Curse of the Crimson Throne

The Circle of Iron
Skeletons of Scarwall, Part 1

Extreme Makeover: Druidic Edition

The surviving Crimson Blades regroup at the Flameford, where they decide to reincarnate their fallen companion Zandu the next morning. As the new day dawns, they carry his remains into the guest yurt and Egan proceeds to perform the ritual. Eerie green light plays over the sorcerer’s body, which rises several inches from the ground, its limbs writhing and twisting in unnatural directions.

Slim announces that he has a “Do Not Reincarnate” policy. Kyra insists that the process is probably completely painless, eliciting a knowing nod from Egan. One bright flash of green light later and Zandu’s new body lies splayed out on the ground—a little taller and hairier than before, with more of a pronounced snout, the light and dark dappling of a hyena’s coat running from his head down his back.

Slim turns to Kyra. “I’m assuming this is a deal-breaker?”

“It’s… a challenge,” the halfling replies weakly. “I mean, look at the size of his teeth!”

“That’s what bothers you?” Slim snorts.

The party attempts to rouse the gnoll sorcerer, but he remains caught in a deep sleep. Egan believes that he will awaken with a day. Arlynn, however, senses that Zandu’s transition from the afterlife back to the material plane is taking unusually long, as if something were drawing out his passage.

A History of Ashes

Not long after the reincarnation, the Sun Shaman and Chief Ready-Klar return from the Kallow Mounds. Surveying the devastation left by Cinnabar’s ambush, they thank the Crimson Blades for their role in saving the Flameford camp.

The Sun Shaman says he can now share with them the knowledge they seek and asks them to meet with him in his yurt. Leaving their cohorts to watch over Zandu, the party joins the shaman around his sacred fire.

The Sun Shaman tells them that eight centuries ago, when the Sklar-Quah still dwelt in the green lands of the south, an ancestor of his left Varisia to join the warband of an outlander hero, Mandraivus, who sought to overthrow the tyrannical dragon Kazavon. The warband cornered the wyrm in its fortress of Scarwall and slew the monster, but its foul essence still lingered in its remains, threatening to return.

The warband’s most powerful magics could not destroy its last seven remnants, so Mandraivus had his companions each take one to bury in hidden sites scattered across Golarion, while he remained behind to hold Scarwall. The Sun Shaman’s ancestor returned a changed man, haunted by what he had witnessed, and bearing Kazavon’s fangs.

The Sklar-Quah buried the fangs in a secret chamber deep within the Grand Mastaba and stood watch over them for centuries, until the Chelaxians drove them north into the Cinderlands. Since then, the Sklar-Quah shamans have watched fearfully as the city of Korvosa grew over their ancient reliquary.

The Sun Shaman explains that a fragment of Kazavon’s soul remains lodged within the fangs, a seed of evil waiting to sprout into a mighty tree once it finds fertile soil. The shamans of old were able to resist the fangs’ psychic lure, but a weaker mind—like that of a petty young queen—would have no such defense.

The Sun Shaman believes that Queen Ileosa is has fallen under the sway of the fangs and warns that she now possesses two souls in one body—hers and one forged from Kazavon’s fragment—granting her tremendous power over her own mortality. The Sun Shaman has no answers for how to defeat her and suggests that the party perform the Blessing of the Ancestors to seek guidance from the spirit world. Zellara signals to the party that she would like to be the conduit for this ritual.

Irabeth’s Ghost Story

The ritual must take place two hours before dawn, so in the meantime the adventurers bring their cohorts up to speed. Remmy is shocked and dismayed at what has befallen the Queen, and even more so at the thought that it might not be possible to disentangle Ileosa from Kazavon. She tells them she needs some alone time to think about this.

Irabeth has a different reaction to the news.

“Kazavon,” the half-orc frowns. “I know about Kazavon.”

“You do?” the adventurers ask in unison.

Irabeth explains that eight hundred years ago, a warlord from Kazavon emerged from Ustalav to the east, defeating the rampaging hordes of Belkzen in battle after battle, until the orcs were driven into caves beneath the Kodar Mountains. Kazavon then built a castle, Scarwall, to stand watch over the mountains. Envoys from Lastwall praised him as a hero and arrived offering promises of an alliance, but he had the ambassadors flayed alive and sent his reply back on their skins: submit or die.

For ten years, Kazavon ruled from Scarwall as a sadistic tyrant, prone to impaling people alive by the thousands. His soldiers ranged across Belkzen, foraying into Lastwall, Ustalav, the Realm of the Mammoth Lords and even Varisia. No army could stand against him.

But a small band of adventurers led by the paladin Mandraivus managed to catch the tyrant unawares and slay him in his own castle of Scarwall. But with Kazavon gone, the orcs of Belkzen spilled out of their mountain redoubts and stormed the fortress, slaying Mandraivus. And that’s when the curse took hold.

“The curse?” everyone asks in unison.

Irabeth says that Scarwall is a haunted castle that even the orcs avoid. All who perish within its walls are said to rise again as unquiet dead, forever bound to walk its cursed halls. She says that in her home village of Tark, parents would tell naughty children they would be sent off to Scarwall if they didn’t finish their supper.

She shares a few folk tales about Scarwall: that Kazavon’s ghost stalks its halls, that it’s home to a powerful devil who flies out at night to snatch up nwary souls, and that its perched on a crack in the earth from which Rovagug’s foul essence leaches out.

Irabeth is surprised to hear that Kazavon is a dragon, however, for in all the stories she heard he was just a man from Ustalav.

Slim speculates that Kazavon might be the source of Salvator Scream’s disturbing dreams, particularly since his muse seemed to abandon him around the time Ileosa started going round the bend. Which would also mean that Kazavon is connected to the Church of Zon-Kuthon, given Laori’s interest in Salvator’s paintings.

Ashla wonders if Kazavon was a champion of the Midnight Lord, but Slim is certain there is more to it. After all, if the Kuthites were aligned with the dragon, it would have made more sense for them to have killed the party rather than aiding them.

Dawn of the Not-So-Dead

After a troubled night, the Crimson Blades awaken in the early pre-dawn hours. They are joined by Zandu, who comes to apparently suffering from tremendous aches and pains. He is surprised at his new body but quickly shrugs off the change.

“Could be worse,” he says, climbing to his feet.

“His fur is very soft,” Kyra offers awkwardly.

Slim cocks an eyebrow. “Really, Kyra?”

She gives a shrug of her own. “Hey, I’m working with what I’ve got here, trying to stay positive.”

Of greater interest interest to sorcerer is how his fur is flaking off in tufts in places, revealing blue scales beneath. He borrows a dagger from Kyra to confirm that the scales are tough as steel. Satisfied, he plops on his magic hat and shifts back to his human form. Kyra gives a visible sigh of relief.

Frayed Maiden

While Zandu gets settled, Slim tracks down Remmy, who is seated by the western cliff face, staring off into the twilight and occasionally chucking a rock over the edge and onto the sharp stones below. Slim asks how she’s doing. She reminds him that she swore to protect the Queen and again insists that the party must find a way to free Ileosa from Kazavon.

“I suppose we’ll find out if we can soon enough,” Slim says, sitting down beside her.

“That’s what I’ve been praying to Abadar for,” she sighs. Her gaze flits to Slim’s scarf and she adds “Desna, too, just to tip the scales our way for once.”

“And if we can’t save her?” Slim asks. “Are you willing to do what must be done?”

“I can’t,” Remmy says, rubbing her temples with gauntleted fingers as if trying to massage away a headache. “It’s not that I don’t understand—I just can’t.”

“Think of all the people in Korvosa that Kazavon threatens,” Slim tells her. “Think of your parents. You’re pledged to protect more than just one person.” He lays a hand on her pauldron. “That’s what your armor represents.”

She thinks on this a moment and then nods, flashing him a tired smile. “You’re right. The city has to come first.”

She climbs creakily to her feet. “I’m with you to the end, Slim . . . and I won’t stop you from doing what needs to be done. Just don’t ask me to raise my sword against her. Please.”

She gives him a hug and then returns to the guest yurt to lie down. Slim rejoins the others, who have been discussing whether he has romantic feelings towards the Gray Maiden—talk he tries unsuccessfully to shut down.

Zellara’s Song

As dawn approaches, the Sun Shaman leads the Crimson Blades out to the upper tier of Bolt Rock in order to perform the Blessing of the Ancestors. The entire Flameford tribe accompanies them to witness the ritual. The adventurers seat themselves in a circle around a small fire, holding hands, while the shaman drones out a chant for two hours, until the first rosy fingers of dawn creep over the horizon. At that point, the shaman slumps forward and the smoke from the fire swirls into the shape of Zellara.

“It is good to see all of you again in person,” she smiles. “I carry a message for you from the spirit world, but first I would like to perform a Harrow reading to help guide you through the path to come.”

Zellara reads their fate in the cards. Peering into the past, she sees that a hidden secret was revealed, but that those who acted the revelation did so imprudently, leaving a lingering danger that looms over the rest of the spread.

In the present, Zellara sees that they have earned the loyalty of many, but glimpsing into the future she sees an impregnable obstacle and the threat of divided loyalties. Nonetheless, it is the path the party must take in order to save the city they all hold dear.

Next, Zellara delivers her message from the spirit realm, which takes the form of a cryptic song. One of the names she mentions catches Arlynn’s attention: Serithtial. Irabeth’s comments about Mandraivus had already jogged the paladin’s memory and she recalls that Serithtial was a sword imbued with Iomedae’s grace that had been carried by the holy warrior.

As she finishes her song, Zellara smiles again, although this time her smile seems somewhat sad or bittersweet. Each adventurer feels a sudden upsurge in their souls as the spirits of the dead infuse them with energy to aid them. The Shoanti stand amazed as the ritual ends and Zellara fades into darkness.

Later, Irabeth sketches out a “rough” map of Belkzen from memory, identifying Scarwall as located in the foothills of the Kodar Mountains deep in orcish territory.

Shopping Spree in the City of Strangers

Before striking out for Scarwall, the adventurers decide they must return to Kaer Maga to sell their plunder and resupply. But rather than brave a crossing of the Cinderlands in the summer heat, they decide to have Zandu teleport the five of them back to the Common House, while their cohorts remain behind at the camp. It takes two trips by the sorcerer to get them all there, but eventually they apparate into the main hall of the tavern-temple.

From there, the Crimson Blades travel to the marketplace to make their sales and purchases. Ashla seeks to have her swords enchanted, while Arlynn borrows some money from Egan to boost her armor. Slim, meanwhile, scopes out the slave markets, looking for a potential recruit to free. There are a diverse array of slave mongers at the market place, but one stands heads and shoulders above the others—literally. A Bekyar woman in plate mail with a face similar to Arlynn’s is overseeing the auction of a collection of slaves, while more Bekyar guards look on.

Slim quietly alerts Arlynn, who is inspecting the shops nearby. She recognizes the woman as her estranged sister Keris. The rogue offers to eliminate her where she stands or says they can do things “quietly.” Arlynn requests the latter, and soon enough Slim is speaking to Keris himself, claiming to be acting on behalf of a master who is seeking particularly strong and burly slaves. He asks for a private meeting that night and suggests the Sorry Excuse, but Keris insists on the Smiling Asp.

His business with Keris done, Slim returns to studying the slave markets, looking for a suitably roguish captive. Finding one he is satisfied with, Slim waits until she has been purchased and then approaches her new owner, a pudgy man of middling years dressed in a colorful mixture of Qadiran and Jalmerayan robes. Slim chats him up, commiserating about the challenges of slave trading, and convinces him to share a drink at the Sorry Excuse. While there, Slim offers to purchase the slave from from the trader, but rather than haggling suggests a game of chance to determine the cost. They play a game of “Duck, Dodge, or Parry” and the first round goes to Slim, halving the cost of the slave. But when he tries a second time, the trader catches him cheating. Slim then produces a dagger, saying the trader can take the deal or lose his life.

“My bodyguards might have something to say about that,” the trader intones casually, as two burly fellows rise up from the table behind him. But the trader waves them back to their seats and gives Slim a warm chuckle. “You’re my kind of scum. I came to this city looking for a little entertainment and a dash of excitement, which you’ve thoroughly delivered this evening. Take the girl, you have won her squarely if not not fairly.”

He rises to his feet and tosses Slim 5gp “for your trouble.”

“If you are ever in Katapesh and in need of work,” he says, “seek out Taledoro at the House of Many Numbers.”

Slim then presents his bill of sale for the slave, a slender Ulfen woman of less than twenty winters, with scraggly blond hair. She is skeptical of him at first, but he tells her that she’s not his possession but rather his apprentice. He tosses her five gold and tells her to get cleaned up and wait for him at the Common House.

“Call me Slim,” he tells her.

“I am Freya Mikkelsdotter,” she replies, palming the coins.

At the Sign of the Smiling Asp

That evening, the Crimson Blades begin drifting into the Smiling Asp, a small restaurant by the main market quarter. Zandu arrives first, in gnoll form, taking a seat at a table next to a strange creature wrapped in robes and turban. It ignores him and continues staring straight ahead, while the murky mixture in the bowl in front of him slowly vanishes. Egan arrives next and tries to find a table, but finds most of them occupied by Bekyars. The gnome ends up taking a seat at Zandu’s table. Ashla lurks outside, while Slim proceeds to saunter inside.

Keris is seated at a long table in the back, accompanied by a henchman. Slim announces the arrival of his master, “Novennia of House Videllos,” and Arlynn enters the bar, having been disguised using Zandu’s magic hat to resemble a Chelaxian noble. Keris is surprised to see a Chelaxian going so far out of her way to buy slaves in Kaer Maga rather than back home. Arlynn attempts to spin a response, but Keris quickly sees through the ruse and orders them to leave. At that point, Arlynn unmasks herself and demands justice for Keris’ crimes.

The elder Farima sister leaps to her feet and challenges Arlynn to a duel in the “Circle of Iron” the following day.

“I’ve waited a long time for a rematch, little sister,” Keris says. “The chance to prove once and for who the superior swordswoman is by writing my name in your blood.”

“You will pay for the terrible things you’ve done,” Arlynn tells her. “For what you did to mother.”

“That was father’s doing, and yours!” her sister shouts back. “You both stained our family name and it has taken every ounce of my strength to shake it clean. I am First Sword of the Bekyars and tomorrow, when I gut you, no one will deny that I am a true Farima.”

“You think slaving and murder will cleanse the family name?” Arlynn asks. “Your friends the Arkonas were eating the slaves you sold them.”

“Well then they’re terrible people,” Keris shoots back. “But their money’s still good.”

The Circle is Now Complete

The following day, the Crimson Blades head for the Circle of Iron. Like all temples to Gorum, the god of battle, it is built like a fortress—a huge, blocky box with few windows, surrounded by a low curtain wall. Guards at the gate demand to know if they will be participating in the day’s worship as combatants or merely as spectators. Arlynn acknowledges that she will be fighting and learns that Keris is a familiar face at the Circle. Slim asks if spectators can gamble on the fights.

“Of course you can gamble!” the Gorumites say. They note that Keris is the heavy favorite in today’s bout against Arlynn, which is not even her first fight of the day.

The paladin is separated from the others and led downstairs, passing a long line of other prospective combatants—a bewildering mix of races and cultures, including twwo people trying to convince the Gorumites to let their armored gorilla participate. The combatants who are slated to face each other are filtered into separate waiting chambers, where Arlynn prepares to cross swords with her sister for the first time in more than a decade.

As the rest of the Crimson Blades approach the temple, Egan shifts into cat form to move around unobtrusively. Inside, the main floor of the building overlooks a large circular fighting pit with a blazing bonfire at its center. A set of stone bleachers overlooks the arena, while across from them stands a shrine to Our Lord in Iron. The crowd is a mixture of Gorumite faith and assorted gamblers and bloodsport enthusiasts. By the entrance, a bookie takes down wagers on the day’s fights. Slim and Zandu both bet on Arlynn’s victory, and Slim also places a wager on Arlynn’s behalf.

Arlynn isn’t slated to fight until later that day, so the party witnesses several bout between other combatants, ranging from duels to the death to bare knuckle boxing. Finally, the half-orc master of ceremonies gets to the main event.

“Ladies and gentlemen, have we got a show for you today! Two sisters, once separated by a thousand miles and sea of blood, face each other in the Circle of Iron for the first and last time. This fight is to the death!”

Arlynn and Keris each enter the arena through separate doors, which sit across from another set of large double doors. The crowd cheers for the slaver, while booing Arlynn and Korvosa.

“You suck and your queen’s gone mad!” one heckler calls out.

“Everyone knows she’s crazy,” Zandu shouts back.

Keris circles around the central fire pit, glaring across the flames at Arlynn. When the half-orc signals them to fight, the elder sister moves swiftly around the flames, seemingly unencumbered by her plate mail.

But something in Arlynn’s gaze throws off her stride and instead of pressing her attack, she spiderwalks up the side of one of the arena’s support pillars. Arlynn proceeds to smite her with Iomedae’s fury, but Keris is able to weather the savage blow. She strikes back at the paladin and manages to trip her.

“You might have put on some muscle, little sister, but your footwork’s still sloppy,” Keris chides from her position on the iron pillar.

Despite Keris’ opportunistic attacks, Arlynn clambers back to her feet and lashes out with her greatsword, slicing a red gash through a weak point in Keris’ armor.

“Cease your slaving ways and seek forgiveness for your crimes, Keris!” Arlynn pleads with her. “The path you are walking now will only lead to your destruction.”

Behind them, they hear roars and shouts echoing from beyond the double doors to the arena, which are soon straining at their hinges.

Badly wounded, Keris knocks Arlynn over again and tries to escape, but the tumbling paladin bashes her with a spiked gauntlet and they tumble together in a heap.

The double doors burst open and the armored gorilla leaps out onto arena, halberd in hand, shouting “Kill them all” in a Mwangi jungle dialect that Arlynn recognizes.

The Apes of Wrath

Slim asks the bookie if the gorilla’s disruption is proper procedure, only to feel arcane fingers probing his mind. He manages to shake them off and notices a blond woman not far away surreptitiously casting a spell at him—one of the people who had accompanied the gorilla to the Circle of Iron.

The woman is soon joined by a scrawny Mwangi sorcerer and a strange, extremely hairy dwarf, all of them converging on Zandu. Ashla steps forward to aid him, while Zandu casts spells from the bleachers and Cat-Egan tries to get closer to the blond woman.

In the fighting pit, Arlynn takes her sister’s sword and then draws upon the healing grace of her goddess to prevent Keris from bleeding out.

“I called on Iomedae to bring you back from the brink of death,” the paladin tells Keris as she comes to.

“I spit on your whore of a goddess,” Keris snarls back hoarsely. She rises to her feet, arm cradling a wound in her side.

Arlynn calls out to her one last time. “Keris, you have to stop hurting innocent people. It’s not what mother would have wanted and you know it. Help me end the slave trade in Korvosa—if not for the sake of your soul, then for mother’s sake. That has to be worth more than an empty title and a trail of broken lives.”

A flicker of uncertainty crosses Keris’ face as she looks from Arlynn earnest eyes to her confiscated sword and back again. Then her expression hardens again.

“This match was inconclusive,” she declares, nodding at the interlopers. “I hope you get out alive, sister. I want to finish things for real this time.”

She limps up the side of the pillar and up onto the main floor of the temple.

The armored gorilla ignores the two Bekyar sisters and instead hauls itself out of the arena, urging on the beasts following it. The warrior ape then forces its way up through the bleachers, knocking Zandu off the side, where he feather falls to the bottom behind Slim.

A four armed girallion emerges from the broken double doors and has soon hoisted itself up to attack Ashla. The half-orc Gorumite lambasts the fleeing crowd, only for a loose lion to pounce on him. Cat-Egan decides enough is enough and seals the doorway with wall of stone.

The blond woman, meanwhile, succeeds at snaring Slim with her spells and drawing him over to the door. But Cat-Egan is able to bring her down with call lightning, breaking the spell. The dwarf, meanwhile, wildshapes into a tiger and attacks Zandu, who responds by unleashing his inner dragon fury and clawing back.

With her greatsword still locked in one hand, Arlynn stands no chance at climbing from the arena and must instead take the long way around up the stairs. Meanwhile, the wounded Keris links up with her Bekyar henchman upstairs and tries to escape. Slim intervenes to stop her, but she knocks him over and continues limping towards the stairs. Cat-Egan manages to shock her into unconsciousness with another call lightning.

Meanwhile, as his allies perish around him, the vile gorilla seizes hold of Slim and proceeds to haul him out of the temple. However, the slippery rogue is able to wriggle free as Ashla, Arlynn and Zandu close in.

Glaring at the party with beady eyes, the gorilla declares that “You have made a powerful enemy today.”

He attempts to make his escape by climbing the iron-plated facade of the temple, but comes hurtling back to the ground thanks to another well placed call lighting from Cat-Egan. The gnome is able to dodge the smoking body as it smashes back to the earth and soon the party’s attention turns back to Keris, lying unconscious by the stairs.

The lone remaining Bekyar slaver turns tail and runs at the sight of the adventurers, leaving Keris in their care. The adventurers collect their winnings—and their prisoner—and return to the Common House.

The Battle of the Flameford
A History of Ashes, Part 12

Solving the Bug Problem

The Red Mantis assassins weave their sawtoothed sabres in an intricate pattern, attempting to hypnotize the adventurers. Slim calls out a warning, but the Crimson Blades are able to resist the mental lure. Irabeth then calls upon Iomedae’s healing embrace to mend the group’s wounds.

While the assassins’ efforts failed, Krojun remains locked in a death grappled with a furious mountain lion. The Cinderlander continues to wail on the barbarian with a hand axe while trying to edge his way out of the fight.

Egan shields himself from the assassins by building a tower from wall of stone, then commands the treant Woody to destroy the Red Mantis. Meanwhile, Slim gets the drop on one of them trying to sneak around from behind on a yurt-top.

Remmy attacks one of the Mantids, but the assassin catches her sword in his sabre’s sawteeth and twists it from her hand.

“He blind-sided me!” she shouts.

Ashla cuts one of the assassins down, while Woody squashes two assassins flat. The treant then slaps the mountain lion ten feet into a yurt.

“Neverfar!” the Cinderlander cries out and runs towards the cat. He gets cut up by Ashla and Irabeth in the process and stumbles into the tent, tugging it down over him and his animal companion.

Clashing Swords

On the other side of the communal fire, Cinnabar and Arlynn face off against each other. The Red Mantis commander weaves her swords through the air, casting a spell with no obvious effect.

Though uncertain of Cinnabar’s skill with a blade, Arlynn charges her and breaks through the assassin leader’s defenses. But the paladin finds herself surrounded as Cinnabar’s summoned fiendish giant red mantids appear around her. While the insects distract Arlynn, Cinnabar cuts deep with her sawtoothed blades.

But Arlynn follows up with a devastating, divinely imbued strike. Cinnabar sees it coming and raises her sword in a salute, a faint smile on her lips as the paladin’s blade strikes home. The Red Mantis commander crumples to the ground, causing the gargoyles to scatter and the barbarians to cheer.

Standing over her defeated foe, Arlynn praises her for fighting honorably, but says she had no choice but to cut the assassin down.

The Vanishing Cinderlander

Across the camp, Kyra has finished her hunt for the last assassin who slew Zandu, riddling him with crossbow bolts.

Slim approaches the ruined yurt with sword drawn, intent on finishing off the Cinderlander. But the hunter and his big cat have both vanished, leaving no tracks that Ashla can see. A furious Slim and Krojun pledge to kill the bastard.

“We will kill him together, my brother!” Krojun insists.

Slim demands that Egan scry out the Cinderlander, using his cat “Neverfar” as the target. Krojun helpfully supplies one of the beasts’ claws, prying it out of his scalp.

While Egan prepares the spell, Slim translates a coded message found on Cinnabar. The message from “Mistress Kayltanya” instructs her to put her personal issues behind her and eliminate the Crimson Blades, with an added request that she retrieve Dr. Davaulus’ rapier.

Egan slowly focuses in on the badly wounded Neverfar, learning that Cinderlander has retreated to a cave system used by gargoyles. The gnome overhears him telling Neverfar he never should have taken this job from a bunch of townies who didn’t know what they were getting into. He says burning up his little escape trinket cost more than the entire job was worth. He hopes to look for better clients in Kaer Maga once his cat is well enough to travel.

Through his bond with nature, Egan gets a sense that the cave is about a dozen miles away. Slim urges the others to join him in slaying the Cinderlander.

“I am so down for that,” Kyra says.

The Hunted Hunter

Slim, Kyra, Arlynn, and Krojun ride Roc-Egan to the cave, using commune with nature to pinpoint the hunter’s location. Ashla stays behind to supervise recovery operations, with help from Irabeth and Remmy.

After landing gently outside the cave mouth, Egan sneaks into the cave. Slim follows, nearly blowing their cover. Kyra sidles up beside them. Arlynn clanks in.

The Cinderlander then comes tearing out, as if fleeing something and stops short when he sees Arlynn.

Krojun charges past Arlynn and finishes off the devil tshamek with one blow from his earth breaker hammer. The barbarian lets out a triumphant cheer—and is then immediately pounced on by Neverfar.

While Krojun struggles against this rematch, Slim sneaks up on Neverfar and kills the cat with his dagger of beast bane

Arlynn ventures deeper into the cave to discover what the Cinderlander was running from and notices a ring of teeth around the entrance to one cave. Egan determines that the cave is not natural, and Krojun identifies it as an abnormally large kashur, a shapeshifting ambush predator.

The adventurers proceed to toss a bunch of Egan’s acorn grenades down its gullet, killing it in a fiery explosion.

Destiny’s Orphan

While his body lies mangled on the ground at the Flameford, Zandu’s soul is plucked from its journey through Pharasma’s Boneyard and drawn into the chaotic plane of the First World. His spirit is brought before the Eldest, the ancient lords of the Fey. They chastise him for squandering his destiny.

The Lantern King reaches deep into his soul and strips away the gleaming thread of fate that was to be his destiny—bringing down the House of Thrune. That accomplishment will go to another, he is told.

Zandu protests that he deserves a second chance, since he was cut down while supposedly under their protection. The Eldest tell him that he will be returning to Golarion soon enough—but when he does, he will be walking a different path in a different life than the one he lost.

The Lantern King extends his whispy hand again, this time holding an iridescent blue egg in his palm, which he jams within Zandu’s soul. The vibrant, shifting landscape of the First World then begins to fade into a mist, as the sorcerer feels the tug of the mortal realm drawing him back as if from a deep sleep.

A Death in the Party
A History of Ashes, Part 11

Part of the Tribe

After they all successfully overcame the Trial of the Totems, the Sun Shaman of the Sklar-Quah leads the Crimson Blades back to the Flameford as the pale fingers of dawn creep over the eastern skyline. As the rest of the camp looks on, the shaman draws symbols on their faces in the ash from the central fire pit to properly induct them into the Sklar-Quah.

He urges them to rest in the guest yurt while he and Chief Ready-Klar wind walk to the Kallow Mounds to commune with the ancestors regarding the party’s questions. Krojun Eats-What-He-Kills is placed in charge of the camp, where he will oversee the festivities once they awake.

The adventurers spend the day abed, rising in the late afternoon to the smell of spiced bulette meat roasting. They emerge from the guest yurt to ecstatic cheers from the Sklar-Quah, who have clearly been waiting for them to rise. The tribe has gathered around the central fire. Thundercallers begin singing songs of the Sklar-Quah, accompanied by drums and the unique whistling sounds of their windspears.

Krojun compliments Slim for sharing his wine the other day, but insists that airag, fermented mare’s milk, is the drink of true Shoanti. He challenges the Crimson Blades to a Shoanti drinking game, which Arlynn, Egan, Slim and Zandu accept. The game involves reciting the details of a herd of horses, with each error resulting in a drink and each round adding a new detail to keep track of. Slim proceeds to get totally blasted, while Arlynn keeps her wits and wins the contest.

Ashla stays out of the game, instead picking up her bulette tooth necklace and then joining the dance circle. She proves able to catch on pretty quickly to the moves of the tribal dance.

Irabeth tastes the food, but declines the drinking contest and hangs around the edge of the party. She turns down an offer from Krojun to dance, but she ultimately lets herself get pulled into the dancing ring by Sefah and another Shoanti woman. The half-orc proceeds to make up for her lack of skill with her enthusiasm.

When the drinking contest concludes, Slim staggers back towards the guest yurt and face plants outside. Remmy goes to check on him, while Zandu tracks down Kyra. The halfling woman had been moving around party, chatting with everyone, but she cheerily accepts the sorcerer’s offer to dance.

“I am a little bit drunk,” Zandu warns her.

“Don’t worry, I’ll lead,” she replies.

They proceed to dance in a slower, Korvosan style, with Zandu managing quite well despite his tipsiness.

Air Raid

As they dance, Kyra squints up at the sky, where dark shapes are flying out of the west, silhouetted against the setting sun. The halfling quietly reaches for her crossbow. The mysterious fliers drop other dark shapes as they pass overhead. Egan spies them and can tell they are not natural creatures. Watching them fly past, Arlynn casts daylight on her sword and holds it aloft, shouting “Look to the skies!”

A series of thundercracks can be heard from the direction of the stables, followed shrieks and whinnies from the horses, the sound of horses dying.

“That’s my cue to find some shade,” Kyra says. She slaps Zandu on the bottom. “Watch you back out there, big boy.”

She flits off into the shadows of the yurts to the east.

Near the guest yurt on the other side of the central fire, a drunken Slim falls to the ground and plays dead.

Moving with almost superhuman speed, Krojun rushes over to the stables to investigate. He bellows that the tribe’s horses have been slain and that they are being attacked by gargoyles.

The winged monsters appear overhead and begin peppering the adventurers with arrows, soon expanding their attacks to the Sklar-Quah as well. Egan uses control weather to create a strong downdraft, making the gargoyles’ bows ineffective. The gargoyles begin to land among the barbarians to attack with their jagged claws.

Zandu casts fly on himself and glides in the direction of the stables, obliviously passing by Kyra’s hiding place.

Revenge of the Mantis

A Red Mantis assassin steps out of the shadows beside the inert Slim. The drunken rogue attempts to play dead, but the assassin slashes him with a sawtooth sabre. Slim then tries to pretend the blow is fatal, but the assassin is unconvinced. Remmy charges to his aid, shouting “Get your claws off him!” Irabeth trundles along after her.

Among the eastern yurts, two more assassins step out of the shadows to flank Zandu.

“How do you keep getting yourself into these situations?” Kyra calls from the shadows.

“It’s a talent,” Zandu replies.

“You really need to expand your repertoire,” she replies, wounding one of the assassins with a well-placed crossbow bolt. The two killers stay focused on the sorcerer, who struggles to fend off their blows with his shield.

After leaping to his feat, Slim teams up with Remmy against the assassin who attacked him. But the Red Mantis adherent tumbles pasts them and springs up and over the guest yurt. Slim signals for Remmy to circle around and cut off any escape while he pursues the assassin among the shadows.

Together, Arlynn and a Sklar-Quah burn rider move towards Zandu’s position to assist him. However, there is a terrible skreeing sound as two crossbow bolt streaks out across the camp. One glaces off the back of Arlynn’s armor while the other slips between two plates and sinks deep into her flesh.

“Sniper!” Arlynn shouts, pointing at a clump of yurts to the northwest. But the frightful noise of the bolts sends many of the Sklar-Quah civilians into a panic as they rush away from the source of the attack, bowling Egan over and stumbling into the claws of the gleeful gargoyles.

Undaunted, Ashla investigates source of the attack, but has trouble spying anything in the shadows behind the cluster of yurts. Badger, however, is on his guard, revealing the presence of a mountain lion prowling in the darkness—which creates more questions than answers.

Amid the terrified crowd, Egan calls out to his treant, “Woody,” and struggles to his feet, fending off attacks from the adjacent gargoyle.

Broken Blade

Still facing the two assassins, Zandu backs up and then denounces them as incompetent, ineffective, and doomed. The assassins seem shaken by his words, but this does not stop them from stepping forward and rending him five times with their sawtoothed sabres. The sorcerer topples to the ground in a bloody heap as Kyra shouts out an anguished “Nooo!”

Arlynn warns the rest of the party that Zandu has been slain. She imbues Kyra and the burn rider with the power of Iomedae’s wrath.

Kyra pledges to slay the two assassins, who each flee in opposite directions, one retreating back towards the stables while the other dashes across open ground to link up with his companion by the guest yurt.

This second assassin stumbles right into reach of the lumbering treant Woody, who slaps it with one massive wooden hand. The assassin limps off into the dark.

Slim finds the assassin he was looking for in the shadows behind the yurts and strikes at it again. But rather than fleeing out into Remmy’s trap, the Red Mantis assassin leaps over Slim’s head onto the guest yurt and dashes over to the other side.

“Damn it, they’re fighting like me!” Slim groans.

Snipe Hunt

Rather than chasing after the Red Mantis, Slim rejoins Remmy and the two of them begin circling around behind the yurts looking for the sniper. Egan starts calling lightning down onto the gargoyles. Krojun taunts three gargoyles into attacking him and proceeds to fend them all off.

Before she can confront the mountain lion in the shadows, Ashla is attacked from behind by a Red Mantis who jumps off of the roof of the adjacent yurt.

With fighting taking place all over the camp, Irabeth surveys the scene and calls Princess to her. Taking the saddle, the junior paladin then charges the assassin attacking Ashla.

More arrows lance out, this time striking Krojun. Arlynn reveals the figure carrying the powerful repeating crossbow and Krojun names him the Cinderlander. With a roar, the barbarian charges “the devil tshamek.”

A massive brawl develops as Krojun, Ashla, Slim and Remmy all converge on the Cinderlander, who drops his bow and fights back with twin hand axes. His puma companion grapples Krojun and Irabeth rides to his aid.

Across camp, Kyra methodically pursues the second of Zandu’s killers as he attempts to flee through the shadows.

She Who Walks in Blood

It is at this point that the Red Mantis Commander Cinnabar makes her entrance, accompanied by yet more assassins. She says she takes no pleasure in this violence and blames the adventurers for dragging the Shoanti into this. She begins to call on the Sklar-Quah to stand down, but Slim denounces her for having brought the devil tshamek into the Flameford, which inspires a roar of approval from the barbarians.

Arlynn then insists that if the Red Mantis’ quarrel is with the Crimson Blades, they should leave the Shoanti out of it. She challenges the commander to a duel. The Red Mantis accept and the gargoyles lift off while the burn riders watch tensely from the sidelines. Krojun says he will leave the “bug people” to the party, but insists that “the devil tshamek is mine!”

The Red Mantis assassins fan out, some going after Egan while others move to help the Cinderlander against Slim, Ashla and Remmy. Cinnabar and Arlynn slowly close with one another, with the commander walking through the communal fire pit unscathed. As the master assassin closes, Arlynn can sense that she was telling the truth—she is taking no pleasure in the killing and prefers this kind of “clean” fight.

Tipping Totems
A History of Ashes, Part 10

Among the Sklar-Quah

Having been told that they must participate in the Trial of the Totems at dawn tomorrow, the Crimson Blades spend the afternoon resting in the Flameford Camp, where the Sklar-Quah still give them suspicious looks. Irabeth quickly retreats into the party’s guest yurt which overlooks the cliff-face on the western side of the camp, and she is soon joined by most of the Blades.

Slim, meanwhile, drifts over to the stables on the eastern end of the Flameford where the remaining warriors who had not left with Krojun or Akram are shooting the breeze and practicing horse tricks. Though they initially ignore the rogue, he is slowly able to draw them out by speaking Shoanti, cracking some self-deprecatory jokes, and finally breaking out a bottle of Chelaxian wine to share. Once the warriors are cheerily into their cups, Slim manages to tease out some information about the Trial.

“Holding up a stone pillar for two days is far too easy a test for membership into the Sklar-Quah,” one of the warriors says. “But even so, I think you will fail, greenlander. You might be too stringy for Cindermaw to keep down, but the Trial of the Totems requires true strength.”

Slim also fishes for more information about Krojun, and learns that the brash warrior is held in high esteem.

“When ride upon Korvosa,” one of the burnriders says, “Krojun will lead us over the walls. There are none like him in the Seven Quahs.”

While Slim buddies up to the young warriors, Arlynn chooses to approach the tribal elders, who have gathered around the bonfire at the center of the Flameford camp. Within the bonfire itself is the Sun Shaman, who has taken the form of a fire elemental. The clan elders mix gossip with talk of the coming war with Korvosa. Arlynn waits for the appropriate moment to step forward and offer her own appeal. She cautions the elders about the harm that war will bring to all and urges them to take a different road.

“It takes greater courage to learn to forgive and make friends of your enemies,” the paladin says. “If you follow the path of peace, I pledge to you that we will tell the people of Korvosa—it will change many minds. What may be accomplished through war can be won through diplomacy with no blood spilled.”

A face forms in the fire and the Sun Shaman speaks: “You promise much, greenlander, and there is wisdom in your counsel. But others have come before you promising the same but delivering the Shoanti only empty words. Time will have to tell whether you and your companions are different.”

“We will prove our worth,” Arlynn promises. Behind her, there is a loud shriek and one of the Sklar-Quah yurts keels over into a mess of furs and wooden poles.

Egan had attempted to entertain the clan’s children with a magic trick that turned into the amazing collapsible yurt stunt. The flame-haired gnome’s energetic apologies ring out across the camp as Arlynn tromps back to the guest yurt.

Rise of the Totems

The following morning, a little while before dawn, the party is awoken by the Sun Shaman and three thundercallers. The shaman leads them on a 20 minute walk out into the Cinderlands, where they arrive at the base of a mesa called Bolt Rock, a sacred site for the Sklar-Quah because of its propensity to attract lightning strikes during thunderstorms. The shaman explains the particulars of the Trial of the Totems to them.

They must each select a 10-foot totem of fired clay from a storage pod at the base of the mesa. Before sunlight reaches the lower tier of the mesa, they must haul their 500-pound totems up to the lower tier and heave them into an upright position in one of the shallow depressions in the rock. The totems must be held upright until the following down, when they once again have to move them to the upper tier, where the totems must be held upright until the third dawn. At that time, those whose totems are intact and upright will be welcomed into the Sklar-Quah.

The Sun Shaman says that many eyes will be cast towards Bolt Rock, which is visible from the Flameford, and the totems will glow faintly at night so that even in the dark they can be seen. The adventurers are permitted to use magic or whatever means are at their disposal to aid them in holding up the totems, so long as they do not alter the nature of the totems or of Bolt Rock. Having laid out the rules, the Sun Shaman turns into a crow and then flies back to the camp.

Through a mix of magic, wildshape, and brute strength, the Crimson Blades haul their totems up to the first level of the Bolt Rock and prop them up. Egan takes the form of an ankylosaurus to drag and prop up his totem. Slim uses the party’s rope to rig up an elaborate support system to help hold up the pillars. Irabeth is the only one who opts out of the safety net, insisting on facing the challenge head on.

The sunlight finally falls on the lower level of the Bolt Rock. As the sun rises higher in the sky, the temperature begins to rise. Ashla and Arlynn dose themselves with endure elements, which Dino-Egan also casts on Slim and Zandu. As the temperatures continue to rise, Kyra and Remmy succumb to heatstroke, which Irabeth hastily cures.

As the day progresses, Zandu proves unable to keep bracing his totem and it snaps free of the safety ropes. Despite their best efforts to save it, the clay pillar crashes to the ground. Thankfully, it suffers no major damage and is able to be quickly propped back up. The sorcerer manages to keep it upright as day turns to night.

The Second Dawn

After a night spent propping up the heavy totems, by morning the entire party is fatigued. The adventurers call on Irabeth to treat them with her goddess’ favor, but the half-orc seems caught in a fugue. She finally snaps out of it and goes about her work, confessing that she seemed to have a strange vision in which she imagined she was an aurochs. The Crimson Blades realize that the trial may involve a vision quest. Ashla nonetheless casts endure elements on herself in order to escape the heat of the coming day.

The party dismantles their rope network and transfers their totems to the upper tier of the Bolt Rock mesa. Dino-Egan calls on the aid of a mighty treant to help them move and support their pillars.

A few hours after dawn, the adventurers are visited by Krojun, who seems to have calmed down some since his outburst. He sizes up the party and then grudgingly notes that they are lucky to have one another as nalharest—brothers and sisters. After the barbarian is gone, Zandu speculates that he must be lonely and looking for friends.

How Now Brown Cow

As the day drags on the sun blares down mercilessly on the Crimson Blades, despite the shade cast by the treant. They pass around their replenishing goblet, but even so it grows uncomfortably hot.

Arlynn’s gleaming plate mail turns into an oven around her, while Slim’s mithral is soon slick with sweat. They each notice shimmering waves of heat rising from the stone around them, clouding the edges of their vision. At the bottom of each of their totems, the spy a pool of clear water, but as they bend down to scoop it up, they glimpse an aurochs staring back at them.

Arlynn is confused, and shakes off the vision as a sign of heatstroke. Slim, meanwhile, realizes that he is looking at his own reflection. He is the aurochs and he comes to realize that he is not merely a herd beast for cinder wolves to pray upon but rather the proud and steadfast guardian of the Cinderlands.

A little while later in the day, Remmy also has a brief moment of believing she is a majestic aurochs, before recovering.

Jumping the Land Shark

As the sun begins to sink towards the western horizon, the Crimson Blades hear a strange scrabbling sound drawing nearer and nearer from the south. Ashla sends Majenko to investigate and the pseudodragon quickly reports back that there are strange furrows in the dirt approaching in a pattern that reminds him of jigsaw sharks. The party hastily prepares for the arrival of the land sharks, with Arlynn calling on Iomedae’s blessing to strengthen their hearts and confuse their enemies while Egan summons a gorilla to help prop up the totems and Ashla casts barkskin on herself. Zandu flies up to the top of his totem and sharpens his senses with true strike.

The first of the bulettes leap up onto the lower level of the Bolt Rock mesa and move to attack the party on the upper level. One lands beside Ashla and lashes out at her. Slim vaults behind it to stab it with his rapier. As more of the creatures advance on the upper tier of Bolt Rock, Zandu lets fly with a lightning bolt. The bolt arcs down to strike one of the land sharks, but then its electrical energy ripples across the surface of the mesa, barely missing Ashla, Slim, and Irabeth but striking four other bulettes. The startled adventurers decide lightning magic might not be the best choice for Bolt Rock—even as thunder clouds begin to gather overhead.

Dino-Egan calls up a wall of flame to barricade the land sharks onto the lower tier, but the monsters aren’t frightened of the flames and advance through the scorching barrier. One bulette leaps up beside Slim and claws at him. Another jumps onto the upper tier of the mesa and with a sweep of its claws knocks Irabeth down to the lower level, where she lands with a loud clank just shy of the wall of flame. The land shark then kills the gorilla holding up Irabeth’s totem. Remmy rushes in to try to stabilize it but it’s too much for her. Kyra abandons her own totem and races over to try to knock the tottering pillar onto the land shark, but the creature side-steps it and the clay totem lands with a thud but doesn’t break. Ashla sends Badger to rescue Kyra’s teetering pillar and the man-sized raccoon manages to brace it upright. The half-elf ranger then strikes down one of the monsters with a handy swing of her longsword.

The storm arrives with a furious crack of thunder as a lighting bolt ignites the treant’s canopy. Slim finds himself attack by two bulettes. Arlynn, stuck propping up her totem, tries to protect him with a few well-place arrows from her longbow, but it is not enough. As one of the land sharks lunges in to take a bite out of the rogue, he stares right into its eyes: lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. But as the teeth rend and tear, the black eyes roll over white and Slim collapses unconscious and dying on the ground.

Irabeth heaves herself to her feet and tromps over to help, plate mail clattering with each step. As the half-orc rounds on the remaining bulette from behind, Arlynn channels the fierce power of her goddess to restore Slim from the brink of death. The rogue manages to tumble out of the way of the bulette’s snapping jaws while Irabeth finishes the work of Arlynn’s arrows.

The party heals up and weathers the storm, which lashes Bolt Rock with several more lightning bolts before finally moving on. Ashla claims two of the massive bulette claws and some of their teeth as trophies.

One Big Happy Family

A short while later, several Sklar-Quah arrive to butcher the bulette carcasses, as the meat is apparently a Shoanti delicacy. The Crimson Blades continue their test of endurance, holding up the pillars throughout the night.

With the third dawn, the Trial of the Totems ends. The Sun Shaman leads the entire tribe from Flameford up to Bolt Rock in the pre-dawn hours, and as the sun rises, the eight intact and standing totems are greeted with a rousing cheer.

Before the jubilation gets too out of hand, the Sun Shaman holds high his hands for silence, then personally welcomes each of the Blades into the Sklar-Quah. The old shaman suggests that they return to their yurt in Flameford to rest and recover from their ordeal while the Sklar-Quah prepare a celebratory feast. As they begin their descent down the mesa, the Sun Shaman speaks to them quietly.

“I know your task is urgent, so as soon as we reach the Flameford I will take my leave. In order to provide with the knowledge you seek, I must first commune with my ancestors at the Kallow Mounds. As tradition demands, I will travel with Chief Ready-Klar and four of our thundercallers. We shall walk on the winds, so that we may return in but a day. In the meantime, Krojun will be acting chief of the Sklar-Quah.”

The mighty warrior bows his head at this honor.

The Sun Shaman urges the party to take this time to rest, relax, and get acquainted with their new brothers and sisters among the Shoanti.

Night of the Mantis
A History of Ashes, Part 9

Bone and Salt

The rain continues to gently patter down as the party returns to the bone house to wait out the storm. Akram tells them that their next move should be to travel to the Flameford, an encampment deep within the Sklar-Quah lands and the rally point for the clan as it prepares for war. He believes the Flameford Sun Shaman, who has a powerful respect for tradition, will be most receptive to accepting that the Crimson Blades have followed in Skurak’s footsteps to shed their tshamek status.

Shadowcount Sial congratulates the adventurers on their achievement. He tells them that he and Asyra will have to take their leave the following morning. They have seen enough and must report back to their superiors in Nidal.

“Say hi to Laori for us,” Slim asks.

“Of course,” Sial grits.

The next morning, the skies are clear of the barest hint of clouds. After everyone has left the bone house, Sial shrinks it down to the size of his palm. Then Asyra curls her arms around them and both seem to fade into shadow and disappear—a variant of the wind walk spell, Zandu surmises. Free of the Kuthites for the first time in two weeks, the Crimson Blades and Akram set out across the red desert towards the Sklar-Quah lands to the northwest.

Scouting ahead, Roc-Egan and Kyra come across a wide expanse of salt flats. Poking through the chalky surface here and there are enormous bones—femurs the size of a man’s leg, skulls that could be mistaken for boulders, finger bones that could double as clubs. Akram identifies the salty expanse as the site of a great battle centuries ago, when the stone giant chieftain Ortugg was slain by the combined might of the Lyrune-Quah and the Sklar-Quah. It was said that the giants wept a lake of tears that day and when the lake dried up, the salt flat was left behind. Ashla asks if they should worry about the bones rising to attack them, but Akram says he has heard no tales of restless dead in the salt flats—though he would advise against tasting any of the salt.


After passing through the flats, the party makes camp for the night. The evening is warm and clear enough that rather than setting up their usual bunker, Egan merely raises a wall of stone to give them some privacy while they sleep in the open air under the stars. They tether their horses outside, Zandu casts a few alarm spells, and they drift off to bed on either side of the walled enclosure. Kyra cuddles up next to Zandu, while the two paladins bed down near the door. Badger the raccoon curls up with Ashla, while Majenko roosts on the wall. Outside, Reno snoozes among the horses.

Shortly before midnight, with a crescent moon hanging in the sky, several of the Crimson Blades are awakened by snorts and whinnies of alarm from the horses outside. They grasp for their weapons and stumble bleary-eyed to their feet, all of them save Ashla clad only in their bedclothes.

Peering out the archway in their wall of stone, they see three tall, spindly shapes against the darkness approaching the horses tethered outside, triggering Zandu’s alarm spell. One after another, the spindly shapes lash out with their curved, jagged claws, striking Irabeth’s destrier Princess, Zandu’s horse, and Remmy’s mount Pony. The latter two horses collapse with terrible screams, while Princess rears up and kicks back at her attacker.

Egan rushes outside and casts spiked ground to surround the horses. This leaves the gnome druid standing out in the open when two shapes step out of the shadows to either side of him, wielding familiar sawtoothed sabres. They lacerate the Egan, who calls out to Arlynn for help.

“Not these guys again,” Slim groans.

Bug Hunt

Arlynn, Ashla, and Slim all strike at one of the Red Mantis assassins from the archway, rapidly overwhelming him with a flurry of blows. Zandu, still reclining in the corner, dispatches the assassin with a flurry of magic missiles. Irabeth vaults over the body to attack the Giant Red Praying Mantis that threatens the bleeding, whimpering form of Pony.

Reno, Egan’s riding dog, harries the remaining assassin from behind. Slim dances forward to jab over Egan’s head at the remaining assassin, then dodges backwards out of reach of a counter attack. Akram remains in place and instead calls on Desna to protect her servants, tilting the scales of luck in favor of the party. Kyra vaults over the wall to help Irabeth against her mantis, firing her crossbow.

The assassin chitters something to the Giant Mantids, dispatching the one attacking Zandu’s horse to fly over the spiked ground into the walled enclosure. The creature then lunges out to attack Akram, badly lacerating him. In a whirlwind of steel Ashla, then cuts the giant mantis threatening Akram into a dozen different pieces.

The Giant Mantis attacking Princess flies over the warhorse to land atop Zandu’s dying horse—but the paladin’s destrier hammers it with her hooves as it flies past. Nonetheless, the Giant Mantis is able to lash out with one jagged red claw to seize the badly wounded Egan in its clutches. The giant insect fighting Irabeth grabs her as well, dragging her into the spiked growth.

Akram attempts to channel positive energy, but he is interrupted by two swift strokes from the sawtoothed sabre of a third Red Mantis assassin that steps out of the shadows inside the enclosure. The old Truthspeaker collapses into a pool of blood, on the verge of death. Remmy charges over to attack the assassin, while Arlynn channels to save the old man’s life. Zandu, still lying down, casts fly on himself and drifts upward. On his way up, he whispers something unsettling to the assassin.

Grasped in the claws of a badly battered Giant Mantis, Egan wildshapes into a giant porcupine, spearing the big bug on his spines. Inside the walled enclosure, Ashla, Remmy and Arlynn close in on the assassin threatening Akram. The killer melds into the shadows, but from his vantage point Zandu can see a glint of moonlight on his chitinous armor. The sorcerer launches a lightning bolt at him and the electrified assassin staggers around babbling incoherently. Before anyone can object, Ashla puts him out of his misery.

Outside, Slim out-fences his Red Mantis assassin and lays him low. Kyra fires a crossbow bolt into the eyes of the last giant mantis, which releases Irabeth. Slim helps the grateful half-orc limp back across the spiked growth. Stark with fury, the rogue then asks to borrow her longsword, which she gives to him quizzically. As he walks off, she realizes she’s wearing nothing but her torn undergarments and immediately retreats behind her shield as if it were a bath towel. Slim takes the sword and methodically beheads each of the assassins and places their heads on the spiked growth as a warning.

Akram nods approvingly. “It is good.”

See the Scenic Cinderlands

The party gets a late start the next day, sleeping off the last ill-effects of the previous night’s ambush. Once their little caravan gets moving, Roc-Eagan and Kyra once again fly out ahead of the main group. They come across a circle of blue amid the red wasteland—an oasis. A herd of aurochs clusters around the water. The enormous beasts look up warily as Roc-Egan circles above them, but the druid manages to allay their fears. His calming influence continues as the rest of the party arrives and the aurochs pay them no mind.

After weeks of hot, dusty travel, the adventurers let out a whoop at the sight of the pool of crystal clear water and the ring of hearty green trees surrounding it. The Crimson Blades take this chance to bathe in the cool waters. Kyra strips out of her clothes and does a cannonball into the water, while Irabeth and Remmy each seek some privacy. Ashla hands the paladin a palm frond for coverage, while Remmy relies on her Maiden’s red cloak. Even Akram takes the opportunity to clean himself off.

The following day, Ashla—growing tired of the spicy sustaining spoon rations—splits off to hunt for food. Roc-Egan and Kyra continue their reconnaissance ahead of the main body of the party. They spy a broken and weather-worn statue, looming thirty feet off the desert floor. All that remains today is the lower half of a robed man and part of his arm, which clutches something that might have been a sword or a scepter. There are no traces of the missing pieces or any other ruins in the immediate vicinity. Taking a closer look they see some runes at the base, but Egan can’t make heads or tails of them.

“It’s Kelesh to me,” Kyra agrees, and they return to the party to bring in an expert.

Roc-Egan swoops down to pluck Slim up in his talon’s much to the rogue’s surprise and dismay.

“Do a barrel roll!” Kyra urges the druid, who proceeds to perform a series of aeronautical maneuvers while the halfling laughs wildly and Slim tries to hold down his lunch.

They land at the statue and Egan returns to gnome shape. Slim immediately challenges him about the the abduction.

“It was all Kyra’s idea!” insists Egan.

“You’re both going to be waking up with sand in your blankets, or worse,” the rogue threatens.

“Totally worth it,” Kyra snickers.

Slim then proceeds to translate the Thassilonian runes on the base of the statue, which read: “Hail Runelord Karzoug, Master of Shalast Now …and Forever.” As the rest of the Crimson Blades arrive, Zandu gets in on the examination. He notes that despite the damage, the statue seems to have aged very little since it was first laid down thousands of years ago. But all he can recall is that some Thassilonian ruins are said to be remarkably resilient to the passage of time. Slim asks the Truthspeaker about the statue’s significance and Akram says it is a monument from the lost glory of the Azghat, whose honor the Shoanti seek to restore by holding true to their traditions.

As they travel, Slim questions Akram about the reception they are likely to receive at the Flameford. The Truthspeaker is confident that the Sklar-Quah will recognize the adventurers are no longer tshamek—otherwise, they will all be disemboweled for trespassing on Sklar-Quah land. The party is somewhat alarmed that this possibility is only being mentioned now.

Slim also asks whether it would be possible for them to join the Sklar-Quah, which Akram agrees is their right once they are no longer considered tshamek. But whether the Sun Clan would be willing to accept them is another matter.

That night, Ashla returns with fresh cuts of meat from a lone aurochs she hunted. Kyra, likewise excited to have something other than a magic spoon to dine on, cooks up steaks for everyone with a blend of herbs and spices. She adds an extra bit of Varisian spicing to Slim’s piece. Then she salts the remaining meat and stuffs it in the party’s bag of holding to preserve it.

As the sun sinks down below the horizon and twilight begins to blanket the landscape, the Crimson Blades realize that theirs is not the only campfire lighting up the desert. Large fires or clusters of fires can be seen on the hills all around them, concentrated in the direction they are traveling. Akram says that it is the various tribes of the Sklar-Quah, gathering for war.

Final Exam

The following morning, Egan and Kyra wake up to find sand in their boots. The fires on the distant hilltops are gone and no trace of the Sklar-Quah can be seen. It takes the party another couple hours before they encounter to first members of the Sun Clan, a patrol of burnriders led by Sefah. She smirkingly asks if they abandoned their quest before or after the Cindermaw chased them from its lands. But a look from Akram drains the mirth from her face and she instead escorts them to the camp.

The Flameford camp is in a very defensible spot, nestled in the middle of a field of razor-sharp slash rock at the edge of an 80-foot-high cliff. Sefah leads the adventurers along a winding, nigh-imperceptible safe path through the jagged stone. The campsite itself consists of over a dozen yurts, a large central fire pit, and a stable for the tribe’s horses.

The entire camp, more than 50 people, gather to stare at the newcomers. The onlookers include the bald, tattooed Sun Shaman, the clan chieftain, and Krojun Eats-What-He-Kills. Akram presents himself to the Sun Shaman, recites a formal greeting, and then declares his status as a Truthspeaker and questions if any challenge it? The Crimson Blades notice that Krojun seems to consider speaking up, but declines.

Once he is satisfied that none will challenge him, Akram launches into an account of the party’s actions at the House of the Moon and against the Cindermaw. He requests that the Sklar-Quah join him in acknowledging that the five who were swallowed and then freed from the Cindermaw are no longer tshamek. The Sun Shaman and the chief retire to a yurt to consult.

In the awkward silence that follows, Zandu sizes up the ladies (with an added dose of sparkles from Egan). Meanwhile, Irabeth and Slim have a tag-team staring contest with Krojun.

After an hour, the two leaders emerge and the Sun Shaman calls each of the Crimson Blades by name. He declares that by virtue of their accomplishment reenacting the legend of Skurak five times over, all of them—even those who were not swallowed by the Cindermaw—are no longer tshamek and may traverse the Sklar-Quah lands freely. A ripple of barely contained fury runs through the crowd, but none openly challenge the shaman.

The Sun Shaman says that the guest yurt is open to the party and looks at them expectantly. Slim and Arlynn tell him that they have come seeking answers about Midnight’s Teeth. The Shaman shakes his head and says that while they are no longer tshamek, neither are they Sklar-Quah and he cannot share this history with any outside his clan.

Slim then petitions to join the Sklar-Quah. The shaman, a look of quiet amusement on his face, grants that if they can overcome the Trial of the Totems they would be made honorary Sklar-Quah and he could share his secrets with them. Looking quietly amused, the Sun Shaman explains that if they can pass the Trial of the Totems, they will be welcomed as honorary Sklar-Quah and he will be able to share his knowledge with them.

This is too much for Krojun, who storms off with a couple of burnriders. Slim sniffs that he thought the Sklar-Quah would be more welcoming. The shaman reminds him that Korvosa, the city the party represents, “turned the graves of our ancestors into a sewer.” Such grievances run deep and it is only through extraordinary effort that the party is even tolerated here.

The shaman says the Trial of the Totems will begin at dawn. Akram tells the party he must take his leave, as tradition forbids him to share a sunrise in a Sklar-Quah camp. The Sun Shaman promises to send an escort of three burnriders to accompany him back to the Lyrune-Quah.

With their long journey through the Cinderlands almost over, the Crimson Blades bed down for the night, wondering what the Trial of the Totems will entail.

Epic Barbeque Party
A History of Ashes, Part 8

Preparing the Menu

Having dispensed with the Red Reaver that had nested in the House of the Moon, the Crimson Blades spend the night in the Desnan temple to await the arrival of the rest of the Lyrune-Quah the following evening. Small bands of Shoanti slowly gather around the silver structure all afternoon, pitching yurts and building corrals for livestock. By the time the sun sinks below the horizon, several hundred people are camped in, out and on top of the House of the Moon.

Tekra’Kai introduces the party to Akram, Truthspeaker to the Lyrune-Quah. A spry old man in his late sixties, he is eager to witness the adventurers’ attempt to reenact the legend of Skurak and be reborn in the fires of the Cindermaw’s belly. Akram tells them that in order to be welcome among the Sklar-Quah, only one of them need succeed in cleansing himself of tshamek status.

Arlynn is quick to volunteer, with Irabeth only a step behind her. Ashla also tosses her cowl into the ring, where she is soon joined by Egan. After reviewing the party’s options for inoculating themselves against fire, Slim grudgingly decides that he should volunteer as well, while Zandu, Kyra, and Remmy opt out. They plan to set out at dawn, though Arlynn takes some time out to trade valuable gems for a custom saddle for Egan to wear in roc form.

Cultural Exchange

Akram warns that the trip to the Feeding Grounds of the Cindermaw will take six days. On the first day, the party treks back through the ashes left by the emberstorm, where already green shoots are poking up through the dust. That night, Akram refuses to enter the Kuthites’ bone house and instead camps outside, where Slim and Remmy join him.

Akram asks Slim why he is going on this quest and the rogue explains about the danger that the queen’s artifact poses to both Korvosa and the Shoanti. But Akram asks why he, a Varisian not native to the city, is taking this risk rather than moving on. Slim notes that sooner or later one has to just play the hand he is dealt.

“You collect hands?” Akram asks. This leads Slim to teach the Truthspeaker how to play a Varisian card game, though the winner that night is Remmy—she’d become a bit of a card sharp after playing endless games during her off-hours at the Citadel.

The next morning, Slim awakens to discover a pair of man-sized redback rattlesnakes nosing around the horse enclosure. After sending Akram to rouse Egan and ordering Remmy to guard the perimeter, Slim tries to keep the snakes busy. He manages to kill one while the druid commands the other to leave.

That night, Akram teaches Slim and Remmy a Shoanti game of chance involving sheep’s knuckle bones. Slim proves a fast learner and wins the evening.

On the next day, they come across another grisly token of the Cinderlander, this one only a week old. Akram cuts down the head, burns it, and buries the skull under a cairn.

The following day, Roc-Egan and Kyra are scouting ahead when they spy a glint of emerald green from the desert floor below. When the Crimson Blades investigate, they discover the charred and cracked skeletons of two orcs, much to Irabeth’s delight. Still stuck on a loose finger bone is a strange ring with an emerad gem—when Slim takes the ring, the gem changes shape and color to match the pattern of his kapenia, the traditional Varisian scarf. Zandu identifies the trinket as a ring of arcane signets.

On the next day, the party has to take refuge in a lava tube for several hours to wait out a tremendous ash storm. To pass the time, Slim puts his training to the test with a shadow puppet show. Akram tells a tale from early days of the Shoati, describing how they once served as warriors in service of the “Azghat,” only to be forced to destroy their masters after the fell into corruption and now work to restore the honor of the Azghat that lives on in them. Zandu then tells a few tales of the party’s earlier exploits.

Pack Hunters

The Feeding Grounds of the Cindermaw lie on the edge of the Ash-Blown Lands, a particularly volcanic region of the Cinderlands home to cindercones, methane vents, and other dangers. As they approach the area, Egan uses commune with nature to navigate a safe path in to the hunting grounds.

However, the Crimson Blades are drawn off-course when they hear the sound of shouting in Shoanti. Investigating, they find a pair of Sklar-Quah burnriders being circled by a band of cinderwolves. With the predators distracted, the party is able to position themselves for a devastating ambush. Slim strikes from the shadows, Roc-Egan and Kyra strike from the skies, Arlynn, Irabeth, and Remmy charge with lances, and Zandu mops up with magic.

The lead burnrider, Sefah, is indignant at being rescued by tshamek. She scoffs at hearing that the adventurers seek to recreate the legend of Skurak. When Slim tries to convince her to come witness the event, she says she has no time to watch a few foolish outlanders get devoured. She and her companion were investigating reports of strange tshamek stalking the Ash-Blown lands wearing the shells of red ankhegs, but they lost the trail and must try to pick it up elsewhere.

The Clan-Eater

After trekking across the Feeding Grounds for a day, there is little sign of the Cindermaw—aside from the occasional low hill that Egan realizes is a mounded burrow left by its passage. The entire party, including Akram, spend the night in the bone house for safety. The following morning, a tremor shakes the earth as they prepare to head out.

“We are being hunted,” Akram announces.

Roc-Egan and Kyra scout the area and see the creature creating mounded burrows in a wide arc around the party. The Crimson Blades decide to lure the creature away from the tower and into an open area, while Zandu and Akram fly overhead to watch. Slim and Remmy, who is staying behind, trade well-wishes before he departs.

“Slim, stop flirting and come get eaten,” Ashla cuts in.

The monster takes the bait, circling around in a slow spiral, breaching the surface to give then a glimpse of its immense bulk, before diving into the earth. As the last tremors die away, everything goes still. Slim worries that they’ve lost the beast’s attention and need to make noise. Irabeth tells him to be silent and listen instead to the low rumble from beneath the earth.

The Cindermaw bursts up from the ground beside them and belches fire, but their resistance spell protects them from the worst of it. Egan transforms into a fire elemental and tries to dive into the Cindermaw’s cavernous mouth, but the great worm snaps its mouth shut.

Slim does his best to make himself look tasty. Irabeth is less successful. When the worm tries to bite the rogue, Ashla and Arlynn also leap in to get snapped up. The Cindermaw’s mouth is full of jagged teeth that stab at the three adenturers. Arlynn’s spiked armor stabs back, but is a pinprick in comparison.

“Why isn’t it swallowing, damn it!” Ashla cries out.

While she and Arlynn stumble are held up by the monster’s gag reflex, Slim is able to squirm down its throat and into its belly.

Outside, Irabeth clangs her sword against the Cindermaw rocky hide and shouts “You’ve had the appetizers, now try the main course!”

Circling overhead and unsure of what else to do, Fire-Egan and Zandu slam the creature with magical lightning as a storm cloud gathers overhead.

Belly of the Beast

Eventually the Cindermaw swallows the two remaining adventurers in its mouth and they find they have traded the frying pan for the millstone. Though their fire resistance shield them from the intense heat rippling out of the creature, its constricting innards threaten to crush them all to death.

Arlynn works to heal the other two, while Ashla struggles to cut her way out. Sorely battered, Slim makes use of a scroll of dimension door to stagger out of the monster fifty feet away. He calls out a warning about the dangers of the creature’s interior.

Searching for some way to help the others, Zandu spies an ancient scar on the monsters hide that he suspects was left by Skurak. He blasts the blasts the weak spot with his last lightning bolt, opening a hole that Ashla is able to climb through. The ranger finds herself dangling off the side of the great worm, but loses her footing as she attempts to climb down and falls 20 feet to the ground, where she plays dead.

Irabeth continues to hammer the creature with her sword, shouting with each blow. “Stop! Ig! Noring! Me!”

Slim warns her that it’s no cakewalk inside.

“That’s the point!” she calls back.

Her persistence seems to have paid off, as the worm bends down to bite her up.

“Finally!” she cheers. Once inside the creature’s mouth, she swan dives down its throat and greets Arlynn in its fiery belly.

The Worm Turns

Fire-Egan uses the thunderstorm to super charge his call lightning spells. The Cindermaw responds by eating him. As the flames from the druid’s elemental form bathe the inside of the worm’s mouth, the creature’s wounds begin to close.

Fire-Egan swiftly flies down its throat and out through the hole Zandu blasted. Irabeth sets to cutting her own way out, while Arlynn slices out an amazon-sized chunk of the creature and stands on the threshold of the gaping hole in the monsters side.

This allows her to brace herself as the Cindermaw contorts and retches. Irabeth, however, goes flying. Despite his injuries, Slim is manages to leap up and tackle her in mid air. They tumbles to the ground and roll to a gentle halt. Gentle for Irabeth, at least. She awkwardly climbs off of him and helps him up while offering her thanks and her apologies. Then she claps him on the back in gratitude, causing him to wince again.

The Cindermaw dives over the prone shape of Ashla and as it sinks into the ground, Arlynn casually steps off it and walks over to Slim and Irabeth. The senior paladin is glad to see they both made it, noting how Slim had a particularly hard time.

“Well, Slim is very soft,” Irabeth says, “I mean, not in a bad way . . . err . . . rad azizish.

Outlanders No More

The paladins drawn on the power of Iomedae to heal Slim and the others, as Akram and the rest of their companions come to join them.

Shadowcount Sial gives them a slow clap and admits their display was “impressive.”

“I am sooo glad I sat this one out,” Kyra says.

“That was amazing!” Remmy blurts out. “You guys are spectacular! I’m so glad to be a part of this. Together we’ll save Korvosa and rescue the Queen!”

Slim insists that heroism has its price, groaning that “Not being a tshamek never hurt so much…”

“Oh, stop whining,” Arlynn chides him. “The goddess has mended your bones and closed your wounds.”

“That doesn’t mean they don’t still fucking hurt!” Slim moans, rubbing his shoulder.

Akram tells the Crimson Blades that such a feat has not been performed in seven generations. Not just one, but five have followed in the footsteps of Skurak and together they managed to drive the Cindermaw away, something none had ever accomplished before. Akram says that they have shed their tshamek status and can walk the Cinderlands freely as Shoati—and he would be honored to speak on their behalf to the Sklar-Quah.

As the rain continues to pour down, the adventurers celebrate their triumph. But the saga of Korvosa was far from over . . .

Far Beyond the Stars
A History of Ashes, Part 7

Bad Astronomy

With the creature in the pool quiescent again, the Crimson Blades descend through the illumacone to the lower level of the complex. They arrive in a wide hallway, with an exit at the far end and a chamber to their right that appears to have been barricaded with an enormous stone plug. While Slim scouts on ahead, the rest of the adventurers set about finding some way to get past the plug, which is far heavier than their combined strength could shift, even with magical enhancement.

They settle upon having Egan seep through the crack in the stone as an Air Elemental to scout. The druid finds a small chamber with five human skeletons and several niches in the wall full of miscellaneous items. Elemental-Egan then uses soften earth and stone to turn the plug into mud and uses his elemental whirlwind ability to keep the mud from sliding into the chamber while Zandu vanishes it one cubic foot at a time with prestidigitation. Once the path is clear, the Blades thoroughly loot the chamber, finding a number of useful magical items.

Meanwhile, Slim has ventured up ahead to find the chamber with the globe. The walls have been painted over with murals depicting a star field interspersed with blue butterflies, both symbols of Desna. After checking for traps, Slim approaches the globe, an enormous stone sphere that floats in the air above three rods. The rogue lays his hand on the sphere, to no effect. He removes his glove from his hand and tries again.

But it is only when he begins to concentrate on the starry mural around him that he feels something happen, as the walls of the room fall away so that he feels as if he is floating—disembodied—in the sky above Golarion. He is then drawn further and further away from Golarion, passing other strange worlds and briefly glimpsing life on their surfaces as he speeds past until he approaches the last planet in the star system.

As he draws near, his psyche is assaulted with strange, impossible visions, shapes, and sensations. Panicked, he tells himself “This isn’t real, this isn’t real” and tries to think of Desna. Concentrating in this fashion, he is swiftly drawn back to his body in the Acropolis on Golarion.

From Zandu’s perspective as he watched from the chamber doorway, Slim placed his hand on the globe and suddenly vanished, only to reappear a minute later. Zandu takes his own cosmic voyage and is able to resist the attack on his mind—which is reminiscent of his experience grasped by the tentacle—and return to Golarion in a controlled fashion. He deduces that the orb was an astronomical device used originally to seek out, contact, and perhaps summon being from other world or even the maddening spaces between the stars.

Zandu tells the other that so long as they concentrate on Golarion before they approach the final planet, the trip will be safe enough. The rest of the Crimson Blades each take a turn, though Remmy needs some coaxing first.

“My dad always told me never to touch strange magic orbs,” she explains.

Irabeth, eager to seek out new worlds and new tests of her mettle, stays in the globe five times longer than anyone else before returning. She is seemingly none the worse for wear, but describes the spaces between the stars as beyond mortal comprehension.

Zandu takes extensive notes on everyone’s experiences, while Slim draws a map of the globe, which depicts Golarion as it was more than 10,000 years ago. Everyone who traveled through the globe now bears a blue tattoo-like holy symbol of Desna on the back of their left palm.

The Count and His Castle

Their task at the Acropolis complete, the party takes the illumacone back upstairs, where the boneslayers tell them that Krojun and his followers left as soon as the emberstorm moved on. The Shoanti are distrustful of the two Kuthites and quickly take their leave of the party, having completed their task of escorting the adventurers to the Acropolis.

Shadowcount Sial then takes this opportunity to suggest a lengthier alliance with the Crimson Blades. He is willing to offer his services as a priest, as well as lodging for the party, if they permit him and Asyra to accompany them for additional observation.

Slim says that if there’s something he needs to know, he could just ask them. Sial says that if it were as simple as that, he would have done it already. Slim then tries to barter information about the party’s quest in return for knowledge of what the Kuthites hope to learn and why, but Sial says he cannot share that information at this time. After another quick pow-wow, the party agrees to Sial’s initial offer, noting that like Laori he has kept his word thus far.

“So, about this lodging?” Arlynn asks.

Outside, Sial produces a palm-sized bone carving of a tower with an enormous skull on top. Upon speaking a command word, the carving expands to life size. Sial orders the doors to open and welcomes the party inside, telling them they can make the first two floors their own. The entire structure has a sinister, unsettling atmosphere to it and lacks much in the way of furnishings. There is not enough space for the party’s horses, so Egan uses wall of stone to fashion a corral for them.

Traveling the Scenic Cinderlands

It takes three days of travel northward through the foothills of the Wyvern Mountains to reach the Lyrune-Quah camp, with the party settling into Sial’s bone house each night. On the first day, each step their horses take kicks up a small puff of ash left in the wake of the emberstorm. The hills have been stripped clean of scrub brush, but here and there a short, hearty lotra tree has weathered the flames unharmed.

Roc-Egan floats high above the mess, scouting ahead for the rest of the Crimson Blades. He spies a trio of strange, man-sized lizards near the party’s path and returns squawking. While Zandu flys off to take a look of his own, Arlynn suggests that the party look into getting a custom saddle for Egan’s bird form that Kyra could ride in so that the halfling could describe any discoveries for them.

Zandu recognizes the lizards as harmless giant geckos, a species sometimes used by smaller races as mounts. The party considers acquiring some in the future for Egan and Kyra.

In the House of the Moon

On the third day, the House of the Moon comes into view, a silvery tower standing atop a low promontory in the foothills. It looks nothing like the Thassilonian ruins they have encountered previously and seems untouched by time, every angle of its architecture infused with Desna’s symbols.

The Crimson blades are swiftly confronted by Tekra’Kai, leader of a band of Moon Maidens, the warrior women of the Lyrune-Quah. Her hostility turns to joy when the party displays their Spherewalker’s Marks, however, as she believes these outlanders have been sent by Desna to help her.

“Here we go again,” the Blades groan in unison.

The House of the Moon is a temple to Desna and a seasonal gathering place for the Lyrune-Quah, but Tekra’Kai explains that in their absence a dangerous red reaver has bonded with the site and won’t be budged. The enormous beast has already killed several of her Moon Maidens and the rest of the clan is expected to arrive tomorrow. She asks for their help in driving the creature away.

Conferring with Tegra’Kai about the layout of the House of the Moon, the party develops a plan based on Egan’s knowledge of the creature’s weaknesses. Noting that red reavers are prone to being distracted by beautiful sights and sounds, the adventurers determine that Zandu will capture the monster’s attention with a display of oratory while everyone else surrounds the beast and attacks together in a pincer.

The first part of the plan works well. Zandu is able to enrapture the enormous brute with tales of the Crimson Blades’ exploits while everyone else begins taking positions. Before the hammer can drop, however, the red reaver catches on and lets out a terrifying bellow that rattles the very stones of the building and drives panic into the hearts of Ashla and Kyra. The halfling drops everything and hides in a corner while Ashla retreats up a ladder to the second floor.

The red reaver then pushes Irabeth out onto the balcony and slaps Zandu off the building—he casts fly as he feather falls to the ground. The creature’s leathery hide proves difficult for event the sharpest sword to pierce, but even so Slim, Remmy, and a super-sized Arlynn are slowly able to cut through it while Egan and Zandu pummel it with spells from afar.

After a devastating strike from Arlynn, the monster lets out another frightful bellow that Slim cuts short, jabbing his rapier up through its chin into its skull. He and Remmy then have to scramble to avoid being crushed as its massive bulk tumbles forward, dead.

The Moon Maidens reclaim their dead from the red reaver’s scrap pile and thank the party for their help. Tekra’Kai invites them to spend the night within the House of the Moon, an offer the Crimson Blades accept but Sial declines. The Moon Maiden leader believes there will be no difficulty convincing Akram, the clan’s Truthspeaker, to witness their quest when he arrives tomorrow night.

Day of the Tentacle
A History of Ashes, Part 6

Tourist Trap

Arlynn steps out onto the balcony overlooking the pool to investigate the raised voices. She spies several additional figures among the Shoanti waiting with the horses, including the looming shape of Krojun Eats-What-He-Kills. She hollers her discovery to the others and asks them to join her in speaking with the barbarians.

Slim and Zandu, however, are eerily obsessed with translating the runes and spend a moment bickering with one another over who should go back. Arlynn impatiently calls for them to join her and a confused Irabeth shouts back that “There appears to be some disagreement.”

Finally giving up on the others, Arlynn starts to walk towards the Shoanti when two figures in chitinous red armor drop from the ceiling to either side of her.

“Guys, you should really get out here!” the paladin calls.

Steel clangs against steel as the two Red Mantis assassins lash out with their sawtoothed sabers and Arlynn’s blood spills on the black granite floor.

Do Not Disturb the Water

As the sounds of battle ring out across the darkened Acropolis, Slim and Zandu remain unable to pull themselves away from the enrapturing runes. Remmy gives them a concerned look, but instead dashes down the hall in her clanking armor towards the fighting.

Out in the main chamber, Kyra slides out to flank one of the assassins. Egan attempts to baleful polymorph their foe, but the red-clad killer manages to shake off the spell. As the chanting and clashing echoes around the chamber, the entire Acropolis rumbles and shakes and the water in the pool begins to churn.

From across the room, Krojun chastises the meddlesome tshamek for awaking the evil that dwells in this cursed place.

“I fear no monster,” Arlynn declares.

“Then you are a fool!” Krojun retorts.

Kyra stabs one of the assassins in the thigh, then leans around him to look at Arlynn and put a finger to her lips.

Riddles in the Dark

In the rune chamber, Irabeth attempts to rouse Slim but grows frustrated by his lack of response. Finally, she just grabs him.

“Sharamûl tarbûrz!” she groans as she hauls him out of the room. “Story time’s over.”

“No, let me go, I almost have it figured out!” the rogue protests, squirming against her kraken-like grip. Once he’s in the hall out of sight of the runes, his senses return to him and after thanking the half-orc, he begins to move stealthily down the hall.

Irabeth next drags Zandu out into the hallway to get him free of the runes as well. Just as she sets him down, Ashla coughs and gestures at the ceiling.

“It looks like we’ve got a bug problem,” she says. Looking at the two Kuthites, she adds “You want to do something about that?”

Then Ashla turns and runs down the hall.

Sial nods at Asyra and the chain devil casts a spell that causes one of the two assassins clinging to the ceiling to clutch at his throat. The Shadowcount’s own magic is less effective against the other one. Both retreat out into the hall to attack Slim

Fingers of an Unseen Hand

Two long, green tentacles emerge from the water and begin groping blindly around the chamber. A Red Mantis Assassin is nearly grabbed by one tendril and all the combatants edge away from the balcony overlooking the pool. The second tentacle brushes up against the Sihedron rune on the the double doors facing the rune chamber hallway, causing the doors to slide open.

Reaching inside, the tentacle snares Zandu. Gripped in its slimy embrace, the sorcerer’s psyche is suddenly bombarded with impossible imagery of noneuclidean geometry, threatening to rend his mind apart. But amid the meaningless chaos, he is able to latch onto a pattern and peer into a deeper understanding of the weave of magic that runs through the world. Though the pattern begins to fade as soon as he sees it, for the next while he is able to imbue his spells with a degree of power beyond his natural ability.

However, it is Asyra and Sial who free him from the tentacle, lashing it with spiked chains until it releases him and slithers back into the dark water. Unfortunately, as Zandu backs away from the open doors, a fifth Red Mantis assassin emerges from a side corridor and shanks him in the back. Irabeth turns to confront the new threat.

While Arlynn, Kyra, and Remmy kill one Red Mantis and gang up on the other, the remaining two assassins attack Slim in the narrow corridor. Remmy races up the corridor to assist him and together they are able to turn the table on the killers. When the assassins try to move down to support their beleaguered sister to the south, Remmy knocks one of them flat and finishes him off. Slim returns to the hall in front of the rune room to help Irabeth and Zandu against their foe.


More tentacles erupt from the pool, fumbling about the chamber in search of targets. One of them grips Arlynn, whiled another stretches out to the other side of the chamber and snags hold of Slim’s horse. The boneslayers try to evacuate the other horses back up the stairs, but they can’t take them too far because the emberstorm is still raging outside.

It’s at this point that Egan begins using his druidic magic to start systematically sealing off the pools. He rescues the horse by casting wall of stone over the southern end of the pool, forcing the tentacles there to retreat back into the water. Next, the druid casts spiked growth around most of the northern end of the pool, forcing the majority of the tendrils into retreat.

With the last of the mantids finally dispatched, the party hunkers down to wait out the tentacle beast, with Slim and Irabeth safely in the west hallway and everyone else in the Illumacone room to the east. After about twenty minutes, the last of the tentacles sinks below the pool and the party (quietly) regroups.

Let’s Check the Map

Slim takes the opportunity to confer with Krojun. The hulking Sklar-Quah warrior says that he and his companions took shelter in the ruin to avoid the emberstorm. He asks what the Crimson Blades are doing in this dark and accursed place, aside from waking its unfathomable horrors. Slim says that they are exploring it as part of a quest that no tshamek before them ever dared undertake. Krojun snorts dismissively, but won’t stand in their way if they want to keep poking around the Acropolis “like those stargazing Desnans of the Lyrune-Quah.” He does ask them not to stir up the creature in the pool again.

Back in the Illumacone room, the party has Slim assemble the map of the facility. When the wedges are aligned correctly and the circle is placed in the illumacone, the emerald light rising from below projects a diagram onto the ceiling. Examining the map, the Crimson Blades realize that the chambers they have seen so far were once part of a much larger facility. Looking closely, they see that the illumacone shaft descends 70 feet to a smaller set of rooms below. One room appears to be the home of the sacred globe they are searching for, while the map depicts another room that looks like it has been sealed shut by a heavy stone plug.

Acropolis Now
A History of Ashes, Part 5

Around the Bone Council Fire

Krojun Eats-What-He-Kills and his companions depart soon after the last sredna match is concluded. The party spends the rest of the afternoon lounging around the guest yurt provided to them by their Skoan-Quah hosts. Finally, as twilight descends, Thousand Bones calls them to the Bone Council Fire. The rest of the Shoanti have retreated into their yurts, leaving only Thousand Bones, Chief One-Life, and an elderly shaman woman named Ash Dancer.

Thousand Bones begins by warning that the Sklar-Quah are preparing for war, having concluded that the death of King Eodred and the reports of a plague-ravaged city are a sign that the time has come to retake the green lands from the tshamek. The old shaman believes this war would be disastrous for both the Shoanti and Korvosa. But he knows that the party has not come here because of the Sklar-Quah war chants.

Arlynn and Slim warn that Queen Ileosa has acquired an artifact of terrible power and ask Thousand Bones what he knows of Midnight’s Teeth. The shaman admits he knows little about the artifact, though he has heard it mentioned by Sun Shamans of the Sklar-Quah. Unfortunately, the Sklar-Quah are unlikely to share this information with tshamek outsiders. Thousand Bones stresses that while individual tshamek might win the respect of the Sklar-Quah, the Sun Shamans would not share this information—the very heart of their clan—with anyone tainted with tshamek status.

When asked about ways to shed this status, Thousand Bones tells the story of Skurak, a legendary Sklar-Quah warrior who was cast out from his tribe after being accused of a great crime. Skurak sought out the terrible monster Cindermaw the Clan-Eater, allowed the creature to swallow him, then cut his way out of its burning belly. He returned to the Sklar-Quah and said that he had been cleansed of his tshamek status in the fires of the Cindermaw and been reborn. If at least one of the Crimson Blades could repeat this feat, it would be enough to shed them of the tshamek taint and allow the Sun Shamans to share their knowledge.

Arlynn asks about the Cindermaw and learns that it is a legendary creature of immense size that hunts in the northwest Cinderlands, where the territories of Shoanti, orcs, and giants intersect. Few have witnessed the creature and lived to tell the tale.

But the Sklar-Quah will not accept a story from the adventurers, they must have a credible witness. Ash Dancer suggests that the Crimson Blades recruit a Truthspeaker, a Shoanti of unimpeachable integrity who is bound by oath never to tell a lie. Unfortunately, the Skoan-Quah have no Truthspeakers among them and the Sklar-Quah Truthspeakers won’t give the party the time of day. But Thousand Bones says that there are Truthspeakers among the Lyrune-Quah, the Clan of the Moon, who also dwell in the Cinderlands near the Wyvern Mountains to the west. At this time of year, the tribes of the Lyrune-Quah gather at the House of the Moon. However, they are unlikely to trust tshamek, much less offer the services of one of their Truthspeakers.

Thousand Bones says that unlike most Shoanti, the Lyrune-Quah do not venerate their ancestors but instead worship Desna, goddess of dreams, stars, travelers, and luck. A Shoanti priest of Desna discovered an artifact sacred to her—a globe—deep within an ancient Thassilonian ruin known as the Acropolis of the Thrallkeepers. Those who follow in the priests footsteps and touch the globe are said to receive the Sphereseeker’s Mark. The mark is considered so sacred to the Lyrune-Quah that they would welcome even their most hated enemy were he carrying it.

Zandu nasally asks if there’s any way to simply pay off the Sklar-Quah for the information instead of jumping through all these hoops. Slim takes a different approach, producing his Thassilonian medallion. He gives it to Thousand Bones, asking the Shoanti shaman what he thinks of it.

The Skoan-Quah elder inspects the medallion and hefts it in his hand. “It is very shiny. May I keep it?”

Slim explains that the medallion could give its owner claim to Korvosa and all its holdings. He asks if that would be enough to sway the Sklar-Quah. Thousand Bones is skeptical that the golden disk could have such power, noting that the Shoanti have been presented with false baubles before, and says they will have to return to the medallion later.

Off to the Acropolis

Arlynn speaks up, saying “We need to have a little pow wow among ourselves to discuss this.”

“A pow wow?” Slim and Egan snort.

Stepping away from the fire, the Crimson Blades huddle together to consult over whether to take up the Shaman’s offer. Kyra notes that the Shoanti outcasts she’s dealt with always want to do things their own way, according to their own schedule, but when they make a promise they keep it. Zandu grudgingly acknowledges that there doesn’t seem to be a way to bribe the barbarians. Arlynn then offers her own view.

“It seems like the only way to help the people of Korvosa,” the paladin says. “While I’d like nothing more than to drive my sword through the Queen—”

At this point, Remmy leaps forward to confront Arlynn, hand on her sword, prompting Irabeth to reach for her own sword. Before matters can escalate further, Slim intervenes and manages to persuade Remmy that Arlynn merely misspoke and that the Crimson Blades are committed to freeing the Her Radiant Majesty from the evil crown. Having averted a duel, the party concludes that they will follow the course Thousand Bones laid out for them.

The shaman does not know what awaits them at the Acropolis of the Thrallkeepers, but he presents them with gifts to help them make their way, including five pots of enchanted Shoanti war paint. He also assigns four boneslayers, the warrior-priests of the Skoan-Quah, to act as their guides through the Cinderlands. In return, he asks only that when they speak to the Sklar-Quah that the adventurers try to persuade the clan that war is not in their interest. Slim and Arlynn assure him that that they will.

Roc’s Fall

After a night spent in the Kallow Mounds village, the Crimson Blades set out on what their guides say will be a six day journey across the Cinderlands.

Late on the first day, as the sun sinks low on the horizon and the party is looking for a place to camp, Arlynn sees a shadow moving across the landscape. Looking up, she sees an enormous shape swooping down towards them with the sun at its back. Kyra seizes the reins from Zandu and takes their horse to the other side of the caravan. The enormous roc, its wings 80 feet across feather tip to feather tip, dives out of the sky and grabs the horses out from under Slim and Remmy.

The creature then begins to fly off with its prey. Egan tries to cast dominate animal, the words pouring out of him at remarkable speed, and ensnares the mind of the great bird. At the gnome’s command, the roc gently sets down the two horses and then flies away, never to return.

The Shoanti say that a roc hunting this close to the Kallow Mounds is a bad sign. It must have been driven from its usual territory, which means the emberstorm season has started early this year.

A Crowded Desert

On the second day, Slim briefly glimpses a distant group of riders who appeared to be trailing the party. The boneslayers are not concerned. They believe the riders are other Shoanti, who either mean them no harm or will attack and be killed. The Crimson Blades, however, are unsettled at the thought of being followed.

The boneslayers also pause at one point to gather leaves from a galtroot bush. Slim surreptitiously gathers a few leaves for Egan as well. The leaves contain a powerful narcotic, with uses both medicinal and recreational.

On the third day, the caravan approaches the Yondabari River, the same river that spills over the side of the Storval Rise by Kaer Maga and the same river the party sailed up to reach that city. The boneslayers led the party to a ford, but even so it would require swimming the horses across. Instead, Egan uses wall of stone to create a bridge across the murky water—leading to grumbles from the Shoanti about tshamek using their foreign magic to build things in the Cinderlands.

On the fourth day, the boneslayers stop abruptly to inspect a grisly totem. The severed head of a Shoanti brave, two red crossbow bolts jammed in each eye, has been mounted on a pole that is wedged in a cleft between two rocks, jutting out like a flag from a building. The boneslayers say it is the work of a “tshamek devil” known as the Cinderlander, who for the past few years has stalked the wasteland killing lone Shoanti braves with a “sideways, screaming bow.” These severed heads are his signature. The Skoan-Quah think he might be the ghost of a Korvosan general seeking vengeance for the soldiers he lost to the Shoanti. Based on the head’s state of decay, the Cinderlander has not passed this way in some time.

The boneslayers cut the head down. As they don’t know the name of the brave, he cannot be interred at the Kallow Mounds. Instead, they hold a different ceremony, burning the head, scattering the ashes and burying the skull under a cairn of stones. After the ceremony, Arlynn asks the boneslayers how far they will be escorting the party. The Shoanti braves say that they are willing accompany the party as long as they are needed. Concerned about the warriors’ safety, the Crimson Blades ask the boneslayers to return to the Kallow Mounds once they reach the Acropolis.

A Trap is Set

On the fifth day, as the party comes within sight of the Wyvern Mountains, Ashla spies the strange riders in the distance, still following them. That night, the Crimson Blades decide to set a trap. The party sets up camp as normal, but has Egan burrow through the floor of their shelter, emerging at a vantage point some ways away. While the rest of the camp beds down, the non-spellcasting Blades—Slim, Kyra, and Remmy—take turns standing watch to see if anyone approaches the false camp.Towards the end of Slim’s watch, he sees two figures approach the camp, but stop well short of Zandu’s alarm spell. One of the figures is dressed in robes, while other one cuts a feminine figure that glints in the moonlight. The two appear to confer for a moment, then proceed to walk westward past the camp in the direction of the Acropolis. Slim attempts to follow them, but their tracks abruptly end about 150 feet away from the camp.

Kyra and Remmy witness no further activity during their watches. The following morning, the party reemerges in camp and Slim tells what he saw. The boneslayers note that the two people on foot could not be the Shoanti riders who were following them, because the riders would leave no tracks.


On the sixth day, the party approaches the foothills of the Wyvern Mountains, but the boneslayes grow alarmed at a dark cloud rapidly growing on the horizon.

“Emberstorm!” Hargev shouts. “We must seek shelter in the Acropolis!”

With an added sense of urgency, the party rushes towards the ruins. Above ground, all that remains today is a partially collapsed tower bearing the mark of the seven-pointed star—the Sihedron Rune. Just to the side of the mark, a pair of 20-foot-wide stone doors stand ajar.

Below, the acropolis is lightless, its black granite walls inscribed with intricate rune patterns of Thassilonian writing extolling the virtues of Runelord Karzoug and the power of Lissala. After descending down a grand staircase, the party arrives at a wide hallway that opens onto a large vaulted chamber with a great pool of murky water at its center. Egan and Zandu cast light on the two paladins’ armor.

Meet the Kuthites

Leaving the boneslayers with Majenko and Badger to guard the horses, the Crimson Blades venture deeper into the chamber. Arlynn suggests splitting into two groups to investigate the stone doors to either side of the hall. The senior paladin, Kyra, Ashla, and Zandu explore the narrow northern hallway and come across a side room featuring a brilliantly colored bas-relief carving of an alluring mermaid. Arlynn believes the figure is connected in some way to the faith of Lissala, the now dead goddess of Thassilon. Zandu and Kyra, meanwhile, are more interested in the tiny shards of gemstone scales embedded in her tail.

Slim, Irabeth, Remmy, and Egan, meanwhile, investigate the southern hallway, where they hear the sound of someone walking on the other side of the door. The paladin enters first, her armor shimmering with a light spell, and slowly strides up the hallway before stopping after half a dozen paces to challenge something lurking in the far darkness of the hallway.

“Who goes there?” Irabeth shouts, her half-orc eyes piercing the dark. She relays her discovery to the others. “I see a robed man with a spiked chain and a woman wrapped in chains.”

“You have keen eyes, ser knight,” says the man, stepping forward into the dim glow from Irabeth’s armor. “I am the Shadowcount Sial of the Umbral Court of Nidal. This is my bodyguard and companion, Asyra. Do not fear, we mean you no harm.”

More Kuthites?” Irabeth grumbles.

Slim asks Sial if he knows Laori. The Shadowcount admits that the cheerful elf woman is “a colleague” of his. He notes that she drew a sketch to identify the party, which he dismissively displays for them. Slim asks whether the two of them were the figures he spotted last night. Sial admits that it was them; they had been led to the Acropolis by divination magic and were trying to pin down the party’s location. Finding no one in the camp, they left to wait for the adventurers to arrive at the ruin.

Alerted by Irabeth’s shout, Arlynn and the others arrive. The senior paladin asks what Sial and Asyra are doing here. The Shadowcount says that the party may be involved in matters of interest to the Church of Zon-Kuthon. He has come to observe them to determine whether this is so. He insists once again that he means them no harm and urges them to simply ignore him and Asyra and proceed about their business in the Acropolis.

Irabeth is wary of working with the Kuthites, particularly after identifying Asyra as a chain devil, but Arlynn notes that Laori kept her word. Slim, Egan, and Ashla are also willing to tolerate the priest’s presence and so the adventurers continue to explore the ruin while the Kuthites watch them from the shadows, occasionally scribbling notes.

The Cursed Whip

In the adjacent chamber, the party discovers a five-foot-diameter hole in the center of the floor, surrounded by a ring of wavy runes. Inside the hole, a shaft filled with brilliant emerald light drops into the depths. Translated by Slim, the runes invite supplicants to step into the “illumacone” to descend to the lower level.

In a smaller nearby room, the Crimson Blades find a strange bronze statue depicting a half-snake, half-human creature with the lower body of a serpent coiled about a stand and the upper torso of a slender human woman. Her hands are crossed over her chest to clutch two objects at her shoulders—the right hand holds a large quill, while the left holds a jade-handled whip.

The runes identify her as Lissala and commend the Acropolis to her protection. Searching the statue and its base, Slim makes two finds. The first is that a hidden compartment in the base contains a 4-foot-diameter circular frame containing several wedge-shaped metal plates, each punched with its own intricate design. Slim deduces that assembling wedges in the correct fashion and placing the circle over the illumacone will reveal a map of the Acropolis. He doesn’t test this theory, having become fascinated his other discovery.

The jade-handled whip in the statue’s hand looks as if it could be pried free. Slim asks Irabeth to help him take it, but the half-orc thinks stealing the goddess’ weapon is a bad idea. Slim says that Lissala is a dead god of a dead civilization.

“Even dead gods can still exert power over the world—save Aroden, of course,” Irabeth warns him.

With a great deal of effort, Slim wrests the whip free of the statue and quickly has Zellara identify it through her Harrow deck. He learns that the whip is a powerful magical item infused with the essence of Order—but that it is also cursed and if not returned to the statue’s grasp, will slowly drive its bearer mad with paranoia. Irabeth gives him a knowing look.

Slim decides to hang onto the whip for the time being, figuring it might come in handy deeper into the facility. He plans to return it to the statue once they are ready to leave, but Arlynn floats the idea of trying to get the curse removed.

Writing on the Wall

Leaving the statue and the illumacone behind, the Crimson Blades and their Kuthite observers venture into a chamber whose walls are decorated with six life-sized bas-relief carvings that depict a diverse collection of priests, each adorned in billowing robes draped in Thassilonian runes. An intricate scripture winds around each carving, coiling around them and along the walls like an immensely long tangle of ribbons.

Slim and Zandu attempt to decipher the runes, but the text proves devilishly difficult to parse, though they get the sense that it’s a warning of some kind about a great danger within the Acropolis. As they spend the next half an hour trying to puzzle out the runes, Arlynn eventually decides to swing by the mermaid and Lissala statues again, hoping to find some secret passage or other connection between them. She is joined by Kyra and Egan.

As the paladin reexamines the bronze statue, the quiet of the Acropolis is shattered by boisterous Shoanti voices near the entrance.

Into the Cinderlands
A History of Ashes, Part 4

Rumors of War

While the rest of the adventurers were chasing after Raven and foiling Rolth’s ambush, Kyra was chatting up the locals at the Sorry Excuse. Once the Crimson Blades have reunited, she shares what she’s learned.

There are three Clans (or “Quahs”) of Shoanti inhabiting the Cinderlands. Thousand Bones belongs to the Skull Clan (Skoan-Quah), which is considered the friendliest. Though they are nomadic, there are always at least a few Shoanti camped at the Kallow Mounds year round. The Moon Clan (Lyrune-Quah) are a reclusive bunch who should be somewhere in the western Cinderlands this time of year. Finally, there’s the Sun Clan (Sklar-Quah), the most warlike of the bunch, who are said to be massing somewhere in the Storval Plateau for an attack on Korvosa. The Kaer Magans have been bystanders in fights between the barbarians and the lowlanders before, so their primary concern is that this might disrupt trade.

But angry savages aren’t the only dangers. Rumor has it that there’s something new stalking the Cinderlands, something that displaced a flock of gargoyles from their territory in the Ash-Blown Lands to the southwest. And of course the blasted landscape is treacherous enough to navigate on its own.

Kyra made a few discrete inquiries and reports that so far, no word of the various bounties on their individual and collective heads has reached the good people of Kaer Maga—though that’s only a matter of time.

The party returns to the Common House, where they hire a priest of Cayden Cailean to cure Slim of his blindness. The rogue’s letter gets dispatched with Shar and Ser Arlynn Farima makes a few quick purchases before the party beds down. At dawn, the party rides out, heading east towards the Kallow Grounds.

Across the Blasted Desert

Though it is only late spring, the parched and broken flats of dark volcanic soil already radiate heat as the sun glares down like a stern and watchful eye. Yet Ashla and Egan conclude that it is still wiser to travel by day. The main concern is emberstorms, fiery gales that can sweep across the scrubland without warning, although the height of fire season is still more than a month away.

On the second day, the Crimson Blades find a range of low black hills slicing across their path. Strewn all around them are teardrop shaped stones of volcanic slag, which the gnome and the half-elf recognize as “Sarenrae’s Tears,” dangerously volatile debris ejected by volcanic vents known as Cinder Cones. The party spends the day circling around the cinder cone field. They finally make camp by the side of a rocky hill, where Egan uses shape stone to carve out a hut for them from the volcanic rock.

Things That Go Bump in the Day

The next morning, Slim sleeps in while the two paladins pray in the shade and Egan and Ashla commune with nature. Zandu pokes around outside while Remmy trains in her armor and Kyra prepares a hearty breakfast. It is Egan who first notices the horses whinnying with fright, while Arlynn catches a glimpse of a mysterious dark beast moving among the rocks near the camp.

In a calm clear voice, Arlynn calls out: “I hope that big pineapple breakfast is almost ready!”

“Just opening the can now,” Kyra replies.

Ashla rises up and draws her swords, casually calling Remmy to join her for some sparring practice. Kyra cheerfully fusses around the campfire, not missing a note as she draws and loads her crossbow. Arlynn and Irabeth shift their prayer stances so that their swords are ready in hand. Slim sleeps on and has a disturbing dream about horses.

The cinder wolves stalking the camp begin to creep forward among the rocks. Egan decides enough is enough and throws up a barrier of spiked thorns between the main group and the camp.

“Slim! Get up! Things have gone all pineapple!” the gnome shouts.

One of the cinder wolves sees an opening and charges Kyra, but she is able to fend them off. As Ashla and Remmy move to help her, the rest of the pack circles around the other side of the thorns. Zandu starts dishing out magic missiles while Arlynn draws her bow and Egan wildshapes into a dire tiger. Soon, Ashla is chasing after a wounded wolf to the southwest while Tiger-Egan and Slim have moved to the southeast.

That’s when the other half of the wolf pack comes over the hill, dragging Zandu down and biting him with their fiery mouths. But will a few well-placed arrows from Remmy and Kyra and some well struck blows by Arlynn and Irabeth, the wolves are driven away.

The Skull Clan

After healing their badly singed sorcerer, the party continues on their journey eastward. Towards the end of the day, they come across four riders garbed in the blacks and grays of the Skoan-Quah. Initially suspicious, the Shoanti’s concerns are allayed when they learn that the tshamek have come to speak with Thousand Bones. The warriors agree to accompany the party to the Kallow Mounds, which they say are still a day’s ride away.

That night the party camps and Egan builds a new stone structure. The Shoanti refuse to take shelter in it and the gnome overhears them chuckling about the frail and frightened outlanders cowering in their stone house. The warriors clearly seem uncomfortable with their presence in the Cinderlands.

The next day, the four braves are mounted and ready while the party is still preparing breakfast and praying for divine guidance. By midday, the odd procession has reached the Kallow Mounds, a series of cairns that have held the remains of Shoanti ancestors for the past 300 years. A camp of several dozen yurts and a temporary paddock has been pitched at on the western edge of the barrows.

Their escorts lead the Crimson Blades through the camp, while barbarians of all ages gather and gawk at them as they pass by. All of the Shoanti have the same ruddy complexion, while the adults are also bedecked with tattoos and all the men and women of fighting age have their heads completely shaven.

On the far side of camp, the adventurers spy a wingless dragonne sunning itself on a cairn overlooking the chieftain’s yurt. They meet Chief One-Life, leader of the Skoan-Quah, who greets them rather stiffly as “tshamek” (outlanders/intruders). Thousand Bones arrives soon after and welcomes them more warmly. Zandu and Arlynn present the shaman with Rolth’s body and he is pleased that justice was done to the defiler of his grandson’s corpse. The Shoanti drag the body off by the ankles, promising to display it as a warning to other enemies of the Shoanti such as “that devil tshamek.”

Thousand Bones says that they can take up their business at the Bone Council that evening. In the meantime he has the guest yurt prepared for them and offers to take them to the cairn where Ghaeken is buried. They accede to his request and Zandu delivers a short statement of respect in the Shoanti language, while Arlynn holds her tongue so as not to offend her hosts with any reference to a foreign goddess.

Returning to the camp, Zandu delivers a compelling story of the party’s adventures since their recovery of Ghaeken’s body, speaking in Shoanti and using his disguise hat as a prop/special effect. He attracts a sizable audience and afterwards is praised as the rare tshamek who practices the true art of storytelling rather than merely locking tales away in lifeless ink and paper.

The Gauntlet is Thrown

As Zandu is wrapping up, a troop of seven riders approach the village from the north. These braves, led by a giant of a man with an enormous warhammer slung over his shoulder, are burnriders dressed in the bring reds and oranges of the Sklar-Quah. They are accompanying an eighth horse, which carries the body of a deceased Sklar-Quah warrior, Belak, for burial. They hand the body over to Skoan-Quah bearers, but the group’s enormous leader spies the Crimson Blades and his eyes flare with rage.

“That one is Krojun Eats-What-He_Kills,” Thousand Bones whispers, “a great hero of the Sklar-Quah and one of the loudest voices for war against the tshamek. He wishes to confront you, but stay your hands. Spilling blood in this place could unravel the frayed threads that bind the Quahs together.”

Krojun Eats-What-He-Kills spends a few moments sizing up the adventurers with a sneer before turning to address Chief One-Life: “Why do the Skoan-Quah harbor tshamek trespassers?”

As Chief One-Life struggles to find an explanation that won’t further enrage the towering visitor, Thousand Bones nods at the giant’s words as though considering them carefully, but then responds sharply, “Tell me, Krojun, when did the Sklar-Quah become judges of who trespasses on the Kallow Mounds where the ashes of our fathers lie?”

“Your words change the question, Thousand Bones,” answers the Shoanti hero with a snort. “These ones bring trouble to the Cinderlands, and you know it. The coming days shall reveal to us all who is right about them.”

“Perhaps,” answers Thousand Bones. “But not today, and not here. Would you have word of Berak’s burial tainted by bloodshed get back to your Sun Shaman?”

Krojun pauses, the cords in his neck straining, but then he exhales and grins. “You misunderstand me, Thousand Bones. My grief has wounded my words. But see to it that no tshamek defiles our memories here.” His smile broadens as he pulls a thin leather loop from one of his packs. “Certainly, though, guests of the Skoan-Quah must be brave to come this far. You wouldn’t mind if I tested the courage and strength of your guests, would you?”

“I never refuse any trial,” Arlynn volunteers, stepping forward.

Recognizing the strap, Zandu explains it is a prop for a Shoanti game of strength and fortitude known as “sredna.”

“Ha!” snorts Krojun. “So there is one among you with courage! Are there any others, or do you worry that your soft tshamek hands will get dirty?”

Slim takes a look at the barbarian and recalls seeing the same brash pose on the Paladin card he drew during Zellara’s Harrow reading. Confident that he has the measure of the man, the rogue steps forward. “I’m in.”

Irabeth steps forward to stand beside Arlynn. “As am I. Servants of the Inheritor do not shrink from a challenge.”

“Good, good!” Krojun shouts with a grin. “Are there any more brave souls among you?”

Zandu begins to decline, citing his preference for magic over strength of arms, but when Krojun suggests that it’s a wonder that a “little man” like him survived this far in the Cinderlands the sorcerer changes his mind. “I’ll do it.”

“This one has the heart of a warrior after all!” Krojun laughs.

Let the Half-Orc Win

In sredna, two opponents face one another on their hands and knees with their foreheads spaced just over a foot apart, with a thin loop of leather cord placed behind the ears of each player so that they are bound to one another. When the game begins, each player stares his opponent in the eye while slowly attempting to crawl backwards. The resulting tug-of-war results in extreme pain as the leather digs into the soft part of the back of the neck and skull. At some point, one of the competitors relents, acknowledging defeat by bowing his head, causing the strap to roll over the top. Points are awarded to the players who offer the most aggressive displays and who tug their opponents the furthest.

Krojun gives the four challengers the choice of who to face him. Zandu goes first and attempts to psych out the barbarian, but is instead shaken by the frenzied look in the massive man’s eyes. The sorcerer manages to last three round before collapsing to the ground. Krojun helps him to his feet with a chuckle.

“Almost as good as an aurochs calf. Nothing to be too ashamed about.”

Next is Slim, who is able to surreptitiously slip the leather cord into a more advantageous position. This allows him to last four rounds before giving in.

Krojun again helps him up and claps him on the shoulder with one meaty hand. “Stubborn as a mountain goat, this one!”

Slim cheerily agrees, then turns to rejoin the rest of the party, muttering in the Shadowtongue about why he even bothered with the game.

Irabeth steps forward after Slim and plants herself firmly on the ground. After they are looped together, Krojun smirks that he’s wrestled prettier boars. Irabeth simply snarls back at him with enough ferocity to cow the barbarian. As the match begins, she digs in and simply won’t be moved.

After four rounds of fruitless tugging, Krojun topples to the ground with a roar of rage and rolls about in the dust for a moment. By the time the barbarian has regained his feet, his roar has turned to laughter. “You pull like an aurochs dam in heat, little tshamek. Well done!”

“Irabeth is just making friends with all the boys,” Ashla mutters from the sidelines.

Finally, Krojun faces off against Arlynn. The two seem evenly matched, but after six rounds of back and forth, the barbarian unleashes his inner rage and gets the upper hand. Arlynn is finally overcome on the eighth round.

Nonetheless, Krojun declares that the party clearly has four members worthy of traversing the Storval. He is confident they will not defile the graves of his ancestors with their presence and hopes to see them test their mettle again some time.

As the big Shoanti ambles back to join his companions, Zandu says that he honors his ancestors.

“You do yours no shame either, little man,” the Shoanti agrees.