These past weeks I've been in the area of the armed camp/ruins of what was once Celik. I had been summoned by an acquaintance of mine. After the initial displacement of the teleportation, I quickly lured an agent of House Mareneth (the despicable merchants who run this den of iniquity) to me and dispatched him cleanly, but not before I had completed a low-grade mind sweep so that I could familiarize myself with Celik.
His name was Gorth. I quickly changed my smooth, green scales to the fragile, pinkish- brown hide of a human, I carefully controlled my facial contortions that would transform my prideful snout to Gorth's flat, plain face.
I knew that my contact, a frazzled Tari who was called Whistler, laired in the labyrinthine maze of tunnels that once served as Celik's sewers. The sewers now served as a black market in this city of rogues, catering to needs that the underhanded traders of House Mareneth could not or would not provide. I did not look forward to this experience.
However, my duty was as clear as the odorous drops of sweat that my body was now producing. The sewers were dim in the torchlight and the musty smell was muted by my dull, human senses. All around me were the sounds of predators, and I began to analyze what Gorth knew of the underground. He didn't know much concrete information, but the stories . . . Needless to say, I moved with undue haste.
It took me a while to find Whistler, even with the aid of a would-be brigand that found himself guiding his best friend instead of murdering an anonymous member of the deservedly hated House Mareneth.
Whistler's lair was a crude hole carved six feet high into the side of a tunnel some 15' in diameter. This was apparently a Tari neighborhood, for dozens of these normally craven creatures watched from all angles, their hissing faces revealing their sharp, prominent incisors. I climbed up there, instructing my "friend" - I later found his name to be Therik - to stay below and make sure nobody would follow. His smile displayed a visage of broken teeth. Shuddering, I reached for the first handhold . . .
Whistler's story was routine - a previously undiscovered tribe worshiping an unknown god in a previously undiscovered forest in the surrounding wastes. Well, at least until he showed me a picture of this "god" - a picture that looked like an Avangion in the third or fourth step of metamorphosis. Immediately, I was intrigued.
After finding out who was the teller of this tale, a woman by the name of Azla, and what dive she did frequent, I collected Therik and left this forbidden underworld for the suddenly none too bright and open surface. However my day was not complete. I found Azla sprawled under a bench in a charming little tavern called the Eagle's Roost. The Kes'trekel's Latrine would have been more appropriate.
I did not disturb her, preferring to skim through her turbulent nightmares of her wine- induced stupor. The images were indeed discordant, she, and several other companions, traveling through a mysterious forest, an ambush - halflings, perhaps? And then a panicked flight that almost drowned me in her stark, naked terror, finally escape, a stone with the picture Whistler had shown me lying in a ruined shrine, and then a nightmarish trek through the desert, alone and almost bereft of possessions.
She never even whimpered when I mentally stifled her tired lungs.
Therik and I then slept in the Mareneth's Pride, the "finest" inn in Celik. Which is much like being the most beautiful tembo. I was drained from the efforts of dominating Therik and molding my own flesh, and when I resumed pterran form, it was with an explosive pterran sigh. A most serious breach of conduct, I know, and I expect my discipline to be swift.
I woke up that morning feeling like I was covered in a Braxat's shell, and I wearily assumed the now hated form of Gorth, with his flat, stupid face. I awoke Therik and instructed him to acquire provisions for two weeks. While he was gone, I played with the thought of permanently altering his mind to make him another spy. I decided not to, for Therik would not make a talented agent. After he returned, I teleported us about a week's travel, south by southwest of Celik, which was the best estimate I could make from Azla's fevered dream-journey.
I was elated by how well I had estimated the distance, for when we overcame our displacement, my psionically augmented vision could make a faint green smudge on the southern horizon. After a weeks hard travel, during which I laboriously kept my disguise, we came to the edge of a green paradise, I quickly looked into the mind's-eye of a nearby bird, and learned that the forest was perhaps five miles in diameter, with a pool ringing a rocky tor. I immediately knew that the tor would be holding what I craved.
We pushed into the cathedral-like expanse of the forest, Therik was alternately amazed and fearful of this new environment. I, inured to the mendacity of the rampant growth, kept an eye out for more important dangers. My foresight rept a vast dividend.
I barely had time to throw a telekinetic shield around myself before the short, barbed arrows fell among us in a hissing rain. Therik fell face first in the dirt. I augmented my leg's strength and leapt to cover, while I swatted away a feeble attack on the psychic plane. Once in the foliage, my exhausted body changed from the remarkably unremarkable Gorth to a thin lizard I espied once in the Forest Ridge. I then scampered to safety, shrouding my mind as I tried to ignore the sounds of ripping flesh. It was, needless to say, a long night.
As the crimson sun spread it's rays amongst the canopy above me, I awoke refreshed and alert. I sent out first several delicate feeders as I searched for the previous days assailants. Finding them, I quickly mapped the safest path to the tor and took off as a diminutive falcon.
I flew over the primitive village of humans that had attacked us last night. I viewed their forms, still lying from where they had tumbled in the revelry that must of gone on all night. In the bonfire pit were the few bones of the late Therik that had not been cracked open for their spongy marrow I flew on, as thoughts of revenge were banished.
The pool was ringed by a belt of land some fifty feet in diameter that must have been cleared by someone or something, perhaps another odd tradition of the tribesmen. The water itself was no obstacle for my wondrous, feathered wings and my keen eyesight saw a narrow fissure in the protruding spire of rock.
I alighted and resumed my natural form, and took a mental inventory of myself. I was drained mentally, spiritually, and physically by my physical transformation and the effort in dominating Therik. However, I felt I had a few reserves left, so I headed into the interior. After about twenty or so feet, the passageway leveled out and became more regular, suggesting it was worked by human hands. I passed through a chamber that contained a dozen statues, each bearing intricate workmanship, especially the eyes. The next chamber was much more surprising . . .
This room was much like the last one, only it was covered in splintered bone chips. Lying in the bone chips was a skeleton. It's burnt and twisted bones suggested a narrow reptilian form perhaps fifteen feet long. When I examined the skull, my throat involuntarily constricted and my mental defenses, shadows compared to what I could muster a week ago, went up automatically.
As the emotions of morbid dread and jubilant discovery warred in my spinning head, I reappraised this most (un)welcomed discovery. It's snout was narrow, and the numerous teeth ling the almost elegant jaw were designed for the tearing of flesh. The cranium was large, tapering at the back to a crest or ridge. The eyes were close-set and faced forward, sunken deeply into skull. This curious blend of reptilian and mammalian features were found on many creatures on Athas, but only one had an upright stance and opposable thumbs: a dragon.
As much as I wanted to leave this place, my duty was clear. I went beyond the next doorway.
I stood in the next chamber for long minutes, deciphering the presence of blast-marked walls, the copious amounts of ash, the splintered furniture, and the presence of a tall human male lying serenely as if he were asleep. I went to the man, to see if he were alive. When my Clairsentient abilities failed me, I checked for a pulse. There was one, however it was weak.
It was obvious he was responsible for the defeated dragon, but how? Was it battle? Or was it some automated defense? My tired mind did not like the second alternative. And the forest, did he create it? Or was there a greater power behind this?
There were many questions here that I wanted answered, but my fogged intellect reminded me that it was not my job to answer questions, but instead to report on ascendant beings wherever our dedicated society reaches.
My duty abated and my head spinning, I then left this place.
I would suggest that perhaps some of our agents should investigate further into this area, to appraise what threat the secrets here would be to the balance. If it would prove to upset the balance too far, my recommendation would be to destroy it completely.
Your exhausted servant,
Celik, where the story begins, is a nightmarish cross between a gold rush boomtown and a communist stronghold (confused? Read on). Its economy is derived from the treasures that are unearthed from the ruined promenades of this once great metropolis. This provides a steady, if intermittent, flow of steel and gold, knowledge and artifacts, into the city, providing the "rush." Providing the oppressive government is the merchant house of Mareneth, who owns most of the property, runs most of the businesses, and even "owns" most of the populace through a series of economic strangleholds.
The people here work the greater glory of their merchant masters, their desire for freedom quelled by the safety and prosperity provided. They are wary of strangers, never knowing who is and who isn't a mole planted by their rulers to ferret out any simmering dissent. There are only two classes free of the constraints provided by the friendly black garbed "peace officers": the adventurers who daily risk their necks to reclaim another portion of the past, and the Underground, a network of thieves, merchants, and fences who provide the sole competition to House Mareneth's monopoly.
The Underground is found in the sewer network of Celik, although these ancient passageways have been extensively modified with extra tunnels, traps, and even wells by the denizens lurking here. This network is comprised mostly of Tari, as the rat men are drawn to the subterranean depths of the sewers. However almost all races smaller than Kreen are present, although there are rumors of a Tohr-Kreen ambassador with one of the more powerful bandit groups . . .
Roughly two weeks south-by-southwest of Celik lies the forest of the Bamborosti, an anomoly rarely seen in present day Athas. The forest is perhaps five miles in diameter, a green cathedral in the midst of the reddish-brown wastes. However, all is not right in paradise. Any druid will feel that this wondrous place is dying slowly, like a disemboweled man. The flora and fauna here are unnaturally reticent, like a condemned prisoner before the headman's axe.
In the midst of this forest, surrounded by a ring of cleared land, a shallow lake, about a hundred feet in diameter. Rising from its placid waters is a rocky crag some twenty feet high. On the west side of it's twisted height, a narrow fissure opens into the domain of Aggretol, god of the Bamborosti.
Home of the gods:
The fissure twists and turns for twenty feet before smoothing out into a regular, man-made style. It continues for another twenty feet in sepulchral silence. The tunnel widens into an antechamber thirty feet long and twenty feet wide, lined with statues of warriors dressed in Green Age splendor. These twelve statues were animated guardians that shared the stats of Carytid Columns (q.v.), only these had been further enchanted as to take no damage from non magical, nonmetal weapons. These guardians are now inert, dormant until touched or willed into action by their creator, Aggretol.
The next chamber is much like the preceding chamber, only the guardians have been reduced to shards of dead stone, lying scattered around the bones of a developing dragon. The dragon is long dead, and poses no threat, at least for now.
In the next chamber is something even more curious: a tall, handsome human of patrician features, lying asleep in a room that looks like it had hosted a riot centuries ago. This is Aggretol, a former avangion and current god. The shattered benches, tables, and shelves are thickly coated in dust, and it is obvious no living being has trespassed here in king's ages.
Whistler, an aging Tari, is so named for his strange, whistling lisp, an ailment not unknown to Tari (it has something to do with mouth structure). He is a master of information gathering, and in his long, sordid career he has uncovered more sources of dirt than most high templars. He lives out his twilight years as an information peddler, charging fees that are steep, but not unreasonable.
The Bamborosti are the tribesmen that dwell in the forest named after them. Hundreds of years ago, they were a tribe of scavengers eking out a pitiable existence in the wastes. One night, their god came in a vision to the tribal shaman, cajoling him to lead his tribe south and discover the paradise he had created for them. When they came to this promised land, they discovered a world like none had ever heard of. Trees, usually sickly and deformed, grew rigidly straight and pridefully tall. And upon seeing this sight, they met their god.
He was more than human, almost like a gigantic, ghostly pale cousin to the butterflies that swarmed in profusion in this place. He was serene, confident in his own power. His mind-speak sounded like your most loved one. He even smelled inviting . . .
His name was Aggretol, and he welcomed the Bamborosti with open arms, er, wings. He told them that their years of desert living are over, and that their ordeal has proven them worthy. Food and water are plentiful, and your sons and daughters will grow tall and powerful. There was only one catch - any intruder shall forfeit his life upon discovery.
For years the Bamborosti learned the ways of the forest, secure in the knowledge of their god's love. Although Aggretol was showing himself more and more infrequently, they still had their trust in him. His seclusion on the miserable crag was a topic of much discussion. They patrolled the forest with more confidence, and soon the way of the hunter blotted out the skills of a previous lifestyle.
Then came the Night of the Wasting Death, when mysterious explosions rocked Aggretol's isle and waves of dark power radiated out, squelching all life. After it was over, the shamans could no longer hear their god's song. He was gone.
The tribe worked themselves in a fervor, fearing that their god had decided they were no longer worthy of his attention. They tried to repair the dead zone the Wasting Death had left, but it was if all life had been forever sucked from the soil. The shamans called for a year of fasts, but to no avail. Then sacrifices were suggested. Soon, the unfortunate explorers who stumbled onto this place spent their last living moments in agony, as the Bamborosti ritually tortured then consumed their victims. Eventually more bloodier methods were called for . . .
The Bamborosti are a dying race. They know their forest, their life, are being killed by an invisible cancer that they cannot comprehend. With their god most likely dead, they have begun to develop a morbid fascination with death.
They are consummate hunters, with the skills and abilities of 9th level rangers. Their preferred weapon is the short bow, with arrows dipped in a paralytic poison. They use ambushes constantly, and if ever a fight goes against them, they melt back into the forest as if they were never there before.
They have no true priests, as their head shaman, a wizened old man by the name of Geddrak, is instead a 7th level psionicist (Aggretol has no way of giving ANY of his followers spells or spell-like abilities). The rest of the tribe, some thirty in all, are hunters. Their village is on the edge of the clearing left by the Wasting Death so long ago. It is unremarkable in construction, being wooden long houses as the dwelling of choice. In the center of town is the fire pit where they slowly roast their victims alive. The cracked bones of many of their victims are still visible.
They have one basic reaction to outsiders, and that is attack. They are resolute in their desire to bring back their god so that their forest home may be cured. Utterly fearless, they will snipe and harass any intruders to their last breath is expelled. Trickery is always an option, and a "friendly" first contact might end prematurely in a hail of poisoned arrows. Also lending them strength is their underlying belief that since they are doomed, they have nothing left to fear.
Aggretol: The life of Aggretol, master of the way as well as the art of preserving, began in the city of Kalidinay. He was the son of nobility, and he would always carry the stiff pridefulness favored by the Kalidinese. He was introduced to psionics at the academies of his city, and he soon became a master at it. He was also taught preserving and the plight of Athas's ruined ecosystem from one of his servants.
The prospect of him working against all odds, trying to save the world, inspired the youth and he fled from his family, never to see them again.
He gained power and wisdom, and soon the siren's song of the avangion called to him. He became obsessed with the secret, and after decades of trial and error experiments he took the first step. Perhaps his ritual was wrong, or perhaps that ascendancy warps a being's personality until all but the most basic emotions are washed away in an effort to purify the soul. In any case, Aggretol saw himself as Athas's last chance for survival.
He set up a grove far from the corrupt eyes of the sorceror-kings, a wondrous place that would become a bastion in the effort to renew the tortured biosphere of Athas. He needed some wardens for his paradise, so he contacted a miserable tribe of scavengers, who mistook him for a god. Soon their adulations began to fray his humility and soon, he began to see himself as omnipotent.
However, before Aggretol could further his now divine plans, an intruder, more powerful than any being Aggretol had ever faced before, came to the grove. He was a developing dragon, and the rich scent of life attracted him to the grove like carrion draws kes'trekels. Before the dragon embarked on his orgy of wanton destruction, a new scent, fresh and full of life, invaded his senses. A deep and driving hunger overtook the abomination and he began to seek out his new found obsession.
He passed a primitive encampment and forded a lake. Soon, these things would fuel his spell casting. At the crag, the beast paused for a moment as his intellect overtook his instincts for a brief, lucid moment. He descended into a fissure . . .
The battle between Aggretol and the dragon was a brief, brutal affair. The dragon's raw power was balanced by the protective wards Aggretol had set into motion months before. Every ounce of precious life energy the Dragon consumed burnt him like a poison, and festered like a persistent cancer. The dragon managed to win the battle by locking Aggretol's soul into another plane, forcing his mortal body into a most unnatural coma. The beast expired shortly thereafter, his system wrecked by the corruption of his energy gathering and the expenditure of energy his instinctual rage had required.
Aggretol is alive, in a fashion. Unfortunately, the secret of the spell used to defeat him died with the dragon.
As stated before the grove is dying. Without the presence of the avangion, it will slowly wither away like a flower cut from the vine. The Bamborosti, locked in a destructive cycle of senseless violence and self-loathing, are unable to change this.
A druid on the other hand, might want to preserve this wonder. Or, another option would be to destroy it as a magical abomination that is an affront to the natural order.
Another wild card is the Order. They've never had the opportunity to study an Avangion up close, due to the rarity and secrecy of these creatures. In fact, most of what they know is conjecture, with the only previous opportunity to retrieve a specimen was lost (Dragon's Crown). An expedition could be launched to procure the specimen to further appraise its abilities and threats (if any) it would pose. The team would be well equipped and trained, most likely weak in the magic department, but very powerful psionically. The leader would probably be a mid-level member (23rd to 26th) of the Order.
And of course, the merchant masters of Celik could learn of the place and send an expedition to the grove in order to sack its resources. Opposition could come any of the above groups.