Campaign of the Month: September 2016

Age of Serpents

Red Right Hands

There’s a storm inside of us. A burning. A river. A drive. An unrelenting desire to push yourself harder and further than anyone could think possible. Pushing ourselves into those cold, dark corners, where the bad things live. Where the bad things fight. We wanted that fight at the highest volume. A loud fight. The loudest, coldest, darkest, most unpleasant of the unpleasant fights.

Last episode, the Castaways found themselves suffering from exposure—that is to say, their cover was blown, around fifty archers had their bows trained on them, and they (mostly Monica Montana) were about to be pounced upon by lions.

The Killing Ground!

Monica had fired a shot after the party’s curt dismissal by the evil shamaness Gulyet. The tiefling had turned her back on the party while ordering the men stationed in and upon the walls surrounding the bailey to kill them if they didn’t leave immediately. However, the Taldan gunslinger wasn’t shooting to kill. Rather, she’d been infusing her weapon with magical resonance. Her aim: to produce a sound that would disrupt Gulyet’s strange companion’s tether to the Material Plane. The resourceful polymath’s gambit succeeded! and the lion-like being simply drifted like smoke into the Ethereal.

That gave the banished mngwa’s master pause. Gulyet turned to look back at the interlopers, hand raised to hold off the archers. “You now have my attention,” she said. “Where is Azange? Why are you really here?”

By way of an answer, Dornas vaulted past her, and with his magical staff, swept up the lion-taming tiefling’s legs and sent her spinning to the ground. “You aren’t the first adventurers whose bones litter these grounds!” snarled the shaken shaman. Gulyet ordered her lionesses to attack.

The ferocious felines roared. One raced toward Monica while the other turned to face the magus who’s upended their trainer. Monica braced and felt the big cat’s hot, meat-scented breath as its great jaws tried to clamp on her throat. With a word and gesture, the arcane archeologist disappeared, forcing her foe to seek out its invisible prey with its nose and ears.

By sicking her pets on the heroes, Gulyet had made a severe tactical mistake. The archers on the walls hesitated to pepper the yard with arrows in fear of hurting their boss or the lionesses. Either, plainly, could result in a very permanent, excruciating termination of their employment. As the confounded M’bulazi sounded the alarm gongs and awaited instructions from their commanders, the Castaways were afforded precious seconds.

It was all they needed. Suddenly, a section of the curtain wall came tumbling down. A horror appeared behind the collapsing brickwork and dust cloud. In hybrid humanoid-honey badger form, Tyst howled, and with sickle-like claws that had just hewn stone, hurdled himself toward the lion who’d harried Monica. From the landing where the lycanthrope had leapt, a hawk morphed into half-elven form, revealing Kor’lec. The druid recited a spell, calling upon the magic of the wilderness.

Meanwhile, Kishtari moved to blast Gulyet with phrenic feedback, but the willful witch-doctor resisted. The tiefling rolled and crawled toward the legs of her lion bodyguard for succor, but the beast blindsided her with a swipe of its claw! Kor’lec smirked. He was the beast’s master now!

The druid ordered the lioness to continue its attack, and it readily complied. The great feline jerked the prone tiefling up in it’s jaws and mauled her with feral efficacy. Kai emerged from the party’s wagon and matched claws and fangs with the other lioness. The little dinosaur held her own, biting and raking crimson swathes across the great cat’s golden flanks.

Dornas broke from the scrum toward the gatehouse archway, only for a large, acid-drooling insect to burst from the muddy ground at his feet! Despite the element of surprise, the bug-monster failed to lock its virulent mandibles on the magus. Having all-but finished Gulyet, Kor’lec ordered his new lion against the creature Monica had called an “ankheg.”

“Who in the Hells keeps giant bugs in their front yard?” Kishtari mused.

“These assholes,” deadpanned Kor’lec, as the big cat pounced on the giant bug like, well, like a little cat pouncing on a little bug. Kishtari approached the nigh-mangled body of the tiefling shaman. She wasn’t merely holding on to life, she was conscious, too. But not for long! Kish balled up her fist and with all her might socked the demon-blooded woman, harming only her own knuckles when they connected with Gulyet’s horny hide. Luckily, Kor’lec was there to knock the villainess out good and proper. The party hastily made plans to use the dying tiefling as a hostage. Dornas, invisible Monica, and Kish dragged her inside the still open barn. There were two very frightened M’bulazi boys working within, whom Dornas chased out the opposite door leading to the fort’s inner courtyard.

As that was happening, Kai dug her clawed toes into the enemy lioness’s shoulders and yanked her head free with her teeth like she was uncorking a canteen filled with blood. Tyst rewarded the guard who’d let the party in the front gates by feeding him his own intestines. Looking for more foes to disembowel, the bloodthirsty were-creature looked upward, as the M’bulazi were finally loosing arrows. Those on the roof of the gatehouse were loading the ballista and aiming it at him. Likki sensed what his teammate was thinking and called upon his demon god before laying a hand on Tyst’s hairy hide. The lycanthrope felt the magic wash into his paws and feet. “Thanks buddy,” Tyst growled before ascending the wall like a spider.

Kor’lec bolted to scoop up Kai while arrows began plunking down into the dust around them like a sputtering rain, then ordered his lioness to take out anyone foolish enough to enter the bailey before his control of the cat faded completely. When everyone was safe inside the barn (save Tyst who was climbing to the roof) Likki jumped up, pulled the garage-style door down by the handle, and swung inside as well.

Almost as soon as Tyst’s eyes were level with the rooftop battlement, the ballistae team up there opened fire with their bows. Though their shots zinged by, Tyst had accumulated arrows enough during the climb to pluck one out of his thick pelt to menacingly break. The M’bulazi were agape, but undeterred. They chucked a few small sacks at the ominously approaching lycanthrope. The bags exploded into sticky glue, but most of these were either batted away or sidestepped by the dexterous beast. One connected, exposing Tyst to the hardening sludge, which he peeled off with muscle and fang. Nothing would stave the werebadger’s advance, as if he were a furry little grim reaper.

Finally, the ballista crew on the opposite tower had loaded and locked on him. Tyst knew there was a limit to what he could survive. He bid adieu to the nearby quartet by making them a hendectet—the hard way—before finding the trapdoor leading down into the barn and joining the others.

From their camp on the opposite side of the bailey from the battle, a pack of gnolls howled and cackled derisively at their M’bulazi hosts on the walls, some of whom were still trying to put a decisive spear or arrow into Gulyet’s lion. Finally, one of the gnolls, a milk-eyed, scarred hulk of a beast almost as big as the lioness itself, waltzed through the rain of arrows and caved in its skull with a casual swing of his iron flail. “Boys,” said the flind to his mangy crew, “time we negotiated a promotion around here.” The gnolls tittered and yipped. Taking a moment to suck lion brains off the bar of his flail, the commander continued, “just one thing we oughtta bring to the bargaining table.” Over to the barn he looked, where the intruders had holed up.

Then the gatehouse officer emerged with a group of very angry-looking tribesmen at his back. The officer had a no-nonsense stride, heavy gold rings stretching his lobes, faint white skull-like paint on his face, and several long needles pierced across his brow. “You brutes would put the Second Mistress in danger with animal tactics,” charged the Bekyar. His admonishment was met with growls from the gnolls that were really less offensive than their incessant laughter. The Mwangi continued, “we know that she lives still.”

“Bah, cowards! You…” spat the flind. Some of the gnolls started getting shovey with the humans now surrounding them. The M’bulazi shoved right back.

You did NOTHING,” interrupted the officer, “until the dust all but cleared. Now, we find we must do what you dogs do best.”

“Hur?” sniveled the flind, squinting his one good eye inquisitively.

“We wait. For orders from below, and we find out what these foreigners want.”

Guided Tour

The indecision of the surrounding forces allowed the Castaways a moment of respite. Their plans formulated around the one key piece of the bloody chess board they’d captured. Presuming that Gulyet was second-in-command or close to second in the slaver’s hierarchy after the as-yet unmet M’kessa, Kishtari delved into her unconscious mind. Even comatose, the tiefling resisted, but Kishtari’s will won out to reveal some useful exposition.

Gulyet considered herself to be M’kessa’s apprentice. However, the pecking order after M’kessa was not entirely clear. As a cult, a militia, and a business, there were several structures in play—like pyramids connected at the tip. At least, Gulyet considered herself second-in-command of the spiritual life of the M’bulazi. Second in the business structure was a woman named Agail Enthess, a former con-artist who’d been transmuted and brainwashed to serve as M’kessa’s decoy. Enthess recently positioned herself as second in the business structure; if not altogether in charge of it by posing to eastern buyers as M’kessa, allowing the real M’kessa to focus on her experiments in magic and science. Despite their different spheres of influence, Gulyet despised Enthess, fearing the double had overstepped herself as a slave and had become M’kessa’s “favorite.”

The party felt they’d had enough information to work with, and made some more plans. Then they turned to Likki and asked the goblinoid to tend to her. Humorously, the little savage mistook the intent of “tend” in Taldane to mean “add fire,” to which Likki warned, “fire good tend much problem, but not so good demon-girl problem.” When the matter was cleared up, the mysterious entities behind the monkey goblin’s magic mended most of the tiefling’s wounds. Gulyet struggled and hissed in her bonds, but Kish secured her with a far more effective mental shackle—implanting a deep attraction to herself.

With the psionic captivation in place, Gulyet proved more than agreeable. The silver-tongued kalashtar managed to further convince the vile shamaness that they were mercenaries hired by an old enemy of Agail Enthess to kill her. The tiefling was, predictably, quite mollified by this and agreed to not only simmer down the guardsmen, but to bring the “assassins” into the keep so they could meet with Enthess (in her guise as M’kessa). Gulyet would simply use the party’s original lie, that they were rich slave buyers who wanted to negotiate with the fortress’s leader for custom slaves. She’d even help them escape after the assassination was carried out!

Gulyet shouted out to the guards that everything was okay. Even with their suspicions stirred, the fortress militiamen had no choice but to accept the Second Mistress’s commands to stand down. After that, she led the party into the keep, where the only things that would unravel their plan were their own hearts.

The nickel tour Gulyet happily provided provoked a rising tide of anger in Kor’lec. In the garden before the keep’s doors, the shamaness stopped to pray before the fountain, where within was a great statue of the demon goddess Lamashtu. After, the tiefling pointed to the garden’s trees, where the first offenses to Kor’lec’s nature-oriented sensibilities lurked—a trio of chimpanzees had been painfully mutated into killing machines. “That reminds me,” said the shamaness, “Azange, my companion, and my lions, what became of them?” It was explained that her spirit creature was temporarily banished, and that at least one of the lions was left to hold off the guards when the party took refuge in the barn. “Unfortunate,” Gulyet said frankly, “but lions are just animals. I will train others to serve.” Kor’lec seethed.

Further on, Gulyet explained that her mistress M’kessa experimented upon people, animals, and beast-men hybrids birthed by the high priestess herself from her unholy unions with animals. From these she created monstrous slaves that commanded top dollar in the markets of the east. Only the strongest chattel survived the process, those captives with no hope of surviving M’kessa’s fleshwarping were sold as common galley slaves and servants in lesser markets such as their enterprise in Summ’tero. Those changed into monsters were built into guardians or pleasure slaves that catered to whatever depraved fetish their buyers were after. When the party passed a hallway containing some zombie guards, Kor’lec nearly snapped. By this time, it wasn’t just the druid on the verge of destroying their demon-blooded hostess and every abomination she enthusiastically pointed out.

Finally arriving at a metal banded locked door in the southern rear of the fortress, Gulyet informed the visitors that they were to pass through a room requiring them to stuff their ears with cotton. “We mollify newer captives here,” the tiefling explained. “We expose them to an unceasing noise that is quite effective.” Kish remembered that the boy escapee in Suum’tero nearly broke down into hysterics when he tried to recall the sound in question.

The Bath House

Beyond the door was, to date, the most abominable thing that any of the Castaways had encountered in their short careers as adventurers. Even the bloodthirsty killer in Tyst was aghast at the sight.

The room was dominated by a drained cistern, probably an old bath chamber, as could be reasoned by the clothing hooks along the north walkway. Inside the cistern, manacled to bolted loops, were several dozen men, woman, and children of many races and ethnicities. They were mostly Mwangi humans and elves, with a smattering of halflings, dwarves, and even a few orcs and hobgoblins. The captives laid, sat and twitched nearly shoulder to shoulder or on top of each other, mutilated by whip marks and barely clothed in their own sweat and excrement. None appeared cognizant, an effect of the drone that echoed across the chamber, audible to the Castaways even through their stuffed ears.

Gulyet beamed, proud of what she was showing off to her guests. Noticing that, Kishtari made a motion to stroke her enchanted hostess’s hair, and unleashed a salvo of psionic energy that splattered the tiefling’s head against the stone wall. As the villainess’s twitching remains crumpled to her feet, one of the garments hanging on the hooks fluttered and flew upward, revealing the source of the disturbing drone.

Not fabric but flesh, the flying creature superficially resembled a manta ray, but it had a spiky tail and a humanoid “face” on its underside. Its eyes, and its unintelligible speech, betrayed the beast’s intelligence. Monica recalled what she’d read of these deadly underworld dwelling creatures, called “cloakers,” and tried to warn her companions before it blared a hellish klaxon…

Failing Forward

Develop success from failures. Discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success.

Last time, our heroes were engaged in preparations for their trip to the slave trafficking M’bulazi tribe’s fortress. Ahead of them was no easy task, as their destination was in the midst of the powerful clan’s tribal territory, and the journey would disprove an old cliché: Getting there isn’t, in fact, any of the fun at all.

Uneasy Lunch

Kishtari awoke to the scent of cooked food, having fallen asleep in the comfort of Ewandabe’s living room. The man was harboring a fugitive slave, a scared boy named Watende. The farmer would not even let the sheriff near the boy, so it fell upon Kish and her particular powers of persuasion to get the cranky farmer to give up his charge for questioning. This was the psion’s kind of work. Kishtari had mollified the farmer’s mind to make him more cooperative. But exhaustion had claimed her before the kalashtar could convince Ewandabe to let her interview his charge.

When the psion awoke, Ewandabe was sitting on a chair next to her, smiling, but so was his wife, not so smiling. “Husband! Why is this strange girl still here?” The farmer simply laughed her off and turned his attentions back to his sleeping guest.

“Sleepyhead! You missed my breakfast but I made you lunch!” The enchantment must surely have worn off by then, so Kishtari was fortunate that humans tended to follow through with notions they had of themselves—even if those notions were psionically imprinted.

By now, the word about town was that the visitors who’s rumbled with the Bekyar at Naga’s Notch hadn’t—as Sheriff Agata claimed—left the village. Kor’lec’s miracle with old Matumba had achieved mythological status by late morning. As a result, Ewandabe was more well-disposed to the idea of giving up Watende to Kishtari’s questioning.

The boy was young, a Zenj in his mid-teens, and horrifically abused. He was sullen and scared. But Kish was perfectly sympathetic, and soon the young herdsman was spilling his guts. He’d broken away from a line-up brought out to the front yard of the fortress after a visiting merchant had requested a slave for his orcish guards to entertain themselves with. His flight led him inside the curtain wall, where he hid throughout the day and climbed out a window at night by fashioning a rope from old linens he’d found. No, he didn’t see any sort of ghostly phenomena while he waited for night, but knew the guards refused to enter the wall for fear of it.

The frightened Zenj had heard that a few slaves over the years tried to escape from the well room in the southwest corner of the keep after being sent to retrieve water, and that the well connected to the moat outside. But also he heard that these would-be escapees never made it out that way, their bodies were always later fished out of the well when the water started tasting foul. The last thing Watende tried to recall was inside the lock-up, a “sound, a horrible drone, that never stopped and made us numb.”

For their cooperation, Kishtari gave twenty five gold crowns to Watende and Ewandabe’s family, an ample sum that would see all of the commoners through for years to come.

Back in the Saddle

Kish returned to Naga’s Notch and noticed Matumba tethered by a rope outside; which was a laughably absurd image because the huge animal could be chained to the inn itself and simply leave, trailing the building behind him. Someone had dropped off the howdah, too. Kor’lec came outside to meet her and affirmed that, yes, all those smiles and nods in Kish’s direction on the way meant they’d won the support of the villagers. Also, Matumba was to be called “Professor Peanuts” from now on.

After Kishtari caught her friends up on what she learned from the fugitive slave, Kor’lec and the kalashtar shared a few words about his dream of the undead dragon Nymdragoth. Kishtari confirmed that the horned blue dragons of her homeworld were the defenders of Adar, the mountainous sanctuary of her race and others opposed to the tyranny of the Inspired. Kor’lec had reason to believe that the dream-linked villain might have been one of these guardians, somehow corrupted. The druid told Kish about the other aspects of his dream; the serpentfolk, the forces fighting them, etc.

Elephant Crisis

Though all would have preferred more time to recuperate and equip, time was of the essence. The Bekyar would eventually catch wind that Suum’tero’s citizens had gotten behind the foreigners. The next few hours were spent in preparation for the journey. Kish and Dornas repaired the howdah, and Kor’lec cleaned the local greengrocer out of the few hundred pounds of produce Professor Peanuts would nom on during travel. Monica was nearly done combining her pistols together to fashion a new double-barreled firearm, though she’d need to polish it up on the trip. Having a notion to infiltrate the fort as slave-buyers, the group purchased Kelesh-style outfits for Dornas, Kish, and Monica.

By late afternoon, they were ready to go, traveling like emperors on the back of mighty Professor Peanuts.

For about 3 hours.

After a few hours of travel out of the swamps of Suum’tero and into the highlands of M’bulazi territory, the wild mastodon turned ornery; annoyed with the howdah and the several hundred pounds of riders and supplies strapped upon him. Kor’lec attempted to regain control of the creature, but even with Kishtari’s psionic manipulations, Professor Peanuts refused to proceed with the load upon him. The embittered druid and his companions left the stubborn old pachyderm behind, dragging their gear along on foot.

Village to Pillage

A short time after the first rains of the afternoon, the travelers came upon an M’bulazi village. The first of the Bekyar they saw were children playing in the puddles of the cowpath. The kids already bore some of the scarification and tattoos characteristic of the tribe, along with filed teeth. Upon seeing the Castaways, the children fled back to the hedge-walled huts and called out an alarm. The heroes waited on the trail and braced themselves for a confrontation, all agreeing they weren’t in the mood for any bullshit from these terrible people.

Those who answered the kids’ alarm were a handful of elderly or crippled men, and some women, implying that hale males worked up in the fortress. Still, the villagers bore spears and clubs. One of these old guys was the village headman, who didn’t feel the need to introduce himself. The Castaways responded to the affront in kind, by getting right down to business. “We want to trade for some of your draft animals,” referring to the big atlas asses they’d seen corralled next to village, “and for you to get out of our way.” The adventurers offered the plentiful bounty of produce they were hauling.

The headman laughed at the absurdity of the offer. “We don’t like these foods much, and also bananas depreciate in value much faster than donkeys.” Then came the bullshit that the party were now even less in the mood for. The headman explained that some warriors from the fortress came through earlier, and that they were told to keep an eye out for a group of foreigners who looked a lot like the travelers. “So we are thinking,” said the headman, “that you shouldn’t pass.”

The Castaways started to draw weapons when the headman whistled toward the huts. The children returned, and the villagers scooped them up in their arms while leveraging their spears toward the travelers. “We think you’ll turn back now,” said the total piece-of-shit headman. But Tyst, who’s snuck past the wall of gall already, let them know that one way or another, they were getting by. At that point, three of the villagers buckled at the knees to take a nap right there in the mud. Kish followed her minor display of power with a threat, “we can do a lot more and worse.”

Sufficiently cowed, the villagers allowed the Castaways to take the asses they needed, and a nice wagon that was just sitting there, unused, in someone’s garage. They generously left the elephant food and a few crowns. The emasculated headman had a little cheek left. “You go to kill M’kessa?” he mocked, referring to the M’bulazi’s queen, “you will die.” Then added, “she is a goddess in flesh, the chosen of Lamashtu.”

“Pfft,” spat Kor’lec, “How many gods have we killed, now?”

Somewhat sheepishly, the headman asked, “if you succeed, what becomes of us?”

“Happy trails!” returned the party, in some form another.

Before they left, Likki put out his hand to the headman, opened it, and revealed his most valuable gem. “Take it. No one like my god either.”

“Insult,” the headman muttered, snatching the precious stone, “charity from a goblin.” He made a gesture to toss Likki’s gift into the jungle, then saw that the goblin’s friends would likely make certain his head followed it. The guy simply turned his back without another word, gem in hand, and returned to his hut. With that, the party’s business with these horrible people was concluded.

The Slaver’s Stockade

By the next day of their journey, the sweltering jungle had broken into scrub, and the high hills of M’bulazi-land were studded with buttes, carved by a maze of waterways with deep ravines and gulches. The Castaways followed the old slaver’s road to a hill crest, and from there saw that the road turned and twisted down and back around to a box canyon, following a stream that had sculpted the terrain in ages of yore. Within the dead-end valley squatted the fortress of the slavers atop a low, broad mesa, forcing the waterway to either side of it. This gave the stockade the advantage of a natural moat and embankment.

It was also huge.

The old Chelish ediface sprawled roughly three acres, occupying the entire top of the butte. It was single story, save for a central guardtower, a more recent addition of wood, the original gatehouse, and the curtain wall. It had suffered—and lost—from some historic battle, apparently, as the roofs looked to have been recently replaced with not-as-flammable-as-it-seemed mud and thatch, and the walls of the bailey and forecourt were but a rampart of wooden stakes approximately twenty feet high. The rampart surrounded the keep as well, suggesting that at least some of the main structure’s original stone walls were likewise damaged.

With his spyglass, Kor’lec noted at least two dozen soldiers on just the rampart, more on the roofs of the gatehouse and curtain wall, and worst of all, two arbalests with crews on either of the gatehouse towers. This was going to be tougher than they thought…

The Castaways agreed to stick to the infiltration plan. Kor’lec changed into a hawk, while Tyst assumed dire badger form. As animals, the two shapeshifters would infiltrate the curtain wall. Kish, Dornas, and Monica, in their Kelish garb, led the wagon up the road to the front gate of the fortress. Two M’bulazi tribesmen armed with bows were stationed on the roof above the drawbridge. These informed the travelers that the stockade typically did not engage in direct sales of chattel, unless one intended to purchase the expensive “custom” creations of M’kessa herself. Pretending to “translate” for Dornas’ faux-Kelish babble, Kishtari successfully convinced the gate guards that they were indeed wealthy merchants from Casmaron who’d heard tell of the slaver queen’s marvelous offerings. Kish humbly apologized for being unfamiliar with the protocols. “But we’ve come a long way…”

After a minute, the drawbridge lowered and the Castaways led their caravan beyond. At the same time, Kor’lec and Tyst rendezvoused in the derelict interior of the curtain wall. From there, the shapeshifters kept watch on the bailey through the arrow slits.

Meanwhile, forces arrayed on the wall and, presumably, on and inside the larger gatehouse cordoning the bailey from the inner courtyard, mobilized. The guard who’d lowered the drawbridge said he’d get a representative to speak with the Castaways.

Lion Through Their Teeth

After a few minutes of awkward small talk with one of the guards, an underling of M’kessa’s presented herself. She was a tiefling, didn’t look at all affable, and interestingly, came through a hidden garage-style door that led into a stable within the gatehouse. She wasn’t alone. As foretold by the party’s interrogation of the sleeping slaver in Suum’tero, the demon-blooded woman was attended by three lions. One of the feline beasts, a male, was a bit smaller than the two females, though no less ferocious in mien, and seemed to drift in and out of reality as if he were made of spectral smoke. The spirit creature’s eyes glinted with malice and intelligence, and he immediately went sniffing about the Castaways’ wagon.

The tiefling introduced herself as Gulyet, M’kessa’s apprentice. Her strange companion was called Azange. The woman repeated the reproach of the guards, that the fortress didn’t normally engage in trade, its purpose was to “process” slaves for market in Suum’tero, and only her mistress’s “special wares” were exchanged here by arrangement. While the heroes tried to convince the tiefling that they were indeed interested in these “special wares,” Gulyet was skeptical, returning their inquiries with her own questions about who they were and whom referred them. Azange circled the visitor’s wagon. “I smell a goblin,” growled the beast in perfect Taldane.

Likki appeared. “Yes, he is a servant,” Kish explained.

“Where is his collar,” the lion-spirit asked.

“He does not require one,” the disguised kalashtar replied. Like a ghost through a gauze curtain, Azange pushed his leonine head into the wagon, then out. “You have a tamed raptor. Intriguing. I see no shackles, nothing to bind your purchases? I smell only manure and feed. Sure you are slave merchants?”

It was starting to come apart. Well, at least they made it into the bailey. Unfortunately, outer courtyards were called “killing grounds” for a reason, and the archers on and within the walls around them were reaching for arrows. From their hiding place, Kor’ec and Tyst saw the time was coming. The werebadger tensed and flexed his claws. Kor’lec quickly cooked up a spellcasting strategy.

Gulyet stated that M’kessa’s custom slaves were expensive, and asked to see what the travelers brought. When the Castaways opened their purses, she threw her head back and cackled. “Pittance! That will buy you a few galley slaves or ploughmen. We have a market for peons in Suum’tero. You haven’t enough to do business here.”

Kishtari was getting fed up with the charade—and had less to recommend of their host’s customer service skills. “Perhaps you overestimate the value of your wares.”

The tiefling stopped laughing. “Insolent fool,” she hissed, “my mistress’s creations command tens of thousands in the Fleshfairs of the East.” Gulyet turned back toward the door and ordered the nearby guard, “give them two minutes. If they don’t leave, kill them all.”

Monica threw back the robes of her disguise, pointed her gun at the strutting demon-spawn’s back, and pulled the trigger. A bullet left a chamber, lions prepared to pounce, nearly fifty bowstrings stretched, and a shot echoed around the slaver’s stockade—signalling a characteristic campaign cliffhanger…

Falling Scales

The serpent is the embodiment of Heaven and Earth. It scares people in many ways.

Last time, the Castaways agreed to help a small cadré of dissidents from the little fishing port of Suum’tero free their village from the influence of the demon-worshiping slave traffickers known as the M’bulazi. The Bekyar sub-tribe had been coaxed into a confrontation with the heroes by the town’s resident juju priestess, the Bekyar Se’enga who was subsequently slain by Kishtari.

The primary catalyst of the confrontation, Kor’lec, who’d snubbed and offended Se’enga earlier in the night, was nowhere to be found—unless one checked a certain patch in the saline swamp surrounding the village, where the druid had bed down.

Unliving the Dream

Kor’lec dreamt for the third time of the undead dragon. In this vision, he was amongst a group allied against an ophidian army on a strange world. The wyrm was called Nymdragoth and was fighting on behalf of the serpentfolk and their monstrous creations. In the dream, Kor’lec inhabited an elf druid who was entrusted with taking a head-sized, mummified eye to someplace called the Library of Last Resort, where Nymdragoth couldn’t find it. But an elder druid, who looked vaguely like Kor’lec’s grandfather, exposed Kor’lec’s vessel as a spy being controlled by undead dragon.

Thus, Kor’lec was in Nymdragoth’s head all along as in the first two dreams. This time, the wyrm addressed Kor’lec directly when he looked into his mirror. Nymdragoth said he hadn’t felt Kor’lec behind his eyes for centuries, when in reality Kor’lec’s last dream involving the wyrm were but a few weeks prior. After more tit-for-tat, the dragon grew wary of Kor’lec’s insolence and tried to intimidate him into revealing who he was. Nymdragoth sensed a crying child in the background before the same sound woke Kor’lec, implying that the dreams were transmitting information to the villainous wyrm.

Kor’lec Gets a Deinotherium

The crying child was a local village boy who explained to Kor’lec that his father, a farmer, and some men were planning to kill poor Matumba. The boy explained that the strange animal was big and clumsy, but didn’t mean any harm. The beast had been driven away many times but kept returning to damage the fields and “upset the sows,” which Kor’lec soon learned were elephants used by the farmers as beasts of burden.

Matumba turned out to be a 13 ton, 13-and-a-half-foot tall elephantine creature, wallowing in a marshy rice field. Despite the primordial proboscidean’s threat display, Kor’lec bravely approached and gained the huge old animal’s trust. He noted a gouge in the beast’s flank, terribly festering and probably caused by a younger male in a battle for dominance. The druid was able to clean the animal’s infection and heal the wound. The whole encounter was witnessed by the farmers, who’d arrived at the field to kill the deinotherium. Kor’lec’s taming of the big angry animal greatly impressed the villagers who recognized the half-elf as a “spirit-talker” and friend of Shimye-Magalla. None wanted to slay Matumba, for he was a rare old beast, and Kor’lec nodded that he understood the villagers had to protect their farms. The crying boy’s father was especially relieved Kor’lec spared him his child’s animosity, and offered an old howdah in case the druid and his friends sought to ride Matumba. As to those friends, many of the villagers had guessed they were still hiding in town, and not run off as Sheriff Red had told the M’bulazi. Few liked “the old witch” Se’enga or her Bekyar buddies, and Kor’lec’s “miracle” gave them hope that Shimye-Magalla had sent champions that would rout the wicked slavers.

Matumba remained agreeable to the druid’s handling, so Kor’lec bid him to sit tight in a clearing and await his return. Word of his deed traveled fast, and Kor’lec’s trip back to the Naga’s Notch was punctuated by welcoming nods and smiles from the villagers.

The Bat Cave

“I call this the Bat Cave,” Samaritha explained, “because we had to clean out an icky bat nest to build it.” Kor’lec was led by the Naga’s Notch Inn’s proprietor to the hidden cellar, where Dornas and Monica were working on fashioning weapons and alchemical items. The two humans had been awake for an hour or so, using Rashoom as a runner to sell old gear at the docks and return with the supplies they needed to build a formidable arsenal. They got the returning druid up to speed on what he missed, and that Kish was at a man named Ewandabe’s house trying to get information from a boy hiding out there who’d successfully escaped the M’bulazi stockade. Kor’lec was surprised when his teammates mentioned Tyst’s lycanthropy in front of Samaritha. The dancer put him at ease by saying she was descended from lycanthropes, and protected the halfling’s discovery during the bar fight. “About that,” Samaritha contended, “he put a lot of good people at risk.”

Dornas said that Tyst didn’t seem to have the same concern for secrecy. “It’s more than that.” The skinwalker went on to explain that when a cursed lycanthrope changed unwillingly, their minds were taken by the beast and they couldn’t tell friend from foe. Injury and fear could trigger an involuntary change as easily as a full moon. Further, many hunted the changing breeds, and the worst were werewolves who hated all other lycanthropes. Samaritha figured Tyst was new to the life but needed to know these things before he hurt someone dear to him, or was found by those who got off on killing were-creatures. Dornas suggested that Samaritha herself be the one to tell him.

Kor’lec let Samaritha know that he’d secured good-will from the village majority, and so they didn’t necessarily need to hide in the dingy old cellar. He then discussed his dream visions for the first time with someone other than Kishtari. Dornas and Monica had a great many questions about Nymdragoth and the potential threat he represented. Kor’lec didn’t know what his connection was to the creature, but strongly suspected that he was either seeing things in the dragon’s past, or landing in the wyrm’s dreams of the past.

Finally, Monica finally strait-up asked what was up with the crescent shape Samaritha and her python pet had on their heads.

“It is a symbol of Yig. The Father of Serpents, for whom I am a priestess.”

Serpents Entwined

Samaritha qualified that her god was at times capricious, or hungry, but generally benign and rewarded those of his disciples who propitiated him with the proper rites. When asked about the serpentfolk, the skinwalker winced and spat again.

“Yig has a younger sister, known only as Yig-Shissa which means (in Aklo) ’Yig’s sister.’ She is not nearly as friendly as her wiser, older brother. Yig is good medicine and his little sister is bad—poisons, mutations, and such. The serpentfolk barely know of her, calling her ‘the hidden Mother’ but she created them using bad medicine. Seeing they were selfish and proud, she birthed Ydersius as their king and under him they became conquerors. By agreement, Yig and his sister share worlds like Golarion. Here, Yig looks after what you call ‘the New World’ where my ancestors, human and were-serpent, are from. He gave this side of the world to Yig-shissa and her spawn.

“At some point on this world, Yig-Shissa angered her brother. Soon thereafter, Ydersius was slain by a mortal.”

Savith,” Dornas interjected. The little-known Azlanti warrior for whom the legendary lost city of Saventh-Yhi was named. Samaritha shrugged and continued. “the serpentfolk were cursed, and became the debased animals known today.”

It occurred to Samaritha that a lot of queer coincidences were piling up. She was one of the few people on the planet who knew that legend, and capable of imparting it on these strangers who’d discovered by chance that the serpentfolk were returning. “You’ve given me much to chew over. I must commune with my god. I thank you for causing trouble in my bar.” Samaritha smiled, there was no sarcasm in that last sentence. As to the Castaways, they agreed that a lot of what Kor’lec recently experienced in his sleep needed to be relayed to Kishtari.

The Tough Go Shopping

The Taldans were about to get back to their crafting, while Kor’lec attended to his daily benedictions. Samaritha returned after a few hours with a request to speak to the party’s priest. “Where is Jask, anyway?” Kor’lec wondered aloud. Samaritha corrected, “not the old Garundi. I meant the little one,” and gestured to Likki. The shapeshifter said she’d noted the monkey goblin’s elaborate jewelry and saw that it distinguished him as a ranking holy man. She had made something that could help Likki help the group, but she knew she was a lesser conduit of the divine than the goblin. Out of respect, Samaritha asked “may I address him?”

The party were taken aback, but Likki straightened up proudly and nodded. “Sure you can address him,” Kor’lec said. Samaritha began to unravel a scroll… Likki bounded away screeching “no! letters steal thoughts from head!” Alas, the divine spell Samaritha had scribed went to Monica. “This hymn,” the priestess explained, “will calm the beast in Tyst should the change force itself upon him.” Likki could learn it in time, but for the time being, it fell on Monica and her knack for finagling magic out of items meant for other types of spellcasters.

“Speaking of which…” Red Agata had come through the drainage gate entrance. The sheriff had caught wind of the rumor that the Castaways were still hiding out in town, but after Kor’lec’s performance with Matumba, few were ill-disposed. Red offered the party a chance to “commandeer” magical components, elixirs, and ingredients that Se’enga no doubt left in her hut—which was also a magic shop. “We’ll say I deputized you guys to ‘remove hazardous materials.’ What you find might help your preparations.”

With yet another possible side quest before them, the group decided to await Kish and Tyst’s return to the inn.

Slavers of Suum'tero

Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.

When we last left our heroes, the night was winding down as they, or most of them, were entranced by the sultry slithering dance of the Naga’s Notch inn’s star attraction: Satanica! Whether this entrancement was owed the exotic dancer by virtue of her talent, her considerable assets, or because Satanica performed with a powerful python as if they were one sensual entity; varied. The Castaways had plenty of reasons to assume the worst when serpents had the spotlight.

One big exception was Kor’lec, who’d decided to call it a night. Few of his teammates would understand his desire to free himself from the noise of the crowd, the glare of the colored lamps, the stink of smoke, spirits, and sweat. The druid slipped away without a word when the lights dimmed and was long gone before the inn’s dancer and her pet python could have his scrutiny. Kor’lec escaped to the night’s solace to check on Kai, and to fall asleep—and dream—to the symphony of the swamp that surrounded Suum’tero on three sides, while the ocean beat a rhythm on the forth…

Ballroom Blitzed

…and also to leave his companions to pick up the check. This particular bill being owed for snubbing the shaman Se’enga earlier on in the night.

A few in the party noticed the juju wendifa near the exit, speaking to five big Bekyar tribesmen. Se’enga was making a great show of being excessively hurt, and limply gestured to the Castaways when one of the men said “who?” through gritted, sharpened teeth.

As the band played on and Satanica danced, the men approached the party’s table, surrounded the table next to theirs, and demanded the patrons there find someplace else to sit. The tavern guests did as instructed with heads held low. The Bekyar sat in the vacated seats and kept on glaring angrily at the party. Finally someone asked the goons what they wanted.

They Bekyar all got up, cracked their knuckles and flexed their pecs. Beneath their hide vests, the tribesmen’s endomorphic bodies bore scars and tribal piercings that looked like they should have torn asunder when the muscles behind them bulged. The Castaways noted they were armed with cat-lashes, short spears, and had tall, rawhide shields strapped to their backs. The music started to come apart as the band fumbled with their instruments, and the dancer’s concentrated aplomb had likewise cracked. Sensing things were about to get all kinds of messy, Likki bounded back over to his friends. Eyes in the bar began to wander over to the confrontation, a few patrons made their way to the exit, while most waited with baited breath for the bonus entertainment.

“Where’s the half-breed?” one of the bullies challenged. He hammered the Castaways’ table with his meaty fist, jostling and spilling several drinks. “Not the woman. The ugly one.”

“What do you want with him?” Monica asked. “He offended our sister,” replied the lout. The bouncer Rashoom carefully made his way over to the commotion. “Easy now guys, there’s no reason to…”

“Mind your business fat man,” the Bekyar warrior warned, “you know the consequences if you don’t.” Rashoom froze.

Dornas continued sipping his drink, ignoring the Bekyar. Monica shrugged, one hand gently moving to her spell pouch, the other to the handle of her gun. Likki checked to see if his scarves were still wrapped around his face, in case they were referring to him. Kishtari was pretty tanked but attempted to stand with all the sober poise she could muster.

“I asked you something,” growled the thug, pushing Kish back down to her chair. With his hand. On her shoulder.
Kishtari’s companions, who understood what the rapidly intensifying treble that emanated from nowhere and everywhere meant; winced, braced themselves, or shook their heads as if to say, “nice knowing you, dude…”

The Bekyar goon simply winked out of existence with a slurping pop as air rushed to fill the vacuum.

The band came to a dead stop, a few more patrons hustled to the door, and the Bekyar, after a second spent processing what was, to all appearances, their tribemate’s instant annihilation, reached for their spears.

Kish noticed Se’enga sashaying out the front door. Oh hells no. She assured her friends that she’d “just” shunted the thug forward in time one minute. “He’ll be back,” the kalashtar added, then vanished into the exiting crowd, utilizing a knack for escape she mastered as a Riddleport guttersnipe. The four remaining hoodlums cried for blood and began stabbing wildly with their shortspears.

Tender Resignations

Tyst and his henchmen—Nine-toes, Ratty, Farqaad, and Chris—finished unloading the Freedom’s cargo. All the while, Tyst insisted that the sailors would make a great living selling the dreamshit right here in Suum’tero, maybe even set up a den or something! Ratty had drawn the short straw and had to tell the cheerful halfling, on behalf of the foursome, that they’d rather just find work on another ship. “Mind you, sir,” qualified Ratty, “this was their idea. I would have been perfectly happy working for you…”

The others kvetched and ragged Ratty to simply state what they all agreed. The sailor continued, “but we four have to stick together, see, so we’d appreciate it, if you don’t mind sir, just letting us go?”

“You don’t want to be my friend?” Tyst wondered, ostensibly heartbroken. Ratty leapt to the halfling assassin’s side and scolded the other three, expressing that he was ashamed of them for hurting their new master’s feelings. Nine-toes emptied his bowels in his britches for the second time that night, and started to cry. “He’ll never let us get away!” the soiled smuggler lamented.

“No, its all right,” Tyst conceded with heavy heart, shooing the henchmen off. “If that’s what you want. But you better be good, and not a word of what you saw tonight.” The four crooks all swore they were on the strait-and-narrow from now on, and that they’d certainly be thanking the gods for their good fortune. They’d been slowly backing up to the warehouse entryway, and ran for their fool lives as soon as the werebadger’s quivering eyes wandered elsewhere.

Tyst’s ears picked up a commotion outside. The music at the inn nearby had stopped. People were murmuring about a fight. It was time for him to do a badass thing he’d always wanted to do, and the lycanthrope’s hallmark smile returned with a vengeance.

Bully Pulped

Back at the taproom, the Castaways had their hands full with the Bekyar thugs. The tribesmen were crude but skillful fighters, and weren’t going down quickly or easily. Then the saloon doors flew open with a crack, and all eyes turned to face the entryway. Nobody saw anything, though, until their gaze shifted down to the bald, creepily grinning halfling. Tyst rolled up his green sleeves to unveil hirsute arms as stone-thewed as any human bodybuilder’s. Noticing that weapons were drawn—and of course his new friends were involved—Tyst’s smile grew wider, and the compact little terror deftly skipped into the fray, his short blade in hand in an impossible flash.

Dornas calmly sipped his drink as his hair lashed out and slugged a guy in the gut. When the same thug leapt atop the table to skewer the magus, Dornas—and his chair—floated up over the melee. Dornas remained seated coolly as his flailing coiffe did the heavy lifting—flipping the table, its contents, and his aggressor, to the sticky floor.

Monica lashed her bullwhip, attempting to pull the thugs off balance. But the Bekyar kept their feet, dextrously dodging the lash. Engaged fully with Monica, Dornas, and Likki, the four goons were easy prey for Tyst, who’d feinted down and popped up to bury his wakizashi in a hoodlum’s liver. The tribesman squealed, pivoted and gouged Tyst’s upper arm with a spearpoint. Tyst looked at the gash, smelled the tinge of iron in the blood. His expression turned sour and he doubled over like he’d been poisoned. The halfling’s flesh started to throb as his bones and muscles wrestled to rearrange themselves. The change was upon him—and an involuntary transformation meant that the beast within wouldn’t recognize friend from foe. Anyone would be a threat to his animal mind. And all Suum’tero would know there was a monster on the loose, and who’d brought it.

Meanwhile, the bar’s staff and some other patrons were doing their best to try to distract, talk down, or hold back the vicious Bekyar thugs; but they were out for blood, cursing and threatening potential meddlers with deadly force.

Monica chanted a spell and flicked out a pinch of powder. A blanket of glittering motes enshrouded the goons and stuck in their eyes. The spell was well timed. Most of the tavern’s guests had fled or were looking out the window at something even more fantastic happening outside. With remaining eyes on the coruscant cloud and the struggling Bekyar, few noticed the first few milliseconds of Tyst’s metamorphosis. Monica, Dornas, and Likki had little idea what to do except try to end the fight and escape, leaving Tyst’s fate uncertain. Unexpectedly, Satanica slid down from the stage using her python as a ramp, yanked a linen off a nearby table, and tossed it over the halfling.

“He’ll be safe,” the woman said, “finish them, but don’t kill them.”

“How can we trust you?” someone asked. “You trust him?” the dancer replied, gesturing to the growling, cracking bulge under the tablecloth. Touché. At that, Satanica’s own body contorted and shifted into a finely scaled and sinewy musculature. She quickly looped the linen around Tyst into a makeshift sack and began chanting a soothing hymn. Tyst’s growling and movements slackened somewhat as the serpentine creature dragged him back behind the bar and into the kitchen.

“If you don’t trust her,” Rashoom said, kayoing the last standing Bekyar with a sap, “trust me. And help me clean this up.”

Graving Dock

Kishtari caught up with Se’enga on the boardwalk not too far away. The psion asked her what the big idea was, siccing her boys on them. “I did no such thing,” said the imperious priestess. “My tribe-brothers simply wanted to know what was botherin’ me and I told them the half-elf refused my good-will.”

Se’enga bid Kish adieu and turned away. The wendifa’s path was blocked however, as Kish had all-but surrounded her with a barrier of pure sound. Se’enga turned to face the wall’s manifester. “Impressive. What do you want?” Kish demanded that the shaman call off her goons. “They are not mine to command,” stated Se’enga. “They are just protective. Now, let me go girl.”

Kish didn’t cancel the psionic barrier. Se’enga noted that there were villagers gathering about the pier and a crowd also watching from the inn’s front porch. The priestess repeated her command, accentuating the word “go” with divine authority. Kishtari felt the meager enchantment crumble before her alien mind, and so did Se’enga. But the six-foot-six priestess was a Bekyar and a warrior, and gambled that Kishtari’s body was easier to break than her mind. The onlookers gasped as the wendifa threw off her hide cloak, pulled a stone handaxe from her sash, and rushed the strange visitor.

Kishtari’s eyes crackled with electricity and a salvo of lightning burst from her body toward the Bekyar woman. The scintillating bolts struck the priestess and blasted her back into the sonic barrier. Kish’s eyes cleared to see the wall vibrate the flesh from the woman’s skeleton before the bones themselves disintegrated.

All in witness went dead silent. Even Kishtari was a little shocked. Then, the crowd’s susurration rose from nervous whispers to angry cries of “murderer!”

Kish turned to see the halfling with the red turban. Agata, she thought Kor’lec had called her. Suum’tero’s law-and-order. “Come with me if you want to live,” plainly stated the small woman. Agata held out her hand. Kish took it and the wiry halfling twisted her hand in a semblance of a joint lock, but bore no pressure. Pretending to arrest her, Agata explained that she was going to take her someplace safe.

The Village Underground

Meanwhile, at someplace safe, Tyst awoke to see Satanica, whose name was actually Samaritha, standing over him. “You know, you could have hurt a lot of innocent people,” the other shapeshifter scolded. Tyst was unmoved, and more than a little smitten by his sightly savior. Without missing a beat, the lycanthrope excitedly badgered her with questions, pausing only to flatter and flirt. Samaritha explained that the men who’d accosted his friends were of the M’bulazi tribe of Bekyar. They were slavers from the highlands who’d been doing business in Suum’tero for years. Business that she, and a few others, opposed. Samaritha went on to admit that she was descended from wereserpents and though she could not change into animal form, could partially shift. Quixla, the python, was her boon companion. She owned the Naga’s Notch and had an affection for her fellow “tribes of the moon.”

Monica, Dornas, and Likki helped Rashoom get the M’bulazi goons into their beds before the comedian directed them to the secret cellar beneath the inn’s kitchen. The spacious area was intended as another taproom but went unused save for a storeroom, and forgotten. Kishtari arrived thereafter, led by Red Agata through a passageway, a storm drain, from the beach. Monica had seen Se’enga’s death from the inn’s porch. “I thought she was more powerful!” Kish averred. Tyst let everyone know that he’d unequivocally decided to help the rebels get rid of the slavers. Tyst was not one for long (or short) debates when the course was clear (to him).

Monica argued that, though she wasn’t opposed, they had a pretty important undertaking already in regards to Saventh-Yhi and the serpentfolk’s agenda. When she mentioned the scaly race, looking square at Samaritha, the skinwalker spat and made a sign. Samaritha called them, “the forsaken.” Monica was relieved to see the reaction, and said out loud that they needed to discuss the yuan-ti further. The polymath and her fellow Taldan Dornas noted the crescent-shaped symbol on the foreheads of Samaritha and Quixla, but either supposed it was an esoteric curiosity.

The Castaways learned that, with Rashoom, Agata and Samaritha comprised the “rebellion” of Suum’tero that actively opposed the M’bulazi. “But we have many sympathizers,” Agata explained that some of her constables and villagers supported them. But all either feared the slavers, or relied on their tax revenue to pay off passing pirates and corrupt Senghori navy officials. Captain Massingale, the village leader, was a good man, the women pointed out, but he saw the M’bulazi as the lesser of two evils, and didn’t support making trouble for the powerful tribe.

Se’enga was Bekyar, but of a different tribe. Still, the M’bulazi adored her, and would seek vengeance for her death and their own embarrassment. Worse, the priestess was generally liked in the village for those who needed blessings or healing and followed juju. Samaritha said the slavers have made trouble for visitors before, and with Red’s help, they would claim that the party knocked out the slavers, rescued the telepath, and fled. But if the Castaways were to go after the slavers, they needed to lie low. “We’ve slept in worse places,” Dornas contended, in reference to the fact that the cellar was to be their home base while they made preparations. “But anything else you can offer that would be appreciated.”

“No payment necessary!” Tyst assured, “in fact, you can have the cargo of our ship, too, to help your town’s economic recovery after we take down the slavers!” Kish, naturally, disagreed. “Hey, you might be willing to risk your life for an admittedly fantastic set of tits, but I need something more concrete.” Samaritha looked at Red, and the halfling protested. “No! That’s evidence.” The skinwalker argued that the powerful items in the constable’s office vault weren’t doing anyone good just sitting there. The halfling relented, admitted it would take some finesse, but could probably spare one of the items she knew the nature and value of—a ring that afforded its wearer the friendship of natural beasts. Assuming they succeeded, anything else from evidence could be offered in trade for the party’s cargo, which they wouldn’t otherwise be able to exchange for its full value. And of course, anything they took from the M’bulazi was theirs.

But Donas had been referring mostly to information, and Samaritha added that the slavers had a veritable fortress in the midst of their territory, an old Chelaxian garrison. There, in addition to breaking captives, the M’bulazi also worshiped Lamashtu, a monstrous demon goddess. Monica informed everyone that goddess’s faithful were known to sacrifice infants in their unspeakable rites. But the Castaways were already sold on taking them down.

There were two more potential sources of intelligence. A young man had somehow escaped the slaver fortress and was hiding in the village. A farmer by the name of Ewandabe and his family had taken the boy in. The boy, Watende, was rightfully scared for his life and Ewandabe was very protective of his charge. The second were the M’bulazi sleeping off their drugged cocktails upstairs.

Cross Examinations

With not a small amount of trickery and finagling the party managed to sneak one of the M’bulazi down to the secret sanctuary. After securing him and coaxing him out to partial wakefulness, Kish found that his mind, even in semi-consciousness, resisted revealing details of the slaver’s stockade. That is, until an enchantment from Monica opened him like a book. He offered details about its fortifications. He knew the camp was defended by over thirty men, and the tribe had allied with a pack of gnolls as well. Any number of jackal shamans from the tribe’s surrounding territory could be visiting the fort. Dire jackals and hyenas roamed freely, and it was rumored that other monsters prowled the shadows.

The fort commander was a blind yet unequaled warrior named Icar. He had a sidekick, a jungle ogre that Icar won in battle. The commander was seen more often, but second to the leader of the slavers, a dread priestess of Lamashtu named M’kessa. It was believed she laid with beasts and mothered half-animal children who guarded the dungeons. Sometimes these damned offspring were sold to visiting slave merchants. The M’bulazi thug hadn’t personally seen the dungeon but knew M’kessa and her apprentice, a tiefling named Gulyet, laired there. Gulyet was always attended by lions she’d tamed, and protected by the ghost of a lion. There was also an old diamond mine below the stockade, the reason the Chelaxians built the garrison in the first place.

When asked about weaknesses, the slaver admitted the M’bulazi, like most Bekyar, considered themselves superior to all other creatures and were loath to ally with creatures like gnolls. Last, there were several areas of the stockade that the slavers refused to go into. The interior of the curtain wall and the northwest wing of the keep were haunted.

That gave the adventurers a lot to chew over, and they soon began forming preliminary plans. Still, they had the escaped slave Watende to chat with. Red let the group know it wouldn’t be easy, as Ewandabe was standoffish even before he began harboring a fugitive. The sheriff couldn’t blame him, the man had a family and they were all at risk if the M’bulazi discovered them.

The Castaways insisted on heading over to Ewandabe’s hut to try reasoning with him. It ws early morning, no one in the group had slept in over 24 hours of sea voyage, unloading cargo, partying at the inn… not to mention a few bloody battles thrown in. Sheriff Red accompanied them, and they all moved carefully to avoid those already getting ready for work. Tyst took animal form. Ewandabe’s place was a wide and tall mudbrick circle with a conical thatch roof. Upon knocking, the party were confronted by an angry middle-aged farmer who was already sick of the halfling sheriff calling to disturb him.

Tyst, for mysterious reasons and still trotting about as a dire honey badger, thought to barge into Ewandabe’s home. Naturally, the man reacted like any farmer with a family to protect in a setting where dangerous predators posed a real threat. He grabbed a club off a hook by the door and raised it against the creature. Tyst growled and tried to bite him in retaliation. Before the entire thing became a fiasco (and a lost opportunity) the party pulled Tyst back outside.

“All of you! Get off my property!” Ewandabe hollered, waving his club. His expression suddenly softened. “Except for you,” he said to Kishtari. “For some reason, I’d love for you to join me and my family for breakfast. I play the violin, too. Would you like to hear a song I wrote?” Kish allowed the man to take her hand and lead her inside, sparing her teammates an irreverent wink before the door closed.

Port in a Storm

Ma’am, do you know what you do when you walk into a bad bar and the hairs on the back of your neck stick up? You get your drink, you pay for it, you turn around, and you walk out.
And this is a “bad bar”?
Yes, ma’am, Jericho is a bad bar.

Last episode, the Castaways acquired both a ship and a small fortune in cargo. The hold was filled with shiver, also known as “dreamshit,” an addictive and valuable hallucinogenic drug harvested from the venom of the Mwangi dream spider. In addition to the narcotics, bolts of dreamsilk, just as illegal as the shiver, and a big caché of weapons—including a curious quiver of elf killing crossbow bolts—rounded out the Red Gull’s illicit shipment.

It was strongly suggested that the Castaways keep clear of Senghor by the naval inspectors who’d searched their vessel; at least until the Senghori officials had grounds to charge Lord Maragorn, the Gull’s previous owner, with slave trading.

The new shipowners were directed to Suum’tero, a nearby village port. There, they’d discover that for people like them, precious downtime didn’t come easy.

Restless Relaxation

Jask warned his friends that he might cry a little when they departed the Gull. It was the first time that the Garundi had been back home in a decade, and as a free man besides. The others were touched to see the cleric walk on the white sands, thanking the heavens. After haggling over the “no-questions” docking fees and settling accounts with the harbormaster, Dornas renamed their ship “The Freedom.” The party quickly took note of the raucous sounds and laughter emanating from the nearby Naga’s Notch Inn. Kishtari and Naga, her sentient psicrystal, were especially curious about the place.

Though the party weren’t certain yet they’d try to liquidate their cargo in Suum’tero, they agreed it was best stored in one of the local warehouses. Tyst and his newly drafted henchmen from the (former) Red Gull took on the backbreaking task of moving their hold’s massive stock of shiver and dreamsilk while everyone else went inside the Notch to have fun.

The inn was a crowded panoply of people and boasted a dance floor, a broad stage, and live entertainment. Local Bonuwat fishermen comprised the majority of the revelers, though there was a good mix of Garundi sailors, a few folk from the northern continent, and the not-so-good presence of Bekyar warriors—the latter infamous throughout the Expanse as slavers and demon-worshipers.

Ignoring their buzzkilling presence for the time being, the group grabbed a table, got drinks, and tried to enjoy themselves. Kor’lec shouted out a few words in Druidic on the off-chance there was a druid around. There wasn’t, but his words didn’t go unnoticed…

Kishtari simply stood at the bar and waited for some admirer to buy her drinks. She only needed a second and her hands were full of exotic cocktails and shots to bring back to her friends. A comedian and ukulele player named Rashoom finished a crowd-pleasing set of bawdy folk singalongs and jokes, which several in the party made a big show of enjoying, especially to spite Gelik. “HA! now that’s comedy!” said Kor’lec, while slapping the gnome on the back.

“He knows this audience,” Gelik explained, “a truly great comic can perform anywhere. Let’s see him try the same act in Oppara, or Kalsgard! They’d pelt him with rotten fruit, and they’d be wrong not to!”

“Jealous,” quipped the druid, who remembered he hated fun and crossed his arms. Kishtari teased the half-elf by mock-threatening him with one of the elfbane bolts. Kor’lec’s fellow elf-blood Aerys chided the kalashtar, pointing out the things were dangerous for anyone of elf-blood… “Waitasec…” Aerys’s eyes widened as it dawned on her that thus far, Kish had claimed she was half-elven.

The house band struck up a catchy fusion of tribal rhythms and contemporary beats, and many of the Notch’s patrons invaded the dance floor. Likki had been sitting quietly in a disguise he’d donned at his own insistence, not understanding anything. Music, though, he understood. The monkey goblin bounded up to the stage to join the band’s bongo players. To his friends’ delight, he wasn’t shooed away. Gelik stood, hat over heart, and took Monica by the hand for a lindyhop that enthralled the crowd. Not to be outdone, an already tipsy Kish pulled Aerys into the fray, both forgetting for a second her earlier faux-pas and the pirate’s peg leg! No matter; Aerys was aces in her proficiency, pivoting and pirouetting on the prosthesis like she’d trained on it from birth.

No News is Good, Period.

Meanwhile, Dornas saw that Big Rashoom served as the bouncer and door guy when he wasn’t performing, and decided the cheerful Bonuwat bard was a good person to solicit for the local scuttlebutt. As usual, the magus wasn’t wrong.

But Rashoom also knew a good opportunity when he saw one. He’d already pegged the Taldan’s group as an adventuring party from the moment they entered his inn, people he knew had great stories. Rashoom’s word for the group was “well-apportioned.” When Dornas asked what he meant, the merry bouncer replied with a parable about groups of all scholars, or just missionaries, or only mercenaries, or solely tomb-robbers; all failing to get far in the interior’s infamous Kaava Lands. But a “well-apportioned” group like Dornas’s might succeed. Rashoom promised the skinny, and a not-so skinny helping of his hot egg and turnip scramble at breakfast, if Dornas could regale him with his exploits. The magus promised a tale of adventure and courage, and Rashoom surrendered to his questions.

The jolly Mwangi pointed out Captain Massingale, the town founder and priest of Shimye-Magalla, a functional drunk, but popular and a decent-enough fellow trying to do his best. Rashoom explained that the M’bulazi, a local branch of Bekyar slavers, had a stranglehold on the port’s economy, and held auctions right on the docks. Most of the town were against it, but the M’bulazi paid their taxes and the money helped pay Suum’tero’s exorbitant “protection” fees to pirates and the Senghor navy. Massingale was also the town’s broker, the man to talk to about liquidating trade goods. After pointing out a few other local movers-and-shakers, Dornas thanked Rashoom for his time.

One of those “movers-and-shakers” was Se’enga, a juju shaman who’d heard Kor’lec’s Druidic proclamation and approached him. The Bekyar wendifa cordially explained through sharpened teeth that she kept the town’s balance between the spiritual and material realms, and that Kor’lec and his friends were best moseying on. Kor’lec asked what sort of services she provided, and the Bekyar boasted, “healin’, blessin’, raisin’ the dead.” The offended druid sent her off, his umbrage plain.

After doing so, a halfling woman in red Qadiran garb approached Kor’lec, and mentioned that if it were up to her, she’d have the Bekyar run out of town. The halfling introduced herself as Red Agata, the village sheriff. As an ex-slave, Agata had nothing but contempt for the Bekyar and their evil trade. But, alas, there was nothing she could do about it. Captain Masssingale, her boss, allowed it.

Needing Space

Monica and Gelik fell into a slow dance when the band’s tempo shifted, and the gnome finally asked if Monica still planned to hold off revealing her groundbreaking discoveries on Smuggler’s Shiv to the world. He knew the answer. “Yes,” Monica replied, “I still have to work something out with Kor’lec, and we have bigger fish to fry.” She was referring to Saventh-Yhi, the serpentfolk’s designs on the fabled city, and stopping whatever those happened to be. Gelik gently teased her for her altruism, said he needed to return to Magnimar, and intended to find a ship going north in the morning. Realizing this meant the inevitable end of their relationship, Monica said she understood, and teased back “we still have one more night together, then.”

After their dance, Aerys and Kish had a heart-to-heart at the bar. Kish admitted she’d lied about being a half-elf because, “and I know this sounds crazy,” she was an alien refugee from the planet Castrovel. Aerys was beside herself, but not angry or incredulous, more bemused as to why Kish thought her planet of origin was so unbelievable that she needed to lie. To her.

“Slaves from Castrovel,” Aerys explained, “have been trafficked around the coasts for a century. Its the Dream Merchants’ specialty.” Kishtari asked who the Dream Merchants were and how she could find them. At that, Aerys was struck aghast. “Please promise me you’ll never, ever, put yourself in their sights, or set foot aboard their ships. These men of Leng, they are nightmares in flesh, and I’d wish for myself a hundred lashes of the cat before condemning even an enemy to one of their galleys.” Kish was undeterred, and asked how the Dream Merchants traveled through space. Aerys explained that they rowed to the horizon and just… kept going, somehow. Aerys immediately regretted bringing the horrible denizens of Leng up, and changed the subject.

“I’m booking passage back to Eleder,” Aerys said. “I love Kassata. I have to try to fix this thing.” Kish said she understood. “You could come with me! All of you would make great pirates!” The kalashtar said she’d think about it. After some awkward attempts at small talk by Aerys, the half-elf departed. But Kish had bigger things on her mind. Extraterrestrial things.

Satanica Panacea

Gelik and Aerys had retired to their quarters, and Jask found a lady-friend half his age eager to accompany him for a private sermon. Sasha probably ditched them hours ago. The remaining Castaways were left to discuss their options, complicated somewhat by Kor’lec’s weird encounters with the wendifa and the sheriff. Slavery was an uncomfortable fact of life across the known world, civilized societies and otherwise. But they all hated it, and debated whether or not to strike a small blow against the practice here in Suum’tero.

Finally, the lights dimmed for the stage-show’s finále. She’d been named a few times by the staff of the Notch as an act worth staying up late for, mentioned by passing patrons of the Naga’s Notch in reverent ramblings. After the barker’s lewd introduction, and when the catcalls and clapping faded in anticipation…

Satanica appeared on the stage.

Satanica, and her nine-foot-long albino python.

Wooden Ships and Iron Hearts

Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.

In our last adventure, our ragtag bunch of misfits proved once again to be a force with which to reckon, even in the face of one of their owns’ desperate betrayal. Despite Monica Montana’s perfidy, our heroes went, as they say in Riddleport, “strait-up gangsta,” and hijacked the ship that had rescued them from Smuggler’s Shiv. To be fair, the Red Gull was a tempting prize, and lest we forget that this saga concerns the exploits of heroes, their “rescuers” were crooks working for Maragorn, a Bloodcove-based crime boss.

And some of them were much worse.

Make Do and Mend

Back in the ship’s cargo hold, Monica had somewhat listlessly tried to explain her treachery to the rest of the party before abruptly fainting. Gelik was immediately at the woman’s side and eased her down to her bedroll. “She’s feverish,” the gnome stated. The concern in his voice was sincere as he fanned his girlfriend’s perspiring face with his little hand.

Jask looked her over. “Pale, too. Hmm. She’s behaved erratically?” asked the cleric, who’d caught snippets of the past few minutes’ subject matter. "She shot Kor’lec," Dornas noted, “so yes.”

“We’ve seen this before I think,” Jask explained, “was she recently injured? Maybe in standing water?”

“Probably?” answered Kishtari, shrugging. “That’s pretty much been our lives every day this month.”

“I would like Kor’lec’s opinion, and I’d ask for Nethys’s guidance to be sure…” the old priest hesitated.

“Brainworms,” supposed everyone, with a collective groan.

Going on Account

Aerys had been steering the Red Gull, and allowed herself to give in to the joy of becoming as a single entity with the many tons of wood, pitch, and sailcloth that surrounded her. There was one thing the born and bred buccaneer knew she had in common with all ships—save for the caprice of the sea, every and any moment might be the last. The Shackles salt gripped the wheel and allowed herself a moment to muse. She opened her eyes and whispered to the helm, then again to the sails, “what ails you old gal?” The Gull seemed to moan her response. Aerys couldn’t put it off any longer. Her friends were the masters to be sure, but their new ship didn’t just need a pilot. She needed a captain.

“Lookout!” Aerys called to Kor’lec in the crow’s nest.

Aerys’s fellow elf-blood had been explaining “wreck-born” culture to a thoroughly confused and easily distracted Likki. For the past few minutes, Kor’lec attempted to make the monkey goblin understand civilization when, for one, Likki learned only a few weeks ago that people weren’t just easy meat that appeared on the beach as a gift from the gods; and secondly, it barely made sense to the druid, either. Likki’s brow furrowed. Maybe the little guy was better off in the jungle. Maybe, he wasn’t the only one.

“No, that not it,” answered Likki when Kor’lec apologized for confusing him. The oracle related an earlier experience in which he overheard one of the sailors refer to him as the Castaways’ “pet.” The monkey goblin would have a tough time in the world beyond the shores of the Shiv. Kor’lec brooded. The rest of the Mongrukoo would have it worse when that world came to them.

The fellow theists certainly had more to discuss, but Aerys had called for Kor’lec.

“We’ve a clear night and obliging wind. I can tack to shore if north’s still our heading, easy as porridge. Mister Likki can man the nest. Would you be so kind as to call up Mister Dornas?”

“That reminds me!” Likki slapped his bare forehead and remembered the reason he’d come to the upper deck in the first place. “Jask want you downstairs!”

Master and Commander

Kor’lec confirmed the aging cleric’s suspicions, that Monica was in fact suffering from the parasites. After a few moments’ discussion, it was agreed to use the party’s last disease curative on the archeologist. Meanwhile, Kishtari wanted to make a thorough search of the captain’s cabin, while Dornas headed topside to parley with Aerys. Kish’s nose for valuables proved as good as her insight into minds. In the captain’s quarters, the kalashtar located another elixir to purge disease, so the party had come out even. Though truthfully, Kish was really hoping to find a stash of chocolates. Unfortunately, the captain’s sweet truth seemed bafflingly limited to salty licorice! Gross!

The half-elf pirate pointed out to the magus that she’d noticed that he seemed quite at home on the decks of a ship, and Dornas admitted that he’d come from a family of shipwrights — which was about the only thing anyone had been able to get him to admit. Aerys went on to contend that the unarmed caravel would not fare well should its owner’s fleet come after them. As much as it pained her, they ought to ditch the vessel as soon as possible. Aerys’s idea was to make port at Senghor and call for Maragorn there. “Let him know we want to negotiate, and that we’re not to be trifled with.” Dornas said he’d chew it over. Meanwhile, Aerys and Dornas both agreed that the ship was in a deplorable shape. They needed to see if any of the smugglers would agree to serve, and a duty roster needed to be drawn up if they were to spend much more time at sea. Also, there had to be a chain of command. Dornas acceded the Shackles-bred woman’s captaincy in matters of ship and sail, and Aerys bowed to the Taldan’s will in matters otherwise.

Kor’lec returned to the crow’s nest as Dornas went back belowdecks. Dornas warned the druid in passing that they weren’t done talking about the whole “murdering the captain” thing that tipped off the group’s current predicament. After a few moments’ lookout, Kor’lec noticed a flash on the horizon. “Sail!” he proclaimed.

The Foul Side of the World

In the bilge, Tyst had been conducting a delicate tête-à-tête with the survivors of the Gull’s old crew when word from above came that Aerys needed some experienced hands. Quite deservedly, the crooks were locked up in the same cages that they kept chattel in when they were flying the slaver’s flag. The werebadger was in his charming and earnest halfling form, but that didn’t mitigate the sailors’ fear, nor the lycanthrope’s ferocity. When one of the smugglers yelled at another to refuse cooperating with “a monster,” the halfling casually grabbed his foot, peeled off a toe with a knife, and threw it to the rats. Henceforth, that man was known as “Nine-toes.” The others were dubbed—regardless of their real names—Farquaad, Ratty (for his conniving attempts to hike his own worth by throwing the others under an ox-cart), and Chris. Those four seemed quite eager to do whatever was asked to make it to shore alive, but the former First Mate, Bjorn, took on an imperious air. “We’ve a few things we’d like in exchange for our cooperation.”

Just as Kor’lec and Aerys were announcing that the ship turning to intercept them was Senghori navy, Kish and Dornas made a startling discovery. The bosun Frithoth had a collection of trophy heads hanging in his cabin, which might not have raised an eyebrow if they weren’t all humanoids—and all women. A gore soaked table and dishware stained with crimson evinced the bosun’s cannibalism, too. The grisly collection was mostly comprised of aquatic races that went unprotected in terrene societies, but there were a few humans mixed in. Kor’lec returned to the cargo deck when word reached him of the discovery, and the half-elf’s keen senses picked up on another of the Red Gull’s sinister secrets: behind a false panel was a living captive.

Kick Bollocks Scramble

The sea elf was called Nineve, and was taken captive trying to locate and rescue a friend of his. Frithoth chained Nineve next to her and ate her over a period of days. Nineve admitted that if he hadn’t surprised his kidnapper by turning out to be male, he’d have shared his friend’s fate. As it was, the evil Frithoth threatened to eat him anyway if the Captain Sigurd’s plans to ransom him for shipwreck treasure didn’t pan out.

The party were in a predicament. The Senghori warship was getting closer and it was a near-certainty the Red Gull was known to the slavery-hating city-state. The Castaways had a hold full of captives whose story might paint a very different picture of recent events, a number of secrets to keep, and a just-discovered prisoner abused so horribly few could blame him if he weren’t too keen on cooperating with land-dwellers.

After a lengthy debate, it was finally agreed to reveal most of the truth to the Senghori. Dornas would join Aerys topside and use a simple colored light cantrip to communicate their plight—a common signalling code had developed amongst mariners that took advantage of the spell. Meanwhile, Kish and Tyst were tasked with finding out who among the Red Gull’s former crew were on board with their new masters—Kish’s telepathic abilities would detect any foul or disloyal intent. Kor’lec’s tender treatment of the sea elf resulted in Nineve’s promise to back up his rescuers’ claims, in exchange for getting him back home to his undersea town.

Dornas relayed Aery’s translation of the maritime code, sending the colored lights well up into the night, moving and recoloring them to say “hold fire, captive uprising, slavers defeated.” A similar light display shot up from the warship, which Aerys translated as “heave to, prepare for inspection.” Meanwhile, Tyst came to an accord with the Gull’s old crew, and even Bloody Bjorn seemed eager to cooperate with the inspection. Unfortunately for him, Kish read the dwarf’s treacherous plan to color the Castaways as the slavers!

“Kill him.” Kish said, flatly, pointing to Bjorn. A millisecond later, Tyst flicked a shuriken that cleft the First Mate’s thick skull. As the dwarf’s brains plopped out into the bilge, the other crew members swore in unison to do anything asked of them.

With Flying Colors

For the first time, the Castaways had to debrief and justify themselves to an authority beyond their own consciences (or lack thereof). They fared well. Their individual accounts of their adventures over the past few weeks drew gasps of amazement from the Senghori naval inspectors, but their versions of events were—more or less—believed. Perhaps the laws of the south were less stringent than those of the more tradition-bound north, or maybe it was because not for the first time in the world, a random assortment of nobodies banded together to achieve something noteworthy. In any case, the captain of the Senghori warship took stock of the testimonies and evidence, and promised to launch an investigation of Lord Maragorn’s operations in Senghor—provided he could get a live witness. Nineve graciously volunteered to go with the warship, allowing the Castaways to continue their quests without getting mired in legal procedures. Also, the Senghori captain congratulated them on their new ship!

And the fortune in dream shit (and dream silk) sitting in their cargo hold.

Mutiny on the Red Gull

For thirty years, I’ve sailed the seas and seen good and bad, better and worse, fair weather and foul, provisions running out, knives going, and what not. Well, now I tell you, I never seen good come o’ goodness yet.

At the end of our last episode, the Castaways were in a quandary: surrounded by the scoundrelly smugglers of the Red Gull, with a chance of being sold to slavery or, if things went well, sold out to a known crime lord. As the party debated their options, Kor’lec snuck off and murdered Captain Snake-Eyes in his sleep!

To dispose of the body, the desperate druid was forced to drag the pudgy carcass of old Sigurd onto the caravel’s deck, where his crime was reported — loudly — by the ship’s lizardman lookout Gortross.

If anyone could have asked Kor’lec, just then, why he did what he did, there might have been one answer: he was too fat to stuff through the porthole.

Spring Upon Her Cable

Back in the cargo hold, the Castaways heard the hue-and-cry and prepared for action. Already, the rest of the crew were responding to the lookout’s barking claxon and rousing themselves against the implicated passengers. Likewise, the Castaways’ allies awoke to the sounds of imminent combat. “How long was that?” asked Gelik, to Jask, who was sitting up in his bedroll. “About thirty-six hours,” answered the priest. “Ha!” the gnome exclaimed, “I’m way closer! You owe me ten crowns. Pay up old-timer!”

“What’s happening?” asked a sleepy-eyed Aerys. “Looks like we’re going to take over the ship,” replied Kishtari, nonplussed. Aerys broke into near-hysterics. “We cant! We’re guests! There’s a code!” blurted the pirate before somehow managing to explain that as evacuees, they had a debt to their rescuers. Betraying that hospitality discouraged ships at sea from rescuing other stranded souls.

If Aerys was in near-hysterics, Monica was full-fucking-on — then just… snapped.

“Listen to her! We can’t do this! I don’t want to be a pirate!” the human archaeologist protested.

Meanwhile, the ship’s bosun, the hideous Foul Frithoth, emerged from his cabin aft of the cargo hold where the Castaways were arrayed. He was leveraging a pistol to his left. “Best you stand down,” the smuggler gloated, “lest the little girlie here get shot, point blank.” The weapon was trained on Sasha, or at least, the shadowy nook where the teen was thought to be sleeping. The heroes couldn’t see her from their position, but it was a good bet Frithoth wasn’t bluffing.

Speaking of shadows, Tyst was like a blur, his exotic straight-blade drawn as he vaulted to within stabbing distance of the smuggler. The cagey Frithoth sidestepped the blade and started to squeeze the trigger before he swooned and collapsed in a slumbering heap.

“You’re welcome,” Kish said, her eyes aglow from the psionic expenditure.

The next thing Tyst saw was the peacefully sleeping Sasha roll out of her sleeping bag in one fluid motion, kukri in hand, giggling as she ran the curved blade across the unconscious gunman’s throat. The blood sprayed and pooled around the assassins. “There’s a girl,” Tyst praised, before his emerging inner beast began to take hold in a gruesome metamorphosis.

As the halfling’s muscles and bones twisted, bolts fired from the crew’s sleeping area fore of the cargo hold plinked around the heroes. Four of the smugglers had kicked over their room’s card table and were firing from behind it. Their aim wasn’t that good, and the party paid the volley little heed as they quickly coordinated their response. Dornas had a tough time believing that that Kor’lec, presently absent from view, was responsible for whatever the Red Gull crew were accusing them of. He insisted on going topside, and Monica followed, still urgently echoing Aerys’s protests about hijacking their rescuers’ vessel.

“I’ll protect the treasure!” Likki said, before heading down to the bilge where he’d been catching rats that were, to his savage mind, more valuable and delicious than anything that glistened. “Better follow us,” Dornas corrected. The rest stayed in the lower deck to deal with the crossbowmen, though Kish turned to Aerys with an intent to calm the Shackles-bred woman down.

Kish knelt in front Aerys and looked deep into her eyes before accentuating her calming words with a little psionic coersion. Kishtari felt her charm fizzle against the rugged half-elf’s will. The telepathic persuasion failed, and Aerys’s determination and passion won out.

Aerys grabbed Kishtari’s head and pulled her face to hers, and with the sounds of battle and incoming missile fire fading into the back of their thoughts, the women lost themselves in a long yearned for — and long-lasting — kiss.

Blunder Trust

Dornas emerged on the upper deck to find Kor’lec and Kai beset from all sides. The druid presented a swashbuckling figure with his tricorne hat and cutlass, his curved blade desperately parrying punishing blows from the burly lizardman’s bastard sword. Smugglers were shooting crossbows at them from the raised forecastle, poop deck, and crow’s nest. The scowling Taldan moved to his comrade’s side and rapped him on the shoulder. “Congratulations,” Dornas chided, “you’ve put a big red target on ‘your’ island.”

From the poop deck, the Kaava halfling Punketah took to the air, revealing wild psychic abilities as he levitated hovered over the melee. His veiny forehead pulsed and bulged as he called down to the Castaways. “Lay down your arms or be annihilated!” he rasped. At the wheel, the dwarven First Mate, Bloodbeard Bjorn, echoed his pygmy crewman’s warning. “Best do as he says, landlubbers!”

“No, keep fighting,” Gortross hissed between chops of his broadsword, “so I can swab the deck with your guts.” Kor’lec twisted and deflected blow after blow while Kai was being harried by the lizardfolk’s airborne companion, the averaptoran Craw-craw.

Monica emerged to proclaim, in a shocking turn, “we surrender!” In an even more shocking turn, the archaeologist drew her double-barreled pistol and aimed it at Kor’lec! For a moment, her trusted companions believed the Taldan woman had some trick up her sleeve. Then she opened fire, putting a bullet in Kor’lec’s lower back before dropping the weapon and kneeling, hands behind her head.

Dornas joined her. But Monica’s countryman had something up his sleeve. The magus picked up her very expensive gun and tossed it overboard. “We don’t surrender, actually.” Dornas stared knives at Monica before taking to the air to deal with the flying halfling.

“No quarter!” shouted the First Mate.

Fervor Down Below

“I… I love someone,” Aerys meekly whispered, before Kishtari drew the half-elf’s lips back to her own. They were fighters, acutely aware of the battle around them, their own place in the line of enemy fire, and Tyst in full beast-form barrelling past them on the way to do something to their foes that the word ‘murder’ seemed too gentle a word for. But in that moment Kish and Aerys were invincible in their vulnerability, and nothing else mattered save yielding to the world and to each other.

One of the smuggler’s bolts tore Kishtari’s flank as it zinged past. “Hold on,” the psion said, and with a hand wave three of the four crewmen dropped their weapons and crumpled into quiescence. “Thanks for leaving ONE,” roared Tyst, barely intelligible in dire badger form. The last of the crossbowmen gulped, emptied his bladder and bowels, and was mauled with the ferocity of a dozen bears.

All Hands on Death!

Likki passed Monica on the way to heal Kor’lec, shaking his head. “Why you hurt your family?” The sentiment was plain — but in Abyssal, as Monica herself once pointed out, it sounded like the harshest curse. Meanwhile, the halfling witch-doctor had blanketed the melee beneath him in magical webbing. Monica and Likki were held fast, as was Kor’lec and his reptilian aggressor. Dornas deftly skirted past the sticky strands on the way up to meet Punketah in aerial combat, staff twirling. “I’ve longed to measure my power against a magus,” boasted the halfling, “now BURN.” Flames fanned out from the Kaava pygmy’s fingertips, singing Dornas.

Monica freed herself from the webbing and reminded the Red Gull crewmen she wasn’t on the side of the hijackers, a.k.a. the people whose lives she’d equally saved and depended upon for the last few weeks. “Then help us take ’em down!” shouted Bloodbeard Bjorn, still fighting with the ship’s wheel on the choppy sea. Kor’lec was battling blood-loss, the webs, and a bloodthirsty lizardfolk — and losing. “Could use a little help here, Likki,” reported the druid. The oracle needn’t of understood the exact words to know his friend was hurting for curative magic. “I sorry I stuck!” apologized the monkey goblin in the demon tongue. “I’ll take care of him,” threatened Monica, before flashing her rapier at the injured half-elf.

Dornas answered Punketah’s not-really-all-that-impressive fire magic with a little alchemy, and hurled a tanglefoot bag. The goo burst upon the halfling, effectively neutralizing the spellcaster and rendering him a little less sure of his aerial alacrity.

Finally, the others emerged topside. Tyst, Kish, and Aerys, the latter still sort-of complaining about circumstantial maritime codes. Kishtari had mollified the pirate a bit by promising her captaincy of their brand new ship — if the kiss hadn’t done so already. Sasha remained below to make sure the sleeping crewmen wouldn’t be any more trouble, and everyone understood that really meant making sure they couldn’t be any more trouble, forever.

In her smartest move of the night, Monica surrendered, again. Tyst and Kish were around now. Tyst in beast mode could barely tell friend from foe under the best circumstances and Kishtari was even less likely to put up with any of Monica’s apologist nonsense. Kai finally broke away from the flying dinosaur and the human crewman she’d been tangling with, to help her master put the old flank-and-finish to Gortross. As he hissed out his final breaths, it was the lizardman who noticed he was swabbing the deck with his guts, while his animal companion, now just an animal, flew away.

Kor’lec managed to weave his webbed hands into a spell that burst radiantly on the poop deck, blinding and injuring the villains arrayed there, including the glue-covered halfling who was floating back down to regroup with his allies. Punketah called out for someone to help him remove the tarry goop from his person, and received only snores in return, thanks to Kishtari’s psionic lullaby. In desperation, the witch-doctor blindly flew off for the shore — and was intercepted in mid-air by Tyst. The lycanthrope ninja had clawed up the wall of the aft section and launched himself an impossible vertical distance toward the fleeing smuggler. Claws met flesh, and with a sickening rip, the Kaava pygmy’s midriff and legs plopped down on the deck in a deluge of gore, while his torso continued to soar, for a short distance, over and into the sea.

Tyst landed, and spat the chunks of vertebrae off of his tusks. “Creepy halfling,” he growled, and shook blood from his splattered pelt.

Laughter ensues.

Buried at Sea

This is the law: blood spilt upon the ground cries out for more.

As we open our short chapter, a man’s corpse floats gently to the bottom of a moonlit sea. Above him, galloping on the chop is a two masted sailing vessel, a caravel by the looks of her. A gravelly, staccato roar bellows from the deck before the roarer howls words from the same raspy throat. “Murder! Murder! A passenger’s killed our captain!”

Lamps wink on above and below deck. There is a commotion of voices. What mess have our Castaways gotten to now – barely a day and a half into their voyage from Smuggler’s Shiv?!?

Anchors Away

Red_Gull.jpgIt all started just a few hours after the Castaways and friends boarded the Red Gull. The compact, speedy and maneuverable caravel appeared to have been curious enough about the distress signals blazing from the old Sargavan settlement to risk their jolly boat and two men. While the abandoned village was well-known for its cannibal squatters and the whole island considered cursed by sailors, the signals themselves were only a few months old, according to Aerys, who suggested using them. “They’ll know we’re on the up-and-up.”

After being taken aboard, the Castaways were informed by the captain, a human with the unfortunate nom de guerre of “Snake-Eyes,” that his ship had just departed Eleder (which was to be the next port-of-call for the Jenivere), and wouldn’t be returning. Time at sea was money, and the ship had goods headed to Bloodcove. This sat fine with the party. They were just glad to be on their way, anywhere. After finding spots to lay their bedrolls in the cramped cargo hold, it was time to get a feel for their hosts. Their ordeal in a jungle full of monsters had made the adventurers wary.

Aside from the captain, the party took note of most of the other officers. There was a red-bearded dwarven First Mate, a ghastly-looking human pistoleer who was the ship’s Bosun, and the ship’s mage, a Kaavaland halfling that even managed to creep Tyst out. The crew was minimal for a vessel its size, just eight sailors, with four or five on duty at any given time.

The Castaways remained somewhat demure about their business. Gelik, less so, and the little comedian enjoyed regaling his captive audience with crude jokes, pratfalls, and tales of his associates’ escapades. None of this sat well with Kor’lec, who rather wanted the Shiv’s sinister reputation to stick. Unfortunately, the proverbial cat was out of the bag, Gelik or otherwise. The surf around the island was calmer than anytime the Gull’s crew had seen. The air itself seemed cleaner, fresher, the landscape seemed more inviting. Many had noticed. Kor’lec brooded on the island’s immediate future while flying around the ship as an osprey, amusing himself by bombarding the gnome with hawk-hockey. But Gelik took it in stride, joking every time.

“You’re telling me that’s a hawk? I could’ve sworn it was a stool pigeon!”
“Someone just HAD to remind me why we call this the poop deck!” and
“Nice to have my friends dropping by to catch my act! Hey up there, sorry you had to scat!”

Then he’d snap his fingers and magic the poo away, winning gales of laughter from his audience. “Some people just want to stay mad, even when you come clean to them.”

Kor’lec did note the unusual nature of the vessel’s principal lookout while flying around; a gecko-like lizardfolk as at home in the heights as most of his kin were in wetlands. Further, the lizardfolk had an animal with him, a avialan dinosaur that Kor’lec could tell was, like Kai, more of boon companion than a tamed beast.

Meanwhile, Likki wondered why the best treasures were kept in the bowels of the ship—then slorped down a rat tail like a noodle. He asked when he’d meet the big Chief of “Wreck-born Land,” so he could impress them with his royal lineage. Before bursting the little guy’s bubble completely, Likki had it explained that there were many big Chiefs and they didn’t usually agree on things. Then Dornas got down to brass tacks. “They will see you as you used to see us.” The monkey goblin winced. “But I not food!” he protested, and swore under his breath that no wreck-born would try to eat him. He was a person. He was a prince. They’d know. He’d show them.

Charade in Voyage

Some of the Castaways were happy to finally schmooze with new faces. Kishtari enjoyed gambling, smoking, and drinking with the unruly seamen, like she was back among the rowdies of Riddleport. Dornas and Monica tried to make headway on Ieana’s notes, though Dornas broke away occasionally to canvass the crew about Bloodcove’s hot spots. On these matters, the sailors were furtive and tight-lipped, which further aroused the party’s suspicions.

Tyst and Kish both spoke the casual cant of scoundrels, and soon details emerged about the “merchant” ship and her crew. The Gull belonged to a Lord Maragorn, whom Tyst knew to be a ex-pirate king turned Bloodcove business kingpin. As it happened, Maragorn also owned the Jenivere. “Strange coincidence, that,” Aerys pointed out. The sailors were not nice men. Kish caught thought snippets of their cruelties and crimes, and some confessed even worse to Tyst. The Gull sometimes flew a pirate flag, but its primary concern was smuggling.

As night began to fall, Kishtari was tasked with swindling information from the captain. The telepath was in her element, having excelled in confidence jobs even before she’d read her first aura. It wasn’t a difficult grift. Old Sigurd Snake-Eyes longed for feminine company and clearly underestimated women from outside his own Ulfen homeland. Though his mind wandered toward the money he’d make selling the beautiful "Varisian half-elf " into slavery, he knew he was better off doing as the boss had instructed him—recover any salvage from the Jenivere and bring any survivors to him for debriefing.

Hunter’s Bend

Meanwhile, Tyst had taken note of the cold shoulder Sasha was giving everyone lately, with her worst scowls and sardonic smiles reserved especially for him. He’d spent a good part of the day shadowing her. Sometimes the canny huntress noticed him, to her credit, and pretended not to care. More often she didn’t. She was continuously wrapped in a cloak she’d fashioned on the island from sailcloth, feathers and straw. The girl was hiding something, an unsheathed weapon, by the sound of it’s scrape when she knelt for what had become a rigorous prayer routine. Tyst knew the teen normally favored small arms, and found he recognized the hymns, too—they were for Achaekek, the mantis god of assassins.

Tyst attempted to get a looksie at whatever it was Sasha was hiding when she bed down for the night. But he was sniffed out by her dimorphodon hatchling, who squawked an alarm. Having tired of the game, Tyst confronted the young woman, and asked what her problem was. Sasha started out with her usual doggerel about the lycanthrope’s presumed mission for the Red Mantis. She’d seen him at the assassin cult’s Citadel, where she grew up. “But I don’t want to kill you,” Tyst explained. “I was nice to you.” He assured the paranoid girl he had very little recollection of his time with the cult, other than his training and their possible culpability for his curse.

Sasha fell to the halfling’s earnest charms and admitted in spite of herself that she was a daughter of one of the leaders, the infamous Vernai. She intended to return to the Crimson Citadel and tout Tyst’s failure to kill her, and hopefully expose whatever political enemy of her mother’s the were-beast served. “Good luck with that,” Tyst said. “Tell you what, you do just that. Go your way, and I go mine.” It finally dawned on Sasha that Tyst really didn’t remember anything about his mission, or his employer, and that he really did intend to leave the Red Mantis behind. She laughed manically.

“But, there is no leaving the cult, and living!” Sasha scoffed. “You really think you can just… quit? The most ruthless and effective assassins in all history?”

“That’s the plan.”

“Hoo. Then I wish you luck. You’ll need it more than me.” The teen relaxed back to her childlike temperament and made Tyst pinky-swear that he wouldn’t try to blackmail her later. He indulged her, and in so doing, unwittingly became the perfect person to have reached out to the troubled teen—just in time.

That Escalated Quickly

Tyst passed by the captain’s quarters to check up on Kishtari. The halfling ninja found her tooling around with Snake-Eyes’s strongbox, while the old Ulfen was slumped over his writing desk, out cold, gripping an emptied bottle of brandy. And, she was about to trigger a potentially lethal—but more likely permanently disfiguring—trap. Tyst slipped in the room, casually dispatched the trap, and popped the lock on the strongbox.

Inside the strongbox were some coins and gems, and Tyst nabbed the most valuable, a black pearl, for himself. Then he left without a word. “Aw!” Kish pouted. But there was still mischief to make, and the thieving kalashtar went over the charts and notes on the smuggler’s desk. There was a map of the Shiv coastline, with likely impact points for the Jenivere outlined in consideration of that fateful night’s winds. There were dossiers on the passengers, and orders penned by Maragorn that confirmed what the telepath had coaxed earlier from Snake-Eyes’s limpid brain.

When Kishtari returned to the group in the cargo hold, she explained what the smugglers were up to. Kor’lec being Kor’lec presumed the worst—this “Maragorn” would have their heads! Monica being Monica presumed the hunky-dory—the guy just wants to know what happened to his boat. Dornas being Dornas presumed the plots—some machination was afoot and they needed to play along. Likki being Likki presumed the yummy—if there were as many rats in Wreck-born Land as its people took traveling he’d be fat and happy.

After mentioning lifting Snake-Eyes’s gems, Monica was horrified that her companions had just robbed their rescuers. Aside from the not-at-all insubstantial ethical concern, they’d all be assumed as culprits and clasped in irons. The party tossed ideas around like hijacking the ship, finally deciding to let Tyst return the jewels and make it look like nothing untoward had happened in the captain’s cabin.

While the group prattled on, Kor’lec wordlessly excused himself from the conversation and slipped away. Up to the top deck prowled the druid, with Kai stalking behind. Into the sterncastle he crept, where snored the captain in his cabin. The half-elf lifted the besotted smuggler’s drooling head—and with his scimitar, opened old Snake-Eyes’s neck.

Kor’lec ignited the plans and maps of Smuggler’s Shiv with a simple orison while the man he’d just killed bled out. The druid dragged Snake-Eyes’s body out to the main deck, and under the cover of darkness, lifted the captain’s corpse up and over the railing where it plopped into the sea.

A saurian growl issued from the shadows of some cargo. “These eyes are just as good in the dark,” rasped the reptilian voice of Gortross, the lookout. A lamp winked on overhead, held by someone in the crow’s nest. On the poop deck, a match was lit, and then another lamp.

“He should have listened to me,” grumbled the lizardman, "if I had my way, you’d have all made this trip in cages. Without limbs.

“They’ll listen now.”

His croaks echoed across the upper decks, and practically resonated through to the cargo hold. The off-duty seamen in the cabin fore of the hold began to rouse from their hammocks or card games, while nearby, the Castaways noticed Kor’lec’s absence. “A passenger’s killed our Captain!” echoed across the ship. Gortross had some pipes on him, and the words were repeated in whispers from the crew.

“Sounds like we can keep the gems!” Kish cheered.

Rolling Snake Eyes

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.

This is going to hurt

“Big Sister! No!” Likki was tugging on the psion’s hand. “He not in charge of head!”

" Ieana’s got him," Monica confirmed. Kish finally saw it too, and didn’t relax so much as shift her concentration to something slightly less annihilative.

“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.

What could this bitch want?

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.

Zura’s Challenges

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.

Trust in me... just in me...

“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.

'Cause f$ck treasure, I guess?

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.

At that, a horde of hooting Mongrukoo stormed up the hill, led by Cenkil, just in time for the heroes to say, “thanks, we saved you the trouble of cooking them.”

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.



Blood in the Water

I always thought the appeal for vampires are the same as religion, the desire to avoid death and live forever.

While exploring the underwater landscape in the form of a graceful porpoise, a slightly wounded Kor’lec was unexpectedly set upon by a frenzied silvertip shark!

Thinking quickly, the shapechanged druid temporarily cursed the hungry animal with a spell that made it afraid of the water! The panicked beast began thrashing and breaching in a vain attempt to get away from the very environment it depended upon, obliterating the upper decks of a nearby shipwreck in the process. Soon thereafter, the poor beast leapt out to open sea in search of easier prey.

Familiar Hilarity Breeds Contempt

Returning to humanoid form, Kor’lec thought he’d seen something aglow in the lower decks of the shark-whacked shipwreck. After making his way to the submerged upper deck, a voice called out “Stand and Deliver!”

Out from the water popped a little impish creature wearing a soggy bicorne. “You stand before captain Ekubus of the Salty Strumpet!” challenged the mephit, and gesturing to the innocuous sea life crawling about the hulk, “and me crew has you surrounded!”

By this time the rest of the party had reached the thin strand between the bluffside of Red Mountain and the lagoon. From there, the adventurers observed the parley betwixt Kor’lec and Ekubus with bemusement. The druid had managed to convince the funny little creature to “stand down.” It was clear that Ekubus was quite mad, believing that the Strumpet was still at sea. Kor’lec asked if he’d seen anyone strange pass by.

“Aye, yes!” admitted the mephit, “a funny-looking lady nearly scuttled me ship when she pushed back the ocean and entered the scary doors leading into the mountain yonder.” Kor’lec prompted Ekubus to elaborate on what he meant by “funny-looking” and “scary.”

“Well, the lady had a long snake-tail, and well, her head was also like a snake.” As to the doors that Kor’lec had only seen from afar when he was a porpoise, Ekubus added, “they’ve got pictures of vampires on ’em what makes ’em scary!”

Kor’lec played along with the mephit’s fantasy, and said he was a captain as well of the Briny Demon. After a little hiccup where the half-elf had to explain he wasn’t a spy, Ekubus let slip that his ship’s original captain was a wizard transporting magic booty to Mediogalti. The elemental being then allowed his fellow captain to return to his own crew.

Back ashore, Kor’lec recapped his solo adventure to the others. Monica and Dornas suggested that the mephit was probably once the familiar of the dead captain, if they were indeed a wizard.

Everyone else had already decided that they wanted to try using the occult ritual from the Typhonian Proposal to activate the Tide Stone and allow them all access to the secret sanctum below the surface of the lagoon. Kor’lec wasn’t sold on participating in ancient serpentfolk ceremonies, but he did think it was probably the right thing to warn Ekubus as to what was coming. All of the party, Kishtari especially, were interested in the Strumpet’s treasure.

The half-elf returned to the Strumpet, this time with Kai, and practically had to reintroduce himself all over again to the insane mephit. Kor’lec made a diplomatic play for the mephit’s plunder, saying he’d help get it to its destination while the Strumpet was forced to anchor during the coming storm. Ekubus, perhaps a little more savvy than anyone realized, invited the druid to go into the cargo hold and haul the treasure topside.

Kor’lec dove down into the dark, submerged cargo hold with a magical light. Sleepily perched in front of the glowing treasure was a spear urchin, which wouldn’t have been too much of a problem if it weren’t as big as a fucking horse.

Kor’lec tried his best to mollify the creature, but his druidly efforts only succeeded in raising the urchin’s hackles – particularly pointy hackles that injected a potent paralytic venom. After the half-elf had surfaced in utter “nope!” a jocular Ekubus asked Kor’lec if he’d talked to the “quartermaster” about the ship’s stores.

To Eschew What Lies Below

Satisfied that mephits were some kind of cruel prank perpetuated on the cosmos by some demented overpower, Kor’lec returned to the strand to catch up with the others. On the way back up the bridges and ledges, the party came upon none other than Gelik, Jask, and Aerys! And the Castaways were not happy to see their dear friends. “I thought we all agreed you’d stay put.”

Gelik surrendered and admitted it was all his idea, but Jask and Aerys interjected before anyone could beat the snot out the gnome. Both said they were of sound mind and agreed to come on their own. Aycenia had ensured the speed and safety of their travel before having to return to her tree. Sasha opted not to come, which Aerys chalked up to the teen not taking Nemanji’s death well. It was the first time anyone had verbalized what was probably so. The tiefling hadn’t been seen since he and Tyst made their heroic stand against the fungoid horde – and wasn’t coming back.

Gelik explained that he’d gotten a look at the charcoal rubbings of the Typhonian rites when he was helping Monica gear up for the away team’s destined date with Ieana. Familiar with occult magic, Gelik knew the group stood a better chance for success – and averting the ofttimes deadly consequences of failure – if they had more participants in the dangerous rite. Casters like himself and Jask were especially valuable, and Aerys was happy to lend a hand, and a fist. The trio – whose lives were secured and bettered by Dornas, Kish, Kor’lec, Likki and Monica – felt they owed their friends at least their support.

Jask had brought the copper helm he cooked with to provide seawater in a “vessel of purest metal,” pouring it into the basin atop the pyramidal Tide Stone. Aerys smeared a bloody palm onto the monoliths, the “blood from a thinking creature.” To fulfill the “tempered with the kiss of a serpent’s tongue” Kishtari tried kissing the stones, but they didn’t light up with magic writing until Kor’lek summoned a tiny snake to touch them with its tongue. The last ingredient seemed to necessitate calling upon Ydersius, which put the divine acolytes in a difficult position. Jask wondered, as it was concocted by serpentfolk, if the ritual would work just as good if it called upon another god, in other words, was the final element faith? After carefully studying the magical notations on the text and those illuminated on the stones, the mages confirmed the priest’s suspicions. As they knew of no one whose faith was as unshakable as Jask’s, he would call on Nethys.

With only a little further ado, Monica took the lead in the ritual, explaining that the ceremony depended on the focus and noesis of its practitioners. Elemental forces, biofeedback, magical awareness, and theosophy were required of the minds of the participants – Kor’lec, Kish, Dornas, and Monica would handle each respectively.

And as they began to focus their minds, the heroes and friends immediately felt themselves awash in eldritch energies. The air was charged with static that detonated into lightning around them. It fed from the Tide Stone and lashed into the pillars before arching skyward into the swirling clouds. Jask called on Nethys, over and over, using the ancient deity’s titles and anonyms. “Nethys! All Seer! Great Eye!” and so forth. Miraculously, the janus mask of the god appeared at unpredictable intervals in the vortex of clouds that formed a black funnel around the peak of Red Mountain.

Monica was losing her focus as the occult powers plumbed her mind for an awareness that she was doing her damnedest to feign – when Gelik grasped her hand and said “I haven’t been entirely truthful with you, about me, but I love you…”

Great, dark hands, crackling with lightning, appeared in the lagoon and seemed to push back the ocean! And behold! the waters of the bay were pushed back to reveal a seabed of rocks, scuttling crabs, plants, flopping fish, and sunken ships to the open air! And across the exposed shelf of the bay were great, spiky stone doors that ground noisily as they slowly opened beneath Smuggler’s Shiv to the secret dungeon beneath it.

Rust and Stardust

The ceremony took just under an hour, but the party was sorely drained by its effects. The dark clouds dispersed, yet the lagoon remained laid bare, and the doorway to the dungeon beckoned. Dornas looked at Jask, Aerys, and Gelik and – admitting that if he couldn’t get them to stay put – asked if any of them intended to come with? Gelik readily made no bones about his cold feet (er, foot), and also that he’d never been a part of the Pathfinder Society, which was his original lie. The gnome, hat in hand, admitted he tried to get in the organization by passing off fake artifacts. He was nothing but talk – a fraud and a crook. Monica replied that she’d known all along.

Jask repeated what he’d said on his last impromptu adventure with the a-team – he was just too old for this shit and was looking forward to being a free man on the mainland. As for Aerys, the pirate seemed torn – until a silent nod from Kishtari let her off the hook. Aerys opined everyone would be better off if she’d just kept an eye on Jask and Gelik, as her pegleg would only slow everyone down. The proud half-elf’s pain and frustration were evident to everyone.

Dornas, Kish, Likki, Monica, Kor’lec and Kai once again left their friends at the apex of Red Mountain to do what only they could do.

Confront Ieana.

Make history.
Be history.

Sanguine Sanctorum

By the time the party reached the shore, their exhaustion had subsided. The march over the emptied lagoon was surreal, but uneventful. Finally, the adventurers arrived at the scary doorway, and it lived up to the name. In addition to the jagged spikes protruding from the open stone doors, images of demonic vampires, dressed in cultish Azlanti garb feasting on maidens, dominated the reliefs. The embellishments likewise betrayed their Azlanti design.

Dornas admitted his keen interest in Azlanti culture, and Monica stated that their ruins weren’t often found in Garund, though their presence in the south had long been a theory in fringe academia. Beyond the doors awaited a seemingly endless stairwell going up.

The long stairs continued upward for about fifty feet, which put the adventurers just above normal sea level and deep inside the crag. The first chamber was a vaulted cathedral exalting the demon goddess Zura. Columns decorated with demons supported the ceiling arches. A crumpled, bloodstained altar listed on a dais in the room’s center, and urn-cluttered alcoves were arrayed in the west and east walls. An arching walkway, forty feet high, crossed the south quarter of the chamber, with no apparent access from the temple floor.

The decorum was a fitting tribute to the Queen of Vampires. Reliefs and frescoes depicted cannibalistic blood orgies and all manner of vile atrocities visited upon people and serpentfolk alike by fang-bearing men and women wearing capes and high headdresses. Images of bats, bat-like humanoids, and themes of bloodletting and the consumption of still-living victims were ubiquitous.

They Won’t SSSssstay Dead

But very little of all that imagery was immediately apparent, for as soon as the heroes reached the top of the stairs they came under fire from assailants on the walkway. Kor’lec’s keen elven eyes spotted two serpentman skeletons up there hurling javelins at them.

Deciding they’d had it with these guys, Kor’lec launched a spear that struck true and shattered a few dozen ribs. Dornas moved to the archway under the bridge and saw stone doors leading out of the room to the south, decorated with spikes and motifs just as the ones outside, and called Monica over to check them. The undead snakemen tossed the last of their javelins, and deciding they’d also had it, leapt to the temple floor. The one Kor’lec had already hit shattered into pieces, and the other arose just in time to get taken apart by Kai.

A thorough search of the room found a lever behind one of the alcoves that Kish couldn’t resist messing with, which, fortunately, just open and shut the outside doors. The urns had nothing but dust within them. Kor’lec discovered a pit in one of the alcoves leading twenty feet down to a pile of jagged bones and a lit cavern.

Kishtari sent her serpentine homunculus, Naga, down the pit to investigate. For the first time, Naga protested. And everyone heard it. “Have we considered all options?” it asked, “it might be dangerous down there!”

“Oh, you can hear that now?” asked Kish of the others, somewhat surprised. The psion explained that her mother’s psicrystal would speak, sometimes. It was a sign of her own psionic development. Kishtari insisted that Naga do what was asked of it.

Dangerous Toys

Naga slithered into the pit and described a natural cavern lit by glowing crystals. Aside from the skeletons, mostly human, there were old beat up crates, broken pottery, and other detritus. The psicrystal described a shallow pond of mineral soup containing motes of crystal. “There is a rather unpleasant doll sitting on a shabby box,” Naga reported, “and oh! it’s turned its head to look at me. And there’s another coming out a vase. I’m fleeing now.”

The snake-like construct bee-lined back up the pit and resumed its regular job as its master’s hairband. The tiny dolls floated off the floor up after it, brandishing tiny knives. Worse than the knives were the nimbi of blackness around their hands. “Come on, they’re just stupid little dolls!” Kor’lec teased as he walked up to the lip of the pit and slashed hard with the scimitar that he’d painstakingly sharpened that morning to a razor, toy splitting edge. Yet, he barely chipped the puppet-like monster. “Hey, why didn’t that work!?!” the druid gasped.

Dornas, dodging the dolls’ deadly negatron touch, identified them as a type of construct animated by soul-gems – precious stones that confined a sapient creature’s soul indefinitely. Which meant they had minds.

“Interesting,” yawned Kish. One of the soulbound dolls lost consciousness and plummeted down into the pit, breaking on the spiky bone pile. “Couldn’t get both of them.”

But the other one wasn’t long for the world, as Dornas jammed the butt of his magically-enhanced staff into the construct’s eye-socket in an attempt to dislodge the gem he’d guessed was rolling around in the skull. Head and gem both cracked, and the doll spun itself around to flee. But its toughened shell could only withstand so much punishment. Kor’lec and Dornas bashed the fleeing thing to bits.

Soul Schism

“So, if those things have souls in them,” asked Kish, “can we eat them and gain their power?” Likki hugged his ‘big sister’ and said “Welcome to family!”

The party had all descended into the cavern for a look around. Dornas ruminated deeply on one the Azlanti skulls he’d picked up, gazing into the face of a person ten millennia dead. The magus bagged up the skull to add to his ancient head collection. Then the conversation turned dead serious. Kish had sensed the emotions of the gems – they were suffering and insane from confinement. But they were also rubies and incredibly valuable, especially after she psionically repaired the crack.

Monica asked to see one, then tossed it upward, quick drew her gun with a twirl and BANG! The blast resounded around the cavern and echoed throughout the complex.

But Dornas had snatched the ruby into hand with some speedy legerdemain. The Taldans didn’t so much argue as disagree, icily, on the fate of the gems. Monica felt in her heart the relics were abominable and their inhabitants deserved to be released into the afterlife. Dornas thought just as strongly that it was foolish to try and free them without knowing more about them. Nobody else seemed to have strong feelings about them one way or another, save Likki who thought Kish’s joke about eating them had the most merit.

Liturgy of the Devourers

The cavern contained several tiny twisty tunnels leading who-knows-where, so Kishtari dispatched her homunculus into them. Most were dead ends, but the slithering crystal did find some larger passageways and a chamber that contained a bath filled with congealed blood.

The Castaways returned to the temple and climbed up onto the bridge, opting to check out the western wings of the structure. Opening the stone doors, the party shone their magical lights on that most dangerous of dungeon discoveries – knowledge!

They’d found the temple scriptorium.

As one with the library’s shadows, a familiar and deadly predator lies-in-wait…