Mesmer conjures his magical hut to provide welcome respite from the Infernal elements. Without such magic it is questionable if mortals could survive long in the hell-terrain spreading out from Hyborem’s capitol. Surely the Sheaim have sealed the fate of the world by making the Infernal Pact with Agares. Yet lands not conquered by the Sheaim or Infernals still seem secure from the hell-blight. But for how long?
The sun is a gunmetal disc in a sky of watered blood. Cyclonic storms of ash and fire sweep across the desecrated land. Even the best hunter would be lucky to find a lizard or beetle in this hellish environment. Ten more days of food remain aboard the magic disc.
Around mid-day the sound of chittering laughter floats on the wind. The Rune Heroes form a circle among a pile of defensible boulders. Leelo hears the flapping of leathery wings and sends an arrow from her magic Svartalfar short-bow true and straight. A dying imp falls from the sky. The gang of invisible imps quickly retreat from the tide of magic and missiles flung skyward by the Rune Heroes.
Lurid dreams haunt mortal sleep the night of the second day. The alfar rogue Leelo needs little sleep and is largely unaffected. Late in the black fire-lit night she hears a groan and sees strange movements beneath Mavriy’s blanket. Someone or something is in there with the paladin! Mesmer is on guard duty, but fails to notice anything amiss until the alfar shouts an alarm.
In her tormented sleep, Mavriy recalls a handsome young lad from the days of her youth in Cafes. Somehow he is with her now. But wait, Cafes is now an outpost of the Infernals and the former Elohim colonists dead and gone! The boy transforms into a glowing-eyed fiend with long black claws and leathery wings. Mavriy manages to hold the thirsting incubus at bay. With one hand she reaches for her battle axe and brings it down upon the hideous face.
A short chaotic fight erupts within the confines of the magic hut. Leelo stabs the screaming devil with her silver blades. Mesmer blasts it with magic. Hoxton pummels it with his fighting fan. Before the creature can retreat into the spirit-realm it is reduced to a smoking pile of ashes and black bones. Krag animates the black incubus bones to replace one of his lost skeletons. It appears the hut is not proof against intrusions from the spirit realm.
The Rune Heroes stare at one another with blood-shot eyes. All are exhausted and must rest. A roaring cloud of ashes shot with white-hot embers rolls across the landscape close by the depression where they shelter. In the distance a miasma of greenish-yellow gas erupts from the tortured earth.
The five weary travelers set off late in the day and cover only a few miles before night falls like a black shroud. Not a single star is visible in the boiling darkness above. The moon is only a memory. Fortunately this night brings no infernal visitors to the hut.
A deep and wide canyon blocks southward progress on the fifth day of the journey. It might require a full day to circumvent this obstacle. A nearby crevice provides access to the bottom of the canyon, but it is crowded with small humanoid demons. Mavriy identifies these wretched creatures as ‘manes’. They occupy the second to the lowest rung on the infernal ladder. Mesmer summons a pack of smoke mephits, small elementals he first discovered in the dragon-infested forges of Kamarkhar. They make short work of the manes. Now ten damned souls must fight their back way up the ranks from lemure to manes. An hour later the Rune Heroes climb the other side of the canyon and continue on their way. Again the night passes with no interruption greater than ominous rumblings beneath the earth.
According to the maps draw by Mesmer and Xar, the location of Os-Gabella’s ancient fortress lies another sixty miles southeast in mountains above the hellish plains. Will the food last that long? Hungry days may lie ahead. The party passes by the tumbled stones of ruined walls and towers.
The remnants of Kuriotate roads guide the Rune Heroes southeast. In the distance a pack of monstrous fire-breathing hounds chase something across the barren hills. Pursued and pursuers disappear into the haze, their fate unknown.
That night the roiling heavens briefly part to reveal a blood red star. None are familiar with this celestial body. A new addition to the night sky? After an hour the new star is concealed by smoke and ash.
In the darkest hours Leelo notices a spectral form limned in red fire hovering above Mesmer’s bedroll. Hoxton is on guard duty, but the phenomenon is barely visible and he fails to take notice. Leelo leaps across the hut and spears the humanoid shape with her silver rapier and magic dagger. The being vents a distant howl, as if from the bottom of a deep well, then disappears from sight. Mesmer wakes and sees the alfar standing over him. “Leelo, I was having the most interesting dream, and here you are to disturb me!” The wizard rolls over and goes back to sleep none the wiser.
The party passes by the remnant of a buried stone collossus on the seventh day. The exposed marble face stares up into blood-colored clouds. A trio of horrid barbed devils leap from behind the marble face.
Mesmer again summons his pack of smoke-mephits from the borderland between the elemental vaults of fire and earth. They surround and blind the devils one at a time. Krag summons his spirit-guardians and attacks with his hammer and pack of skeletons. Mavriy fights from her hell-horse, smiting left and right with her magic battleaxe. Leelo dodges behind the besieged devils and runs them through with her silvered rapier and magic dagger. Hoxton deals the final blows with his fighting-fan of Tali. These fiends apparently mistook the Rune Heroes for helpless travelers. Lacking the power of flight or spirit-realm transference, none escape.
A weird poison-green radiance illuminates the night sky on the eighth day. All toss and turn in their sleep. Even Leelo has a difficult time resting. Visions of torture and death arrive unbidden to disturb her reverie. Krag prays to Xrarog, but the war-god seems far away.
Mesmer wakes to find his bed occupied by an unknown enchantress from his past, yet somehow familiar. “Why does the name Idalla spring to mind! Where do I know her from?” Her eyes are glowing windows promising irresistible vistas of pleasure. The addled wizard is bereft of his senses. Carnal festivities commence forthwith.
Krag is oblivious, but Leelo finally notices more than one person beneath Mesmer’s bedroll. She rips the blanket away to reveal a horrific sight: the moaning Amurite lies entwined with a black-taloned succubus. Violet lightning illuminates the hut as life-force arcs from victim to fiend. Before the demoness can fully satisfy herself, Leelo runs her through with rapier and dagger. The enfeebled wizard can barely manage to crawl away from the ensuing brawl. His face and lips are scorched black by unnatural fire.
Krag and Hoxton jump from their blankets. Is this yet another nightmare? The kobold monk reacts first, stunning the succubus before she can depart the mortal realm with Mesmer’s stolen life-force. Krag slams his magic hammer into her head for good measure. From where he lies gasping, Mesmer babbles the first spell he thinks of. The fiend shrinks into the form of a red-eyed smoke-breathing tortoise. The tortoise sports ridiculous bat-wings far too small to lift it.
All gather round the helpless enemy and strike as one. The tortoise-fiend is smashed into smoking black pulp before the succubus can reform and escape into the aether. In death it transforms into a bizarre combination of succubus and turtle with a single female leg and she-devil’s humanoid face. Mavriy and Krag recognize Idalla, the succubus imprisoned by the gnome mage Arun-da’til and accidentally freed by the Rune Heroes some years ago. Mesmer opens his ‘little black book of shame’ and tallies one less monstrous female to trouble his dreams.
The night has been taxing. The exhausted Rune Heroes lose another day resting and recuperating. Only two days of food and water remain, yet Mesmer estimates 3-4 days of travel lie ahead, assuming no more unwelcome interruptions.
A troubling morning dawns. The dim sky is shot with streamers of smoke and fire. As the party trudges across a field split by ravines and dotted with calderas of smoking stone, the ground shakes violently and begins to collapse. A tower of deadly ash and white-hot embers billows up from the new sinkhole. The blinding cloud soon separates the Rune Heroes as they race to outrun the pit. Flashes of purple lightning fracture the darkness.
Leelo and Hoxton dodge searing embers and escape the pit and deadly cloud without injury. Mesmer appears next, having sped his feet with magic. The wizard rolls in the dust to extinguish his burning clothes. Mavriy charges out of the cloud with many serious burns, surviving only thanks to her infernal heritage. Krag blunders around randomly until hearing the sound of his friend’s cries. The smoking half-orc is barely recognizable when he finally emerges.
The rest of the day and night is required to wounds and recover from the ordeal. Here Krag discovers that his healing magic is far less effective than normal. The last of the water is entirely insufficient to quench five parched throats. That night the red star appears again, this time larger and brighter with a pronounced tail of orange flame. Somewhere the Rune Heroes have seen this evil star before…
Mountains appear in the distance through the hazy light of dawn. The next day is spent climbing foothills higher and higher, then eastward up a wide valley into mountainous uplands. The Infernal’s hellish hold on the land seems to dissipate somewhat. A few normal plants begin to appear, but still no food or water is to be had.
On the morning of the eleventh day, Krag again tries to summon sustenance from Xrarog. Instead of cool clear water, rotting blood rains from the sky. Dismembered body parts appear all around. The bloated entrails and rotting limbs are distinctly humanoid and some still wear pieces of armor. A few splintered black bones and horns are clearly fiendish. The Rune Heroes can only stagger onward into the mountains.
Late on the twelfth day a foul smell of corruption blows down the valley. An hour later the suspected battlefield comes into view. High mountains rise all around. The scene of death and desolation is lit by the red-tailed star hanging high in a mauve-gray sky. What baneful events does the Blood Comet presage this time? The pallid disc of the setting sun casts jagged shadows across the valley.
The rotting remains of Sheaim and Infernal soldiers surround a destroyed camp large enough to accommodate perhaps four or five hundred. Standards of the black dragon and the red demon lie trampled in the bloody dust. The Sheaim contingent included soldiers, officers, priests and sorcerers, all burned and hacked to death by holy fire. Charred remnants of infernal fiends are mixed in with Sheaim corpses. Vultures and scavenger dogs slink away as the intruders advance.
The earthly remains of a ten or twelve angels lie among the dead. The celestial attack was swift, for there is no sign of organized defense. The battle occurred no more than ten days past. The Rune Heroes are able to scavenge six days of food and water from destroyed tents and wagons.
Near the center of the battlefield a single fiend somehow survives. The mutilated demon drags herself slowly across the battlefield. Three of six arms are reduced to charred stumps and her torso is severed from a snake-like lower body. The creature is repeating something over and over, like a mantra.
Mavriy approaches. The fiend rolls over to reveal a face of evil beauty. Eyes glow blue-white as if possessed by some alien magic. The dying demoness announces a premonition of the apocalypse in words all can understand:
…as the people remain blind to the imminent threat to their world despite previous warnings, four harbingers of destruction shall arrive, riding dread steeds and each keeping the shadow of terror as their constant companion…
…and the first of the four shall be known as Stephanos, though the terrified mortals in their whispers of dread will name him the Conqueror. He shall claim the lands of mortals as his own, he shall slay the armies of men who attempt to stand against him, and soon all the empires will fall to his unyielding rule…
With these words the demoness collapses in a cloud of swirling embers.
At the head of the valley the Rune Heroes discover a dark obelisk positioned below a sheer cliff. Two square passages are carved into the base of the cliff near the stone dolmen. The crumbled remains of some ancient fortress stand atop the cliff. This can only be Os-Gabella’s stronghold described in mosaics and inscriptions on the walls of her temple above Thonis. Os-Gabella’s bid for divinity may have failed, but her discarded works still mar the face of Creation. Does the Soul Forge and phylactery of Asmoday lie beneath?