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The companions realised they were trespassing on sacred ground. A shaman charged through the grey mist in an attempt to chase them from the unholy place. A handful of followers followed close on his heels, hurling missiles such as throwing axes and painted slingstones. Then they closed on mass for hand-to-hand combat wielding long bones, the shaman chanting and shaking a rattle to invoke spells of dark magic.
Night's Terror Darkens...
The party scrambled down the mountainside, desperate to escape the thick curling mist which surrounded them. Finally they emerged into the river valley below. They camped that night and slept uneasily. Dawn brought the sound of wardrums. Angered at the incursion onto their ritual site, the gnolls had amassed a small army and were preparing to hunt their quarry. The party was left with no option but to flee upstream in the hope of evading pursuit.
The trail of the ancient road was picked up again, crumbling as it was after centuries of disrepair. It was overgrown in parts with weeds and thick grass, at other times the trail could barely be made out at all. The companions ultimately decided that the river would provide a more reliable route to follow.
Still they heard inhuman howlings from the south, and the beating of drums - the gnolls were not far off, and seemed to be pursuing their prey relentlessly, perhaps even closing the distance.
The hunt is on...
The next day Lana's alertness and Threy's sense of impending danger alerted the party that an ambush lay ahead. With the way blocked, and the remainder of the enemy army behind, a face-off seemed unavoidable. With this in mind Karnus reached into his mount's saddlebag and drew out the Stone of Earth Elemental Summoning. Minutes later an earthen giant hauled itself from the ground at Karnus's feet. With the merest thought its summoner sent the Elemental thundering into the midst of the gnoll horde, while his companions readied spells and weapons to defend themselves. The battle proved fierce, and the elemental did much to decimate the enemy number, but dozens of gnolls remained. The companions fought until they broke through the blockade, whereupon they made a desperate dash upstream. Karnus and the elemental bought them a short but invaluable headstart.
Through canny deployment of the elemental Karnus held back the party's pursuers for a short time, but decided to take a serious risk to improve his companions' chances of escape. He flew to the rear of the gnoll army, bidding the elemental follow him, then released control of the creature. Freed, the elemental's first thought was to kill its master, but to do so it would need to pass through the horde remaining between it and the airborne wizard. Thus, Karnus escaped via magical flight while the elemental continued to lay waste to his opponents.
Karnus caught up with his companions, who by that point were a mile or so ahead of the gnolls. They forded the river at the base of a massive waterfall, spying what appeared to be a large cave on the far side. Wasting no time, the companions urged their mounts into the icy Foamfire River and crossed to its other side. Drewen and his pony took a complete soaking. It then became apparent that the cave opening in fact led to an immense stairway carved into the rocky interior of the hill, leading hundreds of feet upward.
Without a second thought they begin to climb, leading their mounts further up into the mountains. Reaching the top of the stairs after a long and exhausting climb, the party found themselves atop an ancient bridge, looking down hundreds of feet above the base of the thundering waterfall.
The gnoll army could be seen below, unwilling to cross the treacherous river and follow their prey. The companions gave cries of triumph as they watched the gnolls turn and march off downstream.
The day was drawing to a close and camp needed to be made; at such a height the wind howled relentlessly, and the waterfall drowned out most other sounds, therefore the party sheltered for the night in a small stone tower on one side of the ancient bridge. Pushing back the double doors, they discovered an enclosed space inside which they and their mounts could rest for the night. The room was bare save for two items on its floor - a wand and a spell scroll. These treasures were not without their guardians, as two metal statues (dog-headed, in the Hutaakan fashion) lumbered forward to attack the weary party.
Managing to overcome the guardians, the seven companions settled down to camp, leaving the two magic-users to debate which of them should keep which treasure. Lana requested the scroll to supplement the dusty contents of her spellbook. Karnus contented himself with the wand, whose powers would turn any living creature into another shape or form.
Lana pored over the scroll during her watch; her study was disturbed more than once by the sound of leathery wings flapping outside the tower doors. Dismissing the noise as bats, the young woman went back to her work. A while later, Drewen relieved Lana of her duty, and took the second watch. The remainder of the night passed without incident.
The party pressed onward into the mountains the next day, where the trail became harder to follow - little more than a foot-wide ledge at times. At intervals the way was blocked by fallen boulders, or was missing in parts. Through careful maneouvring and assisting one another the companions managed not to plummet to their doom, though their steeds proved not so fortunate - four of the seven mounts lost their footing and fell from the track.
At one point the companions had to descend a gorge and climb the other side to continue on their way. Drewen's mule was unable to overcome its nerves and refused to go anywhere. Rather than desert the beast in the middle of nowhere, Karnus spent a charge from his new wand to transform the mule into an easily-transportable snail. After using the item, however, Karnus informed his companions that he had been left with a severe head-ache.
Not wishing to share the horses' fate, Lana cast a Fly spell and descended to the bottom of the chasm. Here she found a cave from whose interior a foul stench emanated. While her companions climbed down the chasm wall, Lana decided to investigate. She flew a short way into the cave, and bid light appear from her dagger pommel. Inside was a long, spiny-backed lizard, with long, curving teeth. Lana flew to the ceiling in an attempt to evade the lizard's teeth, but was badly bitten. Unwilling to suffer a second bite, Lana flew swiftly back outside. She thought best to fly back to the opposing chasm wall and help her companions descend. She did so, and for a moment could have sworn she heard the flapping of leathery wings, but when silence followed she thought nothing more of it.
All seven party members reached the bottom, and went to ascend the opposite wall. There came a roar as the lizard charged from its cave with teeth bared. The companions battled the creature, and took some severe casualties. Wishing to investigate the beast's lair more thoroughly, Lana stepped back inside the cave but gagged on the sickly stench of decaying flesh, and was forced to retreat. The other six began one by one to climb the wall.
Drewen stayed last to make sure no other creatures disturbed the party's climb. As Threy reached the top of the chasm, Drewen set foot on the rockface and prepared to start his ascent. Suddenly there came the swooping sound of wings... leathery wings! A massive beast charged down from the skies - a beast with the body of a lion, the face of a man, twisted into a smiling grimace, bat wings and a curling, stinging tail. Drewen was forced to enter combat one-on-one with this monster which had been stalking the party for two days, waiting to strike when one party member seemed isolated from his comrades.
The dwarf fought valiantly but could feel his strength sapping - he too had been wounded in the fight with the giant lizard. His companions could do little from such a distance, atop the mountainside. Lana choked back her sick feeling and summoned enough focus to cast one spell - lightning streaked down the mountainside and charred the monster's flesh. Drewen landed blows of his own, and the beast lay still at last.
The next day the companions were plagued by a flock of griffons while attempting to cross an old stone bridge. Karnus distracted one with a spell, but the others set upon the remaining party members and tried to push them off the bridge. Lana's horse reared in fear of the winged monsters, and threw her over the side of the walkway. Thankfully her foot caught in her stirrup, and her companions pulled her to safety.
At last the party reached a long, gaping chasm, where on the other side stood great doubledoors, each over twenty feet tall and cast from ancient bronze. Lana imbued Stephen and Sligh with magical flight, and between them the strapping pair ferried the remaining party members across the chasm. This, at last, was the ancient valley - the Lost Valley of Hutaaka.
The Gates of Hutaaka ... the guardian
The doors were heavy and would not budge. Lana stood at the threshold and cast a Knock spell, half-expecting it to fail. The ancient portals did as she bid and edged apart, creaking with age.
Once inside, the party stumbled upon the Valley's guardian - a centuries old magical construct. This golem stood as high as the doors it guarded, also built of bronze, and an intense heat radiated from its metal body. Stepping close to do battle, the thing sprayed liquid magma from its fingertips. At last, through weapons and spells, the beast toppled to the ground, and the companions entered the Valley proper.
Read the next instalment - Into the Lost Valley