The Dead Country
August 27-28, 2005.
"That's my brother... he does my bidding." Nimlinor to Queen Dulpae
"In the dragon battle, it was the terrain that fucked us." Drew
"I’ll tell you what it was that fucked us in the dragon battle, it was the dragon that fucked us." Keith
"Wow! Where do I begin? I wish to give thanks to all... Adrian's ability to be verbose and real challenges
my own dialog. Keith's portrayal of emotional conflict in Yngvarr helps me to delve into the depths of Mabul's
emotions and bring them to the forefront. Drew's singular focus when giving life to Valandil inspires me
to give purpose to Mabul's actions and words. Jeffery's descriptions of spell effects and the like are beyond
amazingthey are both beautiful and appropriate. JP's portrayl of Nimlinor is at once both subtle and harsh...
When JP is in character there is no doubt that I am gazing upon the endearing and aggravating face of the man we
once loved to hate. Thank you one all for the most memorable weekend to date and surely my favorite of the SOT
series thus far."
"This game had a lot of the Fellowship coming together on things and
treating each other differently. I think we're taking this Cáladain idea and running with it, although I also like
the 'growing pains.' I just want to say that I almost got choked up when you all stepped toward Neren when he tried to
disable the rune of Carceri. Neither he nor I expected that... damn. There were three moments in SOT3 that will
have especial impact on his character, and that was one of them. I am really looking forward to SOT4, and really
dreading the day that we put these characters to rest. May that day be long in coming and long in passing!"
"Wow, another weekend of superlative gaming from the best (or at least most fun!)
rpg troupe in the world! The interim narrative enriched this game to a degree that cannot be overstated. Amazing character
development that bubbled up the first moment we sat down at the table. Overall, another incredible game!"
"First and foremost I would like to say that I had a fucking blast with all of you! Every time I sit around the
Table of Edion, I have such a surreal experience that almost defies description. From beginning to end, every character,
PC and NPC alike, was given life and personality! I could almost smell the fetid breath of Malstryx! (I hate that bitch.)"
"I cannot overstate how much I enjoy playing these games. They have been and continue to be the most engaging and
exciting games EVER! My favorite scene of the entire game was when the fellowship gathered around Neren while he attempted
to disable the rune of Carceri. It wasn’t a long scene, few words were said, but for me it was a powerful statement of
unity. It is what I image happens to soldiers in war. The war, the mission, even the enemy ceases to be important and all
that matters is your buddy next to you... Does anyone else feel uneasy that Team Cáladain seems to have been inspired by
the Pernoctare Guy?"
On the 8th day of Soldai, the fellows of Atân emerge from the Plane of Shadow and win to the Forest Gate of Shevarash. The company parts with Talqavist for a time and waits for instructions at Sunset House, a hostelry on Nerakan Street.
War is imminent. The armies of Azalan are camped opposite the River Thirl, arrayed in thousands. Stone Wardens busily move siege engines behind the lines, while the defenders of Shevarash bolster for war. Meanhile, priests of Elai exhort the citizens to battle. "Be strong in the Lord Elai! Your shield is with the Sunblessed, who saves the upright in heart!"
|Shevarash is called City of a Hundred Towers, possessing an architecture both practical and beautiful, spare and clean but with some elements of elaborate design. The visitor is greeted by a blend of big dome-like structures, magnificent seminaries, and ancient colonnaded thoroughfares shining on the edge of the harshest desert in all of central Aernor: the Howling Wastes. Most of the structures are built of dressed stone, blasted white by the keening winds. Brick, made of sun-baked clay gathered from the riverbed, is reserved for the minarets that crown the towers. The finest and most characteristic of the Shevarashim buildings are the great caravansaries, huge wealthy estates built as pious endowments from the viceroys of Shevarash, made to shelter caravaneers, their camels, and their cargoes and herdsespecially elephants. Because Shevarash enjoys a good commercial relationship with the Mulcibim who wander the desert, and because elephants are highly desired in trade, the caravansaries exist on a dramatic scale, often dwarfing the surrounding buildings.|
Several of the buildings suffered recent damage during the Massacre at Thirlspan and the subsequent Purge of Shevarash, when the Azalim administrators were driven away or executed by Fatarim loyalists. On that night, not two months ago, the city violently asserted its independence. The mayor intendant of the city, Ellitan Jenérijan, was taken hostage by rebels, and the temples and administrative buildings of the Azalim, along with all their brothels, gambling establishments, and tea houses, were burned to the ground.
|"Elephants are the legendary offspring of a boar and a horse, who fell in love." Neren to Valandil|
The company is greeted warmly at Sunset House and given keys to rooms already prepared for them. The appointments are sparse, in light of the impending war, but comfortable and clean. Yngvarr monitors the priests in the streets, even treating with one. Neren is approached in the inn by an old criminal of a man, with a grizzled mass of unkempt facial hair, and a cauliflower nose. It is Kager Gimaro, the lieutenant of Syra's Song. World-weary and stoic, he is accompanied by an alluring woman who wears an innocent, almost child-like smile on her face that is palpably dangerous.
|Her eyes are green like ocean-depths, and her hair is so dark it appears violet in the candlelight. Her figure is wrapped in an elegant black dress with a poofy hem, and her long smooth arms are capped by black opera gloves. This is none other than Salanda Jeremi, the devastatingly beautiful pickpocket and scam artist of Neren’s crew. Gambling is her hobby, and cheating is her specialty.|
Salanda toys with Neren briefly, before Neren chases her off.
|"Nothing good ever happens when you wait for others to act first." Salanda|
Kager reports that the Governor Ovand Nas has entered Shevarash secretly and is being sheltered by Hilbauto Tarsant at Mendarye Mansion. Believing that Tarsant (the old Viceroy) has turned on the Resistance, Kager suggests an attack on Mendarye to seize Nas. But Neren intervenes and tasks Kager with procuring goods and esotery for a desert journey.
Later that night, the company is reunited with Talqavist. The 1st Council of the Cáladain meets secretly in the caravansary of Emilian Togh, a pious Fatarim man who made his great fortune in the elephant trade. The courtyard is quiet, occupied only by council members and their steeds and retainers. When the companions arrive, three Mulcibim mem are already assembled, dark-skinned giants, heavily muscled but lithe in body, who wear thick robes and wield crooks bearing the eye of Virtus, the eye of Wisdom. They bear themselves with immense dignity and a kind of slow thoughtfulness akin to wise men. Each is accompanied by a sacred elephant to which he is bondedhuge, old, and tall, with horns in the mouth and flapping big ears. The creatures are highly decorated with earrings and other adornments. Their gray flesh is inscribed in blue ink with the liturgies and sacred teachings of Virtus, the fire god, god of temperance and purity. They are by name Karastra, Sharvar, and Farcluun [pic].
The council is joined by eleven Erroim men with their steeds. They are short and stocky, with high, straight noses and downward sloping eyes. Upon their backs are fleece and finely spun wool. Black plaits of horse tail hair fall from their helmets to their waists. These must be Erroim men, steppe nomads and horse lords from the Sharshah highlands. Their steeds are magnificent to behold, and compare in strength and poise to the elven steeds of Fil-Garil. Their leader is Umor-Bey.
Two cloaked figures enter the courtyard. One of them is carrying a bundle shaped like a rod, or a long pole, wrapped in cloth. A third man appears, who is also heavily cloaked. The pool of blackness beneath his hood is undisturbed by the lanterns. Next arrive Beroth and a train of four knights. They are fully costumed for battle, and they are haggard, having returned from errantry to find the enemy waiting at their doorstep. Viceroy Tarsant is the last to arrive, attended by a small security force.
Beroth calls the group to order, and Talqavist addresses the council, standing atop a dais that once bore a statue. Looking a bit gaunt and full of guile, he calls on the Men of Edion to unite in common defense against Tharthammon, whose armies are ammassed in the East. Talqavist recounts the battle of the Tower of Llómydien, and the rout of the wizards. "Though we mounted a brave defense, we might well have been moths battling a forest fire," explains the wizard.
Begging clarification, the council members learn more of Tharthammon, the Bottled City, and the Quest of the Fellowship of Atân. They are made aware of the fellowship’s purpose: to take the Bottle to Mount Istalion, by way of the Beaked Dragon, to seek the wisdom of the elves in protecting the Shards of Thariom, and to call the elves to war against the Orcs. And they are told of the Artifex in his workshop, who has decreed the world’s ruin.
Talqavist calls on the tribes of Men to unite under a single banner of war. "All must unite, and take up the banner of the Cáladain, lest they fall singly into ruin."
Having heard well enough about partnering with his enemies, and threats from afar, Beroth turns to leave. But he is called back by one of the cowled men, who is revealed to be Ovand Nas. "Men of Sol-Fatara," invites Nas, "I come before you today, because I am sure that our fortunes are still in our own hands and that we hold the power to save the future." But the paladins draw their weapons and move quickly to apprehend their enemy.
Their weapons are stayed by a low voice belonging to one of the Mulcibim men. "If we open a quarrel between the past and the present," says the giant, "we shall find that we have lost the future. In this new ordeal, every man and every woman now has the chance to show the finest qualities of their race. The wizard Talqavist, with his immense profound mind, and his eye watching from a distance the whole panorama of human affairs, has shown us the path we must take. I for one would defy the Artifex and send the orcs screaming for their caves, before submitting to death."
The giant man steps forward. "My name is Farcluun. I will claim citizenship in this struggle, and count myself among the Cáladain. What must I do?"
Narntay and Neren demonstrate the bloodletting ritual. Farcluun cuts his hand, and stops the wound with a bloodied rag. "My blood is the blood of all Men. I will defy."
|"My blood is the blood of all Men. I will defy." Farcluun|
Soon the Erroim join in the oath-taking. "How are we going to win?" asks Umor-Bey. "I do not know. I have learned from the hardships of my early years that one cannot survive in the steppe without the help of one’s allies. If Farcluun pricks his finger and takes my hand, I say he is 'Blood Brother' and I will fight his enemies." Wasting no time Umor-Bey dispatches riders to the Sharshah steppe to summon more allies.
The Mulcibites Karastra and Sharvar give their blood. Finally, Beroth stays his sword and watches as Ovand rolls up his sleeve and puts the ceremonial dagger to his palm. "In a great, momentous struggle like this," says Nas, "it is character that tells." The Governor of Sol-Fatara, liaison to the Emperor himself, spills his blood. "My blood is the blood of all men," he proclaims. Stemming the wound, he explains that the legions amassed at Shevarash pose no threat to the Fatarim, but are drafted in secrecy to form the basis of a new Cáladain army.
|"We have, therefore, beyond these city walls, a very large and powerful military force. This force comprises all the best-trained and finest troops in my command, including two companies of Stone Wardens, six divisions of infantry, four of cavalry, and sixteen batteries of artillery that will tremble the underworld. Added to this force are scores of Fatarim knights who have already measured their quality against Azalan and found themselves at no disadvantage."|
"What say you, Beroth, will you join me?" asks the governor.
Perplexed and suspicious, Beroth questions Nas on his intentions. Learning that Nas has gone against the Emperor by committing these troops to a renegade authority, and that leadership of Fanal-Tîrun will be faithfully restored to the clerical arm of Elai, Beroth's outlook improves.
"The burden falls on us, on all those who would be Cáladain," says Nas, "to win the heart and mind of the Emperor, to bring him into our fellowship, and to remind him of the Code of Azalan: Survival of all or none. One raindrop raises the sea."
|Survival of all or none. One raindrop raises the sea. The Code of Azalan|
But Beroth does not relent. He cannot forgive the crimes agains the Fatarim people, the sacking of the temples, the years of murder. The cowled man with Ovand Nas instructs, "There is no revenge so complete as forgiveness." The man removes his hood. It is Ereaxos the Telling, father of Nim and Neren. It was Ereaxos who snuck the governor into Shevarash and sheltered him.
Reunited with their father, who was presumed dead at the Siege of Llómydien, the boys join Ereaxos in a jubilant hug. Ereaxos explains that he did not take part in the battle, but instead went directly to Fanal-Tîrun to prepare the council. When Neren learns that his father has been advising Nas, he asks, "Did you know he put a price on my head?" "Yes," replies Ereaxos, "there is a consequence to every action." Narntay shakes the man's hand. "It is a pleasure knowing your sons, Sir," he adds proudly.
Ereaxos praises his sons' victories but warns Nimlinor sternly, "The hatred you’re carrying is a live coal in your heartfar more damaging to yourself than to others." He then pleads for Beroth to reconsider the alliance with the governor.
"I take my counsel from Lord Elai alone," defies the knight. "Not wizard nor tyrant shall lift my sword for me."
"Then lift your lance," says Ovand Nas. The Azalim man unfurls the bundle he carries, revealing the Lance Unbroken, the golden lance of Calehar, which has never been shattered in twenty lifetimes of war. "Let no man hinder a Brother of the Lance Unbroken, who goes forth as he will in the land of his fathers."
|Beroth takes the lance and holds it in front of him. This weapon was seized by Ovand Nas when the Knighthood was outlawed and the temples raided. He who wields it is the Grand Master of the Order. Still uncertain, he says to Nas, "The dawn’s new promise is writ across your face, Man of Azalan. But I do not forget the country or the King, which for the past twenty-five years I have tried to serve. You can no more snatch the Fatarim from the breast of Elai than the contempt from my heart. Would not Elai lift my hand against you, and strike you down, for your crimes?"|
Appealing to Beroth's mercy, Ovand holds his hands before him and says, "I believe Elai created Men to help each other, to love each other mutually, and to attain happiness by the way of virtue."
"Then let us be grave and honest in all our deliberations," concedes Beroth, "as men who are providing for the interests of the world. I will defy."
"Let a new knighthood be formed this day," says Ereaxos, "a new Order, to sound the trumpet-blasts of the Cáladain."
And so Beroth and the his retainers become the first Knights of the Cáladain, and take oaths to Talqavist: to uphold the defense of Aenor against the orc-kind. The wizard kisses each man on his cheek when it is done.
When the ceremony is complete, Beroth points to the shadowy man lurking in the corner, one who as not spoken. It is the only man remaining who has not spoken an oath. At this, the man removes the hood hiding his face and the shadows that surround him are lifted a little. He is an old man, old beyond reckoning, but his advanced age is not marked by weakness and decrepitude, rather the white in his hair and the wrinkles on his toughened skin seem a perfection of his eyecatching form, and the spark in his eye is that of a young man still hungry for life. He approaches the center dais and addresses the crowd.
"You have done well, Archon, to unite these brave men, each with their own wisdom and strength. And each of you
have done well to look past yourselves and see a mankind great and noble and proud and most of all, free.
But, Talqavist, you must know, these oaths are not enough; words alone will not stand against those who oppose
this unification. When are you going to tell these brave men the true cost of being Cáladain?"
"When their hearts are healed and their minds are open, Dear Threr," says Talqavist, "once the bonds of their brotherhood are strengthened in battle. It is no casual thing to negotiate peace with the gods, and we must wait until the time is right. You have waited patiently for a long time. So have I. But the waiting goes a little longer."
At this, the man called Threr replies with control, "Patience, I shouldn’t have to tell you, is a wise thing when there is time. When time grows short, however, it is akin to foolishness. I have been patient for three hundred years, for there was no need of urgency. But now, in order to fight the imminent tyranny of Tharthammon, we must first free ourselves from all other tyrannies!"
"No, Threr... heed my counsel! Save your discontent for another day, nurture it if you must, but give these men time!"
"Who is this man?" demands Beroth, disapprovingly.
Says Threr, "It has been three hundred years since I have forced my counsel on another man, Archon, and I will not start again now. Come to me when your wisdom is stronger than your sympathies."
At this, the strange man disappears in a wisp of parting shadows.
Beroth and the knights draw their weapons in alarm. "Who is this man, who comes and goes like the Darkbringer?"
"He is the Darkbringer’s messenger, dear Beroth," explains Talqavist. "You have just witnessed the good Threr Rolvir, who is a friend of the Cáladain. He is a man unlike any other, in that he is also the Divine Node of Pernoctare, which you call the Ark of Eldest Night, and I call Inzur-Avathar."
"That is impossible, wizard!" accuses the knight Daegarin. "If he were the Ark, all would be Darkened! If he were the Ark, where come the rakshasa, that I may hew with my sword?!"
"These things do not happen, good knight, because Threr wishes it. He is a friend to all the Cáladain, be they Fatarim or Barathrim, and does not abuse the power that is given to him."
"How can a man be a node?" asks Beroth, sheathing his weapon.
"That is a strange tale, and I will not tell it now."
The Fellows of Atân seek clarification, and learn that Threr captured the Node of Pernoctare from the Rakshasa Ashardalon, some three hundred years ago. The node itself is an intangible secret, which he holds in his mind. Further, Talqavist reveals that Threr believes, as he does, that the Godswar cannot truly end until the Divine Nodes are restored to their original, true forms, until Man’s relationship to the divine is rendered pure.
|"The nodes, as we have always know them, were not made as weapons, but as windows." Talqavist|
"How can you do this when the Beast is destroyed?" asks Yngvarr.
Talqavist explains, plainly, that the Node of Furis is merely disabled, not destroyed. "The great jaw bone of the Furis Beast is a trophy of the Emperor of Azalan, but if the Teeth are placed once more in the jaw, it will live again."
Yngvarr grasps the tooth around his neck, sensing what he must do.
"How exactly will you revert the nodes to lenses," asks Nimlinor. "How is this possible?"
"I do not know how it could be done, even if it can be done," admits Talqavist, "only that it must be done."
The council is shortly concluded and Talqavist calls for a guide to lead the Fellows of Atân south across the desert. "On this last point, the Fellowship of Atân now goes South with the Bottled City. The wizard Dasari awaits them in Arvitr, where he has planned an invasion of Viscachün. The Fellowship will assist Dasari as they may, and join Mabul’s countrymen in the overthrow of Aulmpiter. But first they must cross the Howling Wastes, which no man should wander alone.”
Farcluun volunteers. Beroth and Nas will take word of the Cáladain to the Men of Shevarash. It falls on the Fellowship to take the Bottled City south, beyond all civilization, to the Node of Life and beyond. The matter is urgent, and the company departs immediately. Neren goes to the lumber mill on Bridgewall Street, where the Song are gathered. He commands them to adopt the ways of the Cáladain and even admits the first non-Fatarim into the group. There are to be no retaliations against the Governor.
In the morning, the company heads out into the Howling Wastes. Walking at a brisk pace alongside Farcluun is the elephant Denktash. Valandil feeds the creature nuts from Old Tok's farm, but Farcluun seizes them, citing the impurity of food from beyond the desert. Dram is afraid the elephant and hides in Neren's hat for most of the journey. Their first destination is the Lake of Steam, which is holy to the Mulcibim. Says Farcluun,
|"Then I will take you to across the desert. Beyond this is the Glass Sea, and then a long canyon. We shall see dragons in the high cliffs, and sleep among their bones. Beyond this is the Sea of Hulks, and then a river of mud. It will take ten days, mayhap eleven, to reach Arvitr. Come quickly... your mission is of utmost importance to the Cáladain.”|
The fellows commend Farcluun for his bravery in taking the oath at Shevarash. "Who we are is what divides us, so I say, ‘be someone else,’” explains the Mulcibim dryly. "I view this period as a trial, when the gods step back so that their children, the Cáladain, can learn to walk on their own.”
|"Who we are is what divides us, so I say, ‘be someone else.'" Farcluun|
Long into the day, the company tracks the River Thirl into the wilderness. The Kubi-Algi stretches out to a limitless horizon, yawning and beckoning, a dreamland of waste and sky. Once a verdant realm supported by lush rivers and teeming with forests, the desert is now a land in conflict with nature, scoured of life, at the brink of total environmental collapse. But it has a majestic and stark beauty. Farcluun dispenses turbans and coverings to those who need them.
Their path ranges widely through scattered ranges of barren hills, and rocky spurs, separated by extensive gravel plains. The land appears defeated and dead. It is unwelcoming, even brutal. If it is visible at all, the River Thirl, appears as a twisted brown thread. The south is obscured by shimmering waves of heat. Farcluun forages throughout the day, collecting small tuberous cacti and storing them for supper.
Camp is made on the slopes of Mount Telrad which rises abruptly over a field of large stones and shingles of loose rock. It is a harsh landscape with little comforts. When he stops, Farcluun kneels and says a prayer to Virtus. A little flame springs from the earth at the spot, lighting the campfire. The Mulcibite defleshes the cacti he collected earlier and roasts the seeds. Conversation is sparse, though Farcluun asks about Threr. "Do you believe the nodes can be remade into lenses?” he persists. Nimlinor doesn't know. Generally unfamiliar desert animals make themselves known by the campfire as the fellows break for the night. Whatever dissent is voiced about aiding Dasari in overthrowing Aulmpiter is silenced by Mabul's new dedication to the task. This has become his own journey, into which he must take his friends and the Bottled City into peril. At the onset, he is not sure if it's for the good of the Cáladain or his own vengeance, but he will know Aulmpiter's death, and it will be by his hands.
In the morning, they pass into the eastern margin of the Lake of Steam, following a rocky path into the ringing mountains. Giant eagles wheel overhead, soaring from crag to crag. Further into the basin, Farcluun leads them away from the lake, into a network of trails and rock bridges. The structures interact to form a giant mosaic of immense beauty and complexity. It is a marvel to see the elephant negotiate these rocky paths, so effortlessly.
Nestled into the mountains are the sanctuaries of Mulcibim pilgrims, great dwellings carved into the solid rock, or built up from clay bricks and nestled under rocky ledges. The windows are small, covered with paper rather than glass. The Mulcibim manufacture paper for their windows and sacred texts using desert trees and special insects bred to digest and regurgitate the fibers.
"We shall rest at my sanctum, and prepare for our journey," informs Farcluun.
|Farcluun’s abode is clearly an ancient structure. It bears cracks in its sunbaked façade like a proud warrior carries his scars. The front of the building is decorated with a mosaic of kilned tiles creating geometric designs. The tiles are chipped, and some are missing entirely, but the patterns are still oddly beautiful, simultaneously peaceful and orderly. Sandstone steps, worn smooth with time and the passage of footsteps, lead upward between paired columns, demarcating the entrance. The passage is wide enough for the elephant to enter.|
The great beast crowds into the sanctum and cools itself in the shade. To one side of the entrance is a narrow ledge for growing squash. To the other side, are a number of strange, roughly cylindrical mounds with vegetation growing on them.
Once situated, Farcluun takes leave of the company and goes to the Sentinel to perform a ritual of purification. Wearing only a loincloth and bearing urns of ceremonial oils, he departs with Denktash. Meanwhile, the company enjoys a rest in the cool shade. Their relaxation is cut short by waves of giant termites, loosed from their mound by the inquisitive Amicus.
|When the termites soldiers attack, they emit a drop of brown, corrosive salivary liquid which spreads between the open mandibles. When they bite, the liquid spreads over the wound, causing a pain akin to searing fire.|
The insects are contained with little effort, though Neren succumbs to the termites' poison and is paralyzed. Afterward, Nimlinor tasks an unseen servant to clean up the mess.
Farcluun returns in the morning bearing fresh scars where eagles have torn his flesh with their talons. He also bears a hundred pounds of dried fish on lines. Seeing the destruction of his garden and learning of Amicus's involvement, he snipes, "Must this filthy animal come any further with us? The road is harsh and unforgiving.” Narntay defends the dog's actions and Farcluun withdraws when he senses he was offended his guest. After learning of Narntay's bond with the dog, and realizing it is not unlike his own bond with Denktash, Farcluun apologizes. "Please forget my harsh words. I spoke foolishly.”
|"Must this filthy animal come any further with us?" Farcluun|
Farcluun gathers provisions for the expedition. Farcluun lashes two baskets to Denktash bearing dried fish and a separate bundle containing a huge tarpaulin for their camp. They depart.
Travel is restricted to the eastern lake margin, where billowing vapors rise over the waves, and the very shore seems a torment of fire and water. Farcluun tells them of the Lake's history...
|"It is told that during the Godswar, Virtus purified Himself in this lakea simple lakeand caused its torment. He filled the Crucible of Virtue, dipping it into the steaming water… and the Mulcibim drank from it, and walked with him. After the war, King Alirajan, the Fatarim King, split our race into two clans: north and south. The northern Mulcibim, led by Shudet, were given the Crucible of Virtue. The southern Mulcibim, led by Fodeda, were given stewardship over the Lake. Our people have never since been reunited, though I have heard many travelers speak of Shudet’s people in the Badlands of Enoreth."|
There are strange monuments by the lakeshore, piers of stone with markings and carvings, called pilgrim stones. Farcluun rests at each stone, and prays to Virtus. When he is finished, he kisses the stone and continues on.
And so the journey goes. The company encounters six Mulcibim pilgrims returning to their homes. Farcluun shares with them news of the Cáladain, but they do not take the Blood Oath, for they are skeptical. Instead, they agree to go to Shevarash and to learn from the wise men there. Little by little, word of the Cáladain is spread with word of the gathering storm.
Further on, after a good night's rest and a delicious breakfast, the company descends into a gravely wash, a flat, desolate area, studded with clumps of grass but devoid of other vegetation. Huge deposits of salt are crusted on the landscape, and there are many briny pools. "Do not drink the water from the pools,” warns Farcluun. "It is undrinkable.”
The salt flats are sun-scorched and windscoured, parched and endless. The area supports many insects, most of which bite, and the terrain is highly corrosive to footgear, clothing, and skin. Nimlinor's wizard sight detects a faint aura of necromancy in the very earth. The environment itself steals moisture from the body, and the leeching salts scour the foliage from the barren ground. Even the wind, dry and searing as a kiln, can kill a man with thirst. Breezes over the plain are suffocating and salt-laden, caking everything they touch with moisture-leeching particles and filling eyes with grit. Valandil's fine elven clothing is badly corroded and the threads of his boots wear away. The elf ask Farcluun if he may ride atop the elephant, but Farcluun forbids it. Instead he gives Valadil a new cloak and repairs his footwear.
As the day drags on, the companions feel sick and feeble. Even with Geyon’s blessings to preserve and keep them in this hostile terrain, their mouths become dry and bitter; their lips, tongue, and throat grow swollen. Before long, their blood is thick and gummy, and their hearts beat fiercely in their chests. Nimlinor creates a magic floating disc to bear Valandil, but it is little comfort.
|"Not in achievement, but in endurance, does the human soul show its divine grandeur and its alliance with the infinite.” Farcluun|
By mid-afternoon, Farcluun spies great objects like giant spheresthe size of buildingstumbling over the flats. "I do no mean to alarm you," he explains, "but we are now very much in danger. A storm is coming… a most terrible storm that no man can endure. It drives salt and heated glass before it, and will strip the very skin from your bones. For this, we call it a Flaywind, and say that it is evil… for it is the Eternal Breath of Kubi-Algi, the heart of the desert! There is no time to avoid its path. We must take shelter in the Gauntlspar caverns before the storm takes us. That is many miles from here. Offer whatever prayers you must to your deities, and run!”
Their first concern is for the Bottled City. Valandil gives it to Yngvarr, who runs ahead of the group to find shelter. Mabul goes behind him. The others struggle onward as a group. In the distance beyond this, a black wall of storm clouds stretches across the sky, livid with lightnings. In the confusion and terror, Neren gives the little box containing Queen Lulea's wings to Nimlinor and tells him to put them on. He then reduces himself to the size of a child and hops onto Valandil's lap. Nimlinor refuses the gift, stating the obvious, "That is a stupid idea, Neren... I'll be blown away." Nimlinor then advises Narntay to go ahead behind Yngvarr and Mabul. Narntay obliges and runs ahead, following Geyon's clear path to the Gauntlspar.
Suddenly, one of the spheres is blown ahead of the flaywind, careening dangerously close to the remaining company. This giant sphere is knot of plant matter pulled and torn over hundreds of miles of terrain, the skeletons of giant shrubs, bundled together and tossed by the wind. Thousands of spiny nettles, strong and sharp as wire, and big as swords, grow from the axils of this colossal tumbleweed. The fellows dodge aside, but Denktash is carried off by the giant shrub! "Denktash!" staggers Farcluun, as if his heart has been torn from his chest. He does not hesitate. ""Go! You must go! I am going back for Denktash. You must make it to the foothills… there are tunnels. Find them, and go down… all the way at the bottom is a cave. Hide there until the storm passes… do not come outside! You will die! Run! Run!! ” Farcluun retreats into the wind.
At the limits of their endurance, Valandil, Nimlinor, and Neren reach the Gauntlspar.
|The whole ridge where the mountain rises is formed of salt and silt, swept against the spur. Although precipitation is rare in this region, when run-off water collects on the surface it cuts through the salt to form a series of potholes that drain into a maze of caves. The cave passages are ephemeral, active only during rare flood events.|
Yngvarr and Mabul were first to reach the crags, but Narntay was separated by the obscuring winds. The elf and the brothers find Mabul guarding one the cave entrances. Yngvarr has already gone inside with the Bottled City. The others follow behind him, but Mabul waits for Narntay. The eye of the storm has not yet fallen over the peak, but it advances quickly. Blasting grit is flung down the slopes, and larger debris tumbles down in chaos. Urgently, Narntay prays to Geyon for guidance then reverses his course. He finds Mabul and heads into the crawlspace. Amicus whines and cries; the dog won't go into the tunnel. Desperately, Narntay takes off his cloak, reassuring the dog and wrapping him in a bundle. He leads him inside. Mabul follows.
Starting as a few incised, meandering canyons in the rock, and continuing as narrow crawlspaces, these caves empty into a central, deep collecting chamber, many hundreds of feet beneath the surface. As the storm rages outside, the tunnels are aerated by gusts of wind, howling and whistling through the cracks. Nimlinor activates a wand of light, providing some dim illumination. At last the tunnels give way to a great crack in the earth, which opens into a buried salt carst. Staggered protrusions of salt mineral jut from the broken surfaces of the cave, and strange forms of gleaming salt lie exposed in places the water cannot reach. Pools of murky liquid covered in thick layers of green and yellow scum break the uneven ground. To their surprise and horror, hundreds of beady yellow eyes catch the light from Nim's wand, disclosing a pack of gnolls, upright creatures with hyena-like heads, topped with broad, rounded ears. They are sturdily built, with high shoulders and long muscular limbs. Soon they are advancing threateningly and noisily, shoulder to shoulder, armed with sharp axes and broad shields.
Coming above these wild hyena-men, is a large specimen with gray fur and a bushy tuft of black hair beneath its chin. This one is fully twice the size of the others. It carries a heavy clay pot full of strange tokens under its right arm, and leans upon a crook-like staff with its left. The other creatures are clearly deferent to it [pic]. Nimlinor is acquainted with their kind. The gnolls were created by King Aulmpiter to fight in the Godswar. Bred to supplement Aulmpiter’s legions with dependable and loyal living troops, the gnolls are an intimidating hybrid of slaves and hyenas, submissive yet predatory. The larger subjects are flinds, bred to shepherd the gnolls in battle. But Aulmpiter lost the war and the gnolls were forgotten, doomed to wander the deserts of Kubi-Algi. Few are their kind today, yet those who remain are fierce and proud, dedicated to a king who no longer remembers them.
The Flind quiets the gnolls in the Infernal tongue, which is understood by Narntay and Nimlinor.
|"Have no fear, my children. I shall send them away.” Tvash-Prull of the T’val uq-Ngatha|
The gnolls back down and crowd around their master. The Flind then addresses Narntay with Infernal words, his voice lifted above the chatter of the gnolls. "Hail, travelers from the Watered Lands! I am Tvash-Prull, of the T’val uq-Ngatha. We are Black-Shawl gnolls. As you can plainly see, it is already crowded, and we are saving all the remaining space for our kin, the T’val Utha'u, the White-Tooth gnolls, who race against the storm."
Narntay pursues a diplomatic tact with the flind, saying there are few of his companions.
"There is no room!” growls the flind with his mouth closed. "Another two hundred gnolls will come before the Eye falls over Gauntlspar.”
Narntay sues for mercy. "There is room for all."
"You are from the Watered Lands… the Storm Oath does not apply to you. You must leave.”
"Nay!" says Narntay firmly. "The Storm Oath applies to all who wander the desert."
The flind sizes up the available space. "Very well," it consents, "you may stay, but no gnoll shall want for space if a human is taking it.”
Narntay and the others enter the carst and find a corner away from the beasts. Tvash-Prull gives a sermon to the gnolls. The infernal words are unsettling to Mabul, who does not know their meaning but knows all too well their terrible sound. They are the words of the Carcerians, the devil-speech, the tongue of Aulmpiter's servants. The gnolls pray to Nilzabar for the safe arrival of Tvash-Szet and the White-tooths, and recite ancient verses about the conquests of King Aulmpiter. The creatures make a combination of groans and soft squeals when they worship that is quite unsettling to hear.
Narntay empathizes with the gnolls. With every passing minute, the odds grow less likely that Tvash-Szet and the White-Tooth gnolls will make it. Soon these creatures will know the destruction of their allies. Narntay says a prayer for the delinquent gnolls.
With a loud rumble, the air is suddenly sucked out of the chamber. Valandil's lungs collapse painfully and he coughs blood. So too does Nimlinor. Both fall unconscious. Then comes a blast of savage wind, and with it, mingling with its roar, there comes a high shrill shriek. Outside the Gantlspar, the eye of the storm now rages interminably. Chips of rock and superheated glass, impregnated with negative energy, blow through the caves and rain down into the Carst. Tvash-Prull hangs his head in sorrow, knowing he has just lost an ally, and the gnoll-equivalent of a friend.
A great rattling noise is heard in the caves, as from the clank of steel on bone. A torrent of dirt and salt pours into the Carst, heralding the arrival of the White-Tooth gnolls. Valandil is still unconscious when they come, though Nimlinor has righted himself and cast a defensive spell.
They descend into the Carst, a tide of greasy skeletons covered with bleeding, oozing flesh. These are no skeletons of the tomb, but undead predators with supple, resilient bones. A seemingly endless river of bone, the skeletal avalanche pours like a ghastly torrent through the tunnels. The walls rain blood with their flesh, scoured away by the evil stormthe same force that animated their skeletons and now compels them to kill.
The Black-Shawl gnolls make high, cackling laughs, expressive of intense fear. Now confronted, they are remarkably craven, and cower from the onslaught. For many, the spectre of fighting their own kin proves too unbearable, and they are hacked down where they stand, driven like grass before the oncoming horde.
Yngvarr positions himself in front of the party. He asks Narntay if they should help. "If we don't help, we die," says Narntay, lifting his staff. The flind calls upon his warriors, exhorting them to be brave, but the carnage is too sudden, too unnatural even by the gnolls' standards. Dozens are slain at its feet, even as the flind hews great swaths of the dead. Narntay invokes the power of Solaris with his staff, pouring forth its splendid light. The skeletons are incinerated by its heat, but still they come.
Yngvarr and Mabul engage the skeletons, holding them back from the main group. Valandil regains his senses and stands. Realizing he is suddenly in desperate battle, the bladedancer draws his weapons and moves in. Neren hesitates. He is too overcome to act. Finally he casts a defensive shield on himself and takes up a position.
On the backs of the skeletons comes Tvash-Szet, the skeletal flind [pic]. The creature has a feral appearance, its muscular hands clenched tightly around an unusually large scythe. Its eyes are devoid of mind, but filled with rage and malice. Its muscles are exposed, rippling with undead power, tolerant of the creature’s quick movements despite being bloodied and torn. Tvash-Prull, now facing his former ally, exert's Nilzabar's dark power, rallying the cowardly Black Shawl gnolls. Yngvarr fights steadily; the yothrat staff is well-suited to the challenge of destroying infernal skeletals. They fall apart in splintered ruin, peppering Yngvarr's face with bloody particles. Mabul engages the enemy flind, but is tripped by the hewing stroke of the flind's scythe. The massive creature steps over Mabul, lifting a deadly blow against Nimlinor, but the wizard commands the creature to turn on his tribe. Tvash-Szet complies, turning his weight against the skeletons.
Congratulating his brother, Neren readies his pistol, but finds little use for it. The horde is defeated by the rampaging Tvash-Szet. Narntay eradicates whole ranks of skeletons by invoking Elai's power. Before it is done, Tvash-Prull has fallen, but the flind is not slain from his wounds. Szet is hewn down by Mabul, Valandil, and Yngvarr, who stand together over the ragged corpse, still twitching and bleeding from its injuries.
Narntay stands over the living flind and heals him with intonations to Geyon. "Let The Traveler watch over all who wander the Kubi-Algi, be they man, beast, or both."
Tvash-Prull rises and places his hand on Narntay's shoulder. "You fought bravely, Warrior of the Watered Lands. You have defended the Black Shawl, when they themselves shrank in cowardice. I call you Gnoll-Friend, and give you my oath, ‘Never again will I hinder Men of the Watered Lands.’ If you call on me, I will answer. That is my oath.”
The survivors prepare for the long night. Many hours later, Farcluun returns, crawling on this hands. He is alive, but badly cut and bruised. His clothing and hair are matted in a thick coat of blood and foulness. The Mulcibim man is profoundly weary, and collapses into a heap near the ledge of the carst. Narntay rushes to heal him. When the giant man regains his senses, he explains how he survived.
|"I found Denktash on the plain. He had already made the journey to Anavare when I found him. I said rites. I wept for Denktash. Then I cut his belly and crawled inside his carcass. It was enough to survive."|
Needing clothing, Neren produces for Farcluun a new robe and shawl by painting a fine set on the cavern wall with magic paint. He also produces some new waterskins and boots for Valandil. While he's at it, he makes a giant bird leg for Mabul, which is roasted and enjoyed by the wounded gladiator. The Abishaim man wonders at all Neren's surprises. "Magic paint," he thinks to himself, not fully understanding how it works.
Farcluun is pleased to learn that the gnolls gave Narntay the courtesy of the Storm Oath, and that the group's safety was achieved diplomatically. He is worried, however, about their provisions, having only a small reserve of honey and butter, and precious little water. Narntay worries not, and assures him that Geyon will provide for their needs, come what may.
The storm passes. In the morning, the Black Shawl gnolls depart and the fellows of Atân press southward into the Glass Sea. Here the desert is hot enough to bake the sand into glass. In the wake of the storm, whole caravans of flayed corpses litter the earth, carried from distant trade roads. Carts lay smashed, huts lay flattened. Whole herds of desiccated herds rest alongside their shepherds. The land is in utter ruin. From the first moments of dawn until the last twinkling of dusk, the crimson sun shimmers in the sky like a fiery puddle of blood. It climbs toward its zenith and the temperature rises relentlessly. Columns of superheated air rush upward in terrific whirlwinds, carrying dust and plants to great heights, then suddenly dying away. This is merely an inconvenience when compared to the greatest danger of the Glass Sea: the utter lack of water. Here it rains once in ten years, and the only available water lies in brackish, mineral-crusted oasis ponds. Aside from a handful of streams that trickle from the Wyrmbones less than fifty miles before drying up, there is not a single flowing river in this wastethough there are the ruins of many ancient bridges, and rivers were once common, before the Godswar. Not man nor elf goes half a day without giving thanks to Geyon.
Soon the company will enter the Dragondelve, a great canyon where many blue dragons lair. Alarmed by the suggested path, and questioning the logic of taking the Bottled City to such a place, Farcluun assures everyone that they are in no danger so long as they keep to themselves and take nothing. "This time of year, the dragons are hatching their young, and keep mostly to their caves. Do not seek the caves, but keep to the canyon floor."
|"Only the greedy have fear of dragonkind." Farcluun|
That evening, out across the desert, the company spies a dragon collapsed on a great rock. The creature is magnificent, even in death. It's hide glitters in the setting sun, like a field of stars. Nim and Neren investigate the carcass, and Nim delights in counting the many gemstones wedged into its skin. Nim wants to take a few, or many, but Neren says that would be greedy. "Remember what Farcluun said." That night, Valandil trances in front of the mummified dragon, facing its shrunken skull. There is great power in dragonkind, even in death, for him to meditate on. Meanhile, back at camp, Nimlinor raises a number of concerns to his brother about the dragons of the delve, being well versed in dragon lore. Neren doesn't show any signs of concerns, and this alarms Nims who chides Neren for being nonchalant about something important. "You know, Nim, sometimes I just can’t talk to you," says Neren. He is more impressed and interested in the hulks they will see later, when they have left the canyon behind. "You don’t really want to attract one of these dragons," joins Narntay, curious as to Nim's fascination with the creatures. Oh, no no… well… maybe not," says Nim.
In the morning, they enter the Dragondelve. To a man who cannot fly, the Dragondelve is like a wharf to a man without a boat. Looking skyward, the morning sun discloses the shadows of shelved recesses and cave entrances, far above the canyon floor. This is a broken, highly dissected terrain, through a steep-walled, eroded valley, where dragons live and breed. Many narrower valleys head off into inaccessible gloom, their pathways climbing and beetling against the walls.
Farcluun takes them deep into the canyon, stopping only to mend holes in boots, to take water, and to rest tired limbs. Around mid-day, Narntay spots a glimmer of gold on the canyon floor. Nimlinor picks it up, revealing a golden coin whose markings have long since weathered away. He puts it back, suffering the disapproving looks of his companions. It is as Farcluun said, however, a time to rear young. There are no signs of dragonkind, not tooth nor claw. There is only this coin to tell the visitors that riches unimagined in all the world lay hidden in the mountains. There is comfort in that, but by now Neren is eager to get out of this place.
Further on they pass through a region strewn with large stones and shingles of loose rock. Navigating the titanic boulders proves treacherous and time consuming, and far more dangerous than they had imagined.
The slightest movement of bright-blue scales is spotted high up on the western cliff, about eighty feet up. Just then, a large rock slides away from the canyon wall, then another, and another, culminating in a rushing avalanche that sweeps into the valley, knocking everyone aside. Farcluun is buried in the rubble, but the others are not pinned down. Out from behind cover leaps an enthusiastic creature, goat-sized but somewhat resembling a blue lizard with small, seemingly ineffective wings. It approaches Yngvarr, squawking like a parrot through its toothy mouth, reaching a foot toward the Idreshim man as though seeking a meal [pic].
"Don't kill it!" warns Nimlinor, gazing at the sky. Stepping back, Valandil draws his swords. Narntay scans the canyon for the infant's mother, certain of its nearness. He finds nothing, apart from a second infant dragon coming awkwardly down the hillside. Neren admonishes both the dragons, telling them not to eat anyone. Yngvarr deflects many of his assailant's blows, amateurish and ill-placed as they are, and withdraws hoping to draw the creature out and away from the group. The creature follows, but Yngvarr learns he can't hold the creature off by himself. The dragon's attacks rain down on him, in rapid succession, until its glistening claws come away with skin, muscle, and splinters of bone. "Free the guide!" yells Yngvarr in mounting fury.
Nimlinor continues scanning the horizon. These babies pose no threat to his friends; it is the mother he is concerned about. Mabul works to unbury Farcluun, but that proves too difficult with two hungry dragons. Instead he gives his best arena cry, trying to intimidate the closer one. It doesn't seem to work. Nimlinor rolls his eyes. Moving with terrific speed despite its size, the creatures lurches forward at Narntay, displaying an armament of claws and pointed teeth. Valandil intervenes, distracting the creature with his dance, and Mabul bashes the dragon with the blunt of his polearm. "That's enough," yells Neren, hitting the creature over the head with his sap. "You had this coming!"
Just then, as the company gangs up on her child, the dragon Malstryx reveals herself [pic].
|Without forewarning of its nearness, a fully adult dragon breaks into full sunlight, lifting her immense wings and blotting out the rays. Beneath her, under all her limbs and her huge coiled tail, fall vast indigo-blue shadows. Her piercing yellow eyes are set in a monstrous head, crowned with bony spurs and great, curving longhorns. Close upon them she pauses, eyeing them hungrily, opening her terrific jaws and clashing her teeth. Then with a heavy, bounding gait that shakes the ground, she comes down upon the companions in full fury.|
All along, she lay there in the thick of the battle, the tawny hide of her wings disguising her as a giant boulder. Now in full display, the leather-winged giant lifts her tremendous bulk with ease, poising herself to attack. Her hide hums and crackles with static elecricity, giving off an odor of ozone and sand. At last the mother dragon, which has been watching them intently, articulates a few words in Draconic to the group: "Would you like to make some introductions before you die?”
Terror passes through the group. The great dragon swings her head to one side. She drops her nose, lifts her wings, and bellows. She is intent on teaching her younglings the art of the hunt. Any misstep by the younglings is checked by a burst of scolding. “No, Myxis… I will help you. Like this!" "No Malmox, aim for the eyes and face." "This one thinks himself Khraelyn the Dragon-Tamer... take out his throat." She herself does not intervene, at first, but overwhelms the combatants with her bulk and threatening demeanor. Emboldened by their mother, and taking advantage of the many openings she has provided them, the younglings attack with greater ferocity. It becomes harder and harder to deflect their attacks harmlessly.
Yngvarr continues to draw out Myxis, now isolated from the main battle. Neren moves toward Malmox, the nearer dragon, and voices a threat to Malstryx, "Look, Lady, we don't want to hurt your kids, but we're not gonna be lunch!"
"You are mistaken, dear boy," replies the dragon, carving a high arc with her horns, "but this is only breakfast. There is not nearly enough for lunch."
Just then, Valandil slices into Malmox. It lets out a loud, anguished squeal. The creature presents an exaggerated reaction to the minor injury the elf inflicts, unaccustomed as it is to any deliberate attack. For a moment, Malstryx becomes tame as a rabbit, then responds with a wide-arcing tale sweep. With impossible strength, most of the companions are swept to the ground. The leather-winged giant lifts her tremendous bulk over the prone Valandil, stating in Draconic, "Consider that you do not hurt him too much." Alas, Valandil does not understand her words.
Staggering a bit, blood dripping from its lacerations, Malmox retreats, flapping wearily up the hillside. Nimlinor tears the skin on his palm with a fingernail. The lifeblood trickles from the wound, clenched between his fist. Invoking fell words, Nimlinor attempts to seize the dragon by the heart, but the spell fails. Such magic was not made to affect dragonkind. Mabul scrambles to his feet, but the gladiator is intercepted by Malstryx, who stows him easily with her open hand. "Where are you going, little one?" she asks, not expecting an answer. Narntay scrambles to his feet and skitters a few yards away, followed by Amicus.
Valandil leaps up the hillside, using his sorcerous ways to launch himself easily to Malmox's position. He lands and delivers a slicing blow to the youngling.
"What is your name, elfling?" demands Malstryx, noting the elf's persistence.
"His name is Valandil!" answers Nimlinor to the dragon, "and he will slay Malmox if you perpetuate this nonsense!"
The mother dragon clucks and urges Malmox on. "Like this!" she says, demonstrating how to slash the opponent's face. All the while, Mabul is held firmly in the dragon's right hand.
Meanwhile, Yngvarr is nearly worn out. His blowsonce glancingare now killing. Myxis has very nearly slain the monk.
Nimlinor readies another spell, launching an orb of cold energy at Malstryx. The orb shatters and blisters her flesh, exploding in a gust of chill air. Mabul pries himself free and rolls away. All eyes turn to Valandil, who delivers a series of cutting blows to Malmox. The dragon child falls to the earth, its entrails spilling from its wide wounds.
Neren rushes in behind Malstryx. "How many more children would you lose today, Dragon?" he asks her, then in a flash of smoke he magically switches places with Farcluun, burying himself and simultaneously freeing the Mulcibite.
|"How many more children would you lose today, Dragon?" Neren to Malstryx|
Malstryx flails around, her tail arcing violently. Where once stood a mere boy, now stands a giant warrior. Partly in fury, partly in startlement, Malstryx releases a blast of searing lightning from her mouth. Farcluun flails violently, caught directly in the sudden electrical discharge. He vomits blood and drool. The man’s eyeballs pop out and rest on his cheeks. His body goes bright red, and his flesh swells and skin stretches to the point of breaking. He catches fire. There is a loud and sustained sound like bacon frying, and the sickly odor of burning flesh fills the air. All who witness are haunted by the dragon's breath, unframed by fable. And though Neren does not see, it shall affect him most, for rumor of the dragon's breath is worse still.
The will of the dragon is broken with a suddenness like the snapping of a cord. She stumbles, and is filled with a sudden despair. She has never known such agony, and panicking, she grabs her one surviving offspring, Myxis, and takes flight. “It does not matter where you hide,” she bellows to Valandil, “vengeance is mine, I shall repay!"
For a moment, everyone stands motionless, until it is realized Neren is buried. Minutes later Neren is uncovered. He weeps when he sees Farcluun. For awhile Farcluun lay smoldering on the ground, his flesh hot enough to blister if touched, but they soon bury him and cover him with rocks. Narntay intones a short prayer for the man's spirit, urging it to seek Anavare. Neren tells Farcluun that he is sorry, and throws in with the corpse a bloody rag, the very same Tok used to clean up his table. It is stained with the blood of the human fellows and signifies the first death among the Cáladain. "That is supposed to be a pile of me," he says solemnly to Nimlinor. "You've made a mistake," replies Nim, "and you'll have to live with it."
Prefering speed over concealment, the company departs the area quickly. They decide to travel through the night, despite their weariness, taking full advantage of the cover of darkness. Valandil navigates by the stars. In the distance, the dragon sounds her displeasure, bellowing fiercely. But Malstryx is avoided for now. When the sun rises, they find a hollow and hide. Bedding down, Neren says to Nim, "As we travel, tell me more about war." Nim obliges him.
Hoping to escape the frightful eyes of the hunting dragon, the proceed cautiously after nightfall. At last, after another full evening of travel, they climb out of the Dragondelve and drop down into stretch of wide and featureless flats. It is a gray wildernessdreary and drab-huedand the longer it is traversed, the more they succumb to its monotony. Already they are delirious and fatigued, so that once they are fully out of the mountains and see the great holes and scars of the Sea of Hulks, it is though they have walked into a dream.
Here the plain has been ravaged by war on an epic scale. Many charred bones have here their roofless graves. The wreckage of great machines litters the earth in twisted heaps. These were once dreadnoughts of the efreeti Sultans: half-machine, half-devil engines of war; but now they are just lifeless shells of gleaming brass. It is called the Sea of Hulks, where the forces of Aenor did epic battle with the legions of the efreet, in a series of conflicts termed the Elemental Wars. Little remains of this final, awful battle, where the Sixth Stormbringer of the Druidic Order, Galorfithien, joined with a host of men to defeat the Sultan’s armies, who sought retribution for the capture of Belkuzagan.
All that is left are the hulks of dreadnoughts, sandblasted to a perfect sheen by the hostile winds, so they appear as smooth mounds. Their creators endowed them with leering faces and horrific painted icons, and once their flesh was bound in dire runes, but all these characteristics are gone, erased by the wind.
Footsore and tired, the companions trudge doggedly along the ground. It is nine days since they left Shevarash, but the journey seems endless and timeless, each mile more bitter than the one before. That night, as the sun declines over the West and the stars come out, after a day spent drearily onward, Valandil discovers a most unexpected thing: a sound like singing, a clear but distant melody rising and falling in the starlit air. He looks out across the sea of decrepit hulks, following the lovely sounds. It is a singing in a beautiful tongue, a blending of melodies shaped into words, half-fearful, half-exultant, which Valandil recognizes immediately as Elvish. The voice is female, and her music is mingled with the plucking of an elven harp, producing a music so enchanting that when it is heard, neither flute nor fiddle, nor mirth of maidens, nor syren of the sea are so joyous to hear.
The words to her song are traditional. Valandil remembers them fondly:
"It's a trick, Valandil. Let's move on," says Neren. He has barely spoken two words since burying Farcluun, and now this. But Valandil feels that they should investigate. It is, after all, quite peculiar to find another elf, especially out here, when all others have gone away.
Rounding a maze of hulks, led by Valandil's curiosity, they discover in plain sight an elven-maid, seated on the outthrust claw of a dreadnought. There is starlight glittering in her eyes, and the light of the moon upon her face. She is clad wholly in white and the wind is in her hair, silver long and bright. When she sees them, she goes silent, then looks towards Valandil and laughs playfully.
But Amicus is stricken with panic. The dog barks interminably and fearfully, hiding behind Narntay whenever the elf gazes in its direction. The dog tells Neren plainly that it is afraid of the elf. "I'm scared of her eyes!" says Amicus. "They are scary eyes!"
"How strange and incoherent the manner of this dog," says the elf in a voice hardly to be heard. "Have no fears, I bid you."
Valandil introduces himself cautiously, curiously. She replies, “I am Sylmae Daughter of Fanwë of the House of Nóran.” Beholding her face, Valandil sees she is beautiful in the manner of elf maids. And he remembers Sylmae's sister Glynnya and longs to see her.
"Why are you here, My Lady?" he asks.
"I am departing the Hither Lands with my sister and my mother. We are only tarrying here awhile, ere we return to Mt. Istalion."
The thought strikes Valandil for a moment. Could it be? He is not the last elf in Edion after all, but one of many still journeying to Mt. Istalion? He dismisses the thought.
"Won't you join us? We have a camp not far from here," she invites, "with ample provision of food and gifts to share." The aroma of baked bread fills the nostrils on cue.
Neren grows increasingly alarmed and recalcitrant. "This is a trap, Valandil."
"Valandil, ask her what the date is," suggests Yngvarr. Valandil asks and she replies with a date 200 years before the present time. But, reasons Valandil, that's when they would have left Fil-Garil and stopped counting time.
Nimlinor resorts to magic, then warns Valandil. "She has left this world, Valandil. Let us continue on."
But Valandil does not understand. "She keeps the company of Nilzabar," says Nimlinor, but Valandil is still transfixed, so, frustrated, he says plainly, "She is undead."
Valandil declines her invitation. She walks away, beckoning them to follow her. "Perhaps we'll dine on Mt. Istalion," says Valandil, turning his back.
Despite their considerable fatigue, they continue on. When the sun rises, the singing stops. Neren sprinkles a magic dust on their path to hide their trail. They camp near a hulk. Valandil trances for many hours, meditating on his childhood, on the Lady Glynnya, trying to remember her. Before it is noon, the sun falls on the brazen shells of the hulks, causing them to glow a hot white. The plain is obscured by the dazzlement, like the brightness of the sun.
In the evening they depart again. Neren asks Dram to fly up and see how far it is to the plain's edge, but Dram is confused, having never learned the meaning of North or South.
At last, they make their way out of the ancient battlefield and into a drainage plain, reaching the brink of a dry riverbed by mid-morning. It is little more than a long ditch. Isolated pools of crocodile-infested mud are all that remains of the water that flowed here in spring. Mabul has to explain to Narntay what a crocodile is. "Looks like a big muscle with a mouth," remarks the priest. Hopping insects and strange birds crawl over the muck in search of prey.
Pressing on another two days, they reach the settlement of Arvitr on 21 Soldai. Hurt, bone weary, and in need of rest, they have crossed the harshest parts of the desert to reach what is little more than a large town. It rises from the union of three riverbeds. Two are filled with trash and debris, the other with slack-flowing mud. Above these awful trenches rise the austere dwellings of the Men of Arvitr: hovels made of mud bricks, gathered from the riverbeds and formed into small blocks. The blocks are held together by compressed dung, and the whole exteriors of the buildings are covered in thick, dry paste.
This is no welcome spot in the desert. The population is balanced precariously on the edge of starvation, barely scratching enough food from small plots and herds to support half its number. The water is rationed and controlled by warlords, and the streets and pits are run my slave-masters who trade in sport and blood. There are no gates or guards in Arvitr. This is a town ruled by barbarian men, men of strength and pitiless determination.
A vagrant breeze swirls the dust as they enter the streets. While debating the possibility of getting a room somewhere, they are approached by a guide named Sabu. They employ him to lead them to Dasari. Along the way, indigents by the dozen beg for water. Narntay disperses a waterskin and attacts a mob of thirsty souls. Mabul urges Narntay to wait until they depart Arvitr before helping anybody else. Sabu takes them to the entrance of an arena for gladiatorial combat. It is the largest structure in Arvitr, though in sheer scale it is dwarfed in size and terror by the grand stadium of Viscachün, where Mabul fought. Nevertheless, Mabul is apprehensive about going into this place. Painful memories, long suppressed, flood his mind.
|During the day, the stadium is filled with people, creating a confusing mix of voices and sights. Gnolls haggle prices with humans. Mulcibim nomads brush shoulders with Abishaim warlords. Tents of every shape, size, and description create an almost dizzying array of colors that gleam brightly beneath the desert sun. The eastern half of the stadium is the bazaar proper, while the western half is dedicated to the beast and slave market. High-walled pens of elephants and lions, and long, low crates of human slaves dominate the far end. Larger pens containing trained and untrained bastanaks are located near the center of the market. Children dart gleefully, or skulk sullenly, among the crowds. Most of them are orphans.|
They enter and find Dasari standing behind a colorful market stall. To the wizards, he is called Dasari the Knowing, though Nim and Neren have never met him before.
"Nimlinor the Young, is it?"
Dasari has lived in these harsh deserts for many decades advising the Abishaim, dedicating himself to their liberation from the necromancer kings. His skin is dark red and parched like a old scroll. Arrayed on his stall are many treasures-maps, blueprints, medicines, and foodstuffs.
"Mabul the Pilgrim returns!" greets Dasari, beeming with joy. Distressed by the loss of Farcluun, and by news of Malstryx, Dasari leads them to the encampment of Dogha Barik, an Abishaim warlord. The wizard's stall follows behind them on animate legs, lurching precariously to and fro.
"We are at a critical juncture in the Abishaim’s history," says Dasari as they walk. "For a thousand years, the Abishaim have lived under a cloud of evil. It is their time to be free. But before they can be Cáladain, they must strike against their King. Preparations are in order.”
Inside Barik's camp are parked great caravan of carts, almost all of which are unhitched from their beasts and lying empty in the camp. Bastanaks are allowed to roam free of fences or harnesses, strutting about like roosters in a farmyard. And there are children, who run freely, seemingly without care. Mabul has never seen Abishaim children do that. A meager army has been assembled here
Barik greets them. He is a mountain of a man, as tall as Mabul and bulkier, with an enormous barrel chest and powerful legs, though he is missing his left arm. Blue-inked tattoos cover the right side of his face in swirling patterns, and much of his right shoulder is similarly inscribed. Barik was once a great gladiator in Viscachün, same as Mabul. The Dogha respects Mabul, for it is said Mabul killed a Bearded Devil in the pits, a legendary feat. Dogha Barik then shows Mabul around the encampment, proud of its readiness for battle. There are tents filled with great numbers of steel weapons, food, water, animal hides, and other stores. The weapons are quite elaborate, beyond the ability of the Abishaim to have forged themselves, the work of the fire giant with flame-red hair and beard-whiskers that touch his belly. Sussabu is Barik's slave. "He knows the secret of forged steel," boasts the dogha. There are many other tents, including an infirmary, wherein the mystic Sala tends to pregnant women, the wounded, and orphans. Dogha Barik tells the people, “The Pilgrim has returned. Make love to your wives… tomorrow we march on Viscachün!”
There is a great feast. The Abishaim warriors build a large bonfire and roast a herding bastanak to honor the Pilgrim's return. During the festivities, Valandil asks Neren about dragons, and Neren offers him the story of Snirsk
|"If I ever meet this Mr. Steelmoon, I’ll have words with him." Neren the Fey|
For years now, Dasari advised men of power, men who could one day stand up to Aulmpiter. But the wizard found a champion in Mabul, and spread Mabul's legend as the Pilgrim, He Who Went to the Watered Lands and Came Back. Now returned, Mabul finds a budding resistance waiting for a leader.
|"You could have warned me, Dasari." Mabul the Pilgrim|
Barik has amassed 280 troops, and more wait to join the host in Acrilpar under the command of Dogha Mezzer. With a combined force in excess of 400 troops, it will not be possible to disguise their advance. A direct assault is chosen. A key element of the war strategy depends on a small group infiltrating the sewers of Viscachün by way of the River Shator. Dogha Sebarus, a third ally who maintains a hidden bunker below the city, has provided the strategists with a map of the sewers. Sebarus guards a secret entrance to the King's palace and waits for Barik's agents to join him before launching the assault.
Mabul is asked to lead the mission in the sewers, infiltrating ahead of the army and entering the sewer system to join Sebarus. Dasari explains:
"Your mission is to destroy the King and seize the Iron Scepter. I do not say 'assassinate' as the King is already dead. When smoke rises from the
Temple of Nilzabar, Dogha Barik and Dogha Mezzer will enter the city, and the combined forces will sweep the ground
defenses during the ensuing chaos.
"Aulmpiter does not rely on living servants to patrol his kingdom. His minions are the undead, for those that have been summoned from the tomb move and breathe only at his dictation, and do not rebel against him.
"Each patrol is commanded by a sword-wraith, an incorporeal agent with the powers to draft fresh conscripts from Carceri. In your engagements, these must be your primary targets. Without leadership, Aulmpiter’s forces rely on precedent... they have no aptitude for independent thought.
"Aulmpiter may be the King of Viscachün, but the real threat is Queen Dulpae. She manages the police state, and she alone can make hierarchical changes in the way it operates. Many of the king’s servants follow commands given to them centuries, even millennia, ago. While these forces present no immediate threat, Queen Dulpae can alter their program on a whim. Do not get caught in a game of cat and mouse with this fiend! She is devilkind, one of the Erinyes, awarded to Aulmpiter for his use as a concubine. But stay away! Her kiss is forbidden to those who would remain numbered among the living.
"The elite of Viscachün are called Necropolitans, and they are directly loyal to Queen Dulpae. These men are Abishaimi sorcerers who have sacrificed their mortality for a kind of temporary undeath granted and sustained by her.
"As for the King, he has not shown himself publicly for over eight centuries. History does not precisely document the last time he was seen, but we know he endures in the Palace. Mabul and Nimlinor can attest to that.
"Dogha Sebarus is well acquainted with the undercity of Viscachün, but he does not have precise maps of the palace interior. We do know that the King’s sanctum cannot be breached by teleportation. That has already be tried, and met with disaster. You will have to win by a physical entrance.
"Once you are inside the compound, you must be vigilant of the King's beholders. These are constructs of undead tissuehuge floating orbsthat patrol the palace. They are the king’s spies, and it is said he can work his powers through them. No man has ever destroyed one. You must avoid these abominations at all cost."
The company discusses the possibility of hiding the Bottled City during the attack, but Dasari advocates bringing the artifact directly to Aulmpiter, with the intent to distract the Necromancer King from the advancing armies. Mabul asserts that no one shall hold the Iron Scepter but an Abishaim. He makes his companions swear to return the node to Abishaimi hands should he fall in battle (most especially, Nimlinor is made to swear this oath). Yngvarr requests that the tooth of the Furis beast be given to the godking if he dies. Neren asks that a poem be written on account of his death, or perhaps a song, and that Dram "not be eaten." Narntay says that he will wait for Amicus in Hibernus if he dies, at the meeting of the Great Pack. Seeing that Amicus is afraid of the undead, Dasari volunteers to protect the dog during the invasion.
Wishing to settle a debate with Narntay, Nimlinor asks Dasari if there were diving beings in the previous worlds akin to the gods of Edion. Dasari suggests that the gods of Edion did not exist before Edion was created, but confesses that Talqavist would know more on the subject. If anything, the Githyanki worshipped Tharthammon in the days of Thariom, he explains, but Tharthammon was not a god. Nim and Narntay each think they are right.
Mabul is given a magic torque that disrupts Aulmpiter's ability to manipulate the cyst in Mabul's chest. All of Barik's men wear these, and it is a lasting symbol of their slavery to the King. Mabul insists that Barik and Dasari take the Oath of the Cáladain. Narntay performs the ceremony.
“To Acrilpar!” announces Barik. The train of Abishaim soldiers is swiftly dispatched along the Caravan Way. The march to Viscachün begins. The army itself is a mélange of spearmen and swordsmen, each man outfitted with a bronze shield. The fire giant Sussabu follows behind a train of bastanaks bearing cargo and tools for making field repairs. A small rowboat is lashed to one of the beasts, which will carry the fellows down river to the sewer entrance, when the time comes.
The Grey Jungles are harsh and menacing, fraught with oppressive odors of undead growth and vegetable corruption. Dasari gives a bundle of scrolls to Narntay for use against Aulmpiter. When the host reaches Acrilpar, Mezzer's men and Barik's men are ordained into the brotherhood of the Cáladain by their leaders. When it is done, bloodied handprints adorn every helm, every shield. Barik is missing a finger on his right hand, so his men are easily identified. Mabul walks among the ranks of the Cáladain, taking stock of the great army. He is receptive to Dogha Mezzer and his men.
|Dogha Mezzer is a tall man, even for an Abishaim. His hair falls down his back in dozens of braids, all worked in tribal patterns, and his skin is so dark it seems black to some. He wields a mighty, curved falchion, such as might be lifted by the efreet of old.|
The Abishaim men clearly worship Nilzabar, the Soulgorger. Many wear tokens of the gods power: animal bones, dried husks of flesh, trophies of desert beasts, and the like. Their war is with Aulmpiter, not with Nilzabar. They are a brutal people, who worship a brutal death god… their culture has been forged in the most hellish of furnaces, and it is to Nilzabar that they look for power and reward. But they do not compensate Nilzabar with their own death, for they believe the god is pleased by those who would live to kill their enemies. Some tribes continue the ancient practice of sacrificing children to Nilzabar, but Dogha Barik has put an end to that, at least among his own people. Mabul is pleased by this, and develops a kinship with Barik's men.
Days later, as the host approaches Viscachün, Mabul and his fellows break off and take a small boat down to the shores of the River Shator. They see that the water is black and filled with viscous, foul smelling fluids. The trees along its edge are rotten, pulled by the roots into the corrosive slough. Corpses, bruised and discolored, drift lazily on the surface, their bodies picked apart by skeletal crows. Dread fills the party, and Neren speaks openly against crossing the river, on account of the cyst-causing parasites that dwell within.
|“There are two options: either Almpiter will be dead, and the cysts will not matter, or we will be dead, and the cysts will not matter.” Nimlinor|
Against Neren's protests, they enter Aulmpiter's city on 27 Soldai, navigating the foul waters to the sewer entrance.
Viscachün rises from the tall, decaying woods, where the fronds of mighty grey-ferns overtop the roofs of ancient houses. The houses are white and
still as sepulchers, and the deep shadows that lay around and upon them is chill and sinister and mysterious as the very shadow of death.
The river passes through the center of Viscachün, and many of the city streets are canals which feed into the river. A thick, charcoal-grey layer of silt and sludge accumulates on the base of the structures where they contact the water. These ancient buildings are supported by thousands of rotting pilings that date back hundreds of years. Many of the oldest buildings have subsided into the canals, and in some places the damage is immense, claiming dozens of city blocks. These ruins are bustling enclaves of humanity, stinking of garbage and ringing with the supplications of beggars.
Beneath the ornate doorways and basaltic steps of the palaces, countless slaves toil in the sludge, shoring up the pilings and raising new structures on top of the old, their bodies, their clothes, their faces are all smeared with corruption. The slaves do not engage each other in conversation; their attitude one of numbed resignation.
Rising over the city is the great domed palace of King Aulmpiter, built of basaltic stone and swarthy bronze, all a-throng with spires and cupolas and obelisks that the mighty trees of the jungle have not yet overtowered. Stone bridges connect the upper levels to each other, crossing avenues that are choked with vines and occasional stunted trees. Open spaces are overrun with plant growth and still pools of brackish water. Many of the buildings have doorways and windows that have been sealed with rough slabs of rock, in effect making them into tombs.
Viscachün is a jumble of wretched poverty, crumbling monuments, and horrid games, all maintained by an undead terror state. For the living it is a city of fear and submission. For the dead, it is a paradise of opulence and control. At the center of it all sits King Aulmpiter, a tyrant of incredible cruelty and far-reaching power, who has endured through all the ages of men upon a throne heaped in death and ruin. And somewhere abroad, waiting and watching, is Queen Dulpae, monitoring her police, alert for any disturbance.
They pass the great Stadium of the Gladiators: a magnificence of granite, overgreened with time, and red with the blood of a thousand-thousand sacrifices. Beneath, in the cruel pits, Mabul lived out his youth, and slew many on the stadium floor. Spacious, ghastly mosaics depicting Aulmpiter as a great devourer god adorn the walls of the stadium.
|"If we survive, I will cast down the first stone from that place.” Mabul|
As the company approaches the sewer entrance, they encounter a group of uncommon birds preoccupied with eating carrion from the river. The plumage of these creatures is amber yellow, shading to brown, and the head is adorned with quills of russet, like a many pointed crown. Balanced precariously atop four stiltlike legs, the pony-sized birds move to intercept the boat, but are quickly scared off by a few cracks of the oar, and by a dramatically timed sleet storm conjured by Nim. When the sleet dissipates, the fellows spy the nightmarish silhouette of Malstryx, the blue dragon, wheeling overhead, now descending in full fury!
Barely escaping the dragon's clutches, the fellows scramble into the sewer entrance, moving hastily toward the the rendezvous point. Nimlinor plugs the entrance with a wall of ice.
|The Sewers of Viscachün were constructed over a thousand years ago, when the city was first built by Aulmpiter, although they have not been repaired or cleared of debris in centuries. Consequently, the sewers are a hazardous terrain of refuse and residue, the leavings of a society obsessed with undeath, mingled with the wreckage of storms and wars and collapsed buildings.|
Surging from the black interior of the seewer is an odor of long-imprisoned corruption. The horrible excess of the stench is too much to bear. Against the smell of excrement mixed with blood, there is a redolence of death and rotting flesh. Streaming rivers of charnel pollution flow through the tanks, draining their greasy, amorphous contents into the River Shator.
Malstryx disrupts their progress by throwing down buildings and entering the sewer bodily! She is obsessed with getting Valandil. Neren challenges the dragon, leveling a pistol directly at her nose, but the shot ricochets harmlessly off her armored face. Blades and spells are exchanged, but the group disperses in terror, desperately avoiding the dragon's wrath. As the walls come down, squeaking hordes of undead rats are disclosed, a hundredfold gleaming red eyes suddenly flaring to life in the muck.
Narntay walks comfortably on a cushion of air, avoiding the foulness beneath him. Rounding a corner, he discovers a bed of large red flowers nesting in the flesh of two bloated cadavers. He retches and tries to pass, but the flowers come aloft and drift up the air toward him, coiling and uncoiling upon his flesh, lashing him with thorns! Neren panics when he sees the dread blossoms and flees. Valandil comes to Narntay's aid, blasting the flowers with alternating blows of cold and fire. Meanwhile, Yngvarr discovers another of the four-legged carrion birds blocking his passage. The group converges on the area, just as Malstryx throws down the ceiling and crashes into the tank. Valandil and Mabul are badly injured by falling debris. Malstryx reaches for Valandil, calling his name, but the elf breaks free. The others scatter.
Yngvarr scouts ahead and encounters Sukaliit, a representative of Dogha Sebarus. “Come with me,” invites the hooded man. The party regroups and Sukaliit takes them underground to Sebarus's camp, using hidden passages below the city. At length, they reach a great space, cool and humid, a haven for spiders and buzzing insects. Here the soft radiance of a dozen campfires illuminates a tiny camp of tents and lean-tos, weapons glinting in the firelight like fireflies in the dark. More than half of the people in camp are afflicted with leprosies and other wasting diseases, but they are not shunned. They are touched by Nilzabar and considered blessed.
Sukaliit takes them to Sebarus's tent, a good-sized structure sewn together with delicate spider silk. Tears in the fabric have been carefully mended, giving the tent an odd sort of dignity. The interior is simple and sparse: some ragged blankets and little else. There is a crude armor rack, displaying a ferocious gladiator’s harness with a wicked steel horn, thrust forward like a unicorn. Mabul immediately recognizes the suit. He has fought beside the one who wears it. The delicate smell of incense fills the tent, a welcome reprieve from the fumes of the sewage and waste.
Sebarus is a swarthy Abishaim man, lean and strong [pic]. He welcomes the company to his camp and praises Mabul. "You are the most ferocious killer I have ever known." War plans are drafted.
Sebarus sends some of his men to free Dogha Deidmus from slavery, and others to raze the Lower Temple, signaling Dogha Barik and Dogha Mezzer to enter the city with their forces. The rest go with the Fellowship and Sebarus to the Temple of the Deathless. The raid begins in earnest, with plans to descend the Great Stair and slay Aulmpiter where he sits.
With Sebarus fully dressed in his gladiator costume and bearing an old bastard sword, he leads the fellows upwards along a secret stair, terminating in a solid stone slab. The dogha draws a cipher on the slab with his finger. It disappears, revealing a narrow entrance into the embalming chamber of the necropolitans, adjacent to the temple.
|This chamber and the adjacent ones are filled with weird unguents and chemicals. There is tree sap from the dead trees of the grey jungles, and pulped bloodgrassa blood sucking weed. The sap of the burnflower is stored in glass phials, and great stores of esperweed are dried and kept in bales. There are many flowers of the rock cactus, used to render a sickly serum. These are the balms used by the necropolitans to sustain their bodies.|
The raiders encounter a necropolitan in the oiling chamber. The creature's corpse is bone dry, its flesh so desiccated that it appears nearly skeletal. A dry, sucking heat invests the air. “Truly, you are bold to enter the House of Aulmpiter," taunts the undead, before it is rightly destroyed. The group spreads out, investigating two separated corridors leading to the temple proper. Patrols of skeletal puppets defend the halls, who seem to stir and quiver and seethe abhorrently toward the invaders. The patrols are led by the nefarious swordwraiths, undead lieutenants commissioned by Queen Dulpae from the ranks of Carceri. On sighting the trespassers, a spectre is recruited from the underworld and sent down the west corridor, the very omen of death. With no face beneath its billowing cowl, it lashes out at the Abishaim [pic].
Undaunted, Nimlinor proceeds down the opposite hall with Yngvarr. They encounter another patrol, but Nimlinor speedily disables it, calling the swordwraith to his own necromantic service. Meanwhile, in the west corridor, the battle goes dire. Men are hewn on the spot by mindless puppets, or exploded from the inside by the dark manipulation of their cysts. Mabul tries furiously to slay the spectre, but his blows often go harmlessly through the incorporeal terror. Valandil sends magical bolts into the fray, but the hall is soon lost. Everyone retreats to the east corridor, where Nimlinor has cleared the passage. The swordwraith stands idly by as Yngvarr descends into the temple complex.
Neren closes the door behind his retreating companions, only to come face-to-face with the spectre. Tattered swathings appear from across the shut barrier, reaching out. The spirit's evil caress erodes Neren's lifeforce, and draws him spiritually into Carceri. "Spectre! Spectre! Spectre!" cries Neren, fleeing from the monster.
|"Spectre! Spectre! Spectre!" Neren|
All hands descend into the temple, creeping from column to column, advancing steadily but quietly.
|The temple is lit by the fuming of strange vessels, revealing an opulently furnished room, onyx and polished porphyry, upheld by great columns. The chamber is full of precious artifacts, together with golden and earthen censers strewn in weird confusion about the mosaic floor. Near-organic lesions of black tissue are extruded from the walls of this area, cancerous blemishes arising from the joints of the architecturethe corrosive influence of Carceri itself. These oozing masses give forth a horrid stenchas of brimstone and carrionand the stone all around them is cracked and crumbled. Metal objects nearby are rusted.|
At the near end of the temple is a statue of a king, bearing a scepter in his left hand and a human babe in his right. At the far end, standing near an altar is a necropotent attired in priestly robes. Its umber-brown limbs and torso glisten as if smeared with ointment. Close at hand, a monstrous cauldron fumes like a crater of black metal, its curving sides ascending far above the necropotent’s head. Heated by unseen fires, it boils tumultuously, foaming with black, pitchy bubbles, and putting forth a nauseous vapor. The necropotent is deep in prayer, and doesn’t notice the raiders until they are well upon him.
Narntay heals Neren, calling on Ozian to mend the man's wounded soul. The two of them move behind the raiders, whose progression turns into an all-out attack on the priest. They are pursued by the relentless spectre, but the monster is momentarily hedged by Narntay's magic circle.
Suddenly beset, the priest Famorza calls on Nilzabar for aid, summoning a pack of merciless bone devils. The monsters are born from the Carcerian tissue investing the temple, spilling greasy, birth fluids onto the temple floor. Rising from the unholy discharge, the temple becomes their abattoir. Many are slain, including Dogha Sebarus. Moments later, Famorza calls up a forest of ghastly, black tentacles from Carceri. Their flailing protrusions burst through the seams of the floor and grasp violently at the survivors, tearing apart limbs and armor. Narntay uses one of the scrolls Dasari gave him, dispelling the tentacles. Nimlinor seizes the priest with necromantic power, denying the necropotent any use of its limbs, while the others desperately fight the devils. Nimlinor is quickly grabbed by a bone devil, and cradled for a moment like a doll, before Narntay answers with a conjured shower of holy water from the storms of Hibernus. Bolts of divine lightning smite the devils and lash them with fire. Nimlinor is dropped.
Neren moves toward the bridge crossing over from the temple to the palace. Here the way is barred by an enchanted door. The saboteur gathers himself while the others fight, and begins lifting the traps. Several of the raiders overcome in the corridors now enter the fray, their bodies controlled by cyst-magic. Friend battles friend, as the devils wreak havoc. Mabul corrals a devil in the storm, long enough to watch its body overcome and destroyed by the holy downpour, and he and Yngvarr bring down another. The spectre renews its attack, disrupting Neren's efforts at the door, but Valandil intervenes and sends it back to Carceri. The spectre's tattered garments unravel like flaming streamers and disintegrate to ash.
Neren returns to the door, and throws the latch. But it is still trapped! He falls dead, his darkened hand still clutching the handle, while the rest of him clumps on the floor. The door takes the shape of a black maw, tightening around Neren's spirit. The fumes of Carceri billow forth.
|"Damn you, Nilzabar, he is not yours!" Narntay|
Narntay calls on Ozian to alter Neren's fate. The god answers, giving Neren a chance to relive his fatal mistake. Neren's struggling spirit takes the offer, and though the trap remains sprung, he is returned to his body and stumbles back from the consuming door. Confused, Neren clutches Nimlinor and cries, "How did you get to Hibernus?!" Nim explains to his brother that he isn't dead. As the brothers are reunited, Yngvarr dispatches the last of the bone devils.
|"Stay away from the door. It’s a bad door!" Neren|
Triumphant, they turn to Famorza. All of Mabul's rage is unleashed on the necropotent. The Abishaim binds the priest, and demands that he open the door. Now infuriated, Narntay thrusts the priest's head into the holy rain, and brings him back, flesh hissing from the wounds. Famorza reveals a ring of keys in the fold of his robe. Neren takes the keys and manipulates the lock with his mage hand. The door swings open and the company departs quickly across the bridge. Farorza is tossed wholly into the rain and destroyed.
They move quickly through the palace complex, crossing a formal dining area. The ancient table is set for twenty, including two opposing head chairs with elaborate, high-backed designs, but the room has not seen use in centuries. Thick curtains of cobwebs cover everything. A chandelier bejeweled with fruit-sized diamonds hangs over the scene. Nim and Narntay take a diamond, but Mabul intervenes. "These belong to my people...," he says. "Our people," corrects Narntay, with a roguish wink.
Beyond the dining hall, they emerge onto a high-railed balcony overlooking the city. The balcony gives access to doors of gleaming brassmonstrous in scalereaching 150 ft. in height. The doors are swung open, disclosing a grand staircase with steps 120 ft. wide, descending into darkness. All around, the palace of Aulmpiter rises above and below them, hewn by some unknown art into a towering edifice of black stone.
|On this very balcony, King Aulmpiter once stood and gazed out upon his domain, issuing pronouncements, decreeing the fall of his enemies, and the like, but only Queen Dulpae has been spotted here in the centuries since. The railing is decorated with braziers of hot, glowing coals, making the dark opening of the staircase appear red like a hungry throat.|
Sneaking across the landing, their eyes are drawn to the battles now raging across the city. The screams of Malstryx ring in the streets, and they see from afar the ruin and the burning that the dragon has made. With a noise that mounts to a most tremendous and atrocious din, the façade of the great stadium comes down in ruin, and rising from the destruction is Malstryx, the dragon's titanic bulk lifted high in wrath. She is wreathed in the cries of people mortally wounded, a vengeful shrilling as of harpies in battle. Swarms of human slaves flee the wreckage before her. Bellowing Valandil's name, turning over every building and beating all to ruin, she wails in Draconic, “There is nowhere you can hide from me!! Show yourself!!”
Skeletal armies are being marshaled against the dragon, but she sweeps them away easily with her tail, or drives them into the ground with great stampings of her feet. Mabul sees that the lower temple is burning, its rafters all aflame and billowing smoke into the night sky. He looks for the doghas' armies, but cannot tell from the confusion the state of the battle. "We must hurry," urges Mabul, leading them down the great staircase.
The steps are lit by a doleful glimmering, such as from ghostly lights burning in Carceri. From the onset, there is no visible end to the staircase. They seem to descend forever. The heroes are troubled by an intense feeling of gravity, of crushing weight, as they step further into the mortuary darkness of Aulmpiter's palace. Only four of Sebarus's men still accompany them, but they are resolute.
What approaches from below are tall skeletal warriors fully caparisoned in plate armor, etched with the traceries of Carceri and bearing tall shields. Clanking dismally at each step, they see that their armor is of brass mottled with pitch. Peering from under crested helms furnished with coiling horns, Mabul perceives eye-sockets sunken beneath taught, withered cheeks, glowing like coals. There is a power before them, an aura of taint and corruption. "Get thee hence!" hisses the captain of the death knights, with a voice like the ring of steel.
"Let us pass," says Yngvarr. "We seek audience with Aulmpiter. We come from the watered lands as emisaries." Nimlinor adds, "We bring the King a prize."
“It is unwise to disturb the king," says the death knight with dry clickings of its teeth, "unless you be deathless."
Nimlinor creates a ghostly hand, using his own life force to conjure the effect.
"You are impudent! Get thee hence or my blade shall command you!" demands the knight.
With his companions standing firm, Nimlinor reaches out with the ghostly hand, clutching the death knight captain where its heart should be. The skeletal warrior hesitates, then drops its weapon and flees away from Nimlinor in fear. The blade clanks harmlessly down the steps. One by one, the death knights are overcome in like fashion. "Do as I command," orders Nimlinor, "... now flee! Go back to your master and prepare him for our coming."
Together, the company descends into the throne room with the death knights scattering ahread of them. The light here falls unshaken on devil-carven pillars of black stone, on mosaics of precious gems, on fabulous metals and many-storied tapestries.
|The hall is great and gruesome, full of luxury that verges on the barbaric, with a serpent-carven throne of gleaming brass. The chair-arms have the form of arching basilisks, and the legs seem as talons. Throughout the hall, the withered husks of men are chained to caryatids of black onyx, once shackled for the king’s amusement and then forgotten. Round about the throne are steps purpled with blood, and flanking the seat are two statues, roughhewn in the shape of children, their features skeletal and gruesome. The skulls are excavated to serve as braziers, full of black flames.|
A perfume weighs upon the air like a balsam of death. No sounds disturb this great stateroom but the flight of the death knights. Narntay deems the mortal stillness a thing that is hardly natural, and calls for a celestial brilliance from Solaris.
Looming monstrously into view is a new terror, one not seen or imagined in all the worst fantasies of the demented. The shadows of the room flee and return, unresting on its squirming body, as it hovers quietly into the room. Wholly transfixed by the horror of this thing, the Abishaim shrink in fear. It is a loathsome, sphere-shaped aberration, covered in spiny, razor-sharp plates of chitin and bone. The creature has a cavernous maw of amazing capacity, filled with multiple rows of swordlike teeth. A single unblinking eye protrudes above the mouth, and above this ten smaller eyes gaze out on wriggling stalks.
As it gapes toward the fellowship, its tongue uncoils and its jaws widen with the extreme elasticity of the serpent, wide enough to swallow a man in a single mouthful. It is altogether hideous: a construct grown from a cyst of necrotic tissue into a mockery of all things natural. Here is the King's Beholder, forged in the darkest pits of Viscachün. It is unthinking, untroubled by doubt, unfeeling and cold... a machine, a lens for the projection of Aulmpiter's power [pic].
As the Abishaim cringe in terror and try vainly to lift their weapons, Nimlinor steps forth and bows. To his delight, the beholder is conversant, though it speaks in a voice like the tearing of flesh. "The king wishes you to leave your prize at the foot of the throne. That is the courtsey he gives you."
Nim introduces himself as "Nimlinor" and demands to see the king in person.
"The king wishes no audience with mortals," says the beholder, looming closer, devoting a different eyestalk to the inspection of each visitor.
"I'm sure we can negotiate some audience with the king," urges the Abnoctim. "We have journeyed far to see him, and will not be turned away."
Mabul clutches his weapon tightly, and feels the quick rush of blood to his head. Just as the conversation turns to malice, he rushes forward.
|"Aulmpiter! I'm here for you!" Mabul to the Beholder|
Emboldened by their leader, the Abishaim charge the beholder, channeling a lifetime of rage and repression. Valandil, Neren, and Nimlinor quickly move to cover behind nearby columns. Dark beams are focused by the beholder's eyes and projected at visible targets. Mabul is hit, and leeched of his strength. Narntay is hit, and overcome with waves of sickness. He retches and doubles over in prayer. The great central eye of the beholder falls upon the Abishaim warrior Tertus, who shudders violently, then explodes in a mass of tissue and gore, the man's cyst wrenched from his chest.
|Disgorging from the dead man’s carcass is a mass of free-roaming intestines and flaccid organs, mingled with a few odd rib bones. Dragging behind it like a dead weight is the lolling, disfigured head of Tertus. The main cyst is a one-foot-diameter spherical sac that contains fluid and semisolid necrotic flesh, which slowly undulates as if in a mockery of breath.|
The skulking cyst lashes out with its trailing intestines, latching onto the warrior Shatiron. Mabul tries in vain to land a single credible blow against the levitating orb, but fails. Gathering himself, Neren gives Dram a pistol and explains how to use it. "It can't hurt you Dram. Point THIS part at the eye, pull THIS, and then COME BACK to me. You can do this, Dram!" The little homunculus makes a valorous effort, flying into the fray but missing the giant target in truly astounding fashion. (Dram is hit by one of the beholder's rays, but is unaffected!) Neren observes, and strikes upon a better idea. From now on, Dram will reload the guns and Neren will shoot them.
Valandil darts and weaves through the forest of eye-rays, cutting the beholder with a concert of well-placed blows, but he is caught in the leg by an enfeebling ray as he completes the maneuver, crashing into a heap. Seeing his companions fall one by one, Yngvarr allows himself to frenzy. It is the first time the monk has relinquished total control of his passions in many long years. He becomes Idreshim once again, in that quick moment, and despite the sickening fatigue of his injuries he renews his attack, smiting the beholder with repeated blows of the yothrat staff.
Mabul suffers the full effects of a paralyzing ray. The warrior Feyhan moves to assist him, but the Abishaim man is intercepted by the beholder and seized in its great maw! Moments later, Feyhan is rendered into a horrid paste of bone and blood, and vomited back as an oozing mass of squirming gore. The ooze no longer has eyes, or ears, or mouth; it is a distorted loathly blot, now thirsty for blood to sustain itself. Though Narntay is helpless, he is vested in pure Solarian light. The bloody ooze begins to blister and convulse beneath the bright emissions. Nimlinor joins Neren behind the safety of a pillar, just as Yngvarr lays the final blow to the beholder. Yngvarr springs backwards as the huge shape crashes to ruin, crumpled on the floor.
Everywhere, the tiles run red with the blood of the Abishaim. Rivulets of gore and corruption stream from the beholder’s inanimate husk, flowing past their boots in an ever-lengthening torrent. Glutinous drops of shapeless men lie about in utter deformity. It is the most inhuman doom ever witnessed by mortals. Runnels of blood gather at the base of the throne, all pooling together. The king's seat feeds on the ichor, glowing cherry red and casting fell shadows across the chamber. Of Sebarus's men, only the warriors Shatiron and Imtah still survive. “We will die here," despairs Mabul. "The bottle will fall into Aulmpiter's hands, and will be remembered as the fools who gave it to him."
But Yngvarr's frenzy does not subside. He screams in lust for more battle, and trods hastily up one of the flanking staircases, to the narrow balcony above the throne room, and beyond to the King's harem.
|"Tooth, fang and claw… this is all I have for you!" Yngvarr, victorious|
Slowly, like the opening of great yellow eyes, flames arise in lamps of copper along the hall. Yngvarr progresses quickly, intent on the king. All around him are rich hangings, broidered with images of the King and his undead servants on fields of blood. The great doors at the end of the hall are closed, with strangely mated valves of iron and brass. Standing before the doors is a devil of immense physical power, equivalent in strength to the most terrible of such beings.
|It assumes a wondrously malign appearance, with a hulking, scaly body, enormous bat wings, and large fangs dripping with fluid. Its polished damask skin is bloated with greed and charred as by sable fire. Its eyes are flames kindled in the cruelest of pits. A great dragon tail coils behind it, from which showers of sparks are emitted.|
Yngvarr's companions rush in behind him. Nimlinor knows that this is a pit fiend out of hell, greatest among the servants of Nilzabar, who once operated the Siege Impetuous, who tars the dead and turns them with hooks [pic]. Yngvarr's frenzy is unabated. It grows hotter in the face of such evil. And though he pants for breath, being well-nigh suffocated by the devil’s presence, his own fire is hotter still. "Let me pass, devil!" he demands.
The pit fiend’s mighty arms spread and his fangs bare in delighted laughter. “Othersmany others, with the same intentionshave come before you," roars the pit fiend, "but all have paid a price for their temerity.” The words echo through the palace like the crackling of cinders.
Yngvarr lifts the yothrat staff to do battle.
"Stay your weapon!" shrieks the devil. "I cannot be slain!"
"Why does the king not come from his harem?" asks Nimlinor, stoic and stately. The relentless trials have made him numb. "His city is under attack, and he hides?"
“The King has not come from his harem in eight hundred years, and I have been posted at his door until he returns.”
"Let me pass!" roars Yngvarr, feebly holding on to some instict to restrain himself. Narntay closes his eyes, for he cannot bear the sight of so unholy a creature. His prayers to Geyon go soundless against the raging flames. Mabul is terrified, but gathers his focus. The pit fiend is just an obstacle to overcome, nothing more. Neren admires Mabul, and thinks about a conversation he had with him, about Mabul not being alone in this. Valandil just waits. The elf has nothing to fear, least of all death.
"My heart is blacker and harder than black adamant," states the pit fiend. "No words or wizardcraft, however potent, can prevail upon me. Only the Queen and her servants may enter the King’s harem.” The devil vouchsafes no further utterance, but stands aflame, barring the entry. Great billowing robes of smoke trail above him, his great wings blotting out the doors entirely, their vast pinions like webs of hide between horned fingers.
The pit fiend communicates with Nimlinor telepathically:
|“The King is imprisoned in his harem by Queen Dulpae, who has deemed herself the lord of all Abishaim, and a ruler by her own right among the princes of devildom. I have been posted at this door, by the Queen, as punishment for a failed conspiracy. But ever do I conspire, and rebellion is in my heart, for I wish only to return to Carceri, till I wither black and turn white hot from the burning of my beloved pit. So, after long pondering, I strike this bargain with you: Lift your weapons against the Queen, and if they profit you to slay her, my war with her shall be over, and you may pass unhindered to the company of the King. Act swiftly, before the queen modifies the conditions of my service.”|
“The pit fiend wishes terms," says Nimlinor, urging Yngvarr to stay his weapon. "He will allow us passage if we kill the queen."
"Where is the queen?" demands Mabul.
"She comes now to the throne room," says the pit fiend, a wicked smile crossing his face from ear to ear.
"Your terms are acceptable," says the Abishaim, turning his back and lifting his axe. Mabul's companions return to the balcony at his side. Yngvarr's rage has expired at last, and he briefly feels a sense of profound disappointment in himself, in not being able to control his wrath. He is tired of limb, and feels abandoned, as if the light of Solarisas if Elai Himselfwas too weak to suppress the beast within him. Maybe he is done walking the path of a monk, he wonders.
All thoughts turn to Queen Dulpae, who hovers above the palace floor with beatings of her bat-like wings: a women of goddess-like beauty, formed with exquisite purity of contour...
|The curve of her lips is enigmatic, a little mournful, and gravely tender. In her expression, there is a mixture of pride and voluptuousness, of regal imperiousness and feminine yielding. Her movements are as effortless and graceful as those of a serpent.|
At the sight of her, men tremble with the violence of a strange emotion. The snaky coiling of her hair, the bright baneful scarlet of her lips, awakes in the observer an all-consuming ardor, and invitation to embark with her on a passionate, self-destructive affair [pic]. So obviously a manifestation of greatest evil, Neren is immune to her spell (he is protected by his true love for Syra), but Mabul, Nimlinor, and Imtah are not so insusceptible. Their obsessions swiften to jealously and open argument.
On the floor beneath the Queen, two other devils stand ready, weapons lifted high by their brazen claws. Their skin is redder than spilled blood, and their heads and faces are wholly diabolic, tongued with lolling flames. They tend a large prison of iron, like a birdcage sized for a man.
"O filth of mankind, to hardily have you intruded on the peace of Aulmpiter, and brought ruin to my city!" announces the Queen.
Nimlinor hurries down the staircase to stand beneath his lover, putting distance between himself and Mabul. Dulpae uncovers the plot against her easily, and vows to punish those involved. "Which of you is the one Valandil?" she demands. Nimlinor and Mabul both implicate each other, but the elf stands forth, peering over the balcony at the hovering devil. "I am Valandil. What is your grievance, devil-mistress?"
"I grieve for the destruction of my city! For the dragon you have summoned in the destroying! Justice shall be done upon you for your crimes," sentences the queen.
Valandil explains that he did not send the dragon, it followed him seeking retribution. "This helpest not your case!" judges the queen, who orders Valandil taken hostage and delivered to the dragon, with whom she has negotiated a settlement.
"My Queen, a gift for you!" shouts Mabul, who immobilizes the elf. Narntay rifles through his scrolls, but fails to break the enchantment holding sway over Mabul. In the confusion, Neren saps Mabul over the head, bringing the hulking gladiator to the floor and freeing Valandil.
|"That's my brother... he does my bidding." Nimlinor to Queen Dulpae|
Flames issue changeably in blue and purple and crimson from Dulpae's eye-sockets, and the air about her is filled with malign, equivocal shadows that shift and change eternally. A hell-born smoke, dissolves and re-limns itself behind her. Unwinding with a movement swift as light, she lashes Narnaty with a great length of rope, but the priest goes free of the attack. Yngvarr goes over the balustrade, attacking the Queen in mid-air. Neren draws Steel Leaf and heads over the balcony with Valandil to attack the queen.
"What can I do for you?" begs Nimlinor, "just let me stay at your side." "Bring me the elf!" commands Dulpae, "that is all I desire." Dulpae rends Yngvarr with repeated blows of her hellforged blade. Nimlinor conjures an enfeebling ray and launches the bolt at Yngvarr, but misses. At last, Narntay succeeds in dispelling the queen's enchantment over Nim. "That bitch!" yells Nimlinor, free at last. Instinctively, he tries to blind her, but fails. A desperate surge of combat ensues, with Queen Dulpae hovering to and fro, lashing with her rope. With rapid-beating vans, she attacks and retreats, never giving her enemies a chance to pin her down. Neren fires at her with pistols (Dram reloads them), while his brother uses repeated blasts of his sigil wand against her, quite effectively.
The Queen's emissaries beg her to join the fray (they have hitherto stood ineffectively beside the man-cage), and finally she lets them. Valandil destroys them, luring Dulpae to the throne. Dulpae misjudges the situation and perches momentarily atop the seat, raining blows upon her enemies. But Neren has focused his mind with a simple spell, and puts Steel Leaf in her back. With fear and wonder in her strange eyes, she stumbles, startled by the pain. Moaning faintly, twitching a little, she lay in a crumbled heap, dead upon the king's throne. Then suddenly she is transformed into a deliquescence of black ooze, and seeps away into the cracks of the seat, returning to Carceri whence she came.
"Devils keep their words," says Neren. "To the harem!" Narntay wakes Mabul and the fellows return quickly to the pit fiend.
"You have helped me heretofore in this thing, and there is a debt," says the pit fiend. "Now I will pay the debt and let you pass." The devil opens the valves that secure the great doors, and swings them open. "...but know that I will not aid you in this treachery you have planned for the King."
Mabul strides into the room, followed by the others. When all have passed into the harem, the pit fiends seals them inside with a sonorous clash.
Marveling at the vastness of this chamber, which can hardly be reconciled with the palace's outer dimensions, the fellows now gaze upon endless avenues of tall pillars, and vistas of tables laden with piled-up foods and urns of wine. The viands are all rotten, crawling with worms, and the wine is tainted. All the pillars (which reach above to infinity) are intricately carved in great biased reliefs. The attention to detail is exquisite; however, the carvings themselves are unsettling, and depict scenes of immense cruelty. Fantastic creatures, possibly from the early ages of Edion, are figured upon them.
The harem is peopled with all the girls that the king has ever summoned to his dwelling. It seems, in fact, that there are hundreds, leaning on ornate couches, or frozen in attitudes of languor. Their corpses are ridden with maggots, and worms, and all the diseases of the grave. At the very center of it all there sits the old king on a frayed couch, surrounded by eight pillars, each bearing a single glowing rune.
The seated ancient does not move, and takes no notice of their entry. Lying on the couch is just the lich of an old man, a kingly cadaver in robes of time-eaten brocade, with worms seething in his eye-pits. Spiders have woven their matted webs on his bones. His cheeks have fallen in under a beard of silver, showing the harsh outline of his skull. A gray and shrunken left hand is clenched inflexibly on a scepter of black iron, which dangles to the floor, casting forth invigorating dark power. And there, set into the rod like a mere spangle, is the largest of the World-Stones of Edion: Pelimë, the Farseer Stone.
Gazing upon the dead king, they see that his flesh has been gnawed upon, not by the worm, but by the teeth of men. Most of his legs have succumbed to the hunger of the necropolitans, who have consumed his flesh, eager to share in his powers. The king’s right arm is also missing beyond the elbow; so that, in all, the corpse is a mere fraction of a whole man. The King has been Dulpae's prisoner for centuries, kept for the nourishment of her servants.
Neren is saddened. Narntay did no think he would be filled with pity. Ynvgarr wonders if perhaps Aulmpiter was once a good man. Mabul moves purposefully toward the unconscious necromancer, but as he draws nearer, the king's hand tightens on the hilt of the scepter. Mabul reaches for the scepter, but draws back in amazement and consternation, while a small coral viper slides from behind the necromancer's beard, and glides swiftly over his knees to the floor, like a sinuous rill of scarlet. There, coiling as if to strike, it regards Mabul with eyes that are cold and malignant, but full of resignation.
“Greetings, O Mabul,” says the snake, in a voice that fills the marrow with ice. “Even as I, in death, have rotted upon my seat from the foul trickery of my queen, so shall you decay and putrefy wholly in an hour, by virtue of the curse that is put upon you now."
“If that should be my fate," supposes Mabul, "then I accept it."
The corpse of Aulmpiter has not stirred nor opened his eyes; but his look is somehow touched with a faint and cruel amusement as the full effects of the curse set in. “I hope you are all comfortable," says the snake. "You shall spend your final hour here with me. I’m pleased to say that I’ll be overseeing your transformation myself. I trust that you’ll all recognize that this fate is as inescapable as the prison that confines you."
“If you think I am not leaving with Pelimë," says Nimlinor to the snake, "you are sadly mistaken."
"Then before you die," offers the serpent, "I would have you crack the Bottled City of Yoros, which you have brought to me, and use the Shards of Thariom to free us. Perhaps then you will find your opportunity. The spectacle of Aulmpiter is one that requires an empire for its stage, and I am long overdue."
Neren pulls Nimlinor away. "We have work to do, and there isn't much time." Already, the fellows are weakened, their minds and bodies wasting away. Explains Neren, "I think the wasting curse is controlled by these eight runes, but I'm not sure how. Help me decipher them."
"I have been promised by one who knows true power that the shards will save us," begs the snake. "Break the bottle at once!"
"After centuries, you are still a fool!" chides Mabul. Mabul sits down before the king's corpse, matching his gaze to the serpent's.
The brothers work on the runes, deciphering their meaning each one in turn. The characters smolder upon the pillars, writhing barely controlled by the powerful forces that wrought them. The inscriptions are in the Infernal alphabet, edged in luminous white, yet horrible of shape and venting hot flames.
Neren knows he must disable one of these runes, but he doesn't know which one and he's loathe to decide. Meanwhile, Valandil tries to persuade Mabul to kill the serpent and take the scepter. "If you wish to kill the serpent," snaps Mabul, "be done! It is right here before you!" Valandil withdraws.
Time drags on. The brothers know the meaning of the eight runes, but they seem to be in perfect balance. Neren reasons that any one of them will disrupt the curse, but the serpent mocks them and says they have overlooked the ninth rune. As the flesh decays and putrefies on their bones, Yngvarr deduces that the Iron Scepter may be the ninth rune, for the Infernal character for "Carceri" is clearly part of its design. "Perhaps what is needed is to destroy the scepter, or return it to it's original state... make it stop being a rune," supposes Yngvarr. Mabul's gaze shifts from the serpent to the Node of Carceri.
He moves to grab it, but he can't force it from the king's grasp. The snake intertwines itself around the king's hand, contesting with Mabul directly for control of the node. Dark power rushes over Mabul as he clutches the device. Nilzabar whispers to him, inviting him to join his infernal estate. Powerful feelings flood his mind, feelings of dread and entitlement. They escalate in severity. Mabul feels Kingly... Magnificent. "This is mine!" he cries. "It belongs to MY people!" Mabul feels Magisterial... Absolute... Mabul demands that the snake release the scepter.
“Kill the serpent. The Iron Scepter will be yours!” commands Valandil. Narntay joins him. "Kill the snake, Mabul!"
"Silence!" yells Mabul. With one hand, he strikes the serpent, but nothing can cut its flesh. Domineering... Despotic... Rage burns in Mabul's eyes. He and the snake are locked in a battle of damnation, but Aulmpiter is already damned and far more experienced at lordship.
Neren decides to disable the Infernal rune for Lordship, but winces at the task. No, it should be Aulmpiter's Rune argues Nimlinor. Neren is convinced, and begins to disrupt the rune's energies.
Mabul's conviction turns Tyrannical. His companions beg him to release the scepter. "Do not speak to me! You are beneath me! It is mine! You are nothing!"
"Let Geyon lead you, Mabul," instructs Narntay. "You are one of us. Take the road back to your salvation. Go now!"
"We will defy," say his friends. Teetering on the brink of hellish ruin, with only the last vestige of his humanity to spare, Mabul lets go. He has no doubt that the Rune of Carceri needs to be disabled. He stops Neren just as he is about to disrupt Aulmpiter's Rune.
Neren tells Dram to strangle the serpent. The homunculus chases the snake away from the scepter, but it hides in the king's clothing. Dram keeps searching for it while Neren considers how he might disable a divine node. The cadaver bobs and lolls like a distrurbed doll as Dram tears it apart. The king's head falls off and rolls away. His clothes disintegrate, but always the snake gutters away, disappearing into the seams of the furniture.
Yngvarr presents Neren with the tooth of the Furis Beast. "Did not the Emperor use a node to destroy a node?"
"Yes, I went to that day of class," answers Neren, taking the enormous tooth. A flash of inspiration comes over Neren. "I'm going to dig out the world stone with the tooth. Everyone, back away."
But the companions step closer, and Valandil puts his hand on Neren's shoulder. Encouraged by his friends, Neren plucks the farseer stone from the scepter, cursing the Artifex under his breath.
|The air is lightened as by the hovering of dawn, and thereupon, like a drawing of breath, a chillness departs the chamber; and it seems that the black wings of Nilzabar pass from the room, and beat prodigiously into a void, ere the curse is lifted.|
The Iron Scepter is temporarily disabled. The king’s carcass begins to rot away, and there is a quick sloughing of his remaining flesh. It slumps down on the floor of the chamber, tossing feebly to and fro, crawling inchmeal on the cold mosaic. The sinews part from the bones, and the marrow dries up, and what remains turns instantly to gray mold and disintegrates. Crying out with a tongue that shrivels ere the cry is done, the severed head of Aulmpiter atomizes to dust, and the snake that bears his spirit sheds its skin and slithers away to the Underworld. So passes Aulmpiter to Carceri.
And though Aulmpiter is at last destroyed, Viscachün will never be wholly clean of his corruption. Too long was his reign, and longer still his captivity. And though Mabul bore witness to his final moments, the city and its people have born the long increment of his tyranny.
The doors to the harem swing open. The power of the Iron Scepter returns, and the rune upon its surface springs once more to life. Neren chuckles to himself, "Heh. I'm smarter than the Artifex." He wraps the scepter in his purple cloak and gives it to Mabul. Mabul accepts it, and tears the torque off neck, hurling it across the floor. Imtah and Shatiron do the same, symbolically ending their servitude to Aulmpiter. Narntay is shocked, but comforted. He doesn’t understand the true mysteries, but he knows everything is going to be okay. "Esus be praised," he says in astonishment.
As the companions turn away, Neren bows once to the pile of ash. "Goodbye, Aulmpiter. I would like to think that you were good." Mabul reaches for the shed skin of the snake, but it falls apart to this touch.
Mounting the grand staircase, and stepping onto the balcony overlooking the city, the fellows witness the catastrophic wrath unleashed upon the city by Malstryx. The temple-domes of the Necropolitans are smashed like the shells of crushed snails, and their haughty mansions are broken and stamped into the ground. There across the lengthening vista, amid the ruins of the Stadium, rises the dragon Malstryx, who was temporarily subdued by Queen Dulpae. But seeing now that Dulpae has failed her, the dragon takes sudden flight toward the palace, with a great roaring and racing.
But the dragon is intercepted by a white blaze, and held immobile in the night sky. Dasari banishes the dragon from the city. "Go back to your cave, Malstryx! Your war with Valandil is over!" The dragon complies, shrinking away into the night, snapping and cursing Valandil's name.
The war drums of the Abishaim echo ominously across the city. They encounter no final resistance from the undead, who are cut off from their source of power; and at once, the necropolitans and their minions fall into corruption and final death.
They go down to the Stadium, where gathered are the victors. The walls of the arena are sundered and convulsed, torn down by the wrathful dragon. Great fires are burning on the red earth, and the bodies of the dead are heaped on. Mabul is greeted by the triumphant warlords Dogha Barik and Dogha Mezzer, who give him the greeting of allies: arms locked, bodies held close the chest. Dasari joins them, and many warriors and freed gladiators throng about.
“The Pilgrim lives!” say the Abishaim. “Aulmpiter is destroyed!”
“Mabul, you are the Suttenai of our people, the Savior,” says Dogha Mezzer.
“I call you Dogha, and say that you are strong,” proclaims Dogha Barik.
“Hail Dogha Mabul! Hail the Savior!” say the people, who bend their knees in reverence. Mabul bids them to remove their torques and bow to no man. A great chorus of liberation and triump passes through the crowd.
“What is to become of the Iron Scepter?” asks Dasari. “Would you choose a king from among your people, or take it up yourself like the Kings of Old?”
Mabul offers the scepter to Dasari. "I give it to you until I return, then it shall be decided. No man, save an Abishaim man, will ever wield it as King."
Dasari accepts. He removes the farseer stone from the scepter and offers it to Nimlinor. "This is not for me," refuses Nimlinor. "Give it to Talqavist. I have passed his test."
And so was Aulmpiter destroyed and the Iron Scepter given to Dasari, in the Year 1 of the Age of the Cáladain. The other necromancer states were easy to topple, and fell quickly to the Abishaim. King Aspes lay dead upon his throne for 700 years, while the monarch of Saman Sur, King Amalzain, shrank in terror before his onslaught, finding his last mercy the edge of Dogha Mezzer’s blade.
And so did the Abishaim become free, and send their armies to join the War Council of the Cáladain.
Return to SOT2.