Highsun, Year of the Defiant Priest
After Ralo’s gifts for saving his life, he bid the group good luck and farewell, disappearing into the desert as is the way with most hermit mystics. Rayne watched him disappear into the distance. “So. Back to it, then?” she commented, as the obsidian sandstorm howled, growing ever closer.
“We should be off once more,” Les agreed. Kikrik sighed.
Clavis hopped up onto a rock and began to search for a good path. Rayne scouted Clavis’ suggested course, seeking any hidden dangers it might possess. The eladrin held a hand out in the direction of the storm, seeking arcane inspiration. S/he finally settled upon manipulating the desert heat to create minor illusions – distant diversions to throw off their pursuers. Vrack blazed the trail once more, while Kikrik’s unflagging endurance proved an inspiration to all.
As the sun rose, they began their northwest trek once more, trying to outpace the sandstorm and elude the ssurran. Cutbacks, blind canyons and the other trials of the foothills of the Ringing Mountains were cleverly navigated. They paused briefly for lunch, since breakfast had been interrupted, but they ate swiftly and pressed on some more. By mid afternoon, however, they found their path blocked by the sheer face of a cliff that towered above them, and before them lay an area of black sand.
The blackened ground seemed to tug at their psyches, flashing images in their minds: falling, a bloody shard of obsidian through the heart, a sickly crack as the body thudded against the bottom of a chasm. Is that how they would meet their end? Now another image: a swirling, poisonous gas choked them as they gasped for breath. Their eyes closed, never to open again. Yet another: fast moving images of a verdant plain on the cusp of a mountain range. Flash. The plants quickly decayed. Flash. A towering inferno. Flash. Bones littered the ground. Flash. Nothing remained but rock, ash, and blackness.
They shook off the melancholy illusions of death and returned their attention to the threat at hand. The pursuing dark clouds massed behind the group, dimming the light of the red sun, but the storm of stone did not move in to envelop them. In the distance, they heard hissing and screeching. Although they kept a careful eye on the looming tempest, the attack came instead from four ssurrans that scrambled over the rocks. They glared at the group, hissing a challenge, but seemed to hesitate for a moment. The more observant members of the party could tell that they stared at the patch of black sand with fear and revulsion.
Vrack led the assault, by charging the nearest ssurran, and striking it soundly with his flail. Rather than fly backwards from the impact, the scaly creature’s body seemed to roll with the blow and twist in a serpentine fashion that kept its feet firmly anchored. Another ssurran, a mystic of some sort, chanted at the gladiator with a lulling cadence. Vrack’s features grew slack and he turned away from the ssurrans to face his allies. The mystic leered hatefully at the group before clambering atop a nearby boulder.
“They’re afraid of the black sand!” Rayne shouted, laying a shroud upon another ssurran and engaging it. Kikrik dodged a flung javelin, then summoned a pair of spirits to aid him as he lashed out with his spear. Clavis moved out of the black sand and let loose a flickering arrow at the ssurran mystic, striking it deeply. Les drew the black sword and leveled it at the mystic as well. When it evaded the spell, s/he stepped through reality to stand on the boulder beside the creature and engaged it in melee. It blocked the bard’s poisoned slash with the haft of its spear.
Then, everything changed.
The ground near Clavis rumbled. A giant insect with razor-sharp mandibles emerged from the sand. Turning away from her fight, Rayne gasped then shouted, “Ankheg!” The gith immediately knew his peril, having seen effects of the damnable creatures’ attacks during his time in the wilds. Aside from the pincers, an ankheg’s bite was poisonous, and it could vomit acid in a wide spray.
“Leave it be,” said Kikrik. “I think I might be able to get sway it to our side!”
“Shadow, Kikrik,” swore Rayne. “I hope you’re right…”
Before the shaman could act on his words, the ankheg advanced on Clavis, mandibles clacking. It seized him in the pincers, eliciting a grunt of pain and surprise from the gith. He felt the creature clamp down hard, cracking a rib as it dragged him back and away. He lost consciousness from the pain of his wounds as the creature’s spittle began a rapid pre-digestion.
Meanwhile, Vrack charged Rayne, his ensorcelled mind compelled to attack his allies. His flail struck hard, and the assassin’s blood spilled to the sand. The dazzled sssurran mystic managed to strike Les with its spear and shove the eladrin off of its boulder. Then it called out to the ankheg, to draw its attention to the other fleshy invaders to its territory. The beast dropped the senseless gith and reared its head, seeming to consider its next quarry.
Incensed at the mystic’s corruption of Vrack’s mind (and trying to escape the reach of his flail), Rayne stepped into the gladiator’s shadow and out of the mystic’s. Surprised by the sudden assault, the ssurran bled freely from the slash. It was even more surprised when Rayne’s form melted away to a shadowy mist. On the ground, another ssurran charged Les and twisted its spear in the bard’s side with malicious glee. In broken Common it croaked, “You come back us, defiler!”
Kikrik surveyed the many threats and tried desperately to change their fortunes by securing another ally. He stared down the ankheg and appealed to its insect mind to attack the ssurrans instead. It seemed to waver on the point, until the shaman snarled with the effort. Then the beast turned its attention to the scaly ssurrans. Sighing with relief, Kikrik then evoked what healing he could for Rayne and Clavis.
While another ssurran came up and stabbed Les, Clavis awoke to pain. The acidic spittle of the ankheg continued to burn away at his ruined chest. He stood shakily, and took a careful step away before firing once more at the shaman. When his attack flew wide, the arrow redirected at one of the warrior ssurrans, impaling it and drawing every irritating tiny insect in the area in a biting swarm. Kikrik was impaled by a javelin, though he resisted the poison he could feel on its tip.
Les attempted some healing, but s/he was still in too much pain to aim the black sword properly. Fortunately, the ankheg then scuttled forward and blasted the ssurrans threatening the bard with acidic spray. The sticky acid burned the creatures and impaired the movement of their legs. Unfortunately, Vrack’s mind was still a plaything of the mystic. He charged the gith and struck him down with a mighty smash of his flail. That seemed to be catalyst enough for him to shake off the enchantment, and he fell to his knees, desperate to help undo the damage he’d caused Clavis.
The mystic shouted some desperate orders to its allies in Draconic before being cut down by Rayne. Then the assassin called upon the shadow to assault one of the ssurran warriors. Les was struck down, and Kikrik tried to rouse Clavis once more, but the gith’s body simply had nothing left to give. Cursing, he began to assault the ssurrans with his spirits. One of the creatures picked up Les’ unconscious body and attempted to escape to the north, inadvertently working itself into a blind corner. Rayne finished the creature and then dropped to her knees to apply what healing she could to the eladrin. “Wake up, Les. We’re not out of this yet,” she said.
The bard’s eyes fluttered open and s/he smiled to see the human’s face. “Thank you, Rayne…”
Both Vrack and Kikrik did what they could for Clavis’ dying body, but nothing they did seemed to work. Eventually, they gave it up and joined the others in finishing off the ssurrans. Of course, once the lizardfolk were down, the ankheg only had one group of intruders to attack. Desperately, the former caravan guards fended off the giant desert insect, and narrowly defeated it before succumbing to their many wounds.
All except one.
Clavis was indeed dead when they came back to check on him. Much of his chest was burned away from the acid. “Oh… He’s…dead,” said Les in an almost monotone voice.
Vrack grunted. “Damn shame. He seemed a good sort of fellow.”
“Poor Clavis,” Rayne said, unable to look away from the gruesome sight. The bard helped her to a comfortable resting point. “If there’s time, we should bury him,” she suggested.
Kikrik furiously stabbed the ssurrans’ bodies several times, apparently railing against reality. “Ralo said these things were here to kill defilers! And yet it is Clavis that died! He was no defiler. I will see them all dead…and the defilers, too.” Les glanced up at Kikrik.
Ignoring Kikrik’s ranting, Vrack took a few moments to explore their surroundings. Within the defiled area, he noticed a small cave leading below. “Let’s drag Clavis into this cave,” he said. “Bury him in there.”
Rayne said, “He gave his life for us. I think we should honor his decision.”
Kikrik’s fury had not abated, and he appeared ready to continue his rant but stopped suddenly.
Looking over at the kreen, Rayne said, “Kikrik? is something wrong?”
In a quiet voice, the shaman said, “My masters tell me not to blame the ssurrans. That it was the beast that killed Clavis. And that they hunt defilers, which is my purpose, too.” Turning to the eladrin, he continued. “Les, you have helped me before. But those ssurrans were after you, not Clavis. Tell me why they should not have you.”
Rayne’s skin turned to gooseflesh beneath Les’ fingers. She looked up at the eladrin, gray eyes widening. The bard turned to gaze up at Kikrik and paused in tending to the assassin. “You would rather throw me to them?” said Les, face crestfallen.
Vrack interjected, “Les has done nothing but help us! Vrack will not be leaving Les to the lizard people!”
Les nodded to Vrack in gratitude then said, “My abilities saved you once, Kikrik. I’m sorry if it offended you.”
“It’s true, then?” asked Rayne. “You’re a defiler?”
Les looked down at the ground. “I am many things… Not all of them pleasant.”
Grudgingly, Kikrik admitted, “You have done nothing to make me think you horrible…as my masters say that all defilers are. Yet, I see them in pain every time you use your magic. I see the land die.”
“The land dies less than we would were I not to use my abilities,” the bard said. Rayne searched Les’ face. She tensed up, but did not back away.
“I am but a child,” continued Kikrik. “I do not know the right path. But I will tell you this. If I had the choice to save Clavis in exchange for you, I would have taken it. There is no choice any more. He is dead because others thought him your ally. Now, I suggest we move.” Without another word, Kikrik walked toward the cave.
Les glanced from Rayne, to Vrack, and then to Kikrik’s retreating back. “Do what you will, kreen. But remember that I would still go back and save you.”
Rayne stood and moved to follow Kikrik, sparing Les only the briefest backward glance. Vrack dragged Clavis’ body into the cave, and Les slowly trudged into the cave behind the others, humming a dirge.
They discovered that the cave opened up in the back to a tunnel beyond. It seemed that the path went deeper in. After digging a shallow grave in a sandy corner of the cave floor, the remaining adventurers stopped to say a few words. Vrack said, “He died a good death. There is glory in battle.”
Les whispered, “Well put, Vrack.”
They heard a heavy sound from near the entrance. Then came the heavy sound of stone on stone – one of grave finality. The cave went completely dark. “What’s that?” Rayne wanted to know. Les cracked a sunrod – a rare and precious semi-magical lantern to dispel the darkness in the cave. The cave entrance appeared to be blocked by a massive boulder. “Shadow take me, ” sighed the assassin.
“So much for a clean egress,” muttered Les. “Apparently, the ssurrans are content to bury us alive.”
“Maybe Vrack can move boulder?” suggested the gladiator. After a couple of grunting efforts, he determined that he could not.
“At least we’re out of the storm,” said Rayne.
“Maybe we can finally get some rest,” added Les.
“We have no other choice now,” said Kikrik. “All of you sleep. I will watch for threats from below.”
Rayne grunted agreement, finding a soft spot and dropping. Vrack slumped down, using his pack as a pillow and was dozing instantly. Less elegantly sat cross-legged, assuming a meditative position and sighed deeply. Kikrik moved down the tunnel several paces and began to enter torpor.
Then a voice interrupted their attempt at sleep.
“It is an honorable thing you have done for your friend.”
Being at his wit’s end, Kikrik vaulted to his feet and bore his spear defensively. Rayne’s hand stole over the hilt of her scimitar, but she remained lying still. Les arched an eyebrow and opened one eye. “Spirit?” s/he asked.
“Who there?” Vrack asked more directly as he struggled to stand back up.
A figure standing over six feet tall stepped just inside the light of the sunrod. He was a hideous humanoid with pock-marked gray-green skin dressed in bits and pieces of clothing. No weapons or armor could be seen. He held up his hands and said, “I mean no harm, travelers.”