The body inside the circle suddenly jerked into a standing position. A pronounced hush fell over the room as the haggard form starred around at the captivated onlookers, its eyes glowing eerily within a fanged face that was disturbingly like that on the statues of Zhakata that we had seen throughout G’Henna. Its skin was stretched tightly over its naked body, showing every joint and bone. Could this, we wondered, truly be a god?…
The Journal of Jareth Ambrose
(Continued from) Wednesday, February 15th, 745 B.C.
The darkness before us parted reluctantly as we cast light spells upon a few of our weapons and proceeded cautiously down the hallway. We did not travel far before arriving at the source of the ringing echoes – a huge natural crevice deep within the earth, where the darkness seemed to thrive. Stretching across the chasm was a bridge too long for our light to reach its end. The bridge was constructed of stout bones held together by sinews and did not appear to be particularly strong.
Convinced that the end of their crusade was near at hand, many of the mongrelmen were very anxious to cross the bridge. But we urged them to stay back while Vance scouted the bridge out ahead of us. About ninety feet across, Vance’s light source revealed the far side of the chasm and fifteen feet beyond that, a set of double doors. After checking around for a bit, Vance returned to us and reported finding no traps and that the doors did not appear to be locked. So, one at a time, my companions and I made our way across. We were then followed by the twelve mongrelmen who had made it this far, while the five surviving members of the Circle of Darkness cautiously fell in behind the mongrelmen.
As we crossed, Ladislav cast a light spell on a coin and dropped it into the chasm to see how far down it went. But at about sixty feet, the light suddenly winked out and the coin disappeared without a sound. This caused us to speculate various explanations ranging from a magically darkened area to the misty borders of the realm below us. Whatever the case, one thing we felt sure of was that falling into the chasm would likely result in one’s irrevocable demise.
Once we had all crowded into the limited space before the double doors, we pushed open the doors and gazed into the chamber beyond. It was a chamber unlike anything we had ever seen. Although spacious, it felt small and cramped because it was cluttered with tables and shelves. Surprisingly, it was lit by two small braziers at the far end of the chamber with smoke rising lazily above. Shadows gathered in the corners of the room and clung to the bony beams overhead.
Between the doorway and the braziers stood a podium, upon which rested a massive book. A body was slumped at the foot of the podium. Two more lay near the center of the room, and a fourth was crumpled at the far end. Here and there we could also see the remains of small animals in varying states of mummification.
A few of us, myself included, approached the podium to look at the book, while others examined the bodies of those nearby. Some of us noticed a half circle carved into the stone floor, inside of which rested the fourth body. The mongrelmen meanwhile, with the exception of Petchko and Wahrg, milled about the chamber, chanting and praying to Zhakata the Provider. It was clear they believed that somewhere in this room their goal had been reached. Petchko and Wahrg, on the other hand, along with the agents of the Circle, were more cautious and carefully surveyed the room.
Vance inspected the body near the podium, which we concluded to be that of the forgotten wizard and master of the House of Bones. Perpetually frozen with a look of horror on his mummified face, the hunch-backed man in black robes exhibited unmistakable evidence of having been stabbed in the back. The cause of death for the other two nearby men, the wizard’s apprentices, was not as easily discerned. Their expressions were blank and withered – as if they had been rapidly drained of life force. The third apprentice, of course, we had already discovered upstairs hiding away in their barricaded quarters, where it appears he eventually died of fright.
Bolsh and I focused our attentions on the book atop the podium. Bound in black leather, its pages were covered with cryptic runes. Casting spells that allowed us to read magic, we soon discovered that the book contained rituals and arcana used for conjuring and imprisoning extra-planar beings. One name stood out prominently – Malistroi. Perhaps the wizard believed this to be another name for Zhakata the Provider. For it seemed that it was this being called Malistroi who had been summoned – and who still remained trapped within the half-circle.
As we examined the book, we found a loose page containing a diagram of the warding circle. A sketch of the talisman and a note on the diagram indicated where on the edge of the circle the talisman needed to be placed in order “to awaken the Provider.” Seeing this, Bolsh handed the talisman over to Yart, instructing him to stand ready and place the talisman when the time was right.
Elsewhere in the room, a few of us slowly inched towards the half circle and as they did so, they could feel an electrical charge in the air. Upon informing the rest of us, we cautioned them to step no closer to the half circle, certain we were that it was a magical barrier. A spell to detect for magic seemed to confirm this. The body that lay within the half circle was curled up in a fetal position, thus making it difficult to determine its height and many of its features. But the body was naked and appeared withered and skeletal. We estimated it would stand about 8 feet tall. Beyond that, we could be sure of nothing else.
As we stood about examining the chamber wondering what we should do, while the mongrelmen continued to chant and pray, Bolsh unexpectedly began reciting the arcane words written in the book before us. Alarmed by his inexplicably rash behavior, for we had yet to even debate our next course of action, I slammed the book shut and pulled it away from him. Having before seen the disastrous consequences of a similar situation when I was years younger, I saw the warning signs before us and began to sense the danger we now faced.
Bolsh looked at me, at first startled and confused. Then with an expression of determination, he snatched the book back. I yelled at him, trying to talk some sense into him, as I once again grabbed the book and tried to hold him off. But already it appeared I was too late, for with the first uttered words of the ritual, something else in the room began to stir…
…Hideously inhuman, there was something forlorn about the creature that now stood before us. Something about its face seemed horrid and wicked, and yet so weary. It stared into our eyes as if it could see into our hearts and minds. Then we heard a voice, not with our ears but rather within our thoughts. It spoke to us, telling us it had been too long since it was imprisoned – telling us it was too late. “Go, quickly,” it said. “Leave this place behind.” The voice seemed to weaken, as did the creature. And yet the voice could not be held back. As it weakened, so too did we feel our strength begin to ebb.
If its intent was to strike a sympathetic cord within some of us, despite what our eyes and our rationale should have been telling us, then it succeeded. Seeing their god withering before them and on the verge of death, the mongrelmen became filled with rapture and began demanding the Provider be freed. The agents of the Circle became excited, though still remained hesitant.
Seeing that Bolsh would not easily take the book away from me and some of my companions who now came to my aid, Yart took it upon himself to free the being with the talisman. As he stepped towards the barrier’s edge, where the talisman would be placed, we shouted a warning and Scar moved to intercept him. Wresting the talisman away from him, Scar was able to prevent it from being used to free the imprisoned being.
But, despite all our efforts, it seemed the creature’s release was simply fated to be. For the mongrelmen were blind to the realities of the situation, seeing only what they had longed for, for all of their lives. In the end, it proved to be the undying faith of the mongrelman’s champion, Wahrg, who would ultimately secure the release of Malistroi, when, in a cruel twist of happenstance, he stomped towards the barrier and, in his excitement, the fool stumbled. Losing his balance, he fell to floor and as his head struck the ground, his blood spilled over the half-circle that was etched into the floor.
Once again, a hush fell over the room as everyone turned to see the fallen champion. But the silence was soon broken by the imprisoned being. “I hunger,” it hissed, an ancient smile appearing on its lips. Suddenly, the creature reached out and grabbed the unfortunate mongrelman with its boney hands and before we had time to react, it drained all the life energy from that mortal shell in a flash of blue light and a feeble cry from the victim. Malistroi then dropped the lifeless husk and inhaled in ecstasy. Crooking a finger in the direction of the other mongrelmen, they stumbled towards him as their eyes filled with a golden glow – all except Petchko. We realized then that the mongrelmen were doomed.
Some of my companions tried to stop the mongrelmen or reacted defensively. But it was all to no avail. One by one, the withered forms of the mongrelmen fell like cordwood to the floor. With a roar like a hurricane, the creature’s body distorted and grew to a towering height in the blink of an eye. With a moan, the remaining mongrelmen and several cultists fell to their knees chanting, “Provider, Provider, Provider!”
The creature surveyed the room with its glowing eyes. Its form shivered, and it appeared stronger. Small feathered wings unfolded from its back as an evil grin appeared just above the tusks jutting from its lower jaw. There was no mistaking it now, for at last I recognized the monstrous form as that of a demon known as a nalfeshnee, though I remained uncertain of its abilities.
Yart stepped forward then and spoke to the creature. “O, mighty one,” he said. “We have come to free you and crave your help against the vile Yagno Petrovna…”
The demon bellowed, “Yagno!” shaking the rafters. His wings thrashed. “Gladly will I aid any who battle him! With you, my blind servants, we will defeat him! We will gain our revenge!”
One of the demon’s beefy hands then closed on Yart, and yanked him into the air. The demon’s gaze swept the room as his body grew fuller. “You shall serve the Devourer and we shall wage war on Yagno and his false god!” Yart’s anguished scream fell silent as the demon crushed his body. The few remaining mongrelmen stared blankly at it, unaware of the gore that splattered them, until their flesh began to melt and reform beneath the demon’s gaze.
Suddenly aware of the demon’s incredible might and of the futility of fighting such a horror, my mind could only think of the tragedy that unfolded before me the first time I had faced a demon. In the back of my mind a voice was screaming – Run! Run for your life! And so I turned and fled. I was not the only one to flee, as I briefly noted that Madar had also run from the chamber, though I soon lost track of him. Back across the bridge I ran, through the dissection chamber and up the stairs. But as I entered the hallway at the top of the stairs, I was greeted by another unexpected sight.
There before me, a writhing mass of immense, slime-covered worms was pressing into the hallway from the direction of the room we were previously unable to enter. As big as a man, each of the worms had a twisted humanoid face. From the toothless maws of these maggots issued a haunting unnatural song. Their crawling bodies writhing across each other created incessant whispers and murmuring as they gradually made their way towards me. Seeing no way past these abominations, I had no choice but to turn back and race towards the other set of stairs.
But of course, back in the summoning chamber, my companions had problems of their own, which I would later hear about. Apparently, Petchko was the only mongrelman who had not fallen under Malistroi’s spell. While I was fleeing from the room, he was shouting back at the demon. His last words were, “Zhakata will strike you down creature!” But then, his face went blank and he too became a victim of Malistroi. Like the other mongrelmen, Petchko was drained of life force and his body was remolded into something else.
At first, my companions tried to fight the demon, but spells seemed to have no effect on him and most weapons did little if any harm to him. Malistroi simply laughed at our feeble attempts to battle him while he continued to feed on the easier targets. When all the mongrelmen had fallen, he began feeding on the cultists, growing stronger with each soul that he drained. Bolsh and the remaining cultists seemed unwilling to believe that all their efforts had been for nothing and they tried to reason with and placate the devouring fiend. But it was useless. Soon after their bodies were drained of life force and their bodies were reduced to quivering mounds of flesh, their flesh began to reform and grow into humanoid forms of varying shapes and sizes, all of which were hideous to behold. It quickly became apparent that we would eventually be forced to battle these altered beings as well.
Realizing that there was little hope in stopping Malistroi and that if they did not flee they too would become his victims, my companions turned and retreated from the room. Unsure of whether or not the demon would be able to break free from its imprisonment, they closed the door behind them to buy some time, and raced across the bridge. Some of them stopped on the far side to try and cut loose the bridge, while others moved on into the dissection chamber.
It was there in the dissection chamber where I ran into Redwald on my way back. He cast a spell on me that helped to calm my fears and allowed me to think clearly again. He then quickly explained what had occurred in my absence and we hurried back to where the others were trying to cut the bridge.
By this time, the door to the dissection chamber had been opened and several of the altered creatures were attempting to cross the bridge. With no time to spare, I cast a fireball at the creatures and in the process, destroyed the bridge. Those who were not instantly killed in the blast, fell into the impenetrable darkness below, where we heard them hit what sounded like mud about sixty feet below. But from the screams we continued to hear, we could tell that it was something other than mud they had fallen into.
With the bridge severed and any pursuit from behind us now thwarted, we were able to breathe a bit easier. But I knew that Malistroi would not be held for much longer and as a demon he could teleport anywhere that he wished to. We also had the problem of the worm-like creatures in front of us, which I now realized were probably the near mindless larva of demons. After checking the other set of stairs, we discovered that dozens of these larva were headed down both sets of stairs towards us. So we retreated back beyond the dissection room and waited. When they reached the dissection room, we attacked and I threw another fireball, killing and severely wounding many of them.
Once we had battled through the larva we headed back up stairs. When we reached the hallway where I had first encountered the larva, we returned to the door that we had been unable to open earlier. As expected, it now stood open and from inside we could hear a near deafening crooning coming from within. A viscous, foul-smelling fluid had gushed out into the hallway. Gagging from the stench of filth and rot, we peered into the room and found that there were still hundreds of these larva writhing about. Upon seeing us, they slowly slithered towards us. Realizing there was nothing in the chamber worth battling the larva over, we headed towards the exit.
But as we reached the large gallery we heard a familiar, deep voice echoing through the hall with menace. “Leaving? Hmmm?” it said. It was followed by a high-pitched giggle that ripped through the air. Then from behind the bone columns stepped out not one, but all four of the room’s cyclops skeletons, each one in armor bristling with nasty hooks and barbs and wielding massive greatswords.
Once again, we were forced to battle the animator, though which of the four skeletons it inhabited and which ones it had simply animated, we could not tell at first. Early on in the battle, when Vance went to grab his mace, it suddenly flew up and began attacking on its own. Apparently the smaller animator had now taken control of Vance’s mace, realizing that it was more effective than a dagger against skeletons. So Vance resorted to using his sword and dagger. The battle then proceeded as it usually did and we were able to defeat the cyclops skeletons. Once again, when the last skeleton fell, the animator was seen to leave and take a swing at Vance as it did so. But as it always had before, it then disappeared.
When the battle was over, Vance noticed then that he had been unknowingly using the dagger he had removed from the dead apprentice instead of his own silvered dagger. This has caused him to wonder if the dagger is cursed. So he has asked Ladislav to pray for a spell to remove curses the next time we rest.
Hearing a mass of larva approaching behind us at this point, we continued on to the exit and soon stepped out into the canyon. It was late in the afternoon when we left the House of Bones and were greeted by a cold, gray sky. Moments later though, we were also greeted by Madar, who had somehow managed to escape when he fled from the summoning chamber. Being the only member of the Circle of Darkness to make it out alive, he was very relieved to find he was not alone. But he was clearly dismayed to learn all that occurred after he left.
We quickly debated our options then and soon came to the conclusion that we needed to fly as quickly as possible to the city of Zhukar and warn them about Malistroi. After some thought and discussion, we have come to the conclusion that when Yagno Petrovna first came to the House of Bones, the wizard that he was with had summoned the demon Malistroi instead of Zhakata the Provider. Whether or not this was intentional on the wizard’s part or just some horrible mistake, we cannot be sure. But regardless, it seems that when it was done, Yagno stabbed the wizard in the back and fled, leaving the demon trapped inside his prison. This may be part of what has caused Yagno to question his faith in recent times. And despite the fact that we believe Yagno to be insane and of questionable morality, his evil surely does not compare to that of Malistroi. Malistroi, on the other hand, seems intent on raising an army and taking on the Dark Lord of this realm, to the detriment of all who live in G’Henna. So, as much as it pains us to do so, we feel we must return to Zhukar to warn the people and even, if need be, aid the Dark Lord in defeating the greater of two evils.
Once we had agreed upon a course of action, we made it as far from the canyon on foot as we could possibly go. When we passed through the canyon where we had previously encountered the restless spirits known as fael, we were visited by them once again.
This time we put my theory to a test and offered them some food leftover from one of Ladislav’s spells. To our satisfaction, this did indeed seem to appease them, and though they could not physically take the food, they appeared to mimic eating it and soon vanished. We left the food lying on the ground and proceeded on until we felt we needed to stop and make camp.
Thursday, February 16th
Upon awakening this morning, we discovered that Madar had disappeared. Perhaps more disturbingly, we found that the talisman had also been taken from Scar’s backpack. Scar and Redwald found what appeared to be Madar’s footprints leaving the tent where Scar’s backpack was. But just outside the camp, the footprints suddenly came to a stop, as if Madar had somehow teleported or flew away. Realizing that Madar had taken the talisman, we began to wonder if this was the betrayal that the gypsy woman Marda had warned us about. The more we thought about it, the more suspicious we became about other incidents that Madar managed to somehow survive unscathed. Was he truly just lucky, or was he in fact a good deal more skilled than he led us to believe? And the first time we met him, what was he doing on the fourth floor of the Temple of Zhakata and how did he know we were looking for the Sanctuary? It seemed there was more to Madar than we had originally suspected.
Whatever the case, it did not change our objective. We still needed to return to the city of Zhukar as quickly as possible. So, after Ladislav cast a spell to remove any curse that Vance may have acquired from the apprentice’s dagger, he tossed it aside. I then cast five spells that created magical horses which we could ride for the next 14 hours. After 8 hours however, even the magical horses would start becoming fatigued. So Ladislav would have to occasionally cast healing spells on them to keep them going. But because these were not real horses, we were not concerned about any harm we would cause them. The same could not be said about the sores we caused to ourselves from riding horses for 14 hours. But that is another matter entirely.
With the aid of the horses, we have made great time and have put the House of Bones far behind us. The horses may have also allowed us to avoid other problems as well, for we did not encounter a single foe along the way. Nevertheless, we have been in G’Henna long enough to sense there is something wrong, even in this bleak domain. The air now seems to press hard upon our eyes and ears. And to the south, the sky grows dark. There is an unmistakable smell in the air – it is the threat of a coming storm.
Friday, February 17th
Much like the previous day, we have ridden the magically created horses for most of the day and have made great time, though we are sore and weary from such a long ride. Early in the afternoon, as we were riding, the wind suddenly rose up and produced a stinging whirlwind. Then a wicked dagger of lightning jabbed the ground not ten feet away from us, blinding us with its flash as the wave of thunder crashed all about. Fortunately, our magical steeds appeared to be immune to becoming panicked.
As our vision gradually returned to us, we saw a hazy, gargoylish image, the desolate landscape visible through the form. It was Malistroi!
“Mortals!” he snarled in contempt. “At first I thought you had stolen the crystal and I considered amusing ways to destroy each one of you. But, I found that the item I seek was taken by a priestling called Rega. I want it back! You had a hand in freeing me. That is worth a reward, so you still live. Now, I will offer you a boon within my power if you recover that stone. Fail and I will ensure your life is long and exquisitely agonizing.”
Though we were hesitant to say so, a few of us eventually mustered up the courage to refuse the demon’s offer. In reply, Malistroi simply growled, “So be it! Fools!” Then the image vanished in an explosion of sand and grit that wounded some of us, though not severely. It is our hope that we can make it back to Zhukar before we are forced to fight the demon.
Following the encounter, we continued to ride on well after sundown until we could ride no more and eventually stopped to make camp. Along the way, I have noted other changes in the land, no doubt brought about by the release of a very powerful demon. The sky to the south has grown even darker, while the weather has become wild and unpredictable. Even the phases of the moon have advanced at a rapidly accelerated rate.
Saturday, February 18th
Early this morning, we arrived at the village of Kreshka. We had passed by the village on our way to the House of Bones because we did not want to leave any unnecessary clues as to our location. But on the way back, there was no need for any such precautions.
Only about a hundred men, women and children lived in the village which was surrounded by a low earthen wall to protect it from raiders. A deep well provided the settlement with ample water and there was a small herd of boney cattle wandering near the palisade.
Several of the villagers approached us as we entered and asked about the dark seething clouds on the southern horizon. They had sensed there was something wrong and they knew it was no natural storm. We were honest with them and told them a demon had been set loose upon the land and that he was headed this way with an army.
The village leader was soon summoned, a minor priest of Zhakata named Tvoshe. He appeared to be a good-hearted man with the best of intentions, but like so many of the people of G’Henna, he also seemed to be blindly loyal to Yagno Petrovna. When we repeated our warning to him, he interpreted our words as meaning that Zhakata the Devourer was coming to destroy them. We realized it was useless to try and correct him and for the time being it really did not matter. The important thing was that the villagers understood the danger that approached. Almost immediately, people began running to their homes to collect their belongings, while Tvoshe began coordinating plans for a mass exodus to the town of Dervich in the far northern part of the realm. Satisfied that the people would do all they could to flee from the danger, we left the village behind and pressed on.
A short while later, we came to the road leading to Zhukar, and soon after that we came to the intersection of that road and the road to the north. About half way between there and the old abandoned manor where we had stayed a couple of weeks ago, we came across an unexpected situation. Unearthly howls and horrid screams alerted us to some sort of violence not far away. The source was not hard to find. A group of what we have come to term as the Altered was tormenting one of their own, tearing at the outnumbered creature with their claws and fangs. The hapless victim spotted us, and cried out for help in a piteous and somehow familiar voice.
The victim was an unrecognizable, malformed creature, one of the oddly misshapen humanoids with a pointed skull, distorted features and claylike flesh, which we have termed the Shapeless. His attackers were two of the horrid midgets with bloated bellies, spindly arms and rotting flesh, whom we refer to as Imps, and three of the bulbous wretches, short, squat and rubbery with boated torsos and gangly arms and legs, which we call the Bloated.
Feeling somehow compelled to aid the miserable creature we attacked the other Altered and quickly killed them. When the fight was over, we noted the tattered clerical robes of the Shapeless and realized that this was what had become of Petchko. Still, after having suffered yet a second horrific transformation, he somehow managed to retain some form of humanity. But he was badly wounded; his doughy flesh was blackened and oozing a slimy gray ichor. Apparently unable to heal himself, Ladislav did what he could to magically repair his injuries. As he did so, Petchko was revived by his efforts and seemed insistent on providing us with some important insight that he had recently come to him.
“I remember him now,” he managed to sputter. “His name is not Madar. That didn’t seem right. When first I knew him he had a more horrible name and reputation. He was Rega, Yagno’s chief aid! He is much changed, but I recall his voice and manner from when we were both novices. He was ambitious even then.” The creature in Petchko’s ragged clothes choked as he continued. “He has betrayed us all,” he said. “The Circle…everything must have been some kind of trick to benefit himself or Yagno…”
As he uttered these words, his gaze looked up at the silvery moon that had rapidly cycled through its phases over the past few days and his catlike eyes began to glaze over. Despite Ladislav’s efforts, Petchko, it seemed, was dying. Ladislav realized then that Petchko had been poisoned, and there was little he could do to save him. Petchko tried to assure him that it was okay. He was ready to die, for no one would accept him now, not the people of G’Henna, not the mongrelmen, not even the Altered. So we decided to stay with him and provide him what comfort we could in his last dying minutes.
As we did so, we pondered over a number of things that now occupied our thoughts. We were puzzled, for example, on how these Altered had already made it to this spot on foot when we had ridden so hard on horseback to reach this location. We could only assume that Petchko must have fled from the House of Bones, running day and night while being pursued by his attackers who were determined to destroy him. It’s a wonder he made it this far.
We also considered Petchko’s words and what Malistroi had said about Rega. We recalled hearing a rumor about him once that had said Rega was Yagno’s chief assistant and one of the heads of the Inquisition. It was said that he never made public appearances and that none could say what he looked like, though he was rumored to be hideously ugly. It would appear that Rega, being a member of both the Inquisition and the Circle of Darkness, was a double agent, no doubt often pitting one side against the other. In fact, I would not be surprised to learn that he is the true power behind both of these groups. And his purpose seemed to be the release of Malistroi and the acquisition of the talisman. Perhaps he believes he can control Malistroi with the talisman. If so, he could conceivably defeat Yagno Petrovna and assume control of G’Henna. And if that is indeed the case, then we have unwittingly aided him in his mad scheme for power.
Once Petchko had drawn his last breath, we dug a shallow grave for him and buried him. Then Ladislav said a prayer and asked Ezra to look over him, since none of us seriously believes in the existence, or at the very least, the good will of any form of Zhakata. When it was done, we continued on our way, now more determined than ever to put an end to the madness of this realm.
A short while later, we passed by the manor house, and when we finally made camp well after sundown, we were half a day’s ride from the mongrelman camp.
Sunday, February 19th
Early in the day, not long after setting back out on the road, and while the skies to the south grew increasingly dark and angry, we came upon a group of mongrelmen traveling in the opposite direction. When we drew near to them they appeared to recognize us and called out.
“Friends!” they greeted us, apparently surprised to see us. “We go to serve the freed Zhakata. What of you? Will you not serve him also?”
To say the least, we were a bit dumbfounded at the blind faith that the mongrelmen had in their religion. But we did our best to explain to them what had really occurred in the House of Bones and how Malistroi transformed the mongrelmen there into the Altered. Eventually, Ladislav managed to convince the mongrelmen to turn back and when they did, they offered to guide us to the mongrelman camp.
However, they informed us along the way that much had changed since we last saw the camp. They said that the Swords of Zhakata attacked the camp shortly after our expedition set out. Hundreds of mongrelmen were slain, and hundreds more have been scattered and lost since. The camp now held scarcely a few dozen mongrelmen, some of whom were the surviving elders.
When we arrived at the camp, which now has a massive gravesite nearby, we spoke to the elders and they listened to our tragic tale. They were heartbroken by our words, but at least they did not become violent when we implied that they had put too much faith in their myth about Zhakata the Provider. In fact, they suggested that the only possible solution to defeating Malistroi lies in Zhukar. We agreed and informed them that we were headed there now.
But we did not want to enter the city until we were prepared to do so. According to the mongrelmen, thousands of people, somehow having already heard the rumors of an army to the south, have fled the city and more continue to do so by the hour. So we will stay in the mongrelman camp tonight. And in the morning, we will complete our journey back to the city.
Monday, February 20th
This morning, after preparing ourselves for any number of difficulties, we walked the remaining three miles to the city. When we started out, we could see the city in the distance, but even from so far away, the city seemed far too quiet.
Despite the bitter cold, no smoke rose from the chimneys, and under the angry and darkened skies, no candles glowed in the windows. Indeed, while the skies grew increasingly dark, the land was darker still. Along the sides of the road, we saw discarded bundles of clothes and small personal possessions, a mute testimony to the mighty exodus from the city.
At the city gates, there were no guards to greet us and the city gates stood open. The city looked oddly abandoned and the gutters were littered with debris. As we made our way through the quiet, empty streets, shadows flitted from alley to corner almost faster than the eye could catch them. An occasional clatter of falling stonework echoed as we walked past guesting houses with gaping doors and wine shops left broken and gutted by looters. Again we wondered how the people could have learned so soon about the approaching army. But it was obvious that word had traveled fast.
At one point, we encountered a band of nine looters, each of whom carried a sack of plunder. They were on the verge of ransacking the bazaar when they spotted us. Emboldened by their recent success and encouraged by their superior numbers, they attacked us. They quickly learned what a mistake they had made when I threw a fireball at them and instantly killed most of them. The remaining few we quickly cut down with our weapons.
During the fight, Vance’s cursed dagger somehow reappeared in his hand, proving it would not be disposed of so easily. Also, a couple of buildings caught fire from the fireball, but we were too concerned about reaching the main temple to worry ourselves about burning down a few abandoned buildings. We did not even bother to gather any of the sacks of plunder that the looters had dropped, as we did not want to be slowed by the excess weight and did not want to take the time to open up Ladislav’s portable hole. There were much more important matters to attend to.
A short while later, we reached the temple district unchallenged, and as we saw the Temple standing before us, its blunt façade seemed to resemble the prow of a beached galleon. The windows were dark, and the usual bustle of junior priests and clerks was absent. The missing millings of humanity caused an uneasy feeling to well up inside me.
The main doors were ajar, their frames black and gaping. One door creaked loudly as it shifted on its hinges. Like the rest of the city, the Temple was nearly empty. Again we proceeded unchallenged through the Grand Hallway and up the stairs to the third floor. As we drew near the third floor, we could hear up above us the echo of loud but distant cursing. Upon reaching the landing at the third floor, we then heard the sounds of fluttering paper and heavy objects being flung about.
When we moved to investigate, a voice nearby bellowed, “Useless!” This was immediately followed by a string of curses. “All useless trash!” the angry voice continued.
Rounding a corner, we found ourselves facing a familiar figure, the man we had come to know as Madar, but who in reality was Yagno Petrovna’s chief assistant Rega. He stood among toppled shelves from which books and scrolls had been pulled. They lied scattered and torn across every inch of the floor. Rega’s appearance and demeanor was much different from the quiet and humble Madar that he once pretended to be. Now wild-eyed and obviously on the verge of exhaustion, he clutched the crystal talisman in one hand. Cradling it to his chest, he stared at us accusingly.
“You,” he growled. “Outlanders! Always turning up like birds of ill omen. What does it take to be rid of you?!”
Realizing that Rega had to be stopped and that he would either put up a fight or try to run, we tried to stall for time by talking to him as we inched in closer towards him. But he soon became wise to our motives and suddenly moved to take action. Redwald proved to be quicker, however, and managed to race in behind him, blocking off any chance for escape through a door on the far side of the room. The rest of us attacked Rega. But much to our surprise, Rega then cast a fireball spell that engulfed the entire room in fire, including himself. But Rega was clearly protected by magic from the fire and remained unharmed. I too was largely protected from the fire, but my companions were not as fortunate.
As the room and all of its contents were lit ablaze, Rega produced a wand and was about to use it, when suddenly an ape-like Altered known as an Apeman sprang out of nowhere and struck Rega. Yagno’s trusted assistant was wounded badly by the Apeman, and soon after, we managed to knock him unconscious, causing the talisman to fall from his grasp and onto the floor. However, we now faced another foe, and it was clear that the Apeman had its eyes on the talisman lying on the floor. To prevent the talisman from falling into the hands of another enemy, Ladislav quickly scooped it up, while the rest of us battled the Altered. We were then able to kill the Apeman without too much difficulty.
Afterwards, Redwald created as much water as he could to put out the fire all around us. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the library was beyond saving and all that remained were singed and water-logged scraps of paper. So, we healed up our injuries and grabbed anything of value from Rega who we bound and gagged. When Rega regained consciousness soon after, we headed towards the fifth floor, taking the captured Rega with us.
As we made our way to the stairs, we could see through the windows that the skies were now black, full of scudding clouds, while flashes of lightning clawed the ground savagely. From the Temple’s uppermost floor, a dim flickering light reflected off the brooding gargoyles at the edge of the roof, indicating that Yagno Petrovna, High Priest of the Beast-God Zhakata, awaited us in his living quarters.
The staircase leading to the high priest’s chambers were empty and unguarded. At the top we found a simple wooden door, unlocked, which opened into a small suit of rooms lit by a few candles. There, at a devotional at the far end of the room, a man in red robes kneeled before a small altar. His head was bent in thought. A hood lay on the floor nearby.
Upon our entrance, Yagno made no sudden move and we could not even be certain that he had heard us. Had we wanted to attack him, we could have done so quite easily. But instead we paused, perhaps a bit uncharacteristically, and let the man finish his prayer. After a moment, the man seemed to be aware of our presence and he slowly, nonchalantly, stood up, carefully putting on his ornate hat and adjusting it before speaking.
Then he turned towards us and said in a voice, cultured and refined, with only a trace of an unfamiliar accent, “I have heard much about you. You have brought misery to my land. Did you honestly believe you could help anything by freeing a creature you could not control?”
He then held up a hand, gesturing silence even before we had begun to speak. “Do not bother to answer. Just consider what I say. Zhakata has brought you here for his purposes. I merely seek to do his will.” At this, he turned to look out through a window.
“The city is about to be invaded,” he continued. “Malistroi has gathered quite an army around himself. Even at their greatest strength, I do not believe the Swords of Zhakata could withstand the monsters – and the Swords are far from strong now, scattered between Dervich and Zhukar or fled into the Outlands. I am at a loss. It would be one thing if I had the fiend’s talisman, for then I could destroy it and him with it, but his foul army would still be plaguing my land and my people. If only there was a way to undo what has been done. If only the High Altar…”
Yagno’s eyes suddenly became distant. “Yes, it just might be. I must call upon the faith of the people. Their belief will defend G’Henna against this horror. The strength of their trust in Zhakata will save this land. Yes! It can be done! But how to gather the worshipers?”
Looking to us for a possible answer to his last question, we offered to help gather his followers, though when asked about the talisman, Ladislav did not admit to having it, saying only that he knew where it was. At the time, he did not seem to be aware of the presence of Rega, who stood silent behind some of us, guarded by Scar.
But Scar pushed him into view and we told Yagno of Rega’s betrayal and of his apparent plot to dethrone him. Rega, of course, denied everything and accused us of lying, saying that we did in fact have the talisman. But Yagno seemed more inclined to believe us than he did his chief assistant. Perhaps he had reason to suspect Rega that we were unaware of.
He did not even question us. He merely told us to leave Rega with him and that he would deal with Rega’s punishment. I could not help but notice that throughout our conversation with Yagno, he seemed to be a man at odds with his reputation. In fact, I found him to be quite reasonable, maybe even likeable – surely not the monster that legend portrayed. But in hindsight, perhaps this was only an illusion created by his considerable charm and charisma.
He told us that if we could help in rounding up the worshipers left in Zhukar, and deliver to him the talisman, there was a chance that Malistroi could be defeated. Otherwise, all would be lost. We agreed to do what we could, and he informed us that we needed to hurry. He said that the new moon was considered a very powerful aid to evil magic and dark purposes, and that it would be rising tonight. So we had to have the worshipers gathered around the Temple by the time it rose just after sundown, which gave us less than six hours. Yagno then bid us to begin our task and he sent along with us three of his personal guards to escort and aid us.
We spent the next several hours then doing everything we could think of to gather as many people as possible at the Temple, ranging from using a wand to create a giant illusion of Yagno Petrovna over the city and telling people to come, to pressing townsfolk into service as criers. We split ourselves up and mustered as many guards as we could find to help us.
Meanwhile, the harsh effects that Malistroi and his vast army of Altered had on the environment as they drew ever closer to the city, became more and more prominent. With each passing hour, the temperature of the air dropped, going from freezing and gradually getting colder. Overhead, the sky was completely black and webbed with lightning. Even the ground seemed to grow stonier and more barren.
Eventually, the hour drew near and we returned to the Temple where hundreds of townsfolk were gathering. By now, the cold was almost unbearable and Malistroi’s army was at the city walls. We passed through the crowd as quickly as we could and made our way up to the roof of the Temple.
Once we had emerged from the stairwell, wicked teeth of freezing wind tore through our clothing as we ascended the steps toward the High Altar. Yagno and seven lesser priests were chanting, swinging smoking censors as they walked around the altar’s edges. Close-up, we could see that the High Altar was a block of dark gray stone shot through with black veins. Sharp-etched runes were cut into its sides and blood-gutters were carved into its top.
Lying atop the altar was the body of Rega, held in place by worn leather straps that were fastened to the altar by iron spikes which had been driven into the four corners of the stone. By the blood draining down into the gutters, we could see that Rega had already met his punishment for his treachery and would no longer pose a threat to Yagno Petrovna.
As the people below moved around the Temple and began to fill the plaza, the altar began to glimmer, as though some kind of luminescence were building somewhere inside. Yagno saw us and waved us over, inviting us to attend the sermon atop the Temple. When we got close to him, he asked if we had brought the talisman. Somewhat reluctantly, Ladislav produced the talisman and gave it to him.
One of Yagno’s assistant priests then began a chant to aid us all with a divine blessing, and Yagno instructed us to defend him and the altar from any of the demon’s minions who approached, while he battled against Malistroi. Of course, if we should manage to defeat all the Altered we would then join in the fight against Malistroi. Six elite soldiers from Yagno’s bodyguard were also stationed at the top of the stairs next to the altar, while six more were stationed on the platform just below the altar where we were.
Having now assigned us our tasks, Yagno then drew a circle of powdered silver around him in preparation to create a magic circle that would ward him against demons. Then he turned and faced the murmuring crowd.
Meanwhile, far below the altar, the faithful of Zhakata had gathered around the Temple. Surrounding them were scarcely two hundred of the remaining Swords of Zhakata, bravely facing the encroaching darkness. As it drew nearer, we saw that the shadow was not simply the result of a new moon. It was a seething mass of terrible shapes, wailing more horribly than the wind ever could. In the darkness, pale fangs and talons flashed like tiny strokes of lightning as the horde closed in.
Upon witnessing the scope of the enemy, we realized that the people below would be massacred if we could not stop the demon’s army soon. Several of us, no doubt, felt a sense of hopelessness or a desire to go down below and help save as many lives as we could. But we knew that if we failed to defend the altar there would be no hope. So, while we waited for the enemy to approach, we did what we could with our missile weapons, taking down as many as possible until we had expended all of our long range ammunition.
Meanwhile behind us, Yagno spread his arms wide, his robes flapping in the freezing winds that scoured the temple’s roof. “Hear me, ye faithful!” he shouted, his voice carrying over the howling winds. “This is the hour of testing! Zhakata will judge us by how we stand against the dark. Are we not worthy?”
The crowd screamed back, “We are worthy!”
“Then believe, with all your hearts! Pour your faith into me, defender of G’Henna, the chosen champion of Zhakata. Lend me your strength for Zhakata!”
And thus Yagno had begun his sermon. But down below in the plaza, some of the Altered eventually broke through the line of soldiers and headed for the Temple, carving a path of destruction through the gathered crowd as they did so. Soon afterwards, these same Altered emerged on the roof of the Temple.
As Yagno continued his sermon, the High Altar began to glow more brightly, though it retained a sickly gray taint at its center. Near-tangible beams of light streamed forth, blasting the Altered from the roof like powerful streams of cold water. Screaming in pain and frustration, the Altered plunged over the roof’s edge to fall spinning toward the crowd below. But sixteen of the Shapeless managed to get through. Ten of these were met by the elite soldiers. The remaining six we had to battle, many of which Ladislav quickly destroyed with a holy smite spell. But soon, another wave of Altered came at us, this one consisting of Bloated and Imps.
While we continued to battle these creatures and Yagno continued his sermon, I noticed that the crystal talisman in Yagno’s hand had begun to glow an eerie, sickly green. I could see Yagno grimacing as if the talisman was causing him pain. But onward he continued.
“In our hour of need,” he shouted. “Zhakata has provided aid! In my hand, I hold the very life-essence of our enemy! And with it, rest assured, the demon shall be expunged from our land!”
Just then, even over the wind, we could hear the snap of leathery wings. A piece of the black night sky dropped to the rooftop to face Yagno across the altar – at last, Malistroi had arrived!
“Fool of a priest!” the demon shouted at Yagno. “You remember me, I think.” Malistroi sneered, a terrible grin spreading across his monstrous features.
“Indeed,” rasped Yagno, hoarse with his preaching. As one, the two adversaries raised their arms to attack.
Yagno struck first and channeled a wave of energy all around him. Though I would have expected him to channel negative energy as opposed to positive energy, somehow he was able to affect the demon with it. Perhaps it had something to do with a special ability of his or perhaps it was a power granted to him by the altar. Whatever the case, it affected only the demon, though just barely.
In return, Malistroi tried to strike Yagno with his clawed fists but was repulsed by the magic circle. So Malistroi had to resort to magical means to try and destroy his enemy. Time after time, Malistroi called down bolts of lightning upon the priest. But most of these had no effect on him, for he had protected himself with a spell that created a powerful resistance to other spells. On the few occasions when Malistroi was able to get past the spell resistance, Yagno was able to heal his injuries. Yagno meanwhile, continued to channel energy at the demon, and while Malistroi was able to resist much of the energy’s harmful effects, it did begin to gradually wear him down. No doubt, Yagno did not resort to casting spells at the demon because the demon was likewise highly resistant to spells. So the battle between the two mighty foes raged on and on, with neither one making much headway.
Eventually, we were able to kill the last of the Altered that stood around us, and as our final enemy fell, we turned to the struggle between the high priest and Malistroi. Realizing that Yagno could not last for much longer, we cast a few spells on ourselves in preparation to aid the priest, as some of us climbed the stairs to the altar.
With the demon now wounded and Yagno having exhausted his ability to channel energy, he cast a powerful spell and stepped across the magic circle to strike the demon, hoping it would be enough to mortally wound it. But the demon’s spell resistance proved to be too much, and the spell fizzled out with no effect. This left Yagno vulnerable, no longer protected by the magic circle, and Malistroi took advantage of it, pummeling the priest with his mighty fists. By the time some of us made it to the altar, Yagno was on the ground, blood and severe burn marks marring his vestment, while the demon loomed over him.
“G’Henna is mine!” the horrid creature bellowed, raising his taloned hands to strike the final blow.
“All you own is mist,” Yagno replied, almost inaudibly, swiftly tracing mystical symbols in the air with his hands. As he did so, the talisman fell to the ground and rolled to the feet of Vance standing next to the altar.
For just a moment, Vance stared down at the talisman, still glowing a sickly green. Then he reached down and picked it up.
Malistroi, meanwhile, let out a roar that shook our very bones and lunged towards the fallen priest, but his claws passed harmlessly through him. “You will not cheat me of my revenge!” shouted the demon.
As Vance later explained to us, he suddenly recalled then what Yagno had said earlier, that he could destroy the talisman and Malistroi with it. Could it be as simple as smashing the talisman? If so, where to smash it? Then Vance glanced at the altar and how it pulsated brightly. Could this, he wondered, be the main source of Yagno’s power over the domain? Instantly, the thought occurred to him and almost as quickly he had made up his mind to try and smash the talisman on the altar, though he had no idea what might happen next.
He turned to the altar then, intent on smashing the crystal against it. But the crystal talisman grew so cold that it began to burn his hands, and Vance was filled with an urge to flee from that place, to carry the talisman as far away from there as he could possibly get.
Then he noticed a spot on the altar beginning to glow even brighter – a spot that was the exact shape and size as the crystal. Vance recalled hearing a story from Yagno’s background that said the talisman was actually a fragment of the altar and the thought occurred to him that by placing the talisman back into the spot from which it had come he might fulfill the destiny foretold by the gypsy woman, Marda, when she read the band’s future.
But Vance did not particularly care for that destiny, even though it was he who had drawn the card from the tarroka deck and it had predicted the demise of the wicked. In Vance’s mind, the idea of fate controlling the future was repugnant to him. He wanted to be the one to decide his own fate, whether it be for good or ill. And so he ignored all the other thoughts that crept into his mind. They were mere distractions, perhaps even tricks being played upon him by outside forces. To him, the choice became clear – smash the talisman.
Once his mind was made up, he found it to be easier than he had expected to resist all the other urges. With all his strength, he brought the talisman down upon the altar. With a sudden thunk that seemed to echo, all eyes now turned towards Vance and a look of concern appeared on the faces of both Yagno and Malistroi. The crystal did not shatter, but a visible crack appeared in it. One more blow upon the altar would surely destroy it. And at that moment, time seemed to freeze for just a second. In no position to prevent what was about to occur, all those who stood nearby looked on with great anticipation as Vance brought the crystal talisman down for the second and final time.
With that a tremendous explosion shook the roof of the temple and all within twenty feet were caught in the blast. While many of us managed to dodge to the side and avoid the much of the fire and debris, Vance was unable to. He was caught in the middle of the blast and suffered the full effects of the explosion.
A hush fell over the city not unlike the quieting effect that snow has while falling, though for many of us near the explosion, our ears continued to ring for some time. When the smoke began to clear, we saw that not only had the talisman disappeared and the High Altar was shattered, but Yagno and Malistroi had vanished, presumably blow to bits by the explosion, for no trace of either one could be found anywhere.
Moments later, the fragments of the High Altar and the bodies of the Altered, both those alive and dead, began to dissolve into mist that swirled about, forming and dissolving to and from a wide number of humans of all ages. Among the shifting shapes, one suddenly held longer than the others, and we heard a voice.
“Thank you my friends, for freeing my land and my people,” said the mist-phantom of a handsome man. We recognized the voice as that of Petchko’s. “I, and the others whose souls have been freed, go to a much happier place…and so will those of you who are still living. Know that today you have performed as saviors for generations of G’Hennans, past and present.
The misty forms then dissipated, and as they did, the storm clouds overhead broke as well, revealing a familiar starry night sky. Meanwhile, nearby, I and my companions began to pick ourselves up off the ground, including Vance who had somehow miraculously survived, though he among others was badly wounded.