Highsun, Year of the Defiant Priest
While the adventurers looted the food and water supplies of the strange desert men, full night fell over the badlands. There was still no sign of the storm, but they couldn’t be sure when it might catch up.
“Shall we set up watch and try to get some sleep?” asked Les. “I’ll only be four hours, so if anything happens, we can be ready.”
“Would be best,” Rayne replied.
“Vrack will take first watch,” asserted the half-orc.
The others volunteered for a turn at watch except for Clavis who offered to sleep. He hunkered down beside the lone tree and was dozing in minutes. Kikrik got out of the wind, while Les hummed a quiet tune to lull the companions to sleep. The half-orc set his gear down and climbed atop one of the boulders to take his watch. The bard kept an eye on Vrack, to make sure that he stayed awake and that nothing attacked him from behind.
The sounds of the badlands – pebble falls, small rodents moving through the scant brush, and the ever present wind through the stony passageways – lulled the group into uneasy slumber. Vrack remained vigilant despite his own fatigue. After half an hour, he felt certain that he knew the natural sounds well enough that anything extra would be easy to identify.
After two hours, Les rose to relieve the half-orc from duty. “Get some rest gladiator…” said the eladrin.
He grunted in reply. “Many thanks, Les. The desert has been quiet so far.” With that, he climbed down and curled up at the base of the boulder.
The moon rose, burning dully in the night sky and casting an odd green tint across the landscape. The desert’s heat had not fully receded, but the chill of the night was beginning to take over. A mere hour after Les took over the watch, the telltale signs of the storm could be heard. The eladrin turned to see the sky darkening – and the darkness approached swiftly. The storm seemed to have found them once more.
The bard roused the others, and they groaned from exhaustion and the injuries they’d taken so far during their flight. Still, it was time to pick a path through the badlands – in the dark.
Vrack shouldered his gear and grumbled, “Longest…day…ever.”
Kikrik quickly surmises where the thickest thorn patches are likely to be, and directs the group along another path. “Follow me,” he said. “I might be able to find a clear path in the moonlight.” The others nodded and began to follow his lead. Clavis and Rayne kept their sharp gazes fixed on their surroundings, pointing out hazards when they spotted them. Vrack once more took point, following the others directions and forging a path when necessary. Les took pains to disguise the group’s passage. Kikrik spotted a few shallow caves and windbreaks as they ran, but none of them seemed like they would be enough to protect them from the deadly obsidian shards.
The group was hounded by the storm for the rest of the night. Only as dawn approached did the sounds of the deadly shards become muffled as they gained a small lead on it. The sun rose as they crested a rise, and their weary eyes caught sight of a short, stocky figure breakfasting near a stone. When the dwarf noticed the adventurers staggering closer, he set down his plate and held up his hands, palms forward – a gesture of peace.
“Hail and well met,” Les managed to say. The others kept their hands from their weapons, but their nerves kept them ready to draw at a moment’s notice.
“What have we here?” intoned the dwarf wastelander. “You’re as motley a group as I’ve seen in many a year. What brings you out here to disturb an old man’s breakfast?” He sounded amused.
“Sandstorms,” said Kikrik. “Deadly ones.”
Vrack nodded emphatically. “We’ve been trying to stay ahead of a storm all night.”
“Indeed. Moving without rest. The storm coming is a brutal one,” Les elaborated.
“A storm, you say?” the dwarf asked. “Sandstorms are commonplace here. That is why I wear this headdress. Keeps the sand, sun, and wind off my face. You act like it is chasing you.”
“Desert hates Vrack,” the half-orc complained.
“Hard not to feel like that,” agreed Rayne.
“This is no ordinary storm,” the bard insisted. “It carries black shards of sharpened obsidian. Either it’s large enough to encompass our entire path, or it is indeed following us.”
The dwarf frowned at the description. “I’ve never seen obsidian rain from the sky before. I have heard tales of a twisted lizardfolk shaman called the Wastewalker who uses storms and other primal forces of the desert to destroy arcane magic users. Have you aroused his wrath somehow?”
At the mention of the Arcane hunter, Kikrik relapsed into the silence that accompanied his conversations with the Others. Clavis glanced back from the direction they had come. “I don’t see how we could have. We have not been with a magic user that I know of.”
“And the storm had already started when the ssurran attacked our caravan,” added Rayne.
Les shifted slightly. “We’ve done nothing to bring some lizard’s wrath.”
“So, you’ve seen ssurran? Most interesting…” He paused, looking thoughtful for a moment. “But where are my manners? I am called Ralo.”
The adventurers introduced themselves in turn, and then Kikrik asked, “Is there somewhere we can rest and recover nearby?”
Ralo shrugged at the kreen. “If boulders like these would be sufficient for you, then yes. Otherwise…”
“Then what brings a lone traveler like yourself out here in the middle of the desert?” the shaman wanted to know.
“Ah, well, there’s a tale,” the dwarf answered. “I was once a miner in the iron mines of Tyr, but my mine was destroyed by a frightening band of brigands known as hejkin. They burrow through the earth and have a particular dislike for arcanists and pointy-eared folk…” He nodded to Les, who frowned. More hesitantly he continued, “I myself have long studied preserving magic, but some Athasians believe all arcane magic is dangerous. And so I wander lands others have forsaken.”
Vrack frowned at Ralo. “Vrack has distrust of magics.”
“You’re not the only one, Vrack,” said Rayne.
“What is…preserving magic?” Kikrik asked nervously.
Clavis walked over and took a seat at the rock, welcoming the chance to lean back against something. “Magic that preserves I would imagine,” he commented.
In a storytelling tone, Ralo said, “All know that arcane magic strips the life from the land and its inhabitants. Defilers do this without regard for what they take. Preservers are different. We understand that the power can be taken gradually, without dealing lasting harm to the world. And so we practice our crafts carefully, lest we contribute to the death of Athas itself.”
With a twinkle in his eye he added, “And Athas is still very much alive.”
“There is a way to not defile?!” Kikrik shouted incredulously. “If that is the case, then why would anyone be horrible enough to use defiling magic?”
At the same time, Les’ eyes widened and the eladrin exclaimed, “You cannot be truthful! Arcana destroys! It defiles and strips the life from everything! How could you preserve with it?!”
Rayne made no effort to hide the expression of doubt that crossed her face.
Clavis chuckled and shook his head at Kikrik’s question. “Because there is evil in the world my dear companion.”
Ralo held his hands up to suppress the outbursts. “To answer you both, it is possible, but so many seek quick paths to power and do not even consider the long-term ramifications of what they do. Either ignorance or apathy turns their hearts to stone.” He looked around, sadly. “Thus it began. The sorcerer-kings are consequences of this short-sightedness…”
Les grew quiet, trembling slightly. In a small voice, the eladrin said, “We are taught from youth of the evils of Arcane power…” Rayne’s eyes remained locked on the bard. Vrack sat next to Clavis, a confused expression on his face. Kikrik began chittering with the Others, apparently trying to calm them.
Finally, the shaman spoke again. “Ralo, my masters do not seem to believe you. Would it be possible to show us of what you speak?”
“Yes, I want to see what you speak of,” said Les.
Ralo said, “I’m sorry. Your…masters, you say?”
“Yes. I serve the spirits of Athas. They travel with me, in a manner of speaking,” Kikrik explained.
One of Ralo’s eyebrows rose quizzically at the assertion, but after a moment’s consideration he nodded. “Very well. A demonstration to educate. Putting words into action.” He picked his plate back up and polished off his breakfast. “I’ve just eaten, so I should be alright,” he concluded.
The dwarf stood and assumed a comfortable stance, taking slow, deep breaths. He closed his eyes for several moments, then opened them and reached out to his ceramic plate. It shuddered briefly, then slowly rose from the ground suspended in air.
Vrack clapped his hands, shouting, “That good trick! How you do?” Clavis watched with mild interest as the plate hovered, remaining silent.
Les shifted awareness to the spectrums of magic and watched the flows surrounding Ralo. The energy coming from the world around him seemed to loop back from the dwarf. He was feeding it back with his own life force, and generating extra energy as magical force to power his telekinesis spell.”
The eladrin paled. “It’s coming from you? You sacrifice your own life? How?”
Clearly concentrating as the plate began to spin, Ralo said, “I do not…sacrifice…my life. I reach…symbiosis…with Athas.”
“By the shadow,” Rayne muttered.
The magical energy built as the plat began to spin faster, and with a quick gesture from Ralo, it began speeding around the area, narrowly missing the boulders in its rapid flight. Les could see the tight control that the dwarf held on the plate’s swiftly changing trajectory. In awe, the eladrin asked, “How? How do you do that?” Kikrik was grinning exuberantly.
To end the demonstration, the plate flew straight at Ralo, faster than an arrow. At the last second, it stopped dead within inches of his head. “Control,” he intoned. “That is the key.” The plate lowered into his hands, and he brushed off a few of the more tenacious crumbs still stuck to it. The connection with Athas faded, and his shoulders slumped a bit.
“Impressive,” said Clavis.
“Well, now I’m hungry again,” said Ralo cheerfully. “Care to have your first breakfast while I eat my second? I’m afraid I don’t have enough to go around this morning. You folks look positively famished.”
Standing with mouth slightly agape, Les said, “Yes… Breakfast.”
“That good show. Make Vrack hungry, too,” said the half-orc.
They all sat down to eat, digging into their hard tack and trying not to guzzle their dwindling water rations. Les’ eyes remained on Ralo as breakfast continued. Halfway through the meal, Ralo paused, glanced around, and then said, “It’s not safe.”
Dust kicked up all around, swirling in ever denser patterns. They steeled themselves against the off-putting alkaline taste that gathered in their mouths. Suddenly, the desert itself seemed to rise up and attack! Living dust devils converged on the group from the east and the west, a barely visible ssurran nightmare standing ten feet tall directing the whirlwinds and laughing malevolently. In seconds, the course sand sliced through flesh and muscle, then began to disintegrate the bone beneath. Before they could stand, the adventurers and Ralo lay dead in the sand.
The adventurers blinked.
The vision of instant death had faded, but they knew they were still in danger. The dust devils and the ssurran were very real, though the lizardfolk stood no taller than the rest of them in reality. The creature cursed Ralo as a defiler and sent its elemental lackeys to attack the dwarf and his recent acquaintances. The companions leapt into the fray, offering a fierce counterattack.
Rayne danced around the field, stepping through shadows to more advantageous positions and lashing out with every shadow available. Clavis kept his back to one of the boulders and loosed his primal shots to devastating effect. Vrack charged and harried the ssurran so that it could not evoke death quite so cavalierly. Kikrik and his spirits did what they could to mitigate the slashing sands and keep the group alive. Les split the difference between Rayne and Kikrik, striking for the kill and casting healing magic – though hiding it poorly.
The ssurran didn’t have much of a chance against the half-orc and died swiftly without having much effect. The dust devils manipulated the sand beneath the adventurers feet to send them spilling to the ground and flung their opponents around the field with abandon. After the ssurran fell to Vrack’s efforts, the elementals attacks became less focused, though no less devastating. Rayne, Clavis, and finally Vrack were tossed into a nearby silt pool, though they managed to remain upright and untrapped by the frictionless dust. Les’ magic teleported the human and gith out of the pool and back to the relative safety of the melee.
When the last dust devil fell, each of the companions breathed a sigh of great relief. Kikrik reached out a spear to help Vrack out of the silt, and once Rayne saw that he was safe, her scimitar fell from numb fingers; she wandered away from Ralo’s camp to the south. Les picked up the weapon and followed the human. Clavis sat on the sand, setting his bow across his lap. “Thanks, Jett,” he said quietly.
The dwarf lay on the ground where he had recently been brought back to consciousness staring at Kikrik’s Spirit of Athas in awe and appreciation. “I believed,” breathed the dwarf. “But now…I know.” A tear trickled from his eye, and he wiped away quickly, muttering about wasting moisture.
Kikrik asked, “Are you okay, Ralo? I provided what little aid I could.”
The dwarf stood and offered Kikrik a hand to shake. “My boy, I could not be better. You’ve saved my life, and that’s the truth of it.” He limped back to his possessions and dug around in his pack. “I’ve some…items that I’ve collected over the years. They are yours if you desire them.”