Calica

Assault on Osh'ra-Part Two
Lost in The Maze of Rajesh

The four warriors bravely fought the fearsome minotaurs as the walls of the maze seemingly pressed in against them. After taking many a magic missile from Talia Lancaster (Black) and a weakening mental attack from Taiass, the beasts were slain and the heroes victorious. As the group continued on through the harrowing maze, Vivian fluttered to the ground in front of them! Arrows pierced her tiny body, but luckily as Taiass and Kao-Tsu Quan examined her wounds, they discovered the bolts had missed her vital organs. Nathan Bishop volunteered his arm, and in no time the voracious vampire was back up, wiping the blood from her delicate mouth. Although she was happy to find her friends again, the pixie clammed up at their mention of muffins and their questions about her about her sudden disappearance. Regardless, the party was united again and as they looked forward, they saw several doors ahead of them…

As they entered the room, Taiass and Nathan were thrilled to see an armory amidst the labyrinth! However when the room magically twisted and landed them on the ceiling, with spikes and sure death below them, their happiness abated. Fortunately the party was able to spin themselves the right away around and correct themselves with little trouble, and they fighters were able to re-arm and re-armor themselves after their fight with the rust monsters had destroyed their equipment.

The next room was dark and cold, and as the adventurers entered, they soon realized why. It was yet another illusion room-this one displayed their darkest fears, laid bare in front of everyone. However because of this link, the party was able to support each other in resisting the fear of the illusions. Still, it was difficult for everyone to cope. Talia had to witness the murder of her brother at the hands of her parents, and endure the mockery of Zula and Lloth herself, who claimed domination over the swordmage’s life. Nathan had to relive the killing of his dog, Indy at the hands of the manlin assassin as well as deal with the visual torment of seeing his dead family members, set aflame and horrifically lumbering towards him. Taiass was forced to observe the trial and death of his friend Lysander, for which he carried the blame. Vivian attested to a similar story…she had a pixie friend for whom she carried the blame of his death, as well the seeing several terrifying vampiric figures of her darkest memories. Kao-Tsu carried with him the burden of abandoning his father to an unknown fate in the Dragon Mist Isles and the worry of loosing his new wife in the war to dark manlin magic. Through the support of each other, they were able to endure the horrifying elements of the room, although Taiass and Kao-Tsu were the most shaken up and severely weakened from the experience. However, after escaping the room of fears, the exit out of the maze was dead ahead!

The party pulled themselves together as they reached the center of the city, goal in sight. Sh’rayas lead them to the final chamber, only to find it blocked! Their foes and guardians of the city of Osh’ra: two Sisters of the Sand, two Chain Fighters, and weirdly enough a giant living cactus. Sh’rayas took on one sand witch by himself, and as the rest of the heroes fought off the guardians, they knew this could be one fight they could not bear to loose! The sand, spikes, and chains flew furiously, but eventually the guardians succumbed to the power of the fighters who outmatched them in combined spirit and guts. Determinedly, the group pressed forward yet again, knowing that despite their best efforts, they were beginning to grow weary and time was growing short for their agenda. Perhaps this was a suicide mission the Calican army had sent them on!

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The Assault on Osh'ra
Deeper and Deeper into the Psionic Sand City

October 14th 1081: a day that will live in infamy! This was the day the Calicans brought the fight to their enemy by launching a full assault on the Shifting Sands capitol city, Osh’ra. Sh’rayas the Sylvan was able to sneak the adventurers past the battle and into the garbage system below Osh’ra. After navigating below the city, they could access his lab from a lower passage. The garbage tunnels belched fire and singed their skins as the sweltering but brave companions clambered over the hot mess. With his monkey like agility, Kao-Tsu Quan was able to deftly jump across the steaming piles…but the others weren’t so lucky. Too focused on keeping pace with everyone, the group was surprised by some nefarious rust monsters just as they were about to reach the exit of the flaming garbage furnaces! Also, just as battle was commencing, Vivian looked up, quite disturbed, and sniffing the air. “Muffins!” she exclaimed, and as a horrified expression crossed her face, she rapidly flew away from combat and out of the tunnels! The creatures were eventually defeated, but Taiass‘s armor and sword were badly damaged in the fight, as well as Nathan Bishop’s sword (little used by the shield-bashing warrior, but a loss nevertheless). The bigger loss on everyone’s mind was the sudden disappearance of their friend Vivian….and what did she mean by “muffins?”

Regardless, the heroes moved onward and came upon Sh’rayas’ lab. Together with the arcane assistance of Talia Lancaster (Black), who helped him find the components for his ritual to follow, and with the help of Nathan, Taiass, and Kao-Tsu, who barred the door from the psionic guards outside, they succeeded in getting Sh’rayas what he needed and were even able to get out the back door of his lab without pursuit. The dark elf then lead them to a staircase. Down and down it lead, until finally it ended at a small river with a pontoon next to it. The dark water of the river glimmered eerily against their torchlight, and the adventurers piled into the dusty boat. It seemed no one had been down that way in quite some time. Sh’rayas explained as Nathan rowed them across the river, their next destination would possibly be the most dangerous, for they were heading to the Maze of Rajesh. Navigating the maze, which was full of arcane traps and monsters set up by the mage lords over the centuries to protect their capitol city, was supposed to be an impossible task and was considered suicide by most of the people of the Shifting Sands. Nathan snorted as he shook his head. Impossible? Certain death? A suicide mission? Nothing new for Team Tempest.

As the party stood at the gate of the maze, Kao-Tsu eyeballed the walls. Twenty feet high slabs of unforgiving stone loomed coldly in front of them. A distant roar was heard. Talia shuddered, and tentatively stepped into the maze, turning left as she raised her sword that crackled with magical energy. Taiass pulled out a quill and paper and attempted to scribble a map as they traveled down the twisting and turning passageways, but it wasn’t before long that they were lost. Deeper within the maze, a door opened before the wanderers, who warily ventured through. The doorway lead to a room with 3 illythid statues, but as Taiass attempted to cross the room, arcane energy crackled from gems embedded in the statues’ headpieces and struck the eladrin, greatly weakening him. By working together, they were able to redirect the beams and destroy the statues. However, this room lead directly to ANOTHER arcane trap, an illusion of a forest that was quickly dropping in temperature….teeth chattering and shivering, the weary party was able to convince each other that it was indeed an illusion just in the nick of time. The spell was broken and they were able to move on.

Outside the rooms, Kao-Tsu was able to scale the great stone wall of the maze and gauge their distance traveled. They were approaching the center, or so he thought…but it was difficult walking on the maze walls (without the reassurance of a fairy-dust save) so they continued along the bending walkway. It wasn’t before long that Talia and Taiass were bickering about which way to turn next when the roar they had heard earlier sounded directly behind them. Talia slowly turned, and she came face to face with the protectors of the Maze of Rajesh-a pack of angry minotaurs! And unlike the beasts from Minotaur Isle, these monsters were NOT willing to negotiate.

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Future Preparations
Of Family, Of Weddings, and Of Battle

After their parley with Gaul Who Grasps, the adventurers headed back to rendezvous with the Calican military forces to tell of their success. However, after a week of traveling, they were not greeted with the happiest of news. Lun excitedly met with Kao-Tsu Quan, embracing him on his arrival…however she immediately brought to his attention a disturbing event. Apparently on Richard Bishop‘s commands, a manlin soldier had been captured and tortured inhumanely for information. Lun further explained, Kao-Tsu’s monks had since refused to follow orders and were awaiting his arrival and his further orders. Kao-Tsu’s eyes darkened as he rushed to the tent where the prisoner was held and immediately dragged him out, rushing the bloodied prisoner to the monk pavilion and claiming refuge on the man. These atrocious acts would not continue if Kao-Tsu were to remain in the Calican military!

Meanwhile, Nathan Bishop strode over to his father’s tent to confront him about this incident. As he attempted to challenge Richard, his father thrust some papers at his son: new orders. These new military orders for Nathan were strictly civilian in nature and distinctly far away from combat. Nathan shook his head in sardonic anger and disbelief. As he leaned closer to speak to his father, he noticed the distinct whiff of alcohol on his breath, and as he further noticed the disarray of his father’s living quarters, he was able to piece together some reasoning behind Richard’s actions. He angrily left his father, deciding to bring his case directly to the men who counted most: the troops.

Kao-Tsu and Nathan met together and confronted Belcoot in front of the army. Together, they pleaded their case: Calica was not to turn to the depths of evil that their opponent would use. If they were to win the war, they would do so with honor and dignity, and treat their prisoners of war with that same dignity. Calica would prove themselves better than the enemy and always the bigger man. Their response was a mixed reaction from the crowd, even as Vivian’s intimidating glare struck out against the gathered troops. The men separated, a divided crew. As the night wore on, Taiass attempted to get as many troops on their side as possible, expecting a possible division of their forces. Talia Lancaster (Black) satisfied her anger by ripping into Belcoot, and warning him that in order to lead the military, he had to be fully aware of all that was occurring on his watch. People were counting on him to make decisions…and his leadership was all that was holding the Calicans together during this fragile time in their history.

That night, a silent tension filled the Calican camp as the desert breeze whisked hot sand around the tents. The only noise was a tiny pixie, singing happily to herself, for she had been tasked with a very important mission from Kao-Tsu. Shop after shop she visited, until Vivian found what she had been searching for. Her eyes sparkled with excitement as she admiringly picked up the precious item. She buzzed back to Kao-Tsu’s tent, prize in hand. Kao-Tsu thanked the fairly gratefully as he eagerly called for Lun and presented her with the biggest, sparkliest, most beautiful diamond engagement ring the girl had ever seen! Lun clasped her arms around Kao-Tsu and screeched in happiness, of course accepting his proposal. She blathered on to Kao-Tsu in a tizzy, exclaiming that they should get married right away in the camp, before it was too late and they were separated again. Kao-Tsu, in a whirlwind of happiness, agreed, and as Lun rushed off to tell her family, he searched for his closest friends to share the news!

Word of the engagement spread like wildfire. Of course, Nathan, Kao-Tsu, Taiass, and Vivian were the first to congratulate the monk. But before Kao-Tsu knew it, Belcoot came to visit the Calican monastary’s pavilion. He offered words of peace and felicitations as he brokered a deal with Kao-Tsu. Per Kao-Tsu’s wishes, Belcoot would agree to hand over all prisoners of war to the monks for their care and watch, if Kao-Tsu and Lun would agree to have their marriage be a public event. Such a spectacle would surely unite the troops and raise the morale of the Calicans. Kao-Tsu tentatively agreed, barring Lun’s approval of course. Belcoot smiled and shook Kao-Tsu’s hand, hoping for better times between them.

With that, the wedding preparations happened in a flash! Arthur Kayin Macbeth was requested to preside, and Kao-Tsu asked Nathan, Belcoot, and Taiass to be in the wedding party, while Lun called upon her mother and Talia. Vivian took over the duties of flower girl. The entire Calican camp buzzed with excitement over the event, seemingly forgetting their problems and tensions of the days before and uniting together in harmony. The day of, everything went off without a hitch (that is, after Kao-Tsu, in a panic, realized he needed actual wedding rings and relied on the donations of Talia and Nathan’s father). Lun looked stunning in an ocean blue wedding gown, and Kao-Tsu felt inches taller as he stood proudly beside his bride on the alter. Not a dry eye remained in the house as the two promised their eternal love and devotion to one another. And after the ceremony, the feast and celebration that followed became legendary in Calican history! Kao-Tsu Quan and Lun Quan danced the night away and could not be separated. Richard took the time of celebration and good will to apologize for his prior actions to his son, who gratefully accepted his father’s heartfelt apology. Vivian flitted in between the tables, nibbling on sweets and catching glimpses of Lun’s shiny, shiny rings. Taiass quietly enjoyed the party, even adding to the entertainment by performing alongside the bards with a moving violin solo. Nathan and Talia spent most of the night celebrating but also had some much needed quiet time to discuss the state of their relationship….only of course to be interrupted by matters of war. Indeed, the next day, after the hangovers had cleared and the party cleaned up, the adventurers began to think of their future preparations: planning the attack on Osh’ra.

After giving Kao-Tsu some time for a honeymoon, Belcoot gathered together the generals of the military to propose a stratagem. Belcoot thought it would be best if he lead their forces, along with Gaul’s orcs, in a full frontal attack on Osh’ra. The attack would really be a diversion. The true attack would be in the form of a small strike team (consisting of Sh’rayas the Sylvan, Nathan, Talia, Kao-Tsu, Vivian, and Taiass) who would sneak under the city through a tunnel. There they could make their way to Sh’rayas’ lab, where he can pick up the magical components he would need for the next step. Finally, they would make their way through a maze to the capitol building in the middle of Osh’ra. Sh’rayas would be able to release a magical weapon that would take out the psychics and psions and give the mage lords a chance to rise up and take the city back into their control! It was a dangerous plan, but really the only choice of action if they were to continue to weaken the enemy. The party nodded as they gazed solemnly at one another. It was do or die…..and they had no intentions of burning out before their time!

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The Diplomacy of Orcs
Gaul, Tembo, and a Traitor...

The exhausted party took refuge in the scorpion cave for a time, resting and healing. A quick exploration of the area discovered that their cave was located above a high hill and cliff face that overlooked what they had been hoping to find: Gaul’s orc encampment! At dusk, Vivian burst out of her coffin and everyone was ready to try their hand at diplomacy with the orcs. They entered the camp and were held at spear tip by the wary orc barbarians, who immediately took them to the Gaul Who Grasps. Gaul sat on a large boney throne, his red eyes glaring menacingly at the ragtag group in front of him. He stroked his bushy black beard as he weighed the pleas and the bargaining of Talia, Kao-Tsu, and Taiass, and his eyes widened to see Vivian’s display of power and strength despite her diminutive posture. He whispered to the second in command, Grayek, as he considered. Finally, he had heard enough as he silenced the outsiders with a broad wave of his hand. Calica would have his people as an ally, if they would promise him half of the weapons and food of Osh’ra, the Shifting Sands capitol city. Talia, as acting leader in Nathan’s absence, agreed to the steep price of allegiance, and with her blade opened a wound in her hand and clasped hands with Gaul, forging their alliance with a blood pact. However, Gaul explained, as a final act of faith, to prove their countries’ strength to his people, the adventurers must agree to fight the Tembo in the arena. Kao-Tsu quickly agreed, proclaiming they could fight anything the orcs could muster up, but as the cries of “Tembo…..Tembo….Tembo” were rhythmically chanted by the orcs and the adventurers were pushed into the waiting area of the coliseum, he began to question the hastiness of his response.

As the party regrouped to prepare for battle, the orcs dragged in a half beaten, naked man…revealed to be Nathan! As Kao-Tsu gave him some clothing to preserve his dignity, Nathan explained that while traveling back, he realized that although his father might need him, his desertion would be at the expense of abandoning those who might have needed him more-and they were as close to his family as they could get. Nathan explained that he had barely made it through crossing the Ocean of Worms, and just as he had made it across, he got caught in the maw of a purple beast. Crawling out of its mouth as its raking jaws clamped tight on his armor, he escaped narrowly, but sacrificed the armor to the belly of the beast. Shortly after that, the desert suns beat down on him, and the orcs caught him as he tried to make his way across the heat of the sands and into their encampment. They roughed him up a bit, but Nathan knew it was only a matter of time before the orcs would surrender their prisoner to the visiting Calicans.
The party all welcomed their friend back into the fold, and Vivian dove into Talia’s bag of holding and presented Nathan with Mohsen’s armor. He happily accepted the gift from his friends, thanking them for their foresight to take it. The sound of orc chanting hit their ears with increasing volume and tempo, and the party knew it was time…to face the Tembo.

The orcs surrounded them in the primitive amphitheater, and as the adventurers entered, the door slammed shut behind them. There would be no escape from this battle-it would be to the death. Suddenly, from the ground itself, the Tembo burrowed upwards from the sandy terrain and roared angrily at the five opponents before him. Kao-Tsu fearlessly charged forward, hitting it with multiple strikes faster than anyone could see, as Talia and Taiass tactically wagered themselves against the beast first at a distance. Vivian flew like a dart and jumped lightly on the monk’s shoulders, delicately balancing yet savagely biting and clawing at the monster. The Bishop family shield flew through the air as it bounced off of the thick creature’s hide, ricocheting back into Nathan’s grasp as the fighter leapt into the furious fray of battle. The party worked together, dragging the colossus back and forth through a wall of acid, while protecting themselves from its devastating attacks. Taiass psionically struck at the creature, exploiting its weakness and giving Nathan and Vivian the chance to take out their enemy. Vivian got the final blow, pulling out Tembo’s sharp incisors and with superhuman strength, stabbed it through the brain. The orcs screamed in approval in a blood frenzy as Gaul called for the fight to be over and the champions to be presented with honors before the orc tribe. As Gaul submitted the adventurers to the cheering orcs, out of nowhere a poison chakram flew through the air and hit the orc leader square in the chest. Assassins!

The assailants scrambled up the cliff, and the party made chase. Talia first hastily gave her magical ointment to Grayek, ordering him to heal Gaul while they caught the enemy. Grayek refused, accusing her of sending the assassins and killing their orc leader. Talia barked orders at the orc, but not having time to argue with the him, left him to make his own decisions. Quickly, up the cliff to the cave, they caught up with the mysterious assassins, who pulled off their bandaged faces and revealed themselves: they were the Children of Isorn’t, manlins who were considered to be Isorn’t’s elite soldiers, born of magical residue and filled with evil power. The party were barely able to finish them off when behind them came an unfortunate laugh. Grayek and a pack of orcs stood behind them. It was all going according to his plan….first kill Gaul, then blame it on the outsiders, then gain ascension as tribe leader for himself! All while making allies with the Manlin Nation. Nathan gripped his shield tightly and Kao-Tsu cracked his knuckles. This traitor was about to understand the definition of real pain.

The party swarmed the orcs, first focusing on taking out the orc beast master, then his pet hyena with a bloodthirsty bite. Grayek proved a dangerous foe, his axe doing massive damage to the entire party and dropping both Taiass and Vivian. The fiery fists of Kao-Tsu and Nathan’s steadfastness and inability to drop proved too much for his mettle however, and Talia dipped into her own life essence to deal blood magic to her enemy. Grayek fell, and the injured party gathered together whatever evidence was left behind of their attackers, hoping that Gaul had made it out alive….

As they gathered together back at the orc encampment, the party expected themselves for the bad news, when Gaul himself surprisingly stumbled out of his tent, gripping his side and gritting his teeth. He had realized Grayek’s betrayal when in his injured state, he saw Talia’s magical ointment, buring in the fire, discarded by Grayek instead of applied to his leader. It was only through his anger and force of will (along with the healing hands of his orc maidens) that he was able to stand before them, alive and still a willing ally. Gaul declared the Manlin Army an enemy to the orcs, and again pledged his blood oath to the Calicans. The tired adventurers nodded happily to each other. For once, all was going according to plan. Let the feasting commence!

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When Worms Attack

As the sun rose the next day, the party prepared to cross the Ocean of Worms. They were gathering their equipment together and Talia was practicing the magical song that would protect them, when a harried looking messenger raced up to them with an urgent letter from Sternberg. Nathan scanned the letter. It was from his father, Richard Bishop, requesting that Nathan and ONLY Nathan immediately return to Sternberg. Nathan grilled the messenger carefully, but saw no sign of deception. Kao-Tsu and Talia exchanged a glance. Perhaps if it was something of a personal emergency, Nathan should return home. They reluctantly parted ways as Nathan, upset and disjointed, left his friends again.

The messenger explained further, the Calican military did not want to leave the party with a weak link, so they sent a provisional soldier so they could continue their operation. Taiass made his acquaintance to the party. Talia gave him a brusque welcome as she sized him up for battle. The eladrin returned her gaze coolly and remained aloof. Wasting no more time, they began their trek across the sandy ocean.

At first, the journey was easy as their caravan trotted along to Talia’s arcane tune. The song kept the purple worms at bay, although at an uncomfortable closeness. They might have even made it all the way across… had it not been for the orc raiders! Throwing their spears from their sand chariots, orcs spilled across the desert, tracking their prey and attempting to thwart their crossing. Somehow the party was able to defeat the orcs, and although Taiass almost ended up in the maw of a purple worm, Kao-Tsu was dextrously able to snatch him out of the snapping jaws of the beast. Vivian, with a burst of vampiric strength, pulled their wagon into a nearby cave to escape the creature, who angrily roared as he chomped at the mouth of the subterranean shelter, unable to enter. After a few moments of rest, they tentatively explored the cavern…only to meet with the natural inhabitants of the grotto: scorpions! A furious bloody fight later left the adventurers alive but exhausted. Still, they must press forward, to find Gaul…or to their doom!

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Shifting Across the Sands

A day after the devastating attack on Sternberg, Belcoot arranged for a war council to decide their next moves. Their next strike would surely need to be the Shifting Sands, it was agreed, but how could the Calicans possibly gather together enough of a force to challenge the largest land army in Nevermore? Sh’rayas the Sylvan had an answer. They had to find a way to dislodge the psions who had overthrown the mage lords. If Sh’rayas was able to get into Osh’ra, the Capitol of the Shifting Sands, he could gain access to a powerful magic that could potentially stop the psychics from using their power momentarily, giving the mages and their army the opportunity to seize control of the capitol. But to cause that much panic in the city, they would need a larger army, one that would cause fear and drop the morale of the army of the S.S. They would need the help of the Gaul who Grasps. With the allegiance of his bloodthirsty barbarian tribes, they could rip through their forces and give Sh’rayas the distraction that he would need.

The main problem was to find the Gaul. Kao-Tsu suggested sending out caravans of the Calican military throughout the desert, disguised as merchants. Surely Gaul or his men would take the bait and perhaps agree to parlay with their army? At the very least they might be able to lead them to Gaul’s secret hideout. Belcoot agreed and Talia, Kao-Tsu, Vivian, and a stoic Nathan gathered up thier belongings for the upcoming trip.

Two sweltering weeks went by in September as the party marched throughout the barren and uncultivated deserts. Nathan continued most of the way in a brooding silence, and although Kao-Tsu and Talia gave their friend a respectful distance, they warily watched over him, worried about his emotional state. Finally, a group of Gaul’s raiders fell for their ploy and attacked the caravan. Kao-Tsu attempted to consul with their leader, but as combat commenced, Nathan brutally lashed out at the bandits, killing any who opposed him. Vivian licked her lips at the bloodshed, wishing she could engage them further, while staying safe in the darkness of her covered wagon. Many fell, but the leader Kao-Tsu knocked out. After he was awakened, Nathan agreed to engage him in honorable one on one combat, with the terms if Nathan defeated him, he would tell the party where the Gaul’s lair was located. The fighter was victorious, but the words of the leader were of no comfort to the party. For Gaul’s hideout was past the Ruins of Gadash, across the Ocean of Purple Worms. The half orc strode away from the adventurers, laughing and certain that his words had scared off his enemy. For who would have the guts to dare venture into the most dangerous part of the Shifting Sands?

The party pressed on, trailing the orc without his knowing even through a dust storm, until they reached the Ruins of Gadash. Strangely enough, in the Ruins they had a chance encounter with a person they had not seen in a very long time: Mohsen! The merchant was still peddling his wares and had been caught up in the Shifting Sands, a bit lost in the desert. They adventurers helped the seller gain his bearings, and sent him in the direction of Sternberg. However, in a generous mood, Mohsen decided to bequeath a set of fine dwarven plate mail to Nathan, in memory of the Tournament of Nevermore and Team Tempest, who helped drum up business for Mohsen. Nathan refused his offer shortly, and the others gave each other a sideways glance. As the fighter again retreated to solitude, Vivian shrunk the armour and tossed it into Talia’s bag of holding, just in case.

That night, Kao-Tsu approached Nathan. He expressed concern for his friend, who was obviously in a great deal of pain over the loss of his family. Nathan at first got angry at Kao-Tsu, telling him how much his hatred burned at the people of the Shifting Sands for taking the lives of his family. How could he possibly get over something like that? This feeling, this pain, would never go away. Kao-Tsu empathized with him, telling him of his loss of Master Fong and relating how he dealt with his emotions. The key was to feel the anger, not to suppress it, and to not let it control you or dictate who you are or what your actions were. The pain and anger cannot become you. Nathan hung his head, unsure of his next move and drained of emotions, and Kao-Tsu stood by and consoled his best friend in a quiet moment.

Meanwhile, Talia and Vivian sat by the campfire when suddenly a large raven flew and landed next to Talia. The voice of Zeric Lancaster crackled out of the bird and Talia jumped in shock. Zeric claimed through his animal messenger that he regretted his actions of the past, although her mother did not, and he knew not of how to escape from Lania Lancaster. He spoke of reconciliation and a desire to be family again with his daughter. As the spell wore off and the crow returned to cawing, Talia silenced the bird with a magic missile to the head and stared darkly into the fire. Reconciliation? Did she even desire to reconcile with the man she once called father?…..

As the night wore on, they watched the man they had tracked across the desert cross the sand, playing a magical tune on a pipe. It seemed to keep the purple worms at bay, and Talia committed the Song of the Purple Worm to memory, hoping she could replicate it with her arcana skills. Right now it was their only hope for crossing the ocean of death before them.

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A Pyrrhic Victory

Nathan reassured the sailors as “The Tempest” embarked into the heat of the massive naval battle. The Calican forces were able to work together to frequently encircle the enemy ships, unload their cannons, and sink them whilst withstanding the enemy’s barrage of cannon fire, despite the undead “healing” beams sent out by the enemy’s flagship “The Tombstone”. After a lengthy firefight, it became hopeful that the day could be won by the Calicans….assuming someone could board the enemy flagship to take out their leader. Of course, Nathan immediately volunteered his ship for the glory (or certain death), while Belcoot’s vessel “The Adversary” and the remaining ships protected “The Tempest” and held off the remaining enemy fleet.

Kao-Tsu, Nathan, Talia, Vivian, and the crew fought wave after wave of skeletal and zombie sailors as they fiercely cut their way to the stern of “The Tombstone”. Finally, they found their foe. Kao-Tsu recognized his enemy’s familiar profile as he leaned cockily on the mast. "I knew you were behind all of this…Han Li!" the tiny monk exclaimed angrily. A crackling purple and red energy scored across the menacing face and body of the undead martial artist. Han Li cracked his knuckles as his eyes narrowed.

“Kao-Tsu. You and your friends killed me once before. Now is my chance to hurt you…by taking out those dear to you!” While pulsating magenta power, he struck a vicious blow to Nathan’s midsection, and the fight began.

The four surrounded Han-Li, executing the deadliest of attacks in sync with one another. Their opponent was faster, stronger, and far more capable in comparison to the last time they had fought the monk. Somehow Han-Li was able to shrug off their attacks and turn their status effects upon whomever attacked him! But still, even after fighting the aquatic ghouls who inhabited and powered Han-Li’s undead form, the party proved too much for his stamina. The altercation came down to one blow between Han-Li and Nathan….and as the noble fighter crushed his enemy’s shoulder with a surge and sent him staggering to the ground, Kao-Tsu had realized that his best friend had set Han Li in the perfect position for his final super special move. Kao-Tsu felt the reassuring glow of Master Fong’s presence within him, and he knew it was time.

“Ten Dragon Strike Technique!!!!” Kao-Tsu roared as he jabbed pressure point after pressure point onto Han-Li’s demonic form. The evil monk bellowed in massive pain as he crashed to his knees. The amaranthine energy whirled about his body in an uncontrollable frenzy. “Nooooooooo!” he screamed as his body burst apart at the seams and exploded into light particles. Vivian and Talia shielded their eyes as they gazed back to where Han-Li’s body had been standing, only to see the glowing figure of Kao-Tsu, standing as tall he he could, in triumph over his arch enemy’s final defeat.

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With the death of Han-Li, the battle was soon won! “The Adversary” was able to sink “The Tombstone” and the paltry remaining ships of the Nightmarescape retreated into the darkness as a cheer rose from the Calican fleet. The captains of the ships all met on “The Adversary” for a massive celebration. A toast was given by Belcoot to their victory and to the sailors who gave their lives for the good of Calica and the free world. As they split up the treasure from the plunder, Vivian’s eye was caught by a glittery tiara. “Pretty!” the dark eyed pixie exclaimed, as she shrunk the crown to her size, snatched up her prize, and flew away quick as a whistle before anyone could deny her. She spent the rest of the evening zipping between the dancers and enjoying the succulent taste of Goo’s inebriated donations.

Meanwhile Kao-Tsu was thoroughly enjoying his night snogging his girlfriend Lun Raftfleet when halfway through the evening, a tipsy Logg Raftfleet stumbled over to his table. “You! Boy,” he lisped, “just what exactly ARE your intentions with my daughter anyways? To marry her?”

“Uhhh…..well yes, most likely eventually, maybe” Kao-Tsu darted back at the sailor.

“Well,” Logg replied, “you’ll have to beat ME in a drinking contest before you expect that to happen!” With that he slammed onto the table the largest pint of larger Kao-Tsu had seen all night.

“Oh that’s it, bring it old man!” Kao-Tsu laughed. And as they drank the night away, so ended Kao-Tsu’s memory of the night. Neither party could recall who won the contest the next morning. Which was probably all for the best.

As the night wore on, elsewhere Talia sat in a corner darkly illuminated by candlelight. Wine glass in hand, she stared at the letter that had been delivered to her prior to the battle. “To my daughter Talia” was all the envelope said in the familiar curly handwriting of her father. Her gaze bored into the letter. “Something bothering you?” Nathan asked as he slid into the seat next to her.

Talia took a breath and her eyes fell as she spoke. “My father….he had this delivered to me before the battle. I haven’t read it yet. I’m afraid, Nathan….of what it says. I almost want to rip it up before reading it. But yet….” Her dark eyes clouded over, and she looked at Nathan. “Please Nathan. Read it for me. Just….tell me if it has anything of value. It hurts too much to read it myself. Please?” Nathan looked at Talia solemnly. He nodded as he tore open the envelope’s seal and read its contents. He stuffed the letter into his pocket and paused for a moment before speaking.

“Talia. What do you want to do after this is over?”

Talia blinked in surprise. “After this is over? Next is the Shifting Sands, and we have to find the location of…”

Nathan cut her off. “No, no no, I don’t mean after this battle is over. I mean after the WAR is over, and after we’ve cured your curse, and after Calica is restored, and all is set to right in the world. What do you want to do?”

Talia shook her head, trying to even imagine a world without the war. “I guess…..um….I guess….I just don’t want to be alone.”

Nathan softly gripped her by the shoulders and he looked directly into her eyes. “You’ll never be alone again.” With those words, he bent over to her and together they shared a tender first kiss.

  • * * * * * *

The day after the celebration, a great flapping was heard. Everyone ran to the upper decks to see none other than General Lang astride his giant Roc. When they filled in the details of their glorious victory, instead of joy, his face reflected great fear. “We need to get to Raftfleet. Post haste!” Lang ordered. To the confused faces around him, the intelligent Zartinian explained that he believed their success in battle was a diversion from the REAL threat, back in Sternberg! With little to no troops left at home, the capitol of Raftfleet was a sitting duck for the Shifting Sands army. Richard Bishop and Nathan exchanged a glance with one another. If the strategist was correct, then many innocent civilians were in grave danger. The fleet set sail immediately for Sternberg.

Even approaching the floating city, the Calican armada knew they were too late. Smoke rose from the region and the city was still aflame in many parts. Noises were heard as they came closer….the despairing cries of broken men. Once ashore, the party immediately headed toward the home where the Bishop family had taken up residence. Richard ran inside the gutted building, and his wails of sadness that followed were unbearable to hear. Nathan stood in a coma like state, mouth agape at the destruction that surrounded him. The party cried in silence together as they took in the horror of the scene.

Later, as Kao-Tsu and Talia and Vivian pulled themselves together somewhat, they were filled into the details by Tifa Lightbringer, who had managed to save many of the children of Sternberg by taking refuge in Hazarath Nor. Not only was Lang correct, but the army of the Shifting Sands had specifically targeted to kill the children and women of the town, while leaving the men alive but injured. The enemy was looking to cripple the morale of the army. And as they heard the desperate screams around them, Kao-Tsu realized that they had indeed succeeded. Talia snapped in anger at General Lang, blaming him for not realizing the enemy’s plot sooner, and she she stormed away, kicking rubble as she went, her eyes burned with tears at the tragedy they had all suffered.

Still in shock, Nathan wandered into the house. He searched for any tokens left that could remind him of his now dead mother, sister, and brother. After affixing the tokens to the inside of his shield, he set about his next task. From the ashes of the house, he spread the sot onto his shining silver armour, blackening it with the embers of remembrance. He repeated this process for hours until the armour was permanently sooted. The deaths of his family would never be forgotten, and his enemies would quake in fear at the sight of the man who now knew unforgivable pain and loss.

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Calica Fights On
The Great Sea Battle Commences

As Kao-Tsu, Nathan, Talia, and Vivan sailed Hazarath Nor to Sternberg, they used the time to build stronger bonds of friendship. Kao-Tsu and Talia were able to talk out their earlier argument, with Talia swearing to stop keeping secrets and to trust more in her friends, and Kao-Tsu promising to tolerate and accept Vivian’s help and place in their adventuring party. Nathan and Vivian got to know each other a little better, although Vivian continued to be somewhat elusive about her past. However, no one was able to meet with Sh’rayas the Sylvan, who was quite weakened and was still recovering from his mistreatment by the evil drow. General Lang also took his leave of the crew, promising to meet up with the army after returning to his home in Zartinia to get further supplies and intel that would help the military forces. Two weeks flew by, and they arrived at Sternberg, sailing triumphantly into the harbor capital of Raftfleet.

Kao-Tsu immediately ran off of the boat to find the happy arms of Lun Raftfleet and celebrated their happy reunion after months of being apart. Talia, Vivian, and Nathan were greeted more somberly by Richard Bishop and Gagog, who swiftly escorted the party to a war council. The council was surprisingly being lead by Belcoot, who in their absence had been promoted to the rank of Commander of the Calican Military! Belcoot welcomed their presence and acknowledged their help gratefully, but quickly got to business detailing the plan of action. The Calicans, Zartinians, Sternberg, and the army of Diamond Lil were to travel immediately to help defend Sohma, which was under attack by the enemy fleet outside of the border of Sohma and Zartinia. Since the bulk of their current military strength lay in their navy, they were hoping for a decisive victory, which would secure them as a threat to the dominance of the Manlin and Shifting Sands allegiance. Each capable officer in the military would be assigned their own ship. Because strong leaders were integral to the success of this military operation, Belcoot promoted Nathan to the rank of Lieutenant! This naval battle would be a key decisive victory in shaping the history of Calica. With that in mind, Belcoot wished them all luck, dismissed them, and told them they would be dispatching within the next 1-2 days.

After the meeting, Kao-Tsu caught up with his monks, whom he had dispatched months earlier to unearth what had happened to Gwendolyn. Unfortunately, they did not bear good tidings. The monks divulged that they had discovered the wildens had all awoken suddenly and seemed to pledge their allegiance to the Manlin forces. There were rumors of one wilden woman, who, despite being taken by the enemy forces, refused to bow down before Isornet as king and admit her fear….and the monks had heard that Isornet had utterly destroyed her for her refusal to take the knee. Kao-Tsu clenched his fists in anger as he backed away from his monks, his mind delirious with anger. Isornet would pay for taking her life!

In the meantime, Talia, Nathan, and Vivian chose at the boatyard a well-tested and experienced ship for Nathan to captain. As they all prepared for the dangers ahead, Belcoot revealed the name of their ship: “The Tempest”. Nathan gathered his crew and friends together. Before leaving, he decided to give them all gifts to strengthen their bonds. To Vivian, he gave a beautiful silken scarf to the one who searches for prettiness in everything. To Kao-Tsu, he gave a wooden bracelet with branches, to symbolize his gone but never forgotten fallen wilden companion. And to Talia, he gave a simple but striking silver chain necklace, with every link forging together the days they had spent and would continue to spend together. With that and a few words of encouragement to the crew, they set sail for battle.

Two weeks of sailing found them at the battle point. The two armies faced off against one another in a naval standoff, the armies equally matched as far as manpower and ships were concerned. The enemy fired first, but Belcoot’s lead ship “The Adversary” fired louder and with more power, and as the cannons whizzed through the sky and splintered the ships, the battle was upon our adventurers before they even knew it! As Nathan ordered “The Tempest” forward, Kao-Tsu from the crow’s nest noticed Nikea’s ship “The Impulse” burning! Some fast reflexes and quick commands to the crew saved the boat from going down, and despite a sahuagin attack, they pressed forward. The next challenge found the fleet dealing with sahuagin raiders in the water….Nathan’s ship was able to lay pitch in the water while the Nikea’s boat and others distracted the rest of the fleet. The fire arrows flew with an order from Belcoot, and the sahuagin burned in the water as the ships began to sail off in presumed victory. However, the enemy still had a trick up their sleeves. Tiny boats from the NightmareScape were able to infiltrate the pitch laden area and used the power of the Lich King’s obelisk to raise the sahuagin troops and turn them into undead minions! The crew from “The Tempest” began to panic and loose hope, and even thought to turn on their Captain. After some intimidation from Nathan and Vivian, they were put in their place and even inspired by the fearlessness of their battle scarred Captain. Calica would fight on!

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Breaking and Taking
Hazareth Nor, the Floating Fortress

After some debate (and to Nathan’s chagrin), everyone agreed to allow General Lang to accompany them into the Zartinian prison. Lang explained that they would need to leave immediately, and they would travel through the nighttime air on his “pet” roc, Duncan. As the approached from above, Duncan would drop barrels of a sticky pink substance (created by Lang) that should cover about 10 feet of the smooth wall of the prison. The substance would allow their momentum to stop and let them cling to the surface of the prison where they could then access a hidden side entrance that Lang knew existed. However, if they missed their target by even a foot….splat.
Everyone nodded somberly, although Vivian giggled to herself. A vampire bat would have no problem flying straight in! She had another trick up her sleeve too, but that would be saved for an emergency.

Kao-Tsu, Nathan, and Talia looked at each other warily as they hovered over Hazareth Nor on Duncan’s feathery back from 100 ft up in the air. The fall was far. It was dangerous and deadly….this was one crazy mission! Nathan gritted his teeth. Nothing ventured……he dropped into a free fall. Kao-Tsu and Talia were fast on his tail. The three spun through the air, trying to straighten their bodies as the wind whipped them about, and Vivian, in her bat form, kept a safe yet cautious distance. Kao-Tsu was the first to land, the monk landing dexterously right on target. Talia and Nathan shoulder blocked each other as they careened to the ground, getting further and further from their designated drop. Could this be the end? Talia squished her eyes shut as the ground grew closer, and suddenly she started to think….happy thoughts? She looked around in wonderment, as gold pixie dust thrown from Vivan enabled her to fly to a safe landing. Nathan was not so lucky. He landed with a crash, and if it had been anyone else but the dreadnaught fighter, they would have not been around to tell their tale. He shrugged off his wounds. To Nathan, it was but a heavy scratch. After a rest, the party was ready to infiltrate the prison.

Right away, they found their drow enemies had infested the prison. General Lang took them directly to the warden’s office, which was heavily guarded. Kao-Tsu was able to sneak up and destroy a panel with a mechanical alarm, which solidified their success and the drow guards were easily finished off. Lang found his control device for the fortress, which could drive the floating prison where ever he wanted it to go, or could even make the prison self destruct! They also discovered that the new warden of the prison was none other than Zula. Talia narrowed her eyes. Her revenge on the matron would have to wait until Sh’rayas was in their custody.

The adventurers looked at General Lang’s map of the prison. Sh’rayas was likely being held in the maximum security ward, which was pregnable by a secret hallway the General knew about. The faction was able to break into the ward, but the drow guards proved too much for the heroes, as Talia and Vivian succumbed to the sleeping poison of the drow arrows. Kao-Tsu and Nathan retreated in to the hallway. Things did not look good! As they further retreated back to the warden’s office and the girls awoke, it was no longer a question of how to free Sh’rayas, but how to escape with their lives.

Once arriving at the warden’s office, a stand-down was eminent. Out of the drow soldiers strode Zula, head held high with a cruel smile on her face. She proudly proclaimed the she would have 5 new prisoners for her master. Her eyes caught Talia’s. “Although this one will not last that long. Lloth will claim your life soon. And when she does, you will know the pain of those who defy the spider queen!” Talia looked the drow straight in the eyes, and spat in her face. Zula turned away in disgust, but as she wiped her face, she laughed. “It matters not. I have you all trapped, and there is nothing you can do about it!”

General Lang started to laugh. Not quite, he explained. The device in his hand held the capabilities to direct the island where ever he wanted, but it also could blow them to smithereens! Zula called Lang’s bluff. What would be the point to destroying all of their lives? Lang looked down, hesitating, as he realized he could not pull the trigger. Suddenly, Kao-Tsu with a wild look in his eyes, grabbed the controller. If Lang couldn’t do it, HE would! He would blow them all to pieces! Just try him! He was one craaaaaazy monk pushed to the brink and this was his last stand. Zula would have no choice. She had crossed the wrong man on his last desperate rope!

Zula blinked. This one was real, and she could not tell his motivations. The rest of the party sensed her weakness and strengthened Kao-Tsu’s claim. Retreat was her only option to save face and walk away with her troops! Zula considered, and looked into Kao-Tsu’s savage and untamed eyes. Indeed. Better to fight another day than to all be destroyed. She ordered the troops full retreat onto their ships.

After the drow left, Nathan mentioned to Kao-Tsu, “What a great bluff! For a second there, we really believed you!, Kao-Tsu!”

“Bluff?” the monk replied.

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Zartinian Bound

Our intrepid heroes made port in Zartinian dock, quickly realizing that the old grudges between Calicans and Zartinians were not forgotten. Not a smile was seen in their direction, especially when the broad shield of the Bishops was proudly displayed on Nathan’s back. Efforts were made to have a meeting with the high council of Zartinia, only to be tied in the red tape of bureaucracy. Luckily palms could still be greased, and a bribe rushed their request forward. The only disadvantage was that they would be at the beck and call of the council, with little notice of their council meeting time. The adventurers settled down in a tavern, hoping it would not take long, as the xenophobic glares continued from the Zartinian bar patrons.

Talia decided to use this down time to tell her secret to Kao-Tsu. The conversation went very differently than her talk with Nathan. Kao-Tsu argued that not only had she been keeping secrets from him, which was dangerous and hurtful enough, but if she became a vampire, who knows what would actually happen to her and how she might be changed! Talia, upset and ashamed at her actions, tried to apologize, but the hurt had already been done. Kao-Tsu drowned his anger in alcohol, as Talia isolated herself from the party, trying to give him space.

It was of course at this tender moment the High Council of Zartinia agreed to see them. The four adventurers bonded together and pleaded their case to the council. They explained that as part of the war effort and as they were representing the Calican Military, the council had the responsibility to disclose the secret location of the Hazarath Nor prison, which had been compromised by drow and was holding a prisoner of war whom they needed to recapture. The Council coolly denied their request, claiming that the location of the prison was lost to all, except maybe it’s creator, General Lang. And General Lang had retired and was under protective custody. Despite their pleadings, their requests were denied, and the council threw their case out unfulfilled.

The party trudged back to the tavern in a horrible mood. What would their next step be? Suddenly, out of the shadows, a Zartinian stepped out. He told them reassuredly that he had heard what they had asked the council, and he was here to help them. He explained he was Lt. Dune and knew the location of General Lang, whom he was sure would help their cause as a matter of patriotism to stop the war (and perhaps for a bit of adventure in his old age as well). He gave the party a map with the location of General Lang, wished them luck, and Lt. Dune vanished back into the shadows.

That night, everyone’s moods were sour, despite Nathan trying to boost their morale. They followed the map into the wilderness of Zartinia, and vanquished General Lang’s bodyguards in a tough fight. After entering the rickety house in the middle of nowhere, General Lang greeted them with a sardonic smile, and invited them in for a drink, which gratefully Kao-Tsu drank. Lang recognized their strength, for they defeated his guards, but not their intelligence. As he said that, Kao-Tsu passed out from drinking the poisoned brandy. Immediately more on their guard (and upset at his trickery), Talia and Vivian explained what they needed as Nathan took Kao-Tsu outside to recover. General Lang sat back. This would be a difficult challenge, he explained. He could take them to the prison, for he knew where it was. However, getting into it was another story. The walls are totally smooth, the prison is surrounded by cannons, the bottom of the prison is mined, and only one door can be opened from outside. Not to mention that once they were inside (had they the lucky chance to break in successfully), their only chance of recapturing the prison would be to break into the warden’s office and get the mechanical/magical hybrid controller of the floating prison. Which only HE knew how to work. So unless he went along, their chance of survival were nill.

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