I, I can remember. Standing, by the wall.
Fisher turned in Kumonga’s saddle and looked back at the infirmary for the last time before stepping through the magic frame to return to Roscozenica Tower in Coxi. In this room, he almost lost his soul. Most definitely, he had lost a friend. Fisher’s memories of Esteban warred with his feeling of betrayal, still raw and sore. He pushed the sorrow down deep, where it would bother no one. The last few days since the battle while the party one by one went through the frame had given him time to reflect, but instead he used that time to look for Jacques.
What Fisher found was a trail of bloody death in the north quarter of the city, where the Red Raccoon gang had taken root. It led to their headquarters, a mansion which the plague turned into a squatters haven and then into a thieves’ den. Inside, not a soul lived. There was trace of a magical battle in the upper floor, an entire section seemed to be scooped out of the building. Beyond that, nothing of Jacques nor the mysterious Lady in Red who supposedly ran this bunch of thugs.
After the rescue of Oegraemo and his reinstallation as Mayor of Purskul, he presented the party to a recovering city to thunderous applause in the town square. The survivors shouted “Pride of Purskul!” and “Smallfolk Saints!”. Not bad epitaphs to add to Heroes of Coxi, for when the time comes. Obelix had gone around the city to spread the news of Oegreamo’s return and deliver the plague cure to those too ill to come to the infirmary. Wherever he spread his wings, he also spread the light of Moradin: people reaching out to touch his feathers also received pamphlets. Barrik helped Oegreamo establish a new city guard with recently cured guardsmen. With a Detect Poison & Disease spell, he could be relatively sure they were not yuan-ti, and Gnomardo made doubly sure by reading their thoughts. Roscoe conversed with Nahuel Huapi across the frame about how to prevent more yuan-ti coming through, since apparently they had another frame elsewhere and the ability to pass through more than one person a day. They settled on the conclusion that if they kept the frame between Coxi and Purskul continuously open, then hopefully neither could be overridden by the enemy. Meanwhile, the cure continued to be fabricated in Coxi and spread among the populace of Purskul. Soon, couriers could be sent to Athkatla and Esmeltaran with the cure as well.
They could not wait any longer. The dwarves needed to save their kin, Arapuca pestered Gnomardo continuously to be underway towards the psionic disturbance in the dessert, Roscoe was itching for revenge and Fisher… Well, the prospect of securing plumastone was slightly dampened by the shadow of Mictlantecuhtli, but being all the way in Faerun obviously did nothing to avoid the death god. With a nudge Kumonga stepped through the frame; Fisher trusted that Jacques could take care of himself.
And the shame, was on the other side.
After arriving in Coxi, the party rode to Patil where they then took the tzompantli portation circle to the ruins close to Pdapla, and from there to the capital Kultaka. Wandering aimlessly into the vast Sands of Itzcala was not a great idea, but there was a chance at a guide. The only dwarf they had come across in Maztica, the schizophrenic Tarj.
Obelix and Gnomardo found Tarj in his cell, as disheveled and incoherent as before. Tarj did not recognize them, and after a while it took Gnomardo quite an effort to delve into his mind to reach whatever part of his still grasped onto sanity.
Tarj’s mindscape was a blighted dessert, crisscrossed with a web of glowing violet chains from one horizon to another. The chains were all slowly being pulled to the north-west, the center of the web. In this dessert was a tiny rundown hovel of stone and mortar, the chains draped all over and around it. Gnomardo found a door and not without some mental effort managed to pry it open. Inside was a filthy room covered in refuse and a bed with soiled sheets. Paint peeled off the walls, it was plain to see that at one point this had been a majestic abode, but no longer.
There sat Tarj in a corner, mumbling to himself about being safe in here. Gnomardo was finally able to get his attention, and Tarj recalled who they were. Obelix listened to the one-sided conversation in Tarj’s jail cell in Kultaka, as Gnomardo spoke aloud while holding Tarj’s head, but Tarj in the real world was as incommunicable as ever.
In the mindscape, Gnomardo slowly started building up Tarj’s confidence. Gnomardo painted a window in the mindscape room, looking out over a chain free dessert to the south-east. Tarj started opening up on the visions he had, when he was connected to the chains and dared to let himself walk north-west before hitting his head against the cell walls. A tower in the distance, squat, wide, floating over a crater, and in that tower… chaos. A struggle. Gnomardo offered his paint supplies to Tarj to paint his vision in the tower, for they were of course only mental projections of paint supplies, and Tarj painted a mural of what looked like illithidi and yuan-ti in confrontation. Gnomardo then asked Tarj for a monumental favour: leave his cell and lead them to the source of the psionic chains, to the tower in the dessert that enslaved his people.
This was a task too big for Tarj’s mind to grasp, and he started to recede into himself again. By now, Tarj was speaking with his own voice in the cell in Kultaka, and Obelix could follow the full conversation. Gnomardo desperately tried to appeal to his sense of duty to dwarvenhood, but his grip on Tarj was fading. Then Gnomardo desperately said, “Don’t you want to be a hero?”
A flicker of awareness passed through Tarj’s eyes, and Obelix saw it. Instinctively, Obelix put his hand on Tarj’s shoulder in the real world, and somehow burst into the terrified dwarf’s mindscape to appear as an exalted paragon of dwarfhood. The dwaarvsimar’s radiant wings turned Tarj’s dreary room into a pool of holy tranquility.
“Tarj,” Obelix’s voice boomed across the hovel like the thunder of Moradin’s hammerfall, “WE COULD BE HEROES.”
Tarj fell to his knees at the blessed apparition in his mind. Gnomardo, shielding his mind’s eye with his mental hands, could do nothing but hold on desperately to the mind link throttling his psyche. In awe of Obelix, Tarj said nothing, but his eyes still betrayed a hint of fear. Seeing this, Obelix took a gentler tone. Holding out his hand, he said, “Just for one day.”
Tarj took his hand, both in the mindscape and the real world, and breathlessly whispered, “We can be heroes, just for one day?”
“We can be us, just for one day!” Obelix replied, lifting Tarj to his feet. “We can be heroes for ever and ever. What d’you say?”
Tarj stood to his full height of four foot six, and shouted “Oh we can beat them, for ever and ever!!”
Tarj then turned to Gnomardo, who was wincing with his hands over his pounding head. “Then we could be Heroes,” Tarj replied to Gnomardo’s request. “Just for one day.”
“We’ll take it one day at a time,” Gnomardo responded, and led Gnomardo out of his mindscape hovel, and out of his cell in Kultkaka.
Maybe we’re lying, then you better not stay
But we could be safer, just for one day
With a deep breath and a nod to Obelix, Tarj let the psionic compulsion take hold of him, and he led them north-west towards the Sands of Itzcala.
Reunited with the others, it was clear the heroes had a way to navigate the dessert, but getting to the dessert was another matter. The Axapoztlan Range stood between the plains of Kultaka and the dessert. They could either go north around them and extend their trip by many weeks, via New Waterdeep and the borderlands. Or they could cut across the mountains west, which were treacherous and rumoured to be a holy place for Zaltec fanatics. Or go south-west past Pdapla, to the frontline of the war with Nexal and then due north through a gap between the mountain ranges in to the dessert. This last option was only slightly longer than cutting through the mountains, and after an augury it was determined less dangerous than the mountains.
The heroes used their connections with War Chief Aconcagua to take supplies from the military convoy heading towards the front, and followed the freshly trained soldiers towards the smoking volcano of Mt Nexal.