Yera, Fenriss, and Abby strolled down the dusty streets of Sprigand, chatting amiably in infernal, as had become their habit. They hadn’t encountered any other tieflings in town, and it was sometimes best not to be overheard. They’d been to visit Ladtun, the dwarven guildmistress, to see what new adventures might be available in the East, and were discussing their options.
Four days in town had Abby restless, and she could tell it was having a similar effect on her companions- there was very little to do in Sprigand proper, and Raffin, the scout she’d been watching, had been annoyingly inactive. She was positive he was up to something, but damned if she’d been able to figure out what it was. She needed to travel, to clear her mind.
“Don’t you know anything? Didn’t they tell anyone where they were going before they left?”
The tall half-elf looked terribly frustrated, and had clearly been asking around for some time with no luck. Yera looked at him curiously.
“Should we see what he’s looking for, perhaps?” she asked.
As it turned out, the man- Tut, he called himself- was looking into the disappearance of a few dwarves who had traveled out to the Crackhammer Hills a tenday past. Ladtun had mentioned them- apparently one of them had returned, but could not say what had happened to his companions.
After agreeing to assist Tut, Yera suggested they recruit at least one additional companion before venturing into unknown territory. Nearby, a man- unfamiliar, probably new to town- sat under a tree, his eyes closed, staff propped up next to him, and the party decided to approach him.
Luckily, he was indeed a martial man, and explorer, and was willing to accompany them to find the missing dwarves. He introduced himself as Brekka, and suggested they go to speak to the one dwarf who had returned from the expedition, Aril.
Aril appeared to have begun drinking when he returned to town two days ago, and seemed determined to continue until Sprigand ran out of ale. He blamed himself for the disappearance of four of his party while he was on watch; he had fallen asleep, and when the morning came, the dwarves were simply gone. Brekka comforted the distraught dwarf, though who knew how much of the conversation Aril would actually remember?
They purchased supplies in town before setting off, including a war donkey Yera named Bob. He seemed a fierce creature, and Abby thought he probably deserved a more suitable name, but he was Yera’s donkey, so she kept her peace.
The weather held as they set out of town, clear and crisp, and Abby played a cheerful little melody as they walked to Cradle, happy beyond words to be traveling again. After a day’s travel, they made camp at the old abandoned house, as they had before.
Curiously, it seemed someone had been there in the past couple of days, as they found a small wooden falcon statue within, dedicated to the goddess Freya, whose domain was fertility. Well, clear enough what they had come out here for, and more luck to them, she supposed. Brekka, fascinated by it, decided to keep it in his pack.
The night was interrupted by some sort of goblin problem. Abby wasn’t terribly clear about it; by the time she’d stumbled to the door of the cabin, groggy with sleep, several of the goblins had been summarily dispatched and the others had run away like cowards. She’d checked on Bob, who had stared down the goblin menace with utter disregard, and then returned to her bedroll and her dreams (such strange dreams, since she’d come to the east, a problem for another time).
After they’d passed undead-infested Cradle (and someone really would need to come back and take care of the remaining wandering zombies, there had to be a better way than destroying them individually), Tut lead the party into the mountains, seemingly at home in the strange rocky terrain, and even able to ensure Bob was able to pick his way calmly over stones which would have surely defeated any normal donkey.
Between them, Fenriss and Brekka kept the party well supplied, and they traveled easily along twisting mountain paths to the summit. The air grew crisp and cold, but the sky and their path remained blessedly clear, and the party relaxed enough to talk and laugh with each other as they traveled.
It was perhaps this which caused them to be off guard when they found the cairn in the mountain pass, a stone monument to a warrior chief of the lost Bloodfang tribe. Some few of their scattered descendants survived in Remidon, and Abby was sharing a legend-ballad she had learned from one of them when she was rudely interrupted by a hail of arrows. Kobolds!
The sneaky creatures had gotten the jump on them, and bloodied nearly everyone, but were quickly outmatched once the party realized what was going on. Brekka and Tut proved to be quite effective with their weapons in melee combat, and Yera, Fenriss, and Abby picked off those who thought they were clever to lurk in the rising cliff face above their path. Brekka insisted on binding his kobolds and burying them, possibly under some fear of their rising as undead? Abby had never seen an undead kobold herself, but one never knew.
They crested the summit of the mountain the next day at sunset. There, they got their first glimpse of the Badlands, spread out before them, miles of sand gleaming red under the dying light for as far as they could see, broken only by an unsettling pit of bones and, far in the distance, a waterfall thundering down the last of the mountain peaks, behind a massive set of statues, visible even from the high mountain peak.
By mutual agreement, the party skirted the bone pit, having no interest in becoming the latest set of bones, and set out to investigate the waterfall, surely a useful oasis for anyone traveling further into the desert, as the missing dwarves had.
As it turned out, the area surrounding the falls held no sign of the dwarves, or of any recent habitation at all, but would certainly be a useful feature for any future travelers trying to make it through this hostile terrain. While Tut, who had proven to be a skilled cartographer, recorded their find, Yera wove them the tale of Lovers’ Fall, named for the statue, or, rather, for those long-lost souls who had inspired it, their names and even species worn away by time and nature. Deeply affected by the tale, Brekka left Freya’s falcon token at the base of the statue, accompanied by a copy he’d made of wood during the long trek.
Of the following days, alternating daytime heat like a forge with nights so cold her breath steamed in the air, the less said the better, as far as Abby was concerned. Tut, Brekka, and Fenriss searched diligently for signs of the dwarven party, though what they could possibly see in these endless, identical sands was beyond her. At last, though, they spotted the remains of a campfire, black ash stark against the red- a recent campfire, used no more than two days ago.
From there, it was relatively simple- for the trackers, at least- to follow the tracks back to their owners- three dwarves!
The party greeted them with considerable delight, and the dwarves were equally glad to see them, having been lost in the Badlands for days, since they had returned to their campsite to find their company had moved on without them.
“Aril told us you disappeared,” Abby said, “what happened?”
The dwarves shuffled around, looking embarrassed, but admitted they had snuck off from camp to drink and to indulge in some less accepted substances.
“Weren’t there four of you?” Brekka asked, still skeptical.
“Ah…poor Garamund. The…lizard people got him. Tragic.”
Lizard people in the Badlands? Abby was beginning to understand exactly why the magi had put the Edict in place to begin with.
The dwarves wanted to reunite with their company, who had set out to mine the Crackhammer Hills, but Abby convinced them to return to Sprigand to reunite with Aril. The dwarves agreed, but refused to leave until the morning, being determined to drink their way through their remaining ale before going a step further.
Yera suggested they secure themselves to Bob, to ensure they didn’t wander off course while drinking again, to which the dwarves begrudgingly also agreed.
After several rounds of ale, Tut and Brekka slipped off to sleep, while the tieflings remained awake, chatting with the dwarves.
Until the dwarves’ eyes changed to endless empty black. Yera and Fenriss cut off in mid-word, collapsing to the ground in unnatural sleep, and Abby felt the same oblivion pulling at her own will.
No! She threw off the urge and sprung back from the creature that was now so clearly not a dwarf, drawing her sword. She shouted for Brekka and for Tut, knowing that Yera and Fenriss were likely beyond such recall.
Abby battled back the first of the not-dwarves, which turned into a jackal-man when it fell. It cost her heavily, and she tried not to think about how much of the blood on her armor was hers. And there were two more.
Brekka woke, and ran to assist her, striking a jackal with a fearsome blow of his quarterstaff. Its head rocked back, but it moved slowly back, looking back at him with those empty eyes. Brekka went pale, and fell into the same spellbound sleep as the others. Tut, she was afraid, had already been captured.
The hideous creatures were strong, much stronger than anything they’d faced so far. Even the strongest blow Abby could land only bloodied it, and she wasn’t sure she could survive its best shot. And she had no help, now. They might be beyond her.
But they were not beyond the power of her god.
She reached into the bright faith that was her core, and summoned the strength she needed, a golden protective aura flaring around her. The creatures’ next blows bounced back, unable to reach her, and she grinned, brandishing her sword as she felt the power bubbling up through her blood.
When she swung it next, the blow connected with the jackal-dwarf’s spine with a thunderous roar. It collapsed under the blow, and- blessings be unto Triskelion- Abby saw the others stir, pulled from their unnatural slumber by divine power.
Yera blasted the remaining shifter with some of her odd purple fire, and after another sword wound, the creature decided the odds no longer favored it, and tried to flee, shifting into an actual jackal and running out across the sands.
Unluckily for it, it wasn’t faster than Fenriss’s bow.
The jackal-creatures carried a letter in an odd tongue, which Yera, the cleverest of them all, was able to read.
It implored them to round up slaves for the fighting pits of their master, the demon lord Graz’zt.
Abby clenched her fists, fury overpowering the giddy relief of not having died. Slavers. And selling people to a demon, to fight and to die for his amusement…if Raffin or his masters had the least to do with it, she would kill them herself. She was going to have a serious talk with him when they returned to Sprigand. It was time to stop pretending.