The party of five had returned to Specularum and had rested after their recent adventures, but faced uncertainty as to what their future held. What motivation could they find for adventuring together, or put differently, what goal would unite their assorted needs and desires?
The Party Reforms
A common purpose?
There were various options. Drewen made clear he would be happy to remain in Specularum and serve as barman in the Flying Ferret Inn. For too long the companions had delegated responsibility for running the homely establishment to hired staff; Drewen fancied getting back into hands-on management.
Lana, eager to pursue her magical studies while putting her dagger skills to use, wished to go dragon-hunting in the Altan Tepes in the north-east of the Grand Duchy. She informed her friends that she sought white dragon scales as component for the Ice Storm spell she had wished to research for some time.
There was also the green dragon Korak, who thanks to Karnus having discovered the creature's lair, was known to be at large in the Dymrak Forest. No doubt the dragon was mastermind to the activities of the goblin tribes which which wreaked havoc through the outlying lands, including the village of Glaston where Lana's mother, a healer of the Church of Traladara, had been murdered by the marauding humanoids. The party felt certain they would do the inhabitants of the Grand Duchy a service by ridding them of this threat. However, the dragon knew a mortal had located his lair. The longer the party delayed in confronting Korak, the longer he would have to relocate his hoard, or himself, or both.
It was decided that if the party was to slay Korak, they would need a powerful weapon against him. After all, a single breath from the beast would obliterate any onerous all of them. It was decided that Karnus should attempt to unlock the powers of the Staff of Hutaaka before any other action.
Karnus persuaded Threy to let him borrow the enchanted silver needle from Golthar's lair. Holding the needle between finger and thumb, he fed the golden thread he had taken from the Temple of Pflarr through its eye then touched its point to the tapestry which the dryad had gifted to him on the Island of Lost Dreams. The needle darted across the ageing and ragged surface, adorning it with a sparkling pattern - a treasure map. It highlighted numerous hutaakan settlements, all now in ruins, but one of which might contain the knowledge Karnus needed to access the abilities of his Staff. After studying the scrolls he had removed from the libraries of Xitaqa and Hutaaka, Karnus deduced that the knowledge he sought stood the best chance of being found in an outpost not far from Threshold. The others would accompany their comrade on his journey north, since Threshold was effectively their second home and they all looked forward to returning to familiar surroundings.
Therefore the party travelled upriver to the logging town of Threshold. Lana stopped by her master's tower to recover the magical items Valtanivark had begrudgingly agreed to evaluate for the party. Golthar's gold ring turned out to be a ring of protection, more potent than the plain brass ring Lana had worn to date. Threy's scarab brooch would deflect any curses directed at the wearer; also the quill pen found in the vault below the Temple of Pflarr was a luxury item, capable of scribing any non-magical text which the owner chose to read aloud. Lana pondered how she might put this item to clever use.
The male party members packed their belongings to locate the Hutaakan ruins where Karnus hoped to unlock the mysteries of the Staff. Feeling awkward, Lana announced that she would not join the party. The Staff had chosen Karnus as its master; this was his personal quest. As much as she wished him success, Lana thought it best not to become involved. In her view, too many magic-users on a quest such as this risked spoiling the broth. She had no doubt the others would fend for themselves without her. Thus Lana remained at her master's tower while Karnus and the others departed for the ruins.
In search of the unknown
The four companions walked a mile or so beyond Threshold's defences and arrived at the cluster of ruined dwellings which Karnus' tapestry map had shown. Ironically, Drewen and Threy had known of these ruins for years but hadn't for a moment guessed there might be a dungeon or settlement beneath the crumbling debris.
As the party approached the centre of the ruins, the Staff of Hutaaka came to life in Karnus' grasp. Its sapphire eyes glowed with mystic light, then a ray of magic shot from their depths. The bolt of force slammed into the ground at Karnus' feet, blasting apart solid bedrock and sending up a cloud of dust. When the air cleared (and Karnus stopped shaking from his excitement) ancient stone steps could be seen leading down into darkness.
Lighting torches, the companions ventured into the earth, following a spiralling staircase to the bottom where they found a large crack in one wall, large enough for a person to fit through. Karnus, leading the others, stepped toward the fissure but recoiled as a gelatinous mass oozed though the gap, evidently having sensed the presence of intruders. The party identified the creature as an ochre jelly, a creature which Karnus felt certain could only be harmed by fire. Informing his companions, the party members began swatting at the creature with their torches, fumbling with tinderboxes and flasks of oil. It became clear this was doing little to harm the jelly, while the companions were taking heavy injuries from the thing's acidic touch. In desperation, Karnus urged his companions back up the steps in an attempt to clear enough room enough to safely cast a Fireball. After frantic maneouvering they out-distanced the jelly and Karnus cast his spell in the nick of time. The wall to which the jelly clung erupted in flame, and their foe was no more.
The four companions paused a short while to catch their breath before making the decision to press on.
Squeezing through the crack in the wall, the party found themselves in a long subterranean corridor. The air was dank and stagnant, with a definite stench which increased as the party progressed. The tunnel could be seen to broaden ahead, and after a short distance the companions entered a room. The smell was especially bad here, making Karnus suspect the presence of a sewer nearby. Three tall figures were waiting in a shadowy corner. As they advanced into the light, Karnus and his companions instantly recognised the misshapen creatures from their rubbery skin and needle-like teeth - trolls! Such creatures, the companions knew, could only be destroyed using fire and the party had exhausted all its combustible supplies (including Karnus' fire magic) in the fight against the jelly. The scenario was far from ideal. Nevertheless Drewen charged valiantly forward, with Threy and Vasily following his lead. Karnus held back and called the words of a spell to mind, creating a wall of flame across the centre of the chamber to trap two of the trolls on the far side. Having cast the spell, its maintenance required Karnus' complete concentration or the illusion (as it was) would fail.
This combined with persistent hammer-swings from Drewen bought the party enough time to flee along the next corridor, hopefully leaving the trolls far behind. Here however, they encountered strange, man-sized beings the likes of which they had never encountered before - hook horrors. Combat was entered and the companions emerged victorious but to a man they sustained nasty wounds from their foes' razor-sharp claws. Undeterred the party pressed onward.
The High Wokan ... Xaphorteq
Rounding the next corridor and turning left at a junction, the companions entered what appeared to be a crypt. In this long and narrow chamber stood a solitary sarcophagus, its lid slightly ajar and from beneath which there seemed to come signs of movement - a hand was slowly emerging from its depths. The lid fell to the ground with a shattering crash as a figure rose from the tomb. He was clothed in ancient, crumbling robes, and his bandaged face clearly possessed the features of a jackal - another Hutaakan undead such as the party had fought in the Lost Valley. The figure raised one arm and unmistakeably pointed at Karnus, whose Staff began to glow with its now-familiar blue light. For a time nothing happened, then the figure shuffled forward to attack the Staff's bearer. Drewen interposed himself to protect his friend and soon put the mummy to rest.
Karnus and the others investigated the crypt, which was found to contain a beautiful ruby brooch. In addition, ancient hieroglyphic script was carved upon a stone slab on which the mummified figure had been resting. Having prepared for such an eventuality, Karnus placed his hand upon his eyes and incanted the Read Languages spell.
The writing on the slab became legible, and Karnus pored over the ancient carvings with hungry interest. To his dismay, the text did not unlock the Staff's secrets. There was still hope however for the runes read - "You who seek to master the artifact of Plarr, speak my name into his ears." Scribed beneath was a set of letters - "XAPHORTEQ" - which Karnus presumed must be the name of whoever had carved the tablet. Below the name appeared the title, "High Wokan of Bixata". These words of guidance had been left by the Archwizard of the Hutaaka centuries before, and would surely lead to mastery of the Staff's abilities. However the party would need to find the "ears of Pflarr" to which the legend referred.
The room's only other treasure appeared to be a jade ring on the High Wokan's finger; Karnus pocketed this. It beared a distinct resemblance to the jade ring which Drewen had found on Golthar's hand.
To Drewen's expert eye the ground ahead appeared unstable, and would not have allowed safe crossing, therefore the companions retraced their steps and followed a new route from a previous crossing. This new corridor led into what appeared to be a ceremonial hall, with a carved stone altar at its centre and a plinth spanning the length of one wall. Along this plinth stood several dozen silver statuettes, all identical and resembling Hutaakan figures. The party had fought creatures similar to these before, on the moors east of Kelvin, and knew the vicious constructs could spring into motion at any second, should they be provoked. Caution was called for. No-one would speak, move, or touch anything in the room.
Looking around in dismay, Karnus saw no statues of the Immortal Pflarr to which he might whisper the High Wokan's name, nor any tapestries, nor any effigies other than the many tiny statues. Perhaps this was not the right place. But as he surveyed the length of the hall, he considered its peculiar layout. The two faraway corners were deep triangular alcoves. The whole room, it occurred to him, had been formed in the shape of a dog's head. Might the very room be a representation of Pflarr?
Stepping forward to indugle his theory, Karnus strode to the left alcove and spoke the High Wokan's name aloud. Drewen, Threy and Vasily exchanged looks of concern as tremors passed through the ground beneath their feet and the statuettes teetered on their long plinth. Karnus meanwhile strode to the right-hand alcove and spoke the High Wokan's name a second time, whereupon a section of the southernmost wall slid aside to reveal a corridor. Overjoyed, Karnus and companions entered in.
As the party neared the end of the tunnel, their torchlight fell upon shimmering red eyes, glowing in the dark. Could this be foes, they wondered, more trolls perhaps? Instead they discovered two rows of hutaakan statues, lining both sides of the way ahead, thankfully inanimate. The companions were about to breathe sighs of relief when a ray of ruby light shot from the eyes of one statue to those of one opposite, then refracted into separate rays which fanned across the corridor, continuing until the entire passage had been criss-crossed by intricately angled beams. Hugely distrustful, Drewen hefted a rock and tossed it between the statues. The stone touched a beam and exploded into dust.
Karnus noted that his staff was glowing, a pale sapphire light radiating from the eyes of the jackal-headed effigy. Unwilling to give up, and against the advice of his companions, Karnus decided to press on through the beams. There was just enough room for the slender mage to fit between a few of the beams and reach the opposite side. He proved nimble... and survived the passing, making it to the other side without coming into contact with any of the beams. Leaving Drewen, Vasily and Threy behind, he headed on and rounded the corner of the tunnel. Ahead stood a line of mansize, dog-headed statues, which lumbered forward to attack when Karnus came into view. These were not typical living statues, Karnus realised, rather they were composed of a green-hued material... jade? With a flash of clarity, Karnus knew what to do - he slipped on the jade ring he had taken from the High Wokan and bade the statues stand down. They did so.
Pressing onward the light from the Staff became increasingly bright and Karnus emerged into a smallish reading room, bare save for a sturdy lecturn against the opposite wall. On this lay a closed book, with the star-symbol of Pflarr engraved on its ancient binding. Karnus advanced toward the lecturn with triumphant confidence, knowing he had found what he came seeking.
Lana left alone ... Threshold in danger
Lana strolled toward her master's Tower at a leisurely pace, wondering what might befall her companions in her absence. She hoped Karnus would find the knowledge he desired. From reading the old Hutaakan texts he had theorised that the site on the outskirts of Threshold might have been a Hutaakans centre for magical learning. No doubt he would find much to keep himself occupied. In the meantime, she ambled around town, reassured by the familiarity of her surroundings that nobody would hurl Magic Missiles at her, bury a dagger into her back, drop from a tree to test whether she was keeping her her dagger skills honed... or wrap her in an acid-slimed tentacle and drag her toward a gaping maw. For the first time in what seemed like ages, Lana embraced the peace and quiet.
That was, until she passed through Threshold's gates and heard sounds of determined hammering. Looking around, she saw one of the townfolk pounding the front door of the cottage which belonged to none other than her friend Drewen. Knowing the dwarf was helping Karnus with his quest, Lana approached and asked whether there was anything she might assist with. The man stared at her for a moment before bursting into explanation. As most people in town had heard, Drewen had recently returned to Rezgale's Ruins with Canerzon, finding the dungeon crawling with bugbears which he and Can had chased into the wilderness and far away from Threshold. Now, only weeks later, troupes of the same creatures had been seen prowling the forest just a short distance outside of town, by the shores of Lake Windrush. Was some-one using the bugbears to spy on the town? Thoughts of relaxation flew from Lana's mind, as her hand strayed to the pommel of her dagger.
As twilight began to descend, the woodsman escorted Lana to one of the spots where bugbears had been seen on the fringes of the forest. Surveying her surroundings, Lana bid the man return home to his family, stating that she would take care of the situation alone. She walked the forest for close to an hour before locating a set of tracks. Following these, she came upon a clearing where a campfire had burnt low one or two nights before. Guessing that the bugbears might not be far away, or that they might be stalking her at that very moment, Lana considered various options before deciding to set a trap. She let out a scream and retreated behind a bush, from where she conjured the illusion of a maiden lying wounded in the midst of the clearing, glittering treasures spilling from her pack. Bait! For an hour Lana stayed hidden, maintaining her focus on the phantasm, but to no avail. The bugbears must be elsewhere in the forest, she decided. She stood, letting her illusion cease and picking bits of twig from her robes. In that instant, however, there came a scream more bloodcurdling than her own fake attempt had been, from to the north by the Lake. The bugbears had returned.
Lana cast Fly upon herself and rose above the treetops, seeking a birdseye view of the terrain. By the distant lakeside, she spied steel glinting in the moonlight and could hear weapons clashing. Speeding on her way she heralded her own arrival at the battle by hurling three bolts of amber magic into the chests of the bugbears she saw present. To her excitement, the other combattants were elves whose armour bore the insignia of Duke Stefan. Whatever was the Elvenguard doing in Threshold, she wondered, fighting bugbears?
As she pondered this, one of the bugbear blades sank into the side of a male elf who dropped and lay unmoving on the lake's sandy shore. Seeing that the elves were losing the fight, Lana acted a little too hastily to lend support. She invoked a reversed Haste spell in an attempt to slow the bloodshed among the combattants and buy herself time to think, but the spell went awry - one of the bugbears remained unaffacted while one of the elves slowed. Another elf was slain but Lana closed with her dagger to repel the three remaining bugbears, and the battle turned in the elves' favour. She helped the surviving Elfguard to her feet, and after a brief exchange the two females were drawn toward more fighting further along the lakeside. Amid the dark of night Lana thought she discerned the outline of a ship, bare-masted and moored at one side of Lake Windrush.
A contingent of bugbears broke away and fled into the wilderness. Lana saw this, and shouted to the elves that she was going to give chase. She flew over the forest, located the bugbears and swooped down to cut off their retreat. To her shock she discovered that the bugbears had a leader.
A young female appeared from behind a tree, dressed in plain travelling garments. This girl appeared no older than Lana had been when she was placed into Valtanivark's two years earlier. The girl's demeanour conveyed unmistakable menace toward Lana; she knew her name and addressed her in an unpleasantly familiar manner. She spoke of how her master had gone to great lengths to stay informed of Lana's exploits, and had followed her companions' movements for some time. Lana demanded that the girl identify herself and her master, but the girl ordered her bugbear minions to attack. Lana was in a weakened physical state, and wished to save her strength to fight the enemy mage; she bid the forest undergrowth rise and engulf the bugbears in a mass of vines and brambles. As Lana was casting her spell, she became aware of the girl chanting on the other side of her plant barricade.
Her own spell complete, Lana stepped back. She had been distracted for a short while and knew the girl had found time to cast magic of her own across the thicket barrier. The girl called through the brambles, "My master's spies informed me how you fought well against one of these creatures in the past. Summoned from a device, wasn't it? Let's see whether you fare as well against MY summoning!"
With these words, a hulking form composed of rocks and undergrowth stepped from behind the screen of plants, at least sixteen feet tall. Lana's breath caught in her chest - the girl had summoned an elemental! Shocked to her core, she had no time to contemplate how one seemingly so young could perform so powerful a conjuration. More to the point, she realised that in her weakened form she stood little chance of vanquishing such a powerful foe. Before she could react, the beast hefted a fist and batted the green-robed mage like a fly - crushing half the life out of her. She was left with no choice - if she wished to survive she needed to turn the elemental against its summoner. That way the beast's attention would be diverted from Lana, the girl would have to defend herself and would use up spells which might otherwise obliterate Lana. Drawing a scroll of Magic Missile from her sleeve, she prepared to bombard the elemental and its summoner... but too late. The beast's fist slammed into her a second time, before she could unfurl her scroll. The fact she was airborne did little to lessen the damage. Thinking for a split second that she heard voices from a short way off, Lana's world went dark and she fell from the skies to land in the bushes.
The end of Lana?
Thankfully all not was as black as it seemed. Lana woke moments later, rubbing her head and realising no real harm had been caused, other than scratches and cuts from falling into the undergrowth. Looking around, she saw no footprints where the massive elemental had been standing, nor disruption to the ground where it had been summoned. In that instant everything made sense - the beast had been a phantasm, a fake! Lana kicked herself for her stupidity. True enough, she had heard somebody approaching before the elemental swatted her the second time - Aleena Halaran, niece of Sherlane Halaran of Threshold, arrived leading a contingent of the Elvenguard. They had heard fighting nearby, and had come to lend assistance. They had all witnessed the earthen giant punch Lana be punched from the air, then the beast had vanished and a girl had been seen fleeing into the depths of the forest. Lana knew now that the girl was little more than an apprentice to a more powerful magic-user. Which magic-user was commanding bugbear minions...? Lana and Aleena came to the most logical assumption - Bargle the Infamous.
Returning to Tarnskeep (the Patriarch's fortified castle home on the outskirts of Threshold) to spend the remainder of the night in peace, Aleena informed her uncle of the role Lana had played in opposing the bugbears. Baron Halaran seemed exceedingly appreciative of the small service Lana had rendered - he told her that he, Aleena and the Elvenguard were sworn to secrecy and could not divulge the detail of what had transpired on the lakeside that night. Bargle had been using Rezgale's Ruins as a den for his bugbear troops, and tonight they had launched a massive assault on the town, as if seeking something specific. Lana acknowledged the sensitivity of the matter and promised never to speak of what had happened to any person outside the Patriarch's trust.
Walking back to Valtanivark's tower the next morning, Lana reflected happily on how she had helped foil Bargle's scheming. His apprentice had revealed that her master was keeping a close eye on her and her companions, that he knew it was they who had killed his ally Falaryx, and that he knew them all by name. Dangerous stuff but good to know, Lana thought and reminded herself to inform her companions when they re-grouped. Then out of nowhere she found herself beset by crackling lightning; her body tensed from the shock and she collapsed to the ground. Yet all was not as it seemed, something about the sensation seemed amiss. She forced her mind to see through the illusion and shook off the harmful effect of the magic. Enraged at the unexpected attack, Lana knew there could be only one culprit. As she rose to her feet and turned to face her foe, there stood the young apprentice clutching a wand and glaring malevolently at her rival mage. Lana created a phantasmal Ice Storm in the hope of incapacitating the young woman, but she saw through the illusion. The female spat her disgust at Lana having attacked her with an illusion which she considered her "speciality" magic. The apprentice hurled a single Magic Missile which fizzled harmlessly as Lana erected a magical Shield ahead of time. Lana might have felled the child with real lightning or a salvo of her own missiles, but had taken enough from this upstart and decided to waste no spells. Closing for combat, Lana delivered two easy but non-lethal dagger strokes to the side of the girl's head, and she dropped at Lana's feet. Creating a Floating Disk, Lana deposited the girl's unconscious form on top and marched back in the direction of Tarnskeep.
The girl's malice for the people of Threshold proved unshakeable. She refused to co-operate in interrogation or lower her defences to accept assistance in turning her life around. She had been raised in the Black Eagle Barony, renowned den of villainy and oppression, ruled by Duke Stefan's cousin, the theatrical but harsh Baron von Hendricks. It was in Fort Doom within the Black Eagle Barony that Bargle the Infamous, so rumours told, had his base of operations. No doubt the evil wizard had taken this girl at an early age and compelled her to become his apprentice. The girl admitted that members of her family were Bargle's captives, and would be punished if she did not return from her mission.
Still the girl would not humble herself to accept the offers of help which were extended to her. Lana begged her to seek shelter from Bargle's prying eyes in Valtanivark's protection, but the girl laughed. She vowed to reveal her knowledge of what was happening in the town unbeknown to its residents, even Lana. The Patriarch lost no time placing a magical Quest upon her to prevent her from speaking of what she knew. Threshold (and the Duke's operation) would remain safe. The girl was led away to face trial for the part she had played in the bugbear raid, and Lana was thanked a second time for her assistance.
Walking home, Lana mused as to what the hidden secret on the shores of Lake Windrush might be. The Patriarch and Aleena were protecting someone or something, that much was sure. For the Duke and his Elvenguard to be involved made it all the more significant. Curious, she thought. During the fight with the apprentice, Lana had liberated the girl of a magical wand which Bargle had given her to facilitate whatever her mission was. After studying this item Lana deduced that the it detected secret openings. Perhaps one day she might discover whatever treasure Bargle sought so keenly.
In the meantime Lana suspected that Karnus and the others would have returned from their quest by now, bearing knowledge of the Staff and its workings. She hastened her step toward the Twisty Beard tavern where her companions would be toasting their success or drowning their sorrows.
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