Pathfinder 1E JollyDoc's Jade Regent


Dead Man's Dome

7 Erastus, 4715 - 21 Erastus, 4715

Ameiko was honored when Miriya presented the White Peacock Crown to her, and even more so when the ninja offered her service, which was accepted graciously. After much discussion, it was decided that Lucian would actually wear the Crown, much as Mazael had borne Suishen. There was no discussion about the war-priest's fate. Ameiko immediately opened the warding box of the Amatatsu Seal and used the artifact to restore Mazael to life. Though weakened from his trip to the Other Side, he was none-the-worse for wear. Afterwards, Ulf informed everyone that they were bound for Dead Man's Dome next, a landmark located some 500 miles away where he hoped to regain the Path of Aganhei.

Within two days of setting out from the Storm Tower, Miriya was not looking well. She moved more slowly, and her words were at times slurred and confused. As the days went on, her metallic components began to show signs of rust, and her gears whined and ground noisily, at times freezing up. The blue lights embedded in her flesh flickered, and some went dark completely. Though the caravan healers tried their best, they could not find nor cure what ailed her. By the ninth day on the road, she could not go on. She called for Ameiko as she lay dying in one of the wagons.
"Thank you, my Lady," she said quietly when Ameiko came to her, "for giving me the opportunity to set right some of my pasts wrongs. Free our country and return it to its former glory. Now, I welcome oblivion."
With that, she died, and within moments, her flesh liquified to a pale blue fluid that rapidly evaporated, and her metallic pieces corroded to dust.


The caravan was still some fifty miles from Deadman's Dome when the scouts spotted the first of the undead. At first there were just a few, visible far in the distance standing atop a ridge. Before long, however, the numbers steadily increased, and could be seen coming from all directions. It soon became obvious that the caravan was being slowly surrounded.
"We keep making for the Dome!" Ulf commanded. "It is a more defensible position!"
"Just out of curiosity," Mazael asked, "why is it called Dead Man's Dome?"
"There is a legend," Ulf replied. "There was once a mighty watchtower there, paid for by taxes levied upon merchant trains using the Path of Aganhei and sheltering under its protection. Two centuries ago, however, the tower and its grounds were attacked by an army of giants and undead. Many caravans were slaughtered, but a lone hero taken on as a guard led a charge that broke the enemy lines and then held off the hordes long enough to allow the surviving caravans to escape. The hero then fought his way back and, according to the tale, lured the enemy inside the tower and collapsed it upon himself and them. None knew his name, so those who marked the fallen tower as his cairn simply called it Dead Man's Dome. There are still stories told that the spirit of the lone warrior still guards travelers who come there."
"Comforting," Mazael grunted.

By the time the caravan reached the round, bald hill, the walking dead were nearly upon them. They just had time to circle the wagons and prepare the defenses. Boris donated a fugitive grenade he'd taken from the corpse of a ninja, which when thrown, created a temporary extradimensional pocket. There, the drovers and the cooks hid themselves. Meanwhile, Zula wove a magical tiny hut around herself and her companions. It was opaque to those looking from the outside, but occupants within could see clearly through its walls. It was just then, however, that a small voice called out from the ruined foundations of the watchtower. Everyone turned at once, weapons ready to deal with whatever malevolent horror had managed to infiltrate them. What they saw gave them all pause. A diminutive figure stood atop a fallen stone, a bristly black beard framing a round face featuring a truly prodigious nose.
"Hullo," he said jovially. "Name's Phive...Gnome-Brr Phive, if it pleases you. Glad you folks came along, as I was starting to fret about every getting off this rock. Besides that I was getting mighty hungry as well. Ran out of food about three days ago."
"What are you doing here?" Zula snapped. "Speak quickly! We have enemies approaching from all sides and no time for foolishness!"
"Whoa, little missy," Phive held up his hands placatingly. "I'm in just as dire straits as you are...more so probably. My own caravan was attacked here about two weeks past. Killed to a man, save for yours truly, and that's only because I'm awfully good at not being seen when I don't want to be. I've been holed up here ever since, hoping more travelers would happen along...and here you are!"
"What kind of dwarf are you?" Boris asked suspiciously.
"Hah!" Phive laughed. "No kind! I'm a svirfneblin...a deep gnome as you surface folk call us. Got lured above ground by the promise of a whole lot of gems. Don't see myself collecting on that debt anytime soon."
"Well, Gnome-Brr Phive," Zula said. "I hope you have something useful you can lend in battle, or you may just end up waiting for the next band of fools to come along."

The first enemies that the heroes saw cresting the top of the hill, were a half-dozen or more hoarfrost spirits. Shalelu fired a volley of arrows through the wall of the shelter, and dropped one in its tracks, but the others surrounded the hut, sensing the pulsing life's blood of the living within. Once they'd gathered in a ring, the frozen dead unleashed blasts of frigid ice and bone-numbing cold that pierced the walls of the hut and engulfed all within. For the scions and Ameiko, this was as effective as a warm summer breeze, thanks to the protection afforded by Suishen. Others were not so fortunate, including Koya, who collapsed to the ground from the force of the blasts. Sandru, despite being chilled to the bone by the blasts, rushed to the edge of the dome, where one of the undead stood on just the other side. He slashed once with his scimitar, and sent the thing's head flying from its shoulders. At the same time, Phive rushed to Koya's side, and placed his ear to her chest. Her heart still beat, though faintly. He reached into his tunic and drew out a small amulet which was inscribed with a symbol of a two-toned mask...Nethys, the god of magic. He spoke a word of prayer over the amulet, and it pulsed with blue light. Koya drew a deep, shuddering breath, and then opened her eyes, staring up at the gnome in gratitude and confusion.

The frozen dead closed in on the dome from all sides, then began stepping through its opaque wall. The companions stood back-to-back, the archers, Boris, Lucian and Shalelu, picking their targets with deadly accuracy. The warriors took out any stragglers who made it past the lethal barrage, protecting the less hardy members of their band inside their defensive circle. In a matter of moments, the last of the hoarfrost spirits fell, but the reprieve was to be only a brief one. Already, more enemies could be seen coming over the hilltop.

The second wave consisted of a half-dozen ravening winter wights. The hunch-backed creatures ran on all fours, howling and snarling as they charged towards the dome. Boris shot one down in its tracks with a well-placed shaft through the throat. Lucian's and Shalelu's bows took down three more, and Mazael and Sandru met the last two and cut them down before they could even cross the threshold of the hut. The companions took a moment to catch their breath, and wait for what was to come.


They all heard it at the same time. A distant noise on the wind, like the tinkling of chimes. This was followed by a deep, booming sound, like that of heavy footfalls. They drew inexorably closer, coming from all sides of the hill. On opposite sides, two hulking, skeletal figures dressed in chain shirts and wielding great-swords lumbered into view. Each of them was accompanied by what looked to be a great bison, but on closer inspection, was obviously no longer among the living. Large holes were ripped from the flesh, showing bone and tendon beneath. Their eyes were dead white, and ice hung from curved horns. From the eastern and western sides of the hill, another pair of the bisons charged. The wind-chime noise rose in intensity, until it became the unmistakable sound of a woman's laughter.

The heroes who had the capability to do so unleashed their most powerful ranged assaults on the incoming undead while they were still at a distance. Bows twanged, and Zula's voice boomed, its echoes rolling across the hillside. One of the undead bisons collapsed, but the remaining three, as well as the giant skeletons, reached the perimeter of the hut. One of the giants slammed its huge blade into Spivey, sending the little angel hurtling across the hut. Mazael and Sandru moved to intercept the brute, while Skygni met one of the charging bisons head-on as it lowered its horns and gored Boris. Shalelu rolled out its way, and then fired an arrow through its heart just as Skygni's jaws clamped down on its throat, driving it to the ground. Mazael and Sandru circled and flanked the giant, avoiding its devastating blows, while hacking and slashing at its weak spots. Within moments, they brought it down. Meanwhile, across the dome, Boris and Lucian kept the second giant occupied while Zula's thundercalls gradually reduced it to bone shards. Another wave of her devastating voice felled another of the bison, as Skygni leaped atop the last one and ripped out its throat.

The last wave of assailants consisted of two enormous creatures made of solid ice, led by a smaller individual clad in icy armor and crowned with a rack of antlers, mounted atop a huge, undead mammoth. Though formidable, they were ultimately no match for the companions. Zula's devastating voice cracked the cold rider's armor, stunning him, then killing him with a second blast. The mammoth and the elementals made it to the hut, but the combined might of the heroes overwhelmed them with only a few minor injuries suffered in turn.

Quiet finally returned to Dead Man's Dome, and with it came the Dome's guardian. The heroes were taken aback to find a transparent figure dressed in ancient armor standing in their midst. At first they thought it was another attack, but then the spirit spoke.
"You have my gratitude, warriors. Long have I defended this place from those who prey upon travelers, and when I took your measure, I knew that I was among kindred spirits. Your service will not be forgotten...,"
As he faded from view, an object lay on the ground where he had stood...a small, terra cotta statue of a Tian warrior...
"Yeah?" Phive humphed. "Where were you when my folk need you?"

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The Paths of the Dead

21 Erastus - 22 Arodus

Over the next ten days, the caravan followed the Path of Aganhei once more, down from the High Ice and into the basin surrounding Ruun Uvas, where they arrived at the village of Ul-Angorn. Gnome-Brr Phive, having few options, elected to accompany them, at least for the time being. They rested there briefly, buying and selling goods, then continued south for four more days to Ovorikheer Pass. The pass was twenty miles long, and ascended five-thousand feet through the geothermally active vales of Baruun's Breath. When the train reached the top of the pass, it entered the ice-sheathed Domagalki Forest, known as the Wood of Winter's Deadly Roar. As they walked through the silent trees, a sudden flurry of snow and ice began drifting down on them. Mazael glanced up in annoyance, grumbling about the damnable weather, and his eyes went round as saucers. Perched in the branches of several trees some thirty-feet above them, was a white-furred spider the size of a house!
"'Ware the trees!" he shouted as he drew Suishen and used the sword's magic to begin walking into the air towards the gargantuan arachnid.
Before he'd gone a dozen paces, however, the hair on the spider's abdomen bristled as it tensed its body and then flung several of the foot-long fibers towards him. One of them brushed his face, leaving behind a trail of green ichor. Immediately, his stomach seized and he began vomiting violently.

"Damn that man!" Lucian cursed. "Always rushing in without thinking!"
He knocked an arrow and loosed, sending the shaft into the tarantula's thorax, but not really slowing it down.
"Mazael! Fall back!" Zula shouted as she erected one of her handy tiny huts.
Mazael nodded in between retching and hurried back down to the ground and through the opaque wall of the shelter.
"Easy boy," Phive said as he stepped up and laid a hand on the war-priest's belly, speaking a word of prayer as he did so.
Instantly, Mazael felt the nausea leave him.
"Thank," he said grudgingly. "I guess that's one I owe you."

By that time, the spider had climbed down to the ground and began scuttling towards the dome. Before it could reach the perimeter, however, Piotr lobbed a fireball into its path, causing it to rear up on its back four legs, screeching horribly as its fur burned. Boris and Lucian fired their bows simultaneously, striking vital areas with uncanny precision. The spider hesitated, disoriented, searching this way and that in pain and rage. Then Zula stepped to the edge of the hut and sang one, clear note that boomed like a thunderclap over beast, liquefying its internal organs with its impact. The spider flipped onto its back, its legs curled in, very much dead.
"Look like spider-surprise for dinner tonight!" Boris crowed.


When the caravan descended from Ovorikheer Pass, it entered the lands of the Osman Confederation surrounding Lake Buryiim. The town of Jaagin stood square in the Path of Aganhei, and so they stopped and rested again, taking on more supplies for the final push to the Wall of Heaven. They left the Osman lands behind, and spent another twelve days on the Path. Finally, they drew near the Altan Zuud, also known as the Last Pass, which would take them through the Wall of Heaven Mountains and down into the Tian Xia province of Hongal on the far side. However, as they approached the Last Pass, the temperature steadily dropped and ominous storm clouds began to dominate the southern horizon. The clouds raced overhead, moving swifter than the wind, and a fell, feminine mocking laughter echoed above, interspersed with peals of thunder. The mountain peaks ahead were swallowed up in a roiling blizzard as avalanches cascaded down the cliff faces to block the pass.

Ulf's face paled as he witnessed the disaster. He looked around at Sandru and Ameiko in dismay.
"We could try and make for the town of Ketskerlet," he said, "though it lies two-hundred miles to the east. From there we could cross the Gulf of Khorkii, or at least take shelter in the dwarven delves on this side of the mountains. I am not hopeful that we will make it before the storm catches us, however."
"Perhaps we could scout other passes through the mountains," Shalelu suggested.
Ulf shook his head vehemently. "There are no other passes that are traversable at this time of year," he said. "We cannot waste time searching in vain."
"Perhaps I can offer another option," Koya replied. "I have studied the history of Desna's worship in many cultures, past and present. I recall the account of a traveler from long ago who traversed the Crown of the World and spoke of the Uqtaal clans...tundra nomads who worshipped Desna as the Queen of the North Star, their guide and protector in the long arctic night. The Uqtaal believed that souls sought to follow the North Star even in death, and through long years, they excavated a subterranean necropolis within the caverns at the feet of the Wall of Heaven. Beyond the stony tombs of the fallen, they carved a passage, called the Path of Spirits, for the souls of the dead to make their way onto the High Ice to follow the North Star to the top of the world, where Desna would carry them home to the stars. This account was hundreds of years old, but the traveler claimed the necropolis was very real, and that he found the northern exit of their tunnel, as wide as a highway, flanked by twin stone statues of Desna. By using the landmarks that he recorded, I might be able to find this pathway."
The others looked from one to another before Ameiko finally sighed and spoke.
"I don't believe we have any better options," she said. "Koya, lead the way."


Over the next three hours the caravan raced the morozko west, parallel to the Wall of Heaven. At times, Koya would see a rock formation or some such that led her to believe they were on the right path. Finally, they came to a pair of rocky arms that jutted out from one rugged peak. Flanking the entrance created between them were a pair of statues...the Gates of Desna. One statue was broken off at the pedestal, but the other was intact and depicted a primitively carved woman with butterfly wings eternally facing north, with a roughly carved eight-pointed star graven into her forehead. A quarter mile beyond this, a cave mouth yawned at the head of the valley, with a carved stone lintel and doorposts etched with faded stars: the Path of Spirits.

"This is as far as I go," Skygni announced as the wagons reached the cave. "I agreed to guide you over the Crown, and I have held to my word. There is nothing over or under these mountains that concerns me."
"We appreciate your company and your assistance these past weeks," Sandru said, speaking for all of them. "Perhaps our paths will cross again."
The wolf sniffed doubtfully. "Perhaps," he replied, "but all of you two-legged types look the same to me. Not sure I'd remember you if I saw you again. Still, if that happens, I will try not to eat you."
And with that, he turned into the coming storm and loped off into the gathering darkness.


The path beyond the cave stretched away into darkness for miles, following natural faults, rifts and cave systems. The tunnel had many steep slopes and narrow passages that made navigating with the wagons difficult and slow going. After two days of traveling through the unending blackness, the natural passage gave onto a broad, worked tunnel. At this point, the Scions thought it prudent to begin ranging some distance ahead of the main body of the caravan, scouting for dangers. Zula cast a message spell to keep them in contact with the others. The floor and walls of the passageway were smoothed and decorated with faded cave paintings of starry skies, colorful auroras, and pale, headless shades marching along the path. Regularly spaced hewn stone pillars decorated with star carvings stood on either side of the tunnels. Atop each pillar sat a bleached human skull, painted with a red, demonic face, all facing north.
"Hmmm, ain't that interesting?" Phive mused, staring up at the skulls.
The gnome had been happy as a lark ever since the caravan had entered the deeps below the mountains, but now his face grew somber.
"What?" Mazael asked.
"That symbol painted on the skulls," Phive replied. "I recognize it from my studies. It represents a fella named Fumeiyoshi, a god from Tian lands. Not a nice one either. Lords over dishonor, envy, graves, undead and the like."
"No," Zula agreed. "That doesn't sound nice at all."

The tunnel opened into a wide cavern bisected by a deep crevasse with a carved bridge spanning it. At each end of the bridge, stone pillars supported a flat lintel carved with star-shaped niches set with red-painted human skulls. On either side of the cavern, a dusty portal of stone marked one face of an angular tower built into the rock with narrow slit windows overlooking the bridge.
"Boris, check the doors," Zula ordered, and the goblin moved to comply.
"I'll go with the boy," Phive offered. "I have some experience with reconnaissance."
He trotted after Boris, and the goblin looked sidelong at him, but just shrugged. They reached the nearest tower, and Boris scrutinized the door with a meticulous eye then pressed his ear against it.
"Nothing," he said after a moment.
"May I?" Phive asked, and Boris shrugged again then stepped aside.
The gnome pulled a pair of gloves from his belt and slipped them onto his hands, then pressed both palms against the iron door.
"Oh my," he said softly after a moment.
"What?" Boris asked. "What that you're doing?"
"The gloves let me look past things," Phive said, his voice a hushed whisper, "...for a short time."
"What you see?" Boris asked
"Nothin' good," the gnome said. "Three fellas standin' just on the other side...and ain't none of'em got heads."
The two of them slipped quickly to the opposite tower and repeated their surveillance.
"Ditto," Phive confirmed after using his gloves again. "Better tell the others."


Haroldo stood in front of one tower, while Mazael stood at the other.
"On my mark," Zula called from the center of the cavern, where she stood with Piotr, Phive, and Lucian. Against her advice, Boris crouched behind Haroldo, his swords in his hands.
"Now!" the thundercaller cried.
Both warriors pulled open their doors simultaneously, and from behind them stepped the six headless horrors. Mazael hacked at the first one through his door, and when Suishen's flame touched the dried flesh of the corpse, it ignited like kindling.
"Noted," Piotr smiled as a bead of fire appeared between his fingers and he flicked it towards the trio coming for Boris and Haroldo.
The fireball exploded behind the undead, setting them all ablaze. Piotr laughed in triumph, but it was only then that he noticed that Haroldo and Boris had not moved. They seemed rooted to the spot, their eyes wide in abject terror.

Lucian saw it too. He knocked two arrows to his string at the same time and loosed. Both shafts pierced the heart of one of the flaming guardians as it moved towards Boris, and it collapsed to the floor, burning to ash. He pivoted and put down another one. The last one kept lumbering closer to Haroldo. Zula's voice exploded over it. It shuddered, but didn't stop. It reached the blood-rager and seized his neck in one gnarled hand.
"No!" Lucian cried, but it was too late.
The headless horror squeezed and twisted, and Haroldo's neck snapped audibly. He fell bonelessly to the floor.

Gnome-Brr Phive was moving before he even realized what he was doing. He rushed to Haroldo's side and leaned over the big man. Placing his face close to the fallen warrior's, he exhaled, his breath flowing into Haroldo. A moment later, the blood-rager coughed, gasped, and opened his eyes.

At that exact moment, Boris snapped out of the fear that had paralyzed him. He glanced around in confusion and saw Phive cradling Haroldo on one side, and a flaming, headless corpse looming over him on the other.
"Boris not know what going on here," he babbled, "and Boris not sure he want to know, but something here need stabbing!"
He gripped his blades, shook his head to clear the cobwebs, and then lunged for the walking corpse. He plunged both swords into it up to the hilt, and to his immense relief, it fell.

"You two sure are quite the heroes," Mazael yelled from across the cavern, "but I could use a little help over here!"
He hacked at one of his attackers as it slammed an arm that felt as if it were made of steel into his chest. Just as he was about to be overwhelmed, another fireball detonated behind the undead, engulfing one of the guardians completely. The other two didn't get two steps closer before Lucian dropped them both.


"Something's...wrong....," Haroldo croaked.
Phive had been able to heal the worst of his wounds, but the blood-rager was correct...something was indeed wrong. His skin was a sallow color, and his cheeks looked hollow. Sores had appeared on his flesh in scattered locations, and a foul smell emanated from them.
"Just like I thought" the gnome sighed. "Those headless fellas weren't no ordinary zombies. They was mummies, and our friend here has been infected...cursed, some folks might say...with their rot."
"Can you cure him?" Zula asked.
"Not today," Phive shook his head. "With the right prayers, maybe tomorrow."
"Then we wait," Mazael said.
"No...," Haroldo protested. "It's not safe here. The caravan is in danger. I can go on...for now."
"I'm afraid I have to agree," Zula nodded. "Sitting here won't do Haroldo any good, and it could leave us vulnerable to more attacks. We should move on."
"That may not be as easy as it sounds," Piotr said as he approached the group from where he'd been studying the bridge across the chasm. "There is some kind of invisible barrier blocking the bridge. Boris tried to bypass it but couldn't. Strangely enough, however, Helgarvarl made it across with no problem."
"Possibly his angelic nature," Zula observed.
"Maybe," Piotr shrugged, "but that doesn't help us. I may be able to suppress it temporarily, but we need to get the caravan up here and across quickly. I don't know how long it will stay down."

While Zula summoned the caravan, Boris and Phive investigated the two towers the mummies had been guarding. Inside each of them, a dark corridor led deeper within the rock, lined on both sides with open niches, within which lay funerary biers and a scattering of ancient grave goods. At the end of the hall was a small chamber containing three more biers. Pictographs of the dead rising from their graves to attack the living were carved and painted on the walls. Though the burial treasure looked to be of modest worth, Boris restrained himself from taking any, knowing he would catch no end of grief from the Desna worshippers among his companions. He sighed and resigned himself to better luck next time.

Piotr was indeed able to bring down the mystic barrier, and the caravan wagons passed safely across the bridge to the far side of the cavern. As Ameiko passed the sorcerer, she gave him a warm small and her hand caressed his cheek briefly. Piotr smiled in return, but someone else did not. Haroldo's eyes burned holes into the sorcerer's back, and he looked down at his slowly rotting flesh, his heart filling with rage.


The wide passage continued on the other side of the cavern for a short distance before opening into another area. A strange pillar, seeming almost a bare-branched tree, stood in the center of the arching cavern in the midst of a pool of still water. A faint violet radiance from beneath the pool lit the cavern, reflecting off the ceiling above like tiny stars. Beyond the stone tree, a pale light glinted from one wall of the cave, and on the far side, a smooth passage sloped upward.

Boris looked to Zula, and she nodded. The caravan held position as the little goblin began creeping stealthily around the perimeter of the room. He reached the point where he'd seen the glinting light, and found a gilded door engraved with a demonic, tusked skull face standing in the wall there. Much of the gilt on its outer surface had been scraped off, but the edges still gleamed in the flickering luminescence from the pool. Near the door, a withered corpse lay upon the floor. Boris gave it a wide berth as he continued around the room. He peered down the passage on the far side, and saw only darkness. However, from his current vantage he could see another, smaller corridor nearby. That one looked natural, and uneven, with several cliff-like shelves leading upwards. There was no way the caravan would be able to navigate that. The goblin completed his circuit and reported back to his companions all that he had observed.

Zula again suggested that the caravan hold back, and she and the rest of the Scions moved towards the gilded door. Once there, Phive used his enchanted gloves to peer through it. A short hallway lay beyond, opening into a small octagonal room illuminated by flickering firelight. Red demonic faces leered from the walls against a painted background of midnight blue. In the center of the room, seeming almost to swim in a sea of night, a bier of blue-painted stone bore a motionless skeleton, its face concealed beneath a golden mask.

Meanwhile, Boris sidled closer to the corpse on the floor, where something around its neck had caught his eye. A pair of silver goggles with ruby lenses hung there, and Boris reached for them. As his hand closed around them, the eyes of the corpse sprang open, and its mouth stretched in a wide rictus, emitting a head-splitting shriek. Boris grabbed his ears, rendered immobile from the pain. Behind him, Mazael and Haroldo were also bent double, their hands gripping the sides of their heads. The revenant climbed nimbly to its feet and seized Boris by the throat, lifting him bodily into the air. When three arrows from Lucian's bow struck its chest, its grip only tightened. Zula blasted the thing with her voice once...twice, and it staggered back, but still did not release the goblin. Piotr conjured a sphere of fire that rolled across the floor and set the creature's legs aflame, but only after four more of Lucian's arrows pierced it did it finally relent and sink back into oblivion, letting Boris fall heavily to the floor, gasping.

"Boris," Piotr snapped, "when will you learn to leave...,"
His words trailed off as a bone-numbing chill filled the air around him. He turned slowly to look behind him, and his eyes widened. A palpable darkness oozed from around the edges of the gilded door and slowly coalesced into a translucent, humanoid form wearing a golden mask. It reached out a hand and laid it upon Piotr's chest, and he felt his hear skip momentarily as the strength drained out of his body. Then he felt himself being grabbed from behind as Zula seized his shoulder and sang a brief tune. Instantly, he was whisked across the room, reappearing several dozen feet away from the shadow. Regaining his composure, he loosed a volley of magic missiles at the thing, force magic that he knew would affect even a spirit. Zula unleashed her thunder-call, and the creature recoiled. Mazael stepped towards it, but it plunged its shadowy-fist right through his stomach, and he grunted in pain as if his soul had been ripped from him. Lucian quickly stepped in front of him and fired four arrows into the horror. Though translucent, the magical arrows still pierced the shadow, and with a final moan of anguish, it dissipated into nothingness.


The companions searched the tomb behind the gilded door and found a small trove of jewelry. The physical body of the dark priestess still remained upon the bier, and it was clad in armor that consisted of four polished steel plates harnessed together with leather shoulder straps. Two round plates protected the wearer's front and back, while two smaller, rectangular plates covered the sides of the torso. Piotr analyzed the magical dweomer he sensed on the armor, and realized that it was specifically enchanted to protect against the incorporeal undead. The corpse also had a sword laid across its chest, a two-handed blade crafted of silvery-gray steel, with nine golden rings threaded through its spine that glowed with mystic power. Streamers of blue and purple silk hung from the sword's pommel. Piotr determined that the weapon was also meant to be used against the undead, allowing the wielder to banish possessing spirits, and even to destroy a creature with one blow. He felt that, thought these items would surely prove of great value to the company, it did not bode well for what might await deeper within the necropolis.


Katiyana's Revenge

22 Erastus, 4715

"The way I see it, we have two choices," Mazael said. "The main passage will accommodate the wagons, so that's our first option. That side passage is too rocky for the wagons, but if we don't at least check it out, we might be leaving enemies behind us, so option two."
"Boris volunteer to scout rocky road," the goblin raised his hand, "but he not want to go alone. Boris want little sniffle-snabble man to go with him."
"Svirneblin," Phive corrected.
"Whatever," Boris shrugged. "Little man good for keeping people alive, and also sneaky and quiet. He come with Boris."
Gnome-Brr Phive lifted his hands. "Fine by me. Just don't 'spect me to do no fightin' fer ya. If'n there's trouble, I'm high-tailin' it!"
"Boris be right behind you," the goblin grinned.

The two of them ducked into the uneven tunnel, following its twists and scrambling up its cliff-like shelves as it ran. They came to an intersection, and elected to take the smaller side-passage first. After a short distance, it opened onto a ledge that overlooked a cave below. The cave contained a den of matted furs, rough seats carved from the stone, and a few crude tools. Three creatures moved around the cave. They stood like men, yet were half again the height of most humans and covered with coats of thick white fur.
"White bear people," Boris whispered, nodding sagely.
He and the gnome retreated back to the main corridor and continued following its path. Shortly, it gave onto a large cavern with rough nests and piled furs scattered across it. Bones strewed amid the stalagmites gave mute testimony to past meals. Another eight of the white-furred creatures occupied the cave. Though smaller than the previous ones the pair had seen, they were still larger than even Haroldo.
"Boris see enough," the rogue said, and Phive didn't disagree.
Quickly and quietly, they made their way back to the caravan.


"Sounds like yetis," Piotr said once Boris had described what they'd seen. "I've heard of them, and read some in bestiaries, but I've never actually seen one. Despite their reputation of being 'abominable,' they are actually not evil. More like primitive tribal hunter-gatherers."
"Then maybe they can be reasoned with," Lucian suggested. "Maybe we can make a truce with them and they can tell us what we can expect to find in the necropolis, or even offer us safe passage."
"It's worth a try," Piotr agreed. "We might take some of our food and trade goods with us as a peace offering."

Haroldo, his condition worsening, elected to stay back with the caravan, and Zula volunteered to remain with him to lend what assistance she could. Ulf Gormundr offered to accompany the companions, as he'd had dealings with yetis in the past. Ameiko also announced that she would come, despite Lucian's protests about her safety.
"I am more skilled in diplomatic negotiations than any of you," she pointed out. "After all, I have kept a tavern afloat for many years without it burning to the ground or becoming a haven for ruffians and vandals."
Her tone brooked no further discussion, and the small group set out.

They reached the Y-intersection, and halted. Lucian put his hands to his mouth, and called out in a strange tongue he named Aklo, which was the only language the yeti's understood.
"Hail yeti's of the necropolis! We come in peace for trade and safe passage! We mean you no harm!"
His overture was answered a moment later by the sound of snarling howls and heavy feet beating on the stone. Yetis swarmed into the passage from both sides, teeth bared and ravening.
"Please!" Lucian cried, raising his hands to show he was unarmed. "We have brought gifts for you! We are lost travelers simply trying to make our way through and out of your domain! We only want to know what dangers we face, and what is the safest route!"
One of the larger yetis stepped forward, a spear gripped in his large hands and pointed at Lucian's chest.
"You leave gift!" he growled. "You go back way you came, and we no kill you!"
"They are much more aggressive than normal for their kind," Ulf whispered aside to Lucian. "Tread lightly."
"Can you tell us what lies down the large hallway back there?" Lucian asked, nodding back over his shoulder the way they had come.
"Paths of the dead," the big yet snapped. "You go now!"
"Are there dangers there?" Lucian persisted.
"Don't know!" the yeti barked, becoming more angry. "We no go there! Only dead! Go!!"
Lucian nodded, his hands still up, and began walking backwards.
"We thank you," he said. "We will not trouble you further, and hope that you will afford us the same courtesy."
The companions retraced their steps, watching cautiously over their shoulders to make sure they weren't being followed.


With no other options left to them, the companions, followed by the caravan, began traveling the main corridor. Numerous small side passages branched off of it as it sloped upward to the west. Hundreds of burial niches had been carved into the rock walls of the catacombs. Against the advice of several of his friends, Boris darted in and out of the side passages as the wagon train trundled along, stating that he was just scouting for potential dangers.
"And when I hang you upside down by your feet," Mazael growled, "I better not see any Desnan jewelry fall out of your pockets!"

The passage continued to slope upward, flanked by more catacombs cut into the rock. On each wall of the passage, a huge red demonic skull face with short tusks was carved into the stone. Mazael, who'd been leading the way, grunted and stopped abruptly as his forward progress was stopped by an intangible barrier blocking off the entire corridor.
"Gods be damned!" he shouted. "Not another one of these!"
Piotr quickly moved up to analyze the situation, and then nodded his head grimly.
"It's just like the abjuration blocking the bridge," he stated. "Give me a moment to study it and I may be able to suppress it as well."

Meanwhile, as Boris nosed around another side passage, he came to an apparent dead-end, but noticed that there was actually a partially dug out hole in the wall. It was a tight squeeze, but he managed to crawl through it. On the other side, he found himself in a sprawling cavern with a deep crevasse dominating it. Five yetis, two of the large ones and three of the smaller, prowled about the area. Carefully and quietly, he crept along one wall until he came to a small tunnel, and then followed it to another cave. This one was smaller, but looked to be another communal cavern, with eight of the smaller yetis lounging about. One one side, an opening seemed to lead out onto some sort of ledge. Stealthily, he made his way to it and peered over. He found himself looking out into a wide cavern that soared into darkness overhead. A deep crevasse plummeted directly below him, while on the opposite side a broad switchback road climbed to a distant tunnel mouth. In the center of the cavern, skull-topped columns surrounded an octagonal dais. Age-worn steps led to the top of the dais, where a stone seat rested between the tusks of a bull mastodon skull, a Tian-style banner draped over the top like a canopy. Seated upon the throne was a truly massive yeti. Standing next to him was one of the large, savage yetis, and when Boris looked to his right, he saw another ledge several dozen feet away. Another of the big yetis crouched there. Cautiously, he began retracing his steps.


"Once again, it seems like our choices are limited," Piotr said after Boris had told his tale. "Let's just hope this yeti king is as reasonable as his people."
He stepped back and pushed up his sleeves, then began casting his spell. A moment later, there was a brief flash of light and a loud pop from the air in front of him.
"Done," he announced. "We should be able to pass now."

Sure enough, the way forward was clear, and the companions led the way once more, the wagons taking up position one-hundred feet behind. When they reached the wide cavern, it was just as Boris had described. Lucian stepped forward, prepared to negotiate with the yeti king for safe passage, but then the huge brute raised his head. His eyes were blood-red and filled with hatred. He raised one clawed hand over his head and suddenly there appeared a swirling black thunder cloud in the air above him.
"Look out!" Boris cried, as he caught a sudden movement out of the corner of his eye.
On a raised ledge above the entrance, one of the large yeti savages crouched, ready to leap. Boris managed to raise his bow and snap off one quick shot into the beast, but then his gaze met its eyes, and fear filled him, rooting him in place.

From the crevasse on the right side of the cavern came a cacophony of howling and snarling. Yetis began climbing out of it, a mixture of both savages and smaller ones.
"Ambush!" Lucian shouted.
He didn't waste arrows on the newcomers, but instead turned his attention towards the king. His aim was spot on, and four arrows bristled from the chest of the brute. Blood flowed freely down his white-furred chest, but he seemed to pay it little notice. More yetis clambered out of the crevasse, and the savage on the ledge above leaped to the floor, joined by another one that jumped from the very cave mouth where Boris had hidden himself earlier. Ulf Gormundr rushed to meet the oncoming horde, Mazael right behind him. Piotr opened a gaping pit beneath the feet of one beast just as it was preparing to leap at the warriors. It disappeared from sight momentarily, howling in anger, but shortly thereafter its taloned hands reappeared above the lip of the pit as it climbed its way back out.

Gnome-Brr Phive darted through the melee to Boris's side as one of the savage yetis loomed above the goblin. He placed a hand on Boris's shoulder and uttered a prayer. With a visible tremor, Boris snapped out of his torpor and looked around in dismay. The yetis were closing in on all sides. Ulf and Mazael were holding their own, giving as good as they got, but as Boris watched, one large specimen got past Ulf's defenses and rent terrible gouges in the ranger's flesh.
"'Scuse me boy," Phive said grimly. "Looks like I got some more work to do."
The gnome darted away again, slipping a small silver ring onto one finger and vanishing from view. A moment later, however, several of Ulf's wounds began to close.
"Boris liking that big-nose dwarf more and more all the time," the goblin grinned as he spun out of the way of an oncoming yeti and then buried his swords in its flank as it passed.

Piotr's face tightened as he saw still more yetis emerging from the crevasse. Nearby, Ameiko had unslung her shamisen and was playing a rousing battle-tune, inspiring her comrades to even more courageous feats. That brought a smile to the sorcerer's lips. The lady had guts, and wasn't too hard on the eyes either. Turning his attention back to melee, he saw that several of the yetis had massed together, led by the king who had leaped down from his throne.
"Thanks for assuming the formation," Piotr chuckled.
He summoned a small bead of fire between his fingers and flicked it into the center of the crowd, where it detonated with a spectacular, flaming ka-boom. Four yetis, including one of the big savages, were consumed by the fire, and the rest hooted in anguish from the searing burns to their heat-sensitive flesh. The yeti king, however, seemed completely unscathed.

The battle raged on, the companions beset by attackers on all sides. Foes dropped beneath the blades of Ulf and Mazael, as well as the arrows of Lucian and the Boris's wicked guerrilla strikes, yet still more came to take their places. Ameiko paused in her singing to loose a blistering invective upon a yeti that threatened Piotr, setting the creature ablaze with her magic-fueled tirade, and sending it screaming back into the crevasse.
"The leader!" Lucian cried out. "Focus on the leader!"
The others heard, and quickly adjusted their tactics. Ulf and Mazael waded through the horde until they reached the big chief, then began assaulting him from both flanks, while Lucian rained arrows into him. Whenever the wounds of any of the companions became too dire, a disembodied voice would begin praying nearby, and the injuries closed as quickly as they appeared. Finally, with a mighty swing, Ulf cleaved the chief's head from his shoulders, and a brief silence fell over the battlefield.

A white mist began to rise from the corpse of the yeti king, which quickly coalesced into a vaguely humanoid form. The transformation rapidly progressed until a coldly beautiful winged woman hovered above the body. There could be no doubt about her was Katiyana...or rather, her ghost!
"You cannot kill me, mortals!" she shrieked gleefully. "You sought to strike me down, but now I have become Katiyana the Eternal, the Avatar of the Hungry Storm, Handmaiden of Sithhud, and the Harrower of All Creation!!"
Her frigid laughter filled the cavern, and the air around her began to whirl and churn into a small cyclone of ice and snow. The remaining yetis cowered in fear, and then, in blind panic, rushed en masse back to the crevasse. Katiyana's cackle continued to grow as she lifted her hand to the swirling black cloud above her and called a sizzling bolt of lightning from it to strike down upon Mazael.
"I've got her!" Piotr shouted as he hurled a barrage of force missiles at the spirit, confident that particular energy would still be able to damage her incorporeal form. He was mistaken. The missiles bounced harmlessly away from her, and she turned her gaze upon the sorcerer, her intent murderous. Mazael rushed towards her, and she flung another electric blast at him. He grunted and stumbled, but did not stop his least not until he reached Katiyana and she thrust one outstretched hand completely through his chest. He felt agony seize him, and he crumpled to his knees, fighting just to stay conscious.
"You leave angry man alone!" Boris shouted as he leaped at the ghost witch.
His blades sliced at her ephemeral body, trailing wispy streaks of pale blood with them. Behind him, Lucian, unable to bring his bow to bear in the strong winds that buffeted around Katiyana, instead plucked one of the pearls from the White Peacock Crown and threw it at her. It exploded with a dull whumph, engulfing her in holy light. She cringed back momentarily, but then regained her composure, her smile rigid. She did not remove her hand from Mazael's chest, but instead thrust it further inside. Boris lunged at her again, hacking and slashing, though it felt like he was cutting nothing but air. Ulf joined him, though the ranger's blows seemed no more effective. Finally, Katiyana ripped her hand away from Mazael with a grin of triumph, and the war-priest fell heavily to the stone, his skin bone white. Boris howled in anguish and he and Ulf redoubled their efforts.
"I think we've all had just about enough out of you, little missy," a voice said from behind Katiyana.
She whirled about, fury etched into her face, only to find a diminutive gnome standing there. She snorted and chuckled, then raised her hand to swat the gnat. That was when Phive gripped the symbol of Nethys around his neck, and channeled his god's holy power into the ghost. With a scream that seemed to go on forever, Katiyana's form exploded into a thousand shards of ice. Gnome-Brr Phive moved quickly to Mazael's side, and leaned over him, breathing life back into his body. The war-priest opened his eyes.
"Not you again," he groaned.
"I believe that's a couple you owe me, fella," Phive laughed.


City At The Edge Of The World

22 Arodus, 4715 - 1 Rova, 4715

With the yeti threat passed, and Katiyana (hopefully) banished from existence, the Desnan's in the group decided to set about reconsecrating the necropolis to their mistress. While they busied themselves with this (in his opinion) foolish task, Boris made his way up the switchback ramps on the far side of the throne room. When he reached the top, he found a wide tunnel which ended abruptly at a blank stone wall. He examined it closely, but could find no sign of a hidden exit, yet something about the rock looked strange to him. He went back to the camp to find Gnome-Brr Phive.
"You come look at this," he beckoned to the gnome. "Your big nose used to sniffing around in caves and dirt."
"Thanks...ah guess," Phive sniffed.
When he reached the wall with Boris, however, his eyes immediately picked out what the goblin was talking about. The stone was much too smooth to be natural, and there was a clear demarcation on both sides where the true stone began.
"This ain't right," he said as he scratched his chin.
He then slipped on his gloves and pressed his palms to the wall.
"Yep," he nodded, "jest like ah thought. This here's a conjured wall. Ain't no more'n six er eight inches thick. Tunnel picks up on t'other side."

Once the consecration was complete, Spivey and Koya put their skills together to both remove the curse of mummy rot from Haroldo, and then cure the disease itself. The warrior was grateful, though it would still take several days to heal the damage already wrought by the foul infection.

Boris and Phive returned to the group and told them of their discovery. This was a relief to Sandru, but before they departed, Zula wanted to approach the yetis once more. It seemed to her that, since their chief was dead, and had been possessed, they might be more amenable to a parley. Boris was very unhappy about this, feeling that the yeti's would be of more use in his cook pot. Still, reason won out, and the companions retraced their path to the yeti caves. The yetis approached cautiously when they became aware of the intruders, fear visible in their eyes.
"We have not come to harm you," Zula said, her tongues spell allowing her to speak their language. "We know that you were mislead by your chieftain, and we do not hold you responsible. We only seek information, and an understanding."
One of the larger yetis stepped forward.
"Speak words, human," he grumbled. "We hear you."
Zula nodded. "Can you tell us what transpired here? How did your king come under the thrall of the snow witch?"
"We not know Grumburg controlled by witch," the yet said. "Days ago, he say to us he have vision. Strangers coming to Paths of the Dead. Coming to hurt and steal from us. He say we kill any strangers we see."
"I see," Zula replied. "That was approximately the time our path across the mountains was barred by a malevolent storm, and we were forced to journey through your domain to reach our goal. We think that it was the snow witch who controlled the storm, and when she could not stop us with it, she came here and used your chief to try and undo us. The threat is past, but we are sorry for the loss of your leader and your people."
The yeti grunted noncommittally.
"Do you know the history of these halls?" Zula asked.
The yeti shrugged. "We here for many seasons. Before us, we not know. All dead now. We see skulls and burial places."
"This place is a necropolis," Zula explained, "a place of rest for worshipers of the goddess Desna, patron of travelers. However, it seems that some time in the past, it became corrupted by followers of an evil god. We have reconsecrated it in Desna's name, but we worry for its sanctity once we are gone. We propose an alliance with your people. If you agree to become guardians against further evil incursion here, not only will it keep your people safe, but we will work to establish a trade path through here, only for followers of Desna. This will bring prosperity to your people."
The big yeti considered her words for several long moments, looking to his tribe.
"We hear your words," he said, "and there wisdom in them. We do what you ask, and our people become friends."
Zula shook his massive paw when he extended it towards her.


It took little effort to smash through the relatively thin rock wall that Boris and Phive had discovered, and then the caravan was on the move once more. A half-mile later, the tunnel ended, opening once more into the outside world, and giving the companions there first view of Tian Xia.

"Hongal," Ulf announced, gesturing towards the barren, wind-blown plains which lay before them. "It is the home of the horse-lords. Most of its people are nomadic, and there are only two settlements in the entire province. It is for the largest of these, Ordu-Aganhei, that we are bound. It lies about two days travel south, by my estimate. I caution you all to stay on the road. The Hongali value trade, and so generally do not harass caravans, but any foreigners caught off the Spirit Road are considered fair game."

In the two days that passed, they saw little other signs of life. The plains were desolate, although they did catch a glimpse of a large band of riders in the distance on one occasion. Finally, at mid-day of their second day out, the walls of Ordu-Aganhei came into view. Compared to Kalsgaard, it was not a large city, but it was by far the largest settled area the companions had seen in weeks, and their hearts were lifted. The walls were made of timber, and its single gate was guarded by decorated tower with a single, tall reinforced iron door. Several caravansaries lay outside the walls, but this time of the year none were occupied. As the wagons approached the gate tower, a dozen guards or more lined up across the road before them. One of them, a commander, stepped forward and held up one hand.
"Where are you coming from, and what is your business here?" he asked sternly, speaking Tien.
"Avistan," Ulf answered in the same language. "We have come across the Crown of the World along the Path of Aganhei. We are bound for Minkai."
The commander looked skeptical.
"This is not the season for travel," he snapped. "What is your cargo?"
"Trade goods from the west," Ulf shrugged. "Nothing more."
The commander's eyes narrowed, and he motioned to his men. They spread out along the caravan and began unceremoniously throwing back tarps and opening crates. The commander walked over to the companions and appraised each of them in turn.
"Where did you steal that from?" he asked Mazael, pointing towards Suishen.
The war-priest's jaw tightened, and his eyes narrowed.
"Easy," Sandru said in Varisian. "We're guests here, and we don't want to start off on the wrong foot."
"I'll start with his feet if he looks crossways at me again," Mazael growled.
"He doesn't speak your language," Ulf explained to the commander. "The sword was purchased from a collector in Kalsgaard."
"Barbarians," the commander sniffed.
His soldiers finished their inspection of the wagons, having dumped several items into the dirt. The commander kicked at them absently, then turned back towards Ulf.
"You have nothing of value to us...," he began
"Enough!" a voice called from the tower.
All eyes turned in that direction, where a well-dressed man had appeared from within the city. He drew up before the companions, and then prostrated himself on the ground at their feet.
"Honored guests!" he said. "Welcome, welcome, and three welcomes more! Please ignore these slithering worms beneath your feet...I assure you they shall be punished for their insolence. Prince Batsaikhar, golden orb of sunlight at the black portal of barbarism, bids you welcome to Ordu-Aganhei, the City at the Edge of the World. My most munificent lord invites his honored guests to his humble palace to rest, dine, partake in polite conversation, and perhaps indulge in some pleasure. The Golden One says he hopes you will honor him with you clever speech from strange lands, a speech that he of all men in Hongal has mastered. He is eager to hear of your journey across the Crown of the World in this most difficult time of travel."
Ulf looked to the others, and Ameiko nodded subtly.
"We would be honored," the guide said.
"Excellent!" the man exclaimed, rising to his feet. "I am Chua, royal advisor to Prince Batsaikhar of Ordu-Aganhei. I have a small token, if you will permit me."
He then drew a bouquet of black roses from his robes and handed one to Ameiko, Shalelu, Koya, Spivey, and Zula.
"There is no fire like the fire in the souls of the women of far lands," he recited. "Beauty is the wisdom of women, and wisdom is the beauty of men."
He bowed low again, and then turned back towards the gate, motioning for them to be thrown wide.
"This should be interesting," Zula smirked at her sisters.


As the companions passed through the gate house and entered the city proper, they couldn't help but notice all the severed heads that sat atop spikes on the timber walls.
"Who were they?" Zula asked Chua.
The advisor glanced up, then smiled broadly and waved absently.
"Just bandits," he laughed. "Foolish enough to prey on the Path of Aganhei. Do not concern yourself with them."
Zula was not comforted.

The city's layout was confusing, with narrow, winding streets. Buildings were timber-framed, and had high, gabled roofs and ornate, decorated eaves. A large, park-like garden surrounded a lake in the center of the city, and it was flanked on one side by the Palace of the Prince. On the other side stood a large temple of Abadar, known in Tian Xia as the God of Walls and Ditches. Paper lanterns lit the streets as evening fell, and the avenues were immaculately clean. They were also well-patrolled, with squads of armed and armored soldiers visible at all times. Prayer flags of all colors danced in the wind from every gable and rooftop, and everywhere the companions turned, a shop was selling something and the heady scent of incense mingled with the smell of unfamiliar cooked foods. Locals came out of their shops as the strangers passed, bowing and smiling politely. Occasionally, one brave soul would step out to touch a strand of blonde hair from Zula, Shalelu or Spivey.

They reached the enormous wooden palace, and Chua escorted them past countless guards and groveling slaves to the central courtyard. It was a vast chamber, nearly 100 yards across, built around a steaming lake. Orchids grew in gardens overlooking the lake, while colorful herons swooped through the air, all beneath a ceiling hidden by prayer flags. Upon a huge bed surrounded by colorful silks, painted screens, and beautiful white-painted women, sat an prodigiously-sized man barely dressed in voluminous robes. Immediately behind him stood a tall figure in full o-yori armor, carrying a huge drawn sword. Prince Batsaikhar beamed broadly as his guests were escorted before him, and rose ponderously to his feet.
"Be welcome, friends!" he cried in accented, though fluent Common. "I have heard of your coming, and I would have you regale me with tales of your travels, and your reasons for braving the perils of the Crown of the World! Food will be brought, and libations will be drunk! Welcome!"
Zula stepped forward, and bowed low to the Prince. His eyes twinkled as he drank in her beauty. She made the introductions of her companions, then told the basics of the caravan's tale: how they had left Varisia, bound for the far east, lured by tales of exotic riches and adventure; how they'd run afoul of bandits in Kalsgaard, and how Zula came to join them; of their trek across the Crown of the World, and the foul witch who controlled the morozkos; and finally of their perilous flight through the necropolis beneath the Walls of Heaven, where they met and defeated the winter witch one last time. She omitted any mention of Ameiko's heritage, or their true reasons for journeying to Minkai.
"Delightful!" Batsaikhar announced, clapping his hands when she'd completed her story. "You all must consent to be my royal guests! And we shall hold the Five Feasts of Hongal in your honor, starting tonight!"
The companions accepted gratefully, and then Chua led them to their rooms.


Their accommodations were extraordinary, and servants waited on them hand and foot, accompanying them everywhere. Though the Prince had indicated that both the palace and the city were theirs to explore, the first of the Five Feasts was scheduled to begin, shortly, and so they had little time.
"What can you tell me of these feasts?" Zula asked one of her attendants.
"Oh, they are fabulous, my Lady," the little man grinned, bowing and scraping. "Tonight will be the Feast of Three, highlighting the Three Games of Hongal: mounted archery, bareback horse racing, and wrestling. Tomorrow will be the Feast of the Ancients, were stories of folklore will be brought to life. Next is the Feast of Fire, which will feature great feats of daring with flame! After that is the Feast of Honored Guests, where you and your companions will entertain us with delicacies and performances from your homelands. Finally, the Feast of Dragons, where the whole city will celebrate, and there will be dragon parades and fireworks! Delightful!"

When it was time for the festivities to begin, the companions were escorted back to the throne room, and Batsaikhar requested specifically that Zula be seated beside him. As they approached the royal table, the heroes noticed that they were not the only guests present. At another long table sat a group of five men. Though one was Tien, the other four were very obviously foreigners. Two of them were human, but there was an elf among them, as well as an orc half-blood.
"Who are they?" Piotr asked Chua.
"Ah, yes!" the advisor smiled. "A thousand pardons! I neglected to mention our other visitors. They are the most recent champions of the Ruby Phoenix Tournament. Have you heard of it?"
They had not.
"It is only held once a decade," Chua explained, "and teams come from around Tian Xia, and even from your lands to compete, for the team that emerges victorious is allowed into a vast vault to have their pick of unthinkable wealth!"

The food that was served during the feast was, to say the least...interesting: spicy duck heads; ox forehead; turtle casserole; pigeon brains; fried chicken feet; and tiger, dragon and phoenix soup (made with cat, snake and chicken meat). Even Boris was speechless. During the meal, the Prince's royal guards performed an exhibition of the Three Games of Hongal, which was amazing to behold. After the demonstration, Batsaikhar stood and addressed his guests.
"My friends!" he announced. "You have seen the skill of my guards, and now I would humbly ask you to demonstrate your own prowess at the Three Games. We would be honored, wouldn't we my people?"
The gathered spectators cheered and applauded loudly. The companions looked at one another skeptically.
"Boris know about horses," the goblin said, standing up and raising his hand. "Boris also good with bow. Boris show how it done in Varisia."
For their part, the champions of the Ruby Phoenix nominated the big half-orc, Graun Quor.

A smaller horse was brought for Boris, and the goblin did an admirable job of guiding the animal with his knees while he used his hands to hold his bow. He spurred the horse up to speed, and as it passed the target, Boris turned in the saddle, drew his string, and loosed. The shot went wide, missing the bullseye by a large margin. The crowd sighed in disappointment. When it was Graun Quor's turn, he chose a great brute of a mount, and handled it like a professional. As he galloped past the target, his bow sang and the arrow sank to its fletchings in the exact center of the bullseye. Boris scowled, then turned back to his horse. He ran to leap onto its bare back, as he'd seen the Hongali riders do, and failed miserably. Red-faced, he clambered painstakingly on top, then dug his heels into its flanks. It almost threw him as it reared up, and then raced forward towards a series of obstacles. It was obvious to all watching that the goblin was not in control of the horse. It ran around, or stumbled over most of the hurdles, and as it leaped the final one, Boris went sailing over its head to land sprawling on the ground. The crowd laughed uproariously. The only saving grace was that Graun Quor fared no better.
"Not fair!" Boris protested. "Boris have inferior horse!"
Batsaikhar smiled and nodded.
"Of course, of course!" he agreed. "Izume!"
His tall bodyguard stepped forward.
"Remove this worthless beast from my sight!"
The bodyguard bowed, raised the massive great-sword, and then hewed the horse's head from its shoulders in one blow. Boris just stood there, open-mouthed and wide-eyed.

The final competition of the night was wrestling. For this task, Haroldo volunteered to take on the Prince's champion, a burly man named Huk. It was not much of challenge. The Tien man grappled the blood-rager quickly, but Haroldo reversed the hold effortlessly, then pinned the man's arms to his side with a bear-hug from which he could not escape. It was over in less than a minute. Graun Quor again volunteered for his team, but the half-orc must have been fatigued from his previous efforts, or else Huk was so angered at his previous humiliation that he redoubled his exertions, for within the same period of time, the Hongali champion had the Ruby Phoenix champion flat on his back. Afterwards, the feast broke up, and the companions filed out with the other guests. Just before she left the room, Zula happened to glance back over her shoulder and saw Huk standing before the Prince, his head bowed. Batsaikhar's face was livid, and he was obviously shouting at the man, though she could not make out his words. The last thing she saw before the crowd swept her from the chamber was the bodyguard Izume seize Huk by one arm and drag him bodily from the Prince's presence.


The following morning, as the sun rose, Chua came to Zula's chambers to inform her that the Prince requested the honor of her presence. She accompanied him to the royal chambers, where a great feast was laid out for breakfast. Batsaikhar greeted her warmly, and asked he to tell him more stories of her homeland. He listened intently for well over an hour as she spoke of her native people, the Shoanti. Afterwards, he kissed her hand and offered her another black rose, then dismissed her, promising he would see her soon at the second of the Five Feasts.

The companions spent the remainder of the day exploring the city, finding all of the shops and restaurants open and welcoming. They returned in time for the second feast, the Feast of the Ancients. The food offerings were just as exotic and bizarre as the previous evening, consisting of steamed Hongali stone frogs, goose stomach, goat's feet tendons in wheat noodles, fish lips with celery, solidified duck blood, and drunken shrimp (a delicacy in which live shrimp were dipped in alcohol before pinching off their heads and eating them). After the meal, a group of performers put on a show called, "Why the Marmot Doesn't Have Thumbs," an ancient Hongali folk tale performed with pi ying xi, a shadow puppet theater using leather puppets, accompanied by throat singing and music on the morin khuur, or horsehead fiddle, a traditional Hongali stringed instrument. When the performance was finished, Prince Batsaikhar stood once more.
"And now, we would like to hear a tale from your homeland, my guests!" he proclaimed. "And we would have you tell it to us with pi ying xi!"
The crowd laughed, amused at the idea of the foreigners trying to use the complicated puppets. Still, Boris, Zula and Ameiko rose to the occasion. Boris deftly handled the puppets, though the story he acted out really didn't follow along with Zula's tale of their caravan's journey across the Crown of the World. Ameiko's accompaniment on her shamisen was hauntingly beautiful, and brought many of the spectators to tears. When the Ruby Phoenix champions tried their hands at the puppets, however, the result was totally the opposite. It was obvious that none of them had any real skill in the arts, and in the end they simply gave up and walked off the stage. Once more, as the feast broke up, Zula took note that Batsaikhar again took umbrage with his performers, and had them taken away by armed guards.


The third night was the Feast of Fire, and the fare included thousand-year-old eggs (duck eggs coated with lime, ashes, and mud and then soaked in horse urine for 100 days), cow's lung soaked in chili sauce, pig's face (made by pouring hot tar on a pig's head to remove the hair but leaving the skin intact), snake venom soup, deep fried bee larvae, and duck's feet marinated in blood. The entertainment was called "The Taming of the Kirin," which was a dazzlingly dangerous display of fire breathing and swordplay while dancing on hot coals. Batsaikhar once more asked his guests to try their own skills at the demonstration, and Zula took up the challenge. She danced nimbly and exotically across the coals, all while performing acrobatic feats that didn't seem humanly possible. She finished with a booming blast of her thundercall accompanied by a bolt of lightning from the ceiling, leaving all those assembled gasping in amazement. The Prince was on his feet applauding and cheering the loudest. As for the Ruby Phoenix team, they also acquitted themselves quite well, largely due to the skills of the priest, Aleksion Coric, a worshipper of the Purifying Flame. Though Batsaikhar seemed to enjoy all of the performances, his behavior of the two previous nights was repeated, when he had his own actors and acrobats dragged away as the crowd departed.


The following morning, Zula was again summoned to Batsaikhar's chambers. This time, however, though the same sumptuous breakfast was laid out, there were no attendants present. She glanced around the room surreptitiously, noting where the exits are. As they sat and ate and talked, the Prince reached out a hand to touch her hair.
"Did you know that my people consider golden hair to be good luck?" he asked, smiling.
"I had wondered," Zula nodded. "People seemed to like touching it when I'm in town."
"Yes," Batsaikhar continued. "To simply touch it, is to bring good luck for a day. Kissing a person with it, however, will bring luck for an entire year!"
Zula smiled politely, but said nothing.
"It has been a pleasure to have your company these past few days," the Prince said after a moment. "It is a pleasure I would like very much to continue."
He reached down beside his chair and picked up a small, ornately-carved wooden box, and placed it on the table before Zula. Then, with some difficulty, he lowered his great girth down onto one knee.
"Lady Zula," he grinned. "Would you do me the honor of becoming my bride? My home, my city, my kingdom would all be yours! As a show of my good faith, I present to you this...,"
He opened the box, revealing a fabulously large, flawless red gemstone.
"The Ruby of Hongal."
Zula looked down at her hands, then sighed.
"My Prince," she began, meeting his gaze again, "you flatter me, but I have obligations. I have committed myself to my companions until the end of their journey."
"I have yet to meet the caravan master who would not part with anything nor anyone, for the right price," Batsaikhar laughed. "I will make your Master Sandru an offer he can't refuse."
Zula smile tightly. "It is not simply a matter of money," she said. "It is about my honor. I have sworn an oath, and cannot forsake it so easily. Please understand that I hold you in the highest regard, but in this, I cannot waver."
The Prince's smile remained fixed on his face, but all trace of humor left his eyes. He released her hand and hoisted himself back to his feet, towering over her.
"I see," he said. "I trust you will enjoy the hospitality of my home for the remaining duration of your stay."
He turned away and clapped his hands, at which point Chua bustled into the room.
"Come, my lady," the advisor said quietly, escorting Zula from the royal chambers.
Outside the doors, she paused and drew a dagger from her belt. Chua's eyes grew wide for a moment, but she simply lifted it and sliced a lock of her hair.
"Please give this to the Prince for me," she said, and then made her way back to her quarters.


Boris spent much of the day with the royal chefs, advising and instructing them in the finer points of Avistani cuisine, at least as he saw it. When evening came, and the time for the Feast of the Honored Visitors arrived, the goblin was well-pleased with his efforts. He was disappointed, however, to see that Prince Batsaikhar was not in attendance. Chua apologized to the assembly, stating that the Prince was not feeling well, but wished for all to continue the celebration. Zula took this news with a feeling of disquiet. That feeling turned to dread when, while eating her meal, she noticed something mixed in with the food...a lock of golden hair...

The guests were also expected to provide entertainment for the courtiers that evening, and Zula performed marvelously with her vocal and dancing skills. Boris also impressed with his feats of acrobatics and archery. At one point during the festivities, Aleksion Coric, leader of the Ruby Phoenix champions, approached their table.
"It is always a pleasure to meet fellow westerners in this part of the world," he said, bowing slightly. "I'm sorry we have not had more time to become acquainted during you stay. Tell me, do you find the Prince's absence tonight odd?"
Zula looked at him appraisingly, before answering.
"I do," she said, "but I'm not familiar with the ways of the Hongali people. You have spent more time among them. What is your impression?"
The priest shrugged.
"It is difficult to say with these folk," he smiled. "They have such odd customs, and are very concerned with the abstract concept of honor. They can be happy as clams one minute, and deeply offended the next, all because you forgot to wipe your feet, or some such. I think we should be cautious, and perhaps look out for one another. If you take note of anything strange, you will keep us informed, yes?"
Zula nodded briefly.
"As I am sure you will return the favor," she replied.

Later, after the companions returned to their quarters, Zula gathered them all together and told them of what had transpired between her and the Prince.
"Boris not see problem," the goblin shrugged. "Boris already Prince of underwater kingdom. Now Zula be princess, and we both be high and mighty!"
"I think we need to leave...tonight," Zula said, ignoring the goblin. "I don't think we are welcome nor safe here any longer."
"Admittedly, I did not grow up here," Ameiko replied, "but my father taught me many things about the culture of my people. Rudeness is anathema to them, and for a host to let harm befall guests beneath his roof would be the height of rudeness. I think that as long as the Prince still considers us his guest, we are safe. The last of the Feasts is tomorrow. After that, we will be on our way, at which point, I think, we shall have to be much more cautious."


The last day of the Five Feasts of Hongal was the Feast of the Dragon, an evening of celebration that took place across the city. Prince Batsaikhar was not seen outside the palace, but this was not unexpected. Instructions were issued for the local merchants to open up their warehouses and show the finest wares of Tian Xia at a special market held on the shores of the steaming lake in the middle of the city. In addition to the normal street food found in Ordu-Aganhei, horse-hoof gruel, "household deer" (fried rat), smells like fish pork (pork cooked with wood ear mushrooms and green hot peppers), skewered roasted sparrows, snakehead soup, and live scorpions doused in potent liquor were all available throughout the Feast. Hundreds of brightly colored dragon costumes were paraded through the streets, accompanied by the staccato explosions of paper candles. The festivities were set to conclude at midnight with an incredible fireworks display over the palace walls, with hundreds of Desnan candles, skyrockets, and starfountains turning night into day.

As the companions made their way among the stalls of the crowded market, a large golden dragon costume cavorted around them, while two men walked behind it beating heavy drums. As the dragon circled about, the heavy costume was suddenly thrown aside, revealing eight black-clad figures holding gleaming!
The heroes quickly drew their own weapons as the assassins closed in. Sandru and Boris stood back-to-back, waiting for the inevitable rush. Suddenly, as the crowd of civilians parted around the melee, a peasant woman leaped out of the throng. As she came, she drew a pair of wicked-looking kukri from beneath her shirt and slashed at the hamstring of one of the ninja. The other assassins turned to glance towards the newcomer, and as they did so, Shalelu began cutting loose with her bow, sending arrows into the distracted ninja. Haroldo rushed towards a pair of them as they tried to somersault past him, slashing at both of them when they passed. Then the ninja were among the companions. One cut Mazael, and he felt the burn of poison in the wound. Another stabbed Shalelu as she tried to stumble clear enough to bring her bow to bear, while a third opened a wide gash across Sandru's back. One other raced towards the strange woman who'd joined the fray and began hacking viciously at her, forcing her to give ground.

Zula quickly assessed the situation, then darted behind Shalelu, grabbed the ranger's arm, spoke a word, then the two of them vanished in a flash of light, only to reappear a moment later over 50 feet away. The ninja who'd been menacing Shalelu were momentarily taken aback, and Haroldo took the opening and charged between them, cutting them both down with two savage blows. Boris rolled between the blood-rager's legs and came up onto his feet while simultaneously thrusting one of his swords through the leg of another ninja.

Sandru was cut off. Ninjas had managed to surround him on all sides, and his closest ally was the Tien woman. He feinted, slashing at the nearest foe, then somersaulted away, trying to get clear. The peasant woman followed suit, dodging nimbly away as well. However, once she had gained a little free space, she thrust her hands forward. From out of thin air, a giant disembodied hand appeared between her and an oncoming assassin. It then rushed forward and shoved the ninja, driving him back towards the Scions. Still, there were too many enemies. Two of them raced after Sandru, flanking him, then struck simultaneously. Their blades were terribly precise, and they cut the caravan master down in a heartbeat. The Tien woman gasped in dismay, but then more ninjas were upon here as well, and though she fought them skillfully, she was quickly overwhelmed.

The companions fought on like machines. Haroldo took a vicious blow from behind, but the ninja paid for it with his own life as the blood-rager's backswing decapitated him. Mazael took down another, while Zula's thundercall struck another instantly dead, while stunning a second. For his part, Gnome-Brr Phive scrambled across the battlefield invisibly, thanks to his ring, until he reached Sandru. He leaned over the fallen caravan master and breathed life back into him. He quickly moved on as Sandru's eyes fluttered open. When he reached the Tien woman, he saw that she still lived, but only barely. He laid hands upon her and channeled healing energy into her, and she too breathed in deeply as she regained consciousness.

Piotr gestured towards an approaching ninja, and immediately the man burst into uncontrollable laughter, falling to the ground and rolling about like a fool. Boris slashed at another, and though his cut was shallow, he'd coated his blade with drow poison that morning, and the ninja's eyes rolled back into his head as he lapsed into a deep slumber. Shalelu picked off the two that were still reeling from Zula's vocal assault, while Mazael finished off another who'd managed to sneak up behind the thundercaller. Boris quickly tied up the ninja he'd poisoned, then noticed that Sandru had regained his feet. He stood over the laughing assassin, who happened to be the one who'd dealt him a killing blow. With no hesitation, the caravan master drew his scimitar across the man's throat, then watched as his life's blood drained out on the cobbles.


"My name is Miyaro," the Tien woman said, introducing herself, "and I thank you for my life."
"It is we who should be thanking you," Ameiko said. "Your timely intervention turned the tide."
The woman bowed.
"I guess this answers the question of whether or not the Prince means us harm," Zula smirked, looking around at the dead ninjas.
"No," Miyaro shook her head. "This is not the doing of the Prince, though he is a man known for his cruel justice. This is the work of the oni of the Five Storms."
The eyes of the companions widened in shock.
"Yes, I know who you are, and why you are here," Miyaro smiled slightly. My masters have sent me to find you and offer you my assistance. The Five Storms control much of Minkai, as well as the Spirit Road that leads between there and Hongal. You will not be safe traveling that way, but there is another path. The Forest of Spirits is thought to be haunted by all of Tian Xia, and they are not entirely wrong, but I know its ways, and it is there that my masters await you. Will you accept my help?"
"It would seem that we have few alternatives," Ameiko said. "I do not know that we can count on the hospitality of the Prince much longer."
"That is true," Miyaro agreed. "Though I do not think he would cause you harm, he knows of the power of Minkai and would not wish to bring their ire down upon him."
"And ninja no talk," Boris grumbled.
The goblin had been busy trying to interrogate his captive, only to discover that the man's tongue had been cut out.
"It doesn't matter," Zula said. "I think we know all that we need to for now."


The following morning, it was made very clear to the companions that they were no longer welcome in Ordu-Aganhei. All of the shops were closed to them, and Chua appeared first thing bearing one final gift from the Prince: a tooled, gold filigreed riding saddle for each of the companions, along with a famed Hongali horse. The message was clear. They rode out of the city without ceremony and rejoined the caravan outside the walls. Miyaro was there waiting for them as well. Ulf Gormundr rode up to the companions as they drew close.
"My friends," he said grimly. "I am afraid this is where we part ways. My job was to see you across the Crown of the World safely, and that I have done to the best of my ability. I am of little use to you as a guide from this point on. I will return to the Wall of Heaven, but there I may stay. I may try and assist our new yeti friends as they open the trade route through the necropolis. I think we shall meet again."

They said their goodbyes, and then the Varisian caravan resumed its journey once more. However, even before they were out of sight of the city walls they saw a group of riders approaching from that direction. As they drew closer, it became obvious who they were: the Ruby Phoenix champions.
"Well met, friends," Aleksion called as they drew up. "It seems we are not the only ones no longer welcome in the Princes's lands. "Since our roads lie together, what say we travel together for a time?"
"I think you are mistaken," Zula said, tight-lipped. She didn't trust the man. "We are bound for the far south."
"Ah," the priest nodded. "I thought I understood you to be bound for Minkai."
"You are mistaken," Zula said.
"My apologies," Aleksion nodded. "Well met, then. Good luck upon your road. Perhaps our paths will cross again some day."
With that, he and his companions turned their mounts aside and disappeared down the Spirit Road.


From The Ashes

1 Rova, 4715 - 6 Rova, 4715

Camp again.

The caravan was five days out of Ordu-Aganhei, and still five days from the Forest of Spirits. Haroldo and Lucian had volunteered to ride a day or so behind the main group to look for any signs of pursuit. So far there had been none. Each night, Zula erected her tiny hut and most of the drivers and cooks would sleep inside, along with any of the companions who were not on guard duty. As it so happened, on this particular night, it was Gnome-Brr Phive and Miyaro who had the second watch from midnight to 2 am.

The svirneblin's eyes were made for darkness, and so it was he that first saw movement in the starlit darkness of the savannah. He spied a lone figure walking slowly towards the encampment, still several dozen yards away. No...not walking least not on the ground. The figure's feet actually walked above the tall grass of the plain. Phive quickly glanced around, and saw another individual approaching from the opposite side of the camp. There was no doubt about it...that one was definitely flying!
"Psst," he hissed, elbowing the Tien woman in the ribs.
Miyaro grunted. "What is it?"
"We got company," he whispered. "Probably ought ta wake the others."
Miyaro nodded, cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted, "Intruders!!"

Piotr lurched to his feet from where he'd been sitting inside the hut, mediating. Nearby, Zula roused herself as well, and then one by one, the others began to awaken.
"You hear that?" Mazael asked, his voice still slurred from sleep.
"What?" Boris asked.
"Sounds like wind, a lot of it," the war-priest said. "Coming this way."
Piotr peered out into the darkness beyond the walls of the hut and saw the stranger walking on air and drawing ever closer.
"Halt and identify yourself!" he called. "You will only receive one warning!"
There was no response. The stranger just came inexorably on.
"Time's up!" the sorcerer shouted, then he pulled back the sleeves of his robes and hurled a bead of fire out into the darkness.
The fireball exploded with brilliant light, setting the dry grass ablaze around the trespasser, but as the initial blast faded, he simply walked out of it, unmarked and unfazed.
"Hmmm," Zula said, her eyes on the flying individual coming from the direction. "I think I recognize this one. Unless I miss my guess, it's Tyrek Glodfer, the Ruby Phoenix clan's resident wizard. Why am I not surprised?"
The shoanti woman drew in a breath, focused, then loosed her thundercall upon the necromancer. He paused in mid-flight, reeling from the concussion.

"On behalf of our employers, I would like to offer you our gratitude," called the air-walking individual. With the flames behind and around him now illuminating his features, it became obvious that he was none-other-than Aleksion Coric. "If not for your repeated opening of Amatatsu Seal's warding box to return your fallen comrades from the dead, we might never have found you."
"That's not entirely true," came a booming voice from the north side of the camp.
The companions spun that direction and saw a giant form lumbering out of the darkness. It's skin was pale white, and its hair and beard ice-blue. A great-sword of solid ice was gripped in its massive hands.
"After all, it was I Liao Kuo, who found them by mere happenstance at the North Pole," the frost giant's voice changed in pitch and timber, to that of an old woman speaking with a Tien accent. "Or did you think you had really seen the last of me?" came the voice of the crone who had pretended to be Miriya in the ruins of the forbidden spires.
The giant/oni stretched out on arm and a vortex of frost and ice blasted forward, enveloping the entirety of the hut. As was his habit, Mazael had asked Suishen to provide protection from extreme cold for the Scions, but Spivey, Shalelu and Koya were not so defended, and their skin blistered in the frost. Sandru, Ameiko and Miyaro all managed to dodge aside. When the freezing miasma cleared, however, only then was the true extent of the damage revealed: every one of the cooks and drivers for the caravan lay dead on the ground, frozen in their bedrolls.
"Hah!" Aleksion laughed. "You've tasted the power of the ice, now face the fire!"
He plucked a glowing bead from a necklace around his neck and tossed it into the hut. An instant later, flames erupted inside with a great explosion, and the heroes felt their flesh began to sear.

Mazael stumbled out of the hut, knowing that to stay there would just make them sitting ducks. As he stopped to wipe the heat tears streaming from his eyes, he saw a rush of movement heading towards him. It was Graun Quor, the big half-orc, and his eyes were filled with rage as he charged towards the war-priest, his double-headed axe upraised. He brought it down, and when it connected with Mazael's shoulder, it sawed viciously through the flesh. At the same time, a jagged wound opened in Graun Quor's own skin, but it only seemed to spur him to greater savagery.

Piotr saw that Tyrek Glodfer was recovering from Zula's assault. The sorcerer spoke a spell and touched his throat. When he opened his mouth to speak, an ear-piercing scream split the night air. Tyrek grabbed his head in pain and sank to his knees, dazed and disoriented.
"Well done," a soft voice whispered in Piotr's ear, "but that necromancer should be the last person to concern you!"
Piotr felt a numbing pain go through his spine as the elf, Mollarn, appeared out of thin air behind him. The assassin had plunged a black, liquid-coated blade into the sorcerer's back, and now he twisted it wickedly. Pain wracked Piotr's body, and he could not catch his breath. He felt his legs weaken and begin to give out beneath him. Mollarn withdrew the dagger, then raised it to strike again, but a concussive shout from behind him rocked him sideways and his slice went wide.
"Care to try me?" Zula hissed.

Mazael and Graun Quor danced a brutal performance, hacking and slashing at one another with no regard for their own defense. The war-priest gave as good as he got, but he knew that he would not survive a battle of attrition with the half-orc. Graun's fangs had actually grown longer, and he bit like a rabid wolf. After a particularly bloody attack, Mazael thrust the barbarian away from him, trying to gain a slight breather. It was not to be. He heard chanting coming from his left and turned to see Aleksion Coric brandishing his flaming holy symbol, hands upraised. Suddenly, a wall of whirling, glittering razor-like blades erupted all around the war-priest, slicing and piercing him with a thousand cuts. A moment later, a putrid green ray of light struck Mazael from the right side as Tyrek Glodfer once more regained his composure. Mazael felt his skin literally begin to disintegrate. He was the only one outside of the opaque hut, and as such, he had become target number one.

Boris, still safely within the hut, drew his bow and sighted on the frost giant that towered over the camp. He loosed and the arrow struck, quivering in the giant's meaty thigh. Liao Kuo bellowed and then strode forward until his bulk was half inside the confines of the hut, and glared down at the goblin.
"You are a terrible nuisance, little rat," he rumbled. "Why don't you rest for awhile?"
The giant oni passed his hand through the air, and Boris felt his eyelids grow heavy. He swooned, and fell to the hard ground, snoring loudly.

Mollarn whirled on Zula and stalked towards her, his black dagger in one hand, and a slim rapier in the other. Before he could reach her, however, Sandru stepped into his path, a grin on his face as he gripped his scimitar.
"Shall we?" has asked the elf, inclining his head.
Mollarn lunged towards him, but the caravan master moved like a dancer, keeping just out of reach of the elf's blades, then leaping and slashing with his own. Before long, Mollarn was bleeding steadily from several telling wounds.

Spivey saw the frost giant looming over the sleeping form of Boris and knew that she had to act quickly. With a quick prayer, she threw a burst of sonic energy towards the two of them, knowing the concussion would wound the goblin, but knowing as well that it would also awaken him. Boris startled awake, gripping his throbbing head, only to realize that the giant was still standing over him. Then, a strong hand gripped his arm, and he saw Zula behind him. She gave him a wink, then sang a brief tune. The two of them vanished with a flash of light, and reappeared a moment later on the far side of the hut, safely out of reach of the giant...for the moment.

Fire exploded inside the tiny hut once more as Aleksion Coric lobbed another bead into it. The caravan wagons were ablaze, and the heroes had suffered grievous burns. Mollarn had managed to roll aside from the blast, and the frost giant oni was just outside of its radius. Boris regained his feet next to Zula, and only then realized that he had dropped his bow back in front of the giant. Cursing to himself, he drew his wakizashis, and darted back across the hut until he reached Mollarn. He slashed at the elf as he passed, then made a serpentine path back towards the giant.

Mazael leaped clear of the blade barrier, but unfortunately, Graun Quor was waiting for him. His axe looped around and buried itself into the war-priest's chest. Mazael coughed up a gout of blood, and slumped to the ground.

As Boris closed in on the giant, the brute brought his icy axe down like a guillotine, clipping the goblin as he dodged aside at the last second. Then, another fireball exploded, but this time it completely engulfed the giant oni, who roared in agony.
"Now!" Piotr shouted, his fingers still smoking.
Zula sent her thundercall hurtling into the giant, and he rocked back on his heels. Then Boris was upon him. The goblin's blades were a flashing blur as he sank them into various vital areas. With a final groan of agony, the giant fell like a mighty oak, his body transforming as he collapsed. By the time he hit the ground, his form was that of a purple-skinned ogre, with small white horns protruding from his forehead.

Miyaro dove through the blade barrier, her moves so nimble and timed so perfectly that not a single one of the shards so much as pricked her skin. Graun Quor, standing above Mazael ready to deal a coup de grace, turned towards the slight Tien woman, and a wicked grin spread across his tusked face.
"Come to play, little girl?" he growled, and then lunged towards her.
Miyaro somersaulted out of the way at the last moment, and came up behind the half-orc. From her sleeve, she drew an ornate fan, flicking it open with a snap. As Graun Quor started to turn, she waved the fan and spoke a word, and suddenly, the large, disembodied hand appeared between them. She thrust her own hand forward, and the larger one mimicked the movement, shoving the half-orc forcefully, and propelling him backwards, straight through the blade barrier. He howled in rage as the blades sliced him viciously. Miyaro saw movement from the corner of her eye, and glimpsed Spivey flitting around above Mazael. The little azata passed her hands over the fallen war-priest, and after a moment, he opened his eyes and inhaled deeply.
"This is getting real old," he growled as he climbed stiffly to his feet, hefting Suishen.

Tyrek and Aleksion were closing in on the hut from both sides. Will the fire priest set off another fireball inside, the necromancer sent in a palpable wave of force that left the defenders all feeling bone weary and fatigued as it passed. A moment later, Mollarn, who had somehow managed to disappear in the chaos, abruptly reappeared as he shoved his dagger into Zula's back. Gasping in pain, she spun away from him, projecting her voice at him as she went, and knocking him backwards several feet...straight towards Boris. Before the elf could regain his balance, the goblin thrust one of his wakizashi's through his gut, and with a bubbling, bloody gurgle, the assassin fell.

Calling on Suishen's power, Mazael walked into the air, up and over the blade barrier, and closed the distance to Graun Quor. The half-orc was waiting, though bloodied and swaying on his feet. He whipped his axe at the war-priest, catching him with both blades. Mazael staggered back, nowhere near fully healed. Still, he was determined that he would not give up another inch. Gripping Suishen in both hands, he roared forward, hammering past Graun Quor's defenses, and buried the kantana in the juncture between the half-orc's neck and shoulder. Graun's eyes rolled back into his head, and he went down, his head lolling loosely to one side.

Piotr was almost out on his feet, but he managed to send another ear-piercing scream at Tyrek, though this time, it didn't stop the necromancer. Just before he reached the edge of the hut, however, Sandru fired an arrow through the wizard's shoulder. Tyrek grunted, but still stepped inside the shelter, where he had a clear view of all his enemies. He focused his dead-eyed gaze on Zula, and smiled evilly.
"Try your parlor tricks with no voice," he said, gesturing towards her.
Zula felt her throat tighten, and she could not draw in a breath. She felt like she was suffocating. She clawed at her neck, but she managed to keep her wits about her. What the fool necromancer didn't know was that her thundercall was not dependent on her voice, she merely used that as a means to focus it. The power was innate, and she called upon it now, sending a pair of blasts into Tyrek, crushing his chest with their power. His face turned blue as he sagged to his knees, unable to even gasp a last breath. Zula closed her eyes, steadying her will and pushing down her rising panic. She concentrated on trying to breath until, ever so slowly and painfully, she managed to draw in a ragged wheeze.

By that time, Aleksion Coric had reached the hut as well, but that would prove not to be to his benefit. Shalelu shot him as he stepped through, and as the force of the arrow turned him, Boris was there. The goblin's blades moved quicker than the eye could follow, the first wound mortal, and killing the priest, but his momentum disemboweling and beheading the man before he hit the ground. The companions stared around them, as they all caught their breath. The champions of the Ruby Phoenix had been defeated, but the caravan lay in smoking ruins.


They have just reached level 10, and the NPC's are level 9. Last year during a weekend beach trip, I ran the Ruby Phoenix adventure for some of my players. These were the characters they used. During the tourny, they made some evil decisions and took a turn to the dark side. I thought it would be awesome to have them reappear in the Jade Regent AP, since they were already in Tian Xia, and would make perfect stooges for the Five Storms


The House of Withered Blossoms

6 Rova, 4715 - 4 Lamashan, 4715

Koya's fortune teller's wagon was the only one that could be salvaged. The companions spent much of the following day laying their dead to rest, and retrieving what goods they could carry. Fortunately, the horses that Batsaikhar had given them had run off during the battle, and were easily retrieved. At least they would not be reduced to walking the rest of the way to Minkai. The mood was solemn as they set out once more, no one knowing nor willing to speculate about what lay ahead for them.

Ten days passed before they came to Hongal's only other permanent settlement, a town called Muliwan. They didn't stay long, not wanting to draw further attention to themselves. They only paused to sell what trade goods they had remaining, and to purchase supplies for their trek through the Forest of Spirits, which Miyaro informed them lay only a day's ride from the town. The following morning, they finally came within sight of the forest, a vast sub-arctic pine wood separating Minkai from mainland Tian Xia. The trees were massive and densely packed, with virtually no undergrowth, and almost continuously shrouded in snow. The Spirit Road ran along one side of the forest, following the coast, but Miyaro's plan was to take the companions right through the heart of the wood, where her mysterious masters were waiting.

When they reached the dark edge of the forest at mid-day, they saw a narrow dirt path that disappeared under its eaves. The boughs of the trees hung heavy with fallen snow, and an almost preternatural silence reigned over the area. Ahead, a small stone pillar engraved with strange symbols had fallen across the path, blocking the way forward.
"If I'm reading the words correctly, it's a waymarker," Zula said, "and a warning."
"Yes," Miyaro agreed. "Such markers often have guardian kami who watch over them. Are you familiar with the kami?"
The Scions looked knowingly at one another, smiling, well acquainted with the spirits that inhabited the unique items they had found at Brinewall. Even Zula had acquired one of the kami, much to her surprise, once Ameiko had officially recognized her as a Scion. Only Gnome-Brr Phive looked blank-faced.
"They are good spirits who watch over the natural world," Miyaro explained. "Perhaps if you were to set the waymarker right, and leave a small offering, you may gain the kami's favor."
Haroldo easily lifted the marker upright and set it back in its place. Then Phive took a handful of coins from his purse and laid them at its base. Immediately, a sense of satisfaction and well-being settled over the companions. A moment later, a two-foot tall, wizened little man wearing homespun robes stepped out from behind a tree. Miyaro bowed low before him.
"Shunkichi-san," she said. "These are my friends. They seek passage through the forest so that they may meet my masters and assist in the coming battle against the Five Storms."
The diminutive man nodded sagely, and then spoke in Tien.
"Blessings be upon your road," he said. "Be wary. The wood contains many dangerous spirits and creatures. Not all mean you harm, but some will. Mortals should not tread carelessly beneath the forest's boughs. I will inform my brethren of your coming. Safe journey."
With that, he moved to the waymarker, and then actually stepped into it, disappearing from view.


It wasn't very long after the companions rode beneath the boughs of the forest trees when they began having a feeling of being watched. There were no signs of anything following them, though strange noises occasionally rang out in the distance. Soon after, the sound of tuneful humming seemed to be coming from somewhere nearby.
"What is that!?" Mazael bellowed, flailing Suishen around him.
"It may be a spirit of the forest," Miyaro said quietly. "These woods are rumored to be haunted, and I can assure you that the rumors are true. Some spirits are simply lost souls, who have not found their way to the other side yet. Others, however, are not so benign."
"Suishen!" Mazael snapped, holding the quillons of the swords haft up to his eyes, "Give me sight beyond sight!"
The sword pulsed, and the war-priest's eyes began to glow as well.
"There!" he shouted, pointing towards Koya. "A woman is standing right there! Watch out!"
A moment later, Koya gasped as a warm chill went through her entire body. She turned, and saw what looked to be a young Tien woman next to her, though the girl's body was completely translucent.
"We used ta see things like this down in the Underdark," Gnome-Brr Phive said. "Used ta call'em haints. They ain't partial ta holy power."
He gripped the medallion around his neck and channeled the power of Nethys through it. The spirit girl gasped in pain as the light washed over her.
"Hah! That did it!" Mazael laughed, and then grasped his own holy symbol.
"No, wait!" Miyaro called out, but it was too late.
Mazael channeled and the holy energy completely obliterated the spirit. Miyaro cast her eyes down and looked away.
"I sensed no ill intent from her," she said softly.
"Yeah, well," Mazael grumbled, "you'll excuse me if I don't trust spirits that try and possess you without asking."


A few days later, as the group was following a line of high tors that reared above the forest, Zula cocked her head at the sound of a strange bird's cry on the wind. She listened intently, and when the call was repeated a few minutes later, her jaw clenched.
"We've got trouble," she warned her companions. "That's no bird I've ever heard."
A moment later, an odd whistling sound came from the trees, drawing closer rapidly. Then Haroldo grunted as a fist-sized chunk of rock struck him squarely in the chest, nearly knocking him from his saddle. The whistle came again, this time from behind them, and it was Miyaro that cried out as another rock glanced off the back of her head.

From out of the trees stepped four large figures, two in front of the companions and two behind. The easily stood twelve-feet tall, and had chiseled, muscular features with flat, forward-sloping heads, looking almost as if they were carved of stone. Shalelu turned in her saddle and, shooting backwards over her shoulder, put a pair of arrows into the nearest giant, though the shafts seemed to only penetrate its tough skin barely an inch. Sandru leaped from his horse and rushed towards the same giant, juking left and right, trying to stay out of its reach. He wasn't quite fast enough, however, as it grazed him with its massive club when he moved in. He caught himself from falling, and then swung his scimitar in a wide arc, slashing across the brute's belly. Though it felt as if he were slashing a stone wall, the caravan master was relieved to see that the giant could, in fact, bleed, and it began to do so heavily from the gaping wound. A moment later he found that it could burn as well when Koya summoned a column of holy fire down from the clouds to engulf it.

At the front of the group, one of the giants clipped Mazael with another thrown rock. Lucian returned fire, sending a volley of six arrows in rapid succession. As the giant reeled back on its heels, Haroldo charged forward bringing his great-sword down in an overhand chop that nearly cleaved the brute in two. Mazael was right behind his friend, and though the second giant struck him solidly with its club as he closed, the war-priest didn't waver. Suishen sank deep into its chest, and as the katana did so, the flame along its blade suddenly exploded into a fiery burst.
"What was that?" Mazael gaped incredulously.
'You proved yourself worthy once again in the battle against the Ruby Phoenix's oni,' Suishen replied into his thoughts. 'I felt it time to reveal more of my powers to you.'
Mazael grinned broadly.

Shalelu put down the burning giant with another well-placed arrow, then fired four more into its brother. Miyaro shot him twice more, and then, from out of nowhere, a cage made of glowing bars of light sprang up around the giant.
"That should hold him for a moment," Spivey smiled, "and if it doesn't, then he's in for a nasty surprise."
As if to prove her point, the giant looked warily at the light prison, and then simply stepped through it. When he did so, however, the bars flared, burning him, and he clawed at his eyes as the surge temporarily blinded him. Shalelu knew how to capitalize on an advantage, and she aimed carefully before sending two final shots into the giant, putting him out of his misery.

The last of the giants went down swinging, clubbing Mazael again before Lucian made a pincushion of arrows out of him. The companions were able to follow the tracks of the creatures back to the top of one of the tors, where they found a crudely built house made of wood and stone. Inside they discovered a large quantity of salted and cured meat, as well as a beautifully woven tapestry, a pair of white tiger pelts, two bolts of fine silk, and three barrels of excellent sake. It seemed the giants had been nothing more than raiders, preying on the unwary, but this day they had chosen their prey poorly.


Over the next week of travel, the companions were besieged by several more restless spirits of the forest. None of them caused any real harm, but their manifestations, an angry samurai warrior cracking a whip; a pyromaniac wizard; and a homicidal woodsman, were nonetheless unnerving. Each time, the priests managed to drive them away with holy power. One encounter, however, proved to all too real.

They were at least two weeks into the forest when suddenly, some one-hundred yards in the distance, a massive white tiger emerged from the trees. It roared at them, shaking the leaves above them, and then began loping madly in their direction.
"Wait!" Shalelu called to her friends as they raised bows or lifted hands for spells. "Something is not right here. Its cries...they are almost like...words!"
The tiger abruptly halted its charge perhaps a dozen feet away, then began sniffing at the air.
"Calm," Shalelu whispered to the others.
She began moving slowly forward, her hands empty and outstretched. The tiger eyed her warily, its teeth bared. Gradually, however, it began to relax. Finally, when the ranger was mere inches away, it bowed its head. Shalelu reached out to stroke its thick neck, and a low rumble sounded deep in its chest...a purr. After several minutes, it raised its head again, turned, and disappeared into the forest once more.
"White tigers are sacred to the kami of the forest," Miyaro said softly as it departed. "It is good that you did not act in haste. Not all is as it appears in this land."


After almost a month of travel through the forest, the trees parted to reveal a twilit clearing, the thick leaves blocking most of the sunlight from the sky above. A giant, wooden torii gate, unpainted and unvarnished, stood before the entrance to the clearing. As the companions approached the gate, an armored figure appeared beneath it, floating just a few inches above the ground.
"That is Noburo," Miyaro whispered. "He is a zuishin kami...a guardian of gates and doorways. He is not an enemy, but you must be respectful and ask his permission to pass through."
"Who are you and why have you come to this sacred place?" Noburo called in Tien.
"We are enemies of the Five Storms," Zula stepped forward, "and we have come seeking aid in our struggle against a common foe."
"Be welcome then," Noburo nodded, and moved aside for them to pass.
"Now what?" Mazael asked as they stood in the middle of the empty clearing.
"Now," Miyaro replied, "we wait."

The day passed quietly, but as darkness began to deepen, the companions became aware that something was gathering in the gloom...a army...perhaps both. They could make out strange, vague shapes in the shadows, and a palpable sense of fear and curiosity permeated the forest twilight. Gradually, a few of the figures began to approach closer...a rabbit with unnatural intelligence in its eyes, a round stone rolling under its own power.
"Remain very still," Miyaro cautioned. "The spirits are easily frightened and may flee at any sudden movements."
More animals entered the clearing, but there were also walking shrubs, and even a small, isolated snow storm. At one point, Zula caught a glimpse of Shunkichi, the little waymarker warden they'd met at the edge of the forest. Then, something truly amazing happened. The kami-infused items each of the Scions had found at Brinewall began to glow and hum with life. A moment later, the spirits physically separated themselves from the objects and stood beside their wards. Then Miyaro rose to her feet and walked to the center of the clearing. As she moved, her body began to ripple and change, until where a young Tien woman once stood, there was now a vixen-headed female with shimmering red fur, and a luxurious brush tail. All around the companions, the kami began whispering strange words.
"The spirits welcome you," Miyaro spoke, translating. "Long ago, they swore an oath to guard the oni of the Five Storms, who were imprisoned in a pagoda called the House of Withered Blossoms. For centuries, the kami kept the Five Storms contained, but one night, 160 years ago, most of the oni somehow escaped their prison. The kami do not know how, but they do know that at least one oni still remains in the House of Withered Blossoms, for their oath forbids them from stepping over the threshold while even one oni remains inside, and the way is still barred to them. The kami would ask for you to enter the pagoda to learn what happened to the Five Storms and, if necessary, to defeat the last oni within. They know that you seek to depose the Jade Regent, and that he is allied with the Five Storms. An exploration of the onis' former prison might give you information and weapons that you can use against our enemies. Will you agree?"
The companions looked to one another, and finally, to Ameiko, who nodded once.
"We do," Zula said.
An audible sigh passed through the gathered kami. At length, a single kami approached, a tiny ancient warrior with a tree branch growing from the top of his head. He bowed before the heroes.
"I am Akumi," he introduced himself, speaking Tien. "I humbly ask you for one more favor. My ward, a bonsai tree, was recently stollen by hogboblins, who took it inside the House of Withered Blossoms. Bound by my oath, I was unable to follow, but I can feel that it is still alive somewhere within or beneath the pagoda. I have tended my ward for centuries, and should it die, I shall as well. While you are within the House, will you look for it for me?"
"Of course," Zula smiled.


The following day it was decided that Ameiko should remain behind, under the watchful eyes of the kamis, for her own safety. Koya, Sandru, Shalelu and Spivey would stay with her. Miyaro volunteered to guide the others to the House of Withered Blossoms, promising that they should make it by nightfall. She proved to be as good as her word, and at dusk, they had reached their destination.

The animal calls softened to a whisper as the forest parted to reveal a vast bowl, the ground sinking from the forest tangle into descending rows of frozen terraces. At the center of the depression stood a towering porcelain pagoda, its walls and eaves smothered in thick, clinging vines and draped with heavy webs, soaring to a golden rooftop. Stylized representations of forgotten creatures and beasts danced upon the pagoda's walls, and a band of huge thorny spines jutted from its midsection. A decaying garden surrounded the pagoda, a frozen echo of past magnificence. Broken statues littered the garden, and icy clouds of violet blossoms drifted through the ruin. The overpowering scent of death and decay hung in the air.

"Boris see only one way in," the goblin said, his eyes sharper than most. "No windows...just one door."
"Might be sump'n up on the roof," Gnome-Brr Phive offered. "I'kin go up and take a look if ya'll want."
"How you get up on roof?" Boris asked skeptically. "Boris never see you fly."
"Picked me up this here beauty back in the city," the gnome grinned, pulling a perfectly ordinary looking broom stick from his pack.
"So?" Boris asked. "Big-nose dwarf going to sweep his way up to roof?"
"Watch'n learn, boy!" Phive laughed.
He dropped the broom to the ground, then shouted "Up!" holding out one hand. Instantly, the broom leaped into his grip, and he straddled it. Amazingly, it supported his weight, and lifted him easily into the air. Within seconds, he had flown all the way to the top of the pagoda, some two-hundred feet above. The companions saw him fly around for a few moments, then quickly return.
"Whelp, there's a hole up there," he said as he dismounted his broom, "but it's fulla cobwebs. Cain't see nothin' down there. Front door might be safer."

Cautiously, the group descended into the bowl until they reached the front of the pagoda. There, a huge bronze door was marked with stylized pictures of dueling dragons. Hundreds of open-mouthed dragon faces surrounded the doorframe, all leering out hungrily. Phive stepped up to the door, and placed his gloved hands against it, concentrating. After a moment he stepped away.
"Jest a hall. Full'a cobwebs too."
"Door trapped," Boris observed. "Not sure how, but Boris thinking something come out of dragon mouths. Boris also not sure how to undo. Very tricky."
Haroldo came up with a simple, if inelegant solution. He stepped to the wall beside the door, and proceeded to smash through it with his great-sword.
"Not the way I would have chosen," Zula shook her head, "but effective nonetheless."
"I will not go in," Miyaro announced. "Not into that accursed place. I shall await your return here."

Inside, a corridor ran along the perimeter of the pagoda, choked with spiderwebs, just as Phive had described. This proved to be no impediment, however, as Mazael took the lead and proceeded to burn the webs in front of them using Suishen's flaming blade. The sword muttered at such a mundane task. After circling perhaps three-quarters of the way around the pagoda, they finally came to an interior archway. The core of the building on this floor had been gutted. The few remaining walls in the area were crumbling, and only the presence of four huge stone pillars, carved with pictures of battling dragons, seemed to keep the building up. Thick webs filled the four corners of the room. The central section of the pagoda had suffered the most, with a great rip in the floor creating a steep-walled pit that sloped down to a dark shaft choked with webs. Suddenly, as the companions took in the strange scene, the forlorn sound of horns being winded came from the ceiling above. Haroldo and Mazael, who were in the fore of the group, looked up but saw nothing but more webs. Then, bursts of light began to appear in the webbing, and they were streaking towards the two warriors. Bolts of energy began to pepper them, and a net made of thick webbing dropped squarely on top of Haroldo, entangling him in its fibers. A half-dozen creatures appeared, clinging to the nest of webs above. They looked like bloated spiders with hunchbacked bodies and a gleam of intelligence in their multiple eyes.

Lucian was the first to react, knocking and firing his bow at one of the creatures. Zula was not far behind, sending a blast of her thundercall into another, causing it to lose its grip on the webs and fall twenty feet to the ground below, where it lay stunned and twitching. Haroldo, still trapped in the web net, managed to retrieve a flask from his belt and quaff it. Instantly, he grew to twice his size, shredding the webbing, and looking the spider-creatures directly in their multiple eyes. The arachnids continue to send barrages of magic missiles into the defenders, bleeding them by increments. The heroes dealt far worse. The Peacock Crown atop Lucian's head suddenly flared, informing him that the spider-things were some form of shape-shifter, though not oni. Still, the power of the Crown infused his bow, making his arrows even more deadly. The spiders shrieked awfully when the arrows pierced their flesh, burning their blood. Mazael used Suishen's power to take to the air and close with the fiends. Together, he and Haroldo were devastating, slay one creature after another, until only one remained, and then it too fell to Lucian's bow.


The Open Web

4 Lamashan, 4715

"Don't really like the look of that," Gnome-Brr Phive said as he looked over the edge of the web-filled pit and spat down into it. "Reminds me too much of home."
"I agree," Zula said. "We passed a stairwell leading higher into the pagoda back in the hallway. I say we start there and see what's above us first."

They climbed the stairs single-file, and emerged into another hallway wrapping around the perimeter of the pagoda. Tall black-lacquered screens with prancing dragon designs turned the corridor into a twisting maze. Boris took the lead, his sharp eyes easily picking out several hidden pressure plates in the floor. He directed his companions around them to avoid triggering the traps they obviously controlled. They had just made it to the first turn of the hall when he held up a hand again.
"Boris hear something," he said, cocking his head.
"I hear it too," Zula nodded.
"Footsteps," Phive agree. "Comin' from ahead of us and behind. Sounds like somebody walkin' barefoot."
Boris quickly twisted a ring on his finger and disappeared from view. Just in time, as it turned out. Emerging from behind a screen just around the corner were two creatures, terrible to behold. A thick tangle of discolored entrails clung to the lurching skeletons' torsos and wound upward to loll from their jaws like clawed tongues. Boris took a step towards them, his blades in his hands. With his first strike, he reappeared, but he may as well have still been invisible, so fast were his movements. The creatures didn't have time to react. The twin wakizashis spun and sliced, striking vital areas with unnatural accuracy. When the little goblin finally spun away, both of the abominations lay in pools of their own gore. A shout from the back of the party caused Boris to spin in that direction. Another of the creatures had sneaked up behind Lucian, but the oracle had already put three arrows into it. A moment later, Haroldo and Mazael leaped between Lucian and the oncoming undead, and proceeded to hack it to pieces.


Halfway through the screen maze, the companions came upon a single door set into the interior wall. After Boris pronounced it trap-free, Gnome-Brr Phive used his gloves to peer beyond it.
"Crap," he spat as he pulled his hands away.
"What you see?" Boris asked.
"More damn screens," Phive complained. "Only these ones are metal."

Boris opened the door, revealing a large chamber. As Phive had described, metal screens depicting writhing dragons in bas-relief devouring hidden prey filled the room. From somewhere in the distance, metal clinked, like a chain being dragged, followed by what may have been a muffled scream. Boris waited a moment for Zula to cast a more powerful spell of invisibility on him, then began moving cautiously into the labyrinth. He paused when he thought he heard a shuffling footstep, and turned in that direction. It was only then that he felt the floor beneath him give just a tiny bit.
"Oops...," he moaned.
From the ceiling above, a flurry of steel shurikens came flying out of concealed recesses. Boris tried to dodge, but there were too many of them. Several struck him, tearing through his clothing, and the wounds stung more than he felt they should have. He felt weak.
"Poison...," he groaned.
He looked up quickly as he heard the footstep again, and found himself staring up at another of the horrid, disemboweled mohrgs.

Haroldo had been moving towards another corner when Boris triggered the trap. He turned to look in that direction, and saw a pair of mohrgs looking back at him from behind another screen. Before he could move, the tongue of one of them struck out, snapping against his neck, and his muscles went rigid. He couldn't move! The second mohrg reached out and slashed at him with one clawed hand, and then wrapped its arms around him in a death grip.

The mohrg didn't see Boris, but he could see it sniffing and tasting the air, searching for him. Before it had a chance, the little goblin drove his swords into its belly, remaining invisible thanks to Zula's spell. Reflexively, the mohrg's tongue lashed out, and miraculously, struck exactly where Boris stood, paralyzing him.

Lucian rounded the corner and saw the mohrgs moving away with the rigid form of Haroldo. He rushed forward, a prayer on his lips as he moved. He reached the blood-rager just before he was pulled out of view, laying a hand upon his shoulder. Instantly, Haroldo felt the effects of the tongue drop away. Both mohrgs slashed at him, and then leaped away, but he swung at one before it was out of reach. Enraged, he charged forward, catching the second and running his great-sword completely through it.

Mazael grumbled to himself, complaining about the stupid goblin, and having to always babysit the little rat. That was when he literally stumbled over the invisible rogue. As he scrambled to keep his feet, he saw a blur of movement from behind a nearby screen. The mohrg's tongue lashed him, and he was struck still as a stone.

While Haroldo's attention was on his prey, the other mohrg darted past him, its tongue striking like a serpent at Lucian as he raised his bow. The oracle froze in place, and the undead horror moved in for the kill. Haroldo had no intention of letting that happen. As it raised its claws to tear out Lucian's throat, the big blood-rager cleaved its head from its shoulders.

Mazael's mind was still alert, though his body would not respond. He focused on the image of Desna, and asked for her blessing. A burst of her holy power sprang from the holy symbol around his neck, momentarily freeing his limbs again. Raising Suishen, he made quick work of the mohrg before the paralysis took him once more.


Haroldo led Gnome-Brr Phive to Lucian, and the priest freed the oracle using the same magic that had freed Haroldo. In turn, Lucian released Mazael and Boris, though only after Zula's invisibility spell had worn off. When everyone was sufficiently recovered, they continued their trek through the metal-screen maze, until they finally came to a small chamber which lay in the middle of the larger room. Four great columns carved with depictions of dragons overlooked a gruesome scene: four gibbets hung from an iron column in the center of the room, next to a steep stone spiral stair that climbed to the ceiling. Two of the cages were occupied, one holding a Tian man, and the other a Tian woman. They looked terrified and half starved. When they were released from their prisons, they prostrated themselves at the feet of the Scions and began babbling their thanks.
"You are safe now," Zula said calmly. "What are your names, and how did you come to be here?"
"I am Junzo," the man introduced himself, "and this is my wife, Udtsetseg. We were foraging in the forest when we were set upon by the spider-creatures...aranea. They brought us here and left us in the maze outside this room. Then the dead creatures found us and dragged us in here to torture us. Who knows what they would have done if you had not come!"
"Have you seen any other parts of this place, or do you know of any of the other denizens?" Zula asked.
"We have overheard our captors talking many times," Junzo nodded. "The spider-things are led by someone named Akinosa, who lives somewhere above. They are apparently at war with hobgoblins who live below the pagoda."
"Interesting," Zula mused. "Well, we will see you safely from this place, and we thank you for your information."

Haroldo led the peasants back outside the pagoda to the garden. There, he left them with Miyaro, who agreed to watch over them until the companions returned. He then made his way back to his friends as they prepared to head higher into the pagoda to find this 'Akinosa.'


When Zula and Boris emerged from the spiral staircase at the head of the group, they found themselves in a large, open chamber. Hundreds of stone needles and spikes jutted from the floor around them. A row of iron grilles ran around the perimeter of the room, providing views back down into the maze below. Thick webs swept upward from the jagged floor towards the roof some sixty feet above, ending in a dark and shadowy funnel that sloped upward into the farthest reaches of the pagoda. On each wall, a round window surrounded by iron barbs looked out over the garden surrounding the tower.

"More spider-people," Boris sighed as he looked up into the webs and saw the dark forms of the arachnid creatures...aranea Junzo had named them...scuttling around above them. As soon as he'd spoken, they began hurling sheets of webbing and raining magic missiles down on the companions. Zula quickly retaliated, stunning two of them with her thundercall and sending them tumbling down to the spiked floor. Piotr rushed up the stairs behind the shoanti woman and hurled a fireball into the mass of webs, immolating three more of the aranea and setting the webs ablaze.
"Everyone stay close!" Zula shouted.
She sang out a spell, and the familiar outline of a tiny hut formed around the companions, giving them a momentary reprieve from the aranea assault.

Just as the heroes were catching their breath, all of the remaining aranea abruptly disappeared. Mazael quickly raised Suishen in front of his eyes, and they began to glow.
"Their coming into the hut!" he cried.
On cue, the forms of the spiders began to appear all around the companions as they launched another barrage of magic missiles from point-blank range. Zula slew another pair with her thundercall, while Lucian picked off another two with his bow, the White Peacock Crown imbuing his weapon with lethal might against the shape-changers. Mazael and Haroldo lay about them with their swords, sending arachnid ichor flying in all directions, until the last of the aranea lay twitching on the floor.


A Tangled Web

4 Lamashan, 4715 - 5 Lamashan, 4715

With no way to go but up, the companions all took flight thru various means and made for the web funnel near the roof of the large, open chamber. Haroldo and Mazael were the first to pass through the large hole at the top. The chamber that they found themselves in was filled with webs that appeared much older, more festooned with decay and withered husks. The floor again bristled with stone teeth, and while most of the ceiling had been destroyed, part of the level above remained in place where the dragon pillars rose. There, the sagging remnants of a floor hung over the rest of the web below, and a great ornamental palanquin stood upon that ledge next to a huge war drum. Above, another web funnel led upward, ancient skulls grinning down from it in their last, terrible resting places, with skeletal arms reaching out for succor.

Immediately, the two warriors saw movement all about them in the webs. Crouched among the strands were a dozen wolf-sized spiders with blue-and-white bodies and iridescent blue legs. Perched upon the seat of the palanquin was a corpulent aranea swathed in filthy silk robes, which looked as though they hadn't been changed in decades. Insects and spiders scuttled in and out of the folds of both the robes and his skin, and he occasionally plucked one up to chew as a crunchy snack. Flanking him were a pair of women dressed in black silk kimonos. Black porcelain masks covered their faces.
"Are you servants of that bitch Munasukaru?" the aranea bellowed down.
"Who's asking?" Mazael snarled back.
"I am Akinosa!" the creature thundered. "This is my domain, and you are trespassing!"
"We don't know any Monkey-sucker," the war-priest shrugged.
"Munasukaru!" Akinosa snapped. "If you are not her servants, they why have you attacked my people?"
"They attacked us first," Mazael replied simply. "We just defended ourselves...efficiently."
"Why are you here!?" roared the aranea.
"Looking for oni," Mazael said. "Seen any?"
"There are none in the pagoda!" Akinosa shouted. "This is my realm! Munasukaru and her oni filth are below, in the penance! If she is your enemy, then we share a common goal!"
"Why haven't you wiped her out already," Mazael asked. "Looks like you've been here awhile."
"Her forces are many!" Akinosa barked. "We are at a stale-mate! Perhaps you can help us resolve this situation. If not, then begone, or you shall incur my wrath!"
Mazael thought about it for a second.
"Nah," he shook his head. "We prefer to work alone. I think we'll just kill you all."

Akinosa snarled in rage.
"Gossamer!" he shouted. "To me!"
The two masked women fell into fighting crouches and from their hands came blue bolts of energy. Suddenly, from the hole near the ceiling, more energy bolts came pouring down on Mazael and Haroldo as another half-dozen of the women emerged from the thick webs there. Fortunately, both of the warriors had learned from their prior encounters with the aranea, and they had warded themselves against the magic missiles. The barrage deflected harmlessly away from both of them.
"That it?" Mazael quirked an eyebrow up at Akinosa. "'Cause we got something a little better."
Zula rose up from behind the war-priest, her jaw set. She thrust her hands out, one towards the ceiling, and one towards Akinosa's perch. Twin thunderclaps sounded, and the six women above all came tumbling down to the spiked floor, stunned and twitching. The two flanking Akinosa also went sprawling, though the fat spider himself kept his feet, albeit a bit shakily. Piotr was next through the hole, and he followed up Zula's performance with one of his own. A fireball exploded among the webs, setting them ablaze and scorching Akinosa and his two bodyguards. It also crisped several of the spiders, their charred bodies dropping to the floor.

"Fools!" Akinosa gasped, still shaking from Zula's assault, and his his robes still smoldering. "Do you think we have held off Munasukaru's forces so long by being unprepared!? Now you will see the folly of your misjudgment!"
As he spoke, eight shadows separated themselves from the deeper gloom of the webs, and began whirling around the companions. They appeared as dark, translucent figures clad in black robes, and when they reached out for the Scions, their bony fingers passed easily through both armor and clothing. Mazael felt the cold of the grave seize his muscles as a terrible weakness flooded through him. Reflexively, he grasped Desna's symbol around his neck and flung Her holy power all about him. The shadows recoiled in pain from the dazzling light. As they fell back, however, the hunting spiders swarmed in, their black mandibles clacking and dripping with poison.
"And now it is my turn!" Akinosa screamed.
Electricity crackled around his upraised hands, and he flung it towards the companions. It arced from one to another, chaining them together in a surge of lightning.

Zula managed to calm her jangling nerves sooner than the others, and another thundercall put an end to one of the gossamer still trying to get to her feet, as well as a pair of the shadows and a hunting spider. Lucian followed this up with a mass cure spell simultaneously assuaged some of his companions' worst wounds, while at the same time destroying five more of the shadows with the overwhelming positive energy. Gnome-Brr Phive took out the last of them, channeling Nethys' holy power. After that, things happened very quickly. Another of Piotr's fireballs killed the remaining spiders, while Haroldo flew quickly to Akinosa's perch. Back on the ground, the gossamer who had fallen all managed to regain their composure enough to use vanishing spells, only to reappear a moment later, focusing their attacks on Piotr. Mazael rushed to the aid of the sorcerer, and Lucian turned his bow on the women. It was a near thing, the vicious, poison-coated blades of the assassins doing their job on Piotr, but ultimately, Mazael and Lucian slew them all. On high, Akinosa tried his deadliest spells against Haroldo, but the blood-rager resisted them all in his frenzy. He cut through the aranea's last bodyguards, then gutted the grotesque wizard himself.

The remainder of the pagoda was hollowed out and contained very little, save from the loot accumulated by the aranea over the years. The companions gathered what they could, and then left to rejoin Miyaro. They were thoroughly spent from their exertions, and need the night to recuperate. The next day, they intended to journey into the bowels below the House of Withered Blossoms and see what new dangers awaited them there.


The following day the companions returned to the House of Withered Blossoms, and the ground floor chamber which contained the dark throat boring down into the center of the earth. A warm breeze carrying the unpleasant smell of decay wafted upward from the web-filled shaft. Piotr tossed a fireball into the center of it, burning the webs away and revealing narrow, short stone steps carved into the wall and descending into the blackness.

They followed the shaft for at least one-hundred feet before the steps broadened into large stone-flagged stairs that dropped sharply into a wide, smooth-walled chamber. The room broadened as it sloped upward, ending at a vast wall of huge stone blocks. Rusting double iron doors, bristling with bloody spikes, offered the only passage through the wall, and a pair of figures hung limply from them. The air was hot, and smelled of sweat and toil.

No sooner had the companions emerged from the shaft, than a hail of arrows flew at them from slits high up on the wall. They scattered, but not before Zula took a grazing blow across her ribs from one of the shafts. She grunted, but still had breath to cast a spell, rendering herself invisible to their attackers. Piotr and Gnome-Brr Phive followed her lead and vanished from sight as well. Haroldo and Mazael rushed for the wall, directly beneath the arrow slits and out of the line of fire. This left only Lucian out in the open, and the oracle drew his bowstring to his cheek, sighted carefully, and released. His arrow never wavered. It went straight through one of the slits, and he heard a satisfying grunt of pain from the other side.

"That fool is going to get himself killed," Zula growled to herself. "But not on my watch."
She spoke the words of another spell, and a thick mist began to rise out of the ground between Lucian and the wall. In a matter of seconds, a billowing fog roiled across the chamber, shielding him from the archers. In the mean time, Haroldo and Mazael had reached the wall, and began hacking at it, the tactic having worked well in the pagoda above. Unfortunately, this wall seemed made of sterner stuff, and after several strong blows, only a few stone chips were to show for their efforts. Suddenly, a grinding sound came from above them, and the two warriors looked up just in time to spot the murder holes opening. Then, a deluge of boiling, scalding liquid came cascading down upon them, sending them diving and rolling for cover.
"Hold on boys," the disembodied voice of Piotr came from behind them. "This location is decidedly unsafe."
Each of them felt one of the sorcerer's hands grab their shoulder, followed by a litany of arcane words. There was a brief flash of bright light, and when it cleared, they found themselves standing on the opposite side of the wall. They were in a broad stone-floored courtyard, and above them, a stone parapet ran behind the arrow slits on this side, connected by a wooden bridge that crossed above the door. Upon the parapet were a half-dozen humanoids dressed in strange, lacquered armor. Their features were bestial, with an orange cast to their skin...hobgoblins. They all held bows in their hands, but wickedly spiked morningstars hung from their belts. At that moment, they were all staring down in confusion at the new arrivals.

Lucian had heard Piotr casting in the mists, a spell he knew himself. Picturing the arrow slit he'd fired through in his mind, he spoke the same words and disappeared, reappearing a moment later atop the parapet....right between a pair of hobgoblins. This time they did not hesitate, dropping their bows and drawing their morningstars as they moved to flank him, and then the closest one swung low, catching the oracle in the groin, doubling him over.

Chaos broke loose. The hobgoblins who still held their bows began shooting at Haroldo and Mazael, surprising in their accuracy, and before long both warriors were bleeding profusely from multiple wounds. Haroldo's eyes blazed with rage as he flew to the parapet, his sword a whirling cyclone of death and mayhem. Lucian managed to dart away from his attackers, gaining himself enough distance to bring his own bow to bear again. Meanwhile, Mazael ran for the gates, where a stout iron bar held them shut. He lifted it free and shoved open the portals to admit Zula and Phive. As he did so, he heard groans of pain above him, and when he looked up, he saw that the two men impaled on the doors were still alive...though just barely.

The hobgoblins fought with a discipline and ferocity that the companions would not have expected from such creatures, but ultimately Haroldo's barely-caged fury, and Lucian's skill with a bow proved to be too much.


Mazael and Haroldo lifted the two men off of the spikes and Phive tended to the worst of their wounds. The men were Tian, and they were grateful, though completely exhausted and terrified. They told a similar story to that of the prisoners the companions had rescued upstairs: they had been taken in the forest and enslaved. They had lost track of the time they had been held, but it had seemed like an eternity. The hobgoblins were cruel masters, serving an evil crueler mistress, Munasukaru. The slaves had never seen her, but the hobgoblins spoke of her like she was divine, even though she was supposedly the weakest of the Five Storms oni. The hobgoblins were loose-lipped around their chattel, and the men had overheard stories about how Munasukaru was left behind by the other oni when they fled the House of Withered Blossoms, to fool the kami of the Forest of Spirits into thinking they were still captive. The isolation had possibly driven her mad. When asked what they knew of what lay beyond the courtyard, the slaves described chambers and halls guarded by more of the Withered Blossom Warriors, as the hobgoblins were known, as well as giants. Then, beyond this, there was a vast natural cavern where the bulk of the hobgoblins dwelt, watched over by their shogun, Buto the Swine Lord, a foul creature who lived in a small keep within the cavern. The companions thanked the men for their information, then escorted them back to the surface and Miyaro before returning below ground the continue the hunt for Munasukaru.


Deeper Into The Penance

5 Lamashan, 4715

"I think it's time I revealed something to all of you," Lucian announced as the group stood in the courtyard.
"I wish you wouldn't," Mazael grumbled.
Lucian shot him a look before continuing. "The depth of my understanding of the wood and the trees has grown tremendously since we entered the Forest of Spirits. It may be the nature of this realm, or that I was cut off from so much verdant life for so long when we were on the high ice. Whatever the reason, new secrets have been revealed to me."
He stepped back from the others and raised his hands above his head. As his companions stared with curiosity, and then amazement, he began to transform. A bark-like covering grew from his skin, encasing every inch of exposed flesh. His legs stretched and broadened, looking almost like split tree trunks, while his arms became thinner as they grew, more spindly, like branches. His fingers formed into delicate twigs. The change continued until what stood before them looked more like a tree given a man-shape.
"This is my true form now," Lucian's voice rumbled from deep within his trunk. "At times, I shall return to my former shape, but this is now my truth."
Mazael snorted, then sneered.
"That's nothing! Take a look at what I woke up with this morning!"
He whipped his cloak aside, revealing a pair of huge, white-feathered wings sprouting from his back.
"Seems like all those stories my great grandma used to tell about how she once met an angel might have been true after all!"


Two of the doors that led from the courtyard gave only onto empty store rooms. The third, however, opened onto a long chamber. Grotesque carvings of sex, gluttony, violence, and oppression decorated the walls, seeming to leap from their surfaces. The broken bodies of a half-dozen humans, their flesh seared, hung among the vile imagery. Boris peered into the gloom, and his sharp eyes picked out arrow slits, four on each wall, concealed among the horrible carvings.
"Wait here," he said quietly, putting a finger to his lips.
He twisted his ring, disappearing from view, and set off down the length of the chamber. When he reached the far end, he found another door, though it would not budge when he tried to open it. He crept to the nearest arrow slit and peered in. On the other side, he saw a hobgoblin staring back, a half-drawn bow in its hands. Silently, Boris drew his own bow, and before the warrior knew what was happening, fired two arrows through the slit and into the its belly.

"Why do we ever listen to him?" Zula shook her head in exasperation as she saw the goblin reappear down the hall, running full speed towards them.
She began a spell, and mist appeared flowing down the center of the chamber, covering Boris's retreat.
"The fog is not real," Zula told the others, "but the hobgoblins will not know that. Stick to the center, and it should conceal you from their arrows."
Mazael had other ideas. He looked towards the nearest arrow slit, spoke a quick prayer, then popped out of existence in a flash of light, only to reappear on the other side of the hole. Though he managed to surprise the hobgoblin stationed there, the warrior recovered quickly, throwing his bow to the ground and drawing out a morningstar. He swung it low, and caught the war-priest in the mid-section. Mazael grunted, and retreated a step, but as he did so, her brought Suishen around in a wide arc, slashing the hobgoblin deeply across the chest.

Heeding Zula's advice, Haroldo hustled down the center of the room to the far door. There, he brought out his "universal key," smashing the barrier to splinters with his great-sword. On the other side, he found another hallway running perpendicular to the one he'd just crossed. More vile carvings decorated it, this time depicting acts of envy. Directly across from him, stone stairs climbed to a balcony lined with pillars, and atop that stood three burly figures, each easily over ten-feet tall...giants!

Seeing Haroldo rush past him, Boris reversed himself, and followed after the blood-rager, using his ring to become invisible once more. He reached the doors just in time to see the trio of giants closing on Haroldo, while two hobgoblin warriors approached from a side passage where they had been manning the arrow slits. Haroldo didn't wait for the giants to come to him. He lunged forward, screaming like a mad man, dodging and whirling among their legs as they reached for him or swung their tree-trunk sized clubs at him. From back in the main chamber, Lucian let loose with his bow, throwing the giants into further disarray. In short order, the brutes began to fall, one after another. Haroldo spun away from the last one, heading towards the onrushing hobgoblins. One of them never reached him, however, as it fell face-first with Boris's blade sunk into its back. The blood-rager cut down the second as it turned to see had happened to its companion.

Meanwhile, Mazael kept a trio of Withered Blossom warriors who'd converged on him busy as they tried to surround him. They were fast, and well-disciplined, but the war-priest was just plain meaner. He took their blows and shrugged them off, before striking back with such ferocity that they fell before him in a matter of moments.

With the way forward open, the companions regrouped and ascended the stairs to the balcony. Here, the columns were decorated with more revolting scenes of vice and violence. The portico gave onto a long hallway. Broken bodies, some of which seemed to have died where they were tormented, lined the walls of the arched corridor, amid carvings and figures of torture and anguish. So vile and horrifying was the scene, that Lucian became physically ill. Watching a tree projectile vomit was not a pretty sight. As the heroes pressed on, they became suddenly aware of the sounds of a cracking, snapping sound coming from somewhere nearby. It had the unnerving quality, not of twigs breaking, but more like bones. It became gradually more certain that the sound was coming from one particular broken body that hung mangled on the wall at the end of the corridor. At the time of its death, it seemed that every bone in it had been broken. Then, just as suddenly as the noise started, it stopped. Mazael looked around nervously.
"Let's get out of this place," he growled.
The others nodded their agreement, all save for Piotr. He stood staring at the corpse a moment longer, strange thoughts coming unbidden into his mind. Then, uncontrollably he began to sob.
"What wrong with fire-wizard?" Boris asked, staring at him as if he'd grown a third eye.
Piotr took a moment to compose himself.
"N...nothing," he sniffed. "Let's just go."
His mind, however, was filled with thoughts of vengeance. He would see Munasukaru dead by his own hand before he left this place.


The long corridor ended at a stone shelf perched above a large cavern. A shaky-looking wooden ladder climbed down from the ledges to the floor of the cave below. The overwhelming roar of a waterfall to the left of the ledge echoed across the huge chamber. Some sixty-feet below, strange hovels constructed from assorted debris cluttered the floor of the cavern. The waterfall crashed down into a pool on one side, while a deep pit ran through the opposite side of the chamber, bridged by two stone arches. So large was the area, that a small stone keep had been constructed far away in the gloom beyond the bridges. Freshly fallen rocks littered the floor amid a profusion of animal droppings and fungi. Many hobgoblins could be seen among the shanties, as well as dozens of pigs roaming freely. As the companions stood on the ledge, a cry came from below as the hobgoblins spotted Suishen's flaming blade illuminating the darkness.

Immediately, the hobgoblins below brought out bows and began sending flight after flight of arrows up at the heroes. Piotr answered this by creating a massive ice storm out of thin air. Fist-sized chunks of hail pummeled the hobgoblins, while ice and snow filled the air and covered the ground with a slippery sheen. Using the momentary distraction, Haroldo, Mazael and Boris all leaped from the ledge and flew down towards the village while Lucian covered them from above with his bow.

Once the Scion warriors were actually on the ground, they saw that at least half of the hobgoblins present were little more than shield-bearers, leaving only a half-dozen or so actual Withered Blossom shock troops for them to deal with. And deal with them they did...harshly and decisively. The battle was over in moments. A handful of the lesser minions managed to make a run across the bridges, and towards the keep in the distance. The companions watched them go, knowing they would be accounted for in due time.


The Mockery Pagoda

5 Lamashan, 4715

"I have an idea," Piotr said.
The companions stood before the stone keep which sat upon an outcrop of rock in the belly of the huge cavern. Several of its walls had seen better days...the structure sagged in places, and heaps of rubble lined its flanks. From the building's roof, which almost touched the ceiling of the cavern itself, a stone bridge arched across to a precarious rocky ledge high above the cavern floor. The only entrance to the keep seemed to be a pair of massive iron-bound wooden doors at its base, before which the Scions had gathered.
"I'm going to conjure a barrier of pure force to block off one of these doors," the sorcerer explained, "then, Mazael, you and Haroldo will open the other one. As soon as you do, I"m going to create a cloud of killing fog inside. The two of you keep anyone from escaping while the mist does its work. Any questions?"
"I'd just as soon kick in the door and mop the floor with them," the war-pries shrugged, "but whatever gets the job done is fine by me."
He pulled a flask from a belt pouch and upended it. Within a matter of seconds, his body grew to twice its size and bulk.
"Now I'm ready," he grumbled.

Piotr cast his first spell, and a transparent wall of shimmering force appeared in front of the left-hand door. He nodded, and Mazael pushed on the other door. Nothing happened.
"Huh," Piotr raised an eyebrow. "I hadn't counted on it being locked."
Haroldo shook his head, raised his sword and smashed through the door with one blow.
"That works too," Piotr nodded.
The room beyond the door was squalid and foul, little more than a sty. Three iron cages and a wooden stall filled most of the chamber, and the floor was covered in an unpleasant mix of filth and rolling pigs. A teetering spiral staircase climbed clumsily out of the muck in one corner. The three cages each held a snarling, hissing snow leopard, while a boar the size of a warhorse peered menacingly out of the stall. Standing in the center of the room where a trio of hill giants, looking at once enraged and confused. A moment later, the entire room was hidden from view by a cloud of sickly greenish yellow vapor. For several moments, the sounds of squealing, yowling, snorting and grunting came from within the cloud, and then...silence.

Before the heroes could investigate the results of Piotr's experiment, shouts of alarm and anger sounded from above them. There, on a balcony some fifty feet overhead, five Withered Blossom warriors stood poised with their bows pointed down towards the companions. Upon a shouted command, they loosed their arrows, sending the volley straight into the exposed enemies below. Lucian returned covering fire while Boris and Haroldo began to walk into the air via the magic Zula had temporarily gifted them with. Boris reached the balcony first, and two of the hobgoblins immediately rushed him, swinging their morningstars at his twin wakizashis, attempting to disarm him. The wily goblin deftly deflected both of their clumsy attempts, causing them to drop their own weapons instead.
"Who look stupid now?" Boris taunted.
By that time Haroldo had also reached the landing, and he and the rogue worked as a practiced team, flanking the hobgoblins. The Withered Blossom warriors fought back viciously, leveling several powerful blows at Haroldo that would have killed a lesser man. Yet one by one, they still fell.

"We go downstairs now, right?" Boris asked, turning to Haroldo.
"I think we should rejoin the others," the big warrior shook his head.
Boris shrugged, but when the blood-rager started descending back to the ground, the goblin twisted his ring, and then darted down the stairs from the balcony leading to the interior of the keep.

"Are you ready?" Piotr asked.
"Ready as I'm going to be," Mazael grumbled.
Piotr nodded, then flicked the wand in his hand. A rush of wind blasted past the war-priest and into the lower level of the keep, rapidly dissipating the noxious cloud there. When the mists cleared, the sorcerer got a look at his handiwork. The three leopards lay dead and stiff in their cages, as did the dire boar. One of the giants also slumped unmoving on the floor, but standing in a corner, apparently unharmed, was one of the others. Of the third, there was no sign. With a roar, the sole survivor raised a massive club and charged forward. He didn't make three steps before Lucian put five arrows into his chest. As he stumbled, Mazael met his charge head-on, and drove Suishen through his throat. He fell, gurgling and gasping into the thick sludge on the floor, amidst the herd of dead pigs that had also succumbed to the mists.

The floor of the open chamber that Boris found himself in at the bottom of the stairs ran with filth and refuse, and swam with scores of cockroaches and rats, as well as over a dozen pigs. A huge table rose crookedly from the waste, holding the putrid remains of a huge feast on a tarnished silver salver, including a half-devoured pig's head with a hand thrust into its mouth leering out from the center of the revolting meal. Numerous war trophies hung from the walls, while countless rusted weapons dangled on hooks from the ceiling above. Another stone stairwell descended in the opposite corner of the room. A giant stood in the middle of the room, facing the two stairwells expectantly. His skin was blistered and oozing in several places. Behind him stood a large hobgoblin with a great belly, wearing a cloak made from the sewn skins of piglets. A mighty great-axe was slung over his shoulder, and he held a struggling piglet under one arm.
"Beware! Snort!" he squealed in a piggy voice to the giant. "Squeee! They're coming!"

As if on cue, Mazael and Haroldo appeared at the top of the other stairwell. The giant swung his club at them as they ascended, clipping the blood-rager solidly on his right shoulder. The brute didn't get a second chance as Mazael ran him through with Suishen. Next came Lucian, already firing his bow as he cleared the stairs. His arrow struck the swine shogun just as the fat pig fired his own arrow into Haroldo, dropping his squirming piglet as he did so. Haroldo grunted from the impact of the shaft, but he charged forward. As he came, the hobgoblin dropped his bow and drew his great-axe in one smooth motion, bringing it up and catching Haroldo under the chin with the haft before reversing it and chopping down on the big man's thigh. Haroldo gritted his teeth against the pain, then drove the pommel of his sword into the hobgoblin's nose, shattering it. As the swine shogun stumbled back, the blood-rager drove the point of his blade towards his heart. The hobgoblin turned the blow aside at the last moment, preventing a fatal blow. It was then that Boris appeared behind the shogun, thrusting his blades into the fleshy back of the hobgoblin. He squealed and snorted, but managed to spin away from the goblin, hacking and slashing viciously at Haroldo to keep him at bay. His foot slipped in the effluvium on the floor, and he crashed down to one knee. Clutching the worst of his gushing wounds, he struggled to bring his axe up again, but Haroldo's sword came smashing down, cleaving through the haft of the weapon, the hobgoblin's helmet, and his skull.


"Boris smell bacon," the goblin said, sniffing at the air as his companions ransacked the keep.
No one paid him any mind. He was always thinking with his stomach. Boris wouldn't deny that fact, but this was different. His hunger was...consuming. He looked at the pig's head on the table, considered it for all of a second, then leaped upon it, tearing at it and eating ravenously. After a few minutes, he sat back on his haunches and licked the remains of the disgusting meal from his fingers. He was still hungry...


The bridge from the roof of the keep led precariously to a narrow ledge high above the cavern. Beyond this, a tunnel opened up until it ended at crude stone steps that descended some two-hundred feet further into the earth. At the bottom, it opened into a wide chamber filled with the thundering roar of another waterfall. The water came from a subterranean river ninety feet above, plunging into a cold, deep lake. On the far side of the lake stood a crooked pagoda, carved with the forms of twisted animals, as if in mockery of the pagoda in the daylight high above. A raised drawbridge hung from the front of the pagoda.

No sooner had the heroes entered the cavern, than a flight of arrows sailed towards them from the rooftop balcony of the pagoda.
"I'll put a stop to that!" Piotr shouted
He raised his hand and spoke an incantation. A moment later, a wall of fire twenty-feet tall sprang up on the roof, engulfing the hobgoblin archers.
"Clear," Piotr called to his companions.
"I wouldn't be so sure about that," Mazael muttered, his eyes widening.
Piotr turned to look at what had grabbed the war-priest's attention. The water of the lake appeared to be boiling at three distinct locations. As he watched, the frothing continued to grow, spiraling up into a trio of water spouts. A moment later, these resolved into massive humanoid forms composed entirely of water. Piotr stared in disbelief as one of them raised an arm towards the wall of fire and extinguished it with a great deluge.
"That was an expensive spell!" he snarled.
He could see the hobgoblins on the parapet scrambling around. They were singed, but still able. He spoke another spell, and hurled a ball of fire at them, only to see most of them leap and dodge out of the way of the detonation. His only satisfaction was that one of the elementals was caught in the blast, and steam began to boil off of it.

"We're sitting ducks out here!" Lucian shouted. "Everyone who wants a ride, gather around me!"
The others quickly moved towards him, each of them grabbling hold of a root or branch.
"Go ahead," Piotr waved them on. "I don't want to be caught in the middle of that."
Lucian nodded his hoary head and then murmured a brief prayer. He and the others vanished in a flash of light, and then Piotr watched them reappear on the rooftop of the pagoda. Six Withered Blossom hobgoblins were waiting on them when they arrived, and before they had a chance to compose themselves, another half-dozen rushed up a flight of stairs from the lower level of the pagoda.

A few random arrows still flew in Piotr's direction, but he could see that the bulk of the attack had been turned upon his friends. They were surrounded. He did what he could to assist, lobbing fireballs, one after another, into the fray. The problems was that most of the hobgoblins almost seemed to sense the explosions coming, and managed to evade them at the last possible second, while the elementals soaked up the explosions but didn't seem to be slowed at all.

On the rooftop balcony the battle was chaotic and frenzied. Boris darted invisibly among the hobgoblins, striking from behind while Haroldo waded right into the middle of them, cleaving through four or five at a time with broad swings of his great-sword. Lucian pinned down their archers as best he could, while Mazael took it upon himself to deal with the elementals. The huge beings rained watery fists down upon the roof, smashing into Haroldo and flinging him clear of the battle. At one point, when Boris had momentarily reappeared, he was caught by a glancing blow that nearly snapped his neck. Panicked and bleeding internally, he vanished again and darted down the stairs for cover. Haroldo, when he'd regained his feet, was even forced to break one of his remaining snapleafs and momentarily hide himself from view, as he felt one more hit like that would put him down. Fighting like a dervish, Suishen a flaming blur, Mazael finally managed to bring down one of the water elementals. A moment later a second one fell to Lucian's bow. That turned the tide of battle. The hobgoblins began to scatter, no longer fighting as an organized force. The companions were able to start picking them off one-by-one. Haroldo reappeared behind the last elemental, his blade shattering its watery form into fragments. After that it was just a matter of mopping up. Even Boris felt brave enough to creep back to the battle and finish off the last of the hobgoblins with a sword in the back.


The companions descended the stairs from the balcony and found themselves in a bare room that contained only a revolting statue of a repulsive, strangely goblinoid creature. It stood on a bed of nails and had four demonic smiling, one angry, one eating and one screaming. It was depicted as obscenely pregnant, with multiple teats sagging over its swollen belly, and was shown giving birth to monstrous creatures, some humanoid with demonic goblinoid faces, others wormlike with human faces. Piotr was able to identify the former as a type of oni related to hobgoblins known as a ja-noi. The latter creatures, Piotr stated, were spirit nagas...evil, snake-like sorcerers.

Beyond the makeshift shrine was a chamber containing controls for the drawbridge, as well as a storeroom and a vile midden heap filled with repulsive fungi. Boris sampled several of them, and collected more in his pouch. The heroes then returned to the rooftop, where a pair of massive double doors blocked entrance deeper into the pagoda. Haroldo and Mazael took up point positions, and then the blood-rager threw open one of the doors, leaving the other closed as cover in case any nasty surprises waited on the other side. Beyond the doors, a steep staircase climbed upward. Bas-reliefs of faces distorted by pain covered the steps and walls. Standing at the base of the statue was a large terra-cotta statue of a Tien warrior. At the top of the stairs, six Withered Blossom warriors stood, their bows drawn. Something about them was different, however. Their skin was pale and pockmarked with oozing sores. It didn't seem to affect their aim, though. They opened fire as soon as the door was fully open.

Haroldo ducked, using the statue as cover from the archers. To his shock and utter surprise, however, the statue suddenly began to move. It swung one massive fist at him, connecting solidly with the side of his head, and driving him back towards the doors, his vision blurring in and out of focus. Behind him, Piotr gestured and a wide pit opened beneath the feet of the statue, but the thing was too big, and straddled the hole. Mazael rushed towards it, but it hammered him before he could get within reach. It then moved to step away from the pit, but Mazael leaped forward again, battering at it with Suishen, while Boris rolled between its legs, and came up jabbing his sword at various cracks and seams in its hide. As it put its foot back down, it abruptly crumbled to pieces.

Zula stepped into the breach and hurled her thundercall at the leprous hobgoblins at the top of the stairs. They lurched back from the blast, two of them reeling in a stupor. Haroldo charged up towards them before they could recover, cleaving with his great-sword into the whole pack. It was only when he raised his eyes that he saw what lay beyond the landing. A simple bare chamber with an arched doorway depicting tormented dragons opened into a much wider area. That chamber was filled with a large, open pit. Six thick iron bars crisscrossed it, and a greenish-gray bitter-smelling mist filled its depths. More arched openings sat in each of the walls around the pit. What immediately caught Haroldo's attention, however, were the individuals standing on the iron bars themselves: female hobgoblins, all heavily tattooed with scenes of greed, their flesh displaying numerous piercings set with minor gemstones. There had to be at least half a dozen of them.

Haroldo's attention was drawn back to his immediate vicinity by a gurgle of pain. Turning, he saw Boris removing his blades from the belly of one of the lepers, while another one was keeling over with one of Lucian's arrows stuck through his eye. Haroldo swung his sword at the last one, almost as an after thought, separating his head from his shoulders.
"Look!" Boris pointed towards the females balancing over the pit. "Pretty ladies! Wait for me, pretty ladies! Boris coming to meet you!"
"No! Wait!" Haroldo tried to grab for him, but the little goblin was already zipping over the pit.
No sooner had he reached its center, than the women began leaping nimbly from rail to rail until they had Boris surrounded in a matter of seconds. Before he could react, two of them reached for his wakizashis, knocking the swords from his hands and sending them tumbling down into the mist-filled pit.
"This not good," Boris frowned watching his weapons disappear.
Then, with a shrug, he threw up his hands, and then sank down into the pit after them, courtesy of the charm of air walking Mazael had given him. Within moments, he was lost from view.

By that time, Mazael had made it to the top of the stairs, and he just looked in disbelief at the spot where Boris had just been.
"What in the Hells has that little weasel gotten himself into this time?" he snarled.
Haroldo didn't have a chance to reply as the female hobgoblins began swarming towards them. Suddenly, from an archway on the other side of the pit, another figure appeared. It looked like a heavily armored hobgoblin male, but he was flying! He bore a weapon that consisted of a long wooden haft topped by a 3-foot long, wickedly curved blade. His eyes blazed crimson, and his bottom canine teeth protruded from his mouth like tusks. It only took a moment for Haroldo to realize where he'd seen him before...or something like him: the obscene statue in the lower level. It had been shown giving birth to something just like this. What had Piotr called it? A ja-noi oni. Was this, then, some sort of demonic spawn of the oni witch that ruled this place? Again, a question that would have to wait. The females were upon them, and as they rushed in, they drew knives from their belts, attempting to slash at the weapon cords that both Haroldo and Mazael had attached to their swords. Their tactic was clear: they were trying to disarm the warriors and toss their weapons wherever they'd sent Boris's. They failed miserably as the pair hacked and slashed viciously at them before they could even get close.

Lucian reached the top of the stairs, closely followed by Zula. The tree-like oracle quickly began loosing arrows at the pack of hobgoblins, but for every arrow that hit, another was knocked aside by the nimble creatures. Then Zula unleashed a blistering array of invectives in their direction that literally set several of them of fire! Lucian was duly impressed.

The hobgoblin sisters were losing ground. Haroldo cut one down, and Mazael another. Yet they still had the two big warriors surrounded, and when the ja-noi darted past them, though Mazael slashed at him and Suishen opened a vicious wound across his flank, the war-priest and Haroldo could not stop him. The oni-spawn went straight for Piotr, smashing his strange weapon down upon the sorcerer. Piotr blanched and fell back, bleeding profusely. He fumbled a snapleaf out of his pouch and crushed it, vanishing. Laughing, the ja-noi turned towards Lucian, only to find the oracle's bow aimed at him from less than a foot away. Lucian let loose, sending a pair of arrows through the oni's throat. He fell, choking on his own blood.


Boris couldn't see anything. The mists enveloped him on all sides, and he felt like he'd been traveling downwards for hours. He could still hear the din of battle distantly from above, but nothing from below...until... He thought he heard a shuffling sound, and the air became thick with an animal musk. He heard snuffling, snorting, and then a deep inhalation, as if some massive thing just drew in a great breath. A moment later the mist around him roiled as a great wind blasted him. He felt his joints stiffen and tighten, and then his eyes and his mind went black...


Mazael and Haroldo each took out another of the hobgoblins, but the the remaining two darted past them. One of them reached Lucian and grabbed his bow. Though the oracle was twice her size, she still managed to pivot and use her body weight and momentum to wrench the weapon from his hands. She held it aloft triumphantly, an evil grin on her face as she turned back toward the pit.
"Not so fast, bitch!" Zula hissed.
The thunder-caller threw out both hands, and her sonic boom struck the sisters, leaving them stunned and disoriented. The one who'd taken Lucian's bow dropped it to the floor from her numb fingers. Then Mazael and Haroldo were there to finish the job.


Boris regained consciousness abruptly. His extremities still felt stiff, but sensation was returning quickly. He was lying on his back at the bottom of the pit. The mist was still thick around him, but he could see his swords nearby, just out of reach. Something else was nearby as well....some things! Their bulky forms loomed over him, each one easily the size of a warhorse. There were three of them, and they looked like bulls, except their hides seemed to be made of stone. They dropped their heads, hooves pawing the ground. One of them rushed towards Boris, one of its horns opening a long gash across his back, but not impaling him solely due to the quickness of his reflexes as he rolled to the side. The other two charged. Boris twisted the ring on his finger, disappearing, and the rolled again, narrowly avoiding being trampled to death. His hand closed on the hilt of one of his swords, and he leaped to his feet. Searching furiously, he saw his other blade, grabbed it, and then jumped into the air, walking as fast as his short legs would carry him back towards the top of the pit.


"...and that why Boris think we no go back down into pit," the goblin explained several minutes later once he'd rejoined his friends and told his harrowing tale. "Herd of rock bulls just waiting down there to eat us!"
"I'm inclined to agree," Zula nodded. "That just sounds like a death trap, and if the hobgoblins wanted us down there, then that's the last place we need to be. I say we press on."

They made their way across the pit and through the archway on the far side, where they found themselves in a storage room crammed with objects related to combat. On the other side, a short flight of stairs led to a long corridor decorated with scenes of anger, illustrating humanoid figures suffering in scenes of shockingly brutal violence. After several hundred feet, the hallway ended at a solitary door. The companions arranged themselves before it, certain there would be more enemies beyond. They were not disappointed...


"Hands Off My Sword!"

5 Lamashan, 4715

Beyond the door was a large barracks, but all of the bedrolls scattered throughout the room were unoccupied. A short stair on one wall led to a smaller barracks, and that was anything but empty. No fewer than ten Withered Blossom Warriors were rushing for the stairs, bows in hand. As they massed together, Zula leveled a sonic boom into their midst, stunning half of them. This made it easy for Lucian to put one down with a volley from his own bow, and for Boris to deliver a coup de grace to another.

Suddenly, a massive warrior appeared out of nowhere, flying through the air. He was easily over 12-feet tall, clad in the full armor of a samurai. His skin was jet-black, and his hair fire-red. He clutched a massive katana in one hand, but the other was outstretched, and a blast of frigid cold spewed forth from it, enveloping all of the heroes. Fortunately, most of them still carried Suishen's protection from extreme cold, but Gnome-Brr Phive was not so lucky. The giant then pointed one finger at Mazael.
"You!" his voice boomed. "Face me!"
"No problem," the war-priest snarled.
He stepped forward and brought Suishen around in a horizontal slash, opening the giant's belly. The giant's eyes went wide in disbelief as he stumbled back. Then, a large, white-fletched arrow blossomed between his eyes and he fell over completely. As he did so, his form melted and shifted into a purple-skinned creature with two small horns in its forehead.
"Oni," Lucian says, tapping the White Peacock Crown on his head. "Never lies."

Boris, still in the middle of the barracks, found himself surrounded by the remaining hobgoblin warriors. They flanked him, and swung with their morningstars, beating him viciously. He managed to get in a few good pokes, but he knew he couldn't stand toe-to-toe against so many. As it turned out, he didn't have to for long. Mazael came to his aid, hacking down two of the soldiers. Lucian took out another four with well-placed shots, leaving the last two for Boris. He made quick work of them, then began looking around for Gnome-Brr Phive.
"Cleric!" he shrieked, clutching his bleeding wounds.


Beyond the commander's quarters in the barracks, a wall opened into a broad natural cavern, through which could be heard the sound of roaring water. A stone walkway plunged into the heart of a large cave that was itself a roaring shaft of water, so that the steep and narrow stone pathway descended like a corkscrew along the edges, with a waterfall plunging through the center.

The companions were forced to walk single-file down the twisting shaft. Even flying, they had to stick to the stairs, as the force of the falls was too strong to move through. They had travelled down more than one-hundred feet when the ambush came. Before Mazael, at the front of the group, and behind Zula, at the rear, four of the tattooed and pierced hobgoblin females materialized, floating in mid-air. One near Mazael slashed out with a dagger and severed the leather cord holding Suishen secured to his wrist. Snarling, the war-priest thrust the flaming katana through her gut, then shoved her into the waterfall where she vanished, swept away by the deluge. Zula began a sing-song chant of discordant sounds and words that sent another of the sisters fleeing, retching violently from the cacophonous call. The third, however, darted forward and wrenched Suishen from Mazael's grip. Grinning, she turned and tossed the sword into the waterfall.
"Bitch!" Mazael howled, and then he turned and leaped into the falls himself.

At the back of the group, Lucian tried to get a bead with his bow on one of the sisters in the narrow confines of the shaft. He managed to get off one shot, but she batted away the arrow, and then lunged for him and swatted the bow from his hands. Fortunately, it landed several feet away, still on the path, and he dove for it before it fell. When he turned back, he saw the sister coming for him again. He didn't have time to ready his bow, so he thrust out one gnarled hand and spoke a prayer. A searing blast of light sprang from his palm and struck the woman, driving her back into the wall of the shaft. She tried to rise again, but a barrage of arcane bolts from Piotr put her down permanently.

Zula turned towards the last of the sisters, just as the hobgoblin was moving her direction. Zula stomped her foot, sending a sonic shockwave into the woman, leaving her staggered and disoriented. Boris leaped gleefully towards her, his wakizashi's a blur in his hands. In the wake of his attack, she slumped bonelessly to the stairs, bleeding from several lethal wounds.
"Now that's done with," Gnome-Brr Phive said, "I think that war-priest fella's gonna be hurtin' when he hits the bottom of them falls. Looks like it's time fer work."
And with that, he too stepped into the falls.


Mazael hit the surface of the lake at the bottom of the waterfall shaft with bone-breaking impact, plunging down into the icy darkness. He sank slowly, his armor and gear dragging him towards the bottom. As his eyes grew slowly accustomed to the gloom, he thought he saw a faint glow far below him. As he continued to sink, the light grew stronger, until he could make out the distinctive shape of a sword, fire dancing along the length of its blade. He was just about to allow himself a weary smile, when he heard a loud splash above him. Then, a flicker of movement caught his eye from somewhere off to the side...something big...

When Phive hit the lake, it was only slightly softer than Mazael's experience, mostly due to the gnome's small size. He didn't have much time to catch his breath, however. He could see Mazael several dozen yards below him, but he also saw three massive shapes bearing down on the war-priest. Not quite sea serpent nor dragon, the beasts were covered with shiny blue-green scales, and their arms seemed to serve as both wings and flippers. One of them looked up at the noise from Phive hitting the water, and began swimming towards him. All of them opened their jaws as they closed, and from within their maws crackled balls of electricity. They spat them at Phive and Mazael, and when the spheres of lightning hit the two companions they burned all the more due to the conductivity of the water.

The remaining Scions hurried down the stairs of the shaft as quickly as they could, emerging from a small opening in the side of the lake cavern. The surface of the lake was broken by jagged boulders that formed makeshift steppingstones to an arched doorway on the far side. Hundreds of screaming, leering faces covered the walls of the chamber. Lucian was first to emerge, just in time to see Gnome-Brr Phive erupt from the water astride his flying broom, his clothes steaming and smoking. A moment later, Mazael appeared in a flash of light hovering in mid-air over the lake, Suishen once more gripped in his hands. Below the surface, all of the companions could see the three drakes racing towards them.
"That's not the least of our problems," Zula said as she emerged from the passage, and pointed towards the far side of the lake.
The others followed her gaze and saw what she meant. Three more of the hobgoblin sisters had appeared in the far archway, and had begun leaping out onto the boulders, heading towards the companions.

Boris looked up just as one of the sisters touched down on a stepping stone. The moment she did so, the carved faces that covered every wall of the cavern began to scream. All of the companions grabbed their ears as the confusing cacophony filled their heads...all except for Boris. He just stood their, his head cocked to one side, babbling incoherently.

One of the sea drakes breached the surface, followed closely by another. Lucian, still trying to ignore the wailing that filled his ears, managed to fire off a shot at the first one. Mazael was waiting for the other. As it leaped into the air, he brought Suishen down upon its neck, cleaving through scale, sinew and bone with one mighty chop. The creature's head flew from its body, the two parts landing with loud splashes before sinking back beneath the water in a widening pool of red. The two remaining drakes once again spat balls of crackling electricity into the air. They struck Zula, and then arced to both Piotr and Lucian. Piotr, his hair still standing on end, hurled a fireball back at the nearest of the beasts, setting it ablaze and leaving its charred remains floating stiffly on the surface. The last of the drakes turned towards Lucian, lifting its bulk out of the water upon its stubby wings, but before it could clear the lake, the oracle fired five more arrows into its hide, and it crashed back down again.

Mazael rushed through the air to meet the oncoming sisters, determined that he would not lose Suishen again. As the closest of them leaped into the air to meet him, he brought the katana down in an overhand chop and severed her arm at the shoulder. Another jumped at him, but Lucian brought her down in mid-leap with a flurry of arrows. The last sister managed to get in close, and despite his best efforts, slapped Suishen from Mazael's hands. Snarling, but not missing a beat, the war-priest drew a second, mundane sword from his back and slashed it across the hobgoblin's windpipe. Her eyes bulged as she choked to death on her own blood. Sighing, Mazael sheathed the sword, then dove into the lake to retrieve Suishen once more.


The Breaking of the Fellowship

5 Lamashan, 4715

"Are you the boss of this place!?" Mazael shouted. "Because if you're not, then you'd best get out of our way or join the rest of the catapult fodder we left behind us!"
The companions had made their way across the lake of broken stones after their battle with the sea drakes and the hobgoblin sisters. On the opposite side of the lake, a low stone shelf had formed a natural harbor. High stone ledges rose in tiers from the shelf, and a set of stone steps climbed from the middle to the topmost one. There, the chamber they found themselves in had worked stone walls rather than natural ones, and they were carved with figures being torn apart by beasts. The chamber was occupied.
"It will be a mercy given to you at the edge of my blade," a giant figure clad in full o-yori armor rumbled, "that you will never have to meet my mistress."
The giant sat astride an even larger stone bull, grey mist flaring from its nostrils. A lone Withered Blossom warrior stood to one side, glancing nervously from his captain to the intruders. Before Mazael could respond, the great bull lumbered forward, and exhaled a vast cloud of cloying mist that enveloped the companions. When it cleared a moment later, where Mazael and Haroldo had stood were two very life-like statues of the two warriors. The giant samurai drew a katana from his back and flew through the air. When he reached the statue of Mazael, he struck its leg with his sword, sending a spiderweb of cracks through it.

"Boris told you!" the goblin shrieked to his friends, hopping up and down and pointing at the statues. "Rock bulls no joke!"
"Let's see if stone burns!" Piotr growled.
The sorcerer flung out his hands, and chains of fire sprang from his fingertips, arcing from the giant, to the bull, and to the hobgoblin. The giant seemed to ignore the flames, but his allies shrieked and snorted in agony as the fire wreathed them. Lucian followed this with three arrows into the bull's exposed flank, knowing they had to put the beast down quickly before it could breathe again. Zula sealed its fate with her thundercall, and the creature fell heavily upon its side, heaving one last gasp before it expired.

The hobgoblin, its clothes still smoking, charged across the chamber, and when it reached the statue of Haroldo, swung its morningstar into the throat of the petrified blood-rager. A moment later, the stony facade fell away from both of the warriors, the effects of the gorgon's breath wearing off. Mazael immediately lurched to one side, off balance due to his broken leg, and Haroldo's hand went to his throat, horribly indented, his trachea crushed. Still, that didn't stop the war-priest from whipping Suishen around and disemboweling the Withered Blossom hobgoblin. And when Lucian finished off the giant with another salvo of arrows, revealing it to be another ogre-mage when it died, Haroldo grabbed his neck and squeezed, popping his airway back open and then shrugging his shoulders, as if nothing had happened. Lucian put away his bow and tended to Mazael's shattered femur. Within a few minutes, the companions were ready to proceed.


Beyond the chamber, a short hall gave on to a magnificent stone bridge carved with enraged kirin devouring a bridal feast. Swift, dark waters flowed under the crossing. The bridge led to a stone ledge overlooking a cobbled stone plaza in a huge chamber. High above, a vaulted ceiling soared over the room, supported by great columns, some of which had collapsed. At one time, another stone bridge crossed the room from the ledge to the opposite wall, but the both the span and the enormous archway it led to had also collapsed, leaving a pile of shattered rubble on the floor below. Frescoes depicting blinded ettins pulling obscene creatures on vast golden wagons, surrounded by slaves averting their eyes, covered the walls in a riot of extravagant colors.

A quartet of Withered Blossom warriors stood along the ledge, gazing down into the plaza below where a pair of hill giants picked among the rubble. The companions wasted little time on the rabble. By this point, they had become quite adept at anticipating the tactics of the hobgoblins, and they made quick work of the warriors, with Lucian picking off the giants while staying clear of the chunks of rock they hurled back at him. Afterwards, they made their way down to the plaza, where they found, beneath the overhang of the ledge, a swollen wooden door, and nearby, an archway leading to another corridor. Haroldo had no problem forcing open the stuck door, revealing a bare chamber with water slowly dripping onto the damp floor. A small, withered tree in a simple pot sat in the middle of the room.
"That's it," Lucian said, walking over to gently pick up the little bonsai. "Akumi's spirit tree. It's still alive, but just barely. We need to get it to sunlight soon."
The oracle tucked the tree safely into his gear, melding it into his tree form.


The corridor beneath the ledge led from the plaza to the remains of a broken bridge which lay shattered in the waters of an underground river. Across the torrent, an open archway beckoned. With all of the companions still flying by one means or another, crossing the water was no hindrance. Beyond the archway, innumerable columns depicting writhing oni feasting upon fleeing peasants supported a magnificent arched corridor, which vanished into darkness. Another small group of hobgoblins and giants stood staring down the corridor, as if watching for something. The companions caught them off guard, and quickly dispatched them, as they had done their predecessors.

The pillared corridor stretched for over six-hundred feet, its floor worn smooth with heavy traffic, its walls covered in carvings depicting dragons punishing humans for their frailty and mortality. It finally ended in a broad, stone platform that overlooked a series of crude stone steps that descended on the far side. The mangled, rotting corpses of hobgoblins littered the floor. As the companions approached, several large shadows detached themselves from area of the hole in the floor and advanced towards the corridor. As they stepped into the light, they resolved into a half-dozen hunched, reptilian beasts that loped on two clawed feet, their eyeless heads dominated by huge circular maws filled with jagged teeth.

As one, the creatures opened wide their mouths, and trumpeting blasts, akin to Zula's thundercall multiplied six times over, hammered into the heroes. The results were devastating. Piotr and Lucian were blown back, and lay motionless upon the floor, blood pouring from their ears and mouths. For Gnome-Brr Phive, it was even worse. The little svirfneblin was hurled bodily into one of the pillars, his neck snapping audibly. He was left limp and lifeless, his head twisted at an unnatural angle. The others remained on their feet, but just barely. Only Boris was unscathed, his lightning fast reflexes having allowed him to dive for cover behind the pillars. Haroldo, bruises visible all over his body from the punishing sonic impact, hurled a fireball into the mass of creatures, his blood magic boiling, but it only managed to buy his friends a brief moment of respite. Mazael, unsteady on his feet, seized the medallion of Desna around his neck and channelled her healing power. Piotr and Lucian opened their eyes groggily, looking around in a daze.
"Come on!" Zula cried.
The Shoanti thundercaller ran groggily towards Lucian, scooping up Gnome-Brr Phive's body as she went. When she reached the oracle, she tapped him on the shoulder, then tapped Haroldo in turn.
"We'll meet you back at the waterfall!" she cried to Mazael, Piotr and Boris.
Then the three of them vanished in a flash of white light.

Mazael nodded, though Zula was already gone, and then turned back to help Piotr to his feet. That was when the creatures unleashed their destructive harmonics again. Boris dove for cover once more, holding his ears. When he peered out from around the pillar a moment later, his face went white in horror. Mazael and Piotr both were on the ground, terribly still, Suishen unattended nearby. Shaking his head, the goblin turned the ring on his finger and vanished. He then crept out from his hiding place, heading towards his friends. He had gone no further than a few feet when the creatures all turned their eyeless heads in his direction.
"Uh-oh," Boris whimpered.
The monsters charged him, teeth and claws ripping and slashing. Boris dove forward, rolling out of the mass, bleeding from several wounds. He glanced down and saw the glazed, unseeing eyes of Piotr and Mazael. Brushing aside a tear, he grabbed Suishen.
'Run, little one,' the sword spoke into his mind. 'A warrior knows when the battle is lost.'
His face grim, Boris turned and ran.


Munasukaru The Least

5 Lamashan, 4715 - 6 Lamashan, 4715 - Heroes

"Something's happened," Zula said. "It's been too long."
She stood at the base of the spiral waterfall stair, looking out over the underground lake. Haroldo sat nearby, Lucian tending his wounds.
"Give them time," the big man said. "If there's one nice thing I can say about that sorcerer, it's that he's hard to kill."
"Not this time," a familiar voice spoke from behind them.
They turned and saw Boris appear, slipping his invisibility ring off his finger.
"What's wrong?" Zula asked. "Where are the others?"
"They dead," Boris shook his head. "Bad Yellers kill them. Boris check to see if they just sleeping, but pretty sure they dead. Boris able to grab magic sword before Yellers kill him too."
He held up Suishen for the others to see.
"Now what?" Haroldo asked into the tense silence that followed.
"We go back for them," Zula replied coldly.
"Yes!" Boris nodded vigorously. "Boris think that good idea! Kill all Bad Yellers!"
"What's going to stop them from killing us first?" the blood-rager asked. "It wasn't exactly our finest moment."
"They caught us off guard," Zula said. "We weren't prepared. That won't happen again. Will it Lucian?"
The oracle looked thoughtful for a moment, and then slowly smiled.
"I think I have just the thing," he nodded.


The four companions appeared in the middle of the pillared hallway in a flash of white light, near the spot where they'd last seen Piotr and Mazael. Their hopes of simply grabbing their fallen companions and leaving were quickly dashed when they spotted the destrachans at the far end of the passage...feeding.
"Filthy bastards!" Lucian cried as he loosed an arrow, sending it flying into the flank of one of the creatures with its back turned.
That got their attention quickly, and they raised their heads, 'looking' right at the heroes with their eyeless faces.
"Here they come," Zula said tensely.
"I'll be ready," Haroldo nodded.
He reached in his belt pouch and retrieved a flask, then quickly drank from it. His body stretched and broadened until he stood twice his normal size. Beside him, Lucian sent three more arrows down the hall, bringing down the creature he'd already wounded. It stumbled in its tracks and fell to the floor. It's brethren didn't seem to notice. Haroldo moved forward, his massive sword slicing the air before him. Boris ran with him, darting between his legs until they reached the destrachans, then the little goblin rolled under the nearest of them, slashing at its Achilles tendons as he sprang to his feet on the far side. It screeched and reared back, trying to snap at the rogue with its large fangs, but it was then that Haroldo brought his blade down across its neck, sending its head tumbling one direction while its body fell another.

The remaining four destrachans bunched themselves together, opened their mouths wide, and then filled the corridor with their skull-shattering blasts. When silence returned, they cocked their heads, puzzled. All four of the companions stood completely unscathed, thanks to the protective spell Lucian had woven around them before they transported themselves back to the corridor, which shielded them from sonic energy.
"Our turn again!" Haroldo laughed.
He lunged forward as Zula unleashed a blistering invective of arcane words that literally set two of the destrachans on fire! Lucian's bow sang, while Boris tumbled about like a savage little dervish, slicing this way and that with his swords. Haroldo took down another pair of the creatures, and the remaining two backed slowly away, towards the far end of the corridor. The companions advanced on them, Haroldo and Boris in the lead. As they moved between a pair of pillars, the destrachans unleashed their sonic screams again.
"Not to bright, are you?" Haroldo smirked. "That trick won't work any more."
If the destrachans could have smiled, they would have, for their harmonics had not, in fact, been directed at the heroes, but rather at the cracked ceiling above them. Haroldo realized the danger a moment too late when he heard the stone groaning over his head. A moment later, a huge section of the ceiling collapsed, filling the passage with dust and noise. As the haze slowly cleared, Lucian and Zula saw the hallway all but blocked with thousands of pounds of debris. Of Haroldo, Boris and the detrachans, they were nowhere to be seen.

"Haroldo! Boris!" Zula called. "Can you hear me?"
For a moment, there was nothing but silence from beneath the rubble. Then, a dull rumble began to build. A moment later, the giant form of Haroldo burst from the debris, hurling hundreds of pounds of rock in all direction, his face a mask of rage.
"Boris is still buried!" Zula shouted.
The big blood-rager turned towards where he'd last seen the goblin, and began digging. In less than a minute, he'd excavated another hole in the wreckage, and lifted Boris out by one leg, like a mid-wife delivering a newborn.
"Pfffaugghhh!" Boris spat, sucking in a great whoop of air.
"What take you so long?" he shouted. "Boris nearly not-breath to death!"
"You're out now," Haroldo growled as he set the goblin down. "Those filthy creatures had best pray they are not so fortunate!"

The blood-rager stomped through the detritus and began digging again. Boris tagged along behind him, peering out from behind Haroldo's legs. In short order, the large head of one of the destrachans reared up from the hole, again trying to bring it's now-useless harmonics to bear on its foes. Haroldo quickly silenced it with a sweep of his blade. He unearthed the second one and repeated the process. Then it was time to find their comrades. After several more minutes of excavation, they found the bodies of Piotr and Mazael. They gathered them up, and took their leave of the Twisted Pagoda.


"Their souls have moved on," Koya sighed as she opened her eyes.
She kneeled next to the bodies of Mazael, Piotr and Phive, where she'd sat praying for the past hour.
"They will not return to us."
The others were silent for several long moments.
"I'm coming with you," Ameiko broke the stillness.
"What?!" Zula and Haroldo both asked simultaneously.
"I'm tired of sitting around waiting while my friends continue to risk and lose their lives for me," the Tien woman snapped. "I brought you all here. I was an adventurer before I was an innkeeper, and I will be again. When you return to the pagoda this time, I'm going with you."
Her tone and body language brooked no argument, but Haroldo still tried.
"Ameiko," he began softly, "I know what Piotr meant to you, but this is not the answer."
"That has nothing to do with my decision!" she said sharply. "You are all important to me! I won't watch any more of you die!"
Tears sprang to her eyes.
"My Lady," Zula said, putting an arm around the younger woman's shoulders. "We knew what we were getting into. We have all sworn ourselves to you. It is our choice."
"Then it's mine as well," Ameiko sniffed. "I'm not going to be left behind again!"
"Well, then I guess I'm going as well," Sandru said. "There is no way I'm letting you out of my sight. Plus, I've only got one "brother" left," he looked sidelong at Boris.
"Boris love you too!" the goblin cried, hugging the caravan master around the legs.
"If you will have me, Lady Ameiko," Miyaro said softly as she stepped up on the conversation, "I would accompany you. The kami spirits are grateful for the efforts of you and your companions. Though they may not act directly on your behalf, through me they will offer what assistance they can."
"It's settled then," Ameiko nodded. "We will return to the pagoda in the morning."


The following day, with Ameiko now carrying Suishen across her back, the companions made their way back through the Forest of Spirits to the Twisted Pagoda. They encountered no reinforcements as they journeyed back into the depths of the Penance below the pagoda, eventually returning to the scene of the cave-in that buried the destrachans. With some effort, they cleared a path through the rubble to a series of crude stone steps that descended further into the earth. Water cascaded from narrow openings in the walls down the steps, each of which some twenty-feet apart. One-hundred feet below, at the bottom of the steps, the swirling waters drained into a deep black hole.

The stair ultimately led to a flooded cavern devoted to anguish and madness. Rusted iron cages hung from stone pillars, and screams of pain and agony echoed throughout. Each of the cages held a Tien man or woman, pale from lack of sunlight, and horribly malnourished. They all wept or wailed or jabbered away incoherently, obviously driven insane by their torment. Haroldo and Sandru immediately moved to the nearest cages and began working on the locks. Before they could open them, however, a trio of burly, hideously scarred ja-noi oni came flying from around the far sides of the pillars. One of them was on Sandru before he could bring up his sword in defense, and it opened a deep gash across his chest with the pointed nodachi it clutched. When a second one rushed Haroldo, Miyaro put an arrow through its throat. As it clutched at the shaft and began choking on its own blood, the blood-rager drove his sword through its chest. The last one hung back, waiting for an opportunity. It never came. From out of the shadows behind it stepped Boris. The goblin's swords struck like vipers...once, twice, three...four times! The oni staggered and fell face-first into the water. The last of the ja-noi raised its sword above Sandru again, but this time the swashbuckler was ready. His sword danced in his hands, moving so quickly that his opponent could not keep track of it. With three quick thrusts, three vital areas had been punctured, and the oni joined its brothers in oblivion.

The prisoners were beyond the ability of the companions to help, but they could not just leave the people trapped in their barbaric cages. One-by-one, they freed the victims,and healed their wounds were they could. Finally, lacking other options, Boris brought out one of the fugitive grenades he'd taken from the ninja back in the Linnorm lands and cracked open the shell. Smoke billowed out of it, snaking upwards like an intangible rope. Haroldo then lifted each of the slaves into the air, where they vanished into the extra-dimensional space unseen at the top of the smoke rope.
"They should be safe there until we return," he said.
"If we return," Lucian added morosely.
"If we don't, then they are no worse off than they were," Zula replied.


The contaminated waters that filled the Hall of Screams, drained though a hole in the floor which led to another cavern. The foul liquid lapped against the natural stone walls and pillars, every inch of which was covered with dreadful carvings and hung with burnt and mummified aranea, hobgoblin, and human corpses. Boris was the first to drop through the hole and land waist deep in the bog. His sharp eyes cast about quickly, wary of more guardians, and he was not disappointed. He caught faint movement from beneath the water off to his right, and again to his left, and then straight in front of him. For just a moment, he thought he saw a glimpse of lovely, naked flesh rippling just under the surface, and he grinned broadly. Then three women slowly rose from the water, each more enticing than the next. Boris didn't even notice the monstrous snake coils where their legs should have been. He kept right on grinning like a love-struck fool.

Miyaro cursed as she dropped through the ceiling and saw Boris entranced by the trio of bobbing, weaving snake-women. She called to the others, but not before the nagas caught sight of her. One of them pointed a finger at her, and an emerald beam of light flashed from it and struck her. She felt her arms and legs go weak. A moment later, another of the creatures hurled a tiny ball of flame in her direction, where it promptly exploded, enveloping her and the rest of her companions as they emerged from the hole in fire.

Most of the companions were able to leap clear of the blast, but some of them were still badly singed. They descended to the floor as quickly as possible, and spread out, so as not to form such tempting targets. This did not stop the nagas from trying, however, and more fireballs began erupting around the room, blasting water into the air in great geyser-like gouts. Miyaro and Lucian stayed aloft, firing their bows back at the snake-women, trying to keep them on the move and distracted. One of the nagas returned fire, sending a green-fletched arrow that materialized from thin air into Miyaro's thigh, where it burned like acid.

Finally, Haroldo and Sandru managed to get within striking distance of the nagas, and went to work with their blades. That, coupled with the continued barrage from the archers, made short work of the creatures, leaving them floating in spreading, crimson pools on the surface of the water. After a moment, Boris shook his head as if coming out of a dream.
"What happened to pretty ladies?" he asked.
Haroldo swatted him in the back of his head.
"Idiot!" he snapped.
Boris looked even more perplexed.
"They enthralled you," Zula explained gently. "They were more offspring of Munusakaru, like we saw on the statue in the shrine. These appear to have been her daughters. I suspect we are getting very close now."

6 Lamashan, 4715

Boris found another drain hole beneath the water of the nagas' lair, and once more it was he who led the way down. This time, when he emerged, he found himself in a chamber crisscrossed by thick chains. They were attached to the walls and hung from the ceiling, their links clinking in the fall of water from the shaft above. The floor of the room was dry, though heavily cracked, which served to drain the falling water away.

Meandering around the room were four strange creatures. Wickedly barbed chains adorned their lean figures, and gaps in the bindings revealed deathly pale flesh etched with jagged scars. Boris sensed something else in the room as well. He cocked his head, his overly large ears twitching. He caught just the faintest sound of metal on armored plates moving. It was coming from nearby, in the air as he was.
"Invisibles," he whispered to himself.
He then looked up towards the shaft where he saw his companions emerging.
"Invisibles!!!" he shouted at the top of his lungs.

Not bothering to wait for his friends, Boris flew through the air towards where he'd heard their unseen foe. His blades slashed at the air, but a shock went up his arms as they struck...something. Behind him, he heard the others enter the chamber. On the floor below, the chain-wrapped fiends looked up and howled unholy screams. They gestured towards the many hanging chains, and the links suddenly animated on their own, like steel serpents. Miyaro opened up with her bow on the demons, while Sandru flew directly at the creatures, his scimitar a flashing blur.

"Cease!" a booming voice suddenly called from above.
Instantly, the chain creatures went still. The air shimmered in front of Boris as a giant oni appeared. Obviously female, she was clad head to toe in lacquered armor.
"I am Ochiyo," she said, bowing slightly, "Chosen of Munasukaru. My mistress wishes you to know that you are most welcome in these lands, but what occurs in the House of Withered Blossoms is none of your concern. Should you continue to interfere, the living goddess Munasukaru will see to it that you die in a variety of particularly unpleasant ways. If, however, you were to turn your backs on what does not concern you and return to the Forest of Spirits, all of your earthly pleasures will be indulged when the storm breaks across Minkai and the rest of Tian Xia. The living goddess offers this as her word of honor, and will never betray that word."
Boris shrugged his shoulders, considering, but fortunately, Ameiko spoke before he could open his mouth.
"We are not interested in the offers of those who would oppress and subjugate my people," she said. "Unfortunately, you will not live to bring our refusal to your mistress, but you may die knowing that we will gladly tell her in person."
Ochiyo bowed once more.
"So be it," she growled, and then turned to her minions. "Kill them all!"

She extended one hand and sent a blast of ice and frigid air towards Sandru and Miyaro. Both of them leaped aside, avoiding the brunt of the spell. The hanging chains writhed to life again under the kytons' control. From a chamber adjoining the cavern, six leprous hobgoblin warriors rushed in, bows in hand. Haroldo flew to Boris's side before the massive Ochiyo, and the pair of them danced around her in constant motion, darting in and slashing, before moving back out of her reach. Blood flowed freely from her wounds, and her reaction times slowed. Finally, after anotherdeadly volley from Miyaro, she tumbled from the air.

Despite the wickedly dancing chains, and the constant arrows of the hobgoblins, the rest of the companions made quick work of the kytons and the lepers. It was only then that they were able to notice the room from which the hobgoblins had emerged, and the horror within.


A double row of columns ran down the center of the broad chamber. Iron gibbets hung from chains along the walls, limp forms visible through the bars of the cages. As the companions moved through the horrific tableau, they found that some of the prisoners still lived. They quickly set about freeing them, tending their wounds as best they could. Then they gave those who were able-bodied enough weapons taken from the hobgoblins, instructing them to hide and await their return, but to defend themselves in necessary.

A door led from the chamber and into a hallway beyond. At one end of the hall, a large door stood open. The companions approached cautiously, peering in to find a simple room whose walls were decorated with detailed carvings and paintings of a powerful female oni. Standing about the chamber were a half-dozen Sisters of the Broken Path. A pair of double-doors stood open on the far side, and another trio of Sisters stood there as well. Beyond them, a pair of nagas bobbed and hissed before a tall, female ja-noi. She was dressed in do-maru armur, and held a wicked-looking naginata in her hands. This, then, was Munasukaru.

No words were wasted by either side. Both knew why they were there, and the battle was joined. The Sisters tried their best to harry and delay the heroes, but their efforts proved fruitless. Sandru and Haroldo cut through them, while Miyaro and Lucian sent volley after volley of arrows at them. Munasukaru's naga daughters were the next line of defense, and they used their magic to impressive effect, lobbing barrages of fireballs at the heroes. Still, it was not enough, and when Sandru, Boris and Haroldo reached them, the fell quickly beneath their blades. Munuasukaru herself fought like a dervish, wielding her pole-arm like an extension of herself. She fended off her attackers for a time, but she could not avoid the arrows of the archers, nor Zula's magic, and attrition took its toll. Ultimately, she fell, and the last oni had finally departed the House of Withered Blossoms.

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