Where the devil ’s horn threads the tunnel in the sky, a stony visage rarely blinks its hollow eye.
The echoes in the deep can be heard
south of my sandy blizzard
Blood flows from the victims in fountains
in this temple within these mountains
My crown rests once again
till enough blood runs from the slain
The dragon’s call shall be heard once more
as I drag it to the underground before my holy war.
“That’s the whole of the rhyme, anyway,” said Althaea, as she compared notes with the others. They were gathered in the bar of a tavern in the Caravan District, sipping kank juice. Tyr was still lit by stars and moon, though the reflected heat of the sun smote all that walked, crawled or flew below. “There’s more. Ever heard of Ul-athra? The Dust Kraken? The Mouth of Thirst?” The bard paused for dramatic effect. “Sounds like me after an average day,” quipped Wil. “As I was saying,” continued Althaea, “the whole rhyme seems to talk about a relic, perhaps in the Face of Stone, which requires large numbers of sacrifices. While I was Rhotan’s guest, I found out a few things.” She lowered her voice. “There’s this group called the True. They believe that Kalak’s still alive, and from what I’ve heard they’re interested in this relic. Not nice people, by all accounts.”
The following day saw them accompany a caravan bound for Urik via Kled. Naivara rode her elderly crodlu, which she had named ‘Rush’, explaining “He and I shall rush into battle”, though her unsteadiness in the saddle convinced no one. The journey to Kled was uneventful and, pausing to resupply, the companions left the caravan and headed north-west towards the mountains and the likely location of the Face of Stone.
While travelling through the foothills Braz stepped in a patch of small spherical cacti, which reacted by spraying him with noxious acidic vapour. Cursing as it touched his exposed skin, the elf stumbled out of the patch which his companions had fortunately avoided. Naivara led her crodlu round the obstacle and stopped to look at an unusually-shaped crystalline formation. I’m sure there’s something inside that rock, she thought.
Had the night been lighter, she might have seen the crystal spider’s long-dead victim encased in the rock. Multifaceted eyes watched the travellers and multi-jointed legs tensed in readiness. Althaea reeled, surprised, as the huge spider rushed out of the dark and closed its fangs on her, then disappeared as quickly as it had come. “Beware the crystal webs!” she called, feeling slightly sick as the poison bite started to take effect. Ku-ki’cha sprang nimbly up on to a large boulder and attempted to hurl his gythka as the creature appeared again and bit Naivara, but his grip was incorrect and the weapon toppled from his grasp, striking the unfortunate eladrin as she stood below him. Wil raced up, slashed, and connected with a leg; the spider’s response was a blast of blinding light. The fighter nevertheless was able to hit it again, and Althaea composed herself enough to speak a stream of sarcastic magic-infused couplets that finished the arachnid off. A second spider then launched an attack, but the indomitable Wil, supported by a weakened Althaea, slew this one too.
The day turned to starlight, but the heat was unforgiving and took a toll on everyone. Some time later a huge dust devil, easily fifty feet high and perhaps wider, was seen ahead. “The ‘sandy blizzard’”, commented Althaea, “this must be the right way.” Once again, though, they were not the only ones in this desolate spot. About a dozen armed figures, some larger than others, were moving around in a small encampment next to the whirling sandstorm As the party came closer, they could make out that at least three of the group were tareks – tall fierce humanoids who often raided as a living. The remains of broken caravan vehicles were lying here and there, and on the far side a group of bound prisoners sat against a rock. While the party watched, two raiders dragged one of these over to the dust devil and cast the man into the dust devil. There was a high, agonised shriek, then only the ceaseless rushing of the sand.
Without hesitating, Wil and Ku-ki’cha dashed forward. Wil seemed to float above the sand, taking impossibly long strides which brought him within sword-reach of the raiders guarding the prisoners. For his part, the thri-kreen sprang into the air and seemed, impossibly, to run up an invisible slope that took him on to a large rock and face to face with another raider. Naivara tried to mount her crodlu, but her riding skill was not equal to the task and she toppled off. Nevertheless, one raider clutched his head and fell dead, a victim of her mind thrust. Ku-ki’cha felled another with a flurry of blows. Wil found himself pressed on all sides by human raiders and their tarek masters, then felt himself lifted out of the circle and deposited gently a short distance away. Althaea completed the Majestic Word, then joined the attack.
Another prisoner was seized and dragged, struggling weakly, towards the dust devil and thrown in. All of the adventurers were locked in combat with the raiders now. Ku-ki’cha chittered in frustration as his attacks failed to connect. A tarek clubbed him to the ground. Braz, moving stealthily up on the left flank, slew one man with a deft thrust and another with a conjured acid orb. This stopped one prisoner going into the sandstorm, but another pair of raiders quickly flung their captive in. Angrily, Braz darted forward and killed one of them. Althaea’s magic slid one tarek next to the dust devil, but failed to get it close enough to be sucked in. The raider lashed out with a bone pick and knocked Braz flat, and prepared to deliver another blow, but the assassin vanished and reappeared next to another raider, who he dispatched quickly.
The fight continued. Several of the raiders lay dead, but the tareks were a tougher proposition, and though Braz had managed to kill one, it was his last act before falling unconscious. He, Wil, and Ku-ki’cha all now lay badly wounded. Only the two eladrin were left standing. The bard fey stepped to the top of a rock, drew her longsword and hewed ineffectually at the human raider who was climbing up after her. The man swung himself up, grinned, and advanced. Trying another tack, the bard dropped her sword and fell to her knees, beseeching her enemy for mercy and managing to tinge her words with the promise of sex. It appeared to work; the man sheathed his sword, grasped her wrists and began to bind them together. Naivara, meanwhile, had also climbed on top of a rock, but a tarek, wounded but still dangerous, had joined her there. The young psion reached into the hulking brute’s mind, erasing its perception of her and becoming effectively invisible. She slid off the rock next to the fallen thri-kreen and began trying to revive him. Althaea stared at her captor and spoke a stream of magical verse that fried his brains while simultaneously mocking his likely ability to satisfy her. The man’s body tumbled off the rock to the sand below.
Ku-ki’cha opened his eyes and noticed the psion bending over him anxiously, pleading for him to wake up and fight. The remaining tarek spotted them and jumped down. Ku-ki’cha tried to rise, but was slammed back into the ground and passed out again. However, this distracted his enemy long enough for Naivara and Althaea to slay it.
The two women ran over to each other; the battle was over and they were the victors. One human raider had abandoned the fight and was fleeing out of sight beyond the captives, but Naivara and Althaea let him go. “Wil! Braz!” they cried together, and ran to where they lay.
Wil found himself standing again, though he couldn’t remember waking up. He looked around, and saw Braz waving to him. The elf was standing over someone but the body didn’t look like one of the tareks or raiders. Althaea was running over towards him, while Naivara headed towards Braz. “No rush, I’m feeling surprisingly good”, he called. The bard didn’t seem to hear him. Instead she bent, looking at something by Wil’s feet. He looked down – into his own pale, dirty, bloodstained face. Althaea shrieked in grief and rage. “NO!” Naivara was similarly bent over a body that Wil recognised as the elf.
Realisation slowly dawned on him, but for some reason he felt curiously detached. He took a step away from Althaea and the body that no longer belonged to him, and saw Braz. Wil spoke. “Well, that’s that. Looks like we won, anyway.”
“Looks like we did. Think they’ll be all right without us?”
Wil shrugged. “Probably not. Well – I don’t know. It’s not our problem any more.”
Braz nodded. “Let’s have a look what’s on the other side of that dust devil. It can’t hurt us now.”
“Yeah, let’s. I feel like there’s somewhere we have to be – but we don’t have to go straight away. Come on.” The two of them strolled over to the whirling mass of sand, paused once to look back, then entered and were lost to sight.