My, that last entry ended abruptly. I imagine I was called away on some matter or another, but to be honest I do not entirely recall what it was. I have to admit, my thoughts have become rather scattered lately, and I’ve begun to feel a vague sense of dread about the state of our world. Ever since we went down into that cavern… But no, I must try to remain collected. I shall continue with my relation of events in their proper sequence, for if something at the very root of this land has truly gone awry, as I fear, this record of mine may potentially be of some importance in determining the nature of the malady.
So, to continue with my narrative, when we found ourselves faced with the issue of the orc encampment before us, we decided our best course of action was to charge in, leverage the element of surprise, and defeat the lot of them. Braddock was reluctant to join in what he viewed as an unprovoked attack that would only bring us more trouble, but after some time was persuaded that if we wanted to properly search these ruins, the creatures would have to be dealt with, and they’d already shown themselves to be hostile.
Having determined on our approach, then, Zahra moved in close to Durgash and laid her hands upon him, casting a spell of heat and flame such that he became surrounded by a burning aura meant both to protect him and to draw the enemies’ attention. It made for quite a sight, seeing him charge forward, wreathed in flame, straight at the orc leader atop his makeshift throne. It proved to be every bit the distraction we had hoped for, and while all of our foes focused their attention on Durgash and his sudden intrusion, the rest of us were able to maneuver nicely into position.
Meg, Zahra, Lillabelle, and Braddock all began by focusing on the orcs who had been gathered around a pair of tents not far from the central campfire, while I kept my distance and made an effort to fill the lungs of the orcish leader with water. Unfortunately, I couldn’t seem to get my spell to take hold, but the others at least were all making good progress. Durgash had already felled one of the orcs who had attempted to stand in his way, knocking the would-be defender to the ground with his shield before crushing the poor creature with a flaming axe, and the orc leader with his strange crown rose, recognition dawning in his eyes.
What the would-be orc king was not prepared for, though, was Meg’s strike. Making use of all the confusion of the battle, she’d managed to slip around behind the throne and now struck at the leader with her sword. Yet though her plan had been a good one, she hadn’t reckoned on the thick armor her foe was wearing, and she managed only to deal him a glancing blow. At this, the leader of the orcs spoke out in a booming voice, declaring to Meg that she was not his quarry, and then turned to address Durgash in orcish before charging forward, hitting Durg with a mighty swing of his axe.
It was then that the orcs gathered near the tents seemed to rally, and they all began firing arrows down upon the rest of us. I took a few wounds from those arrows myself, and I could feel creeping up on me that odd sense of fatigue that let me know my ability to exercise control over the magical forces of our world would soon be gone. I could see a similar exhaustion in some of the other mages, and I began to fear that perhaps things might turn against us even in spite of our strong start.
Then the battle took an even further turn for the unexpected. The enemy leader suddenly cried out something in orcish, prompting two of his spearmen to take out a pair of potions, drink them, and fall to the ground. The would-be king, on the other hand, seemed invigorated, easily holding his ground against a blast of wind Zahra sent his way, and striking Durgash three times in rapid succession. Then he spoke the words “Let no one interfere”, and I could somehow feel rather than see a magical force interpose itself between him, Durgash, and the rest of us.
At this point, Lillabelle began to rush forward in an attempt to heal Durgash, but found herself repulsed by this magical barrier. The orc leader then smiled, seemed to direct some sort of taunt at Durgash, and downed a healing potion. It appeared the two were now locked in some sort of duel, magically protected from outside interference. Yet despite this unexpected turn in the flow of the battle, we remained resolute.
Braddock, Zahra, and Lillabelle focused their attention on the remaining archers, while Meg and I advanced on the now undefended throne. For my part, I had caught sight of a piece of parchment on the throne itself, which I moved over to inspect. Meg, on the other hand, decided to strike at one of the spearmen who had drank one of those odd potions earlier. Strangely, no sooner had her sword sunk into the creature’s neck than its features began to soften and blend together.
It wasn’t just its face, though, the thing’s entire body seemed to liquefy, and even as I looked on in horror, I could see the once-solid orc corpse melt away into the ground. This seemed to have a negative impact upon the orc king as well, who bellowed out something in orcish even as he was beginning to look the worse for wear. Not many can go toe to toe against one as mighty as Durgash, after all.
Indeed, the battle would not last much longer now. The archers had largely been dealt with at this point, and Durgash finally got in the blow he needed, charging forward to knock the orc leader off his feet, then standing over his fallen foe and staving in the thing’s chest with his axe. Just at that moment, the second collapsed orc spearman began to rise once more, but Meg had been anticipating this, and deftly leapt over the orc leader’s body to stab right through the newly risen orc, felling it for good.
Soon all that remained of the Withered Heath orcs here in this camp was a single archer, who promptly surrendered upon witnessing the demise of his king. We decided to tie him up then so he wouldn’t cause us any trouble, and turned our attention at last to some investigation. Since I was standing right by where the orc leader fell, I took it upon myself to quickly examine the odd crown he had been wearing.
I had only just determined that it was filled with a kind of magic meant to increase its wearer’s intelligence when Durgash abruptly snatched it up and placed it upon his head. Then he seemed to struggle with himself. On one level, it seemed, he had realized that its intellect-boosting benefits were perhaps best put to use on someone besides himself, yet on another level, he seemed unable to will himself to physically remove the crown. It was a disconcerting sight to see, but he quickly assured me that he was suffering no other ill effects, and with so much else to be inspected, I resolved myself simply to keep a close eye on him and the potential influence of that crown going forward.
The next matter I turned my attention to was the piece of parchment I’d noticed upon the hide throne. Examining it, I found a mysterious phrase written on it in Elvish. It appeared to be in an ancient form, one which I am regrettably less familiar with than I would wish, but so far as I was able to discern the passage’s meaning, it seemed to say something to the effect of, “If my bow is fired at a dragon, it will strike it down swiftly, then the jewel in its throat cannot be removed.”
This was a curious expression, and looking back on it now, it could perhaps be taken as an indication of what was to come. At the time, however, I was left entirely perplexed. After all, in all of our legends there is only one known creature ever described as a “dragon”, the malevolent fire drake Hais. Yet our best scholars widely agree that after their brief appearance at the dawn of the resurgence of magic, Hais and Lemilech were sealed away, and have remained so for the better part of two centuries.
Could this be a fragment of something written before the barrier against the mysterious Shadow Realm was raised? Judging by the Elvish used, it could indeed be ancient enough. Yet even with its origins uncertain, this Elvish passage is extremely unsettling, especially given the events of the next leg of our journey. Yes, I will need to subject this line to further study. I’m not yet certain I’ve ascertained its true meaning, and it could be of great importance.
But again, let me not wander too far from my accounting of events. After a cursory search of the campsite, we discovered little of consequence, merely some orcish war paint and an arrow magically enchanted to be especially accurate. It was Braddock, however, who made the major discovery of a hidden passage, a hole in the ground concealed beneath one of the beds inside of a tent. And from such nondescript beginnings, we stumbled upon the discovery of a lifetime.
Zahra led the way, as she so often does, her entire body glowing magically to ensure she could make out the way forward. Then, at her call, Durgash lowered a rope ladder into the hole, and the rest of us made our way down to discover this humble entrance quickly opened out into an expansive ruined city, lit even here beneath the sands by oddly glowing mushrooms that cast a natural light throughout the immense cavern. It called to mind the old fables I’d seen mentioned in some of my histories of the city that sank beneath the sands.
Most of what remained of this sunken city was by now in ruins, but we could still make out in the distance a large stone tower, as well as the remains of entire buildings along what seemed to be what was once a main road, though now it was little more than the suggestion of a path. There was also a sign posted in Orcish, though Durgash assured us there was nothing written there that we needed to worry about.
Lillabelle also made good use of her expertise in both the arts of nature and of construction to determine that we were largely safe here. The mushrooms were all naturally occurring with a simple bioluminescence, and as long as we didn’t try to eat them we needn’t take any special care around them. Likewise, most of the stone buildings appeared to her to be reasonably sound, including the tower in the distance, despite its collapsed roof.
At this point, Durgash began to confer with our orc prisoner, who it seems had sworn allegiance to Durgash as the new “King Under the Sands”. He didn’t really have much to add, however, and by this point Zahra had apparently grown tired of waiting around, for with characteristic impetuosity she began heading along what remained of the gravel path towards the tower. Upon seeing this, and wanting to stick together, the rest of us decided to follow.
When we all finally did arrive outside the tower, we were greeted with a gruesome sight. The bloated remains of two giant spiders lay upon the ground just outside of a small building that served as an entrance into the tower. They appeared to have been mauled and then moved over to this location, and upon close examination I was able to determine that while it was likely some sort of acid that killed them, there was also an air of magical residue about their wounds. Lillabelle came over to confer with me and was further able to determine that they had probably been dead for about a week, likely killed in the tower and then pushed away.
It seemed likely, then, that some sort of creature with access to means of fighting with magical acid had made this tower its lair. The whole thing made me very uneasy, and I was glad my companions had thus far taken a cautious approach in attempting to determine what might be inside the structure. Braddock, it seems, had managed to scale the outbuilding attached to the actual tower, though all he’d been able to see inside was an odd disturbance of the dust particles every so often.
Similarly, Meg’s foray into the attached building with Zahra had led the two of them to discover only old furniture and webbing, though they also reported the occasional sound of aspiration coming from the locked inner door. With calls for caution all around, then, Meg slowly began to try and pick the lock to the inner door, hoping to be able to quietly get a good look inside.
Meanwhile, Durgash had apparently been reassured of our captive’s genuine allegiance by this point, for he proceeded to untie him from his bonds. He informed us that this orc’s name was Harsk Redaxe, and that he would prove to be an asset to the group. Before any of us were able to take a moment to perhaps question this decision, however, there came a loud snap as Meg very loudly broke through the lock, and all of us winced at the knowledge that our presence was almost certainly no longer a secret.
Indeed, as soon as Meg threw open the door, she, Durgash, and Harsk were each met with a spray of magical acid that began to visibly eat away at their exposed flesh, and we found ourselves confronted with the impossible. There, standing before us, filling the lower part of the tower, was a large green lizard with huge, leathery wings, a long tail, and the ability to breathe out a spray of magical acid. This, it would seem, was a dragon. It was not, could not have been the mythical fire drake Hais, but it was a dragon nonetheless, and demonstrably evil.
It took me a moment to recover from my shock at finding such a creature. I still can feel the terror of that moment, the utter confounding of what I thought I knew, and yet in that moment it was either fight or be destroyed. Something about the urgency of the situation was enough to snap me out of it, and I joined with my companions in a fight for our lives.
It was grim work, and a desperate battle. Zahra managed to shoot out of the room itself, take to the air, and fly down to attack the beast from the top of the broken tower. Durgash tried his best to engage with the thing head on, handling himself surprisingly well, but by no means dominating the fight as he was by now accustomed to doing. Braddock did his best to keep up the attack towards the beginning, but in the end found himself sprinting for the stairs instead, hoping to find himself a better position.
Harsk, surprisingly, proved loyal to his new king, and provided a steady source of damage to the dragon, holding back near my own position and attacking with his bow. I, on the other hand, still had to contend with the horribly drained feeling from our last battle, and though I was able to cast one or two spells of note, I soon found myself unable to command the arcane forces to my will. Lillabelle also had her hands full trying to administer healing for most of the fight, sometimes at great risk to her own safety.
Meg tried to make good use of her usual tactics, dodging aside and then rushing in to attack the creature’s weak points, but as the battle wore on she grew more and more fatigued, until finally she suffered a crushing blow from the creature’s jaws. Her recovery, though, was astounding, for she made use of just that moment to drink deep from a magical healing draught, then take aim and throw a dagger precisely into the one exposed weakness in the dragon’s armor-like hide.
With that, the creature gave a great cry and began to fly away, spitting acid down at Meg as it made to leave and snarling, “Venomfang will remember this”. From that point on we did our best to maintain pursuit so that we might press our advantage, with Zahra flying off after the beast, but ultimately it looked like it was going to get away. Which is when Meg must have decided this was a truly desperate situation, for she proceeded to draw two cards from the mysterious elven deck we had discovered on the person of the Black Spider.
Perhaps she hoped that something she drew from there would prevent the dragon’s escape, or at least ensure Zahra’s safety, but as fate would have it, such was not to be. Instead, the rest of us watched as a mysterious dagger with the sinuous tail of a cat appeared in her hand, and the second card seemed to have no effect at all as she stared down at it. So the mythical creature escaped, leaving all of us exhausted and myself at least feeling lucky to still be alive.
Yet I fear what the ramifications of this will be. How is it that dragons now roam free in the world once more? Might it be somehow connected with the sudden reappearance of the elves? What of the strange weather phenomena that sent us out into the desert in the first place? We have discovered ancient wonders and magic here that speak of untold power, and with potentially dire consequences for the entire world. It’s enough to entirely overshadow our discovery of these ruins, which alone under almost any other circumstances would be a magnificent find.
One thing seems certain. Change is coming. We have seen evidence over the past two hundred years of things not experienced in the preceding two thousand, and the pace of this change only seems to be speeding up. I suppose that all we can truly do is to make sense of these events as best we can, though it often seems to me that for everything we learn, we only uncover more questions. I only hope that our ignorance does not prove to be our undoing.