Dark Sun: Call of the Desert

Chapter 8: The Lone and Level Sands Stretch Far Away, part 3

...Wherein the heroes deal with a defiler and take drugs

Day Five – Unknown Ruins
18th Day, Month of Haze, Season of Sun Ascending
We left the party in the center of an unknown tomb, readying their weapons to fight a sickly-looking human woman who appears to be the defiler they’ve been hunting.

The woman extends her arms and spreads her hands, palms down toward the earth. Each member of the party then feels a sickening pulling on their stomachs, and perhaps on their spirits, as the woman draws power from the life force around her. They realize this is what defiling feels like; and though all have an incomplete understanding of what it means, Fenwryk knows enough of the arcane practice to realize that the woman is drawing power for a spell.

Behind and around the sarcophagi, piles of sand draw together and begin to harden into six humanoid shapes, which then lurch like zombies towards the party. The defiler flees down the open hatch and closes it behind her.

After the party dispatches the sand zombies, they explore the chamber. They are able to pry up the lids of the sarcophagi to find some coin, and an obsidian-bladed, bone-hilted dagger imbued with primal magic.

Savrina finds a stone tablet on the shelves that has been inscribed with an ancient language she can’t read. She keeps the tablet, hoping to get it translated later in Balic. On the table the party finds a lot of useless broken glass, but also two healing potion fruits.

With the room duly investigated and looted, the party resolves to chase down and finish the defiler. They open the hatch to find a completely darkened space below, into which they cast a lit torch.

The torch lands on a raised platform. There’s a damp smell to the air that stands out against the customary desert dryness. Stairs lead down to a long pool of fetid water. The floor of the pool seems to be decorated with golden tiles at the edges, but the water is too murky to see more.

The defiler makes her stand here. When the party descends into the room they see humanoid corpses stacked by both front corners of the pool. The defiler is standing in the pool at the far end of the room.

As before, the defiler extends her arms, with palms facing downward toward the water. Each member of the party feels the nauseating pull in the pit of his or her stomach as dark, hazy tendrils spread out from the defiler’s feet into the water. Two zombies of decayed flesh rise from the piles of corpses.

In facing down the defiler, Savrina panics, going white in the face. For the first time since the expedition left Balic, she doesn’t retreat to cover or to a corner, but instead stretches out her arms before her: lightning arcs in forked lines from her fingertips, striking and damaging the defiler.

Since the party has only seen Savrina act as a noble and amateur scholar, they enjoy a collective WTF. Arcane magic – everyone knows – was the means by which the once-lush world of Athas became a grim wasteland. Maia aims her bow briefly at Savrina before turning back toward the defiler and firing. Sihaya grabs Savrina in a grapple, but Khadija persuades her to let Savrina go. Savrina, with a readiness that borders on fanaticism, continues flinging lightning and fire at the defiler.

The party takes the defiler down with ease, and they turned to their two other interest in the room: loot, and the other potential defiler.

Maia confronts Savrina about her spellcasting. She calls Savrina out as a defiler, nocks two arrows, and threatens to put one of them through each of Savrina’s eyes.

Savrina says, “I’m not a defiler. Please hear me out.”

Khayal and Markos would rather finish mauling and looting the defiler corpse before getting into the Savrina question. Khayal cuts the head off the defiler to take to the Tamwar nomads, and carries it by its unhealthily long hair. Markos rifles through the rags on the corpse, and comes away with an arcane amulet of beautifully polished agafari wood with a dull grey stone, and amulet of health. (At this point I turned on a digital voice recorder to help with transcribing events.)

Sihaya interposes her large half-giant self between Maia’s longbow and Savrina. “Someone told me to let Savrina go,” Sihaya says. “I don’t know why – but we’re gonna wait until they all come back. And then we’ll figure it out.”

Maia lowers her bow, but the arrows are still knocked. She says, “I’m waiting.”

Fenwryk suggests hearing Savrina out. Khadija is convinced that Savrina became magically corrupted when she picked up the stone tablet from the bookshelves. “I’m telling you,” she says in a gruff voice, “it was the tablet.”

Markos says that the group didn’t see Savrina defile – only the other woman – and they have never seen Savrina use magic before.

“It was the tablet,” repeats Khadija. “She was fine when she came in, she picked up the tablet, she went down in the hole, then…”

“That’th fine, I want to hear it from her mouth,” says Markos in his lisp, pointing at Savrina.

Khadija continues. “She had ample opportunity to do bad things to us all the way up here, and she didn’t. I’m telling you it was the tablet.”

Savrina says, “There are many kinds of magic in the world. There are many sources of magic, and also different ways to practice magic. Not everyone who uses arcane magic is a defiler. There are those of us – and we number more than you may think – who practice a slow, less powerful route in our casting, drawing on our own life energy, instead of on the life energy of plants and other living things. We’re called preservers.” She pauses, and takes a breath. “Some of us make it our life’s work to oppose defilers. I’m one of those.”

“I have heard of dees,” says Fenwryk. (Matt asks here where Fenwryk got the sudden Apu accent. I say, “It was the stone tablet.”)

Savrina says, “Although I didn’t expect to find a defiler on our trade journey, I wouldn’t have missed the chance to disable or stop this woman. If you would, before you do anything…” and she looks at Maia and Sihaya, “Rash… consider joining me in this task of opposing defilers wherever they are found."

“That doesthn’t theem like a very thelf-therving occupation,” says Markos.

“This is the gift or curse I was born with,” says Savrina. “Defilers make life harder for me. I oppose them wherever they may be found, including those in positions of great power.”

“We thertainly oppoth all defilerth in whatever form they may take,” says Markos.

“You realize this would include sorcerer kings and queens.”

“They are powerful enough that they are above our meanth,” answers Markos.

Maia interrupts the deliberations. “I think we should shoot her head off.”

“I have heard of this,” says Fenwryk again.

“Shooting people’s heads off?” asks Maia.

“Yes, but also this preserving that Savrina speaks of.”

Eventually, Maia is talked down from shooting heads off, and the group decides to spare Savrina’s life. They agree to consider helping her against defilers in the future, dependent on the gain.

A single wall torch dimly lights the room up the stairs. Two sarcophagi are closed with locks that the party discovers are enchanted to resist physical force. The locks have no protection against magic, however, and Savrina breaks them with a spell. Inside, they find an obsidian-bladed, bone-hilted carrikal (Carnage Weapon), which Khadija keeps, and a pair of large-sized black bone armbands (Bracers of Mighty Striking) for Sihaya.

In the center of the west wall is another stone golem. This one is missing the other half of his head (from the one in the earlier room), but the rest of him is intact. His surviving eye glitters faintly with a golden-tinted diamond.

This golem, unlike the other, comes to life when the party removes its diamond – but he proves to be no challenge.

The party enters the tomb’s last room, which is strangely lit by an ambient golden glow of no obvious source. Double golden rings, with elaborate sigils inside all the way around, mark the floor of the chamber. Ancient writing marks the back wall, which Savrina can read: “May you walk in his light, never knowing his heat.”

After some intra-party messing, in which Markos uses a psionic power to position Maia inside the rings, and Maia reacts by firing a warning arrow near him (and rolling a natural 20), the party moves on, uncomfortable with the strange, magical place.

The Tamwar aren’t in sight when the party emerges from the tomb, but some strangers are.

On stepping into the light, the adventurers find themselves surrounded by a ragtag group of humans, and a couple half-elves. Their faces and hair have been smeared with ochre-colored paint. They carry spears, which they’ve leveled at the party as it emerges from the dark tomb’s interior.

A man among them says, “Tomb robbers, stop and pay tribute to Herumar, the timeless sand scourge of the desert.”

Although they’re not exactly daunted by this greeting party, the heroes opt for the more diplomatic route (for a change). They convince the cultists of Herumar that the Tamwar have sent them to the tomb, not to loot but to eliminate a defiler. This seems to satisfy the cultists, who ask for a paper cut and drop of blood into the sands to keep their patron spirit happy, and are on their way.

The party meets the Tamwar again at the oasis edge as evening comes. Shakti al Tamwar, warlord and priest of the Annodar, meets them at the guard perimeter with seven warriors. Shakti identifies the defiler head and and escorts the party to see Ashuradi, the Tamwar chieftain. There, Ashuradi is pleased, and insists that the party initiates into the trust of the Tamwar tribe that very night by drinking the blood of the Annodar. He tells the party that the Tamwar will not ask the party to share their visions, but will be honored if the party chooses to do so.

That evening the party is escorted to what is evidently a sacred yurt. A small cauldron simmering with water and herbs fills the tent with steam from its center. After the drinking of the blood of the Annodar from a gourd, each member of the party relives vivid memories from the past. A memory is interrupted for each by these unsettling visions:

Khadija sees: It’s night, and the enormous, golden half-moon of Guthay fills your vision. Its beauty is intoxicating. You become aware of the soft, cool sands beneath your feet and the tops of zaal trees all around you.

Abruptly, a shimmering doorway opens on the sands before you. The doorway seems to have no substance beyond a golden light, and silvery frame. Two elves step out of the opening, and stand to either side of it on vigilant watch.

Fenwryk sees: In a crowded square, a balding, older human stands on the back of a sculpture. He’s shouting and drawing much attention to himself. His cracking voice reaches you: “Hear my words! Hear my tellings! I am the prophet Jejjereth, and I’ve seen that a shadow will cover you!”

“The winds will rock the earth, the stone shall quake and the silt shall rise a thousand feet! Giants of the sea will stand and walk the streets and slaughter the sons and daughters of Balic! You are doomed! A shadow will cover you! And you are doomed! And you and… you!”

The older man pauses and stares into empty space. An elf girl takes advantage of the quieter moment to loudly hawk her goods.

“Rock candy!” she calls. “Get rock candy here!”

Khayal sees: Beside the fire in a dusty inn, a woman claps her hands to her ears, complaining of the howling winds of silt storm outside. “Help,” she says to an old woman, in an anguished voice. “Since I drank from that gourd, I’m seeing and hearing impossible things…”

The old woman starts to question her, but the woman turns instead toward the door and runs out into the storm, hands still to her ears. Some from the inn follow her.

The woman starts screaming about seeing giants rising from the sea and crushing bodies beneath their toes as they walk the streets of Balic, and night itself following them, swallowing everything up. Whenever another tries to calm her, the woman shakes them away wildly. All that night, the wind blows feral over her.

In the morning, the silt has settled, and the woman lies just outside the village, choking, and dying, from silt lung.

Markos sees: A massive white tower, its golden dome colored rosy from the light of the crimson sun, rises above the thin layer of airborne silt hovering over the city streets. You recognize this as the Tower of Balic, residence of Ozymandias the Sun King and his templarate.

As you watch, the tower starts to glow, and then burns brightly as though filled with unseen flames.

Sihaya sees: A woman is trapped under fallen bricks on a city street, yelling, reaching her hand out. People run past, but no one stops. A darkness like a fast approach of nightfall reaches her, and she opens her mouth to scream, but is silent. Her body dries out and collapses into black dust, which begins to scatter in the first wind.

(Sihaya sufficiently traumatized by this to be unwilling to discuss it with anyone but Markos.)

Maia sees Saranas, the chieftain of her old people, the Sun Runners, apparently meeting with the Cult of Herumar, refusing something from them, and fighting them.

Day Six – Return to Balic
19th Day, Month of Haze, Season of Sun Ascending
The next morning, their initiation done, the party is treated to a bountiful breakfast from the Tamwar. The tribe concludes trade negotiations with Savrina, and see the party off at the Zaal Hand.

On the return north, the party encounters with a group of 30 east-roaming Sun Runners. Maia, spotting them, raises her arms to them in a signal. When the Sun Runners approach, there’s a silence as they recognize Maia, then look away. A golden-haired child among them blurts out, “Maianar!” An adult elf woman says, “Be quiet, Baezi. That woman is dead to us and we don’t remember her or speak her name.”

Maia answers, “You keep the traditions and it’s right that you not greet me. But I remember you, and you’re alive to me. Nothing says that the dead must deny what their eyes see.”

Ignoring Maia, Kallah says to Baezi, “We accept in this life what will be true after. Maia will be absent from the Golden Lands. She will not run with the ancestors in the afterlife. She can find peace on whatever other road carries her on its back.”

The Sun Runners, disinclined to raid now, move on from Maia’s group, saying nothing more.

That night while most of the party sleeps, Khayal wakes to see the wedge-shaped head of an enormous mantis, or thri-kreen, staring into her own with its glossy black eyes. To the mantis’s surprise, Khayal greets it in its native language. In the discussion that follows, the mantis introduces itself as T’Chako and persuades the party to allow it to join them for travel safety.

T’Chako, who discloses that she is female, is on her way to Balic. She is trying to contact the Jade Order, an order of monks and psions who seek serenity through balance. She had snuck in under cover to more closely examine one of the sleepers in the party. Like most thri-kreen, she doesn’t understand sleeping, and regards it with bemusement. Still, it appears that the habits of civilized humanoids fascinate her, and she asks many questions about them as the group travels. Sihaya and Khayal seem to take to the mantis, and indulge her questions about dreams and other strange humanoid habits.

Day Seven – Through the Stony Barrens
20th Day, Month of Haze, Season of Sun Ascending
This day is uneventful and the party comes to Last Port in the late evening.

The old woman is still at the fire, braiding cord. For a small gratuity, she tells the party about the groups of slaves that have come through the port in the last few days, estimating 8-10 groups of 8-10 chained slaves, along with templars and minotaur soldiers. She says they crossed the silt from the north, and traveled east. She doesn’t know where they’re going, but they come through every year, and those who follow tend not to return.

Since they are at this point returning to Balic, the party notes this for future reference.

Day Eight –Crossing the Estuary to Balic
21st Day, Month of Haze, Season of Sun Ascending
The Dead Legion, the silt skimmer captained by Zentoth, arrives at the port in the morning, and the party hires Zentoth to ferry them back to Balic. Pmumble is there, still mumbling, and the other crew are there as well.

Zentoth complains that they’ve seen two other cloud rays since they dropped the party off, and asks if the party is cursed. Jabber comments on the increase of the rare cloud rays. “And we saw a giant trompin’ around! Hardly ever see those this far west.”

In the evening, the Dead Legion arrives in Balic.

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