Ocean-faring Interstitial Image

51st of Zephyr, 1075 AE

Slipping past Istani and Kournan navy ships, which were concerned more about each other rather than a Canthan merchant ship with no obvious military application, the Sunspears—with a few select hearty allies—arrived in the port city of Nindu Bay and hurried across the dusty Marga Coast, trying to reach their secluded, cavernous sanctuary.

Giving their report of Istan’s political position to Commander Lonai, who had stayed back with several healthy soldiers to help defend Ronjok Village against any retaliation they may face from the disappearance of the garrison commander, they learned that Scout Nerashi was due back any moment from her mission to probe the Fortress of Jahai, the only public route from Kourna to Vabbi, and the second most-defended location in all of Elona, only behind Gandara, the Moon Fortress.

They also learned that two mysterious visitors had arrived earlier that day, refusing to speak to any save the party. One, a muscular and imposing centaur, stood with a sneer on his lionine face, arms crossed impatiently across his broad chest. The other, a slight and aged gentleman who seemed perfectly content to sit peacefully in a meditative pose nearby, seemed the former’s diametric opposite.

The centaur snorted at their approach and announced, as if speaking to the entire Sanctuary, that he was Zhed Shadowhoof of the Windrunner tribe, and that the Sunspears were known far and wide to help the people of Elona. He questioned, however, whether their care extended to the non-human races that have suffered under Varesh Ossa’s leadership. They nodded, and he continued, his voice losing no trace of volume. His chieftan had been kidnapped by Kournan forces, and her physical and mental torture was being used as “encouragement” to keep other centaurs in line at a hellish work camp near the lands formerly held by Zudash Dejarin, and he all but demanded their aid in returning her and his noble brethren out of bondage.

They privately consulted and, realizing they needed as many allies in their war with Kourna as possible, agreed to help the centaur, no matter how clearly he presented his disgust, turning to “two legs” for assistance. With a final snort—not exactly the “thank you” they were expecting—he departed the Sanctuary, promising to meet the party outside the work camp at dawn.

Their second visitor slowly opened his eyes and—with a spryness that belied his age—rose easily to his feet. Introducing himself as the Master of Whispers, he suggested that all of Kourna—and indeed Elona as a whole—would be much-benefitted if, during their assault on the work camp, they dispatched Overseer Boktek, who was a sadistic and cruel military leader who relished the misery and suffering of “lesser races” such as the centaurs which once roamed the rolling, sand-swept plains freely and without human intervention.

Lulit pulled the team aside and remarked as a young girl she had heard that the mysterious “Order of Whispers” was a secretive group committed not to any one Prince of Vabbi, but to the country and its peoples—all of them, regardless of species. Little was known about them, other than they were supposed to be all spies and assassins. The stories of their supposed methods didn’t endear any of the party to their cause, but their overall mission of improving Vabbi and Elona spoke well of their intentions. Suggesting that the party would do their best to accomplish what was asked of them, they stopped just short of making promises. The Master of Whispers seemed pleased enough at this, and promised that they would all meet again, “soon.”

Heads swimming after a full day of sea travel and overland sneaking, the party retired for the evening, hoping to rise with rejuvenation and renewed purpose. With Scout Nerashi not yet returned, they made the decision to travel across Kourna and assault the torturous work camp and its barbarous overseer.

Taking great pains to hide their iconic Sunspear armour from prying eyes, the party hired a boat in the village of Nazwari Found—near where they most recently defeated the terrible river drake with the “help” of an overconfident local youth named Chuno—to ferry them up the Springtime flow of the mighty Elon river. Though the discerning pilot noticed their affiliation, he wisely didn’t make mention of it, preferring instead to take the offered coins and say nothing.

Secluding themselves near the heavy stone bridge which lead to the work camp, and where Zhed was due to meet them in the morning, Issa surprised the group by conjuring a magical, protective sphere within which they could enjoy the night, protected from the bitter midnight wind which snaked through the stony canyons carved by the powerful Elon river below. True to his word the powerful—and gruff—centaur arrived just before dawn, with fresh wounds on his chest and flank and carrying stained rags.

“Wear these,” he commanded, throwing the dirty cloth at the relatively diminutive Sunspears. “We will act as prisoners, and conquer them from within.” After a tense discussion about why his plan made no sense—in that humans, contrary to his beliefs, would not just willingly walk up to a prison and ask to be enslaved—a decision was made to let Lulit strike down the perimeter guards, allowing a more stealthy entry.

Tancred blessed her with the ferocity and discipline of Balthazar, god of war, and four blindingly-fast arrows all found their marks in the chests and necks of the guards, felling them where they stood, nearly two-hundred feet across the stone bridge.

“Two-legs are easier to kill than I thought,” Zhed snorted, the comment drawing worried glances from the humans surrounding him.

As the sun brightened the skies over the eastern mountains, the group heard human voices laughing and joking, and the sounds of combat. A small group of guards were forcing centaurs to fight vicious beasts in makeshift pits dug near subterranean hive structures—mandragors, antlions, and giant scorpions were quickly dominating the weakened prisoners. The Sunspears and their large companion flew into action, working to both save the captives from their beastly demise and fell the sadistic guards before they could raise an alarm. Lulit’s arrow barrage was stopped by a Kournan spellcaster, before Akeela assaulted the man with the very earth itself, silencing him forever.

As the guard commander attempted to flee, Issa appeared from his cloak of invisibility and wove bonds of magic around him, forcing him to his knees and silencing his calls for help as the other Sunspears worked to heal the injured centaurs. Breaking free from the mystic hilarity, the commander made it two steps before another arrow seemed to erupt from his neck, Lulit’s bowstring reverberating in the cold morning air.

Zhed spoke with his tribemates and learned that other prisoners were being forced to dig and mine the burning steam pits at the center of the camp. As they galloped off, Issa offered their large companion the greatsword formerly wielded by the commander. He swished it through the air several times and gave a snort of approval, tinged as it was with his characteristic dismissiveness of all things human-made.

Sneaking toward the boiling steam pits, guided by Akeela’s hawk companion circling far overhead, they were able to catch several guards unawares. Obscured by the mist and thick fog however, others heard the sounds of combat and believed the centaurs to be mounting a revolt, and thus began striking down any prisoner they could see. Though the team saved most of the scalded centaurs, at least one was slain in the melee, bringing howls of lamentation and pain from her tribemates. Zhed’s eyes burned with hatred, seeing the blood of his friend boil on the surface of the simmering natural hot springs.

Wordlessly, the group turned their attention to the work camp’s administrative tower, where tribe matron Mirza Veldrunner and Overseer Boktek undoubtedly waited. Nodding with mutual agreement, they all but kicked down the front door and stormed into the courtyard, taking the two guards therein by complete surprise. Further barrelling into the tower’s ground floor, only one guard was spared—one who wisely threw down his arms and surrendered under the brunt of the unexpected assault.

The second floor saw more violence, as the guards were unable, or unwilling, to depart their posts, even in the face of a tactically- superior force. They too were slain, after revealing that their targets awaited them on the third and final floor, high above the cracked desert plain below.

Overseer Boktek, his teeth honed into razor-sharp points, held an expertly-crafted scimitar at the neck of an emaciated centaur, leader of the Veldrunner tribe. He sadistically claimed that he would let the matron live if the Sunspears threw themselves from the top battlements. Sprinting into action, Tancred’s magic bound the soldier so he could not move while Lulit, Akeela, and Issa moved into position. Breaking free from the confining spell, the battle began, as Zhed squeezed himself into the small chamber, stomping on and battling Boktek’s two guards.

Only through their training and shared combat experience did the Sunspears emerge victorious, though the cruel commander’s glee at the pain and suffering he caused never seemed to dim, up until the moment he finally fell beneath the unrelenting onslaught.

With the tower cleared, and Mirza’s wounds tended to, the party agreed that everyone deserved a long, if cautious, rest, to prepare them all for the trek back to their respective places of abode. Issa idly wandered the small tower, and discovered Bokek’s private treasure horde. Lips curling with opportunity, he called out to his companions. Riches and magic items overflowed from the small side room, doubtlessly stolen from the many prisoners who had suffered and perished under his cruel reign.

After divvying up the equipment, trinkets, tools, and mysterious artefacts, and ensuring that both Zhed—who was nearly killed in the upstairs struggle—and Mirza were ready to depart. They freed another ten centaurs who had not yet been put to work for the day, and began their long journey back to the Sunspear Sanctuary, deep under the mountains behind Ronjok Village.

55th of Zephyr, 1075 AE

Traveling under the cover of darkness, having said farewell to their recovering centaur allies, Issa drew the party up short as a signal arrow embedded itself in the ground ahead. “Someone’s coming,” he whispered, thanking the magical glasses which gave him sight beneath the new moon.

Stalking through the brush, Sunspear Scout Nerashi emerged from the darkness, as the party visibly relaxed—their first fear was of a Kournan patrol or dedicated hunting party. She was trailed by an ephemeral being seemingly made of clouds, an air djinn from the wilds of Vabbi. “Excitement seems to follow every time you leave the Sanctuary,” the experienced wilderness scout remarked with a wry grin. “This thing showed up hours after you departed, saying it had a message only to be delivered to you four. Nobody told it I was coming to find you, it figured that out on its own.” She seemed less than pleased at being followed, but had begrudgingly accepted the reality of the situation.

“You have allies with a message most vital,” the ephemeral apparition intoned, its soft voice carrying undertones of whipping winds and storm-blown coastal trees. “They await you at the monument to Turai Ossa. Heed these words and save lives.”

The party looked from the djinn to one another to Nerashi, who could only shrug with ignorance. The magical creature faded, presumably not patient enough to wait for a response, dissipating on the cold evening breeze.

Tancred snorted with frustration. “I don’t like being sent this way and that; is there no-one else helping Elona?”

Nerashi frowned. “The Fortress of Jahai is even more heavily-defended than usual; they are closely monitoring everyone seeking entrance from Kourna into Vabbi, and suspicions are higher than I’ve ever seen. It almost looks like they are setting the stage for their army to march into Vabbi, using the idea of the Sunspear threat as an excuse.”

“Let’s see what our unnamed ‘friends’ have in mind,” Issa offered. Standing beneath a moonless sky and wishing Nerashi well in her return to the Sanctuary, the party turned their attentions North, to the plains of Jahai, where the historical shrine to Turai Ossa’s victory over the conquering necromancer Pawala Joko nearly four-hundred years before, stood as a monument to the strength and unity of all Elonians.

Arriving in early afternoon, having marched all night and throughout the day, they saw the Master of Whispers and Magrid the Sly idly arguing with one another. The latter suggested that there were times where the needs of one could outweigh the needs of many, while the former was firm in that no one individual was worth the suffering of many. Both inflexible in their respective morality, they put their disagreement on haitus as the Sunspears approached, breaking off from a small train of clerics and acolytes making a pilgramge to the shrine.

The enigmatic Master of Whispers’ lips curled into a dry smile as they drew near, away from the crowd. “I hear that the Kournans will have to find a new overseer for the work camp East of the Dejarin Estates. You have my appreciation for that.”

“A necessary evil; he gave us no choice,” Tancred replied flatly, leveling his gaze at the presumed spymaster.

“Speaking of choice,” Magrid broke the tension with a half-hearted smile of her own, “it seems both of us have offers for you, but there’s only time to assist one of us.”

“And what would we get in return?” Issa asked, always keeping his eye on the most profitable return on investment.

“Entrance into Vabbi,” the pirate offered, “among other things. Both of us have our own ways into the country, and know how to slip past the Kournan patrols.”

“And also the goodwill of the people,” the Master of Whispers added. “Either way, you will be helping the people of Kourna, and your own aims as well.”

Tancred’s irritation flared. “We are tired of doing others’ dirty work, risking our lives with others pull the strings, far from the front lines. I don’t like being taken advantage of, when the real battle is with Varesh and her demonic hordes.”

Magrid lifted a finger. “The Master of Whispers would be sending some of his best agents with you, should you opt to help him, while I myself will attend if you find my offer more persuasive.”

Tancred snorted, unconvinced. Issa cut him off by stepping forward. “Tell us about these ‘offers’ summoned us for.”

The Master of Whispers spoke first. “I happen to know that Varesh’s generals have summoned a large and corruptive demon into the heart of the Mahnkelon Waterworks. If this creature fully materializes in our world, it will corrupt the primary source of water for thousands and thousands of innocent Kournans, the very Elon River itself. The ritual has already concluded; it is my hope to put the demon down the moment it arrives, along with the priests who summoned it.”

Lulit and Akeela furrowed their brows, thinking of the devastation such an entity could bring. Issa and Tancred—more focused on the present—turned toward Magrid, the pirate who ferried them in secret from Kourna to Istan in their time of need.

“I bring the opportunity to twist a knife in Varesh’s side. I know that Kormir is alive, where she is and—most importantly—that Varesh will be sacrificing her very soon. I aim to infiltrate Bokoss Prison; come with me and you can save your Spearmarshal.”

Tancred, hearing the words “twist a knife in Varesh” and “Kormir is alive,” turned toward Dejan, their trusted and sure-footed pack donkey, and double-checked his straps for travel. Without consulting the rest of his companions, he nodded to Magrid. “What are we waiting for?”

Issa, Akeela, and Lulit shared a silent look, before agreeing with the cleric of Balthazar. “What’s not to like about sneaking into the deepest, darkest pit Kourna has, attached to the most heavily-fortified city in the world?” Issa shrugged.

The Master of Whispers nodded, accepting the group’s decision. “May we all find that which we seek.” As the Sunspears and their corsair ally turned southward, the secretive leader turned his own attentions to his own machinations.

Quickly descending on a small Kournan patrol, the party outfitted themselves with makeshift disguises, hopefully enough to get them past the imposing Zelbahn Garrison, which served as the gateway to the Moon Fortress’ North entrance. Sliding past the large gates, their brazenness paying off, they considered their next course of action.

“I propose we enter the city at night,” Magrid suggested, “there’ll be more guards ahead, and we need every advantage.” She looked pointedly at Akeela’s pale skin and blonde hair, hidden beneath an ill-fitting pot helmet. With sunset only a few hours off, they hid Dejen—laden with their Sunspear armour—in the wilds of Pogahn Passage, away from prying eyes and dangerous fauna, and waited to make their move.

Luckily the gate guards were only as perceptive as those at the garrison, barely getting a second glance as they were waved into the city. Though the streets still carried the scars of battle—some of the buildings were chipped and marred from the doomed campaign to capture Varesh Ossa weeks prior—it seemed that life in the Kournan capital had continued unabated. There were no demons, there was no panic.

“How could they forget?” Lulit asked, shaking her head at the memories of their harrowing flight through unfamiliar streets, harried by unearthly forces and the combined might of the Kournan armies.

“Varesh’s minions were only in the center of the city,” Issa reminded her. “The common people never saw anything but the military running off invaders. They don’t know what really happened.”

The guards stationed at the long bridge leading to Bokoss Prison, the final home of Kourna’s most reviled and dangerous prisoners, seemed irate as the party approached. “You’re late,” the watch commander barked, frustration lining his face. “The executioner’s already across. It’ll be your heads if he reports back that he wasn’t treated properly.”

Apologizing profusely the five made their way quickly past the guard post. “Does this mean we’ll have to fight out way out?” Akeela asked.

“Yes it does,” replied Tancred, unable to supress an anticipitory smile.

As they approached the imposing prison, isolated on a small rocky island just west of Gandara proper, their torches casting harsh shadows under a near-moonless sky, they heard arguing from inside. Deciding bravado would serve them once again, Tancred opened the doors wide to see a a robed figure gesturing accusingly at an unimpressed guard sitting behind an administrative table.

“Not only wasn’t I provided an escort, now you tell me you weren’t made aware of my arrival?” the man shrieked, his nasaly voice grating in the air. “The Warmarshal herself will hear of this!”

The guard, sighing with desparation, looked to the new arrivals. “You’re supposed to be responsible for this one?” he asked bluntly. Issa nodded after a mental prompting from Tancred—though they had practiced simple Kournan words and phrases, anything more was beyond his ability with the regional language. “Then he’s your problem. Do you know where to go?”

“Of course I do, you simpleton,” the man almost wheezed with irritation. “I am here to execute the leader of the Sunspears herself, do not suggest I require some manner of babysitter to accomplish my holy task.”

The guard sighed once again and unlocked the door beyond which the rest of the prison waited, happy to be done with the screeching of the mystic. He waved them through and caught Tancred’s gaze as they descended into the prison, sharing an “orders are orders” look of solidarity before closing the door behind them.

Once inside, the executioner strode with purpose past the guards who watched the visitors with general disinterest, going back to their conversation as they passed—the prisoners were asleep and their jobs largely consisted of idly passing the hours before the next shift took over. Bokoss was secure and isolated enough that almost nothing of note ever happened. Certainly nothing as crazy as four Sunspears and a corsair pirate captain infiltrating it to orchestrate a last-minute rescue of their famous Spearmarshal; that would be unthinkable.

Ordering the next set of guards to open the gates to the small exterior bridge which lead to the most secure wing of the prison, the executioner didn’t see Magrid’s signal that the object of her search lay within a nearby door, one marked as the private quarters of the prison commander.

Issa deftly picked the lock and slipped inside the side room, closing the door just as the guards turned their attention back to the group. “Right this way, sir,” they intoned dully, swinging open the door and letting in the cold shoreline breeze from outside. As the group walked into the bitter night air, Issa frantically searched the small office for items of value, including the diadem that was Magrid’s motivation for raiding the prison in the first place.

Pursing his lips at the thought of entering the commander’s personal chamber beyond, a subtle detail caught his eye; there was a strange friction spot on the floor near the South wall, as if stone had rubbed on stone. With a gleam in his eye his deft fingers flitted about the wall and, as confirmation of his instincts, found a hidden catch which allowed a portion of wall to swing outward—a secret treasure vault lay within, gilded art pieces, weapons, and an armload of coins upon a small writing desk. Atop them all sat the bejeweled tiara.

Pocketing the diadem, and a not-insigificant helping of coinage, Issa slipped back into the main hall to find the party engaged in a pitched battle; the guards and executioner had caught on to the Sunspears’ ruse and had them sandwiched on the small bridge over the dark Elon waters far below. Spells and swords glinted in the night as cries for aid echoed throughout the prison.

Eventually gaining the upper hand, the Sunspears routed the Kournans through their training and trusting reliance on one another; as their Order’s creedo simply put, “a Sunspear never fights alone.” Though they had seized the bridge, they knew reinforcements were on the way. Tancred pocketed the cruel, amethyst-glowing dagger of the would-be executioner and grimly kicked open the door to the deeper complex, as Akeela wove the blessings of Melandru to dispell the magic suppression field that seemed to envelop the structure.

Inside they found three prisoners, each showing signs of mistreatment. Spearmarshal Kormir was still alive—perhaps through sheer will alone—though her eyes had been savagely clawed from her skull. She had been starved, beaten, and subjected to uncountable magical torments during her captivity. The Sunspears cleaned her up as much as possible, and though they provided all the magical healing the gods would provide, nothing seemed to be able to restore her sight. Tying a strip of cloth across her eyes, she thanked the party for freeing her, and for living up to the Sunspear creed. Once they were all free from the city, she hoped they would tell her of their activities since the failed arrest of Varesh Ossa.

A foreign-looking man named Filious, another prisoner of the Kournans, had been gagged and part of his tongue removed. Magical healing helped him regain his powers of speech, and though he spoke halting Common, he explained that he had been a magus of some renown in lands far to the North, before finding his way to Elona.

The third prisoner, a twelve-fingered and imposing figure with eyes which burned like fire, was chained to the corner of its cell with thick iron links. With an aura of power and menace radiating from it, Issa was careful to keep his movements slow and steady, peaceful, as he undid the thick lock binding the humanoid creature. Stepping free from its restraints, hit made a quick gesture at the iron, which quickly glowed bright red and melted to slag on the floor.

Lulit, after seeing to the welfare of the Spearmarshal, continued to investigate the building, opening a door at the far end. An amethyst light shone on her and she scarcely had time to shout a warning before a powerful wave of force slammed into her. A four-armed margonite sorcerer stepped into the room, its insectoid mandibles chittering as its segmented limbs traced arcane symbols in the air.

With Lulit reeling and dazed from the psychic assault, it fell upon Issa and Akeela to assault the otherworldly demon, Tancred alternating between tending to the Spearmarshal’s faltering stamina and his companions’ many wounds. After a very bloody back-and-forth dance, Issa delivered the killing blow, summoning a cloud of daggers to pierce the creature’s skull, ithe body dropping heavily to the stone floor.

Exhausted, bleeding, and with high-value prisoners in tow, the Sunspears turned their attention to the small bridge separating the execution chambers from the main prison complex. Standing to oppose them was commander Kajo and the remaining guards behind him. “You fight well,” he complimented without mirth, “but today your pathetic Order ends.” His words carried by the whipping wind, he drew a scimitar crackling with electricity, and charged.

An experienced and competent fighter, his assault would have likely doomed the small expidition save for quick thinking by Akeela and her ardent prayer to Melandru. The bridge stones beneath the commander’s feet buckled and burst, launching debris—and the surprised Kournan officer—high into the air. Picking himself back up, Akeela submitted his troops to the same treatment, the explosive sounds of stone shattering reverberating throughout the prison. While one or two were able to muster the courage to stay in the fight, surrounded by the corpses of their fallen comrades, several others decided survival was the most important aspect of valor and fled the area.

The diminished forces met halfway across the bridge, and heavy blows rained down on both sides. Ultimately, bolstered by their purpose and the presence of the mysteriously tall prisoner they had saved, the Sunspears stood victorious. Tancred, his lips twisted in disgust, kicked the body of the fallen commander off the bridge, watching it vanish into the waters below with a deep splash.

As the rest tended to their new wounds and set about releasing the five prisoners held in the general cell area, Issa and Magrid descended upon the commander’s treasure room, returning with packs filled with riches.

“It would be a shame for the Kournan high command to prosper from their abuses of the people,” Magrid offered by way of explanation, though none had asked for any.

Ready as they could make themselves, the now much-expanded party of Sunspears, foreign travelers, one inscrutable humanoid, and Kournan citizens prepared to face their toughest struggle yet—escaping Gandara for a second time.

Crossing the bridge that connected Bokoss Prison with the mainland, Issa used his magic to appear like the grumpy executioner the guards had seen earlier that night. While Tancred attempted to bluff their way past— suggesting that the mystic had found the prison a poor spot for such an important sacrifice as the Spearmarshal—his ruse wasn’t convincing enough. Just as the soldiers were calling for help Akeela bathed the area in magical silence, letting Issa and Lulit cut down their foes in relative privacy and secrecy.

Horrified at the carnage, the Kournan prisoners fled into the city streets, leaving the five Sunspears, Magrid the Sly, and the two strange captives alone in the midnight air. The guards’ bodies were disposed of in the dark waters of the Elon River as it met with the sea below the bridge. The expanded party crept through city streets, aware of the increased presence of patrolling soldiers—guards who had escaped the carnage at the prison undoubtedly raised an alarm. If they weren’t able to escape Gandara before a sizable search was organized, they would surely be caught by the tightening Kournan net.

Picking locks and slipping into buildings in order to evade the patrols, they made slow but steady progress toward the northern gate, their best bet for escape into the wilds of Pogahn Passage. As the moon steadily crossed the night sky above, and increasing guard presence made the streets all the more dangerous, the Sunspears finally saw the tall gates which separated them from the rest of Kourna.

“There’s no way we can slip past that,” Tancred frowned, espying the tall guard towers which controlled the heavy doors. He turned to gauge his companions and how they had fared through the escape. Kormir was barely holding on, the surge of energy at being rescued having been steadily eroded by their long flight. Filious the mage looked similarly haggard, leaning heavily on his staff rescued from the prison’s vaults; without his spellbook there was little he could contribute to an escape attempt.

Of all of them, the only who seemed unscathed and unharried was the silent Dhobool, the larger-than-life, twelve-fingered, fire-eyed stranger who seemed to glide over the ground more than walk upon it. Tancred’s frown deepened. The party was depleted and their resources almost entirely tapped.

“I can help conceal our friends,” Issa suggested with a shrug, “but it won’t help us get past those doors. These costumes are nice,” he tugged at the Kournan armour the group had “liberated” from a patrol the day prior, “but they’re not going to hold the door open for all of us as we stroll past.”

Akeela’s lips pursed as she considered the strange and seemingly tireless member of their merry band. “Dhobool,” she asked softly, her voice inquisitive, “can you float any higher?” The question drew the attention of her companions.

He nodded in response, seeming to stand up even straighter in the faint light of the party’s hooded lantern. Glancing at his feet however, revealed that he was actually standing several inches above the alley’s worked stone floor. He raised a hand over his head, signaling a level perhaps ten feet up.

Akeela’s eyes widened. “You can float that high?” He nodded impassively.

“Well well well, that gives me an idea,” Issa smirked, rubbing his hands together. “If we can get him over the wall, it’ll be less taxing for me to hide the Spearmarshal and the mage.”

“I am no mere ‘mage,’” Filious said in his heavily-accented Common, “but a practiced enchanter, known across the lands of Tyria…”

“And the mage.” Filious looked like he was about to retort, but accepted that he owed much to these strangers, and perhaps a bit of gentle ribbing was acceptable, given the circumstances.

Summoning his ability to confuse and befuddle the senses, Issa gestured toward Dhobool, who seemed to fade from sight like a desert mirage evaporating in a hot breeze.

“Get over that wall and we’ll meet you on the other side,” Tancred said to the empty air before turning back to his companions. “Now we have to figure out for the rest of us.”

As Kormir sat tiredly, leaning against a nearby residence, Akeela tried to tend further to her wounds. The torture she had endured was incomprehensible, suffering as she did at the hands of Varesh’s demons, but they were so close to escaping, so close to being on the road back to the Sanctuary.

A commotion from the guard towers interrupted the group’s planning. Cries of “What is that?”, “Stop him!”, and “Archers, let fly!” broke the stillness of the tense evening, along with a flurry of activity atop the city walls. The party looked to Issa.

“Invisibility’s hard this far away,” he shrugged with a playful grin. “Better make use of the distraction while we have it.”

Concentrating and gesturing at Kormir and Filious, the pair faded from view as Dhobool had before, but didn’t vanish entirely, their forms faintly visible, ephemeral against their surroundings.

“That’ll have to do,” Tancred declared, and the group made their way directly toward the gate, marching with all the bravado and confidence of a well-trained military unit.

“Open the damn gate,” he barked to the one guard standing on the walls’ city-side. “We’re assisting with the capture of that thing.”

The soldier saluted, cowed by Tancred’s forceful presence, and called up to the tower. “Open the gates!”

With a slow creaking the heavy doors began to swing open and fresh country air blew into the city. The Sunspears had escaped, their friends in tow, and though they were far from safe, the recovery of Spearmarshal Kormir brightened their spirits and brought hope for the future.

Led by Issa’s darkness-pentrating glasses they marched into the wilderness, Dhobool meeting up with them after having lost other Kournan patrols in the clefts and gullies of the passage. Reuniting with Dejen, their sure-footed donkey they had hidden away before entering the city, they all collapsed from exhaustion, only stirring when the sun was near its zenth.

Skirting Kournan patrols and guiding the former captives away from danger, the Sunspears debated what to tell everyone about their activities in the weeks since the first assault of Gandara—there was no telling where Filious or Dhobool’s loyalties lay, or whether they were forces for good in the world. Kormir’s strength, hobbled as it was by her lack of eyesight, seemed to grow by the day, and her presence seemed to bring new life to everyone’s weary spirits.

Magrid the Sly, thanking the Sunspears for their assistance, and promising that she would be as good as her word, gave Issa an enigmatic instruction. “When you are ready to follow me, meet my contact at Alef’s pottery at the Kodonur Crossroads. Ask him for ‘something that looks sentimental for a friend in Vabbi’ and he will see you through.” Taking the crystal diadem that was her goal for the prison raid, and leaving the rest of the spoils to the Sunspears, she departed, quickly ingratiating herself into a small merchant caravan passing by.

As the group turned westward, Dhobool signaled to the group that his journey was to the North, perhaps even into the wilds of Vabbi, out of reach of the terrorizing Kournan army. Waving as the outsider walked tracklessly across the desert sands, the Sunspears turned to the wizard Filious and agreed to try and get a measure of the man before revealing the existence of the Sanctuary.

Over the next day they learned that he was a well-known enchanter from a continent far across the seas, but that without his spellbook— taken from him by the Kournans who felt he was a spy for “subversive elements”—he would be largely unable to return to his former glory without a great deal of time and study. He knew the common tongue, though heavily accented, but was confident in time he could learn other languages common across Elona. All in all they considered that he wasn’t a bad person at heart, and they all together entered the winding tunnels which led to the Sanctuary.

A guard who demanded their identities shortly after they entered was agog at being face to face with the Spearmarshal Kormir, long-thought fallen, and fell over himself reporting the news of her return to the compound. As the party entered the main chamber an uproarious applause broke out among the surprisingly large crowd within—more reinforcements had arrived from Istan, including their old friends Dunkoro, Koss, Melonni, and Tahlkora. A representative from the Veldrunner centaur tribe stood among them, as did twenty-five healthy and enthusiastic junior Sunspears.

Commander Lonai, not wishing to put undue strain upon the Spearmarshal, called that the following day would be one of celebration and reverie, and that, for the time being, Kormir would need time to acclimate to the temporary—if well-developed and defensible—accomodations within the caves. She led the leader of the Sunspears, and the group which had saved her from certain death, to her chambers for an informal debrief. Akeela made sure two guards would attend to Filious, who seemed in awe of the size and scale of the subterranean operation.

In private, Kormir revealed that a demon named “The Hunger” had feasted upon her eyes, and that it was Varesh’s hope that the terrible feeding ritual would help her ferret out the hiding locations of other Sunspears; not having made any such contingency plans however, Kormir could not divulge such information, and as such was left to rot in the magic-dampened prison cell, where Tancred’s repeated attempts at divine contact couldn’t reach her. A new general—the over-cruel and formidable Bayel—had been ordered to travel with The Hunger and search out the caves and caverns wherein which Sunspears, or those sympathetic to their cause, could be hiding. If left unchecked, they may eventually find their way to the Sanctuary.

As Lonai explained the defensive measures put in place, and those planned in the next stage of the Sanctuary’s development, she gave a great deal of credit to the four Sunspears who had been so instrumental in swaying not only the hearts of the Kournan populace but also risking themselves for their sworn brothers and sisters of the Order. “It is because of them,” said she, “that not only you, but all of us stand here today.”

An accounting was made of the goods recovered from the prison treasury, and while the majority was earmarked for use by the Sanctuary to improve conditions and those of Ronjok village which had provided so much cover and support, the party of four were given a sizable sum, in order that they could trade with the nearby merchants to improve their chances of slipping into Vabbi undetected and unscathed.

With provisions acquired and supplies restocked, the party went to bed that evening blessed by Kormir herself, on behalf of the forces of righteousness and order, and of a brighter tomorrow for all of Elona.

60th of Zephyr, 1075 AE

Returning to the wilds outside of the Sanctuary, the party wore their comandeered Kournan military armour, their bright Sunspear attire strapped to Dejan, their sure-footed pack donkey which had dutifully followed them all the way from the shores of Istan.

Carrying themselves with a confidence that matched their uniforms, they traveled the trade roads to the Kodonur Crossroads without incident. Walking the many busy streets of the bazaar, they eventually found Alef’s pottery shop tucked into a quiet corner of a back alley. An affable and very gregarious fellow, the proprietor proclaimed that he had the “perfect” wares for the group.

Akeela was taken in by the man’s outgoing nature, and even bought several glass-inlaid clay jars he claimed had been forged my rare and strange magics in lands far away. Tancred didn’t care for his theatrics and spent most of the encounter scowling. Eventually the coded phrase Magrid the Sly gave them was uttered, and Alef snapped his fingers, rooting around the back corner of his shop, emerging with an unwieldy, torso-sized clay vase.

“This would be perfect for your ‘friend,’” he smiled broadly. “There is an oasis just East of the Mahnkelon Waterworks. Fill this jar with its serene waters and its secrets will be revealed.”

Even more incredulous than before, Tancred hoisted the heavy clay container and grumbled his thanks as the group departed. While eating lunch at a small cafe, Issa took time to examine the “perfect gift” and discovered that it held a false floor inside, revealing a blank sheet of cloth, two hand-spans wide. “This is the important part of that gift, I’m sure of it.”

Leaving the heavy jug behind, the Sunspears continued on their journey Eastward, through the verdant Floodplains of Mahnkelon, and saw no indication of daemonic infestation near the huge waterworks—apparently the Master of Whispers’ team had succeeded, or otherwise the corruption was invisible to the mortal eye.

Crossing into the sand-swept valley between the waterworks and the Nylah mountain range, the Sunspears took the time to don their traditional armour, intending reasoning that the increased protection would be worth the chance of discovery. Minutes later their fears where realized as they came over a rise to find five Kournan soldiers standing over the bodies of seven more, a lean and tentacled panther sniffing at the corpses of several beasts of war—trained hyenas and attack dogs. There were even the remains of a slain margonite in the mess.

“This is what happens when you question General Bayel,” one of the senior Kournans explained to a subordinate, dipping his waterskin into the crystal- clear oasis. He gestured to the dead soldiers around him. “The sands will claim you and your name will be forgotten. He carries Varesh’s favor, and don’t you forget it.”

Debating the merits of assaulting the group directly, Issa and Tancred came up with another plan. Pulling out his etched crocodile’s tooth and swinging it to cause a low hum, Issa lulled the soldiers into an enchanted stupor, while Tancred proclaimed the holy might of Balthazar, directed at the snarling, razor-fanged animal, banishing it to another plane of existence.

Rushing forward, Issa plunged the piece of fabric into the oasis and turned to run while the troops remained transfixed and their beast exiled from reality. Escaping into the wilderness, they were just starting to breathe a sigh of relief as the hellcat loped over the dunes, having tracked them by scent.

After dispatching the ferocious feline and healing the many wounds its spined tentacles raked across their skin, the group took a look at the slip of cloth, which now revealed two maps. On one side it showed the location of the oasis, and a hidden cleft in the mountain cliffs nearby. A large arrow pointing through it left no doubt as to their next goal.

On the reverse, a hand-drawn sketch of a cave complex showed several markings, presumably detailing the location of hidden or unusual dangers, but the specifics of each were a mystery to the Sunspears, neither being familiar with the beasts in this most Eastern region of Kourna nor the shorthand used by corsairs and thieves.

Settling in for a good night’s rest—perhaps their last for some time—they entered the dark cavern which, they hoped, would lead them to Vabbi, and there to newfound allies against the traitorous Varesh Ossa. The path they found was natural, but showed signs of human innovation—the entrance was supported by heavy timbers, and some of the rougher or tighter passages seemed to have been chiseled to make passage easier.

Fighting off subterranean creatures which thought of the Sunspears as a quick meal, they used Magrid’s rough map as a guide, avoiding areas she had marked with an ominious “X”, and staying wary as they passed near regions designated as especially dangerous or patrolled by vicious monsters. After hours of slowly making their way through twists and turns in the darkness, they suddenly spotted a terrifying sight.

General Bayel was no mere human but, likely by the runes which seemed etched into his very skin, he had grown into an enormous beast of a man, ten feet tall and with arms like tree trunks, his armour and weapons upscaled to match his expanded frame. Next to him was a furred, multi-armed bipedal margonite, whose multi-faceted eyes scanned the darkness without difficulty. There was little doubt they had found The Hunger, flanked by two tentacled, floating abberations with powerful beaks emerging from their pulsating, exposed brains.

Charging into the fray, already bloodied and taxed from the many beast and monster encounters they had weathered in the cave, the Sunspears set upon and battled Varesh’s newest general. Lulit’s arrows flew through the darkness, Issa’s cruel whip and crueler cutting words bit into the flesh and minds of their foes, Tancred waded in with spells and holy hammer, and Akeela brought the foce of nature to bear against the otherworldly creatures.

Singed by unearthly fire, Dejan spooked and ran deeper into the cave system, taking most all of the Sunspears’ provisions with him. Incensed at the harm done to their companion, the group pressed the attack harder, Tancred several times being brought to his knees by the might of Bayel’s powerful sword and The Hunger’s vile magics. Only through their faith in the five gods of Elona, and in one another, were they ultimately victorious, both The Hunger and General Bayel falling under the onslaught.

Gasping for breath, exhausted, and without their supplies, the party took stock of their circumstance. They dared delve deeper into the caverns rather than abandon their traveling companion, and found him huddled in a dark corner, the air thick with flies and the smell of refuse accumulated over the course of years. Helping him to his feet and gingerly avoiding the source of the mysterious stench, they found their way to the exit, and to the wilderness beyond.