The Jewel of the Empire
The Burned City of Aasla
Departing the inn, Karnus, Lana and Teldon ascended into the sky aboard Lana's carpet. Lana directed their flight eastwards until they reached the gulf, then along the coastal route towards the one-time jewel of the western Empire – the great port city of Aasla.
It took hours of flight to reach the city yet finally, around noon, the companions spied the tops of tall towers on the horizon. Closing quickly, an immense city came into view, but this was no longer a city of life and vibrancy; pits of ash now covered vast areas within the city walls. Ruined, burnt buildings spread as far as the eye could see and the once great harbour was choked with broken ships and burnt hulls. Here and there, lone towers stood amongst the devastation looking damaged and precarious.
After contemplating the extent of the devastation for a while, the trio of wizards decided to investigate more closely. From above, the city appeared devoid of life – certainly it seemed none could have survived the firestorm that had consumed the city so entirely.
Approaching from the south, the companions flew in low over the destroyed docks before following what had been a thoroughfare into the heart of the city. At a crossroads they came upon an intact building – a long rectangular structure with steps leading down into darkness.
Their curiosities piqued, the three descended into the dark. As they reached the bottom of the stairs, they each all felt an unexpected sensation – an otherworldy coldness. Exploring the chamber they had entered, a shallow channel was found running along one side of the rectangular room, at the end of which stood a portal of impenetrable darkness. A series of tests proved this to be a planar wormhole, which Lana was eager to explore. Karnus and Teldon proved more restrained, and the party left the building speculating as to the portal's purpose. Karnus in particular theorised that it might have something to do with mass transit.
Emerging back into afternoon sunlight, the party lifted once again into the sky. After a series of bumps and swerves prompted a barbed comment from Karnus, Lana admitted she was having trouble controlling the carpet. Strange crosswinds howling through the city were making flight more difficult to control than normal. Disturbed by this revelation, Karnus demanded that Lana set the carpet down next to a large building which looked as though it warranted exploration.
The Great Library of Aasla
Karnus, Lana and Teldon ascended the steps of the building, passing broken statues that appeared to have been carved in the forms of Minotaurs. Without warning, Karnus froze and winced in pain as his precognitive ability alerted him to danger within the structure – horns, obsidian horns... inhuman claws... an eye, filled with malevolent purpose...
Recovering from his vision, Karnus relayed what he had seen to his companions. Warily, the trio continued up the stairs and set foot into a large, enclosed space, filled by heaps of blackened timbers which Lana imagined had been bookshelves – had the party found the remains of the City Library?
In an upper mezzanine a nest of giant crows had settled, and they squawked loudly as the companions approached. Keen to avoid what perils they could, the wizards gave the birds a wide berth and descended a spiral stairway into the bowels of the library.
At the foot of the stairs, the light from Karnus' Everglowing Beam fell upon the obsidian likeness of a minotaur standing in the middle of a corridor. Assuming this to be one of Aasla's many renowned Guardians, Karnus extinguished the light and called upon his magic to cloak the party in invisibility. The Guardian spoke aloud in Alphatian, challenging the intruders. To create a distraction, Lana used her ring of telekinesis to send one of her glowing daggers floating down the corridor. The creature was fooled by the ruse and went to follow the faint light source.
While Lana concentrated on keeping the Guardian at bay, Karnus piloted the carpet along the corridor where toward the end, by the dagger's dwindling light, he could make out a door with a glow coming from beneath it. Keen to investigate what lay behind the portal, Lana telekinetically embedded her dagger in the wall on the opposite side of the corridor and stepped lightly off the carpet to investigate. She opened the door to reveal a surprised looking individual in tattered robes, who was clearly shocked at being disturbed. As Lana proceeded into the room, she moved far enough away from Karnus that her invisibility faded, at once revealing her to the room's occupant and the Guardian statue alike.
As the Guardian grunted and stalked towards Lana, Karnus deftly piloted the carpet out of the way to avoid the creature – as Teldon, Karnus and the carpet were all still invisible, the Guardian was solely preoccupied with Lana, who in turn was about to issue a greeting to the robed man. Before she could respond, however, the man spoke words of magic and vanished before her eyes.
A well timed shout from Teldon alerted Lana to the Guardian behind her. She turned to face the construct, just in time to evade its fist but not fast enough to dodge its follow-up which hit her a crunching blow in the midriff. As Karnus brought the carpet to a halt by the door, Teldon too stepped off and away from Karnus' invisibility field, suddenly appearing framed in the doorway.
Teldon struck the construct with a volley of Magic Missiles, while a pained Lana added her own barrage. The creature staggered but shook off the attacks and turned to deal Teldon a cruel blow to the head.
Lana concentrated and unleashed a Lightning Bolt straight at the creature’s head... but unknowingly directed the bolt towards the door where an invisible Karnus stood upon the carpet!
As the Guardian's obsidian form shattered amid the magical assault, the bolt continued toward Karnus. The nimble wizard barely managed to dodge before being caught by the periphery of the blast. He collapsed reeling to the floor as motes of electrical energy coursed across his body, disrupting his invisibility and sending the carpet crashing into the wall. For a second he lay there, wondering why he wasn't dead, then as a horrified Lana came running towards him, he realised to his relief that the lightning bolt had been targeted to pass above his head, saving him from the full brunt of the attack.
Shaken but uninjured, Karnus was helped to his feet by an apologetic Lana. Teldon rejoined them, nursing a sore head as he regarded the Guardian's remains. "Well," the old wizard grunted, "that was an utter farce..."
The wizards proceeded to investigate the room they were in. It was a large chamber but little lay within it – no evidence remained of whatever the robed fellow had been doing here. The party explored further into the basement, opening door after door into ruined, burnt out or abandoned chambers, but still they found no sign of the vanished individual nor any items of worth.
Eventually the trio came upon a small room in which, sitting quite innocently, was a giant rat. The rat looked round at the newcomers and squeaked in audible Alphatian, which Teldon translated for the benefit of his companions.
The rat, he said, was a member of a wererat clan who swore allegiance to a being known as Zeloxar. The man the companions had found earlier was another wererat by the name of Ekree, the right hand of Zeloxar and due to his ability to cast magical spells, the de facto leader of the clan. The rat implied that his brothers would be indebted to the party if Ekree were to meet with an... accident. Lana and Karnus exchanged glances – wererats weren't known for trustworthiness but the trio could play along for now.
Agreeing to spare the wererat's fellows, the party left the creature to its machinations and continued their exploration. The next door they opened revealed a large room with a number of wererats within. Before any of the wizards could even speak, the creatures surged forward, raking the air with their filthy claws, but were despatched as Lana's magic clouded their minds and caused them to turn on one another. As the wererats fell upon one another in a frenzy, Karnus nodded approvingly to Lana.
Having chased Ekree through the ruined vaults to no avail, Karnus attempted to scry for the wererat mage and found him skulking around at the top of the spiral stairway with several of his fellows. Evidently the band was laying in ambush for the wizards. Having relayed this to his companions, Karnus volunteered to turn the trap against the wererats and, taking the innocuous form of a small fly, flew up past the wererats to a deserted corner of the building, far from the waiting creatures.
As Karnus returned to human form he invoked a Fireball, expecting the survivors to flee back into the vaults where Lana and Teldon were ready to pick them off. The flaming missile flew from Karnus' fingertip to the top of the stairs where it burst in a mighty explosion, clearing to reveal a collection of blasted corpses – not one of the creatures had survived.
As Karnus stared in shocked surprise, another wererat appeared from the entrance and stood mesmerised by the carnage. Slowly, Karnus and he locked gazes, then without hesitation the wererat turned and fled into the city, screaming as he went.
Sheepishly, Karnus approached the stairwell, picking his way through the smouldering corpses, Ekree among them. He called to Lana and Teldon to ensure that he wouldn't be mistaken for a retreating wererat, and rejoined his companions in the vaults. Hearing the commotion, the original, talkative wererat emerged from his room and, upon learning that the wizards had slaughtered his companions, turned upon them in a brief and futile attack.
Further investigation revealed a room with minotaurs in it, but the party decided to avoid opening the door and left the creatures as they were.
After analysing their rudimentary map of the structure, Karnus determined that there was probably a secret chamber nearby, adjoining the room in which they had originally found Ekree. A search revealed a secret door which opened into a room with a collection of valuable books – treasure beyond compare for the knowledge hungry wizards.
Determined to penetrate the deeper interior of the Library, the party continued exploring the remains of the vaults. Leaving the minotaurs undisturbed, the three wizards ventured down a long corridor lined by individual study cells. Eventually they reached a door, which Lana casually opened.
Within the room stood three robed figures. Their leader stepped forward and introduced herself as Shetruna, a cleric of Alphatia, along with her companions who were named Dakral and Rist. Taken aback by the presence of followers of Alphatia in such a dangerous environment, Lana enquired as to the reason behind the clerics' presence, only to be told that their Patriarch sought an alliance with the mysterious Zeloxar, he whom the wererats had said they followed.
Teldon and Karnus exchanged puzzled looks. Lana asked why they should seek an alliance with a creature reputed to be evil. Shetruna's response was that in desperate times, strange alliances must form by necessity. The party were invited to meet with the Patriarch and Zeloxar, in order to assuage their fears. They cautiously accepted the invitation.
Having been directed to the next room, the wizards continued down the corridor until they stood outside a large, heavy wooden door. Apprehensively, Lana reached for the door handle, pausing as Teldon spoke to suggest that they could simply depart and leave whatever lay behind the door in peace. Never one to back down, Lana disagreed and turned back to open the door...
The huge door swung open easily, revealing an old man talking to a large floating orb topped by many eyes writhing on stalks. Collectively, Lana, Teldon and Karnus tensed as their gazes fell upon the creature – a beholder! As it turned to face the door, its central eye gazed upon the wizards, and one by one they felt their magical protections fade in the face of the beholder's dreaded anti-magic.
Suddenly deprived of their spells and magic, the wizards adopted a diplomatic approach, introducing themselves and asking if they were addressing the infamous Zeloxar. The beholder acknowledged his identity and asked why the magic users had disturbed him.
Lana, realising this abomination could not hold to any path but true evil, turned to the other occupant of the room. "Sir, I beseech you – is an alliance with this creature really in the interests of the Church of Alphatia?"
"Alphatia?" laughed the cleric. "Foolish girl! You think I follow that pacifist cow? I am a servant of Alphaks!"
The Patriarch of Alphaks broke into bellowing laughter, before muttering a single word of prayer to his dark Patron and vanishing before the wizards' eyes. They had little time to react to the sudden disappearance as the leering Zeloxar advanced, driving them backwards into the corridor. Suddenly, with a cry of agony, Teldon collapsed to the ground revealing the three original robed figures behind him, each brandishing a dagger. Shetruna's blade gleamed wet and red.
Shetruna dove across Teldon's collapsed form to get at Karnus, her dagger glistening with his mentor's blood. As Lana reached to close the door on the approaching beholder, Karnus raised his staff in defence, deflecting the crazed cleric's attack and pinning her hand against the wall. Karnus met his assailant's gaze for a brief second before spinning in a full circle, catching Shetruna a vicious blow and returning to guard with a defiant look on his face.
Lana meanwhile had Webbed the door within its surround, reasoning that the beholder would need to look away from the door in order to manipulate it with his telekinetic eye. This, she hoped, would buy the wizards precious extra moments to make their escape. By the time it turned back to banish the Web with its anti-magic, the wizards might be far beyond the range of Zeloxar's many harmful abilities.
Shetruna recovered from Karnus' riposted blow and dove once more at the blue-robed wizard. Once again Karnus brought up his staff, blocking her thrust and holding her hand pinned, this time to the opposite wall of the corridor. Again Karnus span the other end of his staff towards his assailant, delivering a blow to her head which sent her reeling to the ground, colliding with her fellow clerics. As Karnus resumed his defensive position over Teldon, the two junior clerics, amazed at watching a supposedly defenceless wizard defeat their leader, dropped their daggers and fled down the corridor in desperation.
Karnus looked upon the grounded cleric with contempt as she scrabbled on the floor for her dropped dagger. Suddenly, an idea came to mind – they needed an escape route, and fast... Karnus looked over his shoulder to Lana who she was forcing a healing potion into Teldon’s mouth. "Lana," he called, "I've got a plan – can you take over here?"
Lana took no persuading and advanced, her dagger brandished. Karnus span away from the approaching Shetruna, raised the Staff of Hutaaka and pointed it at the ceiling, preparing to invoke its power. The eyes of the staff glowed brightly, pulsed for a moment... then faded to a dull blue glow. Karnus lowered the Staff in horror – its powers were exhausted!
With a cry of retribution Lana buried her dagger in her adversary's chest, ending the combat. From behind them came the sound of the door being torn from its hinges. Seconds remained before the magical webbing dispersed and the beholder would be upon them.
Lana's gaze passed in disbelief from the ceiling of the corridor to Karnus cradling the depleted Staff of Hutaaka. "No disintegrations?" she asked. As Karnus shook his head solemnly, Lana quickly dragged the disoriented Teldon onto her carpet and commanded it to rise. Karnus utilised his reactivated Polymorph Self effect to transform into a falcon, and soared along the corridor in front of them, turning a corner at the far end. Just as he did so, Lana's webbing vanished, the door exploded into splinters and Zeloxar appeared in the doorway. As he gazed along the corridor, the flying carpet crashed to the floor spilling Teldon and Lana onto the ground.
Karnus flew on, flapping to a clumsy halt as he almost ran into a band of minotaurs patrolling the main corridor beside the stairwell – their escape was blocked, he realised. As he backed away before the creatures could notice him, he realised that Teldon and Lana weren’t following him.
The Wrath of Teldon
Lana and Teldon rolled to rest beside the door to the room which the clerics of Alphaks had occupied. Realising she needed to get out of view of the beholder, Lana quickly dove through the open door dragging Teldon with her and slammed it shut. Leaning against the door she closed her eyes and breathed deeply, trying to steady her rising panic. Where the Hell was Karnus? When she opened her eyes again, Teldon was gone, and a large hole had formed in the back wall beyond which lay the beholder's lair.
Initially puzzled, Lana advanced toward the hole before stopping, realising what her companion might be planning. To allow Zeloxar into the room could prove ruinous, she knew, therefore she was left with no option but to return to the corridor and bar the beholder's entry. She re-opened the door and bolted into the corridor, almost colliding with Zeloxar's grinning face just feet beyond the doorway. Lana stood defiantly before the beholder, her dagger brandished in one hand.
"Decided to stop running?" the beholder laughed maniacally.
"There's no point," Lana admitted, trying to think fast. "In all my years of magical study, I only dreamed of encountering so powerful an entity as you appear to be, Lord Zeloxar."
Hearing this, the beholder stayed any lethal magic it might have been about to expel from its eyestalks. Mere feet between them, Zeloxar's central eye seemed to scrutinise Lana to the core of her being. "Quite correct. Allow me to share with you what I have learned of Aasla, in the short time I have been on your Plane of existence. It does not matter what Aasla was before. The burning of Aasla was to herald my coming and to make way for my new regime. In no time my influence will spread from this city for hundreds of miles in every direction. I accept that to achieve my vision I will require assistance from capable individuals... such as you. You have shown some merit, I'll give you that. What say you? Will you join my enterprise and serve me?"
Lana made a pretence of mulling over the beholder's proposal, while trying desperately to avoid drawing attention to the flicker of movement she had glimpsed behind Zeloxar's floating form, which none of its ten eyestalks had picked up on.
"Well?" Zeloxar demanded, seemingly losing patience.
"I must admit," Lana answered, "the prospect of power appeals to me greatly."
"Then you and I share a trait in common," Zeloxar sneered. He edged closer toward Lana, indulging himself in a throaty laugh. To Lana's bemusement, the laugh transformed into a scream of pain and frustration as lightning arced through his spherical body. Instinctively Lana put up her hands to shield herself from the impact of the magical energies, before realising she was safe within the anti-magic field projected by Zeloxar's central eye. The benefit did not extend to the beholder's rear however. As Lana watched the creature's eyestalks stood on end and its armoured plating cracked, grotesquely leaking boiling fluid. With a final groan, a puff of smoke emerged from the beholder's mouth and it slowly drifted backward, colliding with the corridor wall and sliding down to its final rest. The great central eye slowly closed.
At the end of the corridor Teldon lowered his hand, his look one of grim determination. At the opposite end, Karnus wheeled around the corner and stared in disbelief at the beholder’s smouldering corpse. "What in Rad’s name happened?"
Lana appeared shaken. "Teldon intervened," she said quietly. "Passwall and Lightning Bolt. As you can see they made a highly effective combination."
"Nice work!" Karnus exclaimed, favouring his one-time mentor with a respectful nod.
If the compliment registered with Teldon he did not make this apparent. The old wizard's attention remained fixed on their foe's remains, his expression a contorted mixture of rage and repulsion.
"Teldon?" Lana enquired. "The danger has passed... does something still bother you?"
"Beholders," Teldon muttered darkly, through gritted teeth. Slowly he forced his fists to unclench. "I utterly despise them. Since I was a child they've haunted my dreams for some reason... vile creatures that they are."
The wizard took a few moments more to regain his composure, then informed his companions that he was fit to continue.
Stepping gingerly around Zeloxar's mortal remains, the wizards began an exploration of the beholder's room, which yielded potions, gems and a wealth of paperwork chronicling events and happenings within the city. While Teldon pored through the reports compiled by Zeloxar’s agents, Karnus and Lana gathered as much documentation as they could, anticipating that the research might shed light on the remainder of the city. A substantial haul of documentation, including a large annotated map of Aasla, was crammed into the bag of holding for the party's use.
Stopping briefly to allow Lana to harvest potential spell components from Zeloxar's corpse, the companions headed back towards the stairwell, forewarned by Karnus of the minotaurs guarding their escape route. As they were prepared for the encounter, the party met little resistance in wiping out the minotaurs. Lana summoned an Ice Storm, and Karnus replied with a Phantasmal attack, rendering the survivors unconscious.
The companions mounted Lana's carpet and sped out of the subterranean catacombs, emerging into the late afternoon sunlight. Seeing how Teldon was seriously hurt and Lana nursed a few wounds herself, the decision was taken to return to the inn, rather than risk spending the night in the dead city.
And so, the carpet sped away from Aasla, passing over the countless ash pits and other blackened remains. On the morrow the wizards would return, but for the time being their adventures in the Burned City were on hold.
The Trouble with Trolls
Karnus was staring out to sea as the evening drew in, when Lana sat up attentively in the manner Karnus had come to dread. She's had an idea, thought the blue-robed mage, his eyes widening in fearful anticipation. Rad save us, what now?
Lana turned to Teldon, who was beginning to doze off, and proposed an unusual experiment – Lana would use her transmutation magic to transform Teldon into a troll, whereupon he would begin to regenerate and heal the wounds which had been inflicted upon him by the villainous clerics.
After the men's laughter subsided, Lana reiterated her idea, whereupon Teldon and Karnus realised with horror that the adventurous young wizardess was being serious. With mild apprehension Teldon listened as Lana repeated her plan, finally agreeing out of scientific curiosity if nothing more. Karnus shook his head while Lana lowered the carpet to let Teldon alight, then rose back into the air above the ageing mage.
As Teldon nodded to signal his readiness, Lana extended her hand and spoke the words of her spell. A ray of amber light shot from her hand, striking Teldon in the chest and enveloping him in dazzling radiance.
Where Teldon had stood, there was now a rather old and decrepit troll, who raised his arms and flailed at the hovering carpet. Realising the wizards were out of reach, Teldon the Troll decided to find something else to eat, and started off along the road. Karnus and Lana watched as the wounds on Trolldon's back began to heal up. Within ten minutes the troll looked more hale and hearty than ever before.
Lana beamed at Karnus. "Okay – you can Dispel it now."
Karnus looked at his companion blankly. "I beg your pardon?"
"Dispel the polymorph." Lana returned the confused look. "Teldon appears fully healed"
Her companion rolled his eyes. "Well, I would if I could, but I didn't anticipate that we'd be experimenting with our arcane magics in this way today – I don't have Dispel memorised."
Lana gave Karnus an exasperated look, sighed and levelled the Staff of Lucinius at the troll's flailing form. A bolt of golden magic shot from the tip of the staff and in a flash, Teldon was returned – greatly rejuvenated for having undergone his ordeal. Retrieving their elderly companion, the wizards turned southward and flew onward to the inn.
A new day dawns … The Bandit Princess
The next morning Lana and Teldon rose early and began preparing for the day ahead. Karnus indulged in another hour in bed, and as he finally descended the stairs for breakfast he was greeted by the sight of Teldon and Lana emptying out the Bag of Holding. Seeking to maximise her haulage capacity, Lana had decided to stow less essential items at the inn while the group explored the city anew. Karnus stood beside the bewildered innkeeper as armchairs, dressers, footstools and a Glantrian freezing chest spewed forth from the bag's expanded aperture.
Eventually, Lana seemed satisfied that her furniture was safely ensconced in the communal lounge. Exiting the inn the wizards climbed back aboard the carpet and soared off towards Aasla.
Despite the fact they had already seen the devastation first-hand, the second approach to the city was no less horrendous. As they flew over the city walls, Lana noticed a group of humans below, seemingly guarding a nearly intact tower. The trio decided to set down and see who they might be.
It turned out that the tower was the base of operations for one Tezria, known locally as the Bandit Princess. This swordmaiden had rallied some of the remaining humans in the city and was raiding other factions to survive. After Lana offered to aid the bandits with their wounded, their leader was impressed enough to meet with the wizards.
Tezria was an impressive, determined woman who harboured a deep resentment for wizards after she had seen the mages of Aasla save their books and artworks rather than help their servants escape the firestorm. Karnus summoned an ESP spell and probed her mind while Lana engaged her in conversation regarding where the Karameikans had come from, and what their intentions were.
The Bandit Princess was impressed by the wizard's destruction of Zeloxar, yet she would not pledge her support to the strangers – the trio departed, but not before Karnus subtly hinted that it would be foolish to intervene against them, as he had sensed that she could not be trusted.
Moving on, the group decided to investigate what looked like a domed structure in the north of the ruins. However, their flight path took them over what looked to be a walled garden, with the remains of a tower in the exact centre. As this tower seemed unpopulated, the wizards' curiosity took hold and they decided to investigate further.
As the trio approached, a number of platforms hovered nearby, some bumping into one another, others following a pre-programmed route around the tower's exterior. Drawing closer to the tower, it was possible to see that it was studded with hundreds of alcoves, some containing twisted metallic lumps, others flickering with the remnants of phantasmal images.
While Teldon peered at one of the alcoves, Lana noticed out of the corner of her eye that a nearby platform had veered towards the carpet and was accelerating. Her quick reflexes took over, and she commanded the carpet into a sudden dive, followed by a wide, banking turn. Karnus and Teldon cried out in surprise and clutched at the sides of the floating conveyance as Lana piloted them to safety.
Giving the hovering platforms a wide berth, Lana directed the carpet back towards the tower entrance.
Read the next instalment - Aasla - Part Two
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