The Verdant Passage

The Tale of Spider Midwife

Master,

I confess that with the absence of my spectral companion I am having trouble organizing my thoughts. Nonetheless I hope this missive from your first Templar will give you a timely update on the activities of these escaped slaves and revolutionary castoffs.

After a detour through Under-Tyr, only made profitable in the fortuitous location of former companions, our group was treated to a merchant’s hospitality. The merchant was a contact of Penzer’s, and the accommodations were better than expected.

We procured the necessary gear and the services of a Halfling guide to lead us to the Forest Ridge. My impressions thus far are this: the Forest Ridge is without a doubt the worst place on Athas. The diverse shades of green remind me of something out of a demented painting, and the moisture that collects on the leaves and dirt is sour-smelling. I would prefer the silence of the open desert to the strange noises of this place. I find myself frequently retching as my senses are overloaded. If this is the world we wish to make then I fear I may have no place in it.

An anecdote to demonstrate the bizarre insanity of this place: our group walked into a trap of monstrous spiders. But instead of leaping at our throats as you would expect of desert creatures, these spiders sang to us. It turned out that one of the spiders was ripe with live young, and Luken was able to act as midwife to the monstrous spiders.

Like the spiders, this place teems with life ripe to be taken. I can sense its working, and I wonder why no sorcerer-king has used this place to power their rituals.

Perhaps it is the fearsome reputation of the halflings. After dispatching a strange burrowing monster, one whose thirst for our blood was easy to understand, a group of halflings entered our camp. Their speech strange, and their intent uncertain.

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Under-Tyr

Following the defeat of the skeletal creature, Lythander, Penzer, Tloic, and Ziada opted to make a hasty retreat via a back entrance to the inn. Once out of the inn it was apparent that a Templar patrol was on the look out for the adventures who may have been the root cause of the fire at the inn. After some success in navigating the crowds in an attempt to make it out of the city, we had some set backs following Penzer’s attempt to bully his way past some free citizens of Tyr who in turn called for the guards attention. Thankfully, our streetwise friend Lythander caught the attention of some gutter crone who, for the bargain price of 30 ceramic pieces, led us to a tunnel that led to Under-Tyr.

As a side note, Under-Tyr is made up of the sections of the city that were destroyed by Boyrrs the Dragon when the former Sorcerer-King Kalak was late in paying his yearly slave tribute. Kalak would simply rebuild on top of the old buildings, eventually leaving a city buried beneath a city. Perhaps there could be an Under-Under-Tyr.

Rather than take the safe advice of Ziada and wait out the Templars we decide to explore this little section of Under-Tyr in hopes of finding long lost treasures. After a little exploring, we arrived at what we determined to be a temple to the dead god Zaheem, an evil god from ages passed. While examining the entrance for traps both mundane and magical, we were set upon by Yuan Ti guards.

After a short fight where T’loic pretty much single-handedly obliterated 3 Yuan Ti henchman and Lythander engaged the archer “Boss” Yuan Ti, 3/4 were left huddling in an collapsed building as an archers stalemate took place outside. Eventually the remaining Yuan Ti retreated, fearing our might and never daring to come near the building in which were huddled.

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Life as I know it...
or Just the Other Night.

Sil is gone. He left but not before spouting on about how he is better than us and this life we lead…whatever. Temporarily or permanently, I don’t know but gone he is. Losing him will change us some but I think it is for the best. It was him and that Muul that tried to get me enslaved by tripping me in the desert all those months ago and I have never trusted him since. It’s not just him, basically I distrust anyone who isn’t willing to get banged up a little on the front lines. Luken is gone as well, I am not really sure where he went, he must of found his spiritual calling elsewhere, probably back at the Jade tower.

Anyway, I am getting ahead of myself

We headed back down the mountain and that was treacherous. The scouts made sure that we didn’t
run into any action but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t close at times. I often had to help my companions out, ensuring they didn’t plummet of the cliff faces or down into the crevasse’s that dotted the landscape. On the way down I made sure to pay close attention to where we were going, just in case we have to return some day.

We made it to the encampment and the archer handed off his note to some lieutenant. They welcomed us with open arms and invited us to assist them in an assault back upon the mountain. We had recently rested so it seemed like a good deal to me, 1000 ceramic a head to kill Gengris, a powerful warlord trying to unite the Flind tribes.

The lieutenant brought forth a couple of other travelers that would be joining us. I knew them upon my first glance. Everyone who has ever been to the pits would have too. That bronze mask bolted to the head and his wiry friend. Spectre and Wraith, these two ruled gladiatorial combat. I once saw their opponents run and try to climb out of the cage to get away from them before battle was even joined. I tried to hide my excitement. Sure I have met gladiators before but these two are amazing and now I will be able to fight right alongside them.

The battle plan was created that night. I am unsure how they made the plan without us. In particular there was this one sergeant who had no clue what he was talking about and was putting us all in danger. We got made him for the fool he was and had him removed from the planning. A well concealed path to an opening in the mountain, that was likely a flind entrance, was plotted. After a quick snack and some preparation we headed out. I am glad I paid attention on the way down because it was more of the same on the way back up the mountain.

We were able to defeat quite a few of the dog men, most notably on the exterior of the cave, by flinging them off of the edge of the mountain. Many more awaited us inside the cave entrance and after each of those battles we were forced to rest, sadly this gave time for Gengris to gain some advantage on us and the scout we sent ahead told us so. There were as many around Gengris as we had fought in the previous two battles combined. Wisely we returned to the base camp without engaging and provided our information to whoever was left in charge. Looks like we traded the ceramic for our lives.

We stayed the night, ate some breakfast and headed off to a more pressing mission, bring the orbs to Aramis. On the way back Tlolik decided to stay behind. He muttered something about bringing an evil with him. We made a plan to meet up with him when we were done and headed out.

We arrived at his estate and I helped myself to three of the fruit, stored them in my back pack and headed off to the manor house. We went down to the crypts to see him and pay our respect to his family. He looked old, not just old for a human, old for an elf, seriously old. He said he had lived for 300 years in the time since I last saw him, not sure how that can happen but I take him for his word. He took the orbs and smashed them and became healed. He talked about how he must hide because the dragon or the sorcerer kings will come looking for him. We talked until he became tired and left him to rest.

Looks like we will be heading off for more orbs… I think we should stop at Tyr and get into the pyramid…there is probably tons there…maybe I can see some of the heroes too…It will be nice to show Tlolik my home, he complains so much about the chaos since the King was killed, but that chaos means something else too…Freedom.

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The Way of Life

“I thought I might find you here,” Tlaloc said as he approached the site where the Life Tree stood withering, and the little psion that was holding up their preparations to leave.
 
Zaidah sat on the ground, her feet tucked under the edge of her skirt, dirt beneath her fingernails and smudged on her hands. She glanced toward him and then away again quickly.  He could see that she’d been crying, which he judged to be a positive step.
 
“Come on.” He jerked his head in the direction he’d come.  “We don’t want to miss our appointment with the next thing seeking to kill us.”
 
She said nothing, nor did she move. “I’m not ready yet…” There was an edge in her voice that came from somewhere other than grief, but he couldn’t quite place it. “I’m not ready to go back out there.”

This was the most lucid he had ever seen her. Perhaps the proximity of the life seed was having some sort of effect. “You could do us a favor and stay here then. But you won’t be helping your nieces any.”
 
He could see her flinch in the jerk of her shoulders, though her back remained to him. “I could…” She twisted around and fixed him with a look both accusing and conciliatory at the same time, something only she could have managed. “Then you’d be free to make bargains with whomever… or whatever. I imagine you’d like that.”

Tlaloc smiled despite his great frustration. “You are referring to the timely intervention of the Dark One. Without our new friend from the Gray you would be here weeping while Fezzik and I loaded Penzer, Arkin and the new guy on the pyre.”

She shook her head violently and began rocking back and forth a little. “Maggot meat.”

Tlaloc was unfazed. “Then I take it you prefer for half our number to be dead rather than having met the Dark One.”

“Maggot meat,” she whispered this time and then, “Kank piss, faro worms…”
_
Ah, all things disgusting and distasteful,_ Tlaloc thought. Distasteful as in the deal with the Dark One. A few more weeks and I will be fluent in crazy telepath.

“Zaidah, I know you possess a great intellect somewhere in there. You have to know that we must do what it takes to survive. Sometimes that means doing things we dislike, but it all brings us one step closer to finding your nieces and rescuing them from danger. You want to find your nieces, don’t you?”

She burst into tears, huge sobs that wracked her body and choked her.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

She scrubbed at her eyes and nose in an attempt to compose herself, oblivious to, or uncaring of, the streaks of dirt that replaced the signs of grief she was trying to erase. She rose to her feet and turned to face him. “I did this once. I did it for them, this doing of,” she stopped and shook her head, a furrow of frustration between her brows. “Talking of…” she stopped again and then finally said, “surviving.” Her eyes glittered dangerously. “You would have been proud of the things I once did for her survival. And where is she now? Where are they now?”

Tlaloc felt himself grow queasy at the histrionics. Still he kept a low and even tone as he responded. “First, don’t ever think that you know the sorts of things I take pride in, nor should you ever look in my mind to find out.”

She took a step back and looked away, color rising in her cheeks.

“Second, I am confident that you and your nieces will be reunited, if you stay focused on our goal. Without that,” Tlaloc paused and spoke the rest more to himself, “then all this is meaningless.”

Returning his gaze on Zaidah: “Third, that place where you and your nieces will be reunited, it’s out there,” Tlaloc once again pointed to the exit, “Not here.”

A tear rolled down her cheek but grief did not overtake her completely this time. “No. Not here. There was a me here,” she placed a hand over her heart and frowned. “But I lost her… Nora didn’t want her anymore when she came back wrong. Her eyes said: go away, though her words said: stay.” She looked up at him with genuine confusion, and asked “All this for surviving?” Her eyes pleaded for an answer that made some kind of sense.

“All what for surviving?” Tlaloc shrugged. “Nothing about your situation is unusual. You’ve lost loved ones. So have countless others. Horrible things have happened to you. I get that. I’m sorry those things happened, but…it wasn’t so horrible that you stopped breathing.”

Tlaloc’s turned his attention from the psion and onto the Tree of Life, withered but still impressive. When he next spoke, it was unclear whom he was addressing.

“It’s clear to me that this has become our fate. It’s simply too improbable that our group has formed from such diverse circumstance to then be handed custody of the most important task in generations. I refuse to believe that is a coincidence.”

Looking back on Zaidah, he continued, “Our purpose is clear: we will try to help make Athas green again. If murky beings from lifeless dimensions wish to help us along the way, so be it. The Dark One benefits from adding to his collection, and we live to see the Dark Sun rise again. Someday that sun will rise on a green Athas. Every step takes us closer to that day. That goal justifies every bargain, every death, every sacrifice.”

“No.” She looked at him… or rather it seemed that she looked through him, though his defenses were up and he was alert for any sign of intrusion. “So… cold. Everything is numbers and pieces and squares on a board.”

Then for a moment her eyes cleared and focused on him. Her voice took on some of the ringing quality it had had when she read Aramis his letter. “You will never understand. I see that now. The Athas you would build would just be defiled again. Death and sacrifice can only heal this world if they are freely given, not taken by force. Taking souls to save your skin because you think you’re one of the chosen few? It’s your privilege to use other people how you see fit, why? Because you are on a mission? If your specter had nothing to say about that then she’s not doing her job!”

A sudden chill blew through the chamber. Tlaloc replied, “She doesn’t care, because she knows the mission is the only thing that matters.”

“Wrong!” She shook her head, struggling with the words as one might struggle to continue a conversation despite someone shouting in their ear. Still, she plunged ahead urgently. “Tlaloc, I’m sorry. It was wrong of me to crack the nut. I never could before… and… the power…” she shivered. “You know something of that… yes?” She looked up at him imploringly. “It was maggot meat, but by your words, justified in pursuit of the green.” She swatted at the air and seemed to calm a little, then added very quietly, “or perhaps… only when you wield the hammer?”

Tlaloc shrugged. “Then we agree: the ends do justify the means.” The half-elf turned to leave, his shadow blacker from the touch of the Dark One. As he exited the chamber he called over his shoulder. The vocal sound was hardly recognizable: deep and grating, filled with scorn and hatred – the real voice of Tlaloc. “This is the third instance in which your mixed-up scruples have wasted my time. There won’t be a fourth.”

Stopping at the entrance, a different Tlaloc turned his face on Zaidah. With his sincere smile, warm green eyes and sweet voice, it was the Tlaloc who dealt with merchants, negotiated for water, and made sure the guards didn’t look too close. “Zaidah, you are a deeply valued and trusted member of our syndicate.” Nothing about his demeanor would controvert this. “Please consider joining us on the surface so we might commence our journey.”

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Psionic Trespass

(Takes place before the party arrives at Aramis’s estate to do battle with Vaca Baez and Budris.)

Having departed from Urik, the party kept to a road skirting the northern edge of the Dragon’s Bowl. The embers of a dying fire sat in the center of the resting adventurers, all of them asleep except one. Zaidah, the telepath, spent her watch studying the night sky. The green moon Ral showed smaller than the previous evening, slowly nearing half its full size. Guthay, the lesser moon, rapidly neared its full size shining in brilliant gold and brass, near the color of the Dark Sun itself.

One fortune waxed as the other waned.

She found her attention wandering away from the moons she no longer had to watch with fear and suspicion. The blue vein had been very clear on that point, but now the world was spinning in a dance of celebration. Nora’s smile flashed in her memory, a flicker of the day she had announced to her family that she was pregnant. Zaidah felt her face, sticking her fingers into the corners of the grin that simply would not fade and decided it was the same kind of joy, though it was not a child she was carrying inside of her.

The Way.

She knew now why they called it that. Something in her head had clicked into place and in that place she had found a key, a master key that she had but to touch a mind with and watch it open. It had taken all her restraint not to throw open the merchant’s mind in her greedy search for… everything… every last drop of what made him who he was. Every song he’d ever heard. Every lie he’d ever told…

Speaking of lies… you told the man with the army of veils that she would keep an eye on the half-elf, didn’t you?

Yes, but the blue vein told me not to worry. The purple sky said not to fear.

Suit yourself. I just thought you might be curious… that’s all.

I am, but…

But what? He’s sleeping now. How would he ever know?

She bit her lip, as if that would somehow silence the voice, but the intoxication of her new-found power had clouded her judgment as surely as a mug of broy. Her heart galloping, she closed her eyes and reached out for Tlaloc’s sleeping mind.

* * *

She immediately encountered the idea of narrow streets, the thought of unpredictable urban patterns, the sensation of blind alleys, and the feeling of a man-made labyrinth. Not a surprise given Tlaloc’s clear enthusiasm for city life. But no…something was wrong. The paved avenues were little more than narrow mud paths, and not lined with buildings but by a thick growth of reeds, tall enough to reach the clouds with thorns as sharp as steel.

Wandering about would do no good. Zaidah could intuitively tell that the maze would bend into itself – that an exit did not exist and the reed walls formed a kind of mental barrier.

Someone’s had training in psionic defenses…

There was only one thing to do with a barrier of this sort: blast through with psionic power. As Zaidah contemplated doing just that the already dull mud beneath her feet began to darken, while the golden reed stalks turned gray. Color leaked from the mindscape.

Discovered!

She was already half-insubstantial from her preparations to flee his mind when a spot in the reed barrier in front of her began to darken and an apparition of black mist formed in front of her. The mist coalesced into a vaguely humanoid shape, topped by a hooded skull. The specter was as tall as Zaidah and spoke with a chilling whisper.

“You are not permitted to torment this being…that task is for me to do. Away with you!”

Her fear and her insatiable curiosity found compromise in maintaining her foothold in the half-elf’s mind but building a tower around herself, made of iron and will. She peered at the specter through a slit in the wall.

“I’m not here to torment…” the psion replied. Then after a pause she added, more to herself than to the other, “At least, I don’t think I am.”

Well… maybe a little.

No! No! He’s suffered enough! … Hasn’t he?

“Who are you?” asked the mindbender.

The specter answered with a whisper. “In life I was called Citlali, pledged to the path of the preserver.” As the specter spoke it floated silently up, growing to nearly twice its original size as it did. A hooded skull now the size of a crodlu peaked at Zaidah through the tower’s arrow slit.

“In death I haunt this former Templar, and have put him on the path of the preserver.”

Citlali peered past the now giant undead to see that the mindscape had darkened to an indistinct void of colorless mist. Not simply gray… The Gray. Or perhaps simply a representation of the shadowed realm of the dead?

“The first few days were difficult,” the specter continued, “and this being needed constant reminder to wield magic responsibly. My attentions have slowly ingrained the values of the Veiled Alliance, and turned his intense hatred upon the tyrants of Athas.”

As the specter spoke, black tendrils silently grew from the specter’s cloak. Zaidah recognized that attack was immediate, her gaze focused on the flailing tendrils.

The specter’s voice rose to a scream. “All my work to cause this being to sincerely adopt the path of the preserver, and you in your profound ego trespass here to undo that? Be gone!” The tendrils, each as large as a mekillot’s leg, began whipping furiously at Zaidah’s protective tower. Each strike echoed like the footsteps of the Dragon, sending visible shockwaves into the air.

She knew she should do as the dead woman commanded. The waves of rage that crashed over her bespoke the specter’s inability to hear any arguments to the contrary, but Zaidah had already learned so much from just a short incursion, what might a few more seconds tell her?

“I don’t want to pull out your threads,” she shouted over the crashing as the tendrils struck her tower. “I’ll be a helper, if you let me.”

Suddenly the maze began encroaching, growing more dense, more convoluted. The walls of her tower began to fold in on themselves, not from the onslaught of psychic blows but by the mercurial shiftings of the mindscape’s master.

He’s coming…

“SSSSHHH!! He’ll hear you!” Zaidah shouted over the din, but Citlali was beyond hearing or beyond reason if she could, in fact, hear and the assault continued.

Get out get out get out!

The voice came… not from the specter, nor from any source that Zaidah could discern. However, she followed its sagely advice and was gone before the tower collapsed in on itself.

She opened her eyes and wiped the sweat from her brow.

Just in time… Good girl!

Before she let the sense of exaltation wash over herself completely she lowered her arm from her face and stole a glance at the place where Tlaloc had been sleeping…

Only to meet his wide awake and wild gaze. He didn’t have to say anything. The look he gave her said it all. He knew what she had done.

“Tlaloc… so sorry. I-” she stretched out a hand towards him but he shied back.

“Stay away from me,” he hissed between gritted teeth before jumping to his feet and storming off towards the edge of the camp.

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Musings

It’s good to be back in Urik, was his first thought on entering the city.

The Urik of Tlaloc’s memory held clean streets and quiet citizens, their gaze fixed on the ground beneath their feet. A place of serene order. Admirable.

The Urik of the present was chaotic, choked with dirty, drunken revelers. Fortunately things went from the ridiculous to the sublime, standing just a few feet from the great Hamanu.

Urik is a place to get things done. He wondered why Silan’s man didn’t recognize him. Probably too focused on the others. And it had been over two years now. Besides, the Sydrias Affair had been all ne’er-do-wells in cloak and shadows, masks and disguises. His kind of party.

Urik can be dangerous – the job proposal would be simple. It made Tlaloc think of his bearded friend switching houses, now ten months ago.

But most of all, Urik had history. Tlaloc had always been comfortable with the undead. Either very pleasant or extremely rude. Rude like those fellows in the temple of Abalach-Re – totally uncalled for.

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Lines in the Sand

Tap tap tap. Tap tap tap.

Obsidian met sun-baked clay with a reverberating ring, followed by the pitter patter of tiny, clay avalanches.

“I don’t know why you’re making this so difficult,” came a voice from the other side of the wall. “I know you have the keys right there.”

Zaidah paid it no mind.

It sighed and the ring-pitter-pat continued.

* * *

“And so now the twilight lambs are birthing in the stars. That sound you hear? It is mothers bleating, bursting through their cloven pens on stone hooves.”

Zaidah only half-listened to the words coming out of the Snake’s mouth and the replies of her half-elven companion.

“So when you meet the dawn all walking must be done on the toes so as not to wake the shepherds of night. Only you can save the twilight lambs. Do you understand?”

She was vaguely aware that the details of a transaction were being hashed out, something about the little man having a job for them. That was fine. They had run errands for people before.

“You must pay close attention to the color of their sighs. Purple lambs will grow to fame and fortune but the ones who sigh green are trouble-makers and must be taught not to endanger the herd.”

“I want you to kidnap his daughter so I can make an example of him,” said the Snake.

“If the herd doesn’t act and think as one then the stars won’t move.”

“What are they saying?” Zaidah shook her head as if she had sand in her ears instead of voices.

“The blue lambs are very fussy but they make good lookouts.”

“Hush. I can‘t hear,” she said, mentally batting the voices away.

“…if you can promise that no untoward harm will come to her…”

“Are you listening,” asked the voices staggering the question so it reverberated in her mind.

“…you have my word,” said the half-elf.

She stared at him, trying to piece together the fragments of conversation.

“Are you listening?”

* * *

“Are you listening?” Nora waited for a response. “Zazu?”

Zaidah’s eyes focused on the fingers snapping in front of her face, returning from the place deep inside which called to her so insistently.

“What? Oh! I must have drifted off,” she lied.

Nora snorted. “Yeah, and I just took a scorpion bath. I know what you’ve been up to.” She poked Zaidah in the forehead.”

“Ow!”

“Don’t be such a baby,” said Nora.

“I am not a baby. That hurt!” Zaidah shot back.

“Well you’re going to hurt a lot more if I tell mother that you’re still doing it.”

Zaidah sighed and looked at her sister, imploring. “Please Nora… I can’t help it. You’ll just worry them if you tell.”

“I really don’t care. This isn’t just about you. If people find out what you can do-”

“Fine, then I guess I won’t tell you the dream I had about you last night,” Zaidah said with a sly side-long glance.

Nora looked skeptical. “Liar.”

“Am not! I had a dream about you future husband.” She added in a sing-song voice, “and I know you’re going to like it.”

“…who?”

“Promise me you won’t tell first.”

* * *

Zaidah looked up and peered curiously at the slowly expanding opening in the clay wall. The darkness on the other side prevented her from seeing beyond the ring of her protective circle but she didn’t mind that. She could feel for miles around what was out there, the reason she had built it in the first place.

“So are you going to come out,” came the voice from the darkness.

“I hadn’t intended to, no,” she replied.

“I think you’ll find that sooner or later you no longer have a choice in the matter.”

“I can build another one,” she said.

“You’re running out of the Iron Lord’s clay.”

This was true. In patches the ground was starting to show through, not dry sandy earth but the kind that was dark, squishy between the toes and very likely to start sending up green shoots.

“I’ll find another supplier,” she said.

“Please don’t do that. It’s not that bad out here,” the voice replied.

“That’s easy for you to say. You never did anything wrong.”

* * *

At the first signs of the trouble Zaidah’s father had revealed his own secret project. He picked her up and all but threw her through the newly-constructed trap door, covering it with a carpet. While this prevented her from seeing what was going on, it only slightly muffled the sounds coming from the next room.

She heard the door finally give-in under the onslaught of blows. She also heard the shouting, the scuffling and finally a smooth, lilting voice.

“Koras Muir has reason to believe that under your roof you are housing a very rare commodity. Would you be so kind as to fetch it for us,” it said.

“I don’t know what you are talking about but you can have anything of value that I own. We just want to be left alone-” replied Zaidah’s father.

A woman’s scream, first of fear, then pain cut him off.

“No!” he bellowed.

“It seems you have a difficult choice before you. Either you go and fetch your Wilder git right now or I pluck out your wife’s other eye,” one of the intruders replied.

Zaidah shrank down into herself, clamping her hands over her mouth to hold in her screams.

“She’s not here anymore! I swear to you! We kicked her out a fortnight ago. For all I know she’s wandering the Wastes by now,” her father said.

Another scream, followed by more scuffling, shouts and cursing. By the end Zaidah no longer had to cover her mouth or ears. She was insensible, numb and unresponsive even to the sight of her dead, disfigured parents as they dragged her from the house and set it ablaze.

In the weeks that followed she spent most days enveloped in that cloak of numbness, only barely registering the motions of living she was going through, of interacting with other people, answering questions, not answering questions, trying to do as she was told, trying not to do as she was told.

Finally, she found herself in a dark and barren room, all alone, except for the occasional plate of food and the even more infrequent visits from her “handler”.

“I understand that you’re not eating,” he said one day.

Zaidah did not acknowledge his presence.

“I also understand why you are having some trouble adjusting.”

She flicked a glance at him, considered trying to use her power and thought better of it. “I can’t do the things you are asking of me. I’m not strong enough.”

“You will be someday,” he replied.

Only the faintest flicker of emotion illuminated her hollowed-out insides. She shrugged.

“You see, I understand you quite well. But I think that you do not understand me, or the fact that you still have more to lose than just your life.”

She snorted, but didn’t respond.

“You lost your parents,” he continued. “That was an unfortunate necessity. If only they had just spoken up they wouldn’t have had to… suffer so… But on the bright side you still have living kin.”

Internally she shied away from the clenching feeling in her heart, not for her sister’s family, but for herself. The hope of being purchased out of slavery by her rich in-law had finally died, but the carcass was still decaying.

“They are beyond your reach.” And mine, she added to herself.

“Don’t be so certain.” The tone of his voice was enough to snap her head up. “Your sister, she has twins I think. Doesn’t she?”

She met his gaze and saw there truth behind the threat.

He smiled at the look on her face. “There we are. I think now we understand one another. Now then, are you hungry?”

* * *

She stood at the edge of the darkness, but instead of trying to look into it she just stared down at her bare feet.

“Good. Very good. Just one more step,” said the voice gently.

“I don’t think I can do this,” she replied.

“Here, take my hand.” Out of the wall of blackness stretched a hand, palm up, offering itself to her. “As you said yourself, you can always come back. There are plenty of suppliers for the clay.”

“Yes… and I’m starting to think that I’m traveling with some of them,” she said.

“The best way to find out is to come and see.”

* * *

Sil and Tlaloc were arguing, or at least she thought they were arguing. Their words seemed to dance around each other but she couldn’t quite tell if in concord or dis. She watched the ripples in the air, the push and pull of thoughts given voice.

“Does everyone understand,” asked Tlaloc.

“… I don’t understand,” she said.

She tried very hard to listen, but his words just sounded like a chain of flowers, weaving in and out. Pretty, but smelling of decay. Something about means and ends.

Sssssh. Be still. Listen.

That center, somewhere in the depths of her being called to her and she reached for it, steadying herself more than she had in a long time. And she listened, not just to his words but to the currents that flowed underneath them. It was hard not to see a red gleam in his eyes or his teeth filed to points as all good monsters should have.

Finally her voice bubbled up from that place of stillness and deadly calm, surprising even her as she watched the lines it drew in the sand. She watched from the sidelines as her voice struggled to etch those lines deep into the minds of her companions and felt a surge of satisfaction at the effort even if they did not seem to take.

Later that night, as they left the ghost behind she gradually felt her hold on her center slipping away. She could only stay so long in the dark, conscious of the things she had worked so hard to push from her mind. A familiar voice in her mind stopped her in mid-flight.

“We have to watch Tlaloc closely, and when the time comes we may have to kill him.”

She blinked and looked at Sil.

“…yes,” she replied, and with a mental sigh she was back, safe inside her walls of clay once more.

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Raiders in the Wastes

As you said farewells to Leto Nayim, the halfling approached you with a proposition. He asked if you would be willing to deliver a message to the Silver Spring – Toramund, Lord of the Silver Hand. You found it odd, that of all places on Athas that you would travel next, the Silver Spring was on your route to the Canyon of Gathay. Leto offered to pay you a small amount of ceramic to deliver the message and further agreed to ‘forget’ that he ever saw you on the open road. It was clear to you that he remembered you well from your time in the slave camp. Halflings are fierce predators of the wastes and you agreed to deliver the message – if only to simply rid yourself of the cannibal trader.

Sil indicated that the journey would take seven long days in the wastes. Fezzik and Eben A’Durn both sighed at the loss of so much water, but it was Luken and Tlaloc that made quick count of the supply and realized that you had more than enough make the trek.

The Athasian sun is the most dangerous predator in the land, Sil warned. ‘Some days would be hotter than others and that the water would need to be well guarded at all times.’ You were pretty sure his words were wise.

Your first night in the wastes was uneventful, but the second night would not grant you the same fortune. In the middle of the night, you were attacked by a mated pair of stormclaw scorpions and their nest. The battle was fierce but you prevailed.

The rest of your journey was not without hardship or incident either. You almost lost your way in search of an Oasis that turned out to be a mirage. Thankfully you made your way back to the trail where you were later greeted by raiders who wanted to ‘buy’ some of your water. You’ve been tricked before and have become masters of sniffing out deception in your own right. You detected the ruse and slaughtered the raiders shortly after they attacked you. While it was your decision to kill them all, somewhere in your heart you knew that killing them was the right thing to do. You felt that they would simply prey on the next caravan to come through had you let them live.

After the exhausting seven day journey, you made your way to a walled town, the Oasis of the Silver Spring. The letter you had for Toramund was coded but you were able to crack the elven code which revealed its contents. Toramund apparently has as a son who has gotten himself into trouble in Tyr. Perhaps this would be a good bargaining chip in your discussions with him you thought.

You paid a fee and were granted entry to the Silver Spring. Making your way through a maze of stone walls, you found your way into the market quarter and looked over the exotic wares there. You even found a smith who claimed to work steel. An audience was granted with Toramund after a few hours and you delivered your letter to him without taking much of the lord’s time or yours. Mission accomplished.

Some of you spent some extra time in the merchant quarter and others witnessed the miracle of the Silver Spring. After spending the night, you resupplied yourself with provisions and made your way to the Canyon of Gathay and the vault of Darom Madar.

It took you several hours to reach the canyon and you made journey there without incident. As you approached the canyon, you realized it was far larger than you expected. Penzer remembered that you needed a key to unlock the vault of Darom Madar. Tlaloc reviewed the letter you had purchased in Raam. Based on the letter, it was likely that Toramund or another Silver Hand elf had this key you needed. Furthermore, the canyon was far too vast to explore with so little knowledge of the area. You would need some more help and clues as to where you would begin your search the vault.

In agreement, you packed your things and headed back to the Silver Spring and Toramund

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Fourth Dialogue

As the band of adventurers took their ease on their first night at Silver spring oasis, Tlaloc spent much of the evening in the common room among fellow travelers. It didn’t take long for the half-elf to attract a small crowd eager to drink and swap stories. The lively conversation threatened to drown out the exotic music and it would appear for any casual observer as a frivolous night of revelry. Tlaloc considered himself to be hard at work: making contacts, gauging capabilities, memorizing routes and schedules, and gathering any rumors of interest. Engendering trust among strangers was a skill Tlaloc had worked hard to hone, and it didn’t hurt that he could subtlety use magic to make himself more persuasive and likeable.

Eventually the crowd thinned and Tlaloc found himself at a table with a handful diehards, most of whom were nearly unconscious. A elf woman made to leave through the front door, but before exiting she turned and pulled back her hood. Her braided hair was bone white, and she locked eyes with Tlaloc. She placed the open palm of her right hand on her forehead, and then quickly drew her palm down to her chin – mimicking the placement of a veil. It was the same sign Tlaloc had furtively shown a few hours before, pretending to wipe sweat from his brow. He watched the elf exit, and after a few moments he followed after making some extended farewells to the drunks still remaining.

He found the elf standing against a wall in the caravansary courtyard. As a full-blooded elf she was lanky and tall, an inch or two taller than Tlaloc and he was used to towering over most full-blooded humans.

Efl: That’s a nifty little cantrip you use to make yourself more charismatic.

Tlaloc: Well…thank you. It’s nice to have a little professional recognition. The name’s Tlaloc.

Elf: I got that. You can call me Huyar. What cell are you from?

(In the shadows, the spectre called Citlali coalesced at the fringe of Tlaloc’s vision,unseen by Huyar. Citlali taunts Tlaloc with words only he can hear; Huyar is completely oblivious to the specter’s presence.)

Citlali: I don’t think the devoted priests of Tectuktitlay will be an acceptable answer to her. What are you going to say?

Tlaloc: I don’t know…(Huyar looks confused)…I mean I’m on my own.

Huyar: But you know the sign of the alliance, and you follow the Path of the Preserver, don’t you?

Citlali: Have you always been able to multitask like this?

Tlaloc: (to Citlali) Uh yes…(to Huyar)…yes, it’s just that I’m the only preserver I know.

Huyar: The sorcerer-kings and their lapdogs hunt us down, there are so few of us.

Tlaloc: Well that’s not the problem exactly…

Citlali: The problem is you’re a former lapdog.

Tlaloc: (to Citlali) No!!…(to Huyar)…no that’s not the problem in Raam, where I’m from, because the lack of a monarch has caused quite a bit of chaos.

Huyar: Well, the death of Abalach-Re is a step in the right direction.

Citlali: I don’t think she suspects anything…

Tlaloc: (to both) I know…(to Huyar)…but the city is run by petty tyrants, things are really much worse than before.

Huyar: So is that what brought you out here? You’re trying to make contact with the alliance and try to improve things in Raam?

Citlali: Maybe she does suspect something. Arcanists are usually intelligent.

Tlaloc: (to Citlali) Yes usually…(to Huyar)…usually I would say different, but ultimately those are my goals.

Huyar: I’m curious, what’s the cover story then?

Citlali: It’s a test, Tlaloc.

Tlaloc: (to Citlali) Right…(to Huyar)…the story is that my companions and I are looking for the Vault to House Madar. That’s not a cover actually…have you heard of the Vault?

Huyar: No…

Citlali: She’s genuine. Okay Tlaloc, make your case before you blow it…

Tlaloc: (to Huyar) Look…I need some support Huyar. I hide my powers as best I can while still trying to survive.

Citlali: Good, she likes that.

Tlaloc: (to Huyar) Raam’s a mess, but it can be fixed…

Citlali: Mention Tyr, Veiled Alliance members are very proud of Tyr.

Tlaloc: (to Huyar) It can be fixed just like Tyr. Easier actually because the monarch is already gone.

Huyar: Fine. I can see you’re a true believer, Tlaloc.

Citlali: She doesn’t mean true believer in the divinity of Tectuktitlay

Tlaloc: (to Citlali) Enough!…(to Huyar, who is taken aback)…I mean enough of the chit-chat. We need to end this conversation before anyone gets suspicious.

Huyar: (with some hesitation) I get it…I don’t know anyone in Raam, but you should find a human in Urik by the name of Tobias Locke. You’re on your own to locate him.

Tlaloc: (to Huyar) Great…thank you.

Tlaloc waited for some comment from Citlali, but the specter was no longer participating. Still present of course, he was beginning to think he would never be truly rid of Citlali.

Huyar watched the half-elf walk back into the common room. She found him to be overly odd, but most arcanists have some eccentricities. A small breeze touched Huyar’s cheek. Her own familiar, a lesser air elemental, manifested near her shoulder.

Huyar: (to her familiar) He’s a strange one, isn’t he?

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Third Dialogue

On the first night of the journey west of Raam, Tlaloc sat underneath a stack of furs to keep out the bitter cold of the desert after the setting of the enormous red sun. His gaze was once again fixed on Athas’s twin moons, Ral and Guthay, glowing faintly against the black sky. Somewhere far to the west, those same moons shown down upon a victim strapped down to the altar of Tektuktilay. Standing behind the altar, a dedicated Moon Priest would be unsheathing his ceremonial dagger.

Tlaloc shivered. He had left his own ceremonial dagger behind when fleeing Draj. That implement had been replaced by the one he now held, a twisted wooden rod bearing enigmatic inscriptions.
In the shadows cast by the moonlight, an ethereal mist began to gather – taking a vaguely humanoid shape. The specter whispered to Tlaloc in shadespeak:

Citlali: You must be feeling very pleased with yourself.

Tlaloc: Haven’t I a right to think so?

Citlali: Freeing a slave without bloodshed? You and your allies should be proud. You have a natural aptitude for espionage – a pity you weren’t working for the Veiled Alliance from the beginning.

Tlaloc: The Veiled Alliance? You mean the posturing, infective gang of nobodies? So starved for acceptance that they aim their impotent anger at the most powerful beings on Athas?

Citlali: You’re just trying to hurt my feelings. At least we in the Veiled Alliance know how to mask our identities as wielders of arcane magic.

Tlaloc: What do you mean?

Citlali: Do you think your allies are fools?

Tlaloc (after a brief silence): They are most of them uneducated, but they are not foolish.

Citlali: So how much time will pass before your true nature is revealed to them?

Tlaloc (after a longer silence): I have been cautious…

Citlali: Not hardly. You have claimed to your allies that your powers come from a primal connection to the spirits of Athas…

Tlaloc (interrupting): A valid claim – many nomads and anchorites are known to wield such power.

Citlali: Except you display no knowledge of the natural world. You are so obviously a city dweller.

Tlaloc: …

Citlali: Not only that, but then there’s your facile way with documents, contracts and money. Only a templar is so meticulous.

Tlaloc: Or merchant. A merchant would be that meticulous.

Citlali: No merchant would possess your concealing step ability. That is something I’ve only seen a templar use in combat.

Tlaloc: The shaded walk technique is an elven trick inherited from my forebears…

Citlali: Some of your allies are elves – do you think they would really believe that?

Tlaloc: I meant that it is the protection granted to some elf-blooded by the spirits of Athas…

Citlali (interrupting): Not even you can make that convincing…but the most damning evidence of all is the way you covet the item taken from the defiling mage you and your allies defeated on the road.

Tlaloc (He looks once again on the twisted wooden rod bearing enigmatic inscriptions. He grips it so tightly that his knuckles have turned white. He whispers softly.): Mine…

Citlali: Only a wielder of arcane magic would covet that implement.

Tlaloc: I won’t give up what’s rightfully mine.

Citlali: Then tell your allies of your arcane abilities.

Tlaloc: Arcane magic is illegal everywhere – suspected arcanists routinely meet there deaths at the hands of an angry crowd before any official justice is brought.

Citlali: But it is no justice – arcane magic is safe when wielded responsibly. Show your allies this. You have been using arcane magic from the earliest time in the arena and you have done so responsibly, without defiling the land.

Tlaloc: I fear my secret is already known to someone.

Citlali: What do you mean?

Tlaloc: After our battle against the Black Hand’s slave catchers, a being contacted me using the Way. She asked if the defiling mage’s power had impressed me. I answered that it had not.

Citlali: Tlaloc this is really bad, your group could be followed.

Tlaloc: I warned my allies of this in as surreptitious a way as is possible.

Citlali: What are you going to do?

Tlaloc: I will ask Sil or one of the other experienced trackers to be ready to search the immediate area when the voice contacts me again.

Citlali: What if the voice does not contact you again?

Tlaloc: I have a plan to ensure that it does.

Citlali: What do you mean?

Tlaloc (Again the half-elf stares intently at the twisted wooden rod bearing enigmatic inscriptions.): I will give the voice a display of power that she will appreciate.

Citlali: You wouldn’t – you have sworn an oath to the Path…

In response Tlaloc fixed his gaze upon the specter bound to his soul. In the former Templar’s eyes Citlali saw that his pupils had changed to the shape of crescent moons, mirroring the forms of Ral and Guthay high above them.

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