:: Dungeons & Dragons - The Threshold Party - The Burned City of Aasla, Part Three ::

The City of Aasla - Part Three

Time was pressing, and the imminent arrival of the Inquisitors from Revenge or the dragon Infyrandax meant the group needed to act quickly if they wished to meet less resistance at the Grand Cathedral. Karnus cloaked the group in invisibility as they approached, the wizards travelling on the carpet and Alvion via the magical flight granted by his Travel spell. They arrived unseen and without making a sound, wary of the window on the spire where Hakrukar was reputed to have his personal chambers, or so Dakral had revealed.

The Church of Alphatia

The cathedral was the grandest structure any of the four had laid eyes upon, or at least its former grandeur was apparent. That much was clear despite the blackened exterior, the cracked statues on the outside and the three toppled spires. The party landed to one side of the immense structure and discussed their options in hushed tones. Teldon sent a Wizard Eye through one of the massive cracks in the building's exterior and reported in a grim tone that the party's coming had been foreseen. He etched a drawing in the ashen dirt to show the interior of the church, and how its occupants were widely spread out within. Ten innocent victims had been apprehended to allow the ceremony to raise Shetruna and were standing with knives held to their backs by the clerics of Alphaks. Teldon had counted no fewer than twenty individuals in all, spread evenly throughout the vast interior. They appeared to have been maintaining their positions for some time and all looked extremely bored.

Alvion whose Travel spell was still in effect assumed gaseous form and flew into the Temple through the crack Teldon had used to send in his Wizard Eye. The wizards watched through their scrying devices and heard him issue a challenge to an armed individual before the main altar, which bore a sculpted effigy of the Roaring Demon, Alphaks. Shetruna's corpse had been laid before the altar. Alvion accused the clerics of worshipping a forbidden Immortal, and proclaimed that he would reclaim the cathedral in Alphatia's name. The armed individual laughed scornfully, asking Alvion how he intended to tell the clerics of Alphaks apart from the kidnapped prisoners. Not all those wearing robes were clerics, and vice versa - the clerics were deliberately seeking to confound their foes.

With the element of surprise more or less gone, Lana and Karnus flew in through the roof and loosed their magics, trying not to harm the hostages. Phantasmal attacks proved useful. Lana spent numerous charges from her Wand of Enemy Detection to identify the true foes. Karnus meanwhile singled out an armour-clad individual who had come running from Hakrukar's spire onto an upper gallery. Laughing wildly, the dark cleric swung his warhammer in an arc causing his body to become swathed in flames. Karnus assumed the form of a small bird, drew to within feet of the pyromaniac, then assumed ogre form and landed a punch into the man's midsection. The force of the blow was intended to send the man off the side of the gallery however he managed to retain his balance. Karnus resumed normal form and used the Staff of Hutaaka to deflect the man's hammer blows. To his horror, the flaming weapon caused the end of the cedarwood Staff to catch fire and blacken. Karnus channelled his fury into an upward sweep, forcing his opponent backwards off the gallery to land with a crunch dozens of feet below. Karnus resumed bird form, flew down to the statue by the altar, and returned to ogre form to force the statue of Alphaks onto the ground where it shattered on impact, startling nearby combatants.

Lana used her Wand of Fear to send a pair of clerics running out of the cathedral's front doors. Hearing chanting nearby, she turned to see a grinning skull projecting along a beam of blackness from the fingertip of a nearby cleric. The beam was aimed at her heart. The magic caught her in the chest but she shrugged it off without ill effect, blasting her assailant with amber shards.

Movement caught the eyes of both Karnus and Lana as Patriarch Hakrukar made his appearance. Emerging from the base of the spire, the cleric was flanked by two armour-plated lizards, which had presumably been summoned by unholy magic. Karnus lost no time releasing a Dispel attack, causing both creatures to vanish back into thin air.

Teldon saw that the tide had turned against the clerics and appeared to have had enough of the fight. Uttering a single word of magic, he caused the air around Hakrukar to erupt with force. The cleric cried aloud, dropping to his knees and clutching his head. It proved an easy feat to bind him to one of the central pillars along with the other clerics the party had managed to subdue.

Thankfully, the hostages had all survived and none bore serious wounds. As Lana administered first aid, Karnus set about interrogating Hakrukar in a bid to find out more about the Order of Alphaks and their plans for Aasla. The Inquisitors were expected to arrive soon, the party already knew. In his weakened and pathetic condition Hakrukar brokered a deal with Karnus - in return for the wizard agreeing to end his life and spare him the Inquisitors' punishment, he would reveal all he knew of the hidden base known as Revenge. For a highpriest of Alphaks this turned out to be surprisingly little. He spoke of the Inquisitors, and the Black King and Queen, with fear and respect audible in his words. Revenge was located within Alphaks' Volcano - a strange island which had appeared off the Empire's western coast several years ago, shrouded in dark clouds which made sea or air travel impossible.

Alvion was pleased that the fight to reclaim the Church had been a success, and he lost no time beginning a lengthy ceremony to re-sanctify the place. He assured the three wizards that he would suffer no harm while he remained in this place, and that the clerics of Alphaks would not cause him any bother. The wizards took their leave to report back to the blue dragons, Izularyt and Ukkrinza. Passing by the street where the day before they had witnessed the clash between the Jennites and the Norwolders the wizards were unsettled to note that not a single corpse remained in the street. Whatever undead force was at large in Aasla had no doubt animated the bodies overnight.

The dragons were pleased that the clerics of Alphaks would cause no trouble in the future, yet it took an explicit request from Lana before they were prepared to reward the three wizards for their efforts. Reluctantly, the larger dragon lazily picked up something from the hoard with his immense claw, tossing the item in Lana's direction. A roll of parchment landed at her feet. Seeing a single item drop Karnus looked at Lana, not allowing his expression to betray what he was thinking but he spoke quietly in the Thyatian tongue, knowing the dragons could not follow. "Is that all? Surely they can spare more." Lana agreed. The dragons were too haughty to express gratitude for the service the wizards had provided but they were intelligent creatures and no doubt were aware how the scales of balance had shifted that day. After further negotiation, it was made clear that additional service would be needed for further reward. For example, the gathering of information, on the whereabouts of the red dragon Infyrandax. Patriarch Hakrukar was therefore brought before the dragons, and subjected to further interrogation before meeting a grisly demise at the wyrms' hands. A further scroll was tossed down, this one longer than the first. Lana drew a breath before she begging the dragons' further indulgence – to stay the night in the dragons' lair. There, at least, they would be protected from the undead and the impending arrival of the Inquisitors. The dragons gestured toward a corner of the museum which appeared dry and sheltered from the draught. The wizards camped there that night, watching the dragons' wards come and go – all reporting to their masters in the Alphatian tongue, all seemingly oblivious to their protectors being anything other than mortal men.

The next morning, the wizards returned to the Church of Alphatia, where Alvion was close to completing his reconsecration. He mentioned that he had thought about destroying the structure with an Earthquake, to avoid the cathedral being put to ill use, but decided against it – such violence would be contrary to his Lady's pacifistic ways, or at any rate her traditional ways. Alvion expressed his intention to return home to Theranderol through a Word of Recall spell. He had Quested the remaining followers of Alphaks to return to civilisation and confess their misdeeds to the Alphatian authorities, whereupon they would be tried and sentenced according to imperial law. The cleric thanked the wizards for their assistance in redeeming the ancient temple, and wished them well for their onward journey. Without further ado, the wizards bid Alvion farewell and mounted their carpet.

The University of Aasla

Their obligations to the Duke weighed on their minds however the wizards were loathe to leave Aasla without visiting one last site which they had seen marked on Zeloxar's map – the University. From Dakral and other sources the three had heard that the aggressive Norwolders had made the campus their home. The thought of illiterate barbarians having no use for paper riches irked the wizards. The carpet soared over the university walls which had crumbled in many sections. They alighted atop a silver tower with a tiny hut at its top. The doorway of the hut housed a portal through which the wizards passed into a far more vast interior than they were expecting. The night sky appeared magically overhead with all of its stars and heavenly bodies. Both Karnus and Lana pocketed wands which seemed to have been used as light-emitting pointers. The levels below were bare apart from infestations of giant beetles. The wizards decided to examine other buildings within the campus walls. Karnus rendered the carpet and its riders invisible, allowing them to draw near to each structure without being noticed. Investigating a long building which ran along the side of the campus wall, signs of life through windows indicated that the Norwolders occupied what had been halls of residence. Those buildings showed significant activity and were left alone.

Turning their attention to a smaller building in a corner of the campus, the wizards' eyes lit up when they spied bookshelves through a series of expansive windows... Evidently, this building had housed a library! A Knock spell forced one of the windows ajar and the carpet sailed inside. All the bookstands were empty, evidently having been cleared when the residents of Aasla fled. Karnus brought out charcoal and parchment and began plotting the layout of the interior as the carpet progressed down several levels and along winding corridors. Staring around in confusion some time later, Karnus believed he had uncovered a staircase which appeared to occupy space he had already mapped. As Lana directed the carpet down the staircase, light from their lightsource fell on shelves filled with books at the bottom. At that moment Karnus winced, as the Powers of Neutrality forced a precognition upon him. In his mind's eye Karnus saw a wizened arm protruding from tattered robes, clutching a staff… The invisibility he had summoned earlier remained intact, shrouding the wizards and their carpet as they approached the books. Now a shuffling sound could be heard, interspersed by tapping, as a humanoid figure approached. The figure came into the light – a stooped, vulture-headed creature. Clad in ancient robes, it clutched a wooden staff in one age-spotted claw. It called out in the Alphatian tongue, demanding to know who trespassed in its domain. Lana called out in Thyatian and received a response in the same tongue. The creature accused the three of seeking to steal its 'knowledge'. This prompted Karnus to whisper conspiratorially with Teldon in their shared Traladaran tongue, though it turned out the creature spoke that language also and could participate in the discussion.

A deal was reached – if the wizards agreed to perform a specific task, they would be permitted to share the creature's knowledge. They would be required to descend into the lowest level of the University to retrieve something which was missing. No further information was given however a gift of lore was offered as a pledge of trust – the creature would answer any one question within its knowledge. Lana believed she knew what question to ask, and after consulting Karnus and Teldon she demanded to know the name of the ancient Immortal, the Patroness of Death and Rebirth, who was worshipped in the Northern Reaches, whose followers had pursued the three wizards across the Sea of Dawn. The name of the Queen of the Dark Throne was indeed within the creature's knowledge ... Hel! That name, discovered at last, sent shivers along the spines of all three wizards.

The Creature in the Deep

Descending a further set of steps, an old archway covered in runes showed signs of damage. Had a protective field been broken? An immense subterranean lake lay beyond; nothing of note was found on the shore. The decision was made to fly out over the water. Lana telekinetically floated her magical light to investigate a huge white disc lying a short way below the water's surface. As the light grew near, a black disc appeared, moving across the white disc. At once the three wizards realised the peril they were in, as a growl reverberated through the immense cavern and the surface of the water became choppy. The carpet sped back toward the exit, rocks and stalactites detaching from the ceiling and falling on the carpet and the wizards yet they pressed on desperately, not daring to look back. As the carpet reached the shore Karnus glanced back and in horror saw a cloud of gas billowing across the lake, bound to reach the carpet within moments. Just as the carpet entered the passageway which led back into the University Karnus outstretched his hands and conjured a Wall of Stone, sealing the passageway against the invading vapours.

The ground below the carpet continued to shake, and upon reaching the ground floor the Astronomy Tower was seen through a nearby window to collapse. The vulture-headed creature was tracked down and confronted, accused of having attempted to send the wizards to their doom. Karnus blasted the creature with magic; in response, it glanced in his direction and the man's robes caught fire. These were no illusion, and continued to burn on touch. Lana followed Karnus' attack with her own – magic missiles and amber shards - before closing to battle the creature with her dagger. Resisting the creature's magical attacks for most of the battle, Lana was aghast when her enchanted dagger crumbled to rust in her hand. Angrily seizing her "spare", the creature was despatched a round later.

The wizards helped themselves to a pile of books the vulture-headed creature had stockpiled. Believing they had seen all the University had to offer, and still shaking from their escape from the lake, they climbed onboard the carpet and took to the skies.

Flying north over the rooftops a movement caught Lana's eye and she directed the carpet toward where a group of individuals could be seen fighting a giant ants which had emerged from a great ashmounds. Two of the party had engaged the ants in hand-to-hand combat, a male dwarf and an armoured female; three others stood watching impassively from a distance. Karnus took the opportunity to experiment with the party's newest magical acquisition – Hakrukar's Staff of Commanding. Grasping the Staff he channelled his will through it, taking control of one of the ants and directing it to attack its fellows. Lana and Teldon approached the bystanders, all of whom were female - an elfmaiden, a cleric of Alphatia and a wizardess. The females did not wish to give away much about themselves, though they seemed to be seeking something specific within the city. Teldon who happened to have an ESP spell in effect concentrated briefly and the image of a massive diamond entered his mind.

The party's dwarf had been badly injured in the fight therefore Lana offered to administer first aid. Unfortunately her touch did more harm than good, drawing a howl of pain from the patient who seized his axe and swung it at Lana. Again, his companions stood back and merely watched. As the dwarf retreated muttering insults beneath his breath, Lana resisted the urge to retaliate and the two parties went their separate ways without further ado.

Pressing on, the carpet rose high over the ashpits before heading north. Below were further signs of movement – a twenty foot tall bronze golem could be seen smashing through a wall, seemingly re-arranging the desolation. One of the guardians of Aasla no doubt, doing what little it could to restore the city to its former glory.

The carpet followed the mosaiced road north, again granting its passengers a bird's eye view of the intricately detailed path. As the blackened mass that was Aasla grew smaller on the road behind them, the three wizards settled back and allowed themselves to reflect on the hectic events of the last few days and their noteworthy achievements.

Read the next instalment - The Road to Dovir

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