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.

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…”

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…”

A Final Farewell

‘I stood at the cliff’s edge and stared into the dark abyss below, and the abyss stared back.’

Nay! That delusional, nihilistic philosophy has always seemed to me paradoxical and just plain pessimistic and silly. Besides, I knew what stared back and we made it bleed. It was time for someone to meet mother Muerath.

Arien, come over here,” I said. “You can make things light up, right? Light this rock and toss it over the edge.”

We watched the glowing stone gradually disappear as it fell into the darkness below, hoping to get a glimpse of the retreating beast. But we saw nothing. Yet, below and to our left, we noticed something odd about the shadows along the cliff walls. Arien threw another glowing stone towards the oddity and it disappeared into darkness far earlier than it should have. After a couple more experiments, we deduced that the beast had cast a darkness spell along the cliff wall, most likely in an attempt to conceal its retreat.

Arien and I flung magical and unholy energies down into that darkness, thinking that perhaps the beast was hiding in it, hanging onto the cliff wall.

“Stop,” Varen said. “That’s a darkness spell. He doesn’t need to be in it for it to work. You’re just wasting your time.”

“So, you’re saying it’s safe down there?” Nolofinwe asked.

“Right, right,” I said. “Then down we go. Nolo, take these and let’s climb down.”

“That’s not exactly what I…” Varen tried to say, but he had already convinced us.

I tossed Nolo a couple of pitons and he quickly tied his rope to them and nailed them to the ground. I had Arien cast her light magic on my amulet and then climbed down first, followed by Arien and then Nolo. Varen stayed above to keep watch.

I submerged into the magical darkness; the only sense I could rely upon was touch and sound, and I heard only myself and my companions struggling as we climbed. I felt my way along the wall and discovered an opening. Unfortunately, as I crawled into it, the darkness spell continued into the tunnel. I had enough room to stand. Unsheathing my flail, I slowly walked forward, feeling the wall next to me as a guide and pulling the rope along in the hopes that Arien and Nolo could find the tunnel.

I stopped myself after several yards – the pungent stench of rotten flesh, dry decay, and imminent death ahead forced me to take pause. Something was off, and I was right about that. Huge pinchers snapped at me in the dark and pushed me back into the wall. I quickly summoned my spectral scythe and swung my flail, hitting nothing but air.

“Nolo!” I heard Arien say, “I think Craven’s in trouble."

Then I heard a familiar incantation and the darkness disappeared – Nolo had once again dispelled it.

It took a second for my eyes to adjust from dark to light and, with the help of my glowing amulet, I found myself standing at the opening of a chamber. At the far end was a large pile of gore with bodily limbs, bones, and gnawed up flesh. Separate from the pile was another body; a body freshly killed. But that wasn’t what I was concerned about – it was the huge beast roaring in my face which held my immediate intention.

“Varen!” Nolo shouted. “Get down here, now!”

My flail and spectral scythe slashed at the beast’s limbs and clashed and blurred against each other. I would not be able to hold the beast long by myself. I needed my companions.

Arien and Nolo had rushed to the entrance.

Roman! No!” I heard Arien scream.

Arien’s cry distracted me and one of the beast’s arms hit me in the head. I was stunned. The beast took that opportunity to move away and hurry toward an opening to a tunnel on the other side of the chamber. It was near death and knew it. It was trying to run and live, but death had other plans.

Suddenly, I heard a limerick:

“I know a druid named Nolofinwe
Who gets his magic from the fey
He can turn into animals
Or throw fire and make his enemies flammable
All while his allies dive into the fray.”

It was Varen’s voice.

Nolofinwe, with the laughter of inspiration, released a volley of flaming bolts from his hands and struck the beast in the back, forcing it to kneel down in pain. It gave me enough time to brush off my own injury and rush forward.

I leapt up, with flail to strike down, and spoke the words of my mother: “La mort te consommé.” Thunder echoed in the chamber. The essence of death channeled through my body, onto my weapon, into the beast – for a brief moment, I felt my mother’s presence.

The beast howled in pain.

Then I heard another limerick:

“There once was a half-elf named Arien
As beautiful as the fair Maid Marian
She slings spells from her jewel
Makes her enemies drool
All to avenge her barbarian.”

“Not my Roman!” I heard Arien yell. She hurled a magical bubble of acid and struck the beast in the chest. Again, it howled, but it didn’t die.

The beast looked at me and raised an arm to strike, but slowly its arm melted off along with other limbs. Arien’s spell had done the trick and sent the beast to death’s arms.

“Excellent work!” I cheered to Arien, but my congratulation was short lived.

Arien rushed to the body that was separated from the pile and knelt. It was truly maimed and mutilated, almost beyond recognition, but Arien knew who it was. She wailed and moaned in anguish and despair; she had found her Roman.

“Oh god, not Roman,” Nolo whispered as he knelt beside Arien.

I noticed in the corner of my eye that Varen stood by the pile of decay, causally searching through the rotten flesh. I began to wonder about the relationship dynamics of these people.

I stood by Arien and Nolo and allowed them a moment of grief. I knew that if Arien was to believe me and trust in me, I had to help her find peace in her lover’s death, and perhaps a new beginning. What I had in mind was no easy task and very dangerous.

“Arien,” I said, bringing her back from her despair. “I am truly sorry for your loss. This was not how I thought it’d end. I wanted you to find your Roman, alive and well. I wanted the two of you to come with me and get out of this… But sadly… I’m sorry. You need to mourn and grieve, and that takes time. But if you trust me, just a little, allow me to help you in that grieving process. I can bring him back, if you want, but only for a moment, and the two of you can say goodbye.”

“What? You can do that?” Nolo asked.

I simply nodded.

“Bring him back,” Arien begged. “Bring back my Roman.”

“What I’ll attempt to do is a bit tricky. Normally, this incantation wouldn’t work this way. But I’m gonna alter it a bit, at the risk of myself. What I am doing is no small feat, and I’m not even sure if it will work. I can’t do it like this every time, in fact, I’ve never done it like this before. And if it does, then I shall be breaking a lot of rules. But I know Muerath will allow this, it’s important for you, Arien. Now I need the two of you to step away while I prepare.”

Arien and Nolo stepped away. I carefully used Roman’s own blood to draw a circle around his remains. With my own blood, I drew eldritch symbols and runes outside the circle. I stood before the body, bowed my head, held my amulet, and spoke the words of my mother. I drew upon a source of power most would not be able to fathom, and I pushed forward. The incantation needed more. I didn’t simply knock on Death’s door to ask questions; I broke it open and wanted a soul on the other side to step through. I knew I wasn’t truly ready for such things, but I had to risk it for Arien to trust and believe in me.

The symbols burst into purple flames and the circle of blood swirled like a tiny river. My eyes rolled behind my head. I felt my body grow rigid and stiff, and my mouth dried– it was getting more difficult to speak. Blood oozed from the pores on my forehead and out of my nose. I heard the sound of crashing waves on a sea shore and smelled blood mingled with sea water. Then a rushing wind passed through my body and soul and into Roman’s mutilated corpse.

“Roman?” I hesitantly whispered.

The lips of the corpse moved and grunted.

“Roman,” I continued. “I have summoned you back. There is someone that needed to speak with you.”

“Piss off,” Roman replied.

Charming fellow.

“Roman?” Arien said as she walked to the body, passing through the blood circle.

“Arin?” Roman replied.

“Oh Roman!” Arien knelt down, sobbing and caressing the bloody head. “Oh Roman! My Roman.”

“Arin, you’re alive.”

“Yes, Roman.”

“Then the others got away too?”

“Yes. Everyone is safe.”


“Roman, I’m so frightened,” Arien cried.

“Do not fear for me, Arin. I sail with my mother on the seas of blood and it is good. The winds are strong and I am at peace.”

“I don’t think I can go on without you.”

“You must.”

“Oh Roman, please don’t leave me. I don’t know what to do.”

“Arin, you are strong. I have seen the horizon and you must live. You must leave Xymor.”

“Oh Roman, I love you.”

“I love you and always will. I will be watching and waiting; and one day, we will sail together. Goodbye, Arin.”

The Hunt Begins

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.

Roman Khan was dead. He sacrificed his life to give his companions time to escape. He had fulfilled his role in the game and his piece was removed from the board.

As the heroes of Xymor ran away, they encountered Vermelda once more. And once more, they fought her off. They were vulnerable and weak. At the time, they had no idea what had happened to Roman and Arien was afraid for him. She wanted to go back, but Nolofinwe and Varen convinced her that the great warrior was strong and capable of surviving, and the best thing they could do was to wait for his return. But they had no idea that Roman would not return. Varen summoned his magical hut of protection in the tunnels of Xymor and the heroes rested.

The heroes of Xymor suffered a great loss that day. But all was not lost. A new pawn was moved onto the board to replace the great warrior. His name was Craven of Riverrun, Avatar of Muerath.

Craven and his owl, leading the surviving people of Hactuan away from the giant ants, stumbled upon the heroes. Their chance encounter was initially met with hesitation and suspicion. But with the survivors that followed Craven, Shanna convinced the heroes that Craven might be trustworthy. Of course, no one believed that Craven was a holy man or had any divine powers. Most people in Xymor who claimed to be disciples of the gods were liars or mad.

But Craven didn’t seem disturbed by their lack of faith; he was happy to find the heroes. And when he met Arien, Craven believed that his holy quest had begun. His joy in finding Arien concerned Nolofinwe and Varen at first, but Craven assured them that he had no intentions of harming her. Arien didn’t care for Craven, but wanted to find Roman.

The heroes of Xymor were at a crossroad of choices. On one hand, they had a group of survivors from Hactuan who wanted to go home and needed to be escorted. On the other hand, Roman had not returned and Arien desperately wanted to look for him. She was willing to go back by herself to find him. Varen, afraid that Vermelda would attack his mother again, would not leave her side and wanted to go back to Hactuan. Nolofinwe was stuck between the two and could not decide.

It was Craven that offered a voice of logic.

“If this witch hunts Arien, then wouldn’t she follow Arien?” Craven said.

“No. She hurt my mother, and threatened her life if we didn’t give her Arien,” Varen replied.

“No. She threatened you,” Craven retorted. “This witch used your mother to get to you. I was there when I heard your mother was attacked. I didn’t know the screams were your mother’s at first, but now it makes sense. Your mother was trapped in one of those dirt mounds, like the rest of us, and the witch attacked her when she couldn’t defend herself. But now, your mother is free and surrounded by others. She looks like a strong and capable woman who can lead these people back to their village. Let her. You’ve already demonstrated that you’ll not give up Arien in the face of this witch threatening your mother. The witch wants Arien, not your mother. And furthering any more harm to your mother would do nothing to get to Arien. You can’t let the witch dictate your actions.”

Varen was still unmoved in his resolve. But it was Shanna that heard Craven and understood him, and it was her that convinced Varen to trust her to lead the survivors back and allow the heroes to look for Roman.

The heroes of Xymor gave what weapons and supplies they could to the survivors and allowed Shanna to lead them into the dark caverns toward Hactuan. The heroes then turned around and went back to the ant chambers in search of Roman Khan.

—(transition to first person account by Craven)

As we traversed the pit, we came to a short tunnel. At the end of the tunnel was a cliff, overlooking a massive chasm. We couldn’t see the bottom. I tossed a rock down the chasm and it disappeared into the darkness below and it made no sound. I noticed deep grooves on the wall of the cliff.

It was then that Nolofinwe discovered a foot, torn from its leg. As we approached it, Arien reached out her hand. I took it in mine. She cried out as we neared the foot and she realized that it belonged to her lover.

As I tried to comfort Arien, Nolofinwe and I exchanged glances, uncertain what to do next. Varen was still at the top of the pit.

“What’s going on down there?” Varen shouted. “You find anything?”

None of us replied.

“He could still be alive,” I said, though, I knew we all had our doubts. Arien fell down and started sobbing in despair.

I would not let this end this way. If Roman was dead, then Arien needed closure. We needed to find the rest of Roman’s remains and give a him a proper burial. But first, we had to deal with the beast that did this thing to Roman.

I unhooked my flail and shield, and stormed to the cliff’s edge.

“Craven, what’re you doing?” Nolofinwe asked as he comforted Arien.

I swung and brushed the cliff’s wall. A large chunk of rubble broke and flew off. I swung again, spoke the power word, and hit the rubble in mid-air. The sound of a thunderous boom echoed throughout the chasm and deafened the three of us for a moment.

I ran back to Arien and Nolofinwe and readied myself.

“Get up,” I said to them. “It comes.”

We heard the roaring sound of an approaching beast, and it was then that Nolofinwe and Arien realized what I had done.

“Are you mad?!” Nolo yelled at me.

“What’s going on down there?” Varen shouted.

“Get down here, Varen! We need you now!” Nolo shouted back.

The earth beneath us trembled as the thing clawed its way up the cliff wall and over the ledge. I cast another spell and my skin turned pale, taut, and decaying.

The beast was much larger than I expected, but I noticed that it was weakened by a previous fight; it had cuts and bruises on its body. The thing roared at us and tried to cast a darkness spell on us, but Nolo cast a spell of his own and countered it, protecting us from being blinded. I cast another spell and an invisible spherical shield formed around me. I rushed the beast, swinging my flail and using my shield to guard myself from its massive claws.

Varen had climbed down and he, Arien, and Nolo used their magical energies to attack the beast. Even Artemis flew in to help attack the thing.

I could sense the beast was dying and it knew it too. It roared, stepped away from me, and jumped off the cliff. I tried to hit it one more time, but missed. The beast fell down into the darkness below.

The hunt was on.

Destiny Fulfilled

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

Roman, Arien, Nolofinwe and Varen continued battling the creatures in the Ant Hive where they tried to rescue Shanna from capture. Roman plummeted down a pit embroiled in a fierce battle with a giant pincer fiend. Nolofinwe sent his conjured bats to try and rescue the barbarian, but the weak creatures could not free him. Back up in the chamber, Vermelda appeared and tried to rip Arien’s gem from her throat. The sorceress managed to escape Vermelda’s attacks, and Nolofinwe used his magic to trap the hag, giving the rest of the group time to escape the chamber. They all raced through the tunnels of the ant hive for the exit.

Meanwhile, Roman woke in the pincer fiend’s den. The foul beast was ripping his clothes off, preparing to feast upon his flesh. Roman once again fought for his life against the ravenous foe. But his rage and will was not enough to defeat the creature. As he slipped toward death, he saw the face of Muerath which morphed into that of Raven Kahn. She assured him that he had fulfilled his destiny to save his friends… and then all turned black.

As the rest of the group fled the ant hive, Vermelda appeared in front of Arien, blocking her escape. The witch seemed enraged with hate and desperately clawed at Arien. Varen mocked her, Nolofinwe burned her and Arien melted her with acid. She cursed them all before again fleeing into the ethereal realm.

The ragged group moved further from danger before taking a much-needed rest and despaired over the missing Roman. Shanna told Varen that the prisoners were used as food for the pincer fiend. She also gave him a magical brooch from Nyx that she kept hidden in her anus during capture.

In return, Varen gave her Nyx’s golden bracelet and then held is mother as she wept…


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