Oh, ‘tis a mere nothing! A snake! A snake! The commonest thing in the world. A snake in the bosom – that’s all…
When last we left our dauntless Castaways, they had breached the scriptorium of Zura’s sanguine sanctorum and were about to get a massive learn on!
Then from out of nowhere, or rather, a priceless ten millennia-old porcelain amphora, burst a black blur of claws, fur, and bloodlust – wrapped in a dusty green cloak.
Half the Battle
Fortunately, Kor’lec already sensed something in the library of cuneiform slabs was amiss and had readied his shield against the frenzied lycanthrope. Unfortunately, the beast-halfling’s claws were not quite half-sized and bit deep into the druid’s leathers. Kishtari, certain the lycanthropic assassin was responsible for Nemanji’s disappearance, had that hazy glow and focus she often showed right before making some attacker’s remains impossible to identify.
“Big Sister! No!” Likki was tugging on the psion’s hand. “He not in charge of head!”
“What do we do in the meantime? Ack!” wondered Kor’lec aloud, somehow holding Tyst off with a shield that – despite being made of a wood as hard as granite – was halfway to a heap of densewood shavings. Kai was barely restraining her instinct to defend her master.
Likki said an Abyssal prayer to Mechuiti and called upon the cannibal god to abjure the halfling’s mind of evil influences. The goblin bounded like a mullered monkey over to the blur of fangs and claws and put out his glowing hand. Though the effect, oddly enough, was granted, it failed to release Tyst from Ieana’s mental enslavement.
“Stand back Little Brother,” was Kishtari’s only warning.
Tyst… just stopped. Kishtari had mastered the telepathic processes to free dominated minds. It would not be the first time she’d need this rare and delicate ability. And not for the first time, Tyst was unclear about where he was and what he was doing. It had gotten old. One thing was clear to the were-beast, though. He was on the hunt, now. Ieana and snakes like her were going to know their place on the food chain.
Gazing into the Abyss
Tyst explained that he’d had little recollection of what had happened to him since he and Nemanji got separated in the chaos of battle against the fungoid hordes of (formerly) Grey Island. The halfling admitted he was deep in the senseless frenzy that marked his animal side. Kishtari believed that if she were allowed to telepathically plumb the depths of the green-cloaked halfling’s mind, she might glean some insight into the whereabouts of their missing friend.
Tyst, earnest to a fault when in halfling form, readily agreed.
Kishtari confirmed the ninja’s recollection of events on Grey Island, and the psion struggled to maintain contact after the point in the mental narrative where the rage took hold of him. But Kish rode the (proverbial) tiger – and the (literal) badger – through the stocky carnivore’s rampage.
He was a growling cyclone of claws that ran riot through the fungoid ranks, flinging out heads and innards as he went. Finally, just as Tyst began to tire, the grey islet’s landscape seemed to melt around him like a watercolor painting left out in the rain.
The halfling’s mindscape shifted, transporting Kishtari to a northern forest lit by moonlight. As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, the psion noted the details of the scene suggested horrific aspects. Bark patterns resembled trembling, stitched together flesh, light through the treetops cast perverse shadowplays at her feet, the moon itself was agonized face…
Finally, the kalashtar reached a clearing where Tyst was crouched, naked, prostrate. Standing over him was a tall, pallid woman, with flowing black hair. Closer Kish looked, and the hunger-stretched skin of the woman was actually a down of white fur, and her hands ended in claws. As she turned to face the psion, the woman growled, “this one is …. MINE!” and her face contorted into a slavering wolf’s!
Amid a chorus of howls, Kish fled, only to find herself behind the eyes of the halfling again, this time in ratel form, ambling along the Thrunefang paths. He encountered Ieana. “Oh, what a fortunate find you are, beastie!” spoke the serpent woman, before she ensnared the lycanthrope’s mind…
When Kishtari ended the effect, subsequent discussion touched little on Ieana’s enslavement. They all figured it had happened as Tyst remembered. But the presence of the wolf-woman was more troublesome. The realm described was not unlike the Moonbog, the Abyssal realm of Jezelda, Demon Lord of Werewolves. What the entity wanted from Tyst was a mystery, though Dornas suspected her presence was simply a construct of Ieana’s.
Kor’lec, Kai, and Tyst together made a formidable tracking team, and it would be effortless to hunt down Ieana’s general locale in the darkened temple. As interesting as the Azlanti incantations and images were on the walls, it was to the opposite wing of the edifice toward their query. It was difficult to tear Monica away from the scriptorium, though, and the archaeologist argued that there might be clues as to what challenges they could expect to find while making their way to the inner temple.
The Taldan polymath would be proven correct about the challenges, but the party vote was to make haste, anyway.
The first obstacle, the Test of Presence, was a series of hidden pits in a hallway. Animated paintings depicting the Queen of Vampires were hung on the wall. As the ikons reacted realistically and disturbingly to the observer, it would have been easy to absently walk onto the hinged trapdoors and fall into the thirty foot deep pits. However, Kor’lec was cautiously keeping an eye out for traps, and managed to detect each of them before anyone blundered to their death. Monica skillfully affixed the trapdoors shut. Tyst, in anthro form, ripped down and shredded one of the paintings with his claws, just to see the ikon within it recoil.
The next challenge, the Test of Prowess, appeared to have been defeated by Ieana, but it took its toll in blood. A knife-bearing marble statue of Zura was lying on the floor of an intersection, in a position suggesting it had come to life at some point and was defeated, but only barely. The serpent-woman’s blood was spattered about the scene. “It will be better for us if she’s still wounded,” Kish remarked.
The last trial would await in the chamber containing the blood-filled bath that Naga had discovered earlier. The Test of Penitence activated as soon as Kor’lec entered the room, and he tried to keep everyone back. An all-too-curious and excited Monica forced her way inside while the trap detected by the keen-eyed druid activated. Razor-sharp scythe blades arched out of grooves in the ceiling amid a cacophony of screeching machinery. The archaeologist dove to the pillars surrounding the bath, and in a split second determined the switch upon it would stop the blades.
She was right. The room was safe, and only the inner cathedral of Zura, and their long-elusive prey, awaited the Castaways. They prepared themselves for battle with protective magic, and went over the various ideas and plans they’d made over the past few nights. Though Dornas was insistent they get the serpentrix talking about her true objectives, they all agreed to act before their abjuration magics died out. There was a grim certainty among the Castaways that Ieana would not leave the room alive. They’d bled and sweated and hardened themselves for justice, answers, and vengeance.
It was time. Destroy Ieana, or die trying.
But First, These Messages
The enormous vaulted chamber was a fitting shrine to the vampiric demon lord. Pillars topped by winged demons supported the ceiling arches. The room was bisected by a five foot wide canal of bubbling red liquid, crossed in two places by bridges. At the party’s left was the pulpit, dominated by an enormous nude statue of Zura, from whose engorged breasts the trench’s liquid flowed. Before her was an ornate altar, from which black waves of necromantic energy drifted. To the group’s right a giant portcullis blocked a vast, crystal-lit natural cavern. Niches containing reliefs and Azlanti cuneiform were staggered along the length of the temple. Rubble was strewn about from fallen pieces of the ceiling.
Opposite the entrance, a flickering torch was wedged in a pile of fallen masonry. Behind that was a creature with a coiled serpentine body – humanoid from the waist up – studying script in one of the niches. She turned around.
“I rather hoped we could parlay,” Ieana stated with gentle aplomb. Her words, spoken in Taldane with a slight Varisian accent, had nary a hint of hiss or sibilance. Mid-sentence, the yuan-ti seamlessly forsook speech entirely in favor of communicating telepathically. “I never meant you harm. I will answer your questions.”
“You wrecked our boat!” Monica accused. The scholar was affronted by the snake-woman’s nonchalance. “I never intended to scuttle the ship,” Ieana explained, “it was the first mate’s fault for turning on the captain.”
“Who you mentally enslaved!”
“Yes, but only to drop me off here.” Someone asked why she kept trying to kill them all the time. “I was protecting myself. I couldn’t know that you’d listen to reason. Warmbloods rarely give us the benefit of the doubt. And yet here you are.”
“What exactly,” Dornas calmly interjected, “are you looking for on this island, in my people’s ruins?”
“Oh please,” Ieana rolled her eyes, “the mythic bloodlines of old Azlant devolved long ago. You are far removed from their glory.” The serpent-woman explained that she was on the verge of a momentous discovery, one that “your fragile race has not been able to solve since the sky fell eons ago.” Ieana glanced at Monica, “You will make your name with the discoveries on this island, but I can lead you to something that will turn the world of scholarship upside-down, and make you a legend…”
For a second, Monica seemed a little less sure of herself. Then shook her head and decided, “you wrecked our boat!”
Dornas reached out with a conjured hand, to seize the notes and charcoal rubbings piled on the floor of the niche before the coiled serpentrix. After he’d levitated them over, the magus scrutinized the Azlanti rubbings and Ieana’s Aklo notations. His eyes widened.
“Go ahead. Read it if you can. My people are returning while yours weakens. The Age of Aroden is ending. There is a place for you, though, in the Age to come.”
“It will never happen,” Dornas contended. “It IS happening,” Ieana countered, with a tinge of impatience in her telepathic speech. “It cannot be stopped.”
“We will stop it.” Dornas stated, flatly. He emphasized the point with a staff kata that stirred up his magic. Talk time was over. Likki started slapping his bongo. Ieana appeared disappointed.
“You wrecked our boat!” accused Monica for the umpteenth time and opened fire.
Let’s Show This Prehistoric Bitch How We Do Things on Smuggler’s Shiv
Kor’lec and Kai were already making their way closer to the serpent-woman as she was talking. Near the canal, he noted a skeletal face lurking just beneath the surface of the flowing blood. There were three skeletons lying in wait. Tyst had been rendered invisible by Monica’s illusion magic, and was carefully stalking toward Ieana as well. Dornas was also flying by the channel, at the bridge.
Ieana locked her gaze on Kishtari, “there are psionic mysteries my kind developed to traverse planets and rule an interstellar empire. This power could be yours…” The kalashtar seemed tempted, and even smiled as she mulled over the possibilities. She wanted so badly to return to Castrovel. The psion struggled.
“Destroy them,” Ieana commanded, telepathically enveloping Kish’s impressionable mind with the order, like a constrictor twisting its body around a surrendering hare.
Kishtari made up her mind, partially because the yuan-ti’s psionic compulsion recoiled from Likki’s defensive spell, mostly because there was no way she’d ever, ever allow someone to make it up for her.
“Bitch, that was sloppy,” Kish rebuked, like she was schooling a hopeless amateur.
Ieana finally rewarded her foes with the villainous hiss and sibilant screech they all expected to hear. In a blink, the furious snake-woman undulated to the closest column and coiled around and up like a corkscrew midways to the top. The yuan-ti was about to strike a fearsome pose before a magic fucking snowball walloped her in the face. Dornas turned out to be the mischievous snowball-thrower. Everyone laughed as the monstrous reptilian wiped her eyes, spit out ice, and tried to shrug-off the wooziness and humiliation.
Likki danced and capered. “Likki make good protection on Big Sister!” he rejoiced. “Thank you, Little Brother,” Kish patted the swooning goblin on the head. “Thank Mechuiti!” was the last intelligible thing the oracle uttered before the excitement had him babbling in Abyssal.
He wasn’t the only one babbling. Slowly slorping into the temple from the natural cavern was a true horror: a blob of flesh that formed tendrils, toothy mouths, and eyes upon its surface as it crawled along like a slug. “Good thing the gate is there!” Kish remarked, before the gibbering thing oozed through the bars. “Oh, never mind.”
As it formed mouths and reabsorbed them into its amorphous mass the blob uttered blasphemies that resembled the susurrus of a hundred caged lunatics. The sound dug itself into the minds of the heroes, causing them to act crazily. Most of them imagined their own bodies turning on them, and used their weapons against themselves. As Tyst did do, the magic hiding him failed, revealing him just within striking distance of Ieana.
“Did you think,” she boasted, “you were the only slave I’d acquire?” Ieana opened her jaws and spewed a gout of caustic acid on the were-creature. Soaked with the liquid, Tyst’s flesh sizzled and sloughed off his face bones and chest muscles like a waxwork effigy left out in the sun. But the tenacious lycanthrope stood in defiance of the pain and ruin of his body. His claws were no less sharp.
Monica tried to keep her distance from the mouthy ooze, recognizing the danger it represented. If it got too close to anyone, the thing would envelope and devour that person in seconds. She shot it. The bullet grazed the membrane holding the gibbering monster together but didn’t seem to slow it down. The polymath noted that at any given second, the creature had a great many eyes on its surface…
Meanwhile, Kor’lec and Kai were struggling against the blood-covered skeletons emerging from the canal’s crimson effluent. Kai was set against the bony guards, dispatching one easily by yanking its skull off with her jaws. One was trying to pull the druid into the viscous substance as he concentrated on Ieana. He called upon nature’s magic to vex the serpent-woman, and discovered yet another of the so-called First People’s strengths, their damnable resistance to spells.
But the mouther was just as vulnerable to magic as any creature, and Monica showered it with glittering particles that sank into its multifarious eyes. They reddened and winced as they submersed back into the blob’s amorphous bulk while its extended pseudopods flailed in pain. The creature was blinded, and the sluggish thing was easily sidestepped. The rest of the group began to regain their senses as Ieana’s last real advantage was effectively neutralized.
Kishtari had the crackling psionic nimbus about her that said “gulp” to anyone familiar with what she could do. Lighting and fire exploded from her, blasting Ieana off the pillar and sending her flaming body careening to the alcove where she had been finishing her research. It was all slipping through her fingers, the plans and the discovery she’d made and staked her life upon. How many years or decades had the lady serpentfolk studied and plotted, only for a motley group of survivors to band together, against all odds, and simply take it away from her?
Tyst, a horror of exposed bones and melted flesh on his hairy beast-man body, stalked toward the snake-woman. Likki had bound and leapt over to the wounded were-creature, and with a harsh-sounding plea to his cannibal god, mended and made whole Tyst’s furry hide. But Ieana had a spell ready for him.
Tyst vanished. For a split second, Ieana’s head darted back and forth and she flicked her tongue in a panic. When the lycanthropic ninja reappeared, it was with his long claws dug into her lower back and pelvis — the place where Ieana’s humanoid body met her serpentine posterior. The were-beast severed the bones of Ieana’s lower spine with his tusked jaws, and with all his strength ripped her tail away!
As Ieana’s life’s blood gushed from her rump, the victorious heroes gathered around her. The babbling blob retreated, and the last skeleton was blasted away by a beam of positrons from Dornas’s pointed finger. Ieana seemed as if she wanted to cry, but the reptilian had no tear ducts, and here at the end, even that small solace was denied her.
“Would you… allow… me a prayer to my god?” Ieana pleaded between bloody coughs. The heroes looked at each other and then nodded their permission. But the snake-woman started reciting a healing spell, and with that, Kishtari sliced her neck wide open with Ieana’s old fang-shaped dagger.
No Time for Losers
The altar to Zura was clearly the source of the necromantic curse that had afflicted Smuggler’s Shiv for ten millennia. With a combination of sacred energy and good old-fashioned smashing, the slab crumbled away with little fanfare.
For about two seconds.
Then a gout of black blood erupted from it, and it belched one blast wave of profane power. Kor’lec felt confident the souls trapped in the surf, and the undead who lingered throughout the jungle, would all soon find their way to final rest.
Monica accessed the fading magic in the rapidly collapsing statue of Zura to assume the form of a mist and reach a hidden sanctum of the Zura high priests, found a little more loot there and mention of a “serpent door.” In the crystal caverns, the party located the door, but after figuring out it would not easily open without sacrificing the soul-gems they picked out of the doll guardians, they left it – and whatever treasures lay behind it – untouched.
The heroes returned to the surface, and the Tide Stone where they’d left their friends. The party found Gelik, Aerys, and Jask surrounded by a circle of about a dozen Thrunefangs, including Chief Klorak and the cannibal brides, holding the trio hostage by spearpoint.
“Looks like I have the upper hand now,” Klorak slurred, with the shmarmy rotten-toothed smile that he probably thought was charming. He winked at Dornas. “Maybe now we re-negotiate our deal, yes?”
“No.” Dornas nodded at Kish, and the circle of Thrunefangs was instantaneously transformed a circle of fire and flaming Thrunefangs. Most were incinerated instantly. A few managed to flee a few steps before collapsing into blazing heaps. The brides probably made it furthest, expiring while they desperately tried to rip away their burning hair and clothes with their blistering hands.
Dornas helped Klorak save himself before the chief was consumed. Coldly, the magus intimated that it was not for him to decide Klorak’s fate.
Let Us Take the Adventure That Falls to Us
Cenkil explained the monkey goblins had followed the Thrunefangs to Red Mountain, after guessing that they were on the way to cause trouble for the Castaways. Cenkil, of course, thought he was saving his brother, his would-be bride, and their companions. Likki was glad to see his brother, who was acting as chief now. Also present were Likki’s remaining wife, Vershnat, and the child she’d birthed with him. Cenkil sauntered over to Kishtari. “I now realize I cannot hold you here,” Cenkil admitted, speaking the Goblin tongue “I think I should prefer quieter brides.”
Kishtari didn’t allow her fiancé’s heartbreaking revelation to despirit her. “We will remain friends, but that child,” Kish gestured to Likki’s family, “will be your chief when he comes of age.”
“That very well may be…” Cenkil began to say, but Kish cut him off, and allowed her ancestral quori spirit – in all its nightmarish majesty – to evince itself around her. “It will be as I say.”
“I will see it is so.”
The party went to collect Pezock, fully intending to give the friendly, if somewhat mentally troubled, tengu the opportunity to escape the island with them. With the lighthouse up and running thanks to Monica and Dornas, the group expected rescue in short order. Aerys knew a few signals that were recent enough so passing ships wouldn’t mix up their genuine intentions with those they knew were once employed by the extirpated cannibals to lure “food.”
They found him dead. For all appearances Pezock had ignominiously poisoned himself by eating a deadly species of nudibranch. But Kor’lec wasn’t so sure. The tengu had survived alone for a decade. Why make that mistake now? The incisive half-elf noticed that Pezock’s weapon, a magical sawtoothed saber, was nowhere to be found in or around the bird-man’s shack.
A salvage vessel called the Red Gull, traveling out of Eleder to Bloodcove, was the first passing ship to notice and investigate the lighthouse’s distress signal. Within the span of a few hours, jolly boats ferried messengers and finally passengers. The adventurers and friends, those that history would name the Shiv Castaways, set sail toward bigger challenges, greater perils, and far, far, more legendary adventures.