage and then trotted back the way they'd come.


Kimandatsu's keys also unlocked the last door in the hallway. Inky darkness filled the inside of the chamber on the other side, along with a stale, fishy smell mixed with the stench of unwashed bodies. The sound of dripping water and a low moan echoed through the still air. Boris's eyes adjusted quickly to the darkness and he could see that the northwest corner of the room was flooded with tepid water, creating a shallow pool. Crouched in that water were a trio of frog-like creatures the size of short, stocky humanoids with webbed feet and claws, and glowing white eyes. Nearer to hand, curled into a fetal position, was an Ulfen man. He wasn't moving, and Boris could not tell if he was breathing.

The little goblin walked confidently into the room while his companions watched from the doorway. He went to the Ulfen, and bent down to listen for any signs of life.
"He just sleeping," Boris called over his shoulder, "or unconscious. Same difference."
He then turned towards the frog creatures, who were all staring at him.
"Hello frog-people," he waved. "We here to free you. That what we doing today...freeing everyone...wolfs, frogs, humans...all free!"
In response, the eyes of the creatures suddenly blazed with blinding light as they rushed forward. Boris's vision went white, and then he couldn't see anything anymore.

Though the light was intense, Lucian could still see well enough to put two arrows in the closest creature headed for Boris. The second little beast leaped towards Mazael, whose sight was also nothing but dazzling spots. The war-priest, however, was accustomed to fighting under less than ideal conditions, and with a bit of guidance from Suishen, he timed his strike perfectly to colide with the frog-thing just as it landed in front of him. Behind him, Zula had been struck blind as well, but she had had enough time to glimpse the layout of the room before that, and she hurled her thunderous voice towards the center of the chamber. The resulting concussion killed two of the things outright, and then Lucian fired another pair of arrows at the last one just as it raked its claws at Boris, dropping it before it could inflict more damage.


It took some time for the vision of the companions to clear, and for Spivey to tend to the wounds of the Ulfen man. He was disoriented once he regained consciousness, and at first shied away from the strange individuals surrounding him.
"Be at ease," Piotr said reassuringly. "Are you Ulf Gormundr? If so, we have been looking for you. Uksahkka asked us to find you."
"Uksahkka?" the man asked. "Is she with you? Is she safe?"
"She dead," Boris blurted, earning him another withering glare from Piotr, and a slap on the back of his head from Mazael.
"Yes," Piotr confirmed. "We only received word of this recently. She was murdered by the same people who kidnapped you, but we have avenged her."
"She will not be avenged until every member of the Rimerunners Guild is dead at the point of my blade!" Ulf snarled.
"We actually believe that the Kalsgard chapter of the Rimerunners was a front for another, far more dangerous organization called the Five Storms," Piotr replied. "They reside in Tian Xia, and we are journeying there across the Crown of the World to bring them to justice. If you would guide us there, you could have your revenge."
Ulf's eyes smoldered with rage, and he nodded once, curtly.
"You have your guide," he said.


Two days later found the companions and Ulf Gormundr back in Kalsgard. Koya was inconsolable when she learned of the loss of a second son, but after time spent in mediation and prayer with her fellow Desnans, Spivey and Mazael, she came to realize that her goddess had larger plans, and her boys had played their part in the tapestry. She was at peace.

Lute Haggersly had kept his word, and returned Haroldo's body to the caravan, where Koya had kept it in a gentle repose. The merchant had since revealed publicly the truth about Thorborg Silverskorr and the Rimerunners Guild. This had caused a major shake up among the Kalsgard guilds, and Sveinn Blood-Eagle has suspended the Rimerunners' operations and seized all of their assets while investigations were conducted. The Linnorm King then publicly distanced himself from his formal cordial relations with Silverskorr.

For their part in avenging his blood feud upon Asvig Longthews and Thorborg Silverskorr, Fynn Snaevald officially relinquished ownership of Suishen to the Scions. He also offered to invest 2000 gold pieces into Sandru's caravan in exchange for a cut of any profits. Sandru was most pleased.

After all of her help, and for the loyalty she had shown, the companions told Zula of the true nature of their quest, and Ameiko offered her an official place among them. The Thundercaller felt strangely drawn to the young Tian woman, and accepted the offer graciously. Still, Sandru felt like they were short-handed, and with the recent revelations of the lengths the Five Storms were willing to go to to stop them, he suggested that they look into hiring on a mercenary or two. In fact, he had already gone so far as to put up postings, and had already received several inquiries. The others were less than pleased, and even less so when they saw the motley crew that had answered the flyers. Sandru was determined, however, and Ameiko supported his decision. They waded through the interviewing process, weeding out 9 out of every 10 applicants, until only four remained.

The first of those deemed sort of worthy was, of all things, another goblin. He rode into the caravan grounds mounted on a shaggy wolf, and carrying a long, golden lance. He introduced himself as Nex, and was quite well-spoken...compared to Boris. He boasted of his jousting skills, and Boris liked him immediately. Mazael was less than enthusiastic. The second candidate was a human, Kelishite by the look of him, named Zane. He was dressed gaudily, with a large peacock plume jutting from his jauntily cocked cap, and leather boots that rose to his thighs. He bore a scimitar that he carried in a bejeweled sheath. He was happy to demonstrate his skills, hopping and dancing about like a fool, all the while spinning his sword about him like a dervish. No one was impressed. Third came a Mwangi screamer named Fang, armed with a large axe carved out of bone. He was monosyllabic, and spoke mostly in grunts, though when he swung his great axe, he nearly cleaved a fallen log in two with one stroke. Last was an elven woman dressed in simple robes. A small, delicate dragon sat upon her shoulder, and the only name she gave was Sly. She didn't walk into the camp, but instead floated gently out of the air. She demonstrated many strange magical abilities, which caused Piotr to mutter the word 'witchcraft' under his breath.

The companions debated the merits and drawbacks of each of the candidates at length, weighing their own current strengths and weaknesses, and what role they were most in need of. They had more than enough people who knew how to swing a blade or shoot a bow, especially since they intended on resurrecting Haroldo just as soon as the Amatasu Seal was recharged. In the end, despite Piotr's protests, it was decided that Sly best suited their needs. Her spells and skills would nicely complement the sorcerer's, who, even he grudgingly admitted, had been carrying the lion's-share of mystical mayhem up to that point. Contracts were signed and agreements were arrived at. Sandru estimated it would be approximately two weeks before the caravan would be ready to leave Kalsgard and, upon the advice of Ulf Gormundr, the companions would do well to equip themselves for a long, cold journey.


Two weeks later, Sandru's caravan pulled out of Kalsgard, bound for the Crown of the World. Just beyond the city, Skygni found them, and took up position in the fore of the train. The horses whinnied skittishly, but the drovers managed to keep them under the control, though the men muttered to themselves under their breaths, and forked the sign of the Evil Eye at the warg.

Over the next month, the caravan travelled through the Thanelands of the Linnorm Kings before following the line of the Stormspear Hills to reach the taiga and tundra beyond. At that point, the two Avistani ends of the Path of Aganhei joined together to cross the Rimethirst Mountains. Along the way, the companions were able to use the Amatatsu Seal to restore Haroldo to the land of the living and bring him up to speed on all that had transpired since his demise. He was not particularly saddened to hear about Neko's death.

It was on their second day on the Path of Aganhei that Skygni brought the caravan to a halt when he stopped abruptly and lifted his muzzle into the air, sniffing intently.
"My brothers are near," he growled. "They will try and surround us. Prepare yourselves."
No sooner had he spoken, than four large shadows separated from the mists on all sides of the wagons. They were white-furred wargs, similar to Skygni, but slightly smaller than the big alpha. Boris quickly rolled underneath one of the wagons and hid himself behind the front wheel. From there he snapped off a shot from his bow into the nearest wolf, taking it through its left eye. At the front of column, Skygni lowered his head, a low menacing growl coming from his throat, and the fur on his back bristling. The warg in front of him adopted a similar pose, and then the two brutes charged one another, colliding with massive impact, teeth and claws ripping and tearing as they rolled through the snow. On the caravan's rear, Lucian fired off a barrage of arrows at the warg closing on him, while on the right flank, the final wolf charged at Piotr and Sly. Piotr prepared to unleash his magic upon the beast, but before he could, Sly stepped in front of him and her fingers wove a complex pattern. The wolf collapsed in mid-run, sliding to a stop mere inches from the witch, deep, rumbling snores echoing from its snout.

The half-blind, pain-maddened warg Boris had shot rushed towards the goblin, its jaws parting and a cloud of frost gathering there. At the last moment, Mazael stepped in front of it and absorbed the brunt of the frigid blast, Suishen's fiery glow bathing him and protecting him from the cold. The war-priest then reversed the blade and drove it through the wolf's throat, putting it out of its misery. Lucian continued to loose arrows at his wolf, and Shalelu joined him. With the combined barrage, the wolf never reached them. At the front of caravan, Skygni and his rival finally rolled to a stop, with the larger warg atop the smaller, it's throat in the alpha's jaws and its life's blood spilling onto the snow. Finally, Haroldo strode up to the sleeping warg and cut its head from its body.

"Well done," Ulf said as he walked among the corpses of the wolves, "but this was easy. We still have at least three months upon the Crown, and the danger is just beginning..,"


Giants And Mermaids

7 Desnus, 4715 - 22 Desnus, 4715

The caravan made its way through the tundral lands of what Ulf called the outer rim of the Crown. The weather was cool, but not unbearable, never rising above 40 degrees, but seldom dipping below freezing. Ulf explained that this was likely to due to the time of the year. The late Spring was the time of the Midnight Sun, where for twenty hours a day, the sun rode high and bright, and for the other four hours it only made it half way to the horizon. He warned them not to get to used to the relatively balmy weather, as the going would get much tougher once they reached the High Ice. Still, it was not unpleasant, and when they spied the aurora glimmering in the sky above them, it cheered them, especially when Koya told them all that this was a good omen.

As the caravan descended the northern flanks of the Rimethirst Mountains that formed the frontier of the Crown of the World, they entered a rugged hill country. Ulf informed the companions that the blustery, wind-carved badlands and folded hills of Urjuk were once home to a collection of giant realms. While some giants still wandered the tundra or the High Ice farther north, the Giant Downs themselves lay desolate and largely unoccupied. Still, Urjuk was remembered as an ancient homeland, and Ulf said that many giants still came there to die or be buried in the lands of their ancestors. When the caravan made camp for the first time in hills, the scouts spotted the shape of a large, solitary wolf on a distant ridge.
"Another of your kin?" Mazael asked Skygni.
The worg lifted his muzzle from his paws where he'd been resting and looked up at the ridge.
"Ignore him," he said after a moment, closing his eyes again. "Likely just a loner checking up on trespassers in his territory. He won't attack a group this big."
Boris wasn't convinced. Since they now had a winter wolf as a traveling companion, he had become more and more curious about the nature of the creatures. Most of the experience he'd ever had with wolves was with the non-talking kind who tried to eat your, or steal your sheep. While the others busied themselves with the normal camp activities, the goblin stole away into the rocky hills, carrying with him a rabbit carcass he'd liberated from the caravan stores.

Boris crested the ridge, still moving stealthily and clinging to what little shadows the midnight sun allowed. He saw the great wolf crouched there, peering out from between two large boulders.
"I can smell you, little rat," the wolf growled.
"I bring a gift for you," Boris called from his hiding place. "We travel with wolf just like you. We be friends!"
"Do not compare me to some whipped cur," the wolf snarled. "You and your kind had best move on from this place with all haste. You are trespassing on hallowed ground. Stick to the trail. If you stray from it, your lives will be forfeit."
"Boris understand," the goblin replied. "You still take gift."
He tossed the rabbit and then scurried back down the hill. He didn't bother to inform the others of his little side trek.


The following day, the caravan continued their journey through the Giant Downs, but about mid-day, Skygni and Ulf spotted movement among the barrows on all sides. They just had time to warn the others before a quartet of white-skinned ice trolls descended upon them. While two of them attacked the fore and rear, meeting Skygni and Shalelu respectively, the other pair charged the flanks, mauling two of the drivers before they could react. They then tried to grab the unconscious Varisians and flee with them. Fortunately, the companions rallied quickly, and through a combination of Mazael and Suishen, Piotr's fireball, Shalelu's acid bow, Sly's slumber hex, and Zula's thundercall, the giants were dealt with decisively. The drivers were badly wounded, but not mortally, and with Spivey's and Koya's healing magics, they were brought back to health, though perhaps still mentally traumatized.

As they travelled on through the day, Boris spotted the big wolf pacing them in the distance from time to time. At one point, he even thought he saw another large figure standing with the wolf, this one on two legs. Rather than concern him, this only served to further intrigue the goblin, and when the caravan again stopped to rest, Boris found that he could not help himself. He simply HAD to go and see one of the giant burial barrows for himself. He waited until most of the camp was asleep, and then scuttled off into the shadows once again. The nearest barrow was perhaps a hundred yards from the caravan. To all appearances, it was simply a large hill, with sparse grass growing atop it. Boris's sharp eyes, however, managed to spot an inconsistency in the irregular stone, and when he examined it more closely, he was able to trace the outline of a large, concealed doorway. He found a hidden latch, and when he flipped it, the door slid inward. Inside was a hollow space that contained a stone bier. Laid out upon it were the skeletal remains of a giant, white hair and beard still clinging to dry flesh. It was dressed in armor, and bore a great axe across its breast, but a quick glance told Boris that there was nothing of real value there. Satisfied, he exited the tomb and closed the door behind him, then slipped back into camp.

It was still an hour before true dawn when the attack came. The scouts had rigged several early warning devices around the camp, including animal traps, trip wires and alarm bells, and these were their first indications of trouble. The assault came from two sides. To the north, the massive winter wolf stalked out of the morning mists, accompanied by a second, smaller companion, while to the south, what looked like a roiling fog cloud appeared as if out of nowhere. Shalelu, who'd been on watch, was the first to respond. Kneeling, she fired a pair of arrows into the smaller wolf, causing it to stumble in mid-charge. To her left, she saw Zula, also awake, and the Thundercaller hammered the wolf the with force of her voice, leaving it stunned and staggering. Another shot from the ranger's bow took it down within a matter of seconds.

Boris didn't know what to make of the wall of mist on the far side of the camp, so naturally he darted right into it. He immediately wished he hadn't, for standing concealed in the fog was the biggest giant he'd ever seen. It was easily twenty feet tall, with pale blue skin and a snow white beard and hair. He bore an enormous axe in his hands, and as Boris stared up wide-eyed at him, he raised it into the air and ran roaring out of the mist.
"YOU WERE WARNED!" he bellowed as he charged straight towards Mazael. "YOU VIOLATED THE HOUSES OF THE DEAD!"
Mazael tried to bring Suishen up defensively, but it was like standing in the path of a hurricane. The mighty frost giant overran the war-priest, and brought his axe down upon Mazael as he fell. The giant didn't pause, and let his momentum carry him straight into Skygni, whom he cleaved with another huge blow from his blade. The winter wolf howled and snarled, but didn't fall back. Instead, he leaped for the giant and locked his jaws around its calf, hanging on for dear life.

Mazael rose groggily to his feet, only to have the giant hammer-blow him a second time. Then the brute turned its attention back to Skygni, but before he could strike, an explosion of fire detonated around his head as Pitor rolled out of the back of the wagon were he'd been sleeping. As the giant reeled backwards, Skygni shook and twisted his leg, tripping him up and sending him crashing to the ground. Suddenly, the air was filled with an animal-like scream as Haroldo came charging, naked, out of another wagon, his sword (and other things) swinging. He drove it into the giant's breast, piercing his heart.

Meanwhile, Lucian, Shalelu and Zula managed to bring down the other winter wolf, while Ulf delivered the killing blow. As the dust cleared and the companions regrouped, Piotr was the first to speak.
"What did he mean when he said we'd violated the houses of the dead?" the sorcerer asked.
All eyes turned immediately to Boris, who quickly slunk away into the shadows beneath the wagons.


Four days later, the caravan left the Giant Downs behind. The Path of Aganhei then crossed a wide tundra basin before turning northwest, skirting the Gaarjuk Hills and heading into the eastern lake country of Hasanaliat. At this point, Ulf Gormundr told the group that they had a choice to make.

"The primary route of the Path of Aganhei runs northwest through the Erutaki lands of Hasanaliat," he said. "It skirts the Bearleg Lakes and the Gaarjuk Hills, and then north of the hills it follows the Taraska River through the high tundra of Hoarwell March towards the town of Unaimo, the last major trading village before it climbs onto the High Ice through the Koumssa Gap. This route is easier and faster, but the lands it crosses are more inhabited, potentially exposing us to unfriendly eyes. I suggest an alternate route north directly through the Gaarjuk Hills. This will cut off a wide bend of our route and avoid the more civilized lands. However, the hill country is far more rugged and remote, with fewer chances for us to resupply or seek help if trouble should ensue. We would still need to ford the Taraska, and with greater difficulty than along the main route, and then link back up with the Path."
The others deferred to the guide's greater experience, and the decision was made to divert through the hill country.

On 22 Desnus, the caravan came into the small Erutaki village of Rimakak, which lay at the foot of a waterfall flowing into Lake Nallishoot. Ulf had visited the village in the past, and thought it might be a good place to rest and resupply. When the troupe pulled in, however, they found the lodges and huts completely deserted. Worse, they had been despoiled, with refuse, offal and filth smeared all about, and all of the furnishings smashed to splinters. No bodies nor blood could be found, however. It was fairly easy for the party scouts to determine that a large number of people had fled to the north recently, judging by the amount of booted footprints leading in that direction, as if a mass exodus of the entire population had occurred. There was something else, though: a smaller number of bare foot prints led towards the frozen lake. These prints were large, as if from a creature ten-feet tall or more, and the toe marks bore deep claw indentations, and it was apparent that the feet were webbed.

It was decided that Shalelu, Sandru, Koya, Ameiko, Ulf , Spivey and Skygni would stay behind and guard the caravan while the others followed the strange tracks onto the lake to see if they could discover what might have befallen the Erutaki. The prints led out into the middle of the lake before they abruptly vanished. It was then that Boris, Zula and Sly simultaneously spotted large, dark shadows moving just below the ice. Before they could warn their companions, the ice directly beneath Piotr cracked and fractured. A nightmarish creature reached up from the depths and wrapped its arms around the sorcerer. It resembled a monstrous humanoid woman with a lumpy, scaled hide and lank, tangled black hair. It wore ragged sealskin garments decorated with numerous shells and tiny living crustaceans. A curiously sweet smell wafted from her. Then the ice began breaking all around the companions as other creatures surged up from below. The new arrivals were giants with pale green, scaled skin and large, webbed hands and feet. On either side of their necks were slotted gills. There were eight of them in total. Two of them slammed their big fists into Haroldo and Mazael, while another pair hammered at Piotr, driving him underwater with his captor. She wrapped her arms more tightly around his, pinning them to his side, and then, before the horrified eyes of his friends, Piotr began to transform. His skin shaded towards bluish green, and his eyes became bulbous as gill slits formed on his neck.

Above, Mazael stepped into the air, under Suishen's spell, and surged towards one of the aquatic ogres, the katana opening the creature from stem to stern, spilling its bowels onto the ice. Sly rose into the air on her own magic, and flung one of her hexes towards another of the creatures, causing it to roll onto its back in the water, snoring loudly. Haroldo jumped nimbly across the ice floes, landing adjacent to one of the brutes, and then beheading it with a swing of his great sword. He then turned and slashed at another, which fell a moment later to Lucian's bow. Four more fell stunned in the water as Zula's voice boomed across the valley. The Shoanti then turned her attention to freeing Piotr. She cast a spell of grease upon the sorcerer, enabling him to wriggle free of the woman's grasp. Piotr struggled to the surface, gasped for air, then wove his own spell, causing his body to rapidly blink in and out of resistance as he swam for the shore, the horrid transformation already beginning to reverse itself.

Boris dove into the frigid lake, trying to swim around and beneath the hag. When he reached her, he thrust his blade into her back, but it was if he'd stabbed a slab of iron. She spun swiftly in the water, her black eyes meeting his, and then she cocked her head quizzically.
"You might just be the one...," she said, almost to herself.
Boris felt strange. He couldn't remember why he'd been attacking this lovely creature. She reached out a taloned hand and gently caressed his cheek.
"Breath," she said, and he found that he could.
He opened his mouth and drew in freezing water, yet it was no different than breathing air.
"Swim down, my love," she said. "Wait for me on the bottom. I'll be along. I have a gift for you."
"Boris like gifts, mer-lady," the goblin nodded enthusiastically, and then he swam down into the depths of the lake.

Mazael and Haroldo made quick work of the stunned merrow in the water, while Lucian picked off the one snoozing on its back. Soon the lake was quiet again. Piotr had made it back to shore safely, and Zula had followed to make sure no other dangers were lurking. Sly circled above, but could see no new enemies below the ice. It was only then that the companions noticed that Boris was nowhere in sight...and the strange, water hag was gone as well...


Thanks! The group is really enjoying it, and there have been quite a few moments where the story has gone "off script." With my next two posts, I will be current with our game in real time



Boris looked around in fascination at the foreign landscape of the lakebed. He was equally amazed by the fact that he was actually breathing water! Beside him, his strange new friend swam in silence.
"Queen of the Deep," he said at last, trying to pass the time, "Boris appreciate you inviting him to your home and giving him the ability to breath water, but Boris don't think it was very nice of you to hug his friend Piotr the like that. Not to mention your other friends were very mean to Boris's friends. On other hand YOU are very nice, especially giving Boris this lovely trip to bottom of lake. We should work on our friends' not liking each other, teach them to be more like you and Boris. Take Boris's word, these humans are not very trusting and actually very racist. Unlike your generosity, it takes a lot to make them accept you into their home as friend. We can teach them a thing or two, if you ask Boris. When we get to your underwater palace, Boris would like to make you a special salmon and seaweed wrapped sandwich. See? You give Boris gift, and Boris make you sandwich. Fair trade, yes?"
"Your 'friends' just killed all of my children," she replied flatly.
Boris had no answer to that.

After awhile, they reached a cave deep below the surface. The interior held an odd array of fish bones, kelp, shell art, and scattered coins, as well as pieces of armor and a few scattered weapons. Once inside, Boris's host turned towards him.
"My name is Arnaalak," she said, "and I am a qallupilluk. I have lived in this lake, for some time, and for many years I had kept my distance from the villagers. However, I was also very lonely, and I thought it was time I paid my neighbors a visit. At first, they showed me respect, and invited me to a feast. When I demanded, as was my right, the honored portion of the feast, they agreed, but when one of their women came to serve me, the fool spilled the food all over me! I knew this was a deliberate insult, meant to taunt me! I was enraged, so I cursed the villagers and returned to my lake. I soon came back to the village, however, and began luring their children away, one by one, to take my revenge. I transformed them into the creatures that you saw, and when the village warriors came looking for them, it pleased me to have them die at the hands of their own mutated children, who now called me mother."
Boris thought for a moment, and then chose his words wisely.
"Well, Boris completely understand why you were offended by these humans. They were very stupid to have insulted you in such a way as to toss food on you. Boris care more about you and food than to do such things."
Arnaalak continued to stare at him with her black, pupil-less eyes.
"You see why they taunted me, yes?" she asked. "They knew I was childless, and they had many children. The cow that spilled food on me was even pregnant! They wanted to rub my face in it! But now," she lowered her gaze. "Now, their adopted children...lay dead at the hands of your friends!"
Boris tensed, his hands sliding towards his swords.
"Then I saw you, and I had a revelation," she continued. "You see, my kind do not produce offspring very often. We are all females, and must mate with males from other aquatic races, but even then, children are rare. We have more luck when we mate with land dwellers that we have transformed. That is why I chose you. I want you to be my mate."

Looking her in the eyes, Boris again tiptoed around his words.
"Boris will be happy to do sexy things with you, but Boris does not want to be a Mer-King. He want to be goblin. Please do not take offense to Boris turning down this offer, but Boris is on quest that he has promised to complete. The Gods have revealed this to Boris in his fortunes through the Harrow Cards. You understand Boris, yes?"
Arnaalak looked a little disappointed, a little sad, and a little...angry. Then, a look of inspiration came into her eyes.
"The change is not permanent unless I sacrifice a portion of my own life force for you," she said. "I can change you, we can consummate our love, and then you will change back in one hour. If you agree, I will give you this."
She retrieved a gleaming, golden breast plate from the clutter and showed it to Boris.
"If you don't...I might have to eat you."
She smiled when she said that, and winked.
Boris nodded his head, but with reservation.
"If you will you give Boris your WORD as Mer-Queen," he replied, "that you allow Boris to continue on his journey to save the world. As you know, this very important to Boris and the rest of world. Boris need to finish this quest as goblin, but willing to be mer-man for little while. Boris realize he very irresistible and is willing to help new friend make the royal baby."
Arnaalak grinned horribly, and nodded as well. Boris began to remove his armor in a very seductive way....for a goblin.

After...Boris was true to his word, and made his lady-love a delicious salmon and kelp sandwich. She did indeed gift him with the golden breastplate, and in turn, he gave her a silver ladle he had filched from Ravenscraeg. An hour or so later, his transformation ended, and he returned to his former goblin beauty. Arnaalak bid him farewell, but invited him to return to her if was ever that way again, and perhaps he could meet his daughter...


The Evil That Men Do

22 Desnus, 4715 - 2 Sarenith, 4715

The Scions stared in horror at the dead children scattered upon the ice at their feet. As the merrows had died, each of them had undergone a rapid transformation, leaving behind the broken bodies of the Erutaki young.
"We couldn't have known," Mazael said, shaking his head.
"That could have been me," Piotr murmured.
"What does this mean for Boris?" Lucian asked. "If that...creature has taken him, what will become of him?"
Mazael shook his head again. "Suishen can't sense him, but that doesn't mean much. This lake could be hundreds of feet deep. There's no way we're going to find him."
"If we wait until morning," Lucian said, "there is a prayer that I know which can locate a unique object, such as his kami armor."
"Tomorrow," Piotr sighed. "That may be all that's left of him by tomorrow."

They returned to the abandoned village and informed their traveling companions of all that had transpired. None of them had any better idea of how to find the missing goblin, and so they resigned themselves to waiting out the long night. No one noticed, or if they did, they gave no sign, that they were being watched very closely as the hours ticked by. In the morning, Lucian settled in for his meditation. When he'd finished, he gathered the others around him.
"This should work," he said, "but we have to prepare ourselves that the only thing we may recover is Boris's body. Even so, we owe him that much. We may even be able to use the Seal to restore him if that's what his spirit wants."
Suddenly, a loud honking sound, followed by hitching sobs drew their attention to one of the abandoned houses. From out of the shadows there, a small figure stepped.
"You DO love Boris!" the goblin wailed. "Boris watch all night to see if friends sad for him, and you are! Don't be sad tall people; Boris back!"
A chorus of groans, sighs, and a smattering of cheers (mainly from Koya and Spivey) greeted this 'triumphant' return.
"Would you care to tell us just what you've been up to?" Lucian asked. "And did you kill that murderous lake-hag?"
"You no talk like that about Boris' Mer-Queen!" the goblin snapped. "Boris went to underwater palace, and now he is king of entire underwater kingdom!"
Lucian rolled his eyes, and Mazael growled deep in his chest.
"What is it with you and monsters?" the war-priest asked. "First the tengu, then the harpy, now this...hag-thing?"
"Her name Arnaalak, and she is fine lady!" Boris protested. "Humans in village insult her big-time and throw food at her just because she not have baby! She get even with them by steal their babies!"
"And turning them into monsters, which we were forced to kill!" Lucian sputtered.
Boris shrugged. "There is that, but she really not so bad. She nice to Boris and let him return to friends. She also tell Boris information about road ahead."
"I'm not interested," Lucian spat, and turned away, shaking his head.
"Fine!" Boris called after him. "Then Boris not tell you about three-headed flying monsters, or cannibals! Oh...and Boris almost forget: dragons!"


Three days later found the caravan north of Lake Nallishoot, where the hills became more rugged with cliffs and wind-carved badlands laced with rocky stream-beds. Those countless, nameless streams gathered themselves together to form the Kluani River, a rock-strewn watercourse that flowed out of the hills to join the Taraska River in the tundra beyond. The curious echoes and labyrinthine pathways of the badlands made it difficult for the company to discern normal noises from things more sinister. The caravan's route led along the base of an east-west ridge that sheltered it from the ever-present north winds. It was from the top of this ridge that the companions first heard a distant, sharp 'crack' followed by an ominous roar. They looked up, and all eyes widened in horror as they saw the avalanche of cascading rocks and debris, over one-hundred feet wide, bearing down on them. Sandru lashed at the horses drawing the lead wagon, and called for the other drivers to follow him. The wagons lurched into a faster pace, with the scouts and guides running along beside. The full force of the avalanche came crashing down behind them, just missing the trailing wagon by a matter of yards, obliterating their back trail.

Sandru stood in his seat and looked back over his caravan, taking a mental head-count to assure himself that everyone was safe. As his eyes travelled up to the top of the ridge, however, they narrowed. Two winged shapes had launched themselves from there and were rapidly bearing down on the companions.
"Beware!" he cried in warning.
The creatures swept down, and they were terrible to behold. They had the white-furred bodies of powerful polar bears, but with three heads. The center of these was that of a white-scaled dragon, while the other two were those of a polar bear and a walrus. Their wings and tails were also draconic. Sandru grabbed his bow and quickly loosed an arrow at the lead beast. The shaft found its mark, but the chimera seemed not even to notice. It broke its dive directly above Sandru's wagon, hovering in mid-air, its wings whipping up a dervish of dust and grit. It's draconic mouth stretched open wide, and a blast of frigid ice burst from its throat. Sandru leaped from the wagon at the last instant, landing in a rolling somersault on the ground, unharmed. He looked over his shoulder, certain the creature would be bearing down on him, but instead he saw the furry bulk of Skygni leap onto the wagon. The winter wolf raised his muzzle and exhaled his own wintery breath up at the chimera, causing all three of its heads to roar in pain as a frosty rime covered them.

The second chimera charged the back of the caravan, where Shalelu was struggling to bring her bow to bear. It blasted her with its breath as it streaked by, leaving the ranger coated in a layer of frost that chilled her to the bone.
"Shalelu! Get clear!" Lucian cried.
The wood oracle fired a shot from his bow, his magic imbuing the shaft with greater weight as it left the string, causing it to strike with immense impact. It pierced the eye of the chimera's walrus head, and as the creature reeled, Lucian loosed a second shaft, taking it through its foreleg. As it circled for altitude, Shalelu's numb fingers drew back her bowstring and released, sending a third shaft into its rump before she darted for cover behind the nearest wagon.

The first chimera locked the jaws of its bear head around Skygni's throat. The great wolf howled, and then clamped his own fangs down on the dragon head's neck. While the two beasts grappled, Mazael charged in, Suishen's blade wreathed in flame. He struck the chimera across its flank, and it roared, its walrus head whipping around to impale one large tusk through the war-priest's leg. It raked its front claws across Skygni's belly, trying to free itself from the wolf, and tear his throat out at the same time. Suddenly, a ray of black light sprang from the outstretched hand of Sly and struck the chimera. Immediately, its form began to wither and shrivel as its very life force was drained. A moment later, Piotr hurled a bead of fire at it, which exploded into an expanding ball of fire, completely engulfing the creature, leaving it a charred husk as the blast threw Skygni and Mazael clear.

The remaining chimera wheeled around and launched itself at Lucian, its draconic jaws tearing at his shoulder as he tried to move out of the way. The force of the blow sent him stumbling, but when he turned back towards the monster, his bow was drawn taught, and he loosed another heavy arrow, sending this one into the forehead of the dragon head and the brain beneath. The chimera went rigid, then fell to the ground, jittering as if struck by lightning before going still.
"See?" Boris said as he emerged from his hiding place beneath one of the wagons. "Boris tell you mer-Queen speak true! Now you don't come running to Boris when cannibals eat you!"


Two days later, as the caravan made its way along the Kluani River, where the Gaarjuk hills sloped down to the Taraska floodplain, the travelers came upon a small collection of sod huts partially buried in the riverbank. As they drew closer, the Erutaki hunters emerged from their dwellings and waved their hands in greeting.
"It should be ok," Ulf said. "They may want to trade."

The wagon train stopped among the huts, and the headman approached.
"I am Taranaak, of the Silver Marten clan," he introduced himself. "Welcome to our camp. Come, share meat with us, and perhaps we can barter and share news."
The companions glanced at one another, and then at Ulf.
"It's customary," the guide murmured. "To refuse would be an insult."
The tribesmen brought out wooden platters laden with meat, and the caravaners partook...all but two. Piotr pretended to eat, but Boris's warning echoed in his mind. When he was sure no one was watching, he tossed his portion to Skygni. Sly also did not eat, but she was more obvious about it.
"Is something wrong?" Taranaak asked, tension in his voice.
"Have you heard anything about cannibals around here?" the witch asked innocently.
The rest of the caravan collectively held their breath.
"Of course!" Taranaak laughed. "To eat of the flesh of one's enemy is to embrace their spirit. It honors their sacrifice. Also, we cannot simply refuse the bounty of the land in this place of privation. Now you have tasted of it as well. Join us!"
"No thanks," Sly said, dropping the meat in disgust.
The others threw their portions to the ground as well, their faces registering various degrees of horror and outrage...all except Skygni, who continued to gnaw contentedly on a large haunch. Taranaak's face darkened angrily.
"You dare insult us so?" he snarled. "Leave now, or you will be our next meal!"
His warriors reached for their weapons.
"Come," Ulf said quickly, before the others could react. "We will go our own way."


"This cannot stand!" Koya said angrily.
It was actually one of the few times Sandru could remember seeing his mother angry. The caravan had come to a halt, perhaps a mile beyond the Silver Marten clan's campsite.
"I have eaten of human flesh!" the old fortune-teller shouted. "Desna will not forgive me for this!"
Spivey nodded her head solemnly.
"There must be some sort of atonement," she said.
"Agreed!" Mazael snarled. "And I know just the thing!"
Koya looked at her fellow Desnans sharply, and there was a dangerous look in her eyes.
"For once, my old friend," she replied to the war-priest, "I am in agreement with your thirst for violence. Cannibalism is an abomination in itself, but for those people to lure in unsuspecting travelers and deceive them into participating in their vile rituals is too much to bear! How many more of Desna's beloved will fall victim to this practice, or worse, wind up in the cook pot themselves?"
"What are you suggesting, Mother?" Sandru asked quietly.
"We return to their camp," Koya said firmly. "We offer them the chance to renounce their wicked practice. If they do not, then our atonement must be blood!"


When the caravan returned to the camp of the Silver Martens, they were met by a dozen of Taranaak's armed warriors, as well as the chieftain himself.
"You were warned not to return here!" he shouted across the distance between the two factions.
"And you have sinned in the eyes of Desna!" Koya called back. "We offer you the opportunity to repent and beg for the Traveler's mercy, and our forgiveness!"
As she spoke, Boris ducked beneath one of the wagons and quietly broke one of the snapleafs he carried his his belt pouch. As the leaf's magic rendered him invisible, he crept silently down the trail until he stood among the cannibals.
"Hah!" Taranaak barked in scornful laughter. "We do not recognize your weak southern gods! Come! Let us show you the power gained by consuming your foes!"

"Boris hear enough," the goblin grumbled as he stabbed one wakizashi through the groin of the nearest cannibal.
The man roared in pain, and swung his huge club at Boris, but the little rogue scampered nimbly away.
"Bring me their heads!" Taranaak commanded.
His men surged forward, their war cries blood-curdling. As they ran, their jaws seemed to elongate, and their canine teeth lengthened to sharp points. Ulf and Haroldo rushed forward to meet the onslaught, their weapons slicing bone and sinew wantonly. Lucian took a knee and sighted with his bow, then put one arrow neatly through Taranaak's shoulder, though the chief stood well behind his warriors. Several of the Erutaki charged past Ulf and Haroldo towards the main body of the caravan. Mazael moved to meet them, but he was quickly overwhelmed. Cannibals swarmed around him, clubbing and biting. He was granted a short moment of reprieve when Shalelu, with deadly accuracy, took down three of the warriors with her bow. Sly put another one to sleep with her hexes, and Mazael drove Suishen through that one's chest, making sure he would never wake again.

Suddenly, Ulf cried out a warning.
"Haroldo is down!" the Ulfen called.
Beside him, the blood-rager lay on the ground, loud snores echoing from his barrel chest. Sly's gaze went to Taranaak. She cursed herself for not having recgnized another witch, but his familiar had not been visible before. Now, a small, beady-eyed weasel sat twitching upon his shoulder.
"Wake him!" she screamed at Ulf.
"How?" the guide shrugged.
"Kick him in the slats!" Sly snapped.
Ulf looked dubious, but he did as she commanded, drawing back one big, booted foot and slamming its toe solidly into Haroldo's ribs. The blood-rager grunted and jerked awake, his eyes darting around in alarm. To his credit, his disorientation did not last long. He grabbed his sword from where it lay nearby and, though still flat on his back, swung it wide and took the legs from under the nearest cannibal, the force of the blow carrying the blade straight through and into the thigh of the next man. He then fought his way to his feet while bearing the vicious bites of another pair of the savages who closed on him.

Mazael continued to lay about him with Suishen, fighting to keep the cannibals away from his more vulnerable companions. As he brought another one down, his efforts finally bore fruit when Piotr detonated a fireball near Taranaak, immolating a quartet of his warriors, and blistering the chieftain's flesh. As he flailed about trying to put out the flames, an arrow from Lucian's bow caught him in the throat, and he fell, choking on his own blood. And with that, only three cannibals remained. Boris took one, launching himself from the shrubbery and stabbing the man through his spine. Mazael finished off another after Sly put him to sleep as the man turned to run, and Piotr finished the last one with a blast of magic missiles.

Koya walked among the dead, pausing to touch each of them as she passed, murmuring a quiet prayer to Desna.
"Burn them," she said. "Send their souls to the heavens, and may they be granted forgiveness."
The others silently obeyed, adding the stockpile of meat they found among the cannibals stores to the pyre.
Boris whispered to Lucian as he passed,"That twice Boris' mer-Queen right. Now you watch out for dragon!"


They continued their trek north, but a sudden blizzard halted their progress for three days, then slowed them further for another two days as they struggled through the deep drifts left behind. Finally descending from the hills into the northern tundra of the Hoarwell March, the caravan then journeyed another sixty miles to the great Taraska River. Following Ulf's advice, they travelled along the Kluani River until it joined the Taraska, where they found a fording. That, however, was the easy part. Navigating the marshes south of the river took several hours, and the crossing itself took several more. This was partly due to the fact that when the troupe was halfway across the river, they drew the attention of a trio of enormous freshwater pike, each over thirty-feet long!

The horses began to panic as the fish circled closer, and the drivers, including Sandru, struggled mightily to keep them from bolting. The archers, Lucian, Boris and Shalelu, stood atop the wagons peppering the pike with arrows, trying to keep them away from the horses. Spivey managed to stun one of them temporarily with a focused soundburst, while Sly actually put one to sleep. Unfortunately, as it rolled over on its side, the river current carried it violently into the side of one of the wagons, quickly rousing it once again. Skygni loped through the water towards one of the fish. He breathed his frigid breath on it as he charged, but before he could get any closer, the pike lunged at him, seizing the wolf in its jaws, and then shaking him violently.

The archers finally managed to bring down one of the great fish, and Mazael, using Suishen's power to walk across the air, rushed to Skygni's aid, slashing and cutting at the pike until it released the wolf and sank, bleeding, back into the water. Sly hurled a bolt of lightning from her fingertips at the last fish, but it still managed to leap out of the water and seize the witch. She went limp as its jaws crushed her mid-section. Lucian fired arrow after arrow at the beast, and Piotr released a magic missile barrage. The fish rolled over as it died, dumping Sly into the water, but Mazael grabbed her up before the current could carry her away. He was relieved to find she was still alive...but just barely.


The Sacrifice

2 Sarenith, 4715 - 9 Sarenith, 4715

"We're going to take a little detour," Ulf Gormundr said as the caravan company sat gathered around the fire that evening. Sly lay reclined on her bedroll, but she was no worse for wear after the ministrations of Koya and Spivey.
"If we followed the main route," Ulf explained, "we would pass through the trade-town of Unaimo. However, I would prefer that we head west, to a cliff-village I know of called Iqaliat. I am friends with the hearthmistress there, and I would like to get a better idea of the prevailing conditions along the trail from someone I trust before deciding on the best path for us to take."
The others deferred to his expertise, though Skygni grumbled under his breath about stupid two-leggers getting themselves eaten by going off the beaten path.

Ulf said that the trip to Iqaliat would take about a week. Their next three days of travel were largely uneventful, save for an unoccupied hunter's cabin that they came across, which held nothing of any real value. Four days after that, however, they made a grisly find: a large mound of bodies, all human, stacked near the trail like cordwood. They were all naked, and the cause of death appeared to be exposure. Their skin was white to the point of being blue, and ice-rimed. What at first looked to be like a shared wound on each corpse, was instead some sort of symbol carved into their flesh, like a three fingered claw.
"Snow-chickens," Boris observed. "Very dangerous."
"No, it's worse," Zula said. "I have seen that symbol before. It is the mark of Sithhud, a demon lord of blizzards and the frozen dead."


The village of Iqaliat was built into the overhanging cliffs of Alasek Ridge, at the southern edge of the polar plateau known as the High Ice. With the summer melt in full swing, waterfalls by the hundreds poured down the icy cliff face. Most of the village's buildings were two-story affairs, crafted of stone and clay brick, with their outer faces clad in harder rock. Earthen ramps led up to a gatehouse from the tundra, and a tall watchtower stood over it.

Guards atop the watchtower hailed the caravan as it approached, demanding to know their business there.
"I am Ulf Gormundr," the guide called, stepping forward and displaying a talisman made of reptilian scales, "friend to Hearthmistress Sonavut. We request shelter and trade."
The guards conferred among themselves for several minutes, and then called down for the gates to be opened. The caravan wagons rumbled up the ramp, through the gates, and down another ramp on the far side. The villagers comprised over one-hundred individuals, including even a handful of dwarves. They went about their daily routines, but as the caravan came to a halt in the middle of the town, the Varisians were met by icy stares and scowling faces.
"I thought you said these people were your friends," Mazael muttered to Ulf.
"It was so when last I was here," the Ulfen replied. "Something is amiss. We should speak with the hearthmistress."

The companions made their way to the home of Hearthmistress Sonavut, where she stood outside and lifted her hand in greeting.
"Ulf Gormundr," she smiled, "it is good to see you again, though I am afraid you have come at a dark time."
"So I gathered," Ulf replied. "What has happened? I hoped to learn the conditions along the Path of Aganhei before we continued on our trek."
Sonavut looked around, then lowered her voice.
"It would be best if we spoke privately."
She led them into the house, and offered them cups of hot, fermented goat's milk. She joined them, sitting heavily and sighing deeply.
"The Path east, past Unaimo and through the Koumssa Gap, is blocked," she said.
"Blocked?" Ulf asked, puzzled. "By what?"
"The morozkos," she replied. "The hungry storms."
"What are those?" Piotr asked.
"Fierce winter blizzards," Ulf answered. "The Erutaki believe they are malevolent, and possible even...sentient."
He turned back to Sonavut.
"But this is not the time of year for them," he said. "Nor have they ever been seen this far south."
Sonavut nodded. "This is true, but now they have swept down from the High Ice and stopped all travel along the Path of Aganhei. We have also heard tales of strange black pillars, guarded by walking, frozen dead, appearing all across the Crown of the World."
"Did you say frozen dead?" Zula interrupted.
Sonavut nodded again.
"We encountered frozen corpses just this morning," Zula explained, "but they did not walk. They were very much dead, but they were all marked with the symbol of Sithhud."
Sonavut's face went pale, and she made the sign of the evil eye.
"These are dark tidings indeed," she said, "but this is not the cause of the unrest among my people. There is more: after decades of peace, the dragon Vegsundvaag has awakened, and has been terrorizing our village. We have sent hunters to slay her, but none have returned, and many more of our warriors have died defending the town during her attacks."
Boris elbowed Lucian in the ribs, and whispered, "You see? Dragon! Mer-Queen right again!"
"Do you know why these attacks are occurring?" Ulf asked.
Sonavut shook her head.
"No, and neither does our chief, but our shaman, Tunuak, blames it on our supposed lack of faith in the spirits of the wind that have always protected Iqaliat. He has even gone so far as to accuse me of leading the people astray," she said bitterly. "I'm sorry that I have no answers for you. The dragon blocks the way north, and the morozkos block the Path east."
Before anyone could say anything further, however, loud and angry voices could be heard from outside.


When the companions exited the home of the hearthmistress, they saw that what looked like the entire village had gathered outside, surrounding the caravan wagons with the drivers and cooks, shouting angrily. In the midst of the crowd stood an aged man, still hearty, but leaning on a twisted staff, and wrapped in a heavy gray cloak decorated with Erutaki tribal designs. His brown eyes were yellowed with age, as were his few remaining teeth, and his balding head was a patchwork of short, wiry white hairs around his temples and the back of his scalp. Tribal tattoos decorated his liver-spotted pate and face, wrinkled and worn by wind and sun. He carried himself with an air of importance, expecting to be heard.

"Tunuak!" Sonavut hissed quietly.
"There they are!" the old man shouted, pointing one bony finger at the Scions. "Their intrusion here will only inflame the dragon's anger! You have all turned away from the spirits of the wind and invited outsiders into our midst, and the spirits will repay such faithlessness by sending the dragon against us once again! Now, even the traditional sacrifices to appease the wind spirits will not suffice! The outsiders' taint can be removed only by sacrificing one of them, and then the rest must leave here at once!"
The crowd roared in angry agreement, and surged closer towards the companions.
"Do not listen to this nonsense!" Sonavut shouted back. "Ulf Gormundr has come to us as a friend many times, and these people that he journeys with have brought no ill with them!"
She looked around the mob for the village chieftain, Nalvanaq, and saw him standing off to one side, arms crossed over his chest in silent judgement.
"Do they not?" Tunuak raised his voice again. "Look, standing with them before your eyes is a goblin! A devourer of children, and our scouts reported seeing an ice warg traveling with them on the road! They associate with minions of evil! How can they not be harboring ill in their hearts?"
The crowd erupted again, nodding their heads vehemently, and this time, it was Piotr who stepped forward to speak.
"It is true that we count a goblin among our friends," the sorcerer said, "but he was taken as an infant, when he was orphaned by his tribe. He has been raised among good people all of his life, and his actions speak for his noble spirit."
Boris sniffed, and wiped a tear from his eye.
"As for the wolf," Piotr continued, "we rescued him from a vile ogre mage, and in exchange, he has offered to help guide us along our path."
The crowd murmured and grumbled, many of them shaking their heads in disbelief.
"Boris not think you very convincing," the goblin muttered, "but he like your words and make you special meal tonight if you not sacrificed to wind gods."
"More lies!" Tunuak shouted, turning back to the crowd. "While it may not be these particular individuals who have angered the spirits, our leniency in allowing foreigners to continuously travel across our lands and sacred places have brought on their vengeance! The dragon is the instrument of their displeasure! I implore you, my people, let us make this sacrifice, and return to us the good will of the gods!"
"No, let us prove ourselves to you!" Piotr called back. "Let us go our way, and we will seek out this dragon for you! We will either convince it to cease its attacks, or we will slay it and returns its head to you!"
The crowds' rumblings became uncertain, and many whispered among themselves, some nodding in agreement. Tunuak could sense the mood shifting.
"Of course they are willing to go to the dragon!" he shouted shrilly, "For they are in league with it! The will return here with it and destroy you all! You will perish in ice and frost, fodder for the wolves who will feast upon your bones!"
This time it was Zula who responded. The Shoanti woman stepped forward and projected her voice, not enough to cause harm, but with just the right amount of force to cause those listening to wince and cover their ears.
"Now listen to me!" she boomed. "We are here in peace, and we will leave the same way! We will deal with this dragon, for it stands in our way, but make no mistake: if any of you try to do us harm, it will be at your own peril! You will wish for the tender mercies of a dragon by the time we are finished with you!"

Silence fell over the crowd, with nervous glances passing among the villagers. Finally, the chieftain stepped forward.
"We have heard your words, and those of our shaman," he said, his voice carrying. "Here is my decision: you may stay here for one night, but tomorrow you must leave. Go to the dragon or don't, but do not return this way again."
He turned, and walked back into the crowd, which parted before him. Zula looked around, but Tunuak was nowhere to be seen. There was something not right about the old shaman, other than just religious zealotry. It seemed to her that there was something more to his actions than a simple desire to protect his village from a dragon.
"I would like to speak to the shaman," she said, turning to Sonavut. "My hear tells me that there is a falseness to him that I cannot explain."
The hearthmistress nodded. "I can take you to his tower," she said. "Follow me."

They crossed the center of the village to a squat, three-story stone tower. Sonavut knocked on the door, and it was opened a moment later, but not by Tunuak. Instead, a younger man stood there, his eyes wide and blinking at the strange group assembled outside.
"Hearthmistress?" he asked, perplexed. "What is going on?"
"We are looking for your master, Gluktok," Sonavut replied calmly. "We need to speak with him."
"He...he is not here," Gluktok stammered. "He did not return after the assembly."
"Is that what they call a lynch mob around here?" Mazael growled.
"Do you know where he may have gone?" Sonavut asked, ignoring the war-priest.
"He has been spending much time among the wind altars lately," the apprentice replied, "but the last time I went there looking for him, I could not find him, though I am certain I saw him enter the tunnel to the cliff top."
"Wind altars?" Zula asked.
"The shrines to the wind spirits," Sonavut explained, "atop the cliff above the village. There is a cleft in the cliff wall that leads up to it. I can show you where it is, but then I feel that I must speak to Chief Nalvanaq. I implore you to tread lightly when you find Tunuak. He is a good man...just misguided, I feel."


The passage Sonavut led them to was little more than a crack in the cliff wall at the back of the village. The companions passed through it, single-file, and followed the narrow, twisting course steadily upwards. Zula found a set of booted footprints that were easy to follow, but midway up they abruptly vanished. She halted the others with a raised hand, and then bent low to the ground. She straightened a moment later.
"They lead to that wall," she pointed.
"Allow Boris, loud lady," Boris pushed forward and peered closely at the bare rock.
"I see a small crack there," Haroldo indicated.
Boris gave him a look of disdain.
"You not teach grandmother how to suck eggs," he scoffed. "You see crack, but Boris," he reached out a finger and traced a large rectangular outline, "find whole door. And," he bent over and fiddled with something on the floor, "trapdoor that you standing on. Boris fix, so now you not fall and die. No need to thank Boris. After you."
He pushed another spot on the wall, and the entire section pivoted inwards, revealing another passage beyond.

They lined up again and followed the new, but still just as narrow, tunnel as it sloped up to the west and south. After perhaps a hundred feet or so, it rounded a corner and ended in a blank wall. Standing before the wall, gazing up at it, was an Erutaki hunter clad in leathers. He turned to look over his shoulder as the group approached.
"I saw you in the village," he said. "What are you doing here?"
"We could ask you the same," Zula replied. "Did you see Tunuak come this way?"
"I am Naquun," the man said. "I was following the shaman to make sure he was safe, but then I saw him go through a hidden door that I had never seen before. I ducked through after him, but when I got here, he was simply gone again."
Zula's eyes narrowed.
"You followed him through the hidden door," she said, "but how did you bypass the pit trap?"
Naquun's face turned stony, and one hand inched towards his belt where a pair of hand-axes hung.
"I am sensing a powerful evil presence," Helgavarl abruptly announced from Mazael's brow.
That was enough for Boris. The goblin dove between the hunter's legs and rolled to his feet behind the man before driving a blade through his back. The impact shook his arm so badly that he almost dropped his sword. It was if he had stabbed a stone wall. Worse, instead of bleeding profusely, the wound rapidly began to close. A twang sounded from further down the hall and one of Lucian's arrows appeared in Naquun's shoulder, where it quivered for a moment, and then fell to the ground.
"Looks like we got our work cut out for us," Mazael snarled, stepping forward as Suishen ignited. He struck with all his might, and to his relief, Naquun grunted and gave ground. A moment later, however, both hand-axes appeared in the hunter's hands and he leaped at Mazael, his weapons moving too fast for the war-priest to block. They carved deep gouges in his flesh, and it was his turn to fall back. Two more arrows sprouted from Naquun's chest, and Boris struck twice more from behind. The hunter staggered, but did not least not until Mazael gathered himself and struck again, burying Suishen in his chest. As he collapsed to the floor, the Erutaki warrior almost seemed to deflate. A black mist curled from his open mouth and snaked across the floor, where it coalesced into a tiny, dark-skinned creature with bat-like wings and curved horns protruding from its forehead. Mazael didn't hesitate. He swung Suishen again, and splattered the little demon across the wall.

"What in the Hells was that?" he gasped, struggling to catch his breath.
"A demon," Zula replied. "A quasit."
"It was...possessing him," Lucian said in disbelief. "We killed an innocent man!"
"Then we need to take care when we find Tunuak," Piotr said. "We couldn't know this man was possessed, and the same may be true of the shaman. If he resists us or attacks, we should try and take him alive if possible."


Boris easily found the second hidden door in the tunnel wall, which was blessedly untrapped. It granted ingress into a wide, irregular pit in the upper cliffs, open to the sky above through a crack in the ice, with a ramp circling its way down to a slushy basin sixty-feet below. The path appeared to be quite narrow, and slick with ice, with numerous small niches in the wall adjacent along its course.

Mazael was the first to step through, his eyes scanning for any sign of the shaman. What he saw out of the corner of his gaze were several shadowy forms that quickly darted out of sight into the niches. They looked like humans at first glance, though gaunt and emaciated. When his eyes adjusted to the gloom, however, he saw from their sunken eyes, blue skin, and frost-covered flesh that they were no longer among the living.
"Company," he warned the others.
"Boris see them," the goblin replied, and then he was off.
Boris scrambled along the ledge, moving nimbly despite the slippery conditions. He reached the first of the frozen dead just as it emerged from its hidey hole, and stabbed one of his twin blades through its belly. It didn't make a sound, and the wound looked like a hole in a block of ice. Boris gulped and took a hasty step back. It pointed one boney finger at him, and a blast of frigid air erupted around him. Boris braced himself, but the blast just felt like a gentle breeze. He reminded himself to thank Mazael for asking Suishen to grant him protection from frigid conditions. A moment later, he owed the war-priest another debt of gratitude when Mazael charged past him, skating on air and impaling the undead with Suishen's fiery blade. The creature erupted in flames and screamed as it melted away into water and bones.

Just then, something very strange occurred: appearing out of thin air, a translucent, demonic-looking figure reached out towards Mazael and ripped across his face with claws that felt as sharp as steel. The war-priest cursed and slashed with Suishen. His jaw dropped when the sword passed completely and harmlessly through the demon. He cursed again and moved away from the creature, walking on air towards the middle of the pit. The demon raked its claws across his back as he fled.
"A little help here!" he cried.

Across the chasm, another of the frozen dead stepped out of a cleft and hurled a cone of frost towards the heroes still outside in the passage. Zula and Sly took the brunt of the blast, while Lucian and Piotr were unscathed due to Suishen's protection. The sword had consented to share this power with all of the Scions, but this did not extend to Sly and Zula, who were still relative newcomers. Lucian loosed an arrow towards the undead creature, and took it through the throat, and it toppled over the edge of the pit. Sly launched herself into the air, her supernatural hexes simultaneously giving her the power of flight and invisibility. Though her skin was blistered from the cold, the undead were the least of her worries. The shaman was around somewhere, and he was the greater threat. She dove towards the bottom of the pit, and that was when she heard the chanting coming from down below.

At that moment, a dark, cloying miasmic cloud exploded around the companions. Where it touched them, it froze like liquid fire, and with Zula, it even made her physically ill. Only Sly and Haroldo were beyond the edge of its spread, and it vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
"There you are!" Sly shouted, having pinpointed where the chanting had come from.
She began her own spell and loosed a crackling bolt of electricity towards the bottom of the pit. She was rewarded by a cry of pain from that area, and the smell of burning hair.

Piotr had deduced that the shaman must be hiding invisibly somewhere in the pit, just as Sly had. He passed a hand over his eyes, and murmured a spell. When he opened his eyes again, his vision sharpened, and he could clearly see Tunuak rising into the air from the bottom of the pit, smoke trailing from his fur cloak.
"He's flying!" the sorcerer called out. "He's on his way towards us!"

Mazael ignored this. He had his own problems. The demon had followed him, and opened up another gash across his chest. Suishen could not help him, and he wasn't going to be able to keep absorbing blow after blow. He searched his mind, desperate to find a solution, and he seized upon an idea. Maybe this wasn't a physical foe after all. Maybe the shaman had conjured up something. He grasped his holy symbol, and spoke the words to a dispelling prayer. A wide smile spread across his face when the creature simply popped out existence.

Zula, waves of nausea still roiling through her belly, heard Piotr's warning, and cocked he head, listening. Then she heard it: chanting coming from somewhere above. Fortunately, her thundercall was not a precision weapon. She opened her mouth and the air exploded with a booming report, completely drowning out whatever new spell Tunuak was planning to throw. A moment later, the air above the pit erupted with a burst of glittering dust, and then everyone could see the shaman hovering there.
"Very well!" Tunuak called. "Now you will all be able to see your doom coming!"
His hands wove together as he gathered another spell, and this time Zula could not stop it. A column of fire blasted down, enveloping the thundercaller, and catching Mazael as well.

Down on the ramp, Boris spotted another of the frozen dead maneuvering itself behind Haroldo. He leaped towards it, skidding between its legs and slashing at its thighs as he passed. Haroldo turned and saw the creature bearing down on him, then swung his great sword and took its head off its shoulders. He and the goblin then continued slip-sliding down the ramp to where yet another frozen corpse was emerging from the wall, and quickly put an end to it as well.

Piotr decided to fight fire with fire, and he detonated a ball of flame right on top of Tunuak. Unfortunately, the shaman had protected himself for just such an eventuality, and the flames left him unscathed, but Sly, who was still flying about invisibly, was caught in the blast and thrown into the wall of the pit, her skin blistering and her clothes smoldering. As she struggled to recover, Lucian loosed a pair of arrows at Tunuak, but he chose blunt-tipped shafts, remembering what Piotr had said about the possibility of possession. Tunuak grunted, and doubled over as the arrows struck his belly, but as he straightened, another spell was on his lips, this time conjuring a spinning vortex of violent wind about him, throwing all of his enemies away from him. Sly was beyond its effect, however, due to the force of the fireball. She summoned her magic and threw a slumbering hex towards the shaman. To her vast relief, Tunuak went limp as sleep overcame him, and then he dropped from the sky and plummeted towards the bottom of the pit. His winds cushioned the fall, but the force of it was still enough to jolt him back awake.

Before the shaman could recover, Lucian focused his divine power on the magical windstorm and, somewhat to his surprise, managed to dispel the vortex. Then both Piotr and Haroldo sent volleys of magic missiles towards Tunuak, throwing him further off balance. The shaman gathered himself and leaped into the air once more, struggling to gain altitude. Before he could reach the top, however, Sly sent a bolt of black fire at him, sapping his power as it drained his life force, and then Piotr rapidly followed up with a spell that sent an ear-piercing screech echoing through the pit, causing Tunuak to reel and seize his head in agony. Finally, Zula unleashed her thundercall once more. Tunuak went limp again, falling from the air yet again. This time when he hit the ground, however, he did not rise again.


No demon rose from Tunuak's body after his death, assuaging Zula's guilt at having possibly killed another innocent. The slushy basin at the bottom of the pit where the shaman had fallen was filled with hundreds of bones, all marked with the three-fingered claw rune of Sitthud. On one side of the pit, dozens of skulls had been piled into a crude altar. A number of white shards, similar to ceramic, where stacked before it. Painted along the icy walls of the shaft were Erutaki pictograms, and scattered among many of these were more of the strange runes. One of the drawings showed strange black standing stones rising from icy hills, while another displayed a cluster of towers glowing with a strange blue light. A third one showed a single monolithic tower rising above what seemed to be a black lake with white mountain peaks behind it, and a fourth displayed a spiraling storm with long arms ending in ice-fanged jaws devouring Erutaki villages, but with longer jaw-arms reaching towards forests, crudely drawn castles and cities, and what might have been ships at sea. Warriors were shown trying to fight the storm with spears before being engulfed and sealed in tombs of ice. The final pictogram showed a blue-skinned woman with dark wings and hair, wearing a silver-crown or circlet. Her hand grasped one of the claw-sigils like a scepter, and spiraling streaks of silver and white curled from it in every direction.

"These shards," Zula said picking up one of them from in front of the altar, "unless I miss my guess they are...egg shells."
No!" Sonavut said. "It cannot be!"
The companions had brought the hearthmistress as well as the chieftain to Tunuak's bore after the battle.
"Those are from dragon eggs!" she cried.
"These," Chief Nalvanaq gazed at the pictogram of the black pillars, "our hunters have reported seeing these scattered around the High Ice. And these," he gestured at the blue-limned tower picture, "are the Nameless Spires. They are an ancient ruined city located at the North Pole. The mountains behind them are the Alabastrine Peaks. These are the morozkos," he indicated the long-armed storm. "Wait, what is this?" He leaned in more closely, peering at the drawing of the blue-skinned woman. "There is writing here. It speaks of love for someone named Katiyana 'who speaks to me on the winds from her tower in the Storms.'"
"The Nameless Spires," Sonavut said. "Our people believe the wind spirits reside there. It is a dangerous place, but also a source of great visions for those brave enough to seek it. Tunuak himself undertook a vision quest there within the past year."
"Where he apparently met this Katiyana," Zula said, "and then somehow decided that stealing dragon eggs and sacrificing them to a demon lord would be a good idea."


With this post, I am now current with our game, and I will now be updating once a week with the exploits from the previous Sunday


The High Ice

8 Sarenith, 4715 - 5 Erastus, 4715

"I've had enough," Sly said.
The companions were gathered in Sonavut's home, discussing their next move, when the witch had abruptly stood up and made her announcement.
"This isn't what I signed up for, and no amount of money is worth this. I've almost died at least three times now, and we aren't even halfway to where we're going yet! I want out!"
The others looked at her, silently judging. It was Sandru who finally spoke.
"Well, I'm sorry to hear that," the caravan master said calmly. "You have been an asset to our cause, but we all have our limits. We would not keep you here against your will."
Sly nodded firmly.
"I understand Piotr is going to be making a trip back to Kalsgaard," she said.
The sorcerer looked dubious, but nodded his head.
"Yes," he replied. "I have purchased a pair of teleportation scrolls, and I'm going to sell off some goods that we've accumulated, and do a little shopping as well."
"Good," Sly said. "Then I'll go with you, you can pay me my cut, and we'll go our separate ways."
"Boris going too," the goblin chimed in. "Have some personal business to handle."
"I guess that's settled then," Zula said. "We will wait for your return, and then I suppose we have a dragon to deal with."


Piotr and Boris returned from their trip the following afternoon. Boris had not been at all forthcoming with the sorcerer about the nature of his business in the Ulfen city, and had promptly vanished as soon as they arrived in Kalsgaard, only to reappear at exactly the predetermined time and place to return with Piotr to Iqaliat. Despite Piotr's suspicions, however, the goblin's mission was anything but nefarious. He had sought out an armorer and fetched a good price for the fine breastplate that Arnaalak had given him, and then gone to the orphanage he'd visited previously. He'd left the gold the breastplate had fetched at the back door with a simple note instructing that it be spent to buy the children toys and sweets.

The following day, the Scions prepared to depart Iqaliat in search of the lair of the dragon Vegsundvaag. Sandru had decided that the caravan would remain in town for safety, and he, Ameiko, Shalelu, Koya, Spivey and Ulf would stay with it. Ulf had no knowledge of where to find the dragon, and didn't think he would be of much use. Just before the companions were about to leave, however, Chief Nalvanaq approached them, a tall, heavily muscled Mwangi man trailing him. The big man, dressed as he was in only a loin cloth, and carrying a long pole-arm, looked as out of place among the Erutaki as Boris did among the humans.
"This is Mongo," Nalavanaq said by way of introduction. "He knows the terrain between here and Vegsundvaag's domain. He will guide you."
The Chief didn't wait for a response. He simply turned on his heel and walked away, leaving the companions staring at their strange new guide.


It took four days of travel on foot across the barren expanse of the High Ice to reach the glacial rift where Mongo indicated the dragon laired. Along the way, the big Mwangi man told his new companions of how he had come to be so far from home.

Deep within the darkest Mwangi jungles, a small tribe known as the Toot-Tutes (which in common translated into Great Warriors) hunted with great success for many generations. When Mongo came of age, he became bored with hunting pumas and giant snakes. He left his tribe in hopes of learning to become the greatest warrior in the world. Aboard his tiny dugout canoe, Mongo traveled to the Sodden Lands where he hired on as a city guard. There he served for several years , learning to use a guisarme and becoming a skilled guard. However, he soon grew tired of city life and yearned for more advanced knowledge of fighting styles. Thus, Mongo boarded a ship bound for Varisia. There he met the love of his life, a woman named Tootsie. Tootsie slept with Mongo every night and it only cost five copper pieces! Among other things, Tootsie was a monk and taught Mongo how to fight with only his hands and feet. They were pledged to be married. However, only months before their wedding at the Temple of Gorum, Tootsie died of mummy rot and Mongo was left broken hearted. Filled with despair and self loathing, Mongo travelled to the Land of the Mammoth Lords. There he made a name for himself as a gladiator at Tankin’s Gamehouse and Hobgoblin Brothel. Mongo won many, many matches and eventually attracted the attention of a merchant know as Morcash. Morcash lured Mongo out of the fighting pits and encouraged him to join him on a venture to other side of the world. Mongo agreed in hopes of traveling to meet the Tian people and learning their fighting styles. However, not long into their journey, Morcash’s caravan was ambushed by a tribe of terrible cannibals. Everyone but Mongo was captured. Luckily, Mongo made his way to the village of Iqaliat where he had remained stranded and seeking revenge.

"An...interesting tale," Zula said once the loquacious warrior had finished his story. "We are bound for Tian Xia once our business here is concluded. If we survive this, perhaps you could journey with us."
"I would like that," Mongo nodded. "Not enough trees here."

The rift that Mongo had led them to was about twenty feet wide, but over one-hundred feet in length. The companions approached cautiously and peered over the edge. It looked as if it widened after thirty feet or so, but then it extended away into darkness, beyond even the sharp eyes of Boris.
"Boris go down," the goblin volunteered. "He more sneaky than big people, but Boris need talking fire sword to make him walk on air like Mazael."
"Easy enough," the war-priest agreed.
"And...," Boris continued, "Boris need Piotr to make him invisible too. Boris sneaky, but it never hurt to be careful."
Piotr couldn't argue the logic, especially where dragons were concerned. So, once the goblin had been rendered invisible and lighter than air, he dropped over the edge of the crevasse and began making his way down. After descending some sixty feet, he saw a cave opening on one side of the rift, but he also noticed something on the opposite side: the ice there looked thinner in one spot, and he thought that if he hit it hard enough, it might break. He thought better of it, not wanting to make any more noise than necessary. He continued down. After another forty feet, he found two more openings on opposite sides, but one of them was much larger...dragon-sized. He entered quietly and found himself in a long cavern. It extended back well over a hundred feet, but was bisected by a small chasm halfway across. At the far end, crouched in the shadows, was a white-scaled dragon, roughly the size of a large warhorse. Boris had seen enough. He retreated as silently as he had entered, and made his way back to the top of the ravine.

Once Boris had reported that the dragon was indeed home, there seemed to be nothing for it but to go back down and see what happened.
"I would like to at least try and speak with her," Piotr declared. "Maybe if we can explain the circumstances of her eggs being destroyed, we can placate her."
"Hmph," Mazael snorted. "If a dragon showed up and killed my kids, and then another dragon came along and said, 'Sorry about that. That other dragon was bad and I took care of her. No hard feelings,' I would be having dragon stew for weeks!"
"It's worth a try," Zula said, "but don't get your hopes up."

Mazael asked Suishen to grant Haroldo the power to air walk along with himself and Boris. Then, the war-priest allowed Lucian to ride piggy back, while Haroldo carried Piotr. Zula tied off a rope at the top of the ravine and threw the other end into the abyss. Then, at her mark, she and Mongo leaped off the edge, each one holding on to the rope with one hand. As they began to fall, the thundercaller uttered a spell, and the two of them began to drift slowly down, as light as feathers. Using the rope to guide them, they landed softly on the ledge of the large cave mouth, just as the others joined them.

In formation, they companions entered the large ice cave, and at the sight of them, Vegsundvaag reared up in anger. Her scales glittered like polished ice edged with silver, but her face was marred with claw marks, and the horned frill surmounting her head was tattered and scarred.
"More warm bloods!" she screeched. "Come to steal more from me!?"
"Mighty Vegsundvaag!" Piotr called out, his hands held up placatingly. "We have come here seeking a peaceful resolution. We know that you have been victimized, but we found the individual responsible. He was a worshipper of a foul demon, and he thought to sow discord between the Erutaki and yourself with his actions. His plans have been foiled, and he is now dead at our hands."
The dragon's wings beat furiously as she rose into the air.
"I am well aware of what happened to my eggs!" she roared. "I found the evidence! A hammer lay amidst the ruins of my clutch, as well as a talisman marked with the filthy scrawlings of Iqaliat! On that day I swore vengeance on humans, and I vowed to devour every hot-blooded ape in that village until my wrath is sated! Now, you will be my next meal!"
"So much for peaceful negotiations," Maazel sighed as he drew Suishen. "Time to move to more aggressive tactics!"

Piotr had hoped that his efforts would bear fruit, but he was no fool. As the dragon launched herself towards him, he hurled a fireball into her path. She bellowed in agony as the flames washed over her, melting gaping holes through her scaled hide. Yet she did not falter, and as she rushed forward, Piotr felt his hear quail at her fury. Next to him, he saw Mongo's face grow pale as well. She back-winged above them and opened her jaws wide to spew forth a storm of frost and ice-shards that enveloped most of the companions. Fortunately, Suishen had shielded each of the scions with his protective magics from extreme cold, and the frigid breath caused no harm. Zula, however, did not share in that status, and she took the brunt of the blast, her skin turning bluish white where the ice clung to her. Mongo managed to leap aside at the last instant, else he would have fared no better.

Haroldo charged into the air, his great-sword held above his head. Vegsundvaag snapped at him as he came, but the blood-rager dodged aside, and then plunged his blade into her chest. A moment later, Mazael joined him in the air, flanking on the dragon's opposite side. She whipped her from this way and that at the warriors, but then another fireball from Piotr exploded in the air above her, driving her to the ground. As she fell, Haroldo and Mazael struck at her viciously, opening terrible wounds in her flesh. She landed heavily...right next to Piotr! Her jaws gaped above the sorcerer, but then two arrows sprouted from the roof of her mouth as Lucian's bow sang. She clawed at them, breaking them off just as Haroldo descended on her from above. She bit at him, sinking her teeth into his thigh. Unfortunately for her, it was not his sword arm. He brought his blade down with furious strength, cleaving almost completely through the dragon's neck. She collapsed heavily, her pale blood flooding out of her.


The heroes searched the remainder of Vegsundvaag's lair, and found her nesting place, which was littered with broken eggshells. A stone hammer lay amidst the debris, as did a talisman which was the twin to the one that Ulf Gormundr carried. In another cave they found the dragon's astounding bounty of coins, gems, art objects and other wondrous items. They collected the trove, and then decided to investigate the bottom of the ravine before they departed. There they were surprised to find the remains of another dragon lying among the jagged rock spires. It had been reduced by scavengers to little more than shattered bones, but the wound patterns suggested that it had been mauled by a large predator...perhaps another dragon.

The companions took their leave of the dragon's lair, bringing Vegsundvaag's head with them as proof of their victory. When they reached Iqaliat four days later, the Erutaki hailed them as mighty heroes, and held a great feast of caribou, goat, and fish in their honor. They were invited to stay for as long as they wished, and the villagers repaired all of their wagons and equipped them with cold weather gear. Sonavut also gifted them with a sashimono of comfort, a magical banner that would provide warmth to those gathered around it, as well as two wands that would also help the travelers to endure the harsh elements that they were sure to face.

During the feast, Chief Nalvanaq and Sonavut took the Scions aside, and informed them that they had studied the pictograms in Tunuak's bore, and believed they had discovered more of the shaman's plans. Ancient tales told that the morozkos were the roaring scourge wielded by the demon lord Sithhud, who ate the flesh of the dead and bound their bones to serve him in ages past. The three-fingered skeletal claw was Sithhud's mark, and the pictograms suggested that the dark-winged woman may have found some way to reclaim the demon lord's ancient power, perhaps using the strange black monoliths or other forgotten magics discovered in the Nameless Spires. The elders believed that the third pictogram showed a place that the Erutaki called the Storm Tower. So named because of the storms that always seemed to swirl above its pinnacle, that spire was similar to those found in the Nameless Spires, but it stood alone near the Alabastrine Peaks. The morozkos had already been awakened, but if the woman gained full control over the hungry storms, none would be able to stand before them, and the Scions and their caravan would never make it across the Crown of the World. If they hoped to make the crossing, they would have to journey to the Storm Tower and deal with her before her designs were complete.


'I see you, Scion of House Amatatsu,' the voice spoke into Zula's head.
"What?" she asked, looking around.
"It's the sword," Ameiko said, smiling as she approached, "Suishen. It has informed me that you have become a Scion of my family's House."
"What?" Zula repeated. "How?"
Ameiko shrugged. "Maybe by repeatedly risking your life for the sake of this caravan and my quest. You have no vested interest in seeing this through, yet you have remained with us and gone out of your way to defend us."
Zula was at a loss for words.
"I...I am honored," she said, bowing her head. "I give you my word that I will do everything in my power to see you restored to your throne. In turn, I only ask that you might allow me to impart to you the wisdom of my experience, to use as you will."
Ameiko smiled again.
"I think I'm going to need all the advice I can get."


"So we have agreement, yes?" Boris asked.
The Erutaki warrior eyed the goblin suspiciously but nodded, weighing the sack of coins in his palm.
"Just so we on same page," Boris said, "why don't you tell Boris plan again?"
The man sighed.
"I will journey to Lake Nallishoot and watch over it for one year. I will make sure that no harm comes to any of its...inhabitants."
"Exactly!" Boris said. "Now you get going, and if you meet Mer-Queen, you tell her Boris sent you, and not to eat you."
The man gulped, but then looked at the heavy bag of gold again and nodded.


Ulf informed the rest of the company that, by his estimate, the journey from Iqaliat to the Storm Tower would be about 700 miles across the High Ice and into the Boreal Expanse. Though he had never been that close to the pole before, the guide had heard stories and seen enough maps that, using the mountains as a landmark, he was confident in his ability to bring the caravan there, and afterwards guide it beyond the far end of the Alabastrine Peaks to rejoin the Path of Aganhei at Dead Man's Dome.

Traveling across the High Ice proved more difficult than the tundra, both because the terrain was more rugged, and because it was more desolate and thus harder to navigate. The environment also became more extreme the further north they ventured. One hundred miles north of Iqaliat, the elevation passed 5000 feet, and in the thin air the companions and their horses became easily fatigued. Furthermore, the temperatures atop the High Ice dropped precipitously from the relatively balmy 40 degrees of the tundra, to ranges between 0 degrees and negative 20! The cold weather gear the caravan was outfitted with helped, as did the sashimono of comfort and the wands of endure elements Sonavut had given them. Still, the going was rigorous.

Two weeks out from Iqaliat, the caravan was well in the Boreal Expanse and, being Summer, the sun remained fully risen and shed its light all day and night, appearing to move in a circular pattern in the sky rather than rising and setting. At some point, the companions began to see a bluish glow at the northern horizon that intensified as they drew closer. Finally, as they crested a rise, they saw a massive black tower some ten miles in the distance. The strange blue light emanated from its apex. Just then, Skygni came up the ridge from the opposite side. The warg had been scouting some distance ahead, as was his wont.
"I don't think you're going to be able to get the wagons much closer," he growled.
"What did you find?" Sandru asked.
"Corpses," the wolf said, "lots of them. Walking around. Couple of hundred I'd guess, but I don't count so well."
The caravan master cursed.
"We'll never get past them," he said.
"No, I suspect not," Zula replied pensively, "but perhaps a smaller group could. The caravan can stay here under close guard, while we Scions go in for a closer look."
Sandru looked to Ameiko, who nodded her agreement.
"We will stay here until we hear from you that the path is safe," she said.


The Scions, plus Mongo, left the caravan behind and began crossing the wasteland towards the black tower in the distance.
"This never going to work," Boris complained. "Boris is sneaky. Big-voice lady sneaky, but all rest of you sound like pots and pans in Boris's kitchen when he washing after big meal! We going to get caught! You wait and see!"
Less than an hour later, the goblin's prediction came true.

From out of the blowing snow and mist came staggering a dozen of the frozen dead. Boris spotted them first, and he called out a warning to his companions, putting an arrow through the neck of one as he did so. Lucian followed up with a second shaft through the thing's forehead, and it collapsed. The others simply walked over it as they continued to shamble forward. Haroldo rushed forward to meet them, hacking as he went. He quickly found himself surrounded, however, and their frigid claws began to tear at him. More of them moved past him and reached Boris. The goblin tried to backpedal away, but the creatures grabbed at him and ripped deep gouges in his flesh. Mongo ran to the goblin's aid, his polearm pulling the legs from beneath one of the undead, which he then impaled to the ground with the axe-like blade of his weapon. Zula's voice cracked through the cacophony of the storm, throwing a quartet of the corpses back. Mazael was among them in an instant, chopping them down like saplings. Boris managed to fight his way free through the opening Mongo had provided him, slashing one of his swords across the throat of an assailant as he passed. Lucian's bow continued to thrum, bringing down another corpse, and Haroldo's blood rage filled him as he hewed about him, felling another three. Then, a rolling sphere of fire came bowling through the undead as Piotr summoned his magic, setting one of them alight like a pyre. A few moments later, the last of them fell as Mazael and Boris struck together, and Lucian found his marks with the precision of Old Deadeye himself.


It took several more hours of slogging through the snow before the companions reached the Storm Tower. It was even more impressive up close. The hexagonal spire of black basalt loomed hundreds of feet into the air, mired in a lake of black slush, with a shattered causeway leading across towards a gaping opening in the wall at its base. A huge, crackling ball of blue light floated just above the tower's roof, while a raging white storm turned in an expanding spiral overhead.

"We there?" Boris panted, fatigued from the trek through the thin air.
"Looks that way," Mazael said.
Boris nodded. "Ok, but don't expect Boris to save you this time. Boris knows he is irresistible to women, but only so much of him to go around."


The Storm Tower

5 Erastus, 4715

"Are you sure about this, Boris?" Zula asked. "You don't need to be taking unnecessary risks."
The goblin waved her off.
"This what Boris do. He very sneaky. He sneak over bridge and inside tower. Then, he come back and tell you if safe. No problem!"
The thunder-caller looked dubious, but she had to admit that the plan made sense. The companions were standing on the shore of the lake of black slush that surrounded the immense tower, and the wind whipped around them with gale force. The snow storm was blinding, limiting their visibility.
"Ok," she nodded, "but we need to keep you in sight, so we're going to follow along behind at distance."
Boris shrugged.
"Just be quiet!" he shouted over the howling wind. "Boris not want to get killed because you clanky-clanking everywhere!"

The little goblin turned and began hopping nimbly across the broken, crumbling causeway that led from the lakeshore to the base of the tower. When he was about halfway across, Zula motioned for the others to follow. The distances between the fractured pieces of the bridge were not large, but the blowing wind and icy conditions made the crossing hazardous nonetheless. By the time the rest of the Scions reached the halfway point, Boris had already reached the large, hexagonal opening in the tower's wall. He stepped cautiously inside, and immediately felt an oppressive sense of unease, but at least the wind wasn't blowing in the entry hall. Windblown snow had drifted into the corners and along the walls of the trapezoidal chamber, piling up in deep drifts. Identical hexagonal openings exited the room directly ahead of him, and to his right and left. Strong wind blew from the opening in front of him, and some sort of crystal panel was affixed to the wall beside it. Boris moved in a little further, trying to see what might lay in the adjoining rooms. To his left, he saw a large room with pale white mushrooms growing in profusion along its walls, popping out of more snow drifts. To the right was a similar large chamber, but with a tangle of roots and leaves covering the floor beneath more drifts of windblown snow. Something about the vegetation intrigued the goblin, and he moved in that direction to get a closer look.

Zula cursed when she saw Boris disappear around a corner once he'd entered the tower. She didn't like being exposed out in the open, but she also didn't want them to wander blindly into a potentially dangerous situation. Just as she was preparing to tell the group to keep moving, she caught movement out of the corners of both eyes. The causeway was only five feet above the surface of the dark slush, and from both sides Zula saw a total of three wakes moving towards them, their sources invisible below the surface.
"Incoming!" she shouted in warning to the others
At that moment, three creatures, still over fifty feet way, lifted their heads above the slush, their fanged maws dripping black bile. Each of them in turn spat viscous liquid towards those gathered on the causeway, striking Mazael, Haroldo, Piotr and Zula. They flinched in anticipation of being burned, but all they felt was a mild tingle on their skin.
"Thanks again, friend!" Mazael laughed as he patted Suishen's blade, grateful for the magical protection from extreme cold it had granted them.

Mongo was not the beneficiary of Suishen's gift, and when he saw the cold bile-spitting creatures closing in, the absolute last place he wanted to be was stuck on the narrow causeway between them. He got a running start and leaped across the final gap and through the tower's opening. As he landed in the entry hall, he saw Boris disappearing around a corner in a room to the left, where a large pile of leaves and vines lay. The Mwangi man turned abruptly when he heard footsteps behind him, and was relieved to see that Zula had followed him. She wasn't looking at him, however. Her eyes had gone wide as she looked around the room at the snow drifts, and then into the chamber where Boris stood peering at the vegetation.
"Run!!" she screamed, and then leaped back out of the tower and onto the causeway.
Mongo's brow furrowed at her odd behavior, but before he could process any further, the piles of snow exploded as figures leaped out of them, quickly surrounding him.

Mazael turned towards the splashing sound to his right, just as a four-armed horror, its body armored in bony plates, erupted out the slush and flung itself into him. The war-priest staggered back, lost his footing on the icy causeway, and then tumbled off the edge and into the black ice. At the back of the party, another of the creatures sprang out of the lake and collided with Lucian. The oracle's arms pinwheeled, and he had just managed to regain his footing when a second charda hit him, and forced him over the edge.

The creatures that encircled Mongo looked similar to the frozen dead they'd faced earlier in the day, but more savage and bestial. He held his pole-arm out before him like a shield, but there were too many of them...a half-dozen at least. They began feinting in on all sides, and as the Mwangi turned to fend off one, another would come at his flank. Three times their filthy claws struck and raked at his bare skin, and each time they did, a numbing cold flowed from the wound, and Mongo felt himself growing steadily weaker. Just then, he saw a blur of motion as Boris cartwheeled into the room and between the legs of several of the wights, rolling to his feet with blades in both hands and grinning. Mongo knew that was his chance. He reached into his belt pouch and crushed a dry, brittle leaf within, instantly vanishing from sight.
"Hey!" Boris cried, his jaw dropping. "Why you leave Boris? Now what Boris supposed to do??"

Despite his heavy armor and the viscosity of the slush he swam in, Mazael somehow managed to tread water and still hold on to Suishen. He grabbed the edge of the causeway and heaved himself, dripping, out of the lake. No sooner had he regained his feet, however, than the chard lunged for him again, this time going for his legs and sweeping his feet out from under him. Mazael landed hard on his back, but at least he didn't roll back into the water. He didn't have more time to think or react, for the little beast was upon him, slashing and tearing at him with its multiple appendages.

Lucian wasn't faring much better. He also managed to haul himself back out of the slush, and even got in a solid swing with his cudgel against the charda waiting for him, since his bow was useless in the high winds, but then the creature knocked him flat on his back and began to pummel him relentlessly. Then, a gout of flames burst over the little beast, and it screeched and recoiled, spinning towards its new opponent. Piotr stood behind it, his fingers laced together and still smoking. Lucian took the opportunity to snatch a snapleaf from his belt and crush it. As he faded from view, he leaped to his feet and retreated.

Mongo fled through the chamber with mushroom-covered walls, only stopping when he'd reached the far side. Still invisible, he paused to catch his breath. After a moment, however, he held his breath altogether. He'd heard something...a faint scrape of claws on stone. He wasn't alone in the room. Then he reeled to one side as something heavy hit him, and tooth-shaped punctures opened in his side. Another blow struck him from the opposite side as another bite appeared. As he looked around for his attackers, he saw a faint outline of three creatures that looked like four-legged walking mushrooms with large, fanged maws...just before they disappeared from view again.

Boris backed slowly away as the six wights advanced on him, his swords held before him.
"Boris not afraid of you," he taunted, though in truth, fear was making his hands shake slightly.
Suddenly, two of the creatures in the back literally exploded into pieces as Haroldo leaped into the room, his great-sword cleaving them asunder.
"Boris love you, crazy-man!" the little goblin crowed as he darted forward and jammed his blades through the spine of one of the wights who'd turned to look at Haroldo, dropping it bonelessly to he ground. "He make you special stew tonight!!"

Zula's thunderous voice echoed down the causeway and across the lake, causing the chardas to grab their heads in agony. Mazael swung Suishen while still on the ground, and the flaming sword cut down the creature that stood over him. Leaping to his feet, he drove the katana through the skull of the one that had been menacing Lucian before he'd fled. Then Piotr sent a barrage of magic missiles into the last one, and as it stumbled back, Zula loosed her thundercall again, and the charda crumpled.

Mongo thrust blindly with his pole-arm towards the place where he'd last seen the phantom fungi, and felt it connect solidly with something. Then they were upon him again, biting and buffeting him from all sides. He swung about furiously, but landed no further blows. He felt himself weakening from blood loss.
"Help me!!" he cried

Boris turned towards the sound of Mongo's voice as Haroldo cut down the remaining wights. He saw the big Mwangi man bleeding profusely from multiple wounds, and then abruptly, he fell to the floor, unmoving. The goblin could no sign of who or what had attacked him.
"Hey!" Boris called to his companions. "Jungle-man asleep...maybe dead! Boris think something in there with him, but Boris can't see."
"Leave this to me," Piotr said as he jumped into the room from the causeway.
The sorcerer cast a spell, and a bright flash of light erupted over the fallen form of Mongo, followed by a glittering cascade of gold-flecked dust showering from out of thin air. The dust settled on the forms of three creatures that looked like shambling, four-legged mushrooms.
"Oooohh!" Boris gasped. "Boris could make nice soup with those!"
He leaped into the room, and the walking fungi turned to follow him. One of them managed to nip at him as he darted past, but Haroldo was right behind him and hacked the mushroom to pieces before it could turn on him.

"Behind you!" Zula shouted at Mazael as she entered the tower.
The war-priest turned to look into the room behind him where, when he'd last looked, there had only been a pile of dried leaves and roots. His eyes went wide when he saw the pile of vegetation rear up, revealing a massive white flower beneath it. The bloom suddenly pulsed with blinding white light, and he felt his eyes burning as his vision burned away. Piotr managed to turn his head and shut his own eyes at the last second. When he opened them again, bright spots danced before them, but he could see that the huge plant was sliding towards them, squeezing its bulk through the narrow doorway. Acting mainly on instinct, he hurled a fireball towards it, engulfing it in flames. Zula followed that immediately with her thundercall, sending shivers through the plant, but it recovered quickly and lunged forward, seizing Mazael as its fronds snapped shut around him.
'Do not panic, warrior,' Suishen spoke to him. 'Calm your mind.'
Mazael took a deep breath and focused. If there was one thing Desna despised, it was for her adherents to be hindered from moving in any way. He whispered Her name, asking for Her blessing, and then he simply slipped free of the plant's grip. Though still blind, he allowed Suishen to guide his hand, and swung with all his might as he dropped to the floor. The blade tore through root and stem, sending fluids spewing in all directions. Then, another fireball from Piotr set the moonflower completely ablaze, and it quickly shriveled away to ashes.

Boris darted among the remaining two phantom fungi, stabbing and feinting, diverting their attention from Haroldo. Though he suffered another vicious bite for his efforts, they paid off when the blood-rager slashed first one of them apart, and then the other. Then everyone stood still, catching their breath, waiting for the next threat. None came. The only sound was the howl of the wind coming from outside the tower, and another rush of wind emanating from the central room around which the other chambers circled. Mazael, rubbing at his eyes, his vision slowly returning, hurried quickly over to Mongo. The Mwangi was still breathing, though just barely. Mazael knelt to tend his wounds as the others began to fan out through the rooms searching for more threats. Boris approached the central core of the tower. There were two hexagonal openings on either side of the chamber, and the room had no ceiling. It formed a smooth-walled shaft that rose through the tower's center, and a crackling blue sphere of energy hung in the air high above. Boris peered closely at the crystal panel inset in the wall next to the shaft, and then reached out to touch a few buttons there in a pattern that seemed to make sense to him. To his surprise and delight, a hexagonal platform of blue light formed on the floor of the shaft. After a moment, it rose into the air until it reached a height of about one-hundred feet. It paused there briefly, and then disappeared. Grinning, Boris turned to his companions.
"Boris find way up!" he said. "This going to be fun!"


Queen of Storms

5 Erastus, 4715 - 6 Erastus, 4715

"I'm not going to be of any further use to you," Piotr announced to his companions. "I've used all of my spells. I need to rest."
"We need to keep going," Zula insisted. "Whomever is controlling the storms surely knows we are here by now. We can't give her the chance to gather her forces against us."
"I don't disagree," Piotr nodded, "I'm just saying that I can't help you, and if I go with you, I'd only be a hindrance. I'll go back to the caravan and report on what we've found."
"Boris go with you," the goblin said matter-of-factly. "If fire-man no have fire, he not make it back to wagons alone. Boris help."
"Well that's just great!" Mazael threw up his hands. "So now we're down two warm bodies! We're not helping our chances here!"
"Then I suppose it's a good thing we arrived when we did," a new voice chimed in from the tower's entryway.
The others looked around, startled, and saw Shalelu standing there, Spivey hovering over her shoulder.
"We came looking for you," Spivey said. "You've been gone an awfully long time. We were getting worried."
"I would say your timing was perfect," Zula smiled. "Come. Let's get moving. I will brief you as we go."


With Boris gone, it was up to Zula to figure out how to operate the lift mechanism. With her magical aptitude, it didn't take long, and the blue plane of force reappeared. The companions stepped on quickly, and it proceeded to rise swiftly up the central shaft of the tower. It stopped after about a hundred feet, and the chamber it had ascended into was significantly warmer than the lower rooms had been. The hexagonal shaft was open to the chamber on three sides, but its other three sides continued up towards the blue sphere above. To the left and right, two hexagonal portals stood in the walls, filled with featureless opaque crystals. An immense centipede-like beast crouched in the center of the room, rows of chitinous plates on its back glowing red-hot, each one emblazoned with the three-fingered claw symbol of Sithhud.

Lucian had an arrow knocked and his bow drawn in the blink of an eye. In less time than that, he'd loosed two shafts into the ice worm. Mazael stepped between the remorhaz and his friends, Suishen blazing before him. He slashed repeatedly at the beast, and it drew back from his fury, hissing in rage. Then it lowered its massive head and slammed it into the war-priest, sending him flying to the back of the platform and into the wall of the shaft behind it, where he slumped to the ground. Bleeding profusely from its wounds, the remorhaz reared up weakly, gathering its strength to strike again, but then Shalelu's bow twanged and an arrow buried itself to the fletchings in the brute's right eye, and it toppled over with a crash.

At that moment, the blue force platform flickered and vanished. Most of the companions had already stepped off of it to get clear of the rampaging ice worm, but Mazael still lay stunned upon it, and Lucian had not yet gotten clear. As they began to fall, Zula sang out a prayer, and both of them abruptly began drifting down, gentle as a feather. They reached the bottom of the shaft unscathed, and Lucian, having watched Zula do it before, manipulated the control panel there to cause the platform to reappear. They rode up once again to join their friends, and this time, quickly vacated the untrustworthy apparatus.


The two hexagonal, crystalline doors behind the shaft both bore control panels, even more complex that the one below that had summoned the platform. Yet Zula was able to bypass one of them as easily as if she'd done it a hundred times. The hexagonal portal retracted into the wall in six equal triangular sections, revealing a spacious chamber with a bewildering array of crystals and metallic tracery embedded in the walls. A low humming noise filled the air, and the crystals flashed with incomprehensible colored lights at irregular intervals. Scuttling about the room were eight creatures that looked like dog-sized scorpions carved completely out of gemstones, engaged in inscrutable tasks. They took no notice of the door opening, nor of the intruders staring at them with puzzled expressions.

"Crysmals," Zula said. "They are native to the plane of earth. They are sort of like insects, only existing to reproduce by feeding on crystals."
"Are they aggressive?" Mazael asked cautiously.
"Not generally," Zula shrugged, "but like any animal, they can be territorial."
She gazed about the room, her lips moving silently in prayer.
"There is magic here," she said, and pointed to several spots on the walls. "Three of the crystals. They look to have some value."
"Then we aren't leaving them here," Mazael said matter-of-factly.
He strode purposefully into the room, and the crysmals scurried about his feet, heedless. He reached the first crystal that Zula had indicated, and removed it from its niche. Instantly, all of the crysmals turned towards him, their spiked tales arching over their backs.
"Guess they consider this their territory," he gulped.

Lucian had readied his bow, expecting this exact thing to happen. Humans and their greed, he sighed to himself before snapping off two shots and shattering the nearest crysmal. Shalelu gave him a knowing shake of her head and an eye roll before destroying another with a volley. One of the creatures turned towards them and flicked its tail forward, sending a shard of razor-sharp crystal flying towards them. It struck the wall beside them and sent a shower of broken glass over them, leaving small nicks and cuts behind. Then Zula stepped into the room and opened her mouth. She pitched her voice at a high, ear-piercing frequency, and five more of the crysmals shattered into fragments. Lucian brushed the glass from his hands, and fired two more arrows into the last of the creatures, breaking it into pieces.


The control panel beside the central shaft on the second level of the tower was much more intricate than the previous one had been, but Zula had no difficulty activating it. This time, however, not only did the blue translucent platform appear, but so did a shimmering dome over the platform. When the companions stepped inside, the temperature was comfortable, and the winds buffeting from above were calm. The platform rose swiftly another one-hundred feet, and came to a stop at the top of the shaft. The twenty-foot hexagonal hole of the shaft lay in the floor of a huge, hexagonal chamber. Four stone platforms jutted from the walls fifty feet above the floor, and above these, a pair of open windows in each wall looked out over the icy landscape outside. Six large crystals were embedded in the walls between the windows, glowing with a blue radiance. High above, a wide hexagonal opening pierced the ceiling. Beyond this, a massive sphere of blue light shed a dazzling radiance. Bolts of crackling electricity joined the crystals in the walls with the ball of energy. A howling gale swept downwards from the sphere, carrying a rumble of distant thunder. No less than a dozen hoarfrost spirits surrounded the central shaft as the companions rose through it, and atop one of the high platforms stood a woman of terrible beauty. She was lithe and graceful with pale, blue skin marked with white whorls. Her lustrous midnight-blue hair drifted about her head like wisps of storm clouds, and wings of blue-black feathers spread from her back. Her silvery fingernails glinted like razors.
"Sithhud welcomes you," she called, "as He welcomes all who sacrifice for His greater glory!"

Haroldo blurred into motion, leaping from the platform, his sword cleaving into two of the nearest of the frozen dead. Mongo was right behind him, and swept the legs from under one of the undead with his pole-arm, sending it tumbling to the floor where he then impaled it with the point of his glaive. Behind them, Spivey rose into the air and out of the protective dome. The gale-force winds rushed around her, but did not seem to bother her in the slightest, for the little azata was touched by Desna, and no physical force could restrain her movement. She held her hands above her head, and a dazzling burst of radiance flashed from between them. The holy light seared the other hoarfrost spirit that Haroldo had wounded into ashes. Another one nearby hissed, and threw its hands to its face as its eyes were burned out of its skull. The other undead drew back for a moment, but then quickly gathered themselves together again and, as one, unleashed blasts of frigid air upon all of the heroes. For most of the companions, this was only a minor annoyance as they had Suishen's protection against the cold. This was not true, however, for Mongo, Shalelu or Spivey. While Spivey's angelic heritage afforded her some respite, Mongo and Shalelu staggered out of the blast radius, ice crystalized around their joints.

"Come to me!" Zula shouted to her friends
She didn't wait to see if they obeyed before she cast a spell and conjured a second dome around them, this one opaque from the outside, but translucent from the interior. A moment later, Katiyana, the black-winged woman, wove her own magic, and a dark, greasy miasma exploded over the heroes, both inside and outside of the dome. The cloud cleared instantly, but it left scorched, blackened burns on the flesh of all of the heroes. For Shalelu, the back-to-back assaults were too much. The ranger sank to the floor beyond the relative protection of the dome, unconscious. Lucian cried out in dismay and ran from the dome, heedless of the danger. Haroldo cursed and charged after the oracle, hewing two hoarfrost spirits from behind as they closed on Lucian. Mongo followed and speared one of the undead as it tried to rise. Lucian reached Shalelu and lifted her over his shoulder, then hurried back to the dome.

The remaining hoarfrost spirits realized that, though the dome was opaque, it could not physically bar their way, and they began moving into it. Mazael met the first one through, and though it struck him a glancing blow, his retaliatory strike took its head from its shoulders. Zula looked up through the dome and saw Katiyana high overhead. Gathering her magic again, the Shoanti woman tapped into the power of the storm raging above, and called lightning down from it to strike the fiendish creature. Katiyana stiffened for a moment, and then threw her head back and laughed maniacally.
"Foolish child!" she screamed. "The storms are mine to command!"
She raised her hand above her, and lightning gathered around her fist.
"But the thunder is mine!" Zula shouted back, her voice booming and rocking Katiyana back on her heels, her spell fizzling.

The hoarfrost spirits continued to close in around the companions. Lucian stood protectively over Shalelu as he picked his targets and loosed arrow after arrow. One of the undead went down with two arrows through its neck. Haroldo spun around like a maddened dervish, cutting down another three of the frozen dead. Another one rushed in behind him, and he whirled, hacking that one to pieces as well. Lucian took the brief respite to catch his breath, then kneeled beside Shalelu and laid a hand upon her chest. Closing his eyes, he allowed his healing magic to flow into her, staunching her bleeding and easing her breath.

Zula saw that Katiyana was recovering from her previous assault, so she focused her voice and blasted again.
"Now, while she's distracted!" the thunder-caller shouted. "Someone get up there!"
Haroldo nodded and ran towards the nearest wall. He concentrated the rage boiling through his blood, and then through a sheer effort of will, he began scaling the wall with his hands like some giant, savage arachnid. Mazael's solution was less eloquent. He pulled the stopper from a flask with his teeth, and then upended it. A moment later, he flew into the air, Desna's blessing allowing him to soar through the buffeting winds, and charged towards the platform upon with Katiyana stood. He reached her just as she regained her balance for a second time, and slashed at her with Suishen. She screeched in pain, and leaped off the platform, spreading her wings and soaring across the chamber.

Down below, Zula blasted the last two undead inside the hut. As they stumbled back, Lucian put an arrow through one's skull, and Mongo tripped the other then stabbed it on the way down.

Mazael flew after Katiyana just as Haroldo reached the platform where she had been. Her eyes blazed as lightning gathered around her hand and she hurled it at the two warriors, sending electricity sizzling through their bodies. Laughing, she prepared to strike again.
"That will be enough of that!" Lucian muttered from his vantage on the ground where he watched the battle raging overhead.
He spoke a prayer to counteract magic and focused on the gathering electricity around Katiyana. He smiled when, with a satisfying 'pop,' the energy simply vanished.

Haroldo got to his feet, his clothing still smoldering from the lightning strike. As he raised his head, he caught sight of one of the large crystals embedded in the wall just above the platform. It still crackled with energy, and this arced to the other crystals, and to the large sphere above. It gave the blood-rager an idea. Gripping his sword in both hands, he raised it over his head and brought it down upon the crystal as hard as he could. The crystal cracked...a little...but an instant later, a blast of electricity surged from it, engulfing Haroldo. He jittered and danced across the platform for a moment and then, as the electricity died away, he fell motionless to the stone.

Mongo watched Mazael struggle with Katiyana, and noted that she had drawn near another platform. The big Mwangi strapped his pole-arm across his back, and then slipped a pair of steel-clawed gloves over his hands. With these, he was able to get a grip on the icy wall of the chamber and began climbing.

Zula saw Haroldo go down, and she cursed roundly, but she thought the blood-rager was on the right track. She looked up at another of the crystals and then opened her mouth and screamed at it, the sonic blast sending a spiderweb of cracks all through it.

As Mazael pressed his attack, Katiyana hissed in rage. Her eyes glowed blood red as she channeled the fury of the Abyss. Her claws grew wickedly sharp, and she slashed at the war-priest, opening terrible rents in his flesh. He grew dizzy from blood loss, and knew he would not be able to fend off her blows for much longer. Just then, he saw a blur of movement from behind Katiyana as Mongo launched himself off the platform and wrapped his arms around her. She twisted and writhed in his grip, but could not free herself. Mazael saw his only opportunity and rushed forward, Suishen singing in his hands. Once...twice...three times the sword struck, and with the last blow, Katiyana went limp. As she did, the storm sphere above suddenly imploded, and quickly dwindled away into nothingness. At the same time, all of the crystals along the walls exploded, releasing blasts of electricity. One of these caught Mazael, knocking him unconscious and sending him spiraling towards the floor. As the storm died, and the cacophony gave way to blessed silence, a distant scream could be heard being scattered on the polar winds.


Gathering their wounded, the companions left the Storm Tower and returned to the caravan. The storm had broken, and the roaming bands of undead were nowhere to be found. The mood among the caravaners was jubilant, despite the injuries suffered and the horror they had seen.

"You know," Sandru said later, as they sat around the fire passing a flask of Varisian brandy," I've heard many interesting legends among the traveling folk over the years, but there is one in particular that comes back to me now that we are here, at the top of world, amid the ruins of this city of crystal spires."
"And I suppose you're going to regale us with the details?" Koya laughed, well into her cups.
"You know me too well, Mother," Sandru smiled. He cleared his throat and rose to his feet, warming to his audience.
"The story goes that many years ago, the princes of the Tian country of Waj Khor kept a powerful artifact known as the White Peacock Crown. It was said that this item helped them maintain their independence from their larger, more powerful neighbors. The princes claimed that it gave them the ability to see and hear the truth, which allowed them to thwart the deceptions of the rakshasas to their south, and the oni to the north. The princes even went so far as to make copies of the Crown to prevent would-be thieves from easily stealing it. However, a female ninja named Miriya was not just any thief. She was among the most clever and canny of her clan, and she was able to infiltrate the palace with a small group of her kinsmen, and make off with the true White Peacock Crown. It was not long after that the rival outsiders rose up in power and contested one another for control of Waj Khor, and brother was turned against brother, each enslaved by the warring factions. The small kingdom tore itself apart in civil war.
After their hollow victory, the oni began seeking the Crown, and started hunting down the ninjas of Miriya's clan. The clan master declared the Crown accursed and ordered Miriya to carry it to the farthest reaches of the world, banishing her on pain of death. Accompanied by a few faithful friends, she made her way from place to place, seeking hiding and shelter in great cities and tiny villages, brothels and monasteries. Each time, however, shape-changing pursuers found her, and she was forced to flee before them. In the end, she journeyed far to the north, even beyond the Wall of Heaven mountains that marked the edge of the lands she knew. Beyond, she found only the endless expanse of the frozen north. She and her friends infiltrated a caravan heading across the Crown of the World, covering their trail with a false sea voyage in hopes of throwing off their pursuers."
"Halfway across the Crown, their luck ran out. The oni caught up with them again, slaughtering most of the caravan before they were driven off. Miriya and the surviving caravaners left the known pathways and lost themselves in the northern mountains. They wandered for weeks until they discovered a long-forgotten legend: a strange city of towers, midnight blue and gleaming silver, and shattered glass, at once ruined and yet enduring from time out of mind. Approaching the outskirts and breaking into a low building at the foot of an impossibly high tower, Miriya and her companions found strange crystals and metallic carvings and artifacts that they broke loose to sell. Miriya, now half-mad, stated that she knew she had truly reached the farthest reaches of the world as she had promised her master, and there she would stay with the White Peacock Crown, hidden forever where the oni would never find it. She took the Crown down a long tunnel, impossibly straight and lit by lines of blue light, and Xam and Odashu, the last two surviving caravaners, sealed shut the door behind her."
"How do you know all of this?" Mazael asked, his eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"Because I spoke with Xam himself when I met him once in Kalsgaard," Sandru replied. "He and Odashu eventually made their way across the pole, arriving in the trade villages just below the high ice. They kept their mysterious trade goods close, but were free with parts of their tales, which were little believed but much enjoyed by the locals. After venturing farther south, they had plans to return in force to loot the ancient ruins, but they were disappointed to find little market for the oddments they had brought with them. The strange relics of crystal and wire and tiny blinking lights seemed to have no purpose but decoration. Finally arriving in Kalsgaard, they found merchants who saw profit in these strange things, but pressed them for details of their tale. Sadly, they were unable to accurately track their journey, and hope of a triumphant return at the head of their own caravan was lost. In despair and drunken rage, Xam and Odashu fell into an argument, and Xam killed his partner. He himself was later tried and executed for the murder."

"Fascinating," Mazael grumbled, "but what's that got to do with us?"
"Don't you see?" Sandru asked, spreading his hands. "The blue crystal spires Xam described...we are here! From his description of the great tower, I think I can find the building where they last saw Miriya. If nothing else, it might be a pleasant diversion and a chance to gather some exotic trade goods that we might take with us to Tian Xia."
He looked to the others, most of whom shrugged noncommittally.
"If there really is such a relic that was meant to protect against the oni," Ameiko said at length, "then I think we are obligated to find it."


The following morning, as the companions gathered their gear and prepared to trek further into the ruins, Koya approached Zula.
"I consulted the Harrow this morning," the old woman said without preamble. "The cards told me that an exploration of this city carries both risk and reward."
"Obviously," Zula nodded.
"However," Koya continued, somewhat irritated, "they also told me that the tale of the madwoman Miriya does not tell the whole story. The Crown that she carries is not cursed, but it bears some great virtue against the oni and their kind, and it was for this reason that they sought it out and tried to destroy it and all who knew of it."


Sandru found the low bunker just where Xam had described it. The blue-black stone structure protruded from the ice at the base of a monolith over a half-mile in height. Dimly visible beneath a thick layer of frost was a faint tracery of silvery wire inlaid in a repeating star-like pattern encircling a hexagonal portal in the bunker's face. To the right of the portal was a hexagonal panel of milky-white crystal, spider-webbed with cracks and smashed through in several places.

Haroldo hacked away the icy covering with his blade, and Zula bent to examine the panel.
"It's similar to the ones in the Storm Tower," she said, mostly to herself. "Someone didn't want it functional. Maybe your mysterious ninja woman, Sandru. I think, however, that with a little time, I may be able to repair it."
She bent to the task, working like a master craftsman. Her fingers deftly manipulated the fine structures within the panel, until finally it flared with blue light, and the hexagonal sections of the portal slid aside.

Beyond the doorway was a ramp heading down. A bit down the hexagonal corridor, tiny pinpoints of blue light flickered into view, emanating from the floor at regular intervals.
"Just as Xam said," Sandru observed. "A long corridor lined with blue lights. Miriya was last seen going that way."
As the companions moved down the ramp, more of the lights continued to appear when they approached. The ramp continued a few hundred feet, descending gently, before it disgorged onto a square platform lit by similar lights. The floors and walls of the chamber were covered in cracked tiles, smeared with some dark residue. To the left and right were the ruined remnants of what may once have been smaller rooms, though whether they were closets, cells or even sleeping quarters was impossible to tell. All that remained were the broken bases of interior walls and what may have been horizontal shelves or bunks. Directly ahead, a metallic jamb or frame held fragments of a shattered glassine wall. Beyond, steps dropped down to a sunken catwalk. As they walked among the broken fragments, Zula bent down when she noticed a metallic object gleaming in the dim light. It was a circular pendant engraved with a star pattern on both sides. Not knowing what to make of it, she tucked it away in her tunic.

The metallic grated catwalk extended down another hexagonal tunnel leading off into darkness. Unlike the previous one, this one was unlit. The walls were made of stone, cracked in many places, and slick with moisture, with patches of slimy residue congealing in many places. At irregular intervals, the cracks opened into wider crevices, no more than a foot wide, where the residue was thicker. Mazael was leading the group, and as he stepped over one of these crevices, the black substance within suddenly rose up as a large, amorphous mass.
"Watch out!" Lucian shouted as he quickly loosed three arrows towards the thing.
To his dismay, as each arrow struck, the ooze split apart, until four of the blobs now filled the corridor.
"Stand aside!" Zula commanded.
She opened her throat, and the resulting sonic boom blasted all four of the oozes apart.


Ahead in the distance in the seemingly endless tunnel, there was a flickering blue light, guttering out and then after a brief span wanly returning before again going dark. Approaching closer, the companions could see the battered hulk of a hexagonal metallic tube, with cracked bubble-like windows along both sides and at each end. Several bluish lights seemed to be moving inside the hulk. As they moved towards the wreckage, a half-dozen hunched, misshapen humanoids clutching long shards of metal emerged from within. They were clad only in rags and sagging drapes of skin, and their flesh glowed with a pale blue light, their eyes a baleful red.

The creatures rushed forward in a swarm, moving so swiftly that they were among the heroes before they could react. One of them stabbed Mazael in the back with its spear as it passed. Mongo tripped and stabbed one before it could reach him, and Haroldo struck another. Lucian shot a third one, but none of the wretched things would fall. It was almost as if blows deflected off their strange skin. To make matters worse, another black pudding-like ooze rose up behind the companions, attracted by the sounds of the melee.

Zula made quick work of the ooze, just as she'd done with the previous one. Her compatriots fought frantically as the resilient morlocks scrambled around them like rats. The creatures took more punishment than seemed possible before falling, leaving the heroes bloodied but with no serious wounds. They gathered themselves and pushed past the wrecked vehicle, continuing down into darkness.


The Forbidden City

6 Erastus, 4715

After a long traverse of the hex-tunnel, passing occasional dripping crevices and black sludge pools teeming with tiny white worms, but seeing naught else save for nearly transparent spiders and black-shelled arthropods with red, glowing eyes, the companions saw a catwalk rising above them, and beyond it a ramp leading up. A metal jamb held the remnant of a shattered glass wall, much like the one they passed at the tunnel's other end. Beyond this, the ramp continued another couple of hundred feet before emerging into a large chamber crafted of stone, tile and metal, with large windows, mostly broken. Strangely curved mosaics and carvings, looking almost half-melted, decorated the walls while vaguely disturbing statuary in an inhuman style stood at the foot of each pillar between the great windows. There were no obvious doors visible, though the empty steel window frames offered ample egress into the unearthly cityscape beyond.

"What that?" Boris asked, pointing towards something high on one wall. "Look like metal spider."
Haroldo looked up to where the goblin was pointing, and his eyes went wide. Clinging to to the wall above one of the windows was a tiny steel creature with one oversized eye, a spherical body, and several spider-like legs of grinding metal. An identical one sat motionless on the opposite wall.
"Clockwork spies," the blood-rager said. "My father used similar constructs to infiltrate the businesses of his rivals. They have small gems inside them that can record conversations."
"There's something etched into their carapaces," Piotr said, squinting to make out the detail. "A sigil maybe?"
"It Tian," Boris remarked. "Ameiko teach Boris when Boris make her yummy dinner. Boris think it mean...fancy white bird or something."
"White peacock?" Piotr asked.
"Maybe," the goblin shrugged. "Boris go check out."
"Wait!" Piotr said, holding up one hand. "The other one might spot you and run. Let me cover you."
Boris nodded. "Fire-wizard pretty smart," he said, tapping on bony finger against his forehead.

Piotr drew a wand from his belt and flicked it as he spoke a command word. The air in front of the nearest clockwork spy shimmered for a moment, and then an image appeared. It looked to be an exact copy of the wall to which the automaton clung.
"Now!" the sorcerer commanded. "When you step through the illusion, the other construct won't see you!"
Boris nodded again, enthusiastically. He darted through the mirage and then clambered stealthily up the wall. The clockwork spy remained motionless, apparently unaware of his presence. He could see the gem stone set inside the thing's eye socket, and he reached carefully forward and deftly plucked it out, grinning. At that moment, the thing sprang into motion with a high-pitched, mechanical screech. It thrashed its sharp legs at Boris, who dodged nimbly away. Then the goblin heard a whirring, clanking noise immediately below him. He looked down and saw that one of the statues at the base of a nearby pillar had animated. Cogs and gears were visible in the gaps of the metallic creature's armor. It wielded a pole-arm as it snapped to attention and peered up at Boris. Boris shrieked and leaped from the wall, tumbling to the floor and through the illusory wall. He darted across the chamber and then climbed the far wall, where he grabbed the second clockwork spy before it could try to escape. To his horror, another statue, again just below him on the floor, came to life and glared up at him with baleful, red eyes.

Lucian shook his head when he saw what was transpiring. He pivoted towards the first clockwork spy, which was still thrashing about on the wall, and put an arrow through its carapace. It fell to the floor, convulsing for a moment, before exploding in a small burst of flame. Then his eyes widened when he saw the first statue charging across the floor towards him. As it drew near, it whipped its pole-arm around in a wide arc, and slashed across both of the oracle's arms. He cried out in agony as he momentarily lost feeling in his hands.
"Get behind me!" Mazael shouted as he tried put himself between Lucian and the machine. It slashed at him as he moved, opening a deep gouge in his thigh.
"I've got it!" Piotr cried as he tossed off a volley of magic missiles, only to see them deflect harmlessly off of the thing's metallic hide.
"No!" Lucian snarled, blood running down his arms. "I've got it!"
He loosed three arrows over Mazael's shoulder, from point-blank range. All three struck true, one of them piercing through some sort of rubber tube in the automaton's neck, sending viscous fluid spraying through the air. The thing shuddered, went rigid, and then fell immobile to the ground.
"Good work, for an archer," Mazael said grudgingly.
"Look out!" Lucian shouted, pointing behind the war-priest.
Mazael whirled and saw the second clockwork soldier closing in on him. He braced himself for another blow, but instead it reached out one metal clawed-hand, and wrenched Suishen from his grasp.

Across the chamber, Boris managed to pin the mechanical spider against the wall, and then pried the gemstone out of its eye socket.
"Boris have it!" he shouted triumphantly, holding aloft the gem.
When he glanced around, however, he saw that his companions were otherwise occupied.

Seeing that his magic missiles had no effect, Piotr tried another tactic. He quickly cast another spell, and released an ear piercing shriek that sent the automaton stumbling back a step or two, but then it lumbered forward again. As it came, Mongo jammed his halberd between its legs and sent it tumbling to the floor. As it tripped, he rammed the blade of the pole-arm into its inner workings. It screeched inhumanly, then struggled back upright. Haroldo leaped forward and hacked at it as it rose, but it caught his blade and turned it with Suishen, then quickly reversed the parry and slashed at the blood-rager with the Amatatsu relic, setting his clothes aflame. As he batted at the fire, Lucian put an arrow into the construct's hip socket, slowing its momentum. Still smoldering, Haroldo gripped his sword tightly and hacked down with all his might, driving the blade through most of the soldier's gears. Finally, it ground to a halt. A moment later, chagrined, Mazael snatched Suishen out of its hand.
'I may need to rethink my choice of wielder,' the sword said, its voice dripping with disdain.


Perhaps because the wind was buffered by the strange monoliths stretching in all directions, the polar chill was less intense than beyond the bunker where the companions entered the ruins, though frost still rimed every surface. The atrium opened onto a plaza, with narrow avenues extending in all directions between massive angular towers of metal, stone and glass, much weathered and scarred by time and the elements. Here and there, large, twisted green plants twined up the sides of ancient buildings, and occasionally a whisper of movement was seen through the haze of bluish radiance shrouding the sky above.

The heroes had no idea where to start their search for Miriya or the White Peacock crown in the strange cityscape, but they new she had come this way at some time in the past. They spread out within the plaza and began looking for any trace of her passing, and after an hour or so of searching, it was Mazael that discovered the first evidence: a scuffed boot print made by someone with a small foot...perhaps a woman.

They followed the tracks through the winding streets, but they were few and far between, requiring a lot of time hunting amidst the ruins. Along the way, the companions ran afoul of small packs of force morlocks, which were efficiently dealt with before continuing their search. Occasionally, they spotted another clockwork spy high on a building wall, but Lucian was able to destroy them with well-placed arrows before they could escape. Once, they even stumbled into a huge moonflower, though the specimen was smaller than the one they'd encountered in the Storm Tower, and easily dealt with by one or two fireballs courtesy of Piotr.

Finally, the faint traces they had been following converged on a building with wide, low steps leading up to shattered glass doors flanked by massive stone pillars. A similar doorway provided egress farther down the building's facade, but the nearer doorway, in the shadow of a collapsed sky-bridge overhead, revealed a curious lump of vaguely human-looking metallic sculpture atop the remnants of a pedestal. Across a rubble and ice-choked boulevard the fallen bridge once spanned, lay a companion building, blockier in shape and with what appeared to be a long-empty fountain.

As the heroes examined the buildings, a ragged crone dressed in furs and robes suddenly stepped out of the shadows of a narrow alley. A weathered bow was in her hands, an arrow knocked but not drawn. Though frail with age, a hard light was in her eyes. With a suspicious glare, she addressed them in heavily accented Common.
"Who are you, strangers? What do you want? Cannot an old woman who has caused more misery than anyone should, be left alone to die in peace...if I even can die here? That thrice-damned light has stretched my years too long already, I think. Either way, there is nothing for you here. Go, and be glad you did."
"Is your name Miriya?" Lucian asked.
"That name no longer has any meaning for me!" the old woman snapped. "If you came here following tales of treasure, there is none, only desolation and loneliness. Maybe you heard I had something of great worth. You heard wrong. I had nothing. I am nothing. You should go while you still can. If you stay too long, the light will take hold of you. Have you seen those poor wretches that live below? That will be your fate as it surely will be mine. Maybe it will be sweeter to forget anyway."
"We are traveling with the last surviving scion of House Amatatsu," Lucian explained. "We are returning her to Minkai to take her rightful place on the Jade Throne. The oni of the Five Storms oppose us, and we heard that the White Peacock Crown might aid in our struggle against them."
The woman sighed, and bowed her head.
"It seems that we may have enemies in common," she replied. "Yes, Miriya, that was my name, and yes I stole the Crown. Thought it would make me famous, and so it did, or infamous at least. Fate is not without a sense of humor, it seems, though I've never found it funny. I was cast out and I ran, here and there, trying to hide it, to let the world be rid of its curse, if cursed it truly was. I don't know. All I knew was fear, and I kept running all the way to the ends of the earth. Those merchants, Xam and Odashu, they helped me get here, but once I got here, I was out of ideas."
"I sought for years for the perfect hiding place, knowing that someday the oni would catch me. I couldn't let them find it. I kept following the strange little metal spiders, and finally found a great machine that seemed to build them and repair them and their kin. I sneaked inside the machine...I was trained in stealth, after all...and hid the crown inside, but something went wrong. The machine turned on, and it sprayed something strange on me. As I stumbled away, dizzy, it stabbed at me with some kind of long arm. I got away, but not long after I started seeing a strange new creature in the ruins. It looked like me, or me as I was in my youth, but half flesh and half metal. Somehow it had drawn my thoughts out, and made weapons like I once used long ago. It was as if my body and mind had been turned inside out and poured into a mold. What came out was that THING! It watches me sometimes. I know it does, and it has stopped me from getting back into the machine to retrieve the Crown, but it does not kill me. I don't know why. I've seen it kill many others, but that mercy is forever denied me."
"I can show you where the great machine is. Perhaps I can even draw out my doppelganger. Perhaps our combined strength can succeed where I alone could not. Then we can destroy the machine and retrieve the Crown so that we may use it to overthrow the oni that plague my homeland."


The True Guardian

6 Erastus, 4715-7 Erastus, 4715-The True Guardian

"Movement!" Mazael shouted in warning. "On the roof!"
He pointed across the wide avenue to the angled rooftop of a nearby building. There, crouched atop the peak, was a black-clad figure. The slight physique suggested a female, but with its face shrouded in dark cloth, it was difficult to be certain. Metal glinted all over its body, protruding from the folds of its clothing at odd angles, and small blue lights winked on and off along its limbs. At Mazael's warning, the figure stood and drew a star-shaped disc from its cloak the size of a dinner plate. This she hurled with a flick of her wrist, and it spun through the air and stuck in Lucian's shoulder. The oracle cried out in pain, but before he could pull the shuriken loose, it exploded with a flash of blue fire, scorching his face and arm. A moment later, the mysterious assassin simply vanished.
"Damn ninjas!" Piotr hissed, remembering all too well the deadly warriors they had encountered at Ravenscraag. The sorcerer cast a spell, and the air around the companions began to hum with energy.
"She won't be sneaking up on us now!" he announced.
"It is the doppleganger!" Miriya shouted. "I told you she would come for me! I am too old for such a battle. If she catches me, she will try to take me back to the machine! I will cover you with my bow, but I will not stay here!"
With that, she closed her eyes for a moment and concentrated, furrowing her brow. Then she opened them again, and rose up into the air, flying to a nearby rooftop.
"Since when do ninja's cast spells?" Mazael wondered aloud.

"She's here!" Lucian shouted.
From out of thin air, landing in a nimble crouch, the dark assassin appeared in the midst of the heroes. Piotr's spell had rendered her unable to use her vanishing trick, and she looked around in mild surprise. Up close, it was obvious that her body was as much metal as flesh and bone. She rose to her feet with the mechanical whine of gears and motors.
"Fools!" she spat in Tian, which only Boris and Piotr could understand. "Slaves to evil! You will never have it! NEVER! Die with your foul masters!"
She flicked another shuriken at Sandru. It grazed the caravan master's arm, but he dove to the side, just avoiding its explosion.
"Boris not know what you talking about, crazy machine-lady," the goblin replied in the same language, lunging towards her, "but Boris stab you anyway so you stop talking."
As he moved forward, however, the ninja drew out a length of chain linking a sharp blade on one end and a weighted metal ball on the other. She whipped it towards the goblin, entangling his feet and yanking them from under him.
"Now, my minions!" she cried, pointing towards the metallic sculptures that stood in front of the building on the far side of the street.
With a lurch of metal on metal, two of them rumbled into motion and began lumbering towards the melee. As they closed, Mongo stuck out his halberd and sent one of them tumbling to the ground. The second one moved past him and swung with its own pole-arm at Piotr, dealing the sorcerer and massive blow that nearly knocked him from his feet. Lucian quickly snapped off a shot at the automaton, but his arrow glanced off its metal hide. He then pivoted and fired at the ninja, but she deftly batted the shaft out of the air with her bare hand. She whirled and her fist shot out, striking Sandru in the throat as he moved to flank her. She spun again and delivered a straight-leg kick into Mongo's gut as he closed in.

"Wait, crazy machine-lady!" Boris gasped, holding up his hands as she stalked towards him where he still lay on the ground. "We not here to fight you! Old ninja-woman tell us you try to kill her when she try and get back her bird hat!"
"Exactly!" she spat back at him. "You are trying to steal the Crown and give it to the oni!"
"What??" Boris shrieked. "No! We fight oni! We kill oni! We taking lost empress Ameiko back to homeland to get green chair from oni!"
"Green chair?" the woman asked suspiciously. "Do you mean the Jade Throne?"
"Yes!" Boris nodded. "That what Boris say! We want white bird hat to help her!"
"Then why are you with THAT oni!?" she hissed, pointing towards the roof where Miriya still crouched.
"Liar!" Miriya shouted back. "Don't believe her! Remember what I told you! She was created to replace me! She will kill us all!"
"Mazael?" Piotr asked, turning towards the war-priest. "Does Helgarvarl detect any evil from this woman?"
'No, my friend,' the angel spoke into Mazael's mind.
"He says not," Mazael relayed the message.
"What about her?" Piotr nodded towards the old woman on the roof.
"Let's find out," the war-priest growled.
He began walking into the air, courtesy of Suishen, and as he drew closer to Miriya, she tensed visibly.
"What are you doing??" she cried. "Destroy that imposter!"
"We'll see who's the imposter," Mazael replied. "Helgarvarl?"
'There is evil here,'" the angel confirmed.
"She's lying!" Mazael shouted, pointing at the crone.
"Fools!" she snapped. "You will all die here! I swear it!"
She turned and flew from the rooftop, disappearing rapidly into the ruins.


The ninja commanded her clockwork soldiers to stand down, and the companions warily put away their own weapons as well.
"Who are you?" Piotr asked in Tian.
"I am Miriya," the woman replied simply.
"That's who the old woman told us she was," the sorcerer said. "She said some sort of machine had made a mechanical doppelganger of her."
Miriya laughed, a hollow, metallic sound.
"Would you expect anything but lies and fabrication from an oni?" she asked.
"Oni?" Piotr queried. "What do you mean?"
Miriya sighed and sat cross-legged on the ground.
"If you came her searching for the White Peacock Crown, they I assume you know it was me who stole it all those years ago."
"Yes," Pitor nodded. "Our caravan master heard the tale from the merchants Xam and Odashu."
Miriya smiled humorlessly.
"Yes, they were loyal companions," she said. "They did not want to leave me here, but I insisted. Within weeks after they departed, I stumbled upon a barely sentient machine that sought to steal my mind and make me a thoughtless automaton. So strong was my will to live, however, that a spark of humanity remained within me. I renewed my vigil to protect the Crown from the oni that I knew would probably find me again. I set about turning the strange, living machines of this city to serve my purposes. When the oni finally came, they were taken off guard to find me still young and hale. I lured them to the great machine that created me, but for them it held only death and rebirth as cybernetic slaves. Only one of the oni escaped, called Liao Ku. It was him that you encountered, disguised as my older self. He sought to trick you into facing the great machine yourselves and retrieve the Crown for him. He must be hunted down, lest he take word of the Crown's location back to his masters, as well as news of your empress."
"Can you help us obtain the Crown?" Piotr asked. "It would be of great value to Ameiko in regaining her birthright. We have already slain several members of the Five Storms, but it is only a matter of time before we face them again."
"I cannot fight the great machine directly," Miriya shook her head, "but I can lead you to its lair, and aid you as I may. Be warned, however, not all of you may return from this endeavor alive."


Miriya took the companions to her home,a sparsely furnished chamber in a small building sheltered by inner walls amidst the detritus of ages, where a long metal table held several scraps of cloth stretched across makeshift frames, showing faded patterns of embroidery in the Tian style. Dozens of bottles in all shapes and sizes were arranged neatly, as was a collection of metallic and glass bowls which held strange powders and residues, alongside strange metal devices of uncertain function. A flat slab of stone, marred with many scratches, seemed to function as a bed, with a gossamer veil surrounding it. A metallic man bustled about the room, cleaning and polishing the floor to a shine.

The heroes rested the night and regained their strength in relative safety. The following morning, Miriya led them to a building that she called the manufactory. In contrast to the towering facades and monoliths around it, the structure was comparatively low-slung, set into a natural rise with a metallic portal offering access to the upper level, and a second set of metal doors at the foot of the slope allowing access to the lower level. Miriya went to the upper set of doors, a metallic portal comprised of horizontal plates of metal ten feet wide. A slotted crystalline panel lay inside a glazed cabinet set into the wall beside the door. Miriya fiddled with the panel for a moment, and the doors slid aside.

As the companions entered the building, pale blue lights winked into view in the floor, walls and ceiling. Halfway into the room there was a raised platform of metallic plates and mesh braced several feet off the floor, supported on a series of drums and wheels, with the platform seemingly wrapped underneath them as well. The platform passed through a low opening in the far wall only a few feet high, covered by a screen of metallic mesh. A rhythmic hum could be heard beyond the opening. Several crystalline panels were set into the far wall, which was solid metal up to shoulder height, and opaque crystal above. Boris crept forward to examine the apparatus as his friends hung back. Just as he reached the platform, however, he saw a flicker of movement from beneath it. A clockwork spider scurried on top of it and reached out one of its legs to tap out a series of touches on one of the crystal panels. The wheels beneath the platform began to turn, and the wrap-around metal plates began to move. The spider was carried forward and through the metallic mesh, which parted easily to admit the belt of rotating plates.
"Boris get him!" the goblin shouted, and then he dove atop the conveyor belt before his companions could protest.

The belt carried the goblin through the metal mesh and into a vast chamber beyond. It was strewn with cables and machinery. A great machine dominated the room, seeming almost to squat over a golden-glowing circular pit, with small arms reaching outward, while a single metallic tendril writhed sinuously like a clawed hand and glaring eye in one. Two half-mechanical brutes dressed in armor of Eastern manufacture stood nearby on guard, while smaller mechanical beings scuttled over tumbled heaps of arcane circuitry. The moving metallic walkway upon which Boris rode, dropped at an angle down to the floor thirty feet below, where it circled around the the massive machine before looping back around underneath its slanting upper course, passing out through another narrow aperture in another wall. A catwalk of metallic grates with pole-like railings mostly encircled the huge sunken workroom. Untold numbers of cables, conduits, hoists, hooks and pulleys hung from a vast network of girders above. A large, open metal stairwell spiraled down to the floor below, and just across it, another hulking half-metallic humanoid stood armed with a bow and blade. At each corner of the room stood a bank of strange devices tended by a vaguely human mechanical creature, similar to the ones moving about below.

Boris took all of this in within seconds, and then he reached into his pocket and drew out a flask. He pulled the cork with his teeth and quaffed the potion, then flew off of the belt and into the air like an ugly bird. He landed on the nearby catwalk, where he saw a door leading back into the entry chamber where he'd left his friends. It had not been visible from that side. The hulking cyborg on the other side of the stairwell began lurching towards him, and his hands flew across the locking mechanism. At the last second, he heard it click, and he flung the door open, shocked and relieved to see Mazael waiting on the other side. The war-priest shoved Boris aside as he stepped out onto the catwalk, placing himself between Boris and the oncoming cyborg. Just then, Boris saw one of the mechanical men standing in the corner do something to manipulate the bank of machinery in front of it. A grinding noise came from above, and when Boris looked up, he saw a long metallic arm descend from the roof and seize Mazael in its grip. The war-priest bellowed in anger as it pinned his arms to his side, keeping him from bringing up Suishen to block the swing of the cyborg's great-sword as it fell and slashed him from shoulder to hip, piercing his armor and opening a terrible wound. Then, a long hose snaked down from the rafters above. At its tip was a metal nozzle, and this pivoted towards Boris. Before he could leap away, it sprayed a viscous, black fluid straight into the goblin's eyes, blinding him.

At that moment, Mazael saw a blur of movement as Miriya somersaulted out onto the catwalk. The ninja whirled the blade of her kusarigama above her head, then flung it at the cyborg. The edge sliced through its putrid flesh, releasing a great gout of vile green fluid. Boris witnessed this as he wiped the burning sludge from his eyes. The he saw Mazael wrench himself loose from the grip of the mechanical arm, using Desna's blessing to break free. Boris moved towards the war-priest, but then the metal arm pivoted towards him and struck him a solid blow to his chest. He stumbled backwards. Mazael didn't seem to notice. He lunged towards the cyborg, blood flowing freely from his wound. Suishen sliced into the monster, setting flames dancing through its skin. However, in his haste, Mazael had moved right to the edge of the catwalk's railing, and he failed to see the flailing tendril of the great machine below until it was too late. It whipped through the air and slammed into him with devastating force. Mazael was shoved forward, where the cyborg was waiting. The war-priest's momentum drove him straight into the point of the creature's sword, impaling him. Mazael slumped, his eyes closing, then slid backwards to the catwalk, Suishen dropping from his numb fingers.

Mongo reached the catwalk about the same time as Mazael fell. He saw the giant cyborg still standing over his fallen companion and he lifted his pole-arm as he moved towards it. He saw the whip-like tendril coming for him a moment before Miriya shouted a warning. It latched onto him with bone-crushing strength, and snatched him bodily from the platform, holding him high in the air. From the doorway, Lucian rapidly fired four arrows into the flailing appendage, but it did not loosen its grip. Boris leaped into the air and hacked at the tendril. It flexed, and for a moment, the goblin though he'd succeeded, but then it uncoiled and hurled Mongo across the vast chamber. He landed in a heap on the floor, right next to the main body of the great machine. The two cyborgs that stood nearby slowly turned their heads towards him and began to advance.

From his position behind Lucian, Piotr could see across the room to where one of the mechanical men still stood in front of its panel, whatever buttons it was pushing causing the hoses and arms on the ceiling to move towards his friends. The sorcerer cast a spell, and a pit suddenly opened beneath the feet of the robot. It fell without a sound into a pool of caustic acid at the bottom of the hole.

Miriya tumbled nimbly behind the cyborg as Sandru stepped onto the platform and moved to flank the brute. It caught him a glancing blow with its sword as he closed in, but then he and the ninja struck in concert, opening several gaping rents in its hide.

Mongo raised his head, dizzily, just in time to see the cyborgs looming over him. He reached for his halberd, but then the two giants brought their great-swords down, and he knew no more...

Lucian fired more arrows at the cyborg trapped between Miriya and Sandru, his shots finally bringing it down. He pivoted and fired another volley at one of the clockwork men in a nearby corner, causing it to explode as every shot struck true. Behind him, Piotr created a second pit beneath another of the robots, and it plummeted from view. With the catwalk clear, Boris landed again and reached down to grab Suishen. He tucked the sword safely across his back while Sandru lifted Mazael's limp form over his shoulder and carried him out of the chamber.

On the factory floor, the great machine lifted Mongo's lifeless body and then bored into his skull with a dozen small tendrils. A moment later, the Mwangi's eyes snapped open, a milky film covering them. He began lurching about like a puppet on a string, his movements jerky and uncoordinated. Piotr looked on in horror. He gathered arcane energy into his palm and hurled it towards the floor. It exploded in green fire, showering the central processor, the giant cyborgs, the clockwork robots, and Mongo with burning acid. When the blast cleared, only one of the cyborgs and the great machine were still intact.

The surviving companions were stunned. They stood on the catwalk looking at the carnage below. As they watched, the remaining cyborg lurched towards the stairwell and began climbing towards them. Worse, the central processor itself wrenched its massive bulk from the floor and began slowly, laboriously, crawling their way. Lucian fired at it as it advanced, and Piotr hurled another acid ball. Boris rushed across the catwalk to intercept the approaching cyborg, but before he could reach it, the processor's tendril grabbed him from behind and began crushing the life out of him. Lucian kept up his barrage of arrows, desperately trying to bring down the infernal machine. Beside him, Piotr cast the last of his acidic fireballs. The central processor was in ruins, pieces of it falling to the floor, and great holes melted into its carapace, yet still it would not release the goblin. Boris managed to wriggle one arm free as his vision began to darken, and he hacked and hacked at the tendril, until finally, it went limp and released him. Before he lost consciousness, he saw Sandru and Miriya close on the last cyborg and chop it to pieces.


Miriya held up the ornate headpiece, which had been crafted of white gold, inlaid with lapis lazuli and spangled with dozens of jewels.
"It has many powers," she explained, "but chief among them is its ability to allow the wearer to detect the presence of shapechangers, including oni. They will never be able to deceive you again. I present it to you so that you may give it to the Destined Empress."
"Why don't you give it to her yourself?" Piotr asked. "There is nothing here for you know. Come home with us."
Miriya lowered her eyes and was silent for a moment.
"I...I would be honored," she said quietly.

The companions gathered their wounded and their dead then, with Miriya accompanying them, retraced their path out of the ruined city. Unseen by any of them, a pair of hateful eyes watched them go...

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