[This is story thread to introduce a new character that, Lord willing, will be making an appearance at the Autumn Adventure]
Chapter 1: The Blasted Lands
Burning blinding sun
Gasping choking miles of dust
The sweltering sun beats down upon an arid wasteland. Dust devils twist and meander between brightly colored tents staked out on this desiccated patch of dirt. These pavilions and canopies provide the only shelter in a hellish environment too harsh for any sensible folk. An unbroken horizon and endless miles of sand, dust, and rock surround the encampment. Tricks of heat and light occasionally fool the eye into seeing patches of water, but the only refreshment to be found here is in the barrels of barely potable water sheltered in the shade of the tents.
Robed travelers attempt to escape the all-encompassing heat within the shade of their homes. Turbans and shawls, that were they less dust covered would be quite elegant, protect their skin from the gaze of the sun. Upon closer inspection, one finds beneath the robes a variety of thinking species: humans, elves, orcs, and lizard-kin. Though there is no humidity to speak of, the heat daily proves itself to be too fierce even for the cold blooded lizard-kin. Any unfriendliness there may have been between these species is quickly burned away by the unending heat of the day, and the bone-cracking chill of the night.
In the center of the encampment lies the reason for its existence, a solid pillar of rock, blasted smooth by the occasional sandstorms and jutting out of the ground at an angle. At its base is a jagged crack, large enough for a person to walk through and extending beneath the surface of the wasteland. Occasionally a robed figure leaves one of the tents and enters the pillar, or returns with an armload of broken masonry that is immediately picked apart and sorted by the others.
A human now climbs out of the pillar, his cloak caked in dust and his face streaked with sweat. His boots crunch in the sand as he strides to the nearest tent, where an orc hands him a tin of water, magically cooled. This human, though robed like the others, protects his head from the sun with a wide-brimmed hat, which he removes upon entering the tent. The orc scoots aside and offers him a seat next to him before speaking.
“Well? Is it it?”
The human sips the water before answering in a lazy drawl, “Unfortunately no.”
The orc growls in anger briefly, but stops, too drained by the heat to waste the effort.
“Pity. Still, plenty of treasure to be found here nonetheless.”
The human takes another swig of water. The orc continues rumbling.
“I’ve dug here for 13 years. Still haven’t found the end.”
The human nods and speaks, “Likely never will.”
“Fine by me. Means I don’t have to move deeper to keep finding relics.” The orc gestures to the east as he growls this. East means deeper into the blasted lands, where fewer and fewer travelers return from. He’d heard stories from the sick and dying fools who managed to return of hellish places where the wastes glow and life grows sick and wrong. Of misshapen monsters with entrails growing out of their faces, denied the release of death.
Drinking from his water tin, the human nods. He points toward the pillar as he speaks, “I wouldn’t dig any deeper here either. Keep moving laterally at the same depth you’ve been at so far, and you should be safe. From what I saw, any deeper and you run the risk of … making new friends, if you catch my drift.”
The orc smiles, showing off his jagged fangs and tusks, “I’ll keep that in mind, Jeff.”
Jeff Decorum finishes off his tin of water and grins right back, heedless of how tiny his teeth are compared to the orc’s. He scoops another serving of water and cools it with a quick spell, a trick he picked up from Wallace, the chatty orc leader of the camp. Others may have found Wallace amusing, intimidating, grating, or all three in equal measure. Not Jeff. Jeff recognizes a fellow survivor and outlaw salesman when he sees one, and they immediately became fast friends.
Jeff had come to this encampment two months ago offering his services as an expert in relics of the Arcane Mages, the particular commodity that this encampment was in the business of excavating. The camp had been having difficulties selling their wares and Jeff was able to… persuade the locals to do business. Since Jeff arrived, Wallace and his crew have been able to find and sell far more than just broken pieces of stone. Arcane materials, precious metals, machines, gemstones. As for why he knows so much about that dead civilization, he’s kept that secret close to his chest, along with a couple of others.
As the sun descends toward the horizon, the camp begins to shake off the lethargy of the noonday heat and activity increases. The lizard-kin are particularly boisterous now that the worst of the day is over and chowtime is approaching. An elven woman lights the cookfire and begins preparing a spicy bean and curry mash in large cast iron pot. The smell fills whole encampment, setting stomachs a rumbling, none more so than Wallace’s.
A loud shout echoes from the stone pillar, interrupting dinner preparations. Janice, a lizard-kin woman, emerges from underground and gestures excitedly at Jeff and Wallace.
“We found something! You must see it!” Her voice hisses like the desert sands.
Wallace groans, “Janice! It’s nearly dinner. It can wait.”
The elven woman interjects, her voice abrasive and ungentle, “Forty minutes!”
Janice tries again, “Hear that? Plenty of time!”
Jeff rises to his feet, brushing off his trousers. Janice cackles with glee.
“Yes! I knew I was your favorite!”
Jeff laughs as he strides toward Janice and the pillar, “I would never admit that in front of my dear friend Wallace.”
Wallace grumbles as he heaves himself to his feet, “I appreciate you being so considerate of my feelings, pink-skin twig-sack.”
Jeff, Wallace and Janice descend into the crack of the pillar. Darkness briefly envelopes them before a flickering light begins to grow before them as they step deeper and deeper down crude and roughhewn steps.
Suddenly the space opens up before them, revealing a vast cavern lit by candlelight. The flickering flames cast light on the arches, pillars, windows, and hallways of a great city, beautiful and elegant. The sweeping archways and curved pillars are a sharp contrast to the jagged tunnel leading in and the tents up above. Flowing grooves and channels adorn nearly every surface in the cavern, echoing the graceful lines of the architecture. Down below, shrouded in darkness lie deeper and deeper chambers. No end to the subterranean city reveals itself.
Jeff, Wallace, and Janice show no sign of awe at the magnificence around them as they step with practiced feet along thin bridges and chasms. Janice instead practically bounces with excitement as she leads them to a corner of the caverns from which a blue light emanates. As they draw closer, they see that it is the carvings and grooves on the walls that are glowing. This luminescence grows brighter and brighter until they come to a doorway around which three more of the robed excavators gather excitedly.
“Can you smell that?”
“Magic of the lines!” “Here though? The blasted lands are – “
“I know! That’s why it’s so exciting.”
The chattering ceases as Jeff and Wallace follow Janice up to the door. Inside the entryway lies a body, still sizzling and smoking. No sign remains of the trap that fried this person like overdone chicken. Janice pulls out a glowing crystalline device and casts a spell that smells of rotten flesh and sulfur. The device dims slightly and the glowing channels on the wall flicker imperceptibly as the charred corpse rises to its feet and turns obediently to Janice.
Wallace rumbles out his next question in a bored tone, almost uncaring of the answer.
One of the excavators to the left of the door answers nonchalantly. “Carl.”
Wallace chuckled, “Of course.” The excavator to the right of the door sputtered angrily, “Bout time that idiot got fried. I been waiting six months for his stupid-“
Janice interrupts through a toothy grin, “Now, now, let’s not speak ill of the dead. After all, he’s standing right there.” She gestures at Carl’s now reanimated corpse and bursts into laughter at her own joke.
Jeff strides up confidently to the doorway, his boots echoing on the hard stone walls of the cavern. Janice interrupts him and steps in his way.
“Stop! Carl hasn’t triggered all the traps yet. Would hate to see my favorite human get fried.”
Jeff raises an eyebrow at Janice and reaches past her to the doorframe. “Touching.”
He grabs an ornately decorated knob and pulls it out and down, revealing a panel inscribed with a circular grid of runes. Jeff stabs at a seemingly random selection of runes with a practiced assurance, a confidence rewarded by the dimming of the grooves and channels of the chamber.
The group is now plunged into semidarkness as the excavators hastily light candles and summon orbs of light.
The chamber now adequately lit, Jeff gestures forward, prompting Janice to command Carl to shamble into the now dimly lit room. Nothing happens, thus encouraging the Wallace and the remaining excavators to crowd past Jeff into the room. Their candles now fully illuminate the room, revealing the reason for Janice’s excitement.
Row upon row of shelves fill the room, each one crammed with scrolls and scroll cases. Protected by the caverns walls and unseen enchantments, none of the scrolls had succumbed to the elements, though dust covered everything. Wallace snatches a scroll off the nearest shelf and unrolls it, revealing arcane script and symbols.
Wallace whispers in awe, “Spells.”
Jeff drawls with satisfaction, “The lost knowledge of the Arcane Mages.”
Janice bounces with excitement, “There probably isn’t a wizard in the multiverse with a collection this big!”
Jeff grins. If only they knew. “Only a drop in the ocean.”
Wallace grins right back, showing off his disgusting teeth. “An expensive and valuable drop nonetheless.”
He rolls up the scroll and returns it to the shelf, giving orders as he does so.
“Time to eat. Jeff, undo whatever it is you did. Would hate to lose this fortune to less reputable folk.”
A shout causes everyone to freeze. “NOBODY MOVE!” One of the excavators blocks the doorway, robe cast aside to reveal bizarre animalistic tattoos and armor crafted from intricately carved bones. His left hand glows with harsh red luminescence, and his right grips a scimitar, covered with spidery runes glowing with the same red light. A tattoo of a leaf in the shape of a dryad’s face covers his right eye.
Janice jerks her head, commanding Carl to lurch towards the attacker with arms outstretched and hands curled into claws. The traitor excavator casts his left hand forward, sending the crimson light lashing out, not at Carl, but at Janice’s crystalline orb! The device shatters, the light within vanishing immediately. Carl collapses to the floor mid step, his animating energy spent.
The traitor excavator draws back his scimitar and sprints forward, intent on cleaving Janice in two. BANG! A sound like a thundercrack echoes in the small chamber, deafening everyone in it. The traitor excavator collapses face first to the floor, a fist sized hole through his head, brain matter and blood strewn behind him. All eyes turn toward the source of the sound, just in time to see Jeff holding a bizarre metal contraption in his right hand, one end trailing a wisp of smoke. Quick as a thought, Jeff spins the strange device and it vanishes beneath his robes. Jeff grins and drawls in his lazy way, “Dinner’s probably ready now.”
Back on the surface, Jeff, Wallace, and the rest of the encampment enjoy the sunset as they dig into the elven curry mash. Janice pouts off by herself, depressed by the loss of her treasured relic and the dropping temperature of the wastes. Elsewhere, an excitement pervades the camp at the news of the discovery. New spells are a valuable and dangerous commodity on magic starved Osterra, if one can find fools willing to buy them and risk the wrath of the Risa Fae.
“The problem is that down here the ley lines are so dead, any new spells are academic. No one actually wants that when there’s food to buy and bandits to pay off,” grumbles Wallace with a mouth full of beans.
“Two thousand years of fear of Risa Fae and Mage Breakers don’t help either,” replies Jeff, who swallows his food before answering.
The Mage Breakers are a tribe of mage killers that worship the Risa Fae. They roam Osterra hunting magic users and destroying arcane relics, releasing their energy back into the world. The unsuccessful Mage Breaker from today now sizzles in the reenergized scroll room, a testament to the danger of the encampment’s line of work.
“To the north of here though, I been hearing word of an upstart kingdom, spreading like wildfire, with more factions than they know what to do with and a thirst for power,” muses Jeff. “They might want to buy.”
“I been hearing that too,” replies Wallace. “I also hear they’ve drawn the actual attention of the Risa Fae. The Mage Breakers won’t be far behind. It’s a risk.”
“It touches my heart to know you care so much,” retorts Jeff mockingly. “So, I’ll take three or four spells north, see if I can’t whet their appetite.”
“I still haven’t agreed to this.”
“I then send word back along with your share of the cut.”
“You’re not listening.” “We then plan from there to see if you want to come up and join us.”
Wallace sighs in resignation. He looks around at his encampment, at the men and women, the people he has taken under his wing. The old gods would flay him if they could see him now. He turns back to Jeff, and growls his next sentence.
“Fine. One rule. You say nothing of your source, of us. Anyone finds out, their story ends there, laid in a grave.” Wallace jabs Jeff in his chest with his finger to ram his point home.
Jeff grins with overflowing sweetness and believability.
“Of course. Anything for my nearest and dearest friends.”