Episode 27: 6/26/10
Ashelia Raminas, elf ranger 5/rogue/3
Nineve, human knight/8
Xicar, human cleric/8
Sarek, human wizard/8
Haroldur, human wizard 3/cleric 4/mystic theurge 1
After a moment of falling through thick, inky blackness, we somehow fall sideways onto a rough stone floor. Darkness so total I momentarily wonder if I haven’t been struck blind greets me as I collect myself. Dust tickles my nose, and all is silent, other than the occasional crash and clatter as the rest of my companions emerge from the portal. Once we’ve activated a light source, we find ourselves in a small chamber, clearly of familiar Storm King stonework. The chamber is in poor repair; rubble and fallen columns litter the floor. At the far end of the chamber a passage extends into darkness.
Immediately, we break out my world atlas and 31E’s scarab to get our bearings. According to the GPS (global positioning scarab) beetle, we’re in the Karach desert, famous for being the site of a cataclysmic battle between two great (now defunct) civilizations, and about a million miles from anywhere.
We find that the passage continues for about 20’ before ending in a pile of rubble and sand. It would appear that not only are we in the middle of a vast and remote desert, we are also trapped. Underground. Sarek casts Elemental Body, and becomes an earth elemental temporarily. He scouts out the passage, and returns to tell us that a couple dozen yards of digging separate us from the outside world. We roll up our sleeves and start digging.
We’ve been digging for several hours when suddenly a bright flash and a sound like ripping fabric fills the small chamber. A strange, yet familiar figure stands bewildered near the back of the chamber. His air of authority and menace is nearly palpable, despite his obvious confusion. The winged archon, known to us as Zasalamel, stares at us with naked surprise. “You! How? Where… No matter, the Time Lord is right, you must pay for your crimes!” He readies a gleaming scythe and strides toward us, his purpose abundantly clear.
A sweaty Nineve holds up her hand and asks if she may have a moment to don her armor and prepare for battle. Zasalamel, take a little aback, readily agrees. It seems, despite being crazy, he’d still prefer a fair fight.
Nineve provokes Zasalamel, and I sneak up and attack – from the shadows! Then 31E joins in and the crazy archon is in the middle of a circle of pain. Crazy Zasalamel keeps going on about the “Mammoth of Discord” and the “Titan of Chaos”, shrieking that we’ve released the “Chaos Engine” or some such nonsense, but by now we know there’s no point in trying to reason with him. Zasalamel sweeps with his scythe and trips 31E, Ninene, and Xicar. I deftly leap over his blade and continue my assault. Xicar recovers and summons a shard of entropy which satisfyingly rips smoking holes in Zasalamel’s angelic form. Sarek unleashes a crippling blast of fire on the enemy as Nineve and 31E regain their footing. There is a little more hacking and slashing, but finally Sarek makes Zasalamel do the Magic Missile Dance and he disappears in a cloud of smoke and blood.
We heal up and get back to digging. That evening, while Lazare sleeps off his dinner, Zolara appears.
Nineve – The Carnival
Sarek – The Eclipse
Ashe – The Owl
Xicar – The Publican
Haroldur – The Queen Mother
The Brass …. Dwarf The …. Publican The Demon’s Lantern The Dance …. The Desert …. The Lost The Juggler …. The Tangled …. Briar …. The Midwife
The Past: “The Brass Dwarf represents invulnerability and strength. Here, it refers to your recent triumphs. The Dance is the rich and delicate framework that rules existence, and whose rules we must all abide by. The Juggler represents those who play with the lives and destinies of others. Misaligned as he is, we see that the Juggler has failed to keep his rhythm, and the tragedy and loss he has caused has been for naught.
The Present: “The Publican represents fellowship, camaraderie, and a companion’s insight. The Desert is a bleak waste, though the journey through it will lead you closer to your goals. The Tangled Briar is a card of Ancient deeds. It indicates an object or person from long ago will have a great influence on your quest to return home, though that influence may hinder rather than help.
The Future: “The Demon’s Lantern warns against losing your way – although I fear you will regardless of my warning. However, misaligned as it is, the Demon’s Lantern tells us that a guide will arrive to show the way. The Midwife warns of a new discovery that will change everything. Something shall soon be borne into the world that will alter the course of your journey. The Lost is emptiness and madness: For a time, the world will make no sense, until the Midwife’s discovery brings a measure of clarity.”
We visit with Zolara for a little, and learn some of the history of the Rod of Seven Parts from her. We also learn a little about the Karach Desert, but nothing that will really do us any good until we dig our way out of our erstwhile tomb.
The next day we’re back at it, and after many hours of digging in the stifling heat of the chamber, we are all weary, dirty, and tired of choking on sand and dust. Our labors have cleared a narrow passage through the rubble, leading to the first real daylight we’ve seen in what seems like weeks. The searing intensity of the light and heat outside gives us pause for a moment, but the urge to see the sky again is nearly overwhelming.
As we emerge from the rubble-strewn opening our eyes slowly adjust to the sudden glare. We realize that we are standing on a windy bluff overlooking the ruins of a great city at the bottom of a wide valley. Dark mountains loom faintly in the distance. If we didn’t know better, we’d swear we have been here before, though it seems like the valley was green and lush then…
The ruins lie within a parched and terrible valley baking under the blazing sun. As far as we can see it protrudes uncannily above the sands as parts of a corpse may protrude from an ill-made grave. The nameless city lies before us, crumbling and inarticulate, its low walls nearly hidden by the sands of uncounted ages. Some distance away, near the center of the brooding ruins, a strange structure, not unlike a metallic ziggurat, rises stark through the sand to tower over the buildings near it. 31E indicates the ziggurat with his remaining arm, and says “Strange that we should emerge so close to a Nexus. I shall show you that the Imperium is indeed thriving. Come, we must present the recovery of the Rod fragment to my superiors.”
I agree that the ziggurat is as good a destination as any, but traveling through the desert in the middle of the day strikes me as a bad plan. The party agrees with me, and we begin arguing with a very gung-ho 31E to convince him that we should wait until nightfall before heading out. The commotion suddenly ceases when, behind us, Lazare clears his throat loudly.
“My friends, I am afraid it is time for us to part ways.” He holds up his hands, “Now there’s no use arguing, I have some pressing business elsewhere, and I am already late through bothering with this fool’s errand into the Whispering Cairn. I thank you all for the parts you had to play in my coming this far, you’ve been really good sports.”
We press him with questions that can be summed up as “Huh?” Lazare won’t tell us what his objective was in the Whispering Cairn, only that whatever he was doing doesn’t matter any more because he didn’t find what he was looking for and he’s out of ideas. He tells us that the Rod fragment was a fantastic find and one we’ve rightly earned; it’s just not what he was after. He agrees not to spread the news of its discovery, thankfully. He seems disappointed but in good spirits. At least he’s taking this (whatever it is) in stride? I press him about what he was looking for, arguing that since it doesn’t matter anymore, there’s no harm in telling us. He says he was looking for a metal canister, about the size of a large lantern.
“It was supposed to be well hidden, and I’d thought I’d tracked it down. Ah well, half the fun’s in looking, right?”
“Might I trouble you for the return of my trophy?” He indicates the crystal disc Xicar has been carrying. He hands it over. “Thank you. I doubt we’ll meet again, but then again of course we may meet once more before this is all over. Don’t miss me too terribly; think instead on the treasure you’ve recovered, and your long journey home. You’d best be on your way, or I don’t suppose I, or anyone else, will ever see you again.”
“Good-bye!” He turns to leave, but then turns back to us, as if remembering something. “Before I go, allow me to introduce myself, so that my impending transformation doesn’t unsettle you unduly. In other times, and other guises, I have been known as Kroiphrakil’azzare, the Smiling Gambler, Scourge of the Sphinx Lords, Sage of Diamond Lake, and Chess Master of Brux, at your service!” He bows regally in his soiled and tattered robes, then stands, with arms spread and eyes shut, clearly concentrating for a moment, but nothing seems to be happening.
After a few seconds, he opens his eyes, winks at us slyly, “You are all made of sterner stuff than I had thought. That usually leaves folks a little more, well, awed. Ah well, I should be off.” We look quizzically at this skinny, disheveled man in tattered rags, holding his scrawny arms out majestically, like we should be impressed by this. I think of 31E, Nineve, Zasalamel, and now Lazare, and begin to wonder if I’m going sane in a crazy world. Then Lazare glances down at himself and seems genuinely surprised.
“Oh, bother. It has been a while.” A sudden cloud of smoke or dust conceals Lazare for a moment. When it clears, a massive dragon with gleaming coppery scales and long, flat horns towers above us. Sarek wigs out a little, visibly shaken and muttering “I knew it! I just knew it!” The dragon slyly winks one of its glowing turquoise eyes, and in a surprisingly pleasant voice says, “Fare you well then, you’ve been good sports, and really fare-well!” With that, the magnificent creature springs into the air, flaps its powerful wings, and is soon only a glittering speck in the distant sky.
We stand gaping in awe for a moment. Then, we realize that it’s really, oppressively hot out here and go back inside to wait for sundown.
I suggest we rest for the remainder of the day, although with all these new developments I find it difficult to relax. As evening approaches, we gather ourselves and head out into the wastes.
When we draw nigh the nameless ruined city we somehow feel that it is accursed. Fear seems to speak from the age-worn stones and bids us retreat from antique and sinister secrets that none should know.
In and out amongst the shapeless foundations of forgotten structures we wander, finding never a carving or inscription to tell of these men, if men they were, who built this city and dwelt therein so long ago. The antiquity of the city seems unwholesome; there are certain proportions and dimensions in the ruins which seem inhuman, but somehow familiar. Here and there a small sighing sandstorm will gather behind us, blowing over the ancient stones.
The moon shines high and clear over the antique ruins, lighting a dense cloud of sand that seems blown by a strong wind from some point ahead of our group. Glancing about, we see that nowhere else is the sand disturbed by as much as a light breeze. This astonishing discrepancy is soon explained as the forms of emaciated men seem to step out of, or coalesce from, the blowing clouds of sand and lurch toward us, their desiccated faces contorted with inhuman hunger.
Our foes, wights, ghasts, and wraiths, coalesce from the clouds of sand or erupt from the dunes. Sarek controls the battlefield by creating a Wall of Fire between us and our enemies. My intense hatred for undead floods me and I rush forward, slicing through a wraith and banishing it to re-death. Just then, a trio of sand-ghasts claw their way up from the desert floor. Our enemies conjure stinging clouds of burning sand which choke and blind us, but still we fight on. To my shame, I am paralyzed by a ghast’s foul touch, but it is destroyed before it manages to carry me off. At length, Xicar smokes the last sand-wight with his lightning gauntlets.
We decide that these abandoned ruins aren’t as abandoned as the seem. I cast Pass Without Trace as we continue towards the mysterious ziggurat. Through a group effort of skilled navigation, we manage to avoid further contact with the undead as we move through the ruins.
Dawn breaks as we arrive at the massive ziggurat. The entire thing seems to be built from a strange, silvery-grey metal that we can’t identify, and its metallic surface is covered with strange runes and glyphs. From far away the ziggurat appeared to be completely intact, but from here we can clearly see that nearly half the western side is missing. Twisted metal and support beams jut into the sky around a massive hole in the side of the structure. Far above us is a tall spire, leaning dangerously, appearing ready to fall at any moment. Atop the spire is the remains of a massive crystal, now fractured and broken and glittering in the first rays of sunlight.
Along the base of the structure are the remains of many buildings, apparently built against the ziggurat itself. Many of these ruins are grander and more massive than most of the buildings we have passed this far. There appears to be no entrance to the ziggurat from ground level. Some distance to the west is a towering series of stairs and landings, seemingly leading to the lowest point of the damaged section of the ziggurat. Swirling sand blows along the steps and landings, despite the oppressive stillness of the hot air amidst the timeless ruins.
31E pauses for a moment, as if in thought. “I do not fully understand. The likelihood that these structures would permitted to be built against the sides of the Nexus is very near to zero. Also, I do not understand why this damage was not repaired. Most unsettling.”
31E goes on to say that this “Nexus” should contain a “Starry Mirror”, some kind of magical transportation system. 31E is sure this Starry Mirror will be able to transport us back to the “Grand Terminus”, or what we refer to as Silverspire, the Imperial ruin-turned-palace in Istivin.
We begin to mount the broken stone stairs which lead up to the ziggarat’s entrance. I keep a keen eye out for traps and lead us onward and upward. In the eerie silence, swirling clouds of sand coalesce into sand-wights before our eyes! The battle is joined.
Choking sand whips and swirls around us as we battle the fiends. Nineve is blinded and gropes her way further up the stairs. Haroldur bravely faces one wight single-handedly and destroys it with one touch (of Heal) from the Rod of Seven Parts. The wights alternate between their corporeal forms and the swirling clouds of sand, to their advantage. The struggle is bitter, but in the end, Nineve lands the final blow.