And so the Agents of Dregoth prepared to depart Raam on an extended trek through some of the most dangerous parts of Athas to find the mysterious Pristine Tower for Taxma.
First, Shahzadi had tea with Fatima Hassan. As the only other Offspring among the nobility, and also the eldest daughter of her own house, both ladies confirmed their mutual interest in keeping their bastard parentage a secret, and even had a few bonding moments.
Once all was prepared, the five agents left Safa behind to look after their ongoing affairs in Raam (particularly regarding the shadowy Children of the Dragon) and Najaf called to mind the runic pattern of the teleportation circle Taxma had given him. They appeared in a flare of runic light in an otherwise pitch-black underground building of some sort deep beneath the ruins of Giustenal. In the fading light of arcane runes, Alekel recognized the cyclopean architecture as something similar to an ancient underground ruin he had explored in the Ringing Mountains in his youth, ruins built by a mysterious species who clearly had innate levitation ability and with strange ideas of proper perspective and proportion in their architecture. These ruins clearly predated those of the city-state far above.
They struck a sun-rod only to hear a ghostly moan as a Raaig materialized nearby. The thing radiated power, but seemed placated by Najaf’s symbol of office, and the “mark of Dregoth” upon the rest of them. Their claims to be merely “passing through” and not there to raid the “treasures of Giustenal” further placated the potent undead which faded once more into immateriality.
A voice then spoke in their minds. It identified itself as “Primik the Mover”, a psychic construct of some sort capable of transporting them throughout the complex. They asked to be taken to the main gates of the ruined city above, and the entity obliged.
They found themselves standing at the main south gates of the ruined city, half sunk in the blowing silt. To the south were great bubbling rents in the earth filled with noxious tar, the effluvia of defiling magic so mighty that the earth shuddered and cracked. Alekel and Dhaara recognized that it would be unwise to get too close to the tar rents, as they had mystically entrapped many maddened spirits. The group skirted the danger of the defiled plains, and with the aid of Najaf’s magic permitting them to move unnaturally fast by skirting the edges of the Black, they sped south across the wastes, using a single solitary distant mountain peak as a guide.
Soon, Dhaara’s sense of the wild warned her of a silt scirocco arising from the east, and on the storm’s leading edge were swarms of bloodflies. Alekel invoked a ritual to ward against vermin while Queri-Sed cavorted through the storm snapping up delicious flies that couldn’t burrow into her hard carapace to lay their larvae.
As they skirted around the solitary peak that had been their landmark, they were suddenly attacked! Out of a burrow in the earth erupted one of the most terrifying predators of the wastes, a Nightmare Beast! Those knowledgeable about the natural world realized that these rare but terrifying predators are not actually natural creatures, but rather strangely warped and mutated predators of other varieties. This one was apparently a twisted Braxat. It lashed out with black lightning, rippling with the energies of death, trying to drop the group into unconsciousness to feed on their fears and terrors. The five concentrated their efforts, and while Najaf’s magic was instrumental in preventing the most terrifying capabilities of the beast from badly injuring his companions, Dhaara knew just where to strike the unnatural beast to do the most damage. The creature was dispatched, exploding in a noxious blast of defiling goo that despoiled the land for yards all around.
As they caught their breath, a weird little man crawled from the burrow the Beast had emerged from. He professed confusion and put on airs of having been a captive of some sort. He was just a little… off… however, and Najaf detected a cold, alien intelligence behind the befuddled demeanor. The man invited them to visit his “family” in the solitary mountain, but the agents opted to decline, suspecting that he was not even remotely human. Najaf let slip that he was also an alien shapeshifting construct of some sort and the strange man’s eyes widened in apparent recognition. He withdrew his invitation and scuttled away.
They continued to travel unnaturally fast, skirting the edges of planar travel, when the arcane-inclined among them perceived a strange barrier, or border ahead. They dropped out of the ritual and saw nothing but sand dunes as far as they could see. They recognized that they were approaching the location of the Pristine Tower, and theorized based on Taxma’s description that the Tower’s environs had some sort of twisted magical effects. They debated whether it would be wise to travel near it using ritual magic. They ultimately decided to travel under less potent magic, opting for Alekel’s simpler Traveler’s Chant. This was, apparently, enough to pierce the boundary between layered realities.
They found themselves no longer surrounded by sand dunes, but instead confronting a forbidding forest of black, thorny, dead-seeming trees. There was something odd about the forest. There was no sign of any living thing, no underbrush or plant life at all aside from the thorny petrified trees. Dhaara threw a rock at one to no effect. Queri-sed gave her a small live rodent from one of her many pockets. Dhaara threw the rodent at a tree. Upon being scratched by one of the thorns, the creature violently mutated into an awful mockery of nature before expiring under it’s own uncontrollable changes. Apparently, this forest is why so many creatures in this part of Athas are twisted, obviously unnatural beasts.
The agents began to cautiously move through the forest, careful not to touch the thorns or the trees. Soon, however, rustling and howling could be heard, and they were set upon by a horde of twisted mutations, no two alike! The creatures, although individually weak, were adept and throwing and pulling the hapless agents into thorns. Dhaara especially felt the brunt of near-mutation as her body and soul fought to retain integrity. Queri-Sed got to shine, slaughtering dozens with shards of thrown chatkchas. Soon the rest of the horde retreated and they continued through the trees.
They emerged from the forest to see a gently sloping bowl-like valley, and the most eye and mind boggling thing they had ever seen.
In the center of the valley was an impossible tower. A thin white needle erupting from the ground, disappearing into the silty haze far above. It looked like a painter had, upon finishing his landscape, painted a straight white slash through the center of it. There was no way that it was a natural construction. Where it contacted the ground, smokes and fumes billowed forth. Their eyes could not make sense of the thing’s scale. After a few moments, they noticed a small camp near, but not too near, the base of the impossible edifice. Three individuals were there, watching the agents. One of them, a halfling dressed in fairly ordinary traveler’s wear, teleported nearer so as to greet the agents. At that point, each of them noticed something odd about the others:
Shahzadi’s eyes appeared to glow a strange silver to all who looked upon her
Dhaara seemed wreathed in ghostly flame with endless faces of half-giant ancestors peering out
Queri-Sed radiated a soft golden glow with half-seen gossamer wings as befitting a queen of the Kreen
Najaf was a confusing blur of half-seen identities, hard to focus on. Furthermore, there was an odd gray aura surrounding him.
Alekel gave off a heat-haze like a mirage and seemed covered in half-seen scars.
They noticed that the approaching halfling appeared almost insubstantial as he greeted them in perfectly fluent Common. He invited them using the formal language of travelers met upon the road to share salt and bread at their camp thus invoking ancient hospitality codes. The agents opted to accept and went down to meet the others.
In the camp was a man and a woman. The man was dressed as a hard-bitten warrior, with Balican coloration and features, and appeared to have a strange black aura. The woman appeared utterly normal, and so paradoxically aroused the most suspicion.
The woman greeted them, shared out salt and bread, and in accordance with hospitality codes, introduced herself and her companions. She was Kiran of Nibenay. Her bodyguard was Aetolos Botisaris of Balic. The halfling was Banowir. An immense earth elemental erupted from the ground and transformed into a woman exuding the smell of fresh turned earth with loamy eyes. She was introduced as Sa’sha Derek. Another, smaller earth elemental emerged from the ground and remained in that form. He was introduced as Kard Hin.
Kiran of Nibenay spoke to them in a manner making it clear she knew they worked for Dregoth. She referenced the “seed of death” festering in their souls, and warned Queri-Sed and Shahzadi that they would never bear viable children so long as it was there. Considering Shahzadi’s concerns at the beginning of the journey centered on the suspicion that she might be pregnant following her marriage nights, and Queri-Sed’s intention of fulfilling her personal prophecy through a brood of children, this news was somewhat shocking. Kiran invited them to sit, indicating that while she and her companions were there to guard the tower, she hoped to sway the agents through conversation and revealed truths rather than the application of violence…