Hot Air

We needed a time of respite. Nolofinwe, Varen, and especially Arien, were in no condition physically, emotionally, or spiritually to travel back to their village. They had been though a lot and it was time for them to rest and reflect.

After scouting the area and using my limited arcane gifts to clean the area, we decided to use the beast’s cave as a secure place and took the opportunity to give Roman a proper burial. In preparing Roman’s body, Arien found an odd stone inserted in his eye socket. She asked me to help her pull it out and told me that Muerath gifted Roman the stone. I was more than overjoyed knowing that Muerath had somehow, at some point, been able to reach beyond the barrier that prevented the gods from communing with us. There was hope….There is always hope as long as there is life.

I kept my elation of the revelation to myself for the time being, and gave the stone to Arien. She wanted me to have it, but I refused. It belonged to Roman, gifted to him from my mother. It was a holy relic; touched by the goddess of life and death and bestowed to a holy warrior. I had no right to such a thing. It belonged to Roman’s next of kin, and if not that, then to the one he trusted and loved the most, which was Arien. I told her as much. She was uncertain at first, either because she didn’t believe in my faith or was confused by my denial of a means to power, but she relented and appreciated my candor. That stone had the mark of her lover and holding it close to her was a reminder that his spirit would always be with her.

At some point, Varen and Arien went off to explore a little more of the caverns around us. This gave me the opportunity to commune with Nolo. Of the three, Nolo was the most akin to me – him being a quasi-holy man, albeit a disciple of nature and things of the wild. Even in the realm of stone and darkness, he kept his faith and love of all things natural, and such a thing kept him jolly. He showed me his tricks to find food even in such a gloomy world of doom and despair as Xymor. But behind those eyes of joy and reverence to the natural order, I saw a great pain and sorrow. He would not open up, which was natural of him since I was untrustworthy still, but I realized it was that pain in him that truly drove him forward on his journey, wherever that led. I liked him and hoped we would travel together more. He and I had a lot in common, even if we perceived reality in different hues. I hoped he would help me fulfill my calling to protect and bring Arien out of Xymor.

When Varen and Arien returned, Varen summoned his giant hut of magic and we rested. Arien and Varen refused to partake in the food Nolo scavenged – I suppose rat and fungus stew wasn’t gourmet enough for them.

The next morning, while Nolo, Varen, and I were refreshed and ready to continue onwards, Arien found she was still weak and tired. It was as if she hadn’t slept. She confessed to having horrific nightmares and deathly visions. This was the work of the witch hag, Vermelda – the witch had cursed Arien. Had I been privy of such knowledge about this hag’s capabilities, I may have been able to help protect Arien and the others. But they never told me.

Nolo took out a small stone statue of a bear that glowed red. He murmured a few words and touched Arien with the statue. The statue’s red glow erupted in a flash of blinding light that filled the cavern and I sensed immense power. When the glow faded, the statue did not glow anymore, but Arien was healed and she felt refreshed. I was taken aback. I asked them where they got the statue and they told me a rambling story about giant, intelligent, gophers that guarded a red rock with the power to bring back the dead. They explained that the gophers were the deadliest things they had ever encountered and never wanted to see them again. Were the giant gophers malicious? Territorial? Religious? The three of them didn’t seem to know or care. They just seemed frightened by the mere mention of the hairy rodents. Perhaps it was something I could only understand by being there. In any case, I was utterly confused, but curious.

We gathered our belongings and went back the way we came, climbing up the rope along the cliff wall. As we climbed, we heard a thunderous roaring sound of wind and felt a rush of hot air coming from below. We didn’t know if it was the approach of an oncoming beast or a natural occurrence. Truth was, we didn’t care, so we hurried our pace. Nolo used a magical ability to scale the walls and scout ahead of us.

For a moment, the rush of air stopped and we thought that whatever it was had passed. It was an instant relief. Perhaps we were in the clear and the air was nothing to worry about? We were wrong. As we continued climbing, the rushing air surprised us and returned. Something was coming and we didn’t want to be there to see whatever it was. Fear of the unknown has a tendency to do that to mortals. There was a moment where I stopped climbing and let the others go ahead. Unlike them, I was not afraid of death, for death is of my domain and holds no fear over me. I wanted to know the origin of the rushing air. I peered over the cliff’s edge and waited. Could it have been an ancient dragon of lore? Or was it a demonic balrog released from its hellish chains? Or perhaps it was a gigantic purple worm burrowing through the world of Xymor? Or signs of an oncoming volcanic eruption? I wasn’t able to discover the truth at that point as the others yelled down to tell me to hurry up.

Once we climbed and passed through the Ant Hive and found ourselves back in the tunnels of Xymor proper, Varen began to summon magical fey steeds to help us travel back to his home of Hactuan. That’s when Vermelda made her appearance.

I quickly unhooked my flail and shield.

“No, wait,” Varen said. “This is what we wanted.”

I was, once more, confused.

“You desired to parley,” the hag rasped, “and so let us parley.”

I was even more confused then. When did we decide to parley with the very evil that sought the destruction of the one thing I was sent by Muerath to protect? I’m not the most intelligent man, but I am no fool and I realized that Varen had somehow convinced Arien, and perhaps Nolo, that it was in their best interest to meet with the hag. I looked at Varen, Nolo, and Arien in puzzlement and disgust.

“Vermelda, I wanted to speak with you,” Varen said. “We want the same thing. We want out of Xymor. You want out of Xymor. Perhaps we can work something out.”

I could see the uneasiness of Nolo and Arien. Varen’s demeanor was different – he reminded me of the image of the tarot card of the Fool stepping dangerously close to the edge of a cliff, completely unaware or uncaring of the true dangers ahead of him.

“Why do you want to parley now after attacking Arien?” Nolo interjected.

“There was no bargain then, but now there should be,” she cackled.

“And what bargain do you offer?” Varen asked.

‘It’s a trap!’ my spirit shouted at me over and over again. I tightened my grip on my flail. We shouldn’t be doing this. Never deal with the devil because the devil never changes.

“Here is my bargain…”

Discord of Vermelda

Long into the future, in a land far, far away….

Arien, Nolofinwe, Varen and Craven stood before Vermelda inside an Ant Hive of Xymor. The hag had suddenly appeared to make a bargain after not answering the call of Arien and Varen the previous evening. The shifty witch promised to no longer cause harm to any of them, including Shanna and the other Hactuan residents, as long as the heroes did not try to harm or evade her. After much debate, it was decided to reject Vermelda’s bargain. Frustrated by Craven’s influence over the decision, Varen headed off on his own toward Hactuan as the others decided their next course of action.

During Varen’s journey, Vermelda again appeared. She offered him a new bargain. In return for him staying away from his companions and not travelling with them, she would leave Shanna and the Hactuan residents alone. In fact, Varen would never see or hear from Vermelda again. Disheartened from the recent turn of events, Varen put off his decision, but Vermelda warned that the offer had an expiration date. The half-drow made it back to Hactuan and found that the once depleted village was gaining residents in the form of Burran refugees. Glad to reunite with his mother, Varen settled in and waited to see if his companions would arrive.

Meanwhile, Arien, Nolfinwe, and Craven continued their own journey back to Hactuan. During the trip, Arien and Nolo fed Craven’s interest in the Red Crystal Cavern and the Burrowling guardians. They recounted their two disastrous expeditions into the cavern which prompted the supposed cleric of Muerath to propose a third visit. He argued for a more peaceful approach and seemed confident in his ability to speak with the gophers. In turn, Craven told his story to Arien and Nolofinwe, hoping to gain their trust and faith in his god.

Toward the evening, the ground began to tremble as a huge earthquake took hold. Rocks fell from the roof and the ground tossed beneath them. They were suddenly slammed against the north wall and Arien was injured. Craven used his powers to heal the sorceress, but before they could get their bearings, Vermelda again appeared. She claimed to have caused the quake and promised more if they did not entertain her bargain. Craven began chanting magic as Arien blasted the witch with a lightning bolt. Craven caused the fiend to go blind and she once again shifted into the ethereal plane.

Back at Hactuan, the earthquake caused severe damage to the village. Several people were hurt and homes were destroyed. Varen helped the villagers retrieve survivors from the rubble and provided healing to those in need. That evening, Varen crawled into his pallet and slept the deep sleep of the over weary.

After their encounter with Vermelda, Arien, Nolofinwe and Craven made haste toward Hactuan. They made camp for the night with Nolofinwe keeping watch for Vermelda’s presence. Just before morning, Arien woke with a start from her slumber. Despite Nolofinwe’s persistence, Vermelda managed to infect Arien’s dreams, weakening the sorceress. This solidified Craven’s stand on visiting the Red Crystal Cavern and ending Vermelda’s reign of terror by vowing, “Her death is imminent…”

Diverging Destinies

Long into the future, in a land far, far away…

Arien, Nolofinwe, Varen and Craven continued their journey through Xymor still unsure of where their destinies lie in the dark tunnels of this treacherous realm. In Hactuan, Varen woke frustrated. It continued to haunt him that he didn’t know why Vermelda insisted that he stay away from his companions. Why would she threaten the lives of Shanna and the other Hactuan residents should Varen defy the witch? Unsure, he resolved that he would abide by the hag’s demands and protect his mother and the growing populace from further harm.

Meanwhile Arien, Nolofinwe and Craven continued making their way toward Hactuan. The companions traded stories about their travels in Xymor, with Craven growing ever more confident that Vermelda must be dealt with. The follower of Muerath argued that the key to defeating the hag lay in the power of the Red Crystal Cavern.

Back at Hactuan, Arien and Nolofinwe talked with Varen about Craven’s plan to visit the Burrowlings. Varen seemed unconvinced of this course of action. Botch and the residents of Hactuan had a small celebration in honor of Roman. Craven proved a fine cook for the feast and many words of praise were bestowed upon the fallen barbarian. That evening, Vermelda again visited Arien in her dreams. Luckily, her companions noticed her thrashing in her sleep and Craven was able to use his magic to drive the witch away.

The next morning, the heroes told Botch about their plan to make contact with the Burrowlings and possibly become allies with the creatures. The dwarf seemed skeptical and decided to speak with Varen about the plan. After some discussion, Varen and Botch agreed that Varen’s talents would be better suited to helping Hactuan by staying behind, however the possibility of becoming allies with the fierce Burrowlings could prove beneficial.

Botch gave his blessing to the group and appointed Arien as the Hactuan emissary to the gophers while Varen stayed behind…

Met Well, and Met Unwell

Long into the future, in a land far, far away…

Arien, Nolofinwe, Varen and Craven reunited in Hactuan and prepared for the next leg of their adventure. Arien, Nolo and Craven had decided to leave for the Red Crystal Cavern in hopes to secure the Burrowlings as allies. As the others prepared food and blankets as offerings to the creatures, Craven paid a visit to Varen. The cleric apologized to Varen for their recent conflict, but the bard still stayed behind with Shanna to protect the village.

Now a trio, the heroes crawled through tunnels of Xymor toward the red crystal. However, as they approached the opening to the chamber, Nolofinwe noticed that they could not see the red glow emanating from the entry tunnel. They inched further and discovered that a cave-in, presumably caused by the recent earthquake, blocked their passage. As they began digging through the rubble, they heard a voice call out for help. Trapped under the rubble they found a dwarf named Flint Ironfist.

Flint explained that he had been in Xymor for 40 years and was exploring these tunnels when he became trapped. As they talked, Vermelda was mentioned, which caused Flint to confess that he had run into a night hag lair below the Black Lake of Burran. The dwarf agreed to help the companions explore the red crystal cavern since they saved him, and he also wanted to see the vicious gophers that Arien and Nolofinwe seemed so frightened of.

In the Red Crystal Cavern, Craven used his magic to give Arien and himself the power to speak with the creatures. The Burrowlings were skittish, but eventually showed themselves. They urged the group to leave the cavern, mentioning that they were the Coterie of Rog and guarded against all that dared touch the red crystal. As the negotiations began to show some progress, Vermelda appeared.

The heroes began attacking her, causing the Burrowlings to flee. Craven tried cursing her, Nolo surrounded her in flames and Flint tried to bash her, but the witch was able to burst through the flames and touch the crystal. The room burst with bright red light and she entered the ethereal realm. With the crystal disturbed, the Burrowlings poured from their small tunnels and ferociously attacked…

Rock of Ages

Long into the future, in a land far, far away…

Arien, Nolofinwe, Craven and Flint fought for their lives against the vicious Burrowlings that defended the Red Crystal in their lair. Craven did his best to discover the source of the crystal’s power between attacks from the small creatures, but only discerned that its power derived from a different source than his own.

With their defeat imminent, Arien touched the gem which flashed a brighter red as usual. But she noticed her hand appeared strange. She then fled up the rope to escape the Burrowlings. Nolofinwe followed her lead, as did Flint who used his magic to fly from the cavern. Craven, seriously wounded, touched the gem using his magic to try and inflict damage upon the crystal. He too was fully healed, but black cracks appeared where his hand touched the mineral. He then fled to join his companions.

Out of the chamber, Nolo began leading them back to Hactuan when Craven suggested they instead go to Shukalgau. Nolofinwe knew a secret way into the Duergar stronghold. Flint agreed, his desire to take out his former captives evident. They all affirmed Craven’s course of action and followed Nolofinwe into the dark tunnels of Xymor.

During the night, Nolofinwe and Flint noticed that Arien began showing signs of Vermelda haunting her dreams. They woke her but she still felt as if Vermelda was there. Flint suggested she sprint away, breaking the connection with the hag. Arien complied, waking Craven. The cleric praised Flint for his ingenuity but insisted that next time he be allowed to cast a protective spell on the sorceress.

The next morning, the group noticed that Arien appeared to have aged…

Worming Through the Tunnels

Excerpt from ‘The Heroes of Xymor: The Great Debate, Chapter 9: Of Loss, Destiny, and Choices,’ by Archmage Hannibal Kahnhari, Head Scholar and Headmaster of Ravencraft School of Sorcery and the Dark Arts.

…The Heroes of Xymor, led by Nolofinwe Tasartir, began their travels through the dark caverns and passageways of the great underworld towards the secret, back entrance of Shukalgau.

Once more, Vermelda of Black Lake, assaulted the sorceress Arien-gil Bihari in her sleep but the heroes were unable to protect her. As Craven Witchborn treated Arien after her attack, he noticed she had physically aged in appearance. He realized he had aged as well.

The heroes surmised that their recent interaction with the red rock had an aging side effect. Nolofinwe and Flint Ironfist had touched the stone as well but didn’t appear affected like Craven or Arien. (A common theory is that Nolofinwe and Flint were of the immortal races, a wood elf and a stone dwarf; races who are slow to age and immune to spells or conditions of rapid aging.)

To recount, Vermelda of Black Lake had first touched the red rock before her escape from the Burrowlings. Soon after, as the heroes ran for their lives from the Burrowlings, Arien touched the red rock, followed by Flint, Nolofinwe, and then Craven.

Did Vermelda curse the red rock with her touch, causing an aging affect for future interaction? Did Craven’s prayer of death that caused the red rock to fracture and blacken have an after effect on all past, present, and future participants of its healing properties? Was there always a side effect towards all who touched the red rock and the heroes had then just noticed it for the first time? (This last theory does not hold as Varen, the half-drow who stayed in Hactuan, had touched the red rock before and there is no account of his aging process.)

These were questions the heroes had to ponder. But questions cannot be answered without pursuit. So the heroes continued onwards to Shukalgau…

The heroes marched, and entered a narrow passageway; they noticed affixed to the cavern walls and ceiling giant silk webbings. They saw no sign of spiders, big or small, or entombed husks typically found on webs. They cautiously continued onward as there was no other way.

Then Flint, Arien, and Nolo stopped. There was a glow ahead. Craven, in the rear, couldn’t see what the others saw and turned around to make sure nothing was behind them. Flint, Arien, and Nolo stood there for a moment, when suddenly Flint and Arien rushed forward into an open cavern.

“What are you doing?” Nolo whispered, but the half-drow and dwarf ignored him.

Arien and Flint were enraptured with something and compelled to go to it. Craven slowly inched forward and saw that the two of them stood by a glowing blue ball of light hovering in the air. They stared at it, mesmerized.

“What’s wrong…” Craven began to ask, but his answer came before he could finish. Two massive worms burst through the roof. They whipped out tentacles and entangled Arien and Flint, preparing them as a meal.

Craven prayed and a spectral scythe of death appeared between the two worms and attacked. Nolo summoned his flames of nature to harm the abominable creatures. Flint and Arien awoke from their charm effect and realized their predicament. The two of them used their magic and teleported out of the grip of the worms and rematerialized next to Nolo and Craven. The priest of Muerath quickly prayed and healed Arien.

One of the worms submerged itself back into the ceiling while the other slithered through the webbings to pursue the heroes. The worms continued being attacked by the spectral scythe. Through Arien’s acid spells, Nolo’s flame summons, and Flint’s booming warhammer, the heroes took down the pursuing worm. But the second worm was still alive.

Behind them, another blue glowing ball appeared. The heroes peered at it for a second and turned to each other. Flint shrugged at Craven.

“There!” Nolo shouted, pointing at the rumbling floor as the second worm emerged right next to Craven.

Craven touched the giant worm and prayed:

“Goddess of Death, Mother of the Night, Immortal of all Immortals,
I summon thy Might, I awake thy Deathly Strike,
Let the Living feed on the Dead, and the Dead starve in your Dread,
Let there be Darkness, let there be Death, Forever.”

The worm squirmed in pain as life energy flowed out of it and into Craven. Then Nolo summoned a massive wall of flame around the creature…

Devil Mushroom

Excerpt from ‘Death Plants: Bizarre Vegetation of the HoX Era,’ Chapter 3: Fungus and Death,’ by Archmage Malenna Dawn, Headmaster of Botany and Alchemy of Ravencraft School of Sorcery and the Dark Arts.

…The exact cause of the dispersal of the devil mushroom into our world isn’t known; though many scholars believe its arrival occurred during the HoX era (Heroes of Xymor). With the advent of the heroes, our deep caves, underground ravines, and subterranean worlds exploded with the growth of the fungus. Most people consider Devil Mushrooms vile vegetation, as these fungi kill most who come in contact with them. But there are groups that have learned to handle the deadly fungus and use it for medicinal or religious purposes. One such group is the Cult of Knolokinwe.

Once a generation, the Cult of Knolokinwe ceremoniously cut tiny segments from the gills and stew them in feline urine, rosemary, and periwinkle for eight hours. Then on the rising of the Dawn Moon once every 100 years, the cult leaders drink the concoction to induce a heavy comatose-like trance. The leaders stay in this trance for a week and go through an “out of body” experience. Some of these cult leaders say they find “the meaning of everything,” or they can “taste colors and touch the universe” while under the influence. The more bizarre accounts are those who experience the “re-emergence into their mother’s womb,” or have “intense sexual encounters with reanimated dead animals,” or experience being “eaten and consumed” by their god and then “defecated out and shot back” into their physical bodies wherein they experience the “natural cycle of consumed prey.”

Upon vanquishing the last giant worm, the heroes continued west. That night, Vermelda attempted to assault Arien again, but failed due to Flint’s diligence. The next day, as they continued their travels, Craven noticed strange vegetation growth on the ground and walls. He immediately recognized it as Devil Mushroom. He warned his companions of their danger.

“Don’t uproot them. Don’t step on them. Don’t touch them. They’re dangerous. I remember them when I was a slave. Nasty things happen when you disturb them. Ugly death.” The heroes made sure to avoid contact with the Devil Mushrooms.

As Nolofinwe led the group toward Shukalgau, Craven walked behind, keeping watch of their rear, when he heard footsteps. He spun around, flail and shield ready. The others continued onwards, oblivious to the absence of footsteps of Craven’s sudden stop. He was about to call for his companions when a stranger emerged from the darkness and approached him. The stranger was an old man in a thick, black robe, wheezing and coughing and swatting the air as if desperately shooing away flies. His face was pale and tight; his flesh decaying and wounds oozing yellow liquid. With his eyes averted to the ground, Craven whispered the strangers name, " Barchiel."

Craven fell to his knees in fear of reverence.

Barchiel, an angel of Muerath, stumbled forward and took hold of Craven’s shoulder.

“Muerath is pleased,” he rasped. His breath smelled of rot. He touched Craven’s medallion. The light from it vanished and all went dark.

“Her blessings to her son as best she can for your quest,” Barchiel continued. “Now hurry.”

Barchiel backed away. Even in the abyssal darkness, Craven saw the neon lights from the fabric of reality tearing and ripping apart the space behind the angel of Muerath. Suddenly a spiked tentacle speared through Barchiel’s chest; his face etched a silent, painful scream as he grasped it in a pathetic attempt to dislodge himself. The tip of the tentacle whipped out and coiled around him and pulled him through the rip in reality, and then all went dark for Craven; the tear had disappeared.

Craven was motionless, kneeling in fear of his life.

The others quickly realized Craven was not with them and turned around to find him on his knees, in the dark, unmoving and traumatized of expression. Arien re-cast her light spell on his medallion and the cleric awoke from his stupor. They asked him what was wrong and what happened, but he only gave a confusing response that his goddess was with them and that they must hurry on their current path.

The heroes came to a small opening and in the short distance saw a giant, unmoving, ant next to a giant devil mushroom. They quickly discovered it was dead – only an empty husk.

From on top of the giant mushroom, a small humanoid-shaped creature that looked like it was covered in vegetation, stood up, lifted a spear above its head and let out a loud clicking and hissing cry. It jumped off of the mushroom and ran into the dark caverns.

As the heroes were about to give chase, two giant scorpions and a giant beetle emerged from the dark cavern in front of them. Arien immediately noticed the beasts had an odd greenish-ooze seeping out from their exposed joints. She cast an acid spell against one of the scorpions but it did nothing. She quickly surmised their resistance must have been due to the ooze.

“Watch out, boys!” she hollered. “That ooze is some sort of acid.”

But her warning was too late for Flint as he swung his booming warhammer for a direct hit against the scorpion. The green ooze splashed and flung back at the dwarf, burning his armor and flesh.

Arien hurled a fire spell and torched the scorpion until it died. The heroes turned their attention to the other two beasts.

Living Cucumbers

Excerpt from ‘Death Plants: Bizarre Vegetation of the HoX Era,’ Chapter 5: Vegepygmies,’ by Archmage Malenna Dawn, Headmaster of Botany and Alchemy of Ravencraft School of Sorcery and the Dark Arts.

…Vegepygmies aren’t inherently evil, like Gnolls or Drow, but neither are they benevolent in their core communal philosophies. Many might consider them no better than animals, but they are intelligent, with their own unique language and tribal culture. They may even have a religious tradition, though no scholar has yet determined what deity, if any, they worship….

…While Vegepygmies are plants in the technical sense, they are not to be underestimated. Like an erupting volcano or a tremulous tornado, Vegepygmies, in large numbers, are extraordinarily dangerous….

Nolofinwe summoned eight giant lizards that surrounded the giant scorpion and beetle. With the reinforcement, the heroes easily slaughtered the ooze-seeping beasts.

A loud cry echoed in the cavern. The heroes recognized that it must have come from the vegetation-covered humanoid they saw earlier and readied themselves for continued battle. But Craven cast a language spell and understood the strange tongue: “They killed the beasts!”

Craven took a gamble.

“Friends!” Craven shouted, in the language of the vegepygmies. “We come in peace. We do not come to fight. We only want to pass through.”

Silence. The heroes formed a circle, their backs to each other. Flint gave the cleric a sideways glance.

“You speak our language,” Craven heard. The heroes only heard the strange tongue. The lone vegepygmy stepped out of the darkness and into Craven’s light. The heroes’ tensed, ready to charge, but Craven held his hand up to stop them.

“Yes,” Craven responded. “My goddess has allowed me to understand you.”

“You kill the beasts.”

Craven hesitated. He didn’t know what the vegetable humanoid meant by that or how to respond.

“What’re they saying,” Nolo asked. Craven ignored him.

“Um, yes,” Craven stumbled for words. “We killed the monsters. But….”

“Kill beasts, good,” the vegepygmy interrupted. “We thank you.

“Oh, well, you’re welcome,” Craven replied, sighing in relief. “It was our honor.”

“We let you through and then you go.” The vegepygmy turned around and howled more of its bizarre language into the darkness.

“What’s going on?” Nolo asked Craven again.

The cleric smiled ear to ear. “See, Muerath is with us. They’re peaceful. They’re going to escort us through their territory.”

“We could’ve taken ‘em,” Flint said.

“And made ourselves some vegetable soup,” Nolo chuckled.

The heroes decided to mount Nolo’s newly summoned giant lizards and followed the vegepygmy. The little vegetable humanoid led them through the caverns, pointing out various vegetation for the heroes to avoid and not touch.

“See,” Craven said. “They’re so nice they even warn us about the dangerous plants around.”

“Yeah, they’re really friendly,” Flint gruffed. The dwarf noticed the lines of armed vegepygmies hiding in the shadows, following and watching them as they traveled pass.

Arien immediately recognized some of the deadly vegetation the vegepygmy pointed out – russet mold. She vividly remembered its poisonous effects. During one of Roman’s victorious gladiatorial fights, she witnessed a losing opponent’s punishment. The half-living, beaten gladiator was hogtied in chains and placed in a cage in a ten-foot deep hole. A duergar stepped to the edge of the hole. He was dressed in strange protective clothing and carrying a small wooden box. The duergar carefully opened the box and with a thick black gloved hand pulled out a tiny chunk of reddish-colored mold. He threw the mold down at the cage and it exploded in spores all over the chained gladiator. The poor captive screamed as mold quickly sprouted and spread along his flesh. She remembered his words of agony: “It’s eating me!” Fortunately, he didn’t live long, but it must have been the most agonizing last minutes of his life.

Craven noticed a dead body, decomposing in a bed of russet mold. It was the body of a Derro. He dismounted and prayed to his goddess. This forced the others to stop and watch.

“Craven’s a strange one,” Flint said to Nolo. The druid nodded.

The corpse began to twitch and jerk and then slowly moved to rise and stand. Russet mold grew on the rotting flesh.

“Very strange,” Flint repeated.

The vegepygmies emerged from the shadows and surrounded the heroes. Their weapons were drawn. They started howling and whistling.

“What did you do?” Nolo spat at Craven.

“He pissed them off, that’s what” Flint growled. He unbuckled his warhammer. Arien slowly gestured with her fingers, ready to release the magical energies she was conjuring.

The largest of the vegepygmies stepped forward, spear in hand.

Craven held up his hands over his head. “If we have offended you, then we apologize. We meant no harm.”

“You took progeny,” the large vegepygmy hissed, pointing to the shambling undead zombie.

“Progeny? What? Oh.”

“Craven! What’s happening? What did you do?” Arien asked.

“Well, it’d seem that I disturbed their reproductive process,” Craven replied.

“Great work!” Flint yelled. “What? You just cock-blocked ‘em?”

“In a way, I think. Hold on. I can fix this.”

Craven held his arms out in a gesture of peace. “My friends,” he said in the vegepygmy language, “Please, forgive us. We meant no harm. My goddess can raise the dead in-service to help protect my ward.” He pointed to Arien.

Then vegepygmy leader raised his spear.

“We did not know your customs. We did not understand. We do now. Again, we never meant to offend. We mean no harm. We are your friends. If you want, we can return the dead back where it came from and let it continue to be your progeny.”

The leader stared at Craven for a long moment and then lowered his spear. “You go,” he said. “Take progeny. You killed beasts and we thank you. Our gratitude is progeny. But you go now. ” The vegepygmies surrounding the heroes stepped back into the shadows and disappeared.

“Thank you,” Craven said, as he quickly mounted his lizard.

“What happened,” Arien asked again.

Craven smiled. “Muerath is always with us. We can continue. They’re friends. I told you I can take care of this.”

“Weirdo,” Flint mumbled.

The heroes left the territory of the vegegpyies and continued their quest to Shukalgau.

The giant lizards had returned to the Fey many hours ago and the heroes were back on their own feet. They turned a corner and entered a small opening with several passageways. As they stopped to consider which way to go, a lone half-elf came running toward them from out of one of the tunnels. He looked beaten, frightened, and in a hurry. He noticed the heroes and approached.

“Please, for the love of god, help me. They’re right behind me. They’re coming,” he rasped in haggard breath.

The heroes turned to each other, in silence and uncertainty. But they didn’t have time to debate. From out of the tunnel whence the half-elf came, the Duergar burst forth to reclaim their prisoner.

The fight was quick, fierce, and intense. The duergar focused their attention on the half-elf, nearly killing him in their concentrated effort. But the heroes of Xymor had arrived and the duergar weren’t prepared.

Arien touched Flint and transferred the magic of speed onto him. She then danced around and flung lighting spells with a twisted smirk of glee. Flint bellowed out laughter, disappearing in a spell of invisibility and smashing unsuspecting duergar with his booming warhammer. Nolo raised his arms and summoned forth the power of Nature. The cavern exploded in plant life – giant mold, mushrooms, and weeds. It hampered the duergar attack. Then eight giant wolf spiders leapt out of the shadowy corners and assaulted the duergar. Craven healed the half-elf and ordered his zombie to attack and distract the duergar while he out flanked them. The half-elf took advantage of the cleric’s healing by stepping into a shadow and disappearing. He re-appeared across the opposite side of the cavern from out of another shadow and pummeled several of the dark dwarves to death.

The fight wasn’t easy, but the heroes seemed to enjoy slaughtering their old slave masters.

The heroes came out victorious and the half-elf introduced himself as Samir. He told them that he only recently arrived in Shukalgau and was trained as a Slave Hunter for the duergar. But when the opportunity had presented itself, Samir escaped – only to be relentlessly pursued. The pursuit was over—for now.

A Nice Hot Bath

More Duergar would come. Craven instructed everyone to hide the bodies into one of the cavern’s enclaves. Nolofinwe ordered his summoned wolf spiders to cocoon and hang the bodies to make it look like the duergar were ambushed by the giant arachnids. The only concern Craven had was the mass of vegetation Nolo had conjured. Future duergar patrols would know it was not natural, but there was nothing to be done about it. Fortunately, the heroes’ new companion, Samir, knew a technique to cover and hide their tracks and so they left. Hopefully, Craven thought, it would confuse and detour the coming patrols.

In time, when the heroes felt assured that no one was following, they rested.

“We’re only about an hour away from the entrance,” Nolo said.

“Good,” said Craven. “Now we need to decide how we’re gonna do this. Nolo, is there anything else you can tell us about this secret passage?”

“I don’t know much else,” Nolo confessed. “Zufem just said it was a passage that slaves used to escape.”

“Who’s Zufem?” asked Samir.

“A troll I knew. A friend,” Nolo said. “He’s probably dead now.”

“What do you know of Shukalgau?” Craven asked Samir.

“I could draw you a map,” Samir responded. Using rocks and pebbles as landmarks and dirt lines as borders, he drew a crude illustration on the ground.

“This is the only road to Shukalgau,” explained Smair. “The city is built along a massive rock formation.”

“It looks like half a pie,” Arien commented.

“These are the walls,” Samir continued, “made of iron. And these circles are the guard towers. This, right here, is the Great Gate Ebon. It’s the only known entrance into Shukalgau and is heavily guarded. Past the first walls; you enter the outer section – the homes of the commoners, guilds, inns, bars, markets, slave traders, and to the southern end, the slums which are mostly populated by Derro. Past this wall, further in the city, is the inner section. This is where the nobles, wealthy merchants, and the duergar military reside. It’s also the place of the duergar government. This spot here is the Obsidian Palace – the palace of The Gray King and the central power of Shukalgau. At the northern end, near the barracks, are slave pens. Some I know serve the nobles and others are there in temporary holding until moved into the mines – here. I’ve stayed in that place. In this area, behind the noble section are the forges.”

“But where, exactly in Shukalgau, will this secret passage take us?” Craven asked.

“I don’t know,” Nolo answered.

“I’m curious what kind of secret passage it is,” said Craven, stroking his beard.

“What do you mean?” Nolo asked.

“Well, I have a hard time believing this passage was made by slaves and the duergar never found out,” Craven replied.

“Maybe they did,” Flint said.

“True, but I wonder if it was a secret passage meant for the royal family or one of the noble families. If that is the case, maybe it’ll lead us into the inner section.”

“We haven’t been that lucky so far,” Flint added.

“Again, true,” Craven nodded. “Though my other thought is that it will take us into the forges. Maybe it’s a naturally-made passage or made by indigenous animals and the slave simply discovered it and took advantage. If it does go to the forge, it may be tricky to get from there to the inner area.”

“Wherever it takes us, we’ll need a plan and I’ve got one,” said Flint. “Where ever it takes us, I’ll be disguised as a duergar, maybe as a slave trader or a slave wrangler and you lot will either be my slaves or invisible or something.”

“That sounds like a good plan,” Craven said, “but we’ll still need to figure out where the passage takes us before we finalize how exactly we want to orchestrate this operation. The next problem is we need to find where the mechanism is.”

“Mechanism?” Samir inquired.

“Oh, I suppose we never explained why we’re trying to sneak into Shukalgau. You are aware that we are all from different worlds, right?”

Samir was silent.

Craven continued: “We’re all from different worlds, dimensions, or realities, or whatever mystics like to call them. That’s why when you told us of your kingdom and your title, none of us showed any recognition. It’s the same for all of us.”

“I heard mention of something like that, but wasn’t exactly clear,” said Samir.

“Do you remember how you got here?”

“Yes,” Samir answered.

“You do? You remember the duergar taking you to Xymor?" Craven was shocked.

“Well, no, not that part,” Samir confessed. “I remember… I was sentenced to death but ended up here.” Samir’s thoughts went back to that night and Asim. Was it Asim who gave him to the duergar? Did Asim disobey the sultan’s orders and actually spare his life? Was it Asim that told the duergar that Samir would be an excellent slave hunter? He remembered Asim signaling ‘survive.’ Did Asim have a plan to get him out of Xymor? How?

These questions rolled in his head. It wasn’t the first time he wondered about these and it wouldn’t be the last time. But one thing was certain – Samir wanted answers and these new people might be able to help.

Craven smiled. “Yes, it’s the same with all of us. The duergar have some sort of mechanism, a portal or magic spell, that allows them to travel to different worlds where they buy or capture poor souls to be slaves.”

“To gather magmium to help the Contraptions in their wars,” Samir added.

The four heroes looked at each other in silence.

“How do you mean?” Arien inquired.

“The machines the duergar work with – you know.”

“Who had those drawings?” asked Craven. “The ones you showed me of those machines.”

Nolo took out the pieces of parchment and showed them to Samir.

“Yes,” Samir nodded. “The ones I saw were different looking, but they were similar in design.”

“So the duergar are serving or helping these machines in some war effort?” asked Craven.

Samir nodded again.

“That is good information to know.”

Craven began to contemplate the words his goddess said over five years ago. She mentioned a war between the gods and something…. He couldn’t remember. Who were the gods fighting against? Who were the Contraptions and who were their enemies? Was there a connection?

“At any rate,” Craven continued, “we’re going into the mouth of the lion. As far as we can tell, it’s our only way out of Xymor.”

“I’d like to come and help,” said Samir. “I know Shukalgau better than any of you and I want to go home too.”

The four heroes agreed.

“With all this planning,” Craven said, “there is still one problem we have yet to deal with – Vermelda.”

The heroes knew Vermelda would interfere somewhere, somehow, but they didn’t know when.

Night fell, and once more, Vermelda came to assault Arien in her sleep, but it was Artemis who noticed Arien’s distress and brought it to Nolo’s attention. Nolo woke Craven who stopped Vermelda.

“The witch must be getting frustrated,” Craven said as he went back to sleep.

The next day, the heroes traveled to the entrance of the secret passage. They sent Artemis to scout ahead. She saw a giant snail to the side of the entrance and further in, she spied several animated skeletons engulfed in flame, but their cream-colored bones did not burn.

The plan was to sneak by the giant snail and engage the skeletons, but as the heroes tried to sneak past the snail, its giant shell began to glow.

Samir and Nolo tried to quicken their pace into the passage and away from the glow, but Samir triggered a floor plate that forced him to stop. Spheres of molten lava fell from the ceiling and down onto Samir and Nolo.

Flint and Craven rushed to attack the snail. They covered their eyes with their shields, knowing the continual glow would cause harm. But Nolo wasn’t so lucky; he was in the direct line-of-sight with the snail and the glow burst into colored lights – the pretty lights. Nolo was stunned.

Arien had rushed past Nolo and Samir. She noticed the passage had pockets of steaming, slightly boiling water and streams with geysers scattered around the area. Then she saw the burning skeletons. They had heard the commotion and were coming. But the skeletons weren’t the only things the heroes were fighting. Further back into the caverns, two stout dwarf-life humanoids ran towards them, wielding warhammers and their beards and hair ablaze. They were Azer.

Craven and Flint eventually killed the giant snail, breaking Nolo’s hypnotic trance. The three of them sprinted into the passage. Samir, who was still recovering from the trap, followed.

Many of the skeletons had created a blockade in front of Arien; pools of hot water at both sides of her.

Craven held out his arms and his eyes glowed.

“Muerath rules over the dead and undead alike. You are her servants and I am her avatar. Hear my words and fear them – be gone and return to the shadows of death.”

The burning skeletons stopped moving; their eyes flared and their bones shivered. If it were possible, Arien sensed fear amongst the animated bones. The skeletons turned around and retreated, gathering around their masters, the Azer. Arien cast a lightning bolt. It blast through a couple skeletons with little effect, but it did hit one of the fiery dwarves, nearly killing him.

Nolo pointed at the two Azer and skeletons, whispering. An icy chill blew through the caverns. The fiery hair and beards of the Azer diminished and they, for the first time in their life, felt the icy cold bite of frost. The ground around them turned to snow, slush, and ice, and thick, dark clouds formed above them. A snow blizzard swarmed around them and out of the clouds fell fist-sized shards of ice. They pierced the flesh of the flaming-beard dwarves and broke the joints of the skeletons. A shard struck one of the Azer through the jugular, killing him. All the skeletons in the blizzard fell apart and died their final death under the onslaught of the giant icicles.

With Samir’s deadly darts, Flint’s booming warhammer, and Craven’s touch of death, the rest of the skeletons crumbled to pieces.

The surviving Azer rushed forward with a roar and grabbed Flint, forcing both of them into a pool of boiling water. The two struggled and pounded on each other. Arien tried to focus a deadly spell on the Azer, but because of the splashing and close proximity, she couldn’t get a clear sight without hitting Flint. But Flint didn’t need help. With a single, powerful blow, he bashed the Azer’s skull open.

Nolo helped drag Flint out of the pool.

“Gods, that’s hot,” Flint said. “Don’t think I’m gonna need a bath for a week.”

Fight! Fight! Fight!

A long time ago, in a land far, far away…

After defeating several fiery skeletons and Azers, Arien, Nolofinwe, Craven, Flint, and Samir looted their enemies’ remains and scoured the area. Bright orange light illuminated the cavern ahead and as Flint walked to the stone steps leading into the chamber, an armored human shot a flaming arrow at him. The arrow missed, but the guard was not alone. Three magmin advanced to also repel the intruders.

Flint moved to block the creatures from advancing past him up the stairs but his eager companions rushed down to fight the creatures. Nolofinwe doused the enemy in a purple glow to make them easier to hit as Arien used her magic to boost Samir’s speed and agility for battle. A bulbous flying creature with a stinging tail erupted from a side chamber, screeched loudly to frighten the heroes and then began swallowing Arien whole. Flint tried to pry the creature off Arien as Craven summoned the blessings of Muerath to create a spiritual scythe to strike down his foes. The guard scrambled away from the battle, but Samir followed and unwittingly triggered a green flaming skull to rise and announce the intruders.

Meanwhile, Arien used her powers to teleport away from the water leaper’s jaws. The creature was eventually destroyed, along with the remaining magmin. But the unholy skull created a flaming sphere to burn Samir and then blasted the group with a giant fireball and magic missiles. Arien cast lighting bolt to char the skull and with the help from her companions, it too was destroyed. Samir managed to reach the guard and used his quick attacks to render him unconscious.

However, their attention was drawn to a woman, sheathed in flames, that flew to a landing that jutted from a pool of magma that covered the eastern part of the cavern. She called out, “Pyrumothexius it is time to defend the flames!” before taking cover behind a pillar of rock. But Samir quickly made his way across the magma to attack the fiery sorceress. Then a loud roar filled the cavern as a flaming dragon flew into the fray. Flint also quickly ran to the sorceress, leaving Arien, Nolo and Craven back in the main chamber.

As he passed his new companions he shouted in encouragement, “Have fun with the dragon!”


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