At about an hour after sunrise in the desert, a dry wind blows. A teenaged boy staggers his way to the crest of a tall dune, his red hair bleached blonde by the sunlight. Bleary-eyed from exposure, his white skin blistering in the heat and his lips cracking and peeling from lack of moisture, he squints into the sunlit distance and sees nothing but more dunes in every direction. His costume – that of an impish warrior – once fanciful and neat now hangs in tatters from his bony frame, exposing bruises and cuts. Seeing no end in sight, he nevertheless trudges wearily on the ridge of the dune. He sees something in the distance and starts to rush at it, but doesn’t make it very far before his knees buckle and he collapses.
Above him, a shadow obscure the sun from his fading vision, and a rough hand turns him over onto his back. The face that appears above his is at first frightening – humanoid, but dark, angular and sharp, marked by the ancestry of something monstrous, sporting a fanged mouth and inhuman eyes. The boy reaches his hand up, and for a moment, this, he thinks, is how Death finally comes for him…
Renard pulls the boy’s eyelids back and examines him with a critical eye. As the shifter cradles the boy in his arms, he recognises him as a tavernboy who was in attendance at the ill-fated ball. The boy croaks out something about managing to get away, but Renard speaks soothingly to him and tries to feed him from his waterskin, a little at a time. Renard looks behind him, and the other camels start to come into view – he picks the lad up and takes him back to them, reassuring him that he’s safe now. Audax dismounts quickly to offer aid, and Klara hands him a magical curative potion to heal the boy of his wounds. Ashton starts to put together a makeshift gurney so that the boy can be taken with them. Tower meanwhile looks ahead to the trail that the boy left, leading eastward, toward the rocky cliffs on the horizon which mark the end of the Blade Desert…
The Lost City
Hours later, nearing the end of the desert with the Endworld Mountains in sight, a structure comes into view – a ziggurat of immense size, with three figures atop it, unmoving, perhaps statues. The base of the structure is still unseen, hidden by dunes. Renard scouts ahead of the group, watchful for ambushes, while the rest of the group equip themselves for battle. The light of the sun fades in the west, and several of Eberron’s moons are full enough that the area at the base of the ziggurat remains in good light – as he approaches, Renard sees the tops of tents and trails of smoke over the rise of the dunes, and eventually people, and returns to the group to report. They conceive a plan: when night settles in, Renard and Ashton will stay low and sneak ahead for a closer reconnoitre of the area – using their natural low-light vision – while the others stay with the camels and await word.
A short trip on foot takes the half-elf and the ranger to a high dune near the ziggurat – which now is clearly topped by statues of the three Cynidicean deities – giving them a good vantage over the encampment. They hear the whimpering and moaning captives from the party, and see that they are all individually bound with rope and kneeling in a group. A raven-haired Cynidicean woman in golden armour – clearly leading the goblinoids – appearing to examine each one with an appraising eye and ungentle hands over their physiques. This woman occasionally chooses one of the captives, who is then picked up bodily and separated from the main group.
Renard takes action and sneaks down to the camp, using the darkness as cover and making for the tents on the western side. He finds equipment and bedding fit for the goblinoid guards in two of the tents, then sneaks back unseen to report the whole situation to the entire group. Klara thinks that the captives are being prepped for sacrifice somewhere within the ziggurat, so time may be of the essence. They agree on a two-pronged strategy – Renard will circle around to the east and distract the goblinoids with ranged attacks, and the rest of the group engage the enemy hand-to-hand from the west. The shifter’s outdoor skills allow him to sneak around the camp in a wide circle, and the others use the cover of the tents to hide themselves from the captors.
“Monsters! Kidnappers! Give them back!” shouts Renard and an arrow arcs over from the east, piercing the skull of a goblin and killing it with a single blow. As some of the remaining goblins arm up with javelins and rush off to investigate this attack, Renard fires again, missing any enemies but hitting the bonfire in the centre of the camp, sending up a shower of sparks. The armoured woman orders some of her cohort to not charge off, although Renard continues to shout taunts from a distance while Klara takes the lead and keeps a hold of the rest of the adventurers, waiting for an opening. A bugbear leads the goblin charge toward Renard, but the shifter targets it with his bow, wounding the large goblinoid – not felled by the blow, the bugbear continues to lead the chase, and the armoured woman starts shouting orders to them in the Goblin language.
Sensing an opening, as well as perhaps fearing that the orders given by the woman might be for the goblins to return, Klara gives the group a quiet word to begin their foray when ready. As Klara and Ashton sneak into a tent, Tower takes the vanguard and rushes in to attack one of the woman’s human guards – at the last second the man senses the warforged’s charge, shifts his weight and manages to slash at the construct, but this is still not enough defense to stop the monk, and Tower’s jumping side-kick propels the guard into the bonfire behind him. At the same time, Audax pulls a magical scroll from a tube hanging from his belt and reads aloud the words of power printed upon it, extending his hand in the direction of a knot of goblinoids – an enchantment bursts over them in a wave of fatigue, and one of them collapses asleep.
While the goblins chasing Renard continue to run after him and weather the arrowfire that the ranger is aiming at them, Tower’s melee opponent manages to extricate himself from the flames and rolls on the sand in an attempt to smother the burning clothes and equipment he is carrying, also rolling out of the way of Tower’s attempts to incapacitate him. The woman leading the captors then pulls a holy symbol from beneath her breastplate and begins incanting – as she does so, Ashton, Klara, and Tower hear a ringing sound, distinctly in their heads and not through their ears, and as this happens, the priestess squints her eyes, tenses her muscles, and appears to lose concentration, ruining her spellcasting; Audax recognises the telltale effects of a dazing enchantment, designed to cloud the mind of its target, but cannot determine where the effect has originated from – at the same time, Klara draws upon her own thaumaturgic training and casts a similar arcane effect on the bugbear, who stops mid-run and cannot act.
Audax and Delvis also charge forward together – the young artificer drawing his smithing hammer and felling a goblin with one blow, and the dwarf doing the same with a heavy battle flail. The charge brings the two close to where Tower is, and within hand-to-hand distance of his opponent – the burning man does not see the artificer close by, and as he attempts to get on his feet, Audax lands him a blow from behind, slamming the guard down and putting him out of the fight. A goblin takes his place, and Audax raises his shield in time to defend himself from attack.
The presence of so many of the partygoers as prisoners makes the combat difficult and confusing, as well as dangerous for these innocents, not only for the heroes trying to save them. Above the confusion, Tower hears the ringing sound and recognises it – it’s a sound that he has heard before in the presence of his kalashtar masters – the sound of a psionic power being used. The priestess shrugs this clouding telepathic effect off this time however, and aims a magical wave of fear at Audax – who sees a mental image of an intimidating figure from his past – but the young man steels his will and resists it. While the artificer is so distracted, Delvis’ flail lays low the goblin attacking Audax, as Tower trades blows with another – this goblin however swings an overhead blow connecting sharply with Tower’s head, rendering the construct temporarily inert. Ashton provides bowfire from under cover of the tent, but a goblin rushes at him and strikes him a strong blow, staggering him.
Despite this bad turn of events, Klara’s voice rings out over the fight, shouting encouraging words and bolstering their morale. Audax, angry at having his mind so violated, rushes to engage the priestess in single combat, who speedily raises her heavy mace in defense. Delvis meantime leaps at another goblin and floors it with a mighty blow from his flail, but before the dwarf can move any further, the bugbear runs at him with his morningstar and the two vicious combatants become locked in a mortal struggle.
Renard, having led off all of the goblins chasing him, returns to the camp and manages to let loose an arrow at the priestess from a distance, which slips under a chink in her armour and wounds her. In a fury, the woman lashes out at Audax, pummeling him to the ground. The pursuing goblins return to within range of the fire at the same time that Klara ministers a curative potion to Ashton which closes some of his wounds; he quickly recovers and just as the priestess casts a spell and reaches for the unconscious Audax with a dark energy surrounding her hands, the half-elf shoots an arrow into her, causing her to lose concentration on the fell necromancy she was casting. The Cynidicean chooses this moment to trade negative energy for positive and heals some of her own wounds, but more arrows from Ashton and Renard push her further toward the brink of defeat, and she finally falls – at the hand of Klara, who calmly crosses the distance and stabs her with a short sword.
Ashton seizes the moment, drops his bow and draws his rapier, and charges at the bugbear – the blade pierces the goblinoid’s calf, partially crippling it. Delvis uses this opportunity to execute a move of his own, bringing his flail in a frightening arc which connects sharply with the bugbear’s jaw, breaking it with a loud crack and bringing the beast to its knees. The bugbear, spitting blood and realising that their side has lost the battle, drops his morningstar and raises his hands in surrender. “Fight’s over, boys,” Renard says, raising his bow at the remaining goblins, who capitulate and disarm themselves as well.
Klara ministers a healing potion to Audax which restores him to consciousness, and in turn the boy works artificer magic to restore Tower to functionality. Renard tends to the priestess, administering first aid and reviving her from the brink of death so that she can answer for her crimes, then sees to tying up the captured goblins while the captive partygoers are released from their bondage. Ashton interrogates the bugbear, and through the goblinoid’s slurred speech finds out that their leader is a priestess of the dread god Zargon.
Klara locates Ashinana within the group of prisoners and unties her bonds, then chides the lady for attracting the ire of her captors by enslaving the Cynidiceans in the first place. Ashinana seems repentant in realising her error. When Audax questions her on where she found the Cynidiceans, but before she can provide an answer, Klara shoos Audax away, and the boy leaves hurt but still suspicious of Ashinana. Klara enlists the aid of Renard in questioning Ashinana and allows Audax to listen in on the proviso that Audax asks no questions of his own as Ashinana may think highly of her own actions as a result. Renard takes a softer approach with the lady, asking first about what the cultists had planned, theorising that the Zargonites must have had this in mind all along if they took pains to trek three days across the desert to capture attendees of the party. Audax eventually gets out of Ashinana that she was off hunting for exotic fauna to display at her party and came across these people as notable oddities to show off. Renard asks Ashinana has any enemies, and she tells them that she doesn’t – and she does not seem to be lying. Klara then begins to become suspicious of Ashinana as she does not seem to have much of a conscience for what amounts to slavery, and is keen to have the lady ejected from the House, but Tower deduces that Ashinana is kalashtar and defends her, putting forward that they are of two worlds and do not think the way that natives of Eberron would – unless she were of the Inspired, in which case she would be much more of a danger.
The heroes set about re-organising the remnants of the cult camp to accommodate the former captives – clearing space, burning the dead (and looting the enemies), seeing to the injured and ailing, giving food to those in need, gathering material enough to try to make comfortable bedding, and recruiting the hardier folk to keep watch over the camp for the night. Renard then scouts around the outskirts of the camp while Audax and Klara rein in some of the camels to assist with transport. Ashton searches the captors’ tents, and under Ilsinan’s guidance the Zargonite priestess is divested of her arms, armour and profane accoutrements, while Audax examines them closely for magical enhancements. Klara examines the Zargonite’s holy symbol, and determines that it resembles that of a Cult of the Dragon Below. Ilsinan also warns that there are more cultists yet at large in the area, but Audax advises that the evil demon-worshipper be taken back to more civilised lands to answer for her crimes. Ilsinan then states her decision to stay within range of the mountains to assist her own people.
In the morning, the heroes govern getting the caravan set up. Ashton takes the opportunity to climb to the top of the ziggurat to examine the statues up close. Klara joins him, and explains that these gods may be aspects of the deities of the Sovereign Host that they already know so well. After a period of silence, Klara suggests that they should be on their way.
“Of course,” replies Ashton. “I was just thinking… I just can’t shake the feeling that there’s something here that we haven’t yet uncovered.”
“Should we be uncovering anything?” Klara asks.
“It’s our task,” Ashton asserts.
“I thought our task was to find out about Ashinana,” Klara says, looking questioningly at the ziggurat.
“That’s what I mean,” Ashton replies. “She seems to be innocent enough in this affair, but I’m not sure.”
Klara then suggests that they make themselves house guests at Ashinana’s lodge for a little while longer, claiming that they have justification enough considering the effort they went to in order to conduct the rescue, to which Ashton agrees. They also decide that the surviving Zargonites are to be tied to each other and marched back west across the desert.
Three days later, the long caravan arrives back at the estate…