Mila stood at the edge of an open pool of water, gazing at the object of her search. Out of the water arose as massive marble platform, towering over the swamp. After defeating the Blackscale Chieftain in one on one combat, Vraal had earnt its grudging respect and it revealed where the captured Shazak statue had been taken. Mila silently scoffed to herself, glaring at the Shazak priestess out of the corner of her eye. The lizardfolk were fools to worship a stupid statue that wasn't even magical. Her companions had insisted they help the Shazak, taking Mila even further away from the trail of her missing gem.
Still it hadn't been all bad. Working with Vraal had been enlightening. Not only had Mila pickled up a few tricks watching the Goliath duel the chieftain, but he had been very helpful teaching her how to navigate through the swamp. Mila glanced at the goliath and found herself blushing. Mila had never seen anyone like him – with Vraal at her side the ranger was confident of recovering the gem.
Mila watched as Vraal began ferrying the others across the swamp, towards the massive steps leading out of the water and onto the ancient platform. She took a deep breath and smoothly transformed into her raven form – a much easier process when she wasn't being hacked at with swords or spells. Still, assuming her avian form was an arduous process – unlike in Barovia. Mila hoped to learn how to better connect with her ancestral powers whilst she was in this world.
Landing on the steps with the rest of party, she heard Hal let out of soft whistle. Each step was almost 2m high. As the group clambered up the last few gigantic marble steps they emerged onto the huge platform.
Gigantic marble columns lay strewn over the platform, with a couple remaining erect, thrusting mightily up into the air. At the very end of the platform was a raised dais, an altar Mila guessed.
Mila moved away from the rest of the party, walking along the edge of the platform, as the others cautiously moved their way down the centre towards the altar. The ranger grit her teeth as she felt an overwhelming sense of danger. As the others continued moving, marveling at the ancient structure, Mila stopped.
Something was wrong, something was very wrong.
With alarm, Mila realised there were no birds calling, not even the sounds of insects could be heard in the oppressive silence.
As Mila turned to warn her companions, she glanced down from the edge of the temple into the water… and noticed a large shape hidden just beneath the surface of the water. The ranger turned to scream a warning at her companions – too late as a black dragon emerged form the swamp, launching itself onto the temple platform.
Mila could only watch in fear and dread as the dragon reared up, fetid water sloughing of its wings back into the swamp.The ranger froze as the dragon's green eyes glared at her with pure malevolence and utter hatred. A thin spindle of acidic drool dropped from its mouth onto the ancient marble platform, causing it to sizzle and bubble.
Mila heard Saria scream a warning as the rogue dove for cover behind one of the fallen pillars. The dragon moved fast and unleashed a torrent of foul acid on Mila and Vraal. The ranger instinctively dropped to the floor, avoiding the worst of the attack, but she heard Vraal roar in pain behind her.
The attack enraged the barbarian though, as he launched himself at the black dragon utterly without fear. However, Mila's face paled as she saw Vraal's sword bounce harmlessly of its scaled hide. Even in his rage Vraal adapted his tactics quickly, piercing the point of his greatsword through the dragon hide, instead of slashing at it.
Mila smiled. Once again Vraal had shown himself to be true warrior. Following the barbarian's lead, the wereraven thrust her Maztican dagger at the dragon, driving her blade through a weak point on its neck. Mila was quickly rebuked though as the dragon whipped its snake-like head around towards her, unleashing another torrent of acid.
Mila's sight darkened briefly and she began to notice spots flaring across her field of vision. She felt odd, as if moving in slow motion. The ranger saw Saria in her concealed position, who looked back at Mila… and then doubled over, emptying the contents of her stomach. Mila was confused…until she looked down and saw the dragon's acid had burnt away the flesh on her torso, leaving her ribs and entrails visible.
Mila finally fell to the ground, letting out scream of agony that paused the entire battlefield. The pain was beyond belief as the dragon's acid started to eat away at her insides. Moments away from death, Mila channeled the healing power of the Raven Queen, immediately feeling her wounds close and a respite from the pain.
The dragon ignored the rest of the party and advanced towards Mila, the sadistic creature drawn by the wereraven's screams of agony. Its tail lashed out, knocking Mila prone, as it closed for the kill. Mila's head cracked on the hard marble beneath her and she briefly lost consciousness for a few seconds.
When Mila's eyes opened, she was surprised to find herself still alive. From her prone position, she saw the dragon was now aloft in the sky unleashing another torrent of acid. Mila couldn't see the dragon's target, but she heard both Vraal and Sasharra scream in agony. As the ranger pushed herself to her feet, Saria ran across the battlefield – away from the dragon, but towards Vraal.
The wereraven watched as the barbarian quickly positioned his mighty blade horizontally in both hands. In one swift movement, Saria launched herself atop the blade and Vraal heaved it upwards with all his might.
All eyes turned skyward, as the rogue streaked through air landing atop the black dragon. Desperately Saria tried to find purchase for her short swords. However, with scales as thick as plate mail, she was unsuccessful in penetrating the dragon's hide.
The wyrm tipped its body, sending Saria tumbling to the ground. As it dove to attack her, its tail knocked Vraal to the ground, rendering him unconscious. Before it could make the kill however, bolts of crackling energy slammed into the dragon's flank, shredding its wing. Mila saw Saria screaming at her to run, as she skirted around the dragon's flank, trying to attack weak points on its underbelly, whilst drawing its ire.
Mila tried to run, but she stumbled, her wounds too grave. As hope faded from her, she saw Sasharra scuttle from her cover to Vraal's body, infusing her druidic magic into his wounds.
Roaring in rage, the barbarian lurched to his feet, ignoring the plethora of broken bones and wounds that plagued his beleaguered body. Screaming a final challenge to the dragon, Vraal swung his blade at the dragon's head, lopping of its lower jaw as another volley of crackling bolts energy slammed into its head.
The dragon fell onto the ancient platform, defeated.
Mila slumped to ground, desperately trying to heal her wounds before they over took her. Even in defeat the dragon tormented her, as its acid clung to her wounds, still burning away her flesh. Sasharra and Hal quickly ran to the other combatants, cleaning their wounds and healing with potion and spell, before helping Mila back to her feet.
They had won….barely.
A search of the temple platform dampened their enthusiasm though – there was no sign of the dragon's lair or the missing statue. Saria's sharp ears noticed that the altar itself sounded hollow – at least compared to the platform upon which it sat. Hal quickly deduced that the dragon might be lairing within the altar. A quick search for secret doors revealed no such entrance though.
Hal furnished Vraal and Mila with broken of pieces of reed, ordering them to swallow them. Mila was amazed as she found herself able to breathe water – perhaps the halfling was useful after all. Diving into the water with the goliath, they searched the submerged portion of the platform, finally locating a tunnel behind the altar, near the floor of the swamp.
Mila and Vraal emerged into the hollowed out interior of the altar – to be greeted by a mound of treasure. Coins, Maztican artwork, weapons and gems. Mila quickly scanned the horde for the tell-tale gleam of her family's gem…to no avail. Atop the horde sat the lost Shazak relic though – an impressive statue of a winged serpent maybe 5ft tall, ornately crafted and covered in gems. Mila begrudgingly admitted the statue at least looked the part and marveled that the dragon could even get the massive object into its lair.
A few hours later the party sat around a campfire, happy but nursing their many wounds. Sasharra had been regaling them with tales of the statue's power. Mila shook her head, Hal had confirmed that is wasn't magical.
Her skepticism was quickly quelled however, as the eyes of the winged serpent flared multi-coloured motes of light. Out of the statue sprang a winged serpent – its form misty and opaque, as though it was an illusion.
Sasharra dropped to the ground, groveling. "Mistress!!". Mila put her hands to her head and stumbled a few steps backwards, as the winged reptile spoke in her mind.
Be still my daughter. You have done well and I thank all of you. I am Quezalcouatl, a creature known as a couatl and I speak to you from the Astral Plane.
Mila jumped with alarm as Hal's book opened of its own accord, the halfling looking on in wonder as images of couatls appeared, along with a substantial body of text. If Quetzalcoatl noticed the book, she said nothing as she continued.
Although I am bound to this statue, I can affect the world around me. Long have I protected the Shazak, trying to bring harmony and order to this swamp.
Saria stepped forward. "We saw pictures of you in the pyramid? Are you really that old? Why would you chose to stay here all that time?"
The couatl once again spoke in their minds.
Quetzalcoatl transferred a montage of images into all their minds, showing the history of the Maztican settlement. In their mind's eye the party saw a great fleet of cargo ships land at the edge of the swamp. Hundreds of plumed warriors disembarked the vessels, carrying with them many materials for their new settlement, including several young dinosaurs and some eggs, incubating in crates filled with hay. The montage skipped forward in time, showing the Maztican colony being led by three beautiful sisters and their brother Quoliztl, a stern but responsible leader. Over the time the images showed the great pyramid being built – a monument to Maztican culture and society.
However, the tone of the telepathic montage shifted, as the adventurers saw Quoliztl ally with the aggressive Blackscale tribe and subjugating the more placid Shazak into slavery. The corruption eating Quoliztl's heart became more apparent as he began to enslave his own people – criminals first and then anyone who displeased him. The enslavement of children was the last act of evil that the three sisters tolerated, as they finally confronted their twisted brother. In an ironic act of barbaric cruelty, Quoliztl destroyed his sisters with powerful magic, binding their spirits to three statues of Couatls – creatures sacred to the Mazticans.
However the Maztican deities of good intervened, saving the three sisters, transforming them into couatls themselves. There spirits were still trapped on the Astral Plane, but they were able to interact with the world around them through the statues that confined them.
Over our centuries of imprisonment, my sisters and I were able to repair some of the damage my brother did. Our outpost decayed and was eventually overcome by the swamp, including the great pyramid. In one last despicable act, my brother bound his soul essence into a ceramic body, becoming a horrible automaton of death – more machine than man. Twisted and evil.
Well, until you finally put an end to him.
The couatl smiled at them – an odd visage indeed.
Hal spoke up. "What corrupted your brother?"
We know not. But it drove him to seek power at any cost
"What became of your sisters? I mean the statues that they are trapped in?"
They were taken by treasure hunters from Waterdeep, centuries ago. I know that one of my sisters, Quezilcouatl, is somewhere in Icewind Dale, underground. My youngest sister Quecouatl is located on the Moonshaes…I don't know exactly where, but the statue she is bound to is part of a treasure hoard and she is surrounded by Formorian giants.
Saria spoke. "Are you able to talk to your sisters?"
Yes, but only periodically, via spells.
Saria paused and pursed her lips in thought, before bravely exclaiming "We will get your sisters back for you!" Much to Mila's chagrin.
The astral projection of the couatl looked at the young human sadly.
I appreciate such a sentiment . Such a task is very dangerous, however almost impossible. I couldn't even tell you where to begin to look.
"I'm from the Moonshaes" said Saria, smiling with a wry grin, "and I've always wanted to see Icewind Dale!"
A glint of hope flashed in Quezalcouatl's eye.
Such bravery in one so young. My sisters and I have had many centuries to examine our confines. We do believe that if our statues were all placed in contact with each other we could rip free of our prisons.
However retrieving my sister's statues is an arduous task, and both my sisters report great unrest in their immediate vicinity. No fear, we can each influence this plane in our own ways and it is my sacred duty to defend the Shazak tribe, undoing the damage my brother has done and keep peace in the swamp.
Once again I thank you for all you have done to help me achieve this.
With that, Quezalcoatl disappeared, her astral form flitting out of view. The party sat silent for a while, considering what was said.
Finally Vraal sprung to his feet.
"We have much to do and we had best not dally – this swamp is dangerous, despite what that weird winged fairy snake says."
The goliath looked eastward to the edge of the swamp.
"To Cromm's Hold"
Hal warmed his hands around the campfire as he took his turn on night watch. He was glad that they had finally exited the swamp and was enjoying the firm ground beneath his feet.
Still he couldn't shake his experiences in the swamp and they had unsettled him greatly – the still active Cult of the Dragon, the long lost Mazticans, the ancient giant empire and the Couatl…
Upon thinking of Quezalcouatl, Hal heard himself speak in his mind, recalling when he asked
"What corrupted your brother?"
Suddenly his tome fluttered open to a clean page, upon which appeared an ominous symbol