Campaign of the Month: January 2021

Gaxim Plague

Episode 25
Every rose has its thorn

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We both lie silently still, In the dead of the night

The candles in the museum burned low as the heroes discussed deep into the night what to do with Barrik’s heart. Until they can find a priest of Qotal powerful enough and independent enough of the bureaucracy to consecrate it, it would continue to burn and give ill-luck to the holder, and Roscoe could not very well have his Mage Hand hold it aloft everywhere they went. There was also the nagging sensation that they might be scryed upon through it by Nexalan priests of Zaltec.

Jacques went looking through the museum for a suitable container with a lid that they could fill with water. The museum was full of crockery from all over Maztica, each piece painstakingly labeled with a date and location, unfortunately much of it was cracked or fragile. Eventually he found a jar with a lid that seemed fairly sturdy. The label said “Tikwata, Far Payit” and then a very long number which represented some date. Jacques filled it with water from the museum’s well outside and then Roscoe slowly lowered the burning undead organ into it. The flames were dowsed and the water heated, but it did not boil. Placing the lid on it, Fisher also tied it shut; they vowed to refill it periodically as some evaporation was unavoidable. Fisher also hammered wooden planks over the tzompantli, instructing Dko not to trust anyone coming through who did not have the secret knock, whatever that was.

This job done, the heroes turned in for the night for there was still much to do the next day. In bed, Jacques shifted into his jaguar form to see what sleep like this was like. He found himself unthinkingly tearing up the woolen mattress as his claws kneaded a spot at the end of the bed before laying down with his snout resting on his paws. Even though the heart was secure in the pot on a stone table, Roscoe felt it may be watching him. Or maybe he was just nerve wracked and needed sleep. Or maybe not…

Like a knife that cuts you the wound heals

The following morning the heroes find Tleeroi and Ptetrix preparing atole for everyone, a maiz based porridge sweetened with cane sugar. Teala was still asleep, as was Dko who often slept until past midday. Xarry was tending to the animals. Jacques needed to pick up an item at the weapon shop. Roscoe wanted to head to Coxi to check on the ezcotchtlis’ growth. Fisher mentioned they could teleport to the first pyramid they found the tzompantli in but that was still two days south of Coxi and the tunnels may not be safe. Jacques also was hopeful that the were-jaguars of the Chuapli forest could help speed them through the jungle instead of a three or four day journey. So Fisher and Roscoe decided to accompany Jacques before he spoke with his were-jaguar friends. In the meantime, Obelix and Barrik would stay in Patil as they wanted to scout locations for a shrine to Moradin, so that when they free the dwarves there would be a palace to welcome them so that they would not be misled again. Gnomardo decided to keep an eye on the dwarves in case that didn’t sit well with the locals.

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At the high end weapons shop where Barrik had bought Heart Attack the trio were recognized by the bouncer. The proprietaire welcomed them back and showed the order that Jacques had put it. It was a little bit different than his design as the metal springs used for such contraptions in Skullport were replaced by oiled wooden and leather composites, but it served the purpose. After purchasing it the proprietor asked for him to keep quiet about it as hidden weapons were frowned upon, and he gave a card for a colleague who dealt with armours. In the exchange Fisher asked about the plumastone that the best weapons were made of and learned that the reddish obsidian-like material that was as strong as steel was imported mostly by dwarves from the northern deserts, but that trade has dried up. There were other sources, but not as plentiful. Fisher got a sliver of plumastone for his own geological investigation, a mineral he had never come across before and one he could test out his new artificer kit on.

starptux.png Roscoe stopped by a scribe shop to procure more spell scribing material, and browse the literature in his efforts to learn more of the Maztican languages. Having spent so much money in this scribe’s shop he received a stamp card. Just four more stamps and he would get a free beverage at the local Starptux! With the last few silvers to his name, Roscoe got a wooden thimble made out of some nut that for some reason Lucky desperately wanted.

Did the words not come out right

Their purchases made, the trio went to the gazebo where they had met Queen Ilancuēitl the day before, perhaps they would make contact there. They arrived and it was empty, but soon a jaguar appeared. He called himself Felix, and explained in jaguar which only Jacques understood, that he was the Patil observer, but usually did not like to go into the city proper. Explaining their situation, Felix agreed to take them to the edge of the Chuapli Forest where someone else could help them better. A half days trek south got them to the edge of the forest where an old man was waiting for them. This ancient being was called Young Spring, and he was the Gatekeeper of the tribe. He could ferry them with a moonbridge instantly to any place in the Chuapli Forest and even to places beyond if the tribe had made the appropriate connections.

Young Spring planeshifted them to the Feywild with a smoke circle, and once there took a live mouse out of his component pouch. d647dy.jpg He bit the mouse in half, spat the head on the floor and squeezed the blood out of the body in an upright circle creating a portal. On the other end of the portal was justmore jungle, but he beckoned the heroes to follow him through. When they did they found they were on the edge of the river Zlihi, with Coxi just beyond the river.

As Fisher, Jacques and Roscoe walked into the village they were hailed by the men and women fixing fishing nets on the shore as the returning Heroes of Coxi. Giving the village folk polite waves and smiles, they made their way to Nahuel’s house, as she said she would keep an eye on the ezcochitli. They found her smiling and waiting in front of her house, much as she had been waiting for Jacques when he first swam ashore after jumping from the captured Happy Sea Urchin, or when she was waiting in front of the Kothoggo dungeon when they all emerged to rejoin Jacques, or as she had been waiting for the entire party on their return from the vampire nest. As the three friends got close her knowing smile faltered. “Wh- where are the dwarves? And Gnomardo?” she stammered. They responded that they were still in Patil, so far as they knew. She stood very still for a moment. “Fine. It’s fine. I’m fine.”

As they made their way to the ezcochitli plantation beyond the farmsteads, Jacques sensed her unease and inquired what was wrong. After some hesitation she responded that her divinations had been wrong, and she was simply loath to admit it: it almost never happened that her reading of fate would falter. Roscoe laughed nervously.

Just like every night has its dawn

f3af759fa2a7722b46b586a87741bfc1.png Once at the plantation they saw Izel’s widow silently spreading salt around the enormous plants, which had finally blossomed. She wore coconut earmuffs stuffed with wool, doubtless against the chance that the monster plant would scream terrifyingly. It was time for Roscoe to put his plan into action: he calculated that he could cast a number of unseen servants to pick the flowers and then ritual cast more at a rate that would have 9 simultaneously working before the hour was up and he had to replace one. As he began his spell, the widow moved a distance away to have a picnic, where she sipped yerba mate from a gourd. Roscoe made some makeshift earbuds incase it went pear shaped, Nahuel tied herself to a tree and clamped her hands on her ears. As the first unseen servant started picking the flowers the ezcochilty let out it’s horrid mimicry of babies crying. Roscoe and Nahuel resisted, but Jacques and Fisher fled in fear back towards the farms. By the time they were out of earshot they stopped, and turned around to return. When close enough to be affected, Jacques was able to resist but Fisher ran off again. This time he tried to make some earmuffs out of the squid suckers he had taken of the giant squid so many weeks ago, but realized once in earshot of the scream that they were open ended. After running away for a third time he packed the squid suckers with mud and that seemed to do the trick. He walked back in time to see Roscoe nearly collapse from exhaustion from many hours of continuous ritual casting. By the evening they had collected 635 flowers onto a could of Tenser’s Floating disks, and Roscoe rode on Jacques jaguar back all the way back to Coxi. As they were bedding down in their hovel they could hear Nahuel next door shouting obscenities and throwing pots about her house in rage. il_794xN.1581649397_1xzw.jpg

Once everyone was asleep Fisher snuck out and walked to the graveyard beyond the village shrine. There he went to the grave of Hualti, the old lady who had given him the Olmazca amulet. Without it they may not have gotten this far. He thanked her for the kindness. Now that they had two of the amulets, Fisher felt that the story of the Olmazca had not yet ended and perhaps his destiny was intertwined with them.

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Episode 24
The temple of love

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Believing pain and fear outside

As Fisher was ferrying everybody from the ancient temple in Kultaka to the museum in Patil through the skull room teleportation amulet, Jacques took some time to harvest poison reagents from the various monsters. Roscoe tapped some blood from the drow, the only humanoid’s blood that would qualify for the summon lesser demon spell. He briefly considered leeching the tanarukk blood for spell components, but thought not to push his luck; his demonology was not as secure as he had once thought which has led to…unforeseen circumstances. Interestingly, unlike the fiends he had until now seen, these did not dissipate back to their plane of origin after death. Further study is required. Screenshot_2021-05-06_10.16.09.png

By the time the magma on the temple corners had cooled to crackling black igneous rock everyone was settled in the museum. Obelix and Barrik were herding the animals outside. Gnomardo was trying to calm a frantic Dko, who had never seen so many guests in his museum. The heroes left unspoken what they could see on each other’s faces: a hope that the enemy did not have a teleportation amulet to follow them. While rationally there was little chance of that, for if the enemy had one they would surely have found the skull room and used it by now before making the volcano ritual, the thought plagued them still. It was a safe bet that the existence of these rooms was now known, given the assumption that no ritual of that complexity would not have been scryed upon from afar by the original architect, especially since a priceless relic was part of the ritual design: the Claw of the Conciliator.

It was still early evening and the adrenaline of the battle still had everyone too on edge to sleep, the heroes decided to identify their new magical items. Dko, observing, remarked that given the location they found them in they were likely Olmazcan. He told them of the research that he had done in their absence about the skull teleportation room, properly called ‘tzompantli’.

With the fire from the fireworks up above

In ancient times, before the godswar, even before the gifts of hishna and pluma magic, there was a tribe of people who served the gods most closely. One text referred to them as the first crop of humans, the same generation that came directly after Camazotz’s creation. They were known as great travelers and spoke for the gods, presumably, and had memory of the Great Sky Home. They achieved great magical feats, but as hishna and pluma did not exist in this age it is not understood how. They carved glyphs as large as entire forests into mountain sides, geometric shapes or animal totems that can be seen littered around the True World. They built temples to the Kukul and Maztica exclusively as far south as Lopango and as far north as Anchorome. But never settled by their creations, in fact they built no cities at all. While subsequent human generations were still hunter-gatherers, the Olmazca built temples and geoglyphs to guide the roving tribes. When other tribes settled down to grow the newly gifted maize, the Olmazca continued to travel to where the gods needed them, from temple to temple using the tzompantli they built or on great golden birds of prey. As towns grew into cities and tribes turned into nations, the Olmazca retreated into the mists of time. Their temples that served as nomadic gathering points for new nations were settled on and receded below the layers of civilization over the eons.

atzektower.jpg The Olmazca were masters of travel and built many tzompantli. Tzompantli were circular rooms wringed with skulls, hundreds of them if the room was big enough form top to bottom, all looking inward, and later discovered to also have skulls looking outward on the outer walls. Previously thought to be merely a sacrificial shrine, these were actually ingenious teleportation circles. Beams of light lanced from the skulls’ eyes and struck the person in the tower who could activate the circle. The person (or persons if one was being held on to) would appear to disintegrate. They would reintegrate in another tzompantli, completely unharmed and seemingly instantly. These tzompantli must be built on ley line crossings so presumably it worked like some variant of leywalker dweomers. We know for sure that it required a key to be activated and the memory of having been in a specific tzompantli. It is presumed that the great glyphs around the True World were used to navigate their golden eagles.

The Olmazca retreated as actors in most nations’ traditions around the time when Camazotz was killed by Zaltec, an act which caused Kukul to lose interest in humanity and let his children providence the True World as they saw fit. When Maztica was killed by her son and Kukul abandoned the True World, it seems great internal strife destroyed what remained of the Olmazca. They slowly faded to legend and by the time new magic was brought to humanity in the form of hishna and pluma they were but a myth.

Dko could not find any information on how the tzompantli were built, but there was a warning regarding their building that they should never be constructed near a Void River, although that reference is completely unknown.

Luckily for everyone the museum was not short on beds, in fact there were dozens as furniture displays collected from all around Maztica. Gnomardo of course stayed up, pondering the Claw that was now in his possession, grabbed by the being Arapuca in his arm (or was it in his mind?) who slept and would not be roused.

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You run for cover in the temple of love

a6cca69ed858ed6539c1de0f9ecb10bc.png As everyone rouse to the smell of fresh cornbread, spiced xocoatl, and the cacophony of animals outside, their thoughts turned to their next move. There was much to do in different places, but one problem starred unfeelingly at the table before her, unable or unwilling to eat, to speak or, it seemed, to sleep all night. The little girl they rescued was catatonic. The last soldier, whose name was Ptetrix, felt that he was responsible for her. He was not of her village, but being stationed there during the mobilization he was the closest she had to a fellow villager. Ptetrix was at a loss on how to handle this, as Beltixar the retinue’s priest commander and confidant was now dead. Tleeroi advised to perhaps take the girl to the temple of Kiltzi here in Patil. Kiltzi was the god of love and family; her priestesses were some of the most effective healers among the Mazticans, for both physical ailment and emotional distress. Perhaps they could help the girl and advise. Tleeroi offered to accompany him.

Ever suspicious and reminded of his own distressing childhood at the hands of unscrupulous people in Skullport, Jacques insisted that his friends check if Ptetrix was of honest nature and not taking on the responsibility of a child for nefarious ends such as slavery or worse. Apologizing profusely but also not wanting to argue with Jacques on this, Roscoe subjected Ptetrix to a detect thoughts spell, which Ptetrix consented to after a brief explanation.

They found a genuinely concerned and honorable warrior, who like most soldiers of his station had never expected to live beyond 40. A glorious death in battle is what they craved and they even swore off sex, which certainly must have an aggressive affect on the soldiery. Roscoe decided to join Ptetrix and Tleeroi going to the temple of Kiltzi, for he could use some priestly advice, glancing at Barrik’s heart burning cheerily on a stone display pedestal. Jacques decided to tag along not entirely trusting Roscoe going off on his own, Fisher and Gnomardo also joined, not entirely trusting Jacques’ distrust.

Reaching a stepped pyramid carved with scenes of romantic love as well as family and children playing, it was obvious they were at the right place. The central steps led all the way to a stone cabin at the top, with men and women carrying offerings up and coming down mostly empty handed. The offerings were food and drink but child rearing goods: cribs, children’s clothing and toys. It was these things that some people came back down with. Tleeroi and Ptetrix climbed without hesitation, their faces grim as if they were headed into battle, with little Teala in hand. After buying some food nearby as an offer, Roscoe followed them. Gnomardo whittled a little doll to offer. Fisher wondered at the exchange process of these goods going on in the temple. Jacques waited outside, with Lucky invisibly on his shoulder so he could communicate with Roscoe.

At the top were two female guards, well muscled and scarred, obviously more than just an honor guard. They wore the same white kilts that soldiers wore, a simple sash holding their chests tightly and feathered headbands displaying ranks. They both held large obsidian tipped spears and eyed the passers by casually. Everyone walked in without any confrontation but Roscoe held back to be last. Barrik’s burning heart floating over one shoulder, a pile of food being held by an unseen servant over the other soldier, he gingerly approached the guards knowing he would be stopped. One look and the spears came down barring his way. 3e3fa71d8958a190b2e10b61213de6d2.jpg

After some discussion as to what Roscoe’s purpose was, and him taking off his mask but with a prestidigitation to hide his mark trying to be as honest as he could be about the situation, one of the guards told him to wait while she summoned a superior. The other guard kept her spear leveled at Roscoe as they waited in silence. When the superior came, similarly militantly dressed, she insisted on casting some spells on Roscoe to assess his safety. Roscoe started to sweat, knowing that a detect thoughts would surely not only uncover his connection to the Obsidian Butterfly, it may well lead to his torture if he understood this culture’s methods in dealing with demonic influence. Apparently the stardemons were masochists and torture was the only way to reveal them in cases of possession.

Luckily the spell cast was not detect thoughts, but detect good and evil. He passed the test, but the floating heart was revealed to be undead and desecrated by Zaltec. As it seemed Roscoe had told the truth about it, they allowed him in to converse with a priestess, but the heart had to stay outside. A stone chair was brought out as it would not be allowed to touch the sacred pyramid, and the guard moved the point of her spear from Roscoe’s nose to the burning heart.

And the temple grows old and strong

Inside the temple, tables with offerings lined a large hall, the walls were painted with murals depicting family life, romantic love and lots of children playing. Uncomfortably they did remind a few of the heroes of the perverted depictions in the sunken pyramid of vampires in Chuapli Forest. Interspaced in the murals were numerous depictions of a beautiful woman twice as tall as the other figures in the paintings. She was heavily pregnant and clothed only in her long black hair. This was Kiltzi. The priestesses that filled the hall talking to people in hushed tones wore colorful skirts and tops but many were pregnant and showed off their naked bellies. Tleeroi and Ptetrix were already talking with a priestess who was showing them how to play with a doll with Teala, and the little girl for the first time had some kind of reaction on her face.

priestess.png The heroes spoke with a priestess Vitlitlix about Barrik’s heart and learned that the only way to remove the desecration of Zaltec from the heart and perhaps stop the incessant burning was to have a priest of Qotal consecrate it. However, not only would the priest have to be powerful enough to rival whoever was mastermining the volcano ritual, they would have to operate outside the bureaucracy of the nations of Maztica. Since the invasion by Faerunians over 100 years ago, no Maztican priest aligned with any nation would side with a Faerunian god over even Zaltec, much as he may be despised. So terrible is the memory of the invasion and establishment of the Church of Helm. Roscoe resigned himself to having to search long and hard for a powerful but reclusive priest of Qotal.

Fisher and Gnomardo had some question as to the relations between Kiltzi, Qotal and the rumours of a child from a forced union which had led to Qotal abandoning Maztica in shame centuries ago and leaving Zaltec ascendant, until reappearing at the time of the Faerunian invasion. As this was a touchy subject, Fisher asked if there was a place more private they could talk. Unaware of what subject they were to brooch, Vitlitlix led them down into the core of the pyramid to a large hall with a circle of chairs like a conference or therapy room. Private rooms lined the hall.

In the meantime, Lucky had struck a conversation with Jacques. Jacques learned that the little familiar had received his powers in a deal it had made with “Mummy” and that “Pappa” had stolen his powers. Lucky obviously loved Roscoe and admired both Roscoe and whatever new benefactor was “Mummy”, but insisted that Roscoe was incapable of making any mistakes. His suspicions heightened, Jacques ran up the pyramid steps just as Roscoe went downstairs inside and out of Lucky’s telepathic range.

In the conference room, Fisher entirely forgot as to what he was going to ask Vitlitlix as he was distracted by her explanations of the rituals of the priesthood of Kiltzi. They were tasked with raising the next generations for those who were destined to die in battle. Unlike farmers, artisans, merchants, and all other manner of professions who could raise a family, the lot of a soldier did not extend this luxury. Soldiers were often at war and died too young to properly do the job of parenting, but they were also some of the strongest, smartest and bravest of people. In order not to lose these traits, soldiers who survived to middle age were excused from their vow of celibacy but could only breed with a priestess of Kiltzi, and the children would be raised by the priesthood for three years before being adopted out to devout families. This way entire generations were not lost to war and the stock remained strong. Vitlitlix herself was due in a couple of months and was not shy about the attractiveness of being in the presence of the heroes of Coxi.

At this moment Jacques caught up with them and asked to see Roscoe in a private room. Gnomardo tagged along not wanting to leave the two alone. Jacques, as paranoid as ever, drew his knife and held it to Roscoe’s throat demanding an explanation. Roscoe decided to come clean with everything he recalled from that night when he was summoned, and expressed astonishment that Lucky had both made his own deal and said Roscoe had stolen starfire. Gnomardo confirmed this was the truth, and Jacques put his knife away. Roscoe explained that he had sympathy for his patron, who seemed to only have a desire for liberty and may have become corrupted by this desire, but perhaps could be changed to be a force for good. Jacques apologized for his unfair treatment of Roscoe, and agreed to help Roscoe where he could in this matter.

As they exited the private quarters they found Fisher with his back against the wall and the fear of death in his eyes as Vitlitlix, a tall woman by even human standards, leered over the diminutive deep gnome with lust in her eyes. He excused himself hastily as he saw his friends and beat a hasty retreat, promising to return in a couple of moon’s time.

Tleeroi and Ptetrix waited at the exit of the temple atop the steps. They were both smiling and Teala had an armful of toys, including Gnomardo’s doll. They explained that the priestesses tasked them with taking Teala back to Kultaka and caring for her, having a blessing from the temple of Kiltzi to retire from active service to fulfill this sacred duty. They were instructed in how to start their most challenging and dangerous mission yet: raising a child. They would also receive instruction from the temple in Kultaka on how to heal her emotional wounds. As they headed down the steps Roscoe picked up Barrik’s heart, still under guard.

Your faith for bricks and dreams for mortar

At the bottom of the pyramid there was a powerfully built man waiting for them. His name was Death by Moonlight, and he bade Jacques to follow him. The others were welcome to come, but Tleeroi and Ptetrix excused themselves, wanting to bring Teala to the museum to rest more. As the heroes followed Death by Moonlight, he explained that they had not expected Jacques back so quickly but were pleased to suddenly pick up his scent in the city. He led them outside the city into the wilderness a bit until they reached a stone gazebo with a throne in it. This was where the Chuapli Forest were-jaguar tribe would meet with contacts in Patil, as they did not enjoy entering the city proper. Death by Moonlight shifted into his jaguar hybrid form which was an intimidating black panther. Sitting on the throne was Jacques’ mentor, Ilancuēitl, introduced for the first time and to everyone’s surprise as Queen Ilancuēitl. At her feet rested a jaguar, Dance by Moonlight.

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Ilancuēitl asked for the Claw of the Conciliator, which Gnomardo handed to Jacques with some hesitation. Jacques held it forth but quickly explained that there were complications, as the relic was needed to not only free the dwarves in some unknown way, it seemed also to be tied to the fate of his friend. Jacques asked if he could borrow it to fulfill these duties while still joining the Balam. The Queen explained that the task was not only a test but also a necessity for Jacques to keep the Claw, as it was Jacques who would as Balam act as ambassador to other Fera and create an alliance to fight the Wyrm. He would need to have the Claw to fulfill this objective. The only thing left was for him to receive the blessing of Tepēyōllōtl, the Jaguar god. Normally this holy ceremony would be done at the tribe’s home deep in Chuapli Forest, but time is short and the forces of the Wyrm are on the march, so this is where it must be done. Relieved, Jacques presented himself.

were_panther.jpg The Queen changed into a hybrid jaguar form, her fur was almost golden with deep black spots like shards of obsidian sprinkled over her shoulders. She breathed out a white haze around herself which spread out like a smoke circle enveloping Jacques, then the Moonlight siblings, then Roscoe, Fisher and Gnomardo. As the smoke clears, the grass seems more fluorescent, their senses seem to perceive everything deeper and there is the tingle of magic in the air. The Queen welcomes them to the umbra. Roscoe recognizes this as the feywild. Here the magic of the tribe is at its height and ceremonies are most hallowed. The Queen then pounces onto Jacques and bites down on his neck. He does not resist as blood gushes all over his boots, the Queen’s incisors ripping a massive gap in Jacques’ flesh. She holds on him as she concentrates on pushing the lycanthropy into his body. Jacques shudders for a moment as it takes hold. She lets go and he almost falls to the ground. Before he does, the Queen takes a small pearl in her hand and then utters a word. It shines a soft white light cupped in her hand so it only shines in Jacques’ face: full moon light.

Jacques begins to change involuntarily. The gap in his neck stops bleeding as new muscle and hair grow all over him, He grows a head taller reaching the height of Obelix and almost as wide. Jacques fur is black like Death by Moonlight, his snout elongates and gains the features of a snarling cat. His mind also takes on a singular purpose: predator. He becomes aware of his friends behind him, but they do not register as friends. They are prey. Before he can pounce on them the Queen turns off the shining pearl. She lays a hand on his head before he loses control and utters another word. Jacques calms, and is once again clear headed, only now a were-jaguar. His gear is strewn on the floor around him. The Queen gives him his Balam name: Last-hope. Jacques only response is to ask another bit of mentorship: how can one win the heart of a queen?

When stone is dust and only air remains

Returning to the museum, Roscoe, Fisher and Gnomardo are now followed by Jacques in black jaguar form, carrying his gear in his mouth. They hear the roar of Kumonga in battle mode and then the blaring of the other animals. Roscoe casts Arms of Hadar and they start running. When they arrive they find all the animals in a circle around a diminutive Kumonga, about a foot in length, fighting a large rat. The other animals seem to be cheering her on. Dko exits the building with snacks. Kumonga slayed the rat, cutting it clean in half. Once the adversary is dead, she starts to grow back to her normal size, and she is wearing the Olmazca item Minilla’s Collar.

She picks up half the rat and swallows it whole. With another leg she picks up the other half and offers it to Fisher.

Yum.

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Episode 23
Wake me up before you go

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You put the boom-boom into my heart

The temple was awash in radiant light that shone out of Barrik’s hollow chest and back. It caused the bloody mist that was all that remained of the drow’s head to sparkle pink around him. The beautiful visage of Barrik standing on the podium all a-rosy shimmer contrasted with the terrible roar of a great bellows filling the whole valley, as Heart Attack blazed angrily. All his friends who bore witness to the miracle felt the blessing of Moradin, but it was Barrik alone who above the din heard Moradin’s words “Carry on, my wayward son. There’ll be peace when you are done.”

Obelix’s wings cast a great shadow on the southern face of the small pyramid, shielding Roscoe from the bright light. While everyone’s eyes were on the dwarves, Roscoe was looking at the podium peaking up between the pyramid’s top level and Obelix’s left wing. It was in that podium he had seen the gauntlet holding Barrik’s heart pushed by Obelix into whatever alcove the gauntlet had emerged from. And it was now that he had the chance to act.

Roscoe knew he had to get that heart if he wanted to stop the ritual. He sent Lucky to the podium who invisibly flew out of Roscoe’s sleeve and found in the hole the gauntlet losing holding the heart, and under that four more hearts, about a foot and a half down. Rather than risk a spell to grab them which could cause a wild magic surge in the ritual, he decided to get the heart himself. Roscoe dismissed the Tamoachan manes he had summoned and dove onto the podium between Roscoe’s legs, shoving his arm as deep as he could, grabbing his friend’s heart. As he pulled it out he felt resistance at the precipice of the hole, and he pulled harder. He felt in his hand a conflux of competing magical energies as he pulled the heart over the edge. It felt as if two titanic forces vied for control and he was but along for the ride. So intense was the magical disruption that his hand cramped rigidly on the heart even as the heart burst into flames as it escaped the hole. Roscoe gritted his teeth through the pain and bravely soaked up the fire energy: even under this pain he came up with a devious plan. He noticed that something had changed in the nature of the heart and felt his grasp on luck falter. Regardless, he set his eyes on his next target: the tanarukk bearing down on him.

1716383d42c20a1b3ee1993268bda18b--heart-burn-tattoo-shop.jpg The tanarukk looked on Roscoe’s face and recognized the mark of the Obsidian Butterfly. Incredibly, the fiend fled in fear from Roscoe, running straight into Fisher and attacking wildly. Fisher’s blurred form dodged the attacks as he focussed on his own target: the Yuan-ti. He savaged it and robes, then scales, then pale abdominal flesh split apart dropping blood and guts onto embroidered silken shoes. Remarkably it remained standing, yet staggered from the damage. Obelix turned on his heels and battered the ape monster swinging at Fisher. Jacques, having been roused by the Healing Word that was Barrik’s final act before his death, motioned to Kumonga to jump him back into the battle, which she deftly did before jumping back and taking a defensive stance over the catatonic child. As delicate as a wafer he charged up the temple steps and plunged his blades into the towering simian. The monster’s snarling maw flashed purple and white as it was simultaneously hit by Gnomardo’s eldritch blasts, laying the monster low. Another of the apes, still blinded from Fisher’s first attack, was engaged by Tleeroi on the eastern face of the temple.

Barrik, Heart Attack still blazing and thundering in his hands, waded in between the Yuan-ti and tanarukk with reckless abandon, felling the orc-fiend and surrounding the snake-man. The snake-man pulled out another rod and cast a hypnotic pattern across the battlefield, unfortunately for him the heroes resisted the attempts at domination. This merci was short lived as at that moment the gappoing chest cavities of the four children strung up on polls at the four corners of the pyramid began to bleed magma. The ritual was continuing!

While his friends were thus engaged, Roscoe’s hand continued to burn as it gripped the heart. Jacques had thrown a canister of water on it which doused it momentarily but Roscoe could see it would flare back up again, powered by some unholy confluence. He tossed his shadowblade at the blinded ape empowering it with the flames he had absorbed from the heart, the poor thing howled in pain not knowing what hit it. Donning his mask again as he raced past Tleeroi down the eastern face he threw his clenched hand into the river, dousing the flames until he could find a way to let go.

But something’s bugging me

It was then that everyone heard the frantic shouts of a recognizable voice zipping past at incredible speed…

“ohshitohshitohshitOHSHITOHSHITOHSHITOHSHITOHSHITohshitohshitohshit-”

Xarry and one remaining Kultakan warrior raced past the field of battle on their fleeting otzrixes. On their heels but 40 feet behind were four tanarukk, what remained of the five guards the Kultakan riders had distracted.

Obelix left Fisher, Barrik and Jacques to finish off the melee at the temple top and propelled himself on glorious alabaster wings down the southern face of the temple, planting himself between the two otzrix riders and the oncoming tanarukk. “Stop, fiend!” he bellowed whilst plunging his glaive into the belly of the first assailant.

By now the corners of the temple were covered in lava, Jacques disengaged from the melee and shoved his hands down the hole at the center of the podium to grab the children’s hearts. To his great relief as he pulled on out, he saw that one of the children’s corpses stopped bleeding magma. He raced to pull all the others out, at the same time grabbing the gauntlett and pulling it out too. All the lava stopped spreading.

Gnomardo’s eyes landed on the gauntlet and for a split second he felt a glitch in his mind. When his psyche steadied he heard that androgynous voice, but this time eager and hungry: “I REMEMBER!” Gnomardo’s artificial hand disengaged and shot forward on it’s cables, but much farther than he had designed it: the cables merged into ligaments and it shot clear up the pyramid to grab the gauntlet and reeled it in. As Gnomardo watched with fascination and horror, the exposed flesh of his tentacle-like appendage opened a baleful blue eye and looked at him, “ARAPUCA REMEMBERS!” Gnomardo stood there, bemused and not unphased, as he held the Claw of the Conciliator in his hand. The voice said softly “Arapuca sleeps so Gnomardo can wake…. now sleep again…” Next to Gnomardo on the river’s edge Roscoe looked at him incredulously, “Gnomardo?!” Not wanting to seem unhelpful Gnomardo raced towards the tanarukk Obelix engaged, gauntlett in hand, and blasted past Tleeroi who stood upon a rock challenging the fiends.

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Roscoe managed to pry his hand open under water, then collected it with mage hand. That done, he again pulled on the stored fire energy he suffered from his burns and shot his enflamed shadowblade at the last remaining ape monster, felling it. Gnomardo, seeing Xarry had collapsed off his mount in exhaustion, jumped on the otzrix and charged the incoming tanarukk on the field.

The tanarukk and yuan-ti on the temple-top now dead, Barrik, Fisher and Jacques ran down the pyramid’s side to assist Obelix. Fisher grabbed the rod of the snake-man’s body ready to cast hypnotic pattern on the entire orc-fiend troop, when he realized the rod he held did not contain the spell at all. “GODSFUCKINGDAMNIT!” he spat as he murdered a tanarukk in frustration with his blade.

Tleeroi and Gnomardo felled another tanarukk so that there was then one left, between Obelix, Fisher and Barrik. It sensed the hopeless situation and turned to run in desperation. The heroes turned it into minced meat before it could escape their reach.

‘Cause I’m not planning on going solo

The battle was over, but they felt danger still lingered. Xarry told them how Beltixar the priest sacrificed himself to bring a tanarukk down and let him and the other soldier escape. There could be more coming especially if the enemy felt the ritual had been disrupted. For certain a ritual of this complexity was being scryed on from afar by it’s architect. They looted what they could: along with the rod of resurrection, some gold and a warlock’s rod from the snake-man, Roscoe was delighted to find the drow had a spell book, although he carried no gold.

Fisher meanwhile felt the amulet that let him use the teleportation skull room grow hot as he inspected the temple-top. It took little time for the dwarves to determine that while the temple was ancient beyond measure, the stone podium was a very recent addition, and they were able to cast it aside. Below that they removed flag stones to let FIsher see what had caught the attention of his amulet: another skull room.

This one however had four mummies interned in it. They were in excellent condition as the room had been airtight. Fisher found another activation amulet around the neck of one. It looks as if they had been tied to such an extent that even their fingers were restrained to prevent any somatic casting, and then teleported here and interned alive. This gruesome fate may have been a punishment or a ritual, but it was surely a frightful way to go. The heroes had in any case found a quick way out of the battle area. They removed the mummies and in so doing found among them four pieces of perfectly preserved clothing items and a pair of tea cups, obviously magical to have survived for so long in such a state. Fisher began to teleport the people and animals three at a time back to Patil.

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When Fisher appeared in the Museum of Maztican History in Patil with Tleeroi, the rescued child and an otzrix, Dko was in the skull room dusting the skulls. The appearance startled him so much that his heart skipped a beat, and Fisher was worried for a moment that he had just killed his friend. Luckily it passed, and Fisher quickly explained to expect many more people and animals. By the time everyone was taken back to the museum it looked more like a zoo.

The heroes had one the day and escaped, but at least three of them were no longer who they once were.

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Episode 22
Once I rose above the noise and confusion

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Clean up in aisle 666

After the battle at Pdapla our heroes piled up the bodies of the roughly 40 tanarukk plus the five they killed and made a pyre outside the village. Shewing the vultures and other carrion eaters from the 200 fallen Kultakan soldiers they make a separate pyre; it was so large that it took up most of the village. When they finally lit it they would have to camp well into the forest to avoid the heat. Tleeroi gathered what personal belongings he could find form the army that they could be send back to Kultaka City. The villagers who lived here seemed to have fought, and died, amongst their soldier countrymen. About two dozen men and women joined the soldiers on their pyre, and four children. Fisher searched the contents of the spell component pouch of the shaman: much was useless to him for now but could come in handy later. He did find in there a small diamond which he could come in handy for Revivify. He also took some time to saw off the horns of a tanarukk. Obelix gave him an odd look while he collected the shaman’s plumastone glaive. “Spell components,” Fisher mumbled.

56eae0317623b2fb5c973820d67e1864__1_.jpg It took the better of the day and night, and in that time Barrik and Obelix also tended to the 5 wounded soldiers that survived and the warrior priest of Qotal, Beltixar. By then Barrik and Obelix felt the effects of the psionic calling wear heavily on them, on the third day since speaking with Tarj. Every day it had gotten worse, with Gnomardo in the night having to keep an eye on the dwarves to see they do not wander off in their sleep. He had to rouse them more than a couple of times as they tried to sleepwalk away. Gnomardo especially was worried about Obelix, who would likely completely fall to the compulsion within the week if they did not do something.

The priest finally woke on the morning of the second day the party was in the village. He sat up suddenly and shouted “The children!!” The heroes ran into the hovel to find Barrik trying to calm the hysterical priest. After calming him down they discovered his concern, the real purpose of the attack. Beltixar knew more details of the nature of the volcano summoning ritual: the enemy needed to sacrifice five pure hearts in order to complete the ritual. There had been nine children in the village. Xarry mentioned that they had only found the bodies of four. Beltixar asked how long it had been since the battle. A week, he was told. Beltixar looked crestfallen. “Then it is too late, we have failed.”

Jacques looked out the window. “There is no volcano on the horizon, the skies are clear.”

Beltixar looked hopeful again. “Then there may just be enough time… A pure heart must be sacrificed once a day at sunset. If they have not finished… you must make haste and ride for the temple!” Beltixar promised to vouch for the party with the War Chief that if they succeeded then they would not only get their full reward but be hailed as heroes of all Kultaka. Fisher was the last to hesitate. “Hero-worship doesn’t pay the bills!” But even he was quickly convinced when Beltixar mentioned that in Kultaka heroes drink for free.

To battle! We ride!

It was a days’ ride across the Fields of Blood to the ancient temple, but if they pushed their mounts they may make it before sundown. They set fire to the pyres, knowing that if they survived this attack there would be nothing left to come back to here anyways. The remaining soldiers and the priest mounted the otzrixes that Tleeroi brought and they rode like the wind, the parties animals trying their best to keep up. They crossed the Fields of Blood, a broken landscape dotted with earth fortifications in ruin, collapsed trenches and burned woods. Following the trail from there was easy as the marching army of tanarukk had not been subtle in their movement.

When they periodically slowed to cool their mounts, they discussed the plan. The otzrixes were fast enough to outrun the tanarukk, so Xarry and Beltixar would make a feint attack and draw any defensive forces away from the ritual site. This would allow the party, guided by Tleeroi, to make a stealth assault on the ritual to prevent it’s activation. The priority was save the children then hightail it out of there once Xarry gave the signal the tanarukk were engaged.

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They found the temple just as the sun was beginning to set behind the western mountains. Xarry’s detachment of otzrix riders harried the enemy from the east, driving off a contingent of tanarukk brawlers. What remained seemed like an entourage of four large ape like monsters in Nexalan garb, a dark grey skinned humanoid that had the bearing of a mage and next to him a large and heavily scarred tanarukk bodyguard. On the temple they saw strung upon posts the bodies of four children, all with gaping holes in their chests. After some deliberation hidden in the brush, they heard Xarry’s signal: a great shout of Tleeroi’s name. Roscoe cast ambush on the party so their approach could be masked. They hesitated a moment to determine their best attack, but then spotted that the mage was pushing a terrified child onto the podium at the top of the temple. The had to act now.

It’s now or never

5hwlbav8zas51.png A fly spell was cast on Jacques and made a beeline straight for the mage holding the child. Jacques killed him outright by opening his throat into a massive gash, spewing blood all over himself and the child. As the surprised and now very dead mage slid to the floor Jacques saw that it was in fact a drow! Curiously a large hole wringed in jade exposed an empty dark cavity where his heart should be. Fisher, on Kumonga’s back, leaped after Jacques and engaged one of the large ape beings, blinding it in the process. The others moved forward, Gnomardo and Barrik casting ranged spells in support. Their surprise ended as the ape beings moved with astonishing speed into action. One ran straight for Obelix, Barrik and Tleeroi, not hesitating to engage all three alone. It not only held it’s own but managed to injure Barrik grievously with its fervent attacks.

1cba8837f1ba398adee64ab6fcfcfa0d.jpg Jacques found himself hovering over the drow surrounded by the large ape and the tanarukk, and for his bravery in saving the child’s life was laid low. Before the child could be re captured or Jacques’ unconscious form slain, Kumonga charged into the fray. Having deposited Fisher on the temple side, she leaped over to Jacques, picked up him and the child with her sticky legs and leaped away across the brook on the other side of the pyramid to safety, narrowly being missed by the ape’s massive claws.

The traumatized child and their unconscious friend directly out of harm’s way, the ritual disrupted and the sun setting, some may think it was time to make a tactical retreat now. However at that moment a previously invisible Yuan-ti, with a snake’s head on a human form, made itself visible and pulled out a beautifully constructed rod. Roscoe recognized it immediately as a Rod of Resurrection, which the Yuan-it pointed at the fallen drow, who did indeed return from the dead. Roscoe ran forward onto the steps of the temple towards the Yaun-ti. He pulled his mask off as he passed the ape monster. It took a look at Roscoe’s face and howled in fear, turning to run. To everyone’s horror Roscoe then cast Summon Lesser Demon and pulled eight Tamoachan manes into the Material Plane. As the demons started popping into existence around Roscoe, he glared at the Yuan-ti trying to catch his eye. The Yuan-ti was however not phased at all by Roscoe’s visage. The demons spread out and dug their little claws into the ape monster and tried to reach the Yuan-ti.

733c2446d57da09dc780ae6844ebb22d.jpg Tleeroi had flanked the ape monster and the dwarves finally killed it off. Fisher was engaged with the tanarruk and using the Fangs of Ssitsiss tried to paralysis it but the fiend shook the effect off. The Yuan-ti recognized the fangs and shouted in snake tongue “Thief!” at Fisher. As Gnomardo returned fire to support Fisher, the Yuan-ti shouted at it’s allies in the hissing language. Fisher, still wearing the fangs, heard “Get the pure heart!” Then the newly resurrected drow mage cast an enormous fireball at the dwarves. Gnomardo was narrowly out of its range but the blast caught Tleeroi and the dwarves full on. Both Obelix and Barrik managed to fend off the worst of it behind B.A.S.E.D. but by now Barrik’s life was hanging on a thread. As a final act, Barrik cast Healing Word on Jacques to save him from death and rouse him. The Yuan-ti, apparently a warlock, cast the killing blow to Barrik with an eldritch blast.

I hear the voices when I’m dreaming

As his body collapsed on the ground the podium on the temple top started to glow green. A spectral hand reached across the battlefield from the podium and plucked Barrik’s body from the ground. His body was brought to a hover over the podium and from a recess in the middle poked a gauntlet. Barrik’s body was slammed down on the podium as the green energy suffused into the gauntlet and it thrust through his back, grabbed his heart and ripped it up through his chest which exploded with metal, flesh and bone. Barrik saw only darkness, and then a tiny white dot in the distance. He tried to move towards is, but some cold force was holding him back. He recalled the stories of what happened to the souls of those sacrificed to Zaltec, and strained against the cold. He inched his way closer to the light but it remained far. He heard very faintly a gruff voice he had heard before in his visions “Help, I cannot reach him!”

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Seeing his best friend limp atop the temple with a gauntlet sticking out of his chest holding a still beating heart snapped something in Obelix. He saw only white, and his ears rang with a keening wail. He matronly voice in his head who he knew to be the voice of Berronar Truesilver said “Go to him Obelix! Fly! The Allfather cannot feel him!” And indeed Obelix flew. Great white dove wings tore through the back of his chain shirt and propelled him to the top of the temple. He smashed down on the gauntlet holding the heart and pushed it back down into the whole beneath Barrik’s corpse. As Obelix’s hand passed through the chest cavity of his dear friend, a brilliant flash of radiance enveloped them both. Barrick’s eyes opened at the sounds of the gruff voice laughing “Haha! I have him!” Then the sounds of a forge hammer striking on an anvil rang in his ears. With every strike he felt more of his body, until he got up on the podium pushing Obelix off.

20210411_213505.jpg All eyes were on him as the enormous hole in his chest was filled not with a heart but with a glowing white anvil, pulsing like a heart of steel being struck by a mythril hammer. Now Barrik heard the voice clearly and knew that it was Moradin’s, who said to him: “A true hero is not measured by the size of his strength, but by the strength of his heart.” Barrik then raised his warhammer Heart-attack, which he still gripped, and it burst into a roaring flame. The sound of the roar was deafening and reverberated off the trees in the forest surrounding the battlefield. Barrik looked at the drow and swung Heart-attack directly at the drow’s head with such force that the skull was ripped off the shoulders and cracked asunder. As burning bits of drow bone, brain and flesh rained down on the collapsing headless body, Barrik heard Moradin’s voice grow faint as the manifestation departed from the Material Plane.

“Carry on, my wayward son. There’ll be peace when you are done.”

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Episode 21
Rejoining old friends

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Let the man wait, we’re eating

Our heroes woke in the guardhouse over the cliff dungeons on the west side of Kultaka City. The sun had risen a few hours ago but this side of the city remained in shadow just that while longer as the temples in the center square stay dawn’s arrival here. The smell of freshly baked cornbread wafted up from the mess hall below. Gnomardo, who had been up all night sketching the night sky from the window overlooking the cliff edge, walked up stairs carrying a tray of breads, smoked meats and nut pastes. Roscoe cautiously takes one from the tray while eyeing his friend. Was there something in Roscoe’s look or did Gnomardo just imagine it? Jacques kept to himself, his thoughts focused on finding Lady. Fisher, put down a piece of quartz he was polishing to put grab a hunk of corn bread. Barrik and Obelix woke last, having slept very roughly after their psionic ordeal. It was just that little bit harder to concentrate on their prayers.

Gnomardo mentioned that the scribe that had led them to the guardhouse the night before was waiting outside. For at least an hour. But he thought his friends’ sleep was more important so he let the scribe wait. They figured the man might as well wait a little longer so they finished eating. Fisher took the time to go over some details he had discovered about the ship Dirty Dog where they had found the mozgriken. The ship hailed from Waterdeep and had dealings with a former associate of Jacques, Thomas Lightfoot, who was linked in a business transaction to Zastania, the Yuan-ti they had fought in Athkatla. The ship was bound for Athkatla but never birthed because of the plague, instead headed west to Maztica, where the ship’s crew disappeared. Jacques informed them that under no circumstances should they try to cross paths with Lightfoot. Hopefully they had seen the last of the Yuan-ti back in Faerun. By that time the party finished their breakfast and went down to speak with the scribe, he was speaking with a warrior of some stature who introduced himself as Tleeroi.

civ6-eagle-warrior.jpg The scribe explained that War Chief Aconcagua’s offer of training Kultaka’s new mounted force was still open, and as gift should they accept, on top of the reward mentioned the previous day, the party all received leather armour for their mounts. Armourers had been busy all night at the War Chief’s command. There was even armour for Kumonga, who had stayed out of sight until the party turned in for the night. Apparently she had been spotted by the birds keeping eyes on the city. Of course there was no armour for Lady, but Tleeroi said Jacques could ride one of the otzrix whose name was Sunspeed. Tleeroi was tasked with bringing a half dozen of the animals to an army which was preparing an assault. The army was massing by the small village Pdapla, one day’s otzrix ride from the Fields of Blood, a stretch of land 30 miles wide nestled between mountain ranges where most of the battles between Nexal and Kultaka have taken place for centuries. It was there that the mounted force of 200 were being trained. As the party knew that they needed to go in that direction to find Xarry, his knowledge of the magic frame’s location, Lady, possibly Tarj’s sister and the Claw of the Conciliator which both the dwarves and Jacques sought, they agreed to at least go help train the Kultakans. Whether they would participate in the assault for the extra reward was another matter.

Storytime on the road

The party took some time to purchase some supplies before leaving. Fisher collected some ingredients he needed for creating more spellgems and Roscoe bought some books to teach himself Maztican. (Further learning that there were actually two main languages in Maztican, Nexalan and Payit!) At midday they met Tleeroi at the bottom of the butte waiting with the otzrix’s and started the two day journey to Pdapla.

When they camped they got to know Tleeroi better. He was a veteran of the war against the Viperhand, showing his many scars. He said that he never killed an orc yet, but was looking forward to one day, despite his many battles. The party explained that in their lands there had been wars with orcs, but there were also civilized orcs and they could be lived with. Their experience with orcs back home was the reason that they hesitated getting involved in this war, besides having their own pressing business. This astonished Tleeroi, and he looked to Fisher who boasted drinking and cavorting with orcs with great awe. Tleeroi also told them a bit about the assault mission the army was preparing that the party had heard a small amount of. The enemy was in the process of a grand ritual which would summon a new volcano. If they succeeded it would surely mean the end of Kultaka and perhaps the nations beyond. Tleeroi knew little of the arcane, all he knew was that it was on a location of an ancient temple built by some forgotten people on a confluence of Ley lines. He left the details to the priests, he just needed to know when and where to strike.

The next day they reached the wooded hills that Pdapla sat in. Expecting to see the smoke of campfires and a few chimneys, they instead saw a wide swath of smoke billowing across the treetops. “Lady!” Jacques shouted and spurred Sunspeed on at full gallop. The others had trouble keeping up, but when they arrived they saw a village entirely destroyed. Bodies lay everywhere, a couple of days old given the smell and the vultures and other carrion eaters.

Surveying the wreckage from the edge of the settlement, Jacques heard a familiar bark. Lady, having smelled Jacques as he arrived, came bounding out of one of the few intact buildings, a hovel hugging the prayer pyramid. Jacques jumped down from his otzrix and hugged Lady as she jumped in his arms and started licking his face. She was armoured with a scaly green leather harness, but had no obvious wounds. As the rest of the party caught up and dismounted, a figure came out of the hovel. It was Xarry, still wearing his captains had, but now with a battle hardened look, limping on a crutch and missing his tail. “My friends!” he exclaimed, tears of joy in his eyes.

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A village under siege

Xarry walked them to the hovel where there were five Kultakan warriors in various states of injury, and a priest, presumably Beltixar, still unconscious. As Barrik and Obelix started casting their healing spells, Xarry told them the story of what had happened since their parting.

When The Happy Sea Urchin was boarded the animals wanted to fight. Lady was almost killed, but Xarry saved her. Xarry managed to calm the animals down and let them be taken prisoner, knowing that his friends desperately needed the magic frame not to fall into the wrong hands. Xarry hid the frame in the ship until he had a chance to tie it to an anchor and throw it overboard. He knew that his friends would be able to retrieve it as long as he remembered the location, which was close to a large river mouth that the party recognized as the bay of Coxi. When Xarry made it to Kultaka he met with the War Chief and convinced Aconcagua that the Happy Sea Urchin was not the prelude of another invasion from Amn scouting a landing place. Xarry eventually won the War Chief’s favor and convinced Aconcagua that the party would be a great boon to him, which saved the animals from slaughter or sale. Xarry also decided to join the war effort in order to prove himself as a warrior in the spirit of Fisher. That got a good talking to by Fisher, yet the little ‘neblin could not hide his pride. Lady, feeling loyal and possibly guessing at the best chance of seeing Jacques again, stayed with Xarry. In the battles that Xarry partook in he had lost his tail, and used that to fashion armour for Lady, which had served her well. On hearing this story and recognizing the scale armour, he knelt before Xarry and declared to be forever in Xarry’s debt. Xarry pulled Jacques up, and explained that Lady had saved him many times over, and Jacques and his friends saved him from ceremorphosis. There was no debt.

The last battle Xarry had fought in destroyed this village; it was pyrrhic victory. The enemy came at the village in a surprise attack with a force of about 40. Even the villagers fought to the death, for everyone knew what happened if you were taken alive by the Viperhand: sacrificed to Zaltec by having one’s heart ripped out or thrown into the volcano Mt Zatal. The belief is that a sacrifice to Zaltec means the soul never travels to the intended afterlife, but is fodder for the Eater of Hearts. All but the five soldiers, Xarry, Lady and Beltixar survived, but as there were survivors, the battle was declared a victory. The party was surprised that a force of 40 orcs was such a danger to such hardened warriors as the Kultakans could produce. At that Xarry told them to take another look.

Outside they saw that amongst the bodies of soldiers and oxtrixes were not orcs, but tanarukk. Demon-orc hybrids bred in the abyss. The Mazticans had never seen pure orcs, the name was new to their language since the destruction of the Nexalan Empire and an obvious loanword which they had applied to this enemy. The enormity of the enemy suddenly dawned on the party.

tanarukk.jpg Jacques and Roscoe went hunting to get some fresh food for everyone. They managed to kill two large capybaras when Lady smelled danger. She indicated upwind, and they had just enough time to throw one capybara carcass they were gutting onto her back and race back to the village. They set up an ambush for what turned out to be a scout party, presumably looking for the missing invasion force. The group consisted of 5 tanarukk, one of which was some kind of shaman.

Jacques waited until the group, who were not bothering to approach stealthily such was their confidence, was well past his hiding place on the outskirts of the village while the others all hid and waited in the village rubble. Then he sprang into action nearly killing the tanarruk in one attack. Had his poison not been resisted by the half-fiend’s nature it may have died right there. Then Roscoe launched his shadow blade at one of them opening a vicious gut wound. As the shadowblade flew back to his hands the shaman followed it with his eyes and spied Jacques hiding spot. The shaman cast dispel magic on Roscoe, dropping the halfling’s mage armour. Ready to prove his prowess and defend the now open mage, Tleeroi jumped into the fray with a wild battlecry of his own name, his attacks land but he is rewarded with heavy injury in return. Fisher comes up with a cunning plan and disguised himself as a barely alive tanarruk form the previous battle, cleft in twain at the waist, getting int to distract one of them and get close for a killing blow. While the other tanarukk start fighting back, Obelix rushes into the fray with fire support from Gnomardo and Barrik. Obelix slays one in a single powerful smite, it’s body flies backwards and slaps like harmless dead flesh on the shaman. Fisher, still in disguise, succeeds in his ruse and climbs the back of the shaman who did not take him as a threat. Fisher then slammed his blade repeatedly into the shaman’s neck, simultaneously blinding the shaman with magic. As the battle intensifies, Xarry has to retreat and Roscoe toes the line of death. Tleeroi slays the two tanarruk that had been brought to near death by the rest of the party and with great arrogance refuses to leave the dangerzone even as he is on his last legs. Lady and Kumonga join in the fight. Obelix lays hands on Tleeroi just in time to save him. When the last tanarukk and the shaman finally fall, they breathe a sigh of relief. “That wasn’t too bad,” said Barrik.

Tleeroi inspected the bodies. “That’s because these were just scouts,” he says. “The regular soldiers hit back every time they get hurt and rarely miss.”

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Episode 20
Guests on a mountain top

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A nation at war

The nation of Kultaka was located on a fertile coastal plain, although it was separated from the ocean by a dangerous salt marsh swamp that stretched along the coast. It was separated from Pezelac by a mountain range, which was it southern border. Kultaka City, the capital, was perched upon a rocky outcropping in the foothills of this southern range. Another mountain range protected Kultaka’s northern border from the Sands of Itzcala. These ranges meet at a point, like an arrow pointing south-west to Nexal, and at this point was a wide pass of dozens of miles across of rolling hills: a enormous battlefield fertilized with the blood of generations of warriors.

The salt marshes were vast swamps that ran along the coastline of Kultaka, effectively cutting the people off from the ocean. It was a hostile and inhospitable land, with crocodiles, snakes, and insects, some of unusual size, dwelling there, among other, stranger horrors. For the young warriors of Kultaka, though, it was also a kind of testing ground for those who would be Jaguar or Eagle knights. In the past this is was not a problem for Kultaka’s economy as trade went through Nexal and there were mountain passes at the base of Mt Plotoq to Pezelac. But with the destruction of the Nexal empire a century ago and the discovery of plumastone tools, the inhabitants drained and dredged a large swath of swamp to create a wide canal from the sea to Kultaka city.

And up that canal wass where our heroes’ dragonborn ship traversed. The canal was truly a marvel of engineering, even by dwarven standards. It did not lead into Kultaka however, as the entire city was perched upon a rocky butte some fifty to one hundred feet high. There were no walls, but it was clear none were needed. The canal became a moat around the entire butte, fed by a stream coming off the mountains. White stepped pyramids could be seen stretching even higher above the city. It was formidable. The majority of the population of this region however, seemed to live in villages and towns surrounding the butte. It was in one of these villages at the edge of an artificial bay that the dragonborn ship docked. Four births over, they saw The Happy Sea Urchin at anchor. Seemingly unguarded.

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Where’s my stuff?

The heroes immediately went to investigate. Barrik cast disguise self with a spell gem and appeared as a crazy old man: his old Forge Master from West End Stormkeep. Roscoe disguised as a Patil dockworker. Barrik cast detect magic and Roscoe cast detect good & evil as they approached the ship by foot. Gnomardo cast a floating disk and Jacques used this to float over the gap between the ships and board from the starboard side. Fisher disguised himself as the old man’s grandson. Obelix and Gnomardo nonchalantly walked undisguised. Before Jacques left his way, Lucky leaped from Roscoe’s sleeve onto Jacques’ shoulder and squeaked in a horrific voice like a mutilated parrot being strangled “Lucky ready!”

A child ran past pushing himself between the heroes as they got closer to the boat. Barrik checked his pockets incase it was a purse snatcher but everything was still there. Barrik’s detect magic does not find the teleportation frame, only the silhouette of the magic items that Jacques was carrying floated behind hull of the ship. Roscoe also could not detect any aberrations, he related this information to Lucky. “Papa say no sneaky sneaks hiding!” Lucky rasped in a demented shriek. Jacques explored the ship from top to bottom and findeed found no sign of the frame or even any of their cargo, animals or Xarry.

As Jacques emerged from below decks he saw his friends standing in front of the gangplank. They all look crestfallen having found the ship empty of both cargo and friends. From behind Jacques a shadow fell across his shoulders. Two enormous hairy spindly legs rose over him surprising even the alert little halfling. Before Jacques could unsheath his weapon he heard Fisher call out " Kumonga ! ". Fisher ran up the gangplank and gave kumonga a bear hug; she enveloped him in all six limbs and started an insectoid purring, like a spastic cat. Kumonga of course recognized Fisher through smell, despite his disguise, but had been on the verge of attacking Jacques.

Obelix cast speaks with animals and asked Kumonga what happened. With her limited spider understanding she explained that the ship was boarded and Xarry protected all the animals. There was a fight. Xarry saved Lady, told the animals to stand down. Kumonga hid in the shadows. When the ship reached land, the animals and Xarry were taken away. Kumonga stayed to wait for Fisher.

As the tale ended, a group of five guards approached, they wore white kilts and had a single blue feather on a headband, except the leader who had two. The little boy was with them, he was obviously the look out. The leader of the guards requested rather politely but firmly that they come with him: he had orders to bring any foreigners interested in the ship to the War Chief. When asked why, he said he did not question his orders, he just has a job to do and would like to get it done with as little effort as possible. The party briefly considered raking the guards on, until Jacques spied further away another group of soldiers quietly watching and waiting down the road.

litter.jpg They were brought to a barracks and were told to go inside. When they went in they decided to drop their disguises. Inside was some form of administrator: he had a headband with a blue feather but wore a comfortable robe rather than a kilt. The administrator’s demeanor was quite different, he welcomed the party as guests and invited them to ride the litters up to Kultaka City to meet the War Chief. The accepted and were carried up the long steps carved into the side of the butte that Kultaka City was built on. Fisher, warry to take any part in profiting from slavery, asked the litter bearers if they were paid. They said they were paid even better than the soldiers: it was an honoured role to carry guests. Satisfied, they enjoyed the way up. The view of the surrounding countryside as they climbed was of rolling hills dotted with farms and small woods: more land was cleared here than in Payit. The mountains the to south showed industrious mines, which the litter bearers informed them were for obsidian, jet and coal. The carved path turned into stone bridges where streams from the summit trickled under them. By the time they reached the summit they arrived in a large plaza surrounded by enormous white structures, from pyramids to multi layered homes. They were brought to the War House, where the War Chief Aconcagua awaited them.

Take us to your leader

jf_iii___montezuma_by_gureiduson.jpg After introductions, the War Chief explained that it was assumed the Happy Sea Urchin was a prelude to another invasion from Amn, and that is why it was taken into custody. Given the total disaster that the last invasion caused, they could take no chances. After Xarry explained the situation, the animals were brought to Kultaka for their own safety, as some their kind was quite rare here. A scribe brought Seagull and Ranger into the room: Aconcagua had personally cared for them as horses were a favourite food of the Hakuna, they would not have lasted long grazing in the fields. Aconcagua was presented them as a gift by his soldiers, but he was happy to return them to their rightful owners as a show of good faith: he hoped had an offer to make the party of foreigners who saved Coxi. Ranger was obviously happy to see Barrik again, but as Seagull approached Roscoe, he sniffed derisively. Horse sense could tell something had changed, and Seagull did not like it.

It surprised the party that the War Chief knew of the battle at Coxi. He said a little bird told him, and at that moment a small sparrow flew into the room through a window, and landed on his shoulder, whispered something in his ear and flew off again. It did not take too much investigation to figure out the ship Kultaka had commandeered belonged to them. The war effort could use adventurers of such renown. The party was not keen on getting involved in someone else’s war, but they listened to the offer.

Kultaka needed a cavalry trained. The orcs they fight are incredibly fast, so Kultaka started taming and breeding otzrix. They hail from Abeir so are relatively new to Maztica, and are extremely difficult to tame, and on top of that the military has little experience with mounted combat. If they agreed to go to one of the outposts near the front and train the cavalry unit, they would be rewarded with 1000 gp each. It was at a small village called Pdapla and commanded by a warrior priest Beltixar. If they agreed to join in the war effort and lead the cavalry into battle they would get 2000 gp each and a rank in the Kultakan military, which they could turn down if they did not want the obligations that came with it. Aconcagua said they could think it over and let him know the answer the next day over breakfast.

Gnomardo asked where Goathic and Asterix where. Jacques asked about Lady and Xarry. Xarry had gone to the front. He joined the army as he said he wanted to learn how to become a great warrior like Fisher, and not end up like his brothers. Lady would not leave his side for whatever reason, so she went with him. The other two animals where in the cliff dungeons, a series of dwellings built into the rockface of the butte, many of them open to the air. Goathic seemed to want to climb the rockface and so this was deemed the most comfortable place for him to stay safe and not be depressed. Asterix simply wanted to stay with Goathic. In the same complex was a dwarf, Tarj, the last dwarf in the city who voluntarily asked to be imprisoned. The party went to see them, being escorted by the scribe who brought the ponies.

A room with a view

They went to the west side of the city, passing many training grounds. It seemed the entire city had one thing on their mind: war production. They entered a building which seemed to be a guard house, and walked down stairs into the rock. A corridor opened into a wide waiting room, and along one side of the waiting room were door cells were each cell had one wall open to the air. Upon hearing Gnomardo’s voice, Goathic rammed the wooden door and it smashed to pieces. While they hugged, Barrick took a look into the cell. It was spacious, with plenty of fresh hay and buckets of vegetables. They were obviously well cared for and cleaned regularly. In the cell next door could be heard the loud snoring of Asterix, who did not wake with the noise. Obelix opened the latch which was unlocked, and woke his noble steed. The squealing pig noises were a cacophony to the untrained ear, but Obelix new them to be squeals of joy. When that died down, the only noise they heard was a regular knocking sound. Tok. Tok. Tok.

Tarj.jpg They followed the sound and found the cell of Tarj the dwarf. It was barred, and not open to the air. Looking through the door window they saw him knocking his head rhythmically against the wall, muttering to himself. Barrick unbarred the door and went in. When their eyes met Tarj screamed for Barrick to stay away, lest he be taken too! After calming the dwarf down they managed to find out that he was quite insane. He seemed to talk to himself and contradict himself. Gnomardo and Roscoe detected his thoughts and found that he had a split personality: one was urging him to head north to “home” in the Sands of Itzcala, the other was urging him to stay in Kultaka and wait for his sister. Gnomardo pushed deeper into his thoughts and saw that a psionic compulsion had gripped the core of his psyche. The delving had tripped a moment of lucidity in Tarj: he was able to explain that his sister was a half-dwarf, a mul, and was able to resist the call all dwarves were feeling. She had gone on a quest to find the Claw of the Conciliator, which was rumored to unite disparate people, in the hope that might save the dwarves. He had requested the War Chief personally to imprison him so that he could not leave. Then Tarj lost his train of thought again as the other personality took over and urged him north. A battle of wills took over and he started knocking his head against a wall again. Either the stress of the psionic compulsion had caused his mind to shatter or he was already predisposed to a split personality, either way it was saving him from enslavement. After casting a blessing on Tarj and bidding him farewell, they barred the door again and left.

The party was given guest quarters in the guardhouse above, with a view to the west. Food had been set out for them and evening was approaching. As they ate, Jacques explained that he knew something of this Claw of the Conciliator, he had been asked by the were-jaguars to retrieve it and Tarj was right in that it was rumored to unite people. Whether through magic or simply as a cultural symbol he did not know, but it was said to be hidden in an ancient abandoned temple between Kulkata and Nexal. If it could help the dwarves too, all the better. They would need to go in that direction to find Lady and Xarry anyways, they could discuss in the morning whether to take the War Chief up on his offer. Barrik was hesitant to go after this relic when it seemed that the dwarves who needed freedom seemed so close. As they ate they watched the sun set over the mountains. The horizon was black with a haze of volcano smoke coming from the south, which turned blood red as the sun sank behind it.

Mind manipulation

In the middle of the night, Gnomardo looked up from his sketchbook to the sound of Obelix packing his bags. He asked what Obelix was up to. Obelix mumbled something about needing to go north. Need to go home. Gotta go now. Obelix started putting his boots on.

Gnomardo woke everyone up, the worst he feared had happened: Obelix was caught by the psionic compulsion. Gnomardo and Roscoe both started to detect thoughts, and saw that Obelix was indeed caught. They managed to snap him back to consciousness, but in the dreamscape they could see the pull was still there. They looked into Barrik’s mind, and noticed that he was also under the compulsion. It was not strong enough in either of them to make them go as long as they were conscious, but asleep it may cause a problem.

Barrik decided to try and release untie himself from the psionic compulsion, or at least investigate it further to determine it’s exact nature. Gnomardo offered to coach him through a meditation, much like the state of consciousness he was in when in prayers, but looking inwards to his psyche rather than out towards divinity. Gnomardo delved deeper with his detect thoughts and pulled Barrik’s awareness with him. They came across the cliffs of his home, the West End Stormpeaks, which he would climb as a boy. The sea stretch out to the western horizon, but it was a sea of sand. A heavy iron chain as thick as horse was embedded into the cliff and stretch out over the sea of sand. The chain was taught, and pulled the cliff ever slowly across the sea. Barrik tried to grab the chain: a massive stone hand formed from the very rocks of the cliff that he himself was and gripped the chain. Once in hand Barrik could hear singing. Very faint. And very old, Barrik recognized the language of ancient Shanatan from his studies, a dialect that preceded modern Dwarven over ten millennia ago. The song spoke of coming home. Barrik pulled hard on the chain but could not break it, he only managed to tear more rock off the cliff face and saw more chain links go deeper into the cliffside. He wanted to see where it was anchored, but as he dug deeper it only revealed more chain in the bedrock. Barrik surmised it went as deep as to what the very source of a dwarf being was, and so tried to connect with that part of himself. He felt his spells return to him as if he was in prayer; he had tripped some part of himself that was that divine connection.

He saw himself no longer as the cliff but as a naked little boy, running and laughing through fields of barley on the heels of a matronly but beautiful woman with greying red hair, shining eyes and finely braided beard. A thin silver chain trailed on Barrik’s ankle and where the chain touched the soil it turned to sand. She turned her to face him as they arrive by a pond, he saw that she was Berronar Truesilver: wife of Moradin and matriarch or the Moradinsamman. She smiled and pointed into the pond. Little Barrik peered into it and saw a reflection of himself as an ancient old man far beyond when death should have taken him. Berronar dipped a hand in the pond to disturb the reflection and Barrik saw what lay at the bottom of the pond: a gauntlet with wicked claws. “Seek the Claw of the Conciliator, Barrik.” He then woke out of his reverie.

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Episode 19.2
Unseen adversary

Ulatos

Following the traders carrying heavy goods on their back, the party reached a small hamlet, not more than a loading post really, where the Ulatos River got wide enough to allow for barges. These were laden with squash, corn, pumpkin and other foods headed downriver. There the party booked passage on a barge for a few silver each. There were no horses or oxen to pull carts as back in Faerun, so there was less traffic heading up to Patil. Once they spotted a couple of massive reptiles on the banks pulling a barge upstream by ropes. These beasts were imported at great expense from Lopango far to the south, beyond Far Payit, explained their bargemaster to Obelix who expressed interest in the animals. Barrik settled down to start reading his Manual of Bodily Health, which he hoped to complete by the time they reached Kultaka. Roscoe and Gnomardo whiled away the time playing cards. Jacques crafted some poisons from the ingredients he identified in Patil. Fisher practiced his craft polishing and cutting some of the raw gems in their possession; one piece of quartz looked ideal for a spell gem.

New Ulatos and Helmsport

As they neared Ulatos the woods became sparser and the farms larger. As with Patil there was no wall surrounding the city, only a gradual increase in the density of houses. To the west of the city the Grand Canal stretched out to Helmsport, once an independent settlement but now simply a suburb of Ulatos. Entering the city proper was noticeable by the two and three story houses which Patil lacked, and a system of canals which replaced main roads and allowed rafts to carry goods where mule carts would be used in Faerun. Adobe orange stepped pyramids concentrated in the center of the city towered out over the city, smoke could be seen rising from the tops of some of these. Their barge stopped at a dock close to the market square and they disembarked as the bargemaster started to haggle with the local porters.

c08f38c638a2233da2f2570c7738ee25.jpg Fisher and Jacques headed to Helmsport to secure a ship while the rest of the team explored Ulatos, agreeing to meet at sundown at a tavern called the Cunning Capybara. In Helmsport they saw many ships of Maztican design: like overgrown reed canoes and colorful sails. Some ships seemed to be a mix of this and Faerunian design, but three ships stood out. One was a ship the likes they had never seen before but was obviously of dragonborn build. The other two were Sword Coast clippers: one flew the flag of Waterdeep, a 60 footer called the Flimsy Maiden, and the other flew a Frisantia Trading Co. flag: an 80 footer called the Dirty Dog. The shorter vessel had activity on it, but the larger one did not. The heroes headed for the dragonborn ship which seemed in the process of loading crates. fd9e49d67c73a6b4fbaff80e6f163806.jpg After speaking with the first mate for a time, and a fair bit of haggling, they managed to book passage for 10 gold per person. They expected to leave tomorrow with the tide. Interestingly, the dragonborn first mate had not heard of the plague from Faerun: they had been trading up and down the Maztican coast since being stuck in Toril. He gave a warry sidelong glance to the Faerunian ships at the talk of plague. After booking their passage, Fisher wanted to check the other ships out. There seemed to be no sign of plague on the Flimsy Maiden, but the Dirty Dog looked deserted. Jacques had no interest in poking about, so Fisher went alone while Jacques waited on the pier.

visl290e17q31.jpg Passing rather uninteresting cargo, Fisher went to the captain’s cabin. He found an interesting stack of papers, maps of the Sword Coast watermarked with the Frisantia logo and the ship’s log. He began to open the book when he felt an intrusion in his mind. He drew his sword and stood ready to attack even as he focused inwards. Something was looking through his mind like a library index. There was something sickeningly familiar about the presence in his mind. Instinctively turning to where he felt the intrusion was coming from he saw in a corner of the cabin where nothing before stood a horrendous misshapen bulbous purple figure, vaguely humanoid and about his size, but with three tentacles where a mouth should be. Fisher managed to push the being’s presence out of his mind and ran to attack, but missed. Rather than strike back as he expected, the thing turned invisible. Fisher held his breath straining to listen to where it may have run off to. He put his back to the wall and scanned the room. Then suddenly from the other side it reappeared. Before Fisher could close the distance he felt a disjointing mental pain he had felt once before and hoped never to feel again: Mind Blast. He screamed.

Mozgriken.jpg Fisher lay on the floor unmoving, croaking out Jacque’s name. Through fluttering eyelids he saw the aberration approach. His heart raced and his muscles screamed in protest as tentacles engulfed his face but he could not move. Then everything went black; the only thing he felt was his psyche being peeled like the garlic-like bulbfruit he used to share with his family in the underdark when he was but a young child of 20 years. With every layer peeled, he was more alone. First his brother disappeared, then his mother, then his father, then finally himself, until there was nothing left to peel and oblivion took over.

Jacques heard the scream. “Putain de merde,” he mumbled in halfling and ran into the ship while putting on his jaguar mask. Reaching the cabin he saw the creature hunched over Fisher, the monster’s three face tentacles wrapped around the ‘neblin’s head. Noticing Jacques, it released Fisher and jumped back into a corner turning invisible again. Jacques charged and took a swing at where he guess it had cornered itself, but missed. At that point Fisher came to, whipped the mucus from his face and stood up. Realising his deepest thoughts had been violated, anger tensed his entire body. He took his second wind and stood back to back with Jacques ready to strike at any hint of the thing’s presence. From a different corner, a wave of psionic disruption blasted them both, and they were both stunned and fell to the floor. This time tentacles wrapped around Jacques’ head. Fisher could do nothing but groan in frustration as he saw his friend be engulfed. Jacques waited for the inevitable crunch on his skull but none came. Instead he felt he was being undressed by some unseen force, which did not stop at his clothes but pulled back his skin to reveal a smaller naked little boy. The boy ran down the filth clogged alleys of Skullport as transparent tentacles slithered after him. Eventually those tentacles blocked every exit and caught him, this time tearing the skin from his flesh, then the flesh from his bones and finally cracking the bones open to reveal darkness where marrow should be, and that darkness was all he was.

Fisher saw the creature slide off Jacques’ hoarsely breathing form and walk over to the door of the cabin. The thing looked back at the two smallfolk for a moment, then turned invisible once again as it exited the cabin. A few moments later Jacques’ eyes fluttered open and he and Fisher helped each other up.

“We could have been killed,” was the first thing Jacques said.
“I feel like we were,” responded Fisher. Shaken by the ordeal, they gathered up the papers to read through later. As they did, Jacques spotted one of the pages, a cargo receipt from Waterdeep, was signed by a name he recognized: Thomas Lightfoot, one of his old employers. “What in the nine hells…?” he whispered to himself. Fisher quickly scribbled a note on an empty page and nailed it to the desk with a dagger. It read: This ship is under investigation for tariffs and duties owed, or subsidies and tax exemptions in credit to Frisantia Inc., in the jurisdiction of Athkatla, Amn. Do not trespass or remove this boat from its place or you will be punished to the full extent of the law according to Part IIV, Section 14, Clause B, Paragraph iii of the Port Commerce Act of 1423 D.R.
“There, that should dissuade any casual snoopers,” he said.

They made their way back to the Cunning Capybara. They saw Barrik, Roscoe and Obelix eating little triangular corn breads in a green dip. Sitting down, Fisher called a passing bar staff. “The strongest drink you have,” he said. Knowing when he saw a man ready to pay handsomely for a serious drink, the barman came back quickly with a jug of tequila and some tiny glazed mugs. “Leave the bottle,” said Jacques. The dwarves and Roscoe saw the pained look on their friends’ faces and listened quietly as they told of what happened. Just as they finished the tale, Gnomardo burst into the eating hall.

Handmade-leather-journals-63__2_.jpg “The enemy knows we are here!” he shouted as he spotted his friends’ table and ran over. Dumbstruck, they sat in silence as Gnomardo slammed his Tome of Shadows on the table and opened it. On the one page they saw a sketch of the beast they had just fought, surrounded by eldritch writing. On the opposite page were both Jacques’ and Fisher’s faces, framed by tentacles, and more writing.
“My friend, if you were anyone else, I would kill you for this,” said Jacques, concerned.
“I would have done it for you already if…” Gnomardo trailed off. Jacques looked at his face. It was white as fresh lime plaster. He was clearly disturbed.
“Who is the enemy?” asked Fisher. Gnomardo looked at him hesitantly.
“For that matter, whose enemy is it?” asked Roscoe.
“Uh…. ours? Mine?” Gnomardo stammered. He pointed to a spot at the bottom of the page where written in Common: The enemy knows where you are. Fisher indicated if he could write on the page with his face, Gnomardo nodded. Fisher wrote in common We know the enemy is here. “Let’s see if it talks back.”
Gnomardo continued his translation of the eldritch text, “The writing tells of this beast that attacked you…”

Gnomardo explained that it was a mozgriken. A svirfneblin that had undergone ceremorphosis to produce a highly effective spy. “Excuse me,” Fisher held a fist over his mouth and raised the other hand as if to say ‘stop’. “No, I’m good,” he said as held back the vomit. The mozgriken did not eat brains as they had no mouths, but would absorb brain fluid through their tentacles from beings fed to them by their illithid masters.
“That would explain our brains being intact,” said Jacques.
“No, not intact. Simply not eaten,” replied Fisher. “Now I know why they call them Mind Flayers. It is quite a literal experience.”
“It appears we have not seen the last of the squid faces that befell Captain Slimstick and Dr Errorem,” said Roscoe.
“Let us see,” said Barrik, who cast Detect Evil & Good. “I find no aberration in you,” he sighed with relief. “Nor invisible here.” Besides of course the tentacle inside Gnormado’s clockwork arm he thought, but he decided not to make things uncomfortable by speaking that aloud.
“We should investigate the Dirty Dog before we embark to Kultaka, the six of us could take it on if it is still there. And we must make sure it doesn’t follow us on the dragonborn ship,” said Obelix.
“Yes, we have to be vigilant for now on,” said Jacques. “We do not know why that thing was in a ship from Faerun and we do not know how it relates to us, but we know it can’t be good. We know next to nothing.”
Gnomardo looked down at his book. “Next to nothing,” he mumbled.

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Episode 19.1
An ecumenical matter

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After the party had made lodging arrangements in a nice hostel in Patil there was still some time for sightseeing before the sun set. Jacques explored alchemical reagents sold in the markets; Gnomardo admired the frescoes of the temples and sketched them; Obelix and Fisher sampled the local cuisine. Barrik, troubled by the feather weaving magic started to practice may sour his faith in Moradin which was already under strain, decided to speak with some of the local priests about Qotal. Roscoe, who had his own interests in Maztican magic, decided to join him.

double_temple_patil_.jpg They approached the largest pyramid in Patil which seemed like a good place to start. It was a wide structure with two stairways to the summit, topped with two stone cabins, one light blue and one bright yellow. There were many people from all walks of life going up and down the steps, which were well worn and in some places replaced with new masonry. On climbing the steps Barrik remarked the excellent quality of stonework: limestone and a red porous rock which looked volcanic, and lime mortar which he knew hardened over time when exposed to the elements. Much of the pyramid’s carving was painted in bright colours, seemingly painted onto wet stucco so that it seemed the color came from the rock itself rather than be painted on.

Roscoe meanwhile observed the people. Many carried offerings up: food, artwork or flowers, coming down empty handed. No one really remarked on them, with only the occasional glance to Barrik, for which he was thankful. Reaching the top they saw in front of each of the cabins an official standing. They stood like guards, but had no weapons, nor did they challenge anyone entering the cabins. They were both draped in a feathered cloak over some animal pelt kilt, matching the color of the cabin they stood in front of, with plumed headdresses. They approached the figure in yellow, as that was the side they had climbed. He stood in front of a stone altar that had deep grooves crisscrossing the surface randomly. In the deepest of those grooves where the rain could not wash were stained brown.

“Oh, a dwarf!” remarked the man in yellow as Barrik approached him. “Don’t see your kind in these parts much anymore.” Barrik asked what the pyramids were dedicated to. “Ah, a tourist!” the man exclaimed, brightening up. “Gives me a chance to show off my training! Doesn’t happen much these days. I am Kazteem, an Novitiate Revered One, and one of the tasks in my apprenticeship is to ‘honor guard’ the temple of Tezca and answer any questions to newcomers. My colleague over there,” he motioned to the man in blue, “Zebaxtiaan, is apprenticed to the temple of Azul.” The man in blue rolled his eyes at his colleague’s enthusiasm.

Barrik asked about the significance of these temples and learned that Tezca, god of fire and then sun was twin brother to Azul, god of water and rain, and thus were often equally worshipped as both were necessary for growing maize. Roscoe provoked the two novice priests by asking which of the two gods’ was stronger, which began a heated banter. Barrik asked about the current offerings being given and if these gods had much to do with pluma magic. They explained that in the past when Zaltec, the bringer of war and eater of hearts, was ascendant they too accepted blood sacrifice. But that has not been the case anymore in many years, now offerings were of food and art, in the tradition of Qotal, god of creation and pluma magic. It was Qotal who gave pluma magic to the people and Zaltec who gave hishna magic. If he would like to know more than he should speak with a priest of Qotal. The guard indicated a much narrower but slightly taller stepped pyramid across the market square. It was adorned with carvings of coatls. After thanking the novices for the information, Barrik and Roscoe went on their way to the far side of the market. Barrik was already shaping a lump of iron in his hands with Artisan’s Blessing to make some form of offering.

039a0d6d32355ebecdcc1feea1e75487.jpg After a long climb to the top of Qotal’s temple, they came across another novice priest standing as honor guard / tourist guide. This one was draped in a cloak of feathers of all colors, and his kilt was simple white cloth. “Oh! A dwarf! Your kind sta…” he began.
“Yeah yeah, I heard it before,” Barrik interrupted. “What happened to your altar?“ Barrik asked, indicating what looked like a large crater where the offering table was on the other temple. From the weathering it looked like the damage had been done a long time ago, but unlike the worn steps here and there no repairs had been done.
“Qotal was angered that blood sacrifice had been made in his absence. It is said that he personally kicked the alter off the pyramid on his way to Tewahca. But I know for a fact that is not true; according to my great grandfather Qotal did not walk through Patil when he returned.”
“You mean when his Avatar returned, right?” asked Barrik.
“I do not know this word Avatar…”
“You know, material representation of a god in mortal form,” Barrik knew a fair bit about how gods on Faerun would sometimes use an Avatar to take direct action, and there was ofcourse the famous Time of Troubles.
“Qotal has no such representation. He returned as he was in the past to fight Zaltec. Entire forests were flattened in their wake and surely the effects of his passing would still be visible in Patil today.”
“Er… how big was he d’you think?” asked Barrik.
“It is said that he reached the top of the Pyramid of the Gods in two steps.”
“And how big is the Pyramid of the Gods?”
“At least four times as tall as the pyramid you currently stand on.”
“Oh,” Barrik looked down to the plaza below. They were at least 150 feet up. “Uhm. Can you point me to a priest I can talk to about some pressing matters of faith?” The man indicted inside the stone cabin where he could find an Attendant Revered One. As they made their way inside, the man stepped in front of Roscoe, “Sorry, friend. You must remove your mask before entering. It is one of the holy edicts that those in the house of Qotal wear no masks or helmets which cover the face.” Roscoe hesitated for a moment, wondering if he should use prestidigitation to cover his markings, and what risk that may bring. He decided to send Lucky with Barrik instead and he would observe from outside. “Let me confer with my colleague first,” he told the guard and motioned Barrik aside to tell him his plan.

alessio-ciaffi-dd2019-01-quasit-disturb__1_.jpgRoscoe called lucky from the pocket dimension he lived in up Roscoe’s sleeve. He had not been out since….that day, surely he would be happy for some fresh air. Roscoe looked up his sleeve and turned pale as he saw a squat green face with razor fangs and bulbous eyes look back at him. “L- Lucky…?” It squeaked back at him in the affirmative. Roscoe stood in shock as a rat sized quasit crawled out.
“THARD’S TEETH! WHAT’S THAT!?” exclaimed Barrik as Lucky scuttled over his arm and hid under his collar.
“It’s Lucky,” replied Roscoe on the verge of tears. “I don’t know what happened!” After calming down, Roscoe figured that whatever had changed him had some effect on his familiar. He took out his tea set and started to make some tea on the steps of the pyramid to calm his nerves while Barrik went in to talk to the priest, Lucky being Roscoe’s eyes and ears.

patilpriest.jpg Barrik entered a large room which had tables full of offerings, and these tables seemed well organized according to what was offered. There were no doors to any other rooms, but in two opposite corners there were stairs that led down. He saw a man with tall green plumage headdress on an open faced helmet shaped like a dragon’s head, he was kneeling by some offerings and praying. Barrik gambled that he was the priest. He approached the priest.

“Before you start, yes, I am a dwarf. Yes, I know we are rare these days. I would like to ask your advice on ecumenical matters,” siad Barrik. The priest smiled and listened intently to Barrik’s case as Barrik absentmindedly continued motling the metal in his hands. After asking Barrik to describe the feather weaving he was doing, and how his clerical magic worked, the priest gave a theory:
“Friend dwarf, I think that Qotal has opened a door to you, but is not directly granting you magic as he does to me, or as your god does to you. For you see pluma magic originally was taught to us by Qotal as a way to pull the magical energies around us into the feather talismans we craft. Hishna is much the same but uses claw and fangs.”
“You speak of manipulating the Weave using material components?” asked Barrik.
“The Weave? That’s a nice name for it, but no. The arcanists from your lands use components to attract and channel specific energies. This is more akin to a bard using song to rearrange the energies, only using our hands and feathers.” The priest looked down at Barrik’s hands which were busy fingering the almost finished artwork. “Much like you are doing now. In any case, the magic you are using is not coming directly from Qotal. If it were, like my spells, then we would refer you as a pluma caster, rather than a pluma weaver. Those who can pluma weave and hishna shape we call Artisans. In any case I do not think your god need be offended, you seem to be quite artisanal already yourself. Tell me, does your god still grant you spells?”
“Yes, that has not changed,” replied Barrik.
“Well then you needn’t worry. I do not sense Qotal’s presence in you. However I do think he has taken an interest in you for some purpose. A dwarf from distant lands may be fortuitous to his plans in these times, I think, given one of Qoral’s portfolios is also freedom. Qotal loves everyone, regardless of species.”
“You speak of the dwarves in the desert, who have lost their freedom,” said Barrik.
“Yes. In ages past they worshipped Plutoq, god of mountains and stone. It was said that Plutoq taught them the secrets of plumastone. When the gods went silent and the sky was grey, the dwarves were in the same bind as everyone else. It was their plumastone that in large part helped the people defend themselves from the onslaught of star demons, at least at the beginning. In later years we heard from them less and less. By the time that the True World returned to Toril and the gods started responding to prayers again, the dwarves… we simply don’t know. I can only assume that Plutoq could not reach them upon our return. There is no temple of Plutoq in Patil, but if you go to the temple of Plutoq in Ulatos perhaps you will learn more.”

Barrik thanked the priest and placed the little metal figurine of a hammer on an offering table full of arts and crafts. He felt now more sure than before that the path Moradin had set him on was truly his and wondered at the doubt he felt before. The priest noticed the valuable iron Barrik’s offering was wrought from and bowed deeply to Barrik. Stepping into the bright sun outside Barrik saw Roscoe sitting atop the steps with a cup of tea in hand, looking up at the sky deep in thought.

“Are you OK, my friend?” Barrik asked.

“Oh yes, I’m fine. It’s fine. Everything is fine.”

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Episode 19
It's just a jump to the left

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A Hero’s Hangover

The feast lasted until deep into the night and many speeches were held. Villagers that had never given our heroes the time of day now took an interest in the most minute details of their lives. With amazing speed a young lad who seemed to be an aspiring bard stitched together a song of their battle with the allosauruses, saving Coxi. Throughout the night they were hailed as family and would never want for anything Coxi can offer. Wherever they may find themselves in the future, Coxi would welcome them back home. The party all mingle independently through the crowd, forming their own connections. Gnomardo finally made an appearance in the feast after finding his way back from getting lost in the forest when feared by the ezcochitli. He was readily accepted as a hero of the village even though he was not at the dinosaur battle; it seems not a lot of people could make out much difference between the foreign smallfolk until tonight anyway.

The following morning the party woke lazily in whatever corner they had drunkenly passed out in. Nursing their hangovers and partaking in the greasy burritos that were served seemed to be the staple afterparty food here, they were surprised to see some men carrying what seemed to be a body draped in a cloth from the hut that Fisher had come out of. Nahuel explained that was Huatlia, one of the eldest women of the village, near blind by now and known for her incredible drinking constitution. It was always known that she would one day drink herself to death, and apparently that day has happened. All eyes turned to Fisher, who protested innocence, this has never happened before really! He just had a splendid chat and in return received from her a family heirloom, a stone amulet.

roscoemask.png Satisfied, Obelix told of his epic drinking competition with the fishermen and how he helped Roscoe fashion a bandage on his face to feign injury and cover the tattoo. That had put Roscoe in a good mood and he spent the night showing card tricks to the children and listening intently to the discussions of pluma and hishna magic among the few hedgewizard types whose cantrips were little more than prestidigitation. Jacques kept quiet about his evening, content to listen to the stories of others. Barrik spent much time talking to the artisans and learned more of their feather weaving arts, and comparing his own arts as he crafted for them some simple farming tools which they valued highly. He decided to practice some feather weaving this morning and used Artisan’s Blessing to fashion a mask of wood and a thin sheet iron from an old blunt dagger at the bottom of his pack and a handful of red feathers to decorate the brow. When finished, his hangover was gone and Roscoe had his mask. Perhaps when they went to bigger cities they could find glassmakers to fit some lenses. This led them on to the discussion of where to go next.

Screenshot_2021-02-06_at_00.18.16.png They decided to leave the ezcochitli to Nahuel, who said that she could easily convince the village of the importance of not yet burning the plants to the ground as is custom because the heroes need to extract a cure from it. They had much clout now in the village. She would ask Izel’s widow to help keep the salt barrier maintained, she would surely be happy with a purpose.

They agreed they needed to rescue their ship as soon as possible, for not only were their dear steeds there, and Xarry, but the magic frame which was the fastest way back to Amn. Without it it would be months going back and who knows how far the plague will have spread by then. Not to mention the dangers of a long sea journey in unknown waters with no experienced captain and a skeleton crew. Fisher had found out that their ship was likely in Kultaka. Rather than go up river to Pezelac and trek north to Kultaka, they decided to head to Ulatos by way of Patil. From Ulatos they could head west by ship faster than heading west by upriver. Besides, Fisher had been to Patil already so knew the lay of the land.

The road to Patil

After getting provisions for their journey they headed north. By the second day they were deep into the Chuapli forest again. More than one of the party was wondering if the were-jaguars would make their appearance given their last exchange. They reached a fork in the road that led to the Blood Offering tavern, and paused to consider their options. Barrik and Obelix wanted to go back and make sure the vampires stayed dead, but the others would rather not take the risk and hasten with their journey. Jacques put the discussion to rest saying he would trust that the were-jaguars would be watching the place in their own way, and so they continued on to Patil.

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The forest gave way to rolling hills and an increasing amount of worked farmland surrounded by cops of trees. They realized they had entered the town proper when amongst the treetops of stone structures two or three stories high poked out, and the trails became wide roads of packed earth and then adobe brick. There were no walls or barricades donating the town’s limits, rather the space between structures became wider as the structures became taller. A far cry from the cramped, woodless, walled and narrow street planning of towns back in on the Sword Coast. Those structures that seemed to have some official purpose were painted red, like the single offering shrine found in Coxi. The biggest half a dozen buildings were stepped pyramids, any one of which would dwarf any keep back home for a town of this size. Following the broadening road they made their way to the central market. It was not just busy, it was thriving. Food stalls in great quantities, pottery, textiles were among the most prominent. Along the side of the open market permanent shops were set up, some of the more expensive ones right along the sides of some of the greater pyramids.

Merchandising merchandising merchandising

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Exploring the shops, the party looked for any arms of interest. maya-vessel.jpg There was little of which they were familiar with as no amount of steel was to be found. Even bronze they saw more often as jewelry rather than weaponry. They came across what looked like an antiek shop and found a steel gauntlett inside, quite rusted and from the design Amnian from the time of Cordell’s invasion. The shopkeeper wanted an outrageous fee for it, at least by Faerunian standards. Granted the metal alone would be more expensive here, but it was old and certainly not usable. Fisher cast Distort Value on it, and haggled it down to a reasonable price, including a complimentary earthenware tea set. The shopkeeper was so ashamed of asking such an opening price that he broke down crying. After the transaction was made, Barrik cast mend on the gauntlett and it was good as new, shining bright polished steel and supple leather fittings. Seeing the repair in front of his eyes and knowing was such a thing would sell for now must have broken his resolve and he ran from his stall screaming. Slightly embarrassed at causing disturbance, Roscoe cast Distort Value on a simple brooch in the shop and made it look like the most expensive item there. Hopefully that would make it up when the shopkeeper came back. Still feeling that the scales were not balanced, Fisher grabbed some random thing as they left; a cotton beverage cozy with some kind of advertisement or ball game depiction painted on the lacquered bark holding its shape.

patil_temple.jpg Jacques went to check for caravans heading to Ulatos, while Obelix and Gnomardo went to explore more shops. Barrik, Roscoe and Fisher found what they were looking for, a weapons shop of the most expensive kind. The display windows were draped with colorful curtains that kept the sun of the merchandise but let the air, and the customers’ eyes flow through the shop. A large bouncer in a simple quilted smock stood outside with his arms crossed, nonchalantly observing the passersby. A lady dressed in a flowing yellow open armed gown with gold earrings and jade necklace came out of the shop holding some long item wrapped in a white cloth. The bouncer gave her a short bow and she nodded back. This looked like the place. The bouncer let them in after quickly appraising their gear, assuming that people who could afford this amount of steel were of the right class.

Heart_Attack__1_.jpg As they entered a well dressed older gentleman with long black hair pinned in a pony tail but greying temples gave them a quick look over and greeted them warmly. After introductions and some haggling the gentleman told the bouncer to close the door and then opened a curtain to a back alcove. In it there were three weapons, and these were of plumastone: that red tinged obsidian-like material that Jacques’ Sliverphial was made of. A stone but strong as steel. This weapons rack was surrounded by dozens of little candles burning quietly. Barrik started to haggle for a peculiar warhammer, rounded as in local custom like so many warclubs seen earlier. The gentleman explained it was magical in nature. It’s name was Heart Attack; a carving of a heart and blood veins on the side of the hammerhead gave it an ominous look. received_2896605200559289.jpeg Roscoe observed his friends wordlessly as Fisher contemplated using Distort Value again. Not wanting to part with too much money, they agreed that the weapon would be sold if the party helped the gentleman return a favour to a friend of his, an historian. This historian would be interested in buying that antiek gauntlet and the gentleman promised to write a letter of introduction asking to give the party a fair price. Jacques then entered the shop and asked for a special weapon design from the gentleman, who agreed to look into it. Happy with the transaction the party went to the far side of town to search for this historian.

The historian and the skull room

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The historian, Dko Trectla, ran a museum in an ancient and crumbling single story temple in a neglected side of town. Built into the side of the structure was a makeshift wooden cabin which served as home. The architecture was mismatched, as if someone had taken stonework and sculpture from different eras and just slapped them on. Dko was polishing some of the artifacts in his museum when they found him, and it was clear that this place was filled with mostly junk. Dko himself was very old and had an absentminded look to him. Like many in Patil he looked a bit of mixed heritage with both Maztican and Amnian features. Other passersby gave the museum a wide berth: it seemed he was a bit of the town weirdo, despite his connection to the high class weapons dealer. After introductions, Dko recognized Fisher. They had met when he was here last and it was Dko who traded Fisher’s gear and gave him the news for Kultaka. Dko spoke Faerunian Common, albeit very rusty and was happy to continue in that tongue. He led them to a musty back room deep in the museum, forge did not like to do business in the open air. Roscoe cast detect thoughts and found that Dko was indeed an honest fellow, just very strange, and the letter from the weapons dealer was legitimate. They sold the gauntlet and the massive macuahuitl “Birdcrusher” for sacks full of low value gemstones, as it was the only currency Dko would trade it, citing some vague economic theory about gold being a scam in ancient texts. Fisher held the two bags which almost doubled his body weight, and the rotten wooden floor gave way beneath his feet and he fell.

Eight feet down he landed with some bruises but intact. Looking around in the dim light he saw he was in a circular room about 15 feet wide. The walls were lined with skulls from top to bottom, all looking towards the center where he stood. There must have been at least a hundred or more. As the others called down and asked if he was alright, he mumbled in affirmative but his thoughts were elsewhere. He recognized this place. Absentmindedly he reached in his pocket and fingered Huatlia’s heirloom, and remarked that it was strangely warm. He took it out and looked at it, and then recalled where he had seen this room: in the pyramid where they had fought the ezcochitli.

Skull_Tower_04a-1050x630.jpg As soon as he thought this the eyes of all the skulls flared white and hundreds of beams of light emanating from the eyes pierced Fisher. Before he could scream, he was gone. The others still above panicked, then jumped down to investigate. There was no sign of the dust one expected from a disintegrate spell. Roscoe cast detect magic on the room and it emanated conjuration magic. He already had a theory.

Many miles away Fisher appeared instantly in the circular room in the pyramid days south of Coxi. Amazed at his discovery that Huatlia’s heirloom was a key to a teleportation structure, he experienced it some more. The skulls shot their beams of light and Fisher popped back into existence in Patil. After getting over the shock, they discovered that this heirloom would only teleport a person holding it and whatever people touching them to a skull room they had already laid eyes on. They asked the historian if he knew anything about this. He professed he did not off the top of his head. The museum was built into a temple long abandoned before even the rise of the Nexal Empire, perhaps from before the Golden Age of Far Payit, from a civilization of the ancient past. He promised though that he would investigate this room and search for answers among the myths and legends. Should the party come back to Patil he would surely have more answers for them.

Satisfied with a productive day, our heroes found a decent hostel to bed down in comfort, weary of the road. They spent the evening sightseeing and looked forward to the next leg of their trip. The renowned city of Ulatos: capital of Payit.

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Episode 18
The village mob

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Better check with the lady

image__1_.jpg “Mother said she would kill me if I got a tattoo,” Roscoe mumbled to himself as he looked at his reflection in Barrik’s sword blade. Obelix grasped Roscoe’s shoulder and cast Lay on Hands as he said “Hey, you’re still alive. That’s what counts.” A halfhearted smile crossed Roscoe’s lips. Jacques kicked at the smoking remains of the monster that had encapsulated Roscoe, hunks of flesh and bone strewn about the still warm impact crater. They dissipated entirely into ash and smoke; demonflesh. He lamented inability to harvest from dead fiends on the material plane. Fisher watched Jacques, reading his disappointment. “Perhaps harvesting from a live one?” he helpfully suggested. Jacques stroked his nose in thought.

As the party made their way back to the ezcochitli garden they discussed how to keep it safe, or rather how to keep the surrounding area safe from it. Perhaps a sign? No one knew how to write Maztican. They would need Nahuel’s help again. She was waiting patiently at the garden for their report on the falling star. Gnomardo was still nowhere to be seen. Before they could speak she took one look at Roscoe’s face and screamed in terror, running away as fast as her legs could carry her.

“Well, that escalated quickly,” said Fisher. Roscoe was hopelessly downtrodden. He respected Nahuel greatly as an expert in mystic arts and her reaction only fueled his insecurity.
“There must be some cultural significance to the symbol, Roscoe,” mentioned Barrik. “We suffer no magical fear effect and it’s uh… artistically quite nice.” Roscoe cast prestidigitation to cover the lines with his own complexion. Barrik handed him a neckerchief, “You won’t be able to keep that up forever. We’ll find you a more durable solution, I promise.”
“I’ll go make sure she is OK,” said Jacques, and he chased after her.

Jacques found her catching her breath on the road to Coxi, between some maiz farms. “Nahuel, what happened?” he asked. She looked at him, still obviously shook, leaned against a tree and hugged herself.
“I have never seen that symbol on a person before,” she whispered. He remained silent, letting her gather her thoughts. “It is the mark of the Obsidian Butterfly.”
“That is not a name we know. What is this Obsidian Butterfly?”
“Not what, who,” she answered. “She has been the bane of the True World for generations when the skies were silver. Even before that she defied the gods and in doing so brought ruin to so many. It is a long story…”
“I am not going anywhere, I have time.”

The tale of the Obsidian Butterfly

image.jpg She recounted the tale of Itzapaplotl, a tale even children know. How since the Immortal Era, before even Qotal bestowed the gift of maize to the people, the Obsidian Butterfly had sought to usurp the divine. No one truly knows how such a being who is not a god continuously managed to be so interwoven with their fates. Only the wisest of sages knows the details of what occurred between her and the gods. Some say she is responsible for the resurrection of Camazotz to defy them, some say she was Zaltec’s spurned lover. Maybe both are true. In any case, she did what few catastrophes could cause the gods to do: they united against her. Then expelled her from the True World. The legends say that in a climactic battle great swaths of land and casts of molten rock were strewn about, both from the True World and beyond. To avoid total destruction, one such piece – a mountain of pure obsidian some say pulled out of Itlzi by Plutoq himself to crush her beneath – she cunningly placed herself within. Unable to breach the defence the gods cast the mountain into the void, and there it has ever been: the Void Kingdom of Tamoacha. On clear days or nights those with particularly keen eyes may see it. It is always directly overhead, watching us and witnessing our freedom with envy. It was the power of Kukul, father of the gods and creator of mankind, that kept her trapped in her own abode with an Edict: neither she nor her minions could be present on Maztica so long as the Eye of Kukul could see the True World. Even after Kukul’s disappearance due to the murder of Maztica at Zaltec’s hands, and the subsequent War of the Gods, Itzapaplotl was kept at bay by the Eye of Kukul, the sun. Only during an eclipse would she be able to resist Kukul’s Edict and send her stardemons, the tzitzimitl, down to us to wreak death and destruction. Thankfully those were not common in occurrence. Of course that was until the Eye of Kukul no longer shone upon these lands.

When Maztica became part of Abeir during the spellplague, the Obsidian Butterfly was no longer bound to her Void Kingdom. All races and nations were already reeling from the natural disasters brought on by the spellplague. Droughts, fires, famines and floods. And in this state, with the gods entirely absent, the stardemons would fall on us day and night from Tamoacha. They decimated villages and tortured entire populations that had been captured. Even the Viperhand of Nexal felt her depredations, which is probably just as well. In a strange way, it is thanks to this onslaught of stardemons and the silence of the gods that the people of Maztica grew so powerful in hishnashaping and plumaweaving: they had no one to call on but themselves. That, in combination with the strange magics infusing the land from Abeir’s silver sky and the occurrence of plumastone, have made the warriors and mages of the True World a force to be reckoned with. It is curious that besides wanton destruction it seems Itzapaplotl never left her Void Kingdom herself, almost as if she sent her minions to tear the land in search of something.

Whatever the reason may be, after generations of fighting on the defence, Eagle Knights and Jaguar Knights were joined by the newly awoken nahuālli, sorcerers, to take the battle to her. Nahuālli from Far Payit had mastered ancient magics from the Golden Age of Payit and pushed the tzitzimitl to the very gates of Tamoacha. There, through the self-sacrifice of the very sorcerers that made the battle possible, they imprisoned her and her ilk behind a great door of plumastone. Not being equal to gods, the door would not last forever, only until the end of the world. By then it would not matter if she escaped for what she would escape to? There were a couple of decades of peace before the Second Sundering brought Maztica back to Toril. Not a tzitzimitl has been seen since that battle.

The falling star we saw moments ago looked just as a falling tzitzimitl, but how could that be? Even had the heroes of Far Payit not imprisoned her, surely the Eye of Kukul still shines on the land and there was no eclipse? Nahuel doubted her instincts when she saw it, but now all her fears came flooding back when she saw Roscoe’s face.

Torches and pitchforks

torches.jpg After inspecting the salt barrier protecting the forest from the ezcochitli, the others made their way back to the farmland where the road to Coxi began, discussing how they may convince the village to not burn the plants or blame them for bringing such risks close to home. They came to Jacques and Nahuel sitting under the shade of a tree. Jacques relayed what he had learned as Nahuel starred as Roscoe’s now illusioned clear face with trepidation. He kept his best poker face, which was quite good indeed, but inside he felt a maelstrom of doubt under her gaze. Nahuel did not have time to ask what they had found where the falling star landed before everyone heard the large crowd coming up the road. Just as well, as no one was prepared to tell her the details, least of all after they had heard the tale of the Obsidian Butterfly.

From over the rise they first saw the oily smoke, then they saw the tops of wooden pitchforks and fishing spears, then the flames of the smoking torches and finally the heads of the angry mob coming their way. Mostly old men or teenagers and women. It looks like the entire village had taken to arms, forasmuch as these could be called arms and lacking a generation of warriors. Roscoe retreated into the brush. Nahuel offered to try and speak with them to see what the mob wanted. The argument was heated, accusing fingers were pointed at her as well as the smallfolk waiting under the tree. Not wanting Nahuel to bear the brunt of all their ire the party came closer to offer their friendship.

It seems the falling star was seen by most of the village and they feared the tzitzimitl had returned. Some were unsure what it might be, as it was thought those times were behind them, but no one wanted to risk a stardemon running amok in their lands. Some blamed Nahuel for the return of the tzitzimitl, if indeed that is what it was. Some of the village still blamed her for her brother’s demonic machinations which cost them all their warriors, even though she was just as much a victim. An old man stepped forward and pointed accusing fingers at the party; last time Faerunians came to the True World it spelled disaster. Was this another invasion? What was Nahuel doing frequenting with their kind? Nahuel began to argue with the old man, Izel, defending them. Obelix could not bear to see her take such accusations and step forward to be the beacon of light these people needed, for he could see they still lived in despair of their past.

“Friends, Nahuel is not to blame for any of this and we are not the harbingers of invasion!” Obelix began. He explained how the falling star they saw was likely simply a meteor, and that they would go to where it fell and check for the village if it indeed was a tzitzimitl as some feared. Obelix’ sincerity calmed the mob. Not entirely convinced to turn back, Jacques added his voice saying that their deeds had already proved their usefulness to the village. They had killed the Kothoggo and laid the wraith of Nahuel’s brother to rest, and some of you have no doubt by now heard of the nest of vampires on the road to Palil, he explained.

Many of the villagers started nodding in agreement, but Izel stepped forward to interject. “I am old enough to have fought the tzitzimitl myself at the height of their scourge. There can be nothing left to chance. We must investigate the falling star. You can stand aside or join us there, but we are wasting ti-” Izel’s words trailed off. Feeling rather than hearing first the rhythmic thump thump thump through the soles of their feet, everyone went silent. Then it could be heard through the crash of brush. The villagers start to look nervous, then a tremendous roar sounds across the maize fields. “Thunderlizard,” the Izel whispered. Before anyone could react, three more roars answered the first and panic broke out. Nahuel shouted to the crowd “To me!” and as they rush to surround her she starts casting some kind of ritual. Meanwhile the heroes lined up between the crowd and the crashing underbrush. A few old villagers join them to form a line of defence, including Izel, armed with farm implements and stones. The vulnerability of the village is now very apparent with the loss of a generation of warriors at the hands of the Kothoggo.

Dinosaurs attack!

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Four allosauruses burst through out of the woods on the far side of a maize field 60 feet away. They towered over the crowd at nine feet tall and were easily 30 feet from end to end. The dinosaurs close the gap with incredible speed, their long legs striding the length of a four-horse wagon. Fisher reacted first, casting blur. As the first allosaur came close, Obelix smote it on the snout, bones crunch and it’s charge was arrested. Jaqcues took a moment to climb the tree nearby in preparation to jump on a beast. The second charged Barrik but he glanced its maw away with his shield. The third managed to rake Fisher with it’s enormous claws despite the blur and he was knocked prone. The allosaur pounced on Fisher but landed on an empty road. It roared at the inexplicable loss of its prey, biting at the air in frustration. Roscoe, having covered his face with his neckerchief and still hiding off the road in the brush, held forth his hands with palms overlapped towards the beasts. Tucked against his front palm with his thumb, a freshly pressed Talis card of swirling orange and gold leaf. “Ignis maximus,” he calmly incanted and his poncho violently flapped outwards with a thunderous crack of displaced air. A tiny spark of orange light streaked towards the dinosaurs and detonated with a deafening roar between two of them; one entirely engulfed in a huge fireball, the other’s flank roasted. They blared and shrieked through the flames.

The villagers that joined the line of battle threw rocks and pitchforks but most did not land, some harmlessly bounced off the thick reptile hide. Izel stepped forward brandishing a fishing spear and engaged the last allosaur. Barrik’s eyes widened in alarm as he saw the stand off and began to cast Guiding Bolt, but in his heart he knew it was already too late even as the radiant energies left his fist. The dinosaur knocked aside Izel’s fishing spear with a bat of it’s head and chomped down on Izel, the poor bastard’s entire upper body bitten off at the waist. His hips toppled down on lifeless legs like a felled tree while the allosaur raised its head to the sky. It chewed once to get a good swallow on the entire torso, not unlike a goose swallowing a bread morsel. Barrik’s bolt raced past flung stones and blasted the neck of the allosaur as Izel’s body was being swallowed, scally hide is ripped apart and fried black by the radiant light.

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Fisher reappeared at the heels of the beat that Obelix was fighting, jumped up and plunged his khyber blade deep in it’s calf. He pulled himself up on the handle, straddled the calf with his legs and yanked the blade out. Hot blood washed over him as did the dino’s deafening roar of pain. Lifting his blade high overhead he shoved it into the thigh, then pulled himself up again. The beast bucked but he held firm as he once again ripped his blade free, gallons of blood pouring over him as some artery was surely severed. He sunk his blade in again higher, now into the haunch, then pulled himself up over it’s hips. The allosaur’s leg gave in and it fell to one knee just as Fisher reached it’s back and plunged his sword into the spine. The beast fell to the ground dead.

Jacques’ eyes glowed blue behind the jaguar mask as he waited for the right moment then jumped onto an allosaur’s back. His shortsword sunk to the hilt and the enormous beast squealed like a stuck pig. It then rolled on it’s back to crush the offending attacker, but Jacques deftly evaded and rolled out of the way.

The allosaur engulfed in Roscoe’s fireball couldn’t find the spellcaster and attacked the nearest fighter; Obelix got knocked prone and pounced upon, but deflected the bite with his scepter. Seeing Obelix pinned, Roscoe walked out of his hiding space, forming a triangle over his forehead with his thumbs, index and middle fingers. In this triangle a Talis card of deep purples and glimmering pinks shaped like a pillar of light. Thinking the incantation, a beam of mental power connected with the allosaurus’ psyche and ripped at it’s consciousness. It staggered off of Obelix, screeching in pain.

Barrik charged at the allosaur that was still smoking from his Guiding Bolt; he struck it dead with his longsword. He then summoned Forgemaster the spirit weapon and sent it racing to the allosaur rolling on it’s back. The glowing golden hammer crushed the dinosaur’s sternum and it stopped rolling, dead. Fisher and Obelix surrounded the final allosaur with the roasted flank and surrounding it made quick work of the killing.

The afterbattle silence is disturbed only by the sobbing of an old lady kneeling by the remains of Izel. When everyone else realized the danger was over, a great cheer arroze from the crowd. They started chanting “_Ahuatetz hueyotl! Ahuatetz hueyotl!_” – small warriors in Maztican – and dancing around the dead allosauruses. Slightly dumbfounded at the reaction of the villagers, Nahuel explained that they were now considered Coxi’s most honoured citizens, wherever their true home may be, they could always consider Coxi their home away from home. Was Coxi large enough to have its own Eagle Knight or Jaguar Knight lodge then they surely would be offered knighthoods. As it is the village is at their service to help them in any way possible with their Holy Quests, for surely such selfless and powerful warriors who would defend a village they had no allegiance to must be doing the gods’ work.

In Faerunian the party discussed amongst themselves as they were being praised if they should tell the villagers about the monster plants now, but decided to wait with that. For now they could make sure the villagers went no further and entrusted them with checking out the fallen star. Roscoe volunteered to go back and check it out, while the rest would help the villagers butcher the dinosaurs. They gladly accepted and Roscoe walked back up the road. Most of the village’s women went back to Coxi to prepare a feast in celebration, the teenagers and a few of the elders stayed to skin and take apart the carcasses. The large bones were very useful, but the organs cannot be eaten, explained Nahuel. The skin, claws and teeth were most valued. The meat was not particularly good but could be smoked for a long time to make passable trail rations. Jacques was very interested in this process, but knew for his purposes only the most flawless of teeth and claws would be useful. The elders showing the teenagers where to cut with stone blades graciously gave Jacques the first pick.

The others observed as the Izel’s widow picked up the remains by the feet and dragged it behind her back to Coxi. They moved to help her but stopped, observing the reactions of other villagers. No one moved to help her, and in fact as she came near others walking in the same direction they would stop, look up at the sky as she passed by, their hands over their hearts and letting out slow long breaths into the sky. Obviously curious about the ritual they were observing, Nahuel explained that even as a fisherman Izel would be honored as a warrior falling in battle, the greatest death he could hope for. It was her honor to bring him alone to his place of rest as his life partner. His tonalli – soul or spirit they understood through the translation – was being sped to the afterlife by the other villagers who with their breaths blew part of their tonalli to empower Izel’s.

The feast

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Back in Coxi the stalls of the market square were repurposed as tables for the feast. Already the air was thick with the smell of freshly baked corn bread. The heroes were handed tamalli, wraps filled with shrimp, pumpkin, peppers and herbs. A large bronze cauldron of mulli, a thick rich stew, bubbled over a simmering fire, and surrounding that on stakes chicken and peccary, a kind of pig. The feast began in earnest, Coxi was eager to get to know their strange new heroes better. Barrik and Fisher got up at one moment from the feast to go check on Izel’s widow. They found her praying at his fresh grave behind her cottage. She was no longer crying but seemed at peace, in fact she looked content. When they asked if they could disturb her, she welcomed them, and explained that she was overjoyed that Izel died a warrior, and hoped that in the afterlife she would be with him sharing in his honor as a village defender. She turned to Barrik, who as the slayer of the thunderlizard that ate Izel, would receive a special place in her prayers. She gave him a simple necklace, a leather thong with a decorative fish hook carved out of ivory. While not magical in any sense, to Barrik it symbolized his long sought success on the field of battle. Putting it on, he sensed that even his folks back home at the West End Stormpeaks would approve. Fisher offered to share some nezca, a mushroom that grows in the shadows of jungle trees in the foothills and mountains. The fungus is known to induce visions and “commune” with their ancestral spirits, perhaps it can ease her burden and let her speak with Izel. She declines with a smile. Once when she was young, she would have taken him up on it but she knows the nezca well enough that at her age it would be a bit too much. Well, maybe just a bit for later, and she took half.

Far from the singing and dancing of Coxi, as the light of the evening waned, Roscoe stood at the center of the crater looking up at an almost imperceptible dot directly above. He could not see it in this light, but he knew it was there. His mind reran those few precious moments again and again. The calculations he made…the chance he took. He began to seeth at the thought of it. His hands began to shake in anger and sparks of starfire leaped from between his fingers. With a furious shout he cast the starfire out and a blaze of orange and blue flames erupted from his outstretched hands. It burned and froze the foliage in front of him creating a cone of ruin 30 feet long. Breathing heavily he looked at his hands in disbelief. No matter how hard he tried to push it out he could still feel the starfire inside him. He could still “hear” the bargain on his face. He tried to cast it out again and again, it seemed an endless inexhaustible supply of starfire destroyed the surrounding forest. Rage giving way to despondency he cast one last in starfie blast directly up into the night sky, at her. It made little difference. The forest surrounding the crater a smoking frozen wreck he walked silently back to Coxi to join the festivities, although festive he was not.

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