Mavriy boldly advances down the crooked steps. A narrow passage carved from a natural cavern continues for thirty paces before widening into a dim antechamber. Eerie violet, pink and blue light seeps past two square columns carved with disturbing symbols. Massive stone double doors stand across a floor of tilted and broken flagstones. Each door is carved with the dour image of a robed dwarf.
Mesmer employs magic to decipher sigils on the columns. These look like a precursor of modern Khazad letters. The columns tell the story of Khunar, formerly an angel of Dagda, who proclaimed himself a god late in the Age of Dragons after the twenty-one Angels of Creation withdrew from arcanearth. Of particular note is a mantra repeated over and over: “Khunar urges us to contrast all options before acting.” Khunar’s priests seemed to be contemplative but prone to indecision, mirroring the traits of their false god.
Further experimentation reveals that beyond the twin columns, spells last only a short time before being dispelled. Upon passing the threshold, Mesmer’s conjured familiar is dispelled back to its pocket dimension. Even worse, his magical mage-armor dissipates. Magic of a more permanent nature is unaffected, such as the green ever-burning torch looted from Asmoday’s prison years ago.
The luminescent lichens, molds, and fungi clinging to the walls seem harmless. These shrivel when struck by magic fire conjured outside the columns without emitting noxious spores. Krag searches a small side-chamber fitted with hundreds of rusty key-hooks mounted on bronze panels. Many have come loose and fallen to the floor. Scores of iron, bronze and silver keys still hang from the panels and hundreds more lie among the rubble. Leelo looks for secret doors, but tomb robbers long ago excavated the walls and floor using picks and hammers.
The massive stone portal yields to Mavriy’s awesome strength. Beyond is a dark chamber thick with unnatural shadows. A tiered dais supports the polished marble statue of a five-eyed snail over nine feet high. Each eye-stalk peers in one of five directions. Beyond the snail is a smaller dais supporting a square stone column three feet high, identical to the pedestals found in previous shrines. However, no cubic key is in evidence.
Krag and Hoxton peer into the shrine from beyond the half-open stone portal. Leelo cautiously explores while Mavriy and Mesmer stand guard. Five niches are carved into the walls above short stone plinths. At the back of each niche hangs an iron key, much like the keys Krag found in the key-chamber. At the base of the pedestal Leelo finds a keyhole designed to accept the iron keys. The keyhole doesn’t seem to harbor any mechanical traps, but the elf is leery of attempting a lock-pick. Mesmer can’t resist the lure of strange magic and joins Leelo by the pedestal.
Leelo uses mage-hand to fish the five keys from their niches. Krag retrieves several keys from the key-chamber. They all match the size and conformation, but not the cuttings of the niche-keys.
Mavriy boosts Hoxton atop the giant marble snail. The yard-high eye stalks can’t be turned or otherwise manipulated. The statue seems to be one solid piece of stone. Mesmer determines the idol radiates evocation magic.
Leelo chooses this moment to insert the first of five keys, thinking they must all be inserted in sequence as suggested by the mantra upon the columns. The snail bursts into a scintillating rainbow of colors. Prismatic rays slice the dark into ribbons. Hoxton, Mavriy and Krag are burned by radiant energy. Leelo and Mesmer dodge behind the pedestal and avoid injury. Krag’s healing magic is instantaneous and functions within the shrine’s magic-dispelling field.
Krag grabs the keys and lays them one atop the other. Each has a different cut and together produce a unique pattern. The half-orc again proves his wisdom regarding shrine-puzzles and general dungeoneering. Mesmer and Hoxton help dig through the rubble in the key-chamber until forty minutes later Krag comes up with a key exactly matching the required pattern.
Mavriy, Hoxton and Krag watch from beyond the snail-statue. Leelo turns the key in the column’s base before Mesmer can jump away. The pedestal pivots, revealing a hollow containing a stone cube six inches to the side. The cube is carved on all sides with the five-eyed snail avatar of Khunar. Leelo retrieves the precious cube as Mesmer stares in fascination.
Chaos erupts when three incorporeal demons of purple and black shadow seep from the walls. The fiend confronting Mesmer is strangely familiar. It is the shadow demon summoned outside Kamarkhar mine. Mesmer retreats to a corner and strikes the first demon with effective magic. The demon next to Leelo snatches the cube from her numb fingers. The light-elf shakes off her surprise and whips out a silver rapier and magic dagger.
Rather than seep back into the wall, the demon flees toward the open temple doors with its prize. Apparently, the cube can’t become incorporeal when carrying the cube-key. Hoxton and Krag block the demon from reaching the portal. Meanwhile, Mavriy makes play with her magic axe and quickly destroys the demon attacking Mesmer.
The demon carrying the cube is destroyed by Leelo, Mavriy, and iron darts from Hoxton. In a comical trifecta, the flying kobold monk nearby impales his own tail, snatches the missile out the air and redirects it into the back of the fleeing demon. He retrieves the stone cube and tosses it to Mesmer.
Krag and Leelo destroy the last shadow-demon. From the open portal shines a quivering rainbow of sickening radiance: bloody pink, chalky blue and poisonous green. The shrine trembles as a monstrous tar-demon erupts from the broken floor of the antechamber. This is no minor fragment like those encountered in the deadlands. The fiendish blob squeezes through the open portal before Mavriy can slam it shut. Krag’s old phobia of puddings, jellies and slimes leaves him paralyzed with fear.
Mesmer uses his new spell of polymorphing for the first time. Despite powerful magic resistance, the coruscating demon-jelly disappears. The shrine is plunged back into darkness but for the green light of Mesmer’s torch. Hoxton snatches up a squawking chicken with glowing green eyes. At the urging of Mesmer, Leelo and Hoxton trap the fiend-fowl in the secret space beneath the cube-pedestal. Mavriy and Krag slam the stone portal shut and jam it with spikes, sealing the polymorphed monstrosity inside the shrine. Problem solved!
Congratulating themselves on a job well done, the Rune Heroes make haste to depart Khunar’s cursed shrine of nightmare. They tumble into the upper hall to be greeted by the anxious faces of Xar, Grenl and Grathim. The face of the young dwarf merchant-prince is pinched and pale. “What transpired within the shrine? We felt the stones of the mountain quaking! What have you done?!” A beaming Mesmer replies, “Not to worry young sir, we have merely addressed a few deficiencies within the shrine. Our work here is done!”
At that moment a tremor shakes the floor, followed by a hollow boom. The stone portals! Mesmer glances nervously down the steps. “All is well, I assure you. Lead the way, and be quick about it!” Leelo smirks. Krag grips his war-hammer nervously. Hoxton flies back down the steps and peers through the gloom. A bulging wall of hellish pudding squeezes down the narrow passage. The monk uses his Fan of Tali to summon and sustain a mighty gust of wind. Mesmer abandons the stammering Grathim and runs down the steps to join Hoxton. The wizard further slows the onrushing demon-blob with an application of magical grease. Untold carnage will no doubt result should the demon escape into the inhabited areas of Mazark’s undercity.
Hoxton’s gale-force wind and Mesmer’s slippery magic give Leelo time to organize a defense in the hall above. She winds the Horn of Danalin to summon three unfortunate aifon spirit-warriors. No one wants to lose their weapons to the tar-demon, known to absorb and destroy anything striking it. Seconds later a half-dead Hoxton flies into the hall and doesn’t stop until well away. The kobold is covered in poisonous ichor. Mesmer stumbles into the hall and flees past the stalwart myrmidons of Danalin.
Shimmering waves of sickening radiance fill the hall as the tar demon bursts through. Black tarry pseudopods thrash and grapple two nearby myrmidons. Both are absorbed into the quivering bulk without a sound. It seems that when more enemies strike at the tar demon, even more pseudopods emerge in response.
Not willing to risk his gnome-crafted magic hammer, Krag strikes with a conjured spirit-weapon. After several spells fail to harm the creature Mesmer discovers fire-magic is at least partially effective. Leelo scorches the hellish beast with magic fire arrows and firebolts. Grenl and Xar ply their short bows without much effect. Mavriy attempts to curse the monster with a compulsion to attack only her but is defeated by spell resistance. Krag retreats step by step as his summoned spirit guardians further slow and injure the advancing demon.
The last aifon warrior falls. Krag screams the battle cry of his ancestors and charges forward. He’s finally overcome his debilitating fear of jellies, puddings, and slimes! The pulsing blob is reduced to a smoking heap by fire, arrows, and magic. The remains evaporate into a stinking fume which presently returns to the cold swamps of Mulcarn’s hell.
Grathim witnessed the defeat of the tar demon and relays the news to his father. The dwarves of Mazark celebrate the purging of this ancient curse from their city. A fitting capstone for the newly-knighted Heroes of the Khazad!
The Deepening’s icy grip finally yields to the sun of late spring. The Rune Heroes bid their dwarven friends farewell. They will accompany the returning caravan including a dozen Khazad wagons bearing iron, weapons, armor, and gold for the Grigorian capitol of Midgar. Lady Freya remains in Mazark to watch over Ironhelm House.
The trip over Pristinus pass requires only three weeks. There is no sign of Mulcarn’s fimbulwinter or fell beasts, though snow still lies across the trail at the highest pass. What will the next winter bring? Surely the Illians will not give up their efforts to summon Mulcarn or at least make Auric Ulvin their deity’s avatar.
At the port of Kaldoros the Rune Heroes find the long-awaited Elohim diplomatic frigate, recently arrived after a six-week voyage across the Earthsea. Fair winds sped the ship across the western Earthsea after leaving the Amurite Isles. Mesmer takes possession of his original backup spell book with ten spells of 1st through 2nd level. Leelo retrieves her white dragon armor (+1 studded leather with frost resistance). There will always be another winter! Krag signs for five hundred gold pieces previously gathering dust in the vaults of Trinity.
Arcanearth Events | 391-392 AR
Great events have occurred along the far border between Malakia and the newly-conquered eastern provinces of the Infernal and Sheaim empires. During the winter and spring, battles raged in the distant south near Ultigar, Nubilar, and the fortress of Kraz-kiri. The fortunes of heroes and empires change for better or worse.
The Malakim led by Chalid Astrakein, great hero of the Empyrean, reconquered Ultigar over the winter but are now surrounded and trapped in the city. Their escape route to the east is soon blocked by Hyborem, who personally leads his legions to conquer Nubilar, the gateway to Malakim lands. The defenders in Ultigar amount to four mages (13-16th level arcanists – wizards or sorcerers for the most part) and two vicars (13-16th level clerics of Lugus) with their retinues, one thousand light infantry, four hundred ‘Ratha’ (heavy chariots with acolytes of Lugus), a company of elite desert rangers, and various siege troops left over from the original liberation of Ultigar.
The Grigori expeditionary army is soon cut off and trapped atop the desert hills east of Ultigar and south of Nubilar. Encroaching hellish terrain accompanies the advance of the Sheaim-Hyborem alliance, rendering much of the desert impassable to those without magical protections or natural resistance to fire. The desert sands burn night and day with no visible source of fuel.
The Grigori force is led by the Dragonslayer Sidhelle (19th level arcane knight) and his legion of adventurers from the guilds of Midgar and Kaldoros. The main force consists of fifteen hundred hobilars (mounted heavy infantry), eight hundred mercenary troops, the four greatest mages of Grigoria (13-16th level arcanists), two adepts (9-12th level arcanists), one thousand light infantry, thirty siege engines, and one field hospital of the Ordine Medicos.
After their defeat at Ultigar last spring, the Sheaim-Asmoday forces retreated thirty leagues northwest to the dour mountain fortress of Kraz-kiri. Here they gather power and are soon reinforced by the cambion prince Mardero leading a fresh army of pyre zombies, summoned beings, ritualists, and a battalion of armored crossbowmen from Dragonspire fortress. Rosier the Fallen and his regiment of elite heavy cavalry arrive to raid the lands surrounding Ultigar, ensuring no help reaches the besieged defenders.
By spring of 392 the Sheaim force consists of two thousand pyre zombies, thirty-five hundred slaves, two ritualists (13-16th level clerics of the Veil) with their retinues, two mages (13-16th level sorcerers or warlocks), three moebius witches each leading several hundred troops conjured from the far corners of space and time, three Eidolons (evil paladin lords) leading six hundred heavy infantry, three hundred light archers, and finally a dreaded ‘Beast of Agares’ with accompanying pack of infernal hounds. The arch-lich Asmoday has also taken refuge in Kraz-kiri. His summoned legion of undead spirits roam the hills around Ultigar by night, slowly wearing down the defenders.
Valin Phanuel, the greatest paladin of the Bannor, appears unexpectedly in the north to raid Sheaim territory between Tia’ran and Val’ron. Apparently, the paladin lord and a small force of three hundred cavalry and one Order high priest survived the defeat of the Bannor army at San’ta’ron last year. Rosier is forced to race north in pursuit. Rosier’s cavalry soon comes to grips with Valin’s force and drives his arch-nemesis from the environs of Tia’ran, inflicting heavy casualties. Hyborem likewise dispatches slower troops north from Nubilar to prevent Valin from penetrating south.
The Infernal force in Nubilar consists of fifteen hundred heavy infantry lead by half-demon paladins, five hundred infernal champions of varying types, eight hundred hell hounds, fifteen hundred manes, imps, and dretches, and one ritualist of the Veil (16th level cleric) with retinue. Hyborem is always accompanied by a powerful bodyguard of cultists and fiends. A company of deadly assassins loaned by Os-Gabella operates out of the city.
Malakim reinforcements from Dendara are intercepted and destroyed piecemeal by Hyborem’s flanking army in Nubilar. Few make it through to Ultigar. Then the Malakim defenders of Ultigar are stunned when Chalid Astrakein is slain by Sheaim assassins, obviously aided by powerful sorcery. Mardero the cambion prince leads the final assault against the dispirited defenders. The city falls before the Grigorian relief force can arrive. Few Malakim make it back to the east.
Meanwhile, Valin’s rag-tag cavalry is finally trapped between Rosier in the north, Dragonspire fortress in the west and Infernal troops approaching from the south. Burning infernal sands prevent escape east. The fate of the greatest Bannor paladin is unknown, but the worst is feared.
Sidhelle’s army is surrounded atop desert hills south of Nubilar. Hyborem personally leads the attack from Nubilar while Mardero attacks from the west through Ultigar. Mardero and Sidhelle meet in single combat atop the last hill. The legendary arcane knight falls to the cambion prince. The Grigorian expeditionary force is utterly destroyed by this devastating attack from two directions.
By the summer of 392, Hyborem’s legion is re-positioned north at Val’ron for an attack east along the coast into the Nilus river delta. The Sheaim army is likewise suspected to be massing in the south for an attack east from Nubilar toward the headwaters of the Nilus river and the Malakim capitol. The Elohim issue a proscription and blockade the Straights of Aduro, but stop short of declaring war. A squadron of Mercurian frigates catches and destroys a fleet of Sheaim transports attempting to run the blockade and enter the Ligurian Sea.
In other news, the Ljosalfar finally recapture Skyweir and cast out their dark brethren, who retreat north to lick their wounds and formulate new plots. Queen Phaedra seems to have brought the wayward Prince Amalanchier back under her sway and declares war on the Sheaim-Hyborem alliance. This is a largely symbolic gesture as there is precious little the Ljosalfar can contribute at the moment.
But perhaps the biggest event of the spring is Basium’s conquest of the Calabim city of Myrean on the Lanthir coast. In a remarkable feat of geopolitical brinksmanship, the fallen archangel of Arawn negotiates a 700-mile passage for his army through both Ember and Grigori lands, two empires that happen to be at war. Ember accedes by virtue of their peace treaty with the Bannor and past bad blood with the Calabim, while the Grigori see a benefit in anything that discommodes their bloodthirsty neighbors. Alexis and Flauros are taken completely by surprise when two thousand angels personally led by Basium storm down from the mountains and take Myrean without a fight. The northernmost Calabim province is now cut off from the southern empire.
Basium has achieved far more than his Bannor allies and with far less. The archangel has issued a challenge that can’t be ignored for long. How will the vampires react to this insult? For now at least, the mighty Calabim army led by General Valas remains at San’ta’ron. Perhaps they hope to capitalize on the expected Hyborem/Sheaim assault on Malakia? Or might the Calabim fear the approach of demonic hordes more than angels on their northern doorstep? It can be difficult to divine the vampire lords’ motivations, who studiously avoid binding treaties or alliances with other nations of Arcanearth. As such, the vampires must be considered a wildcard in the upcoming struggle for the southern continent.
Hoxton and Mavriy eagerly check on the progress of the beast-masters in Kaldoros. Unfortunately, Hoxton’s wyvern hatchling escaped four weeks ago, eating a stable-boy and maiming two others in the process. A portion of his fee will go to their next of kin and families. The beast has no doubt taken refuge in the mountains and will be a problem for future heroes.
Mavriy’s wyvern has submitted to training and is now bigger than a heavy warhorse, but with a forty-foot wingspan and deadly stinger! After a month of flight training, Mavriy is ready to take possession of the savage beast. Cargo space aboard the Witches Brew is renovated into a bronze-and-iron-barred stable with adjacent quarters for two permanent grooms. Most certainly a risky job title. The sailors are dubious at first, given that the parents of this very wyvern killed several of their shipmates only last year.
Quest for the Cubic Keys
The Rune Heroes return to Midgar and Cassiel’s palace. Toric provides counsel regarding the undiscovered keys to the Vault of the Nine. Two might be found in the far south across hundreds of miles of desert. Three are secreted away in the jungles, swamps, and wild coasts of the Candaba Peninsula to the east. :
The southern route will involve a far journey to the Malakim city of Abydos eight hundred miles south. Other routes to Abydos are possible, all no doubt perilous in varying degrees.
- The Temple of Zoa: somewhere in the arid southern wastes between Calabim and Malakim empires. Zoa was a truthful and kind angel of Nantosuelta, Goddess of Faith.
- The Temple of Tlaxacotl: somewhere in the arid southern wastes between Calabim and Malakim empires. Tlaxacotl was a selfish and cruel angel of Ceridwen, Goddess of Magic.
Three shrines can be found among the jungles and swamps of the wild Candaba peninsula four hundred miles to the east.
- The Temple of Lingnang: coastal swamps somewhere north of Kalocy in Candaba province. Lingnang was a shrewd and conniving angel of Mammon, God of Greed.
- The Temple of Mugambi: somewhere in the far jungles of Candaba province. Mugambi was a wise and virtuous angel of Sirona, Goddess of Wisdom.
- The Temple of Zubakhan: swamps along the coast of Candaba province west or north of the Lanun city of Bolans at the southeastern tip of the peninsula. Zubakhan was a wild and spirited angel of Amathaon, Goddess of Life.
The Rune Heroes elect to explore the Candaba peninsula first. Three of the five shrines lie in this direction and the Witches Brew can sail along the coast and upriver as well. Hoxton is quietly pleased with this decision, owing to certain instructions given him by master Cosmas when he left the Guardian Monastery last year. In the summer of 392, five Rune Heroes, four henchmen, eight ships-crew, one wyvern and two grooms depart Kaldoros across the Lavrentine Gulf.