The Verdant Passage

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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Mixed Messages

The door closed behind Zaidah and she was alone with the prisoner. They told her his name, but it was locked away now with all the others. She couldn’t think of them as people, not because she would go mad. No, that precipice was far above her now and she had been falling for what felt like forever. It was just that if she thought of them as people she wouldn’t be able to do her job.

They had tried the other route first of course. Still strapped to the chair that held him, the man looked at her. Despite the lumps and bruises on his face she could make out the expression of wary confusion. “What is this,” he asked hoarsely.

She smiled at him, pity she didn’t feel- couldn’t let herself feel, filling her eyes. “This is your reward for being so brave.” She had a jar of fake salve with her. No sense wasting the real thing on someone who was marked for death. He tensed suspiciously as she gently applied the salve and glared at her despite the warm smile she gave him. This was the test, when she gauged whether she might be able to cajole the information from them or whether she would have to use more brutal methods.

He glanced towards the door. There was a small window covered by bars where one might look through without having to enter. Zaidah followed his gaze. “Oh don’t worry,” she cooed. “They won’t come back anymore.”

“You’re telling the truth…” he said more to himself than to her. “Or else you’re a damn good liar.” He seemed to wrestle with himself for a time. “Ok, I’ll bite. Why aren’t they coming back?”

She smiled at him cheerfully, her head tilted to one side, her eyes searching for a chink in his outer defenses. “Because your secrets all know me.” She placed her hand on the top of his skull and glanced to one side as if listening for something. “This might sting a little,” she made a knife out of her mind and stabbed into him.

Auntie Zazu? What are you doing?

Zaidah gasped and reeled backwards. Rally? Gathy? No, you can’t be here! Fly my doves! Fly!

Mama’s with us! She says to tell you that we’re sending people to rescue you tonight!

Rescue? Oh I see now. You’re a dream. She laughed out loud, doubled over, clutching her stomach.

Auntie? What’s the matter? You don’t want to come home? We miss you!

Stop! Please. I can’t. By this time she had curled into a little ball and was rocking back and forth on the floor of the cell.

We’ll be too far to talk to you soon. Please be ready! We love you!

The door to the cell opened and Zaidah felt herself being lifted off the floor and then she fell into darkness.

When she awoke she was alone in the large sleeping hall shared by the female slaves. The door was wide open and beyond that she could see the rise of sand dune after sand dune.

She got up from her cot and walked towards the door. As she crossed the threshold the room vanished behind her and she was out in the wastes, nothing but sand as far as the eye could see. The moons of Athas looked down on her and she could feel the malevolence of their gaze. She cast about for somewhere to hide and began to climb. Dune after dune, she hoped that the next rise would show her some sign of civilization but there was nothing, only desolation.

“You think you can hide from me?” The voice boomed in her mind and drove her to her knees. When she looked up another moon had joined the other two. This one had eyes and a wide gaping maw filled with razor sharp teeth. The moon opened its mouth and a sand storm swirled up around her. The sand gave way under her as it was sucked up into the sky. She felt herself being lifted and thrashed about for anything to grab onto but the whirlwind caught her up and shook her like a dog at play.

She awoke from the shaking and looked wildly around at the frightened eyes.

“What was is it Zaidah? What did you see?” asked Ylana, the woman who had saved her from the nightmare.

“The moon. A new one. Is the door shut?!” She clutched the woman’s hands and dared a glance at the ill-fated door.

Just then there came a knock.

“What was that?” “What do we do?” “Who could it be?” The murmurs rippled through the sleeping quarters.

Zaidah rose to her feet, steeling herself. She told herself that she was not afraid of a moon. Some of the women gathered behind her as she slowly opened the door and peeked out.

“Come on, let’s go,” said the elf.

She caught a glimpse of Gathay over his shoulder and slammed the door in his face. When he knocked again she cracked the door open a little less this time.

“Come on. Don’t you want to get out of here? Your sister sent us,” the elf repeated testily.

“I can’t. The- the moon will see me.” She watched in relief as he walked away and once again closed the door.

She leaned against it, relief and rage at war within her as she realized that she had probably turned away her only chance at freedom. Perhaps her only chance to regain her sanity. All for what? For a dream that may or may not be true and the security of a cage?

Once again knocking at the door pulled her from the confines of her own mind. When she opened it this time she thought for a moment that she had fallen asleep again as a sheet of blackness swept over her and she once again fell into darkness.

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Of Rewards & Favors

As you made your way to way topside you were greeted by a countless number of slaves who cheered at the news of your victory below. One of the servants took the ant queen’s head from you and piked it upon the orchard fence to ward off future predators. A parade of the Petrides workers followed you up to the estate.

Nora of Petrides was the first to greet you and applauded your efforts. Aramis of Petrides soon followed after and greeted you warmly with praise. Aramis had a single crodlu slaughtered from his personal herd and fresh meat would served as the main course in a feast in your honor. It had been a long time since you tasted fresh meat – its taste and texture almost seemed foreign. The evening was long, the conversation was refreshing and the broy seemed to be almost endless. You had business to discuss with Aramis, but the noble insisted you wait until after a nights rest.

The morning came and you were afforded a small amount of clean water to bathe in. Leftover crodlu meat was heated up and served as your first meal of the day. Aramis knew that you had business on your mind so he quickly got to the point. Aramis began to speak his plan – a delivery of faro fruit to the merchant’s quarter inside central Raam. The job was simple. Aramis asked you to escort the cargo safely to the merchant quarter and to assist in the negotiations of the sale. Aramis looked at Tlaloc and the half-elf nodded in agreement that this would be a simple task.

Before Aramis could get into the details of the assignment, Nora grabbed the noble’s arm and pulled him into the next room. The couple could be heard arguing in the distance and the argument went on for several minutes more. Shortly after, the couple returned to the table – Nora had a pleased look on her face.

Aramis plan had changed. The noble stated that the location of the mission would changed, west to Vasataine – home of the Empire of the Black Hand. The job was to sell the cargo as originally planned and keep the ceramic as an upfront payment for liberating Nora’s sister – a slave and personal servant of Koras Muir. The mission had a new complexity you thought. Your knowledge of the Empire was that they were as ruthless as the Iron Lords. The only advantage you had was that the Empire was not looking for you. You spoke in private for a short while and agreed to the terms as stated. Aramis handed over the kank he promised you for defeating the ants and you were on your way west.

To find Nora’s sister would seem easy enough as all noble slaves are generally close to their master. Good investigation inside the borders of Vasataine revealed this to be true. You sold the faro as instructed and paid underground contacts for better information. With the location of Nora’s sister known, you left the town and regrouped outside the borders.

Superior footwork allowed Sil easy access to the compound and to the quarters where he found Nora’s sister – Zaida. Sil and Zaida left the compound nearly as easily as they entered. The mission was a success…or so you thought.

Only a few hours on the road, the party headed west towards the Canyon of Gathay. Not long on the road you were greeted by agents from the Empire who demanded that you release the girl. The battle was quickly joined and you prevailed.

A few hours later, you met up with a caravan on the road. It was the Bendi – traders who clearly remembered you from your time with the Iron Lords. You set up camp with the Bendi as you felt it was best to have safety in numbers but you decided to keep you secrets close. Leto Nayim recalled your exploits as gladiators and herald your achievement as water thieves. The conversation broke into an uncomfortable silence and you decided it was best to sleep the night and not speak anymore of the past. Leto obliged and offered you some items for trade.

The morning’s sunrise brought a blistering heat. The morning’s heat did brought good fortune as an uneventful evening in the desert is rare indeed. However, the seven day trek into the wastes would prove to be far more difficult than a night on the road….

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An Infestation at the Orchard

Aramis of Petrides would seem to be a gracious host. It was strange to wait in the courtyard of a wealthy noble and not be ordered to complete some sort of task. Freedom was far too new of a taste to your lips…

In your possession you had several hundred gallons of precious stolen water from the Iron Lords and there were few on Athas who would be capable of purchasing such goods. If anyone were to fetch you a fair price, this noble of Raam might seem to be the person. Tlaloc negotiated an arrangement for the water and the matter was quickly agreed to. Your thoughts were fixed on the wealth that awaited you to the west, the map of Darom Madar that you purchased.

As you were about to leave, Aramis pleaded for more of your time. He explained that there was trouble in his faro orchard. A colony of large ants had taken up residence and had already begun to chew away at the roots of the faro trees, bringing destruction to several rows of trees – a clear danger to his crop. Aramis, a sharp business man, was quick on his feet and asked for your assistance. His deal seemed almost academic until he mentioned that recently a few of his servants were taken alive by the ants. Aramis confessed to commissioning a group of his bravest servants to check out the infestation but none had returned. In desperation, Aramis asked for your aid.

Realizing that your trip to the Canyon of Gathay would take several days, Tlaloc negotiated the release of a kank as payment for ridding the orchard of the ant infestation. The kank, a large scarab that doubled as a beast of burden, would be just the thing you needed to make the trek across the wastes of Athas and carry much of your stolen water. With the terms agreed to, you marched into the orchard.

It didn’t take long to figure out where the ants were coming from. The dead faro trees were a good indication. Magical light was brought forth and the party ventured into the spiraling tunnel of darkness. Eben A’Durn was the first to enter. As you waited with anticipation, it was not long before the first ants were upon you. You’ve never seen ants like this before. Each was about the size of large dog and packed a vicious bite. For the first hour, you were shoulder-to-shoulder in the tunnel. Your arms ached from the constant combat – you had no clear indication of if you were winning or losing. You were alive and that was your only indication of progress. After the third wave of ants were killed, your clothing now fully soaked in ant remains, you ventured deeper into the tunnel where you were greeted by larger ants – guardians for sure. The battle with the drones almost cost you your lives. After the difficult battle, it was clear what they were guarding. A nursery.

The largest of all ants stood inside this final chamber – her massive mandibles snapping before you. The remains of the dead servants were gathered here and piled high. Ant larvae feasted on the remains. Still, your eyes were fixed on the horror of this creature. If you were to truly save the orchard and the people at the Petrides estate, the queen and her ants had to die. Without further hesitation, the battle was joined as more ants burrowed through the walls in a surprise attack to protect the queen.

The battle was long and difficult but you were victorious. As you severed the head of the dead ant queen, you made your way through the tunnels making sure that you left no ant behind. You found no more. It was clear that the colony had been wiped out.

Now was the time to rest and collect your reward topside…

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Second Dialogue

A stay at a place like Petrides Estate was something Tlaloc thought he had always deserved – something he would have likely earned as a Moon Priest of Draj had his advancement not been stifled by rivals. Not that a life of ease would appeal to the half-elf, for as the night grew late Tlaloc sat at a small desk in a private room. Candles illuminated a set of charts and maps, neat stacks of silver coins were piled upon a parchment where the former Templar had recorded expenses and projected further costs for the venture west. Actuarial tasks were something he understood; he had mastered such things in the service of Tectuktitlay, but now he did so for himself.

In the shadows cast by the candlelight, an ethereal mist began to gather – taking a vaguely humanoid shape. The specter whispered to Tlaloc in shadespeak…

Citlali: So this is what victory against a bunch of ants earns you and your companions?

Tlaloc: Aramis if a gracious host – and those were no mere ants as you saw.

Citlali: Your companions are quite skilled at the art of violence. I wonder if the Jasuan Knights you once commanded were as capable.

Tlaloc: Almost, but despite the great skill we brought to our task, I found myself wishing for more power as we battled the giant ant queen.

Citlali: More power?

Tlaloc: As I cast my Fiery Lash spell, I could feel the life force around me – waiting to be harnessed.

Citlali: Harnessed? Exploited you mean. This is a good thing – you felt the urge to defile but did not.

Tlaloc: Indeed, and the Path of the Preserver has lead me to these fine comforts, some small amount of wealth, and a chance for even more.

Citlali: I was never afforded these kinds of lodgings during my lifetime.

Tlaloc: Probably because the joined the miserable Veiled Alliance in a futile effort to usurp the Sorcerer-Kings of Athas

(Citlali’s visage turns more skeletal and howls in rage)

Citlali: You have sworn an oath…

Tlaloc (interrupting): …To the Path of the Preserver. Not to the Veiled Alliance.

Citlali: And you view this life, the Path of the Preserver, as a way toward wealth?

Tlaloc: No! Toward justice. Wealth buys power and influence, the means to take down a criminal like Gabe Muir.

Citlali: So you seek revenge against the man who enslaved you.

Tlaloc: No. Gabe Muir and men like him ruin the world, their effects and more widespread and longer lasting than the worst defiler. I will defeat him, in time…

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