I felt a buzzing, tearing sensation moments before landing face first in the dirt. I sensed more than saw Thranduin and Cassandra/Ajax follow after me. I felt like throwing up; I came here wanting to make a difference, but it was all becoming too real too fast for me.
I heard Thranduin say something about smoke in the distance, and I followed the others in that direction. The trail of smoke ended in the savaged remains of a couple ATVs and motorcycles. Markings on the vehicles and bodies indicated these were the remains of fellow Invisible Army personnel. There was little sign of what tore into their allies with such savagery, apart from the strange remains of some giant creature whose bones were made of steel. Neither Thranduin nor I were able to deduce much from it, so we took inventory of what was salvageable. I took some energy cells and two laser pistols while Cassandra had Ajax pick up most of the rest. I’m still in awe that I’m working alongside a real-life Glitterboy!
We heard a loud crashing sound suddenly start toward us and breaking into the clearing was a massive cross between a rhinoceros and a buffalo. Pure terror flooded my veins with adrenaline, and I stayed close to Thranduin and activated my shield. For the rest of the relatively short battle, I alternated between awe watching Ajax go toe to toe with this creature, and panic every time I fired a shot at it. And when it turned its attention from Ajax to us, it completely destroyed my shield with just one hit! But Cassandra proved to us why Glitterboys are so awesome, and she took down the monster!
I’m ashamed to admit that when my shield was destroyed, terror overtook my bladder and I tried to hide that my pants were wet. Thankfully Thranduin and Cassandra didn’t say anything, but I’m still really embarrassed by that. I pressed my gloves against the dead beast and triggered my visor to see what I could find about where it had come from, and I saw someone spooky wearing some sort of helmet with wires and mech dogs. I pressed into the connection harder and knew that he was just a couple days’ travel from here. But then he looked up and I knew he could somehow see me! I almost wet myself again and hastily severed the connection.
We talked about it for a few minutes then took some trophies from the monster and carefully followed the tracks of the rhinaffalo. As night settled in, we heard laughter and loud voices. Thranduin and I crept closer and could make out 3 or 4 bonfires and a number of tents. Commonly dressed people were just wandering around talking with some others in a sort of uniform. It took a few minutes of watching them to realize that we had stumbled into a carnival! What the heck?
We pulled back to talk to Cassandra and figure out our next step, but I think we’re going to the big top!
We all entered the underground chamber and took a look around. Kawanisi emerged from the shadows to join our group just in time to pocket one of the finely wrought pieces of miniature gear we found. But she freely gave it up in the next room when we were faced with an unique challenge of matching equipment to statues then throwing them into the correct gullet.
That opened a door to another chamber where we fought gemstone dragons and guardian constructs after touching a fake rendition of the Eye of the Stone Thief – left by the one, the only, Darien the Great! We looted his cache then narrowly escaped back to the surface as the puzzle reset itself and several of us were almost eaten by hungry stairs.
Up top, we found the remains of a necrotic ritual that we destroyed with some excellent sake before following the tracks back to a troll warcamp. The camp had been abandoned as they all marched for war, though there were an unlucky few who stayed behind to fix a siege engine or tow. Like the heroes we are, we promptly ensured they’d never make it to the front lines.
After gathering some intel, we sent out an alert to a number of the Icons and hightailed it back to Harrowdale. We encountered a few hardships along the way, and crested the ridge overlooking the town to find Bloodtusk and his horde besieging the place.
I awoke famished the next morning and ate a massive breakfast. Malek joined me for the meal which was concluded by him combing wine through is beard and tucking fish under his arms for later. I made my way over to Tagi’s armory and inquired after some sort of bracer with a blade attached. They said they could fashion one, but with Sameel’s group departing for Bar’tak Ken’tak, my project would be a lower priority.
Content with that, I wandered outside where I met Dabar’s new friend, Shuma. He looks like an able enough lad, and it will be nice to have someone else for Dabar to talk to. We also ran into Nabal, who is exploring what could be Hulathi ruins to the West. He requested our aid when we were done helping Japeth, and he was kind enough to give us a blessing for our journey. Dabar wasn’t impressed with him, but I liked the priest. I’m looking forward to spending more time with him.
Shuma then led us to a vendor where I could buy a mule. We briefly haggled on a price and settled on one that seemed fair. Just as our business was concluding, Malek offered to buy up the rest of them! The owner was just as shocked as I was, but he gathered his composure quickly enough to take Malek’s gold and dance away, rejoicing at the windfall. Malek attempted to let the mules go free, but this was obviously a new concept for them.
I spent the rest of the day amused by Malek’s attempts at releasing them and finished my evening back at Sameel’s barracks. The afternoon rains had cleared, and as the stars slowly twinkled into existence, I was once again reminded of the skies over our enclave. The sky is the same, but the world seems a much larger place somehow out here on the plains.
The next morning, I saddled up the mule, swung by Tagi’s (only to find the bracer wasn’t finished yet), and we left Sentem behind. I can see the mountains rising up from the plains in the distance; it’s looks like it’s going to be a good day for traveling!
I found I had some time before dinner and far more money than I knew what to do with, so I wanted Sentem. Preparations for the festival was evident everywhere, as people were moving to and fro. It was in passing just such a group that the attention of my nose was captured by the heavenly smell of freshly baked bread. The aroma took me back to the enclave where we would bake sweetcakes together, and I had a brilliant idea: I would share those sweetcakes with the town of Sentem at this festival! I found the baker, a man named Har, and bought everything he would have sold and then some and commissioned him to make the Hulathi sweetcakes and distribute them freely during the festival. I left him and made my way to Sameel’s house quite content with myself and eager to attend the festival and have that little taste of home.
Sameel’s ‘feast’ was a spartan affair, and I think we were all too polite to eat much. The conversation quickly took a turn toward the inner conflict Sameel had between what he wanted to do, what his father would do, and what he thought would be best for the surrounding lands. He recounted a tale to us of the Fountains of Amena Woami and how it was a place where the three people had gathered: the Hann, the Hulathi, and the humans. Sameel has a vision for this land to return to such a time…a time where people can come and go in peace. I was deeply moved by his vision, and promised I would do what I can to aid him in that.
Shortly after our ‘dinner’ and conversation, Dubar requested that we be able to see Jepeth, for he might be able to better ascertain what is ailing him. Sameel consented, and we found ourselves in a darkened, warm room with a crazed, naked man hunched in the corner. What caught my attention though was that the windows were boarded up from the outside. Glyphs had been scratched on the walls, and one of them matched the scrap of map that we had previously found.
In asking Sameel about it, he said that the ‘black-bound tree’ had long been used by the takan. That phrase reminded me of some ancient murals back at the enclave. Painted images of armies rising up against my people carrying banners with the symbol of the Iron-Bound Tree emblazoned upon them. That phrase whispered from my lips and Jepeth reacted violently. He hovered in the air while I felt my very soul begin to leech from my body. We both collapsed at the same time – he looking haler, and I feeling quite weakened.
Our course of action is confirmed. We must drive out that which is embodying that poor man. Its evil was a force that drove my people into hiding, and I will not stand by and let it be unleashed again. We will spend tomorrow gathering our supplies, then we will head East to look for the last ingredient needed for this ritual of cleansing.
After we finished scavenging the remains of the norakan and tucked the ayal’s heart safely away, we took our bearings and decided to cut as straight a course as we could back to Densem. With Malak leading the way, we made good time and found a nice hill to rest for the night. Everyone but Dabar and I were too tired from the forced march to continue the next day, so we took it easy. Arina found some more herbs and I wandered around, looking for any evidence of the civilization my people left behind. Other than a few scraps that might have been something once, I didn’t find anything.
The second night also passed uneventfully, and the next day Malak led us unerringly to the banks of the Wuma Amwa. Dabar was familiar enough with the surrounding area to know that Densem was just a ways on the other side. We found a long-abandoned raft, but not quite trusting it, everyone but Toara got into the water and tried to wade across. The current was stronger than we had anticipated though, and we all lost our footing. Other than getting wet, no harm was done, and we finally made it to the other side and then on to Densem.
The sights and sounds of an event being prepared assaulted our senses, and Dabar told us that the Festival of First Planting was only a few days away. Gann and Zakar spotted us as we entered the town and gave us their greeting and congratulations on our success. Before leaving us, Zakar told us about a Ger trader that had passed through on his way. He then gave Arina a missive to deliver to Sameel upon our return to Sentem.
Gann pulled me aside and asked if I had found anything in the woods. I suspect he was looking for more electrum, but he wasn’t explicit about it. I showed him the two rings I had found but he wasn’t very interested in them. We spent the night at his place again, and I was able to regale him with the tale of our slaying the tiger beetles. I might have embellished the truth a bit, but he was certainly entertained. He and I had a good chat later that evening after the others fell asleep. He seems like a good fellow, though lonely. I wish there was more I could do for him, though I think simply being friendly might be helping in some small way.
Ari met us the next morning with horses and told us to make for Sentem as fast as we could. She bade Dabar return soon and asked us to take word to Sameel that she doesn’t think Densem could wait much longer for aid against the takan that have taken residence in Ba’tak Kentak.
We had an enjoyable ride North and came across the Ger peddler Zakar had told us about. He introduced himself as Ashoar, and he was very keen on the various pieces of jewelry we had found in the woods. He promised to buy them once he set up his stand in Sentem for 1100 gold! I had no idea that what we had found would be worth that much!
Riding ahead, we found Arashad as quickly as we could, who rejoiced at our success. We have just one more element to recover, and she’ll be able to complete her ritual. And on that note, she had heard rumor of a piece of an old Hann road had been discovered in the mountains to the East.
I think we’ll probably head there next, but before we can resupply and depart, Sameel has requested us to join him for dinner.
After returning to Dabar and the others, we fashioned a travois from the Tiger Beetle carapaces and decided to press on a bit further before night descended, hoping that we’d find a more defensible location to set up camp. We followed the ayal tracks to the southeast until we happened upon an old ruin. It appeared to be a long-abandoned outpost of some sort, so we commandeered it. Just as we were settling down, Malak let out a terrifying roar. He said it was to warn his foes of his presence and call his friends to him. I don’t know about that, but the trees above him did fill up with all sorts of night fowl. He’s a strange one.
The night passed uneventfully, and Dabar ate a hearty breakfast. I think he’s feeling better, but we knew we’d be there another day. We all made the best of it though. Arina had found some acacia trees the previous night and after searching around the tower, found some wild thyme to compliment it. I had found some writing on the tower, and Toara helped interpret it. It seems that this was one of three ‘shields’ securing the ‘vault of the exiled.’ The other two had fallen, and a dire warning had been added to the inscription that it was only a matter of time before they come. I don’t know who ‘they’ are, but by the looks of the tower, the warning had probably been fulfilled. Malak also dug around in the tower and found an old backpack with some gold and such in it. I walked around the tower a bit and found takan tracks headed in the same direction as the ayal. We debated about pressing on toward them without Dabar, but in the end made the decision to wait till morning and try to catch up then.
When dawn broke, Dabar was in much better spirits and devoured everything we put in front of him, including some boiled tiger beetle juice. Malak had been munching away at the remains he brought with him and assured us that it was tasty, but based on the reaction Dabar had, I’m fine letting Malak eat the rest.
We pushed hard after the takan. The going was much easier with the takan tracks being considerably more obvious than the ayal, and by the end of the day, we could hear the norakan’s raucous cries. We surprised them with our attack, and working together, we slew them all and emerged mostly unscathed.
The norakan’s frenzy we had heard was because they had cornered the ayal we had been tracking and had been taunting and perhaps even torturing it. The poor thing looked absolutely terrified, but as soon as Arina released it from the net it was trapped in, it lay its head down on her lap. She spoke to it, explaining our need for its heart, and it bared its chest to her. The dagger’s work was swift, and when the ayal’s lifeblood poured out, I was almost knocked over by a sudden, fierce wind. It briefly swept away the smell of the battle and left us with a moment of profound peace.
I don’t know exactly what I witnessed in that moment, but both the self-sacrifice of the ayal and that wind-blown moment of peace weighed heavily on my mind as we scavenging the norakan’s bodies. We found quite a few valuable items, including a ring of invisibility, though we’ll have to wait till we return to Densem or Sentem to determine their actual worth. Malak sampled some liquid in a vial we found and fell to the ground convulsing. I thought for sure the poison would take his life, but he climbed back to his feet seemingly none the worse for wear. He’s made of hardier stuff than I am!
We’re all pretty worn out from double-marching all day, so I think we’ll make camp here and head back to town in a couple of days.