Highsun, Year of the Defiant Priest
The others hung back, willing to let the Kikrik handle the spirit situation for the time being, though they all stayed ready for trouble. The shaman continued his approach, waiting for it to communicate. When it “spoke,” it came as a surprise for all. With a small gesture, a jet of flame sprang forth from one of the spirit’s appendages, scorching the rock to the kreen’s left. Once they had recovered from the surprise, they could see that runes had been scorched into the stone surface, forming a single word in the Common script: “Greetings.” Only three of the party could read the word, and Kikrik was not among them.
“Fire draws scribble lines on rock?” asked Vrack dubiously.
Les answered, “No, Vrack, it draws words on the rock.”
The half-orc scoffed. “Words are spoken, not drawn.”
Ignoring this, the eladrin continued, “It welcomes us…”
“Welcomes us to what, I wonder,” said Kikrik nervously.
“Perhaps to its home?” Les suggested. The spirit inclined its “head.”
“The only spirit home I have seen was the home of dozens of them,” said the kreen. “Is this one alone?”
It nodded to Kikrik, then wrote: “Alone, yes.”
Pointing to Clavis, the spirit then scorched the rock again: “Polite. Your time among us has taught you well, Outsider.” This brought a few curious glances toward the gith for a second before the burning words continued. “I am a Spirit of the Flame, an elemental force. I collected here centuries ago, shortly after the lush Athasian lands were destroyed by warfare.” Kikrik chattered softly to the “others” while the writings were being translated for him.
Clavis ignored the others and said, “It is an honor to meet you, Spirit of the Flame. May we enter your domain?”
It wrote: “Yes. Welcome. It has been many ages since I had the opportunity for conversation. Though, ‘domain’ is not quite right.”
“We are happy for the opportunity as well, fire spirit,” Les chimed in. “Is there another name we may call you?”
It seemed to consider the question for a moment, then wrote: “I had a name, though I no longer recall it. I once walked Athas as you do, patrolling these lands as a protector of Life.”
“So, you weren’t always a talking fire?” Vrack wanted to know. The spirit made a sound like a furnace chuckling. Clavis groaned quietly and shook his head. Kikrik looked confused, gaping openly at the spirit.
Les merely smirked. “Yes, Vrack. Once, I believe this spirit was man or woman…but a long time ago.”
“Ah,” said the half-orc sagely. “Vrack hopes his spirit is a big bonfire, then.”
The eladrin’s mirth grew. “I’m sure it will be, Vrack.” Turning back to the spirit, the bard said, “So, fire spirit, how do we meet you this fine day?”
Switching to another boulder face, the spirit wrote: “As well as can be expected. I am bound to this place by strong elemental forces unknown to me. I await the return of another Green Age to free me.”
“Bound?” asked Rayne, frowning.
It wrote, “Only a collective effort by all Athasians can restore Athas’ lands to their to their long-lost fertility. Time will tell if they are so penitent.”
Clavis grumped, “Yea. Try telling that to the Sorcerer-Kings.”
The bard nodded in agreement. “The Sorcerer-Kings will not be ones to give up power for the sake of the land.” To the spirit Les said, “Perhaps you can assist us with our…predicament?”
Rayne asked, “Yes, do you know anything about what’s causing the storm?”
It wrote: “Something stirs the wind and stone. A servant of some ancient force, though who or what I do not know.” Pointing to Kikrik and Clavis, the spirit continued: “Heed the spirits. They will guide you, if you’ve enough courage.”
“I will strive to follow their guidance,” Clavis replied.
The final words came swiftly: “I am afraid my ‘talk’ has called attention to us. I fear I may have placed you in danger. ‘Ware!” The stench of brimstone as the spirit snuffed out was supplemented by the harsh smell of acid. Looking around, the group noticed that large, armored, green-eyed insects were burrowing up from the sand from all directions. Their feet clicked against the rocky terrain as they closed the distance.
“Blast it all,” Les whispered. Vrack’s eyes widened and Clav is growled before drawing the greatbow from his back.
Moments later, one of the giant insects lumbered toward her and clamped its massive mandibles around Rayne’s waist. She cried out in pain and alarm, her blood splashing the sand and stone below her. The smaller kanks approached cautiously from the opposite side of the petrified grove and spat sticky globs of acid at Clavis, his legs and the sand around him.
Les stepped through the human’s shadow and out of the far side of the kank that held her the struck at it with her obsidian blade. It clanked off the chitin and the bard snarled, “Beast!” The attack foiled, the eladrin clinched a fist and called to the shadows shrouding the kank. Vrack’s flail met similar results, and he roared with anger as his mighty overhead blow bounced away with no effect.
A fiery ant spirit burst out of the ground at Kikrik’s feet, scorching the sands beneath the large kank soldier and igniting the weapons of the kreen and his nearby companions. Then the shaman conjured a new spirit, shaped like a mantis made of an amalgamation of elements, mixing and moving. While Vrack fended off the second soldier, Rayne escaped from the first’s tight grasp by slipping through the shadows. She beheld her flaming weapon for an appreciative second before driving the blade deep between the soldier’s segments.
Clavis tried to dodge the caustic spittle flying at him from the rocks, drawing his bow and summoning a swarm of biting insects centered on the arrow that embedded itself in one of the smaller kanks. The battle with the vicious insects did not last long, for though they were dangerous, they weren’t particularly smart. The former caravan guards took every advantage they could squeeze from the rocky terrain, until finally the last bug fell dead. They all slumped to the ground or against the large boulders littering the badlands.
The Spirit of Flame did not reappear, but Les noticed that one final message was burned into the sand: “Master and Servant. Which is which?” The eladrin pondered this strange message in silence for a few minutes until the sounds of the obsidian storm were heard approaching from the southeast.
Clavis cursed, stowing his bow for travel. “I don’t think we have a lot of time to rest here.”
“It would be best to recover our strength, then hurry on,” Kikrik opined, seeking the vanished fire spirit.
Vrack panted, still smarting from the poisonous bites and acid burns he’d suffered during the fight. “Just a few more moments,” he said. “Please…”
Seated in the shadow of a stone, Les added, “We are no better off exhausted in the desert than we are skewered by black glass from the sky.”
Rayne nodded at the minstrel’s words. “True. Even so, I don’t think we can handle another fight without some proper rest, though.”
“Fine. A few minutes only, but then we have to leave,” The gith grudgingly conceded. He then knelt and began to check the rest of his supplies.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Vrack stood, trying to ignore the pain from his wounds and gathered his thrown axe from the corpse of a kank. “We should get a move on,” he said. “Which way do we run?”
Les scanned the storm following them, but failed to determine any recognizable pattern in the chaos that might give them an edge. Kikrik and Rayne surveyed the broken horizon, seeking shelter as they fled the storm. Between them, they rejected a path that would lead them into a box canyon, and picked a route that seemed more suitable. They pointed it out to the others, who shouldered their packs and pushed ahead, following the pace set by the half-orc. Kikrik lingered for a time, focusing on the spot where the benevolent spirit had stood. Finally, he hurried to catch up to the group.
The going was not as easy along Rayne’s path, but Vrack easily crossed the patches of broken stone and shifting dunes to blaze a trail for his fellows to follow. Skirting the drum sand and following the tenacious half-orc, the party came out of the sands and fully into the rocky badlands. Despite the winds, the sun’s heat was in no way diminished, and it threatened to overcome them all. Fortunately, they toughed it out, helping one another along with a show of solidarity that only surfaces in strangers who realize they are each other’s best chance of survival.
Kikrik even seemed to lighten up a little, cracking a joke. “It’s okay, everyone. If I were as old as the rest of you, I would struggle to keep up, too.”
Les smirked at the kreen. “Kikrik, you won’t live to be half as old as I am now.” The shaman seemed unsure whether or not it was intended as a threat. Rayne watched the exchange silently, a bit fascinated. The eladrin smiled without malice at his confusion, then sidled over to pat the kreen on his shoulder. “Lighten up, companion.”
They stumbled blearily along until they spotted a rare bit of shade beneath a lone palm tree amidst boulders choked with some thorny weed. Twilight was nearing, which promised a reprieve from the heat, and they could no longer see or hear any sign of the storm.
Clavis smirked wryly and leaned against the tree. “It’s nice to have some shade finally.”
Wiping away his sweat, Vrack said, “Tree is most welcome.” As they settled in, some of the party heard several somethings shuffling atop the stones. Turning toward the sound, they saw a winged drake perched atop one of the thorny boulders. Eyes widening, Clavis cursed again. Vrack sighed and said, “Never time to catch the breath. Vrack hates the desert.”
“Sadly, it hates us right back,” Rayne consoled the big man.
With a piercing shriek, the drake took wing and flew over the group, dropping a loop of rope that fell atop two of the discarded packs of supplies. Immediately after, the line grew taut and the bags quickly bounced across the sand and up the cliff. Something was stealing their salvaged food and water!
The drake was the first to fall, as Rayne and Lesallai focused their attacks on the poor creature. It died atop a boulder on the bard’s sword, while the others focused their attacks on the magic flinging goblins to their right, and the flying archers to their left. One of these fled Vrack’s charge only to be caught in the shadowy noose of Rayne’s hex, and before it could level out its flight it was killed by Clavis.
Once the archers were defeated, the party turned their full attention upon the entrenched goblin mystics. Vrack bounded from stone to stone, leaping the gaps to take the fight to the creatures, while the others climbed up the sides of the rock with the least amount of spiky foliage. It was a harrowing encounter, but in the end the party proved up to the challenge once more. They recovered their supplies and decided to risk a few hours of real rest before moving on again. They set a watch and agreed to leave at the first sign of the storm catching up.