After the battle at the gates against the kuchrima’s the heroes had now entered the fabled city of Xin-Shalast, but knew they still had a long way to go. Who was that lone stone giant, and why had he given them the warning? Why were the “troops” that appeared shortly thereafter seemingly happy at the scene they had found? And most ominously, there had been a large shadow cast by something that flew overhead, something that emanated a sense of fear, even among those who could not see it – and what other secrets lay ahead?
From the safety of the building they had ducked into the heroes took their rest, and discussed next steps. The Golden Road led right through the middle of town, straight to the mountain and to Karzoug's lair, but with the ever present patrols it didn’t seem likely they would be able to reach their goal unscathed. And if their presence ever drew the attention of someone important then who knew what kind of search party might be turned loose. Maybe that stone giant could help, but who knew if you would ever encounter him. Zvevenka had mentioned that the skulks that went by the name The Spared might be helpful, but who knew where they might be.
After an hour or so it was decided to move farther into town, to keep to the side streets, and to avoid contact if at all possible. The first sign of trouble was when the heroes tried to stand back up. They felt slightly dizzy, their joints ached, and they were all were slightly out of breath. It was one thing to travel at this altitude, but the adrenaline needed to engage in a battle as they had just completed really leached the energy out of them.
Low Peak or High Pass (5,000 to 15,000 feet): Ascending to the highest slopes of low mountains, or most normal travel through high mountains, falls into this category. All non-acclimated creatures labor to breathe in the thin air at this altitude. Characters must succeed on a Fortitude save each hour (DC 15, +1 per previous check) or be Fatigued. The fatigue ends when the character descends to an altitude with more air. Acclimated characters do not have to attempt the Fortitude save.
High Peak (more than 15,000 feet): The highest mountains exceed 15,000 feet in height. At these elevations, creatures are subject to both high altitude fatigue (as described above) and altitude sickness, whether or not they’re acclimated to high altitudes. Altitude sickness represents long-term oxygen deprivation, and affects mental and physical ability scores. After each 6-hour period a character spends at an altitude of over 15,000 feet, he must succeed on a Fortitude save (DC 15, +1 per previous check) or take 1 point of damage to all ability scores. Creatures acclimated to high altitude receive a +4 competence bonus on their saving throws to resist high altitude effects and altitude sickness, but eventually even seasoned mountaineers must abandon these dangerous elevations.
After having moved farther into the city the heroes came around a corner and saw an encampment. This section of the ruined city had been cleared of rubble, leaving a roughly circular courtyard about a quarter-mile in diameter. Many oversized tents and crude shelters had been erected in the clearing, turning it into what looks like a giant-sized refugee camp.
Although Karzoug was pleased to find that giants still dwelt in Xin-Shalast when he awoke, the total number was but a fraction of what he needed to rebuild the city. When he revived his rune giants, they were able to subjugate the cloud, frost, and storm giants that dwelt here in the ruins, after which rune giant scouts slowly expanded their explorations into the surrounding mountains. When they found a tribe, they dominated its leaders and moved on, trusting their minions to handle the heavy work of relocating the tribe to Xin-Shalast.
New arrivals to Xin-Shalast generally congregated here, in a large swath cleared of rubble. Hundreds of giants dwelled in the yurts, tents, and surrounding ruins, awaiting assignments by the giants of Shahlaria. The giants that lived here spent long hours toiling at rebuilding the northern section of Xin-Shalast, and returned here only to grab a few hours of sleep and food.
There were more than 500 hill giants, frost giants, and stone giants currently encamped in this area. Most come from lower elevations and required time to acclimate to Xin-Shalast's thin air, but once they were ready they were put to work to the north. As the party surveyed the site ahead of them a whisper came from behind them - it was the lone stone giant they had encountered back at the gate. With a knowing nod he slipped into an alley that led away from the street where the party stood. He had helped before, he didn't appear to be threatening now, so the heroes cautiously moved into the alley behind the stone giant.
As the party drew close the giant introduced himself as Gyukak. With a crooked grin he told the party members about what had happened at the gate after they left. The kuchrima's used to be the master of the front gate. They routinely extracted bribes from whoever wanted to enter the city, plus they had a thriving business raising a herd of giant aurochs that they would sell to interested parties. With the pending rise of Karzoug the lamias and the rune giants had decreed that no more bribes were to be levied and the aurochs were to be free to whoever wanted them.
The kuchrima's had protested, and their protests had been met with severe force. Perhaps as many as half of the kuchrima's had been killed, and then a few more for good measure. Their final demise was therefore met with good humor from the patrols, plus there would be good eating that night with the remainder of the aurochs.
Gyukak then explained about the presence of the giants and then encampment below them. He was able to answer other questions as well. The patrols consisted of low-level stone giants and lamia-kin, but they were usually commanded by senior lamias and storm or cloud giants, and including several rune giants. Their headquarters were at the other end of town, where they effectively blocked the road up the mountain to Karzoug's fortress. The other city defender was a blue dragon, named Ghlorofaex. He routinely flew over the city, looking for anything that looked out of place.
Gyukak also knew about the occluding field that would prevent anyone from reaching the fortress. He stated that he had often seen party's from the city go through it without issue, and knew there was some magic that allowed them to do so. If the heroes hoped to reach the top of Mhar Massif they would have to find that magic here in town somewhere.
Gyukak answered every question the party asked, but the party could sense that while his answers were honest, perhaps his motives were less than clear. When pinpointed on this, Gyukak sneered a response, stating "I know you are not here to worship the glory of Karzoug. You have some other purpose, which does not concern me. But I think you might be helpful to my cause."
Gyukak explained he and a group of renegade giants wanted to leave the city and return to the now abandoned giant homelands and claim them for their own. But with Ghlorofaex and the ever present patrols, he had little chance of success. "What I need is a distraction," he continued, "and I think I have found what I am looking for."
Gyukak then explained his bargain. He had answered all of the party's questions, he would help them no further, but when the party created the distraction he sought he and his followers would leave the city. There was some more question and answer, but when asked about the skulks Gyukak scoffed at the idea. He had heard those stories too, but he had never seen one. Sure, there were tunnels beneath the city streets, but they were not built for ones of his size, plus he had never actually seen a tunnel entrance, so he wasn't sure there was any further light he could add to the subject.
After some additional questions he stated that he had heard there was a tunnel entrance at a domed building several blocks to the north, but was careful to make clear to the party he was just repeating what he had heard, and that he had no real knowledge of a tunnel entrance there. But still, it was a place to start, so with a few brief offerings of thanks the heroes moved to the north.
The dome Gyukak described was east to find. The structure towered five hundred feet in height and was capped by a smaller dome that brought its total height to nearly seven hundred feet in all. Numerous arches and openings decorated the building's sides, all allowing access to its cavernous interior.
The interior of this building was mostly open and created a truly impressive enclosed area once used as a place for the most gifted stone giants of ancient Xin-Shalast to practice the art of monument construction. All that remained of their final project was a heap of rubble 100 feet high in the center of the area. The long gone stone giant architects dwelt in chambers built into the walls of the dome, accessed by spiraling ramps and each with its own private exit into the city.
Although no giants had dwelt here for thousands of years, its current tenants were no less huge. A tribe of particularly violent and loathsome yetis took up residence here six decades previous and were more than capable of holding their own against the giants and lamias of the city. Until only a few weeks ago the tribe was led by an immense chieftain named Voorgoor, a monster who maintained his rule through brutality and force. When Karzoug awoke and his rune giants returned to Xin-Shalast, they knew the abominable snowmen were a tremendous resource for their armies. Yet not being giants, they were more resistant to traditional methods of rune giant control.
For many months the giants left the yetis to their own devices, but recently, with Karzoug's release nearing the giants had initiated a plan to subvert the yetis. The giants made an open and public invitation to Voorgoor, acknowledging his strength and power before the other yetis under his command and inviting the behemoth to join them as a co-ruler of Xin-Shalast. The abominable snowmen that remained in the dome knew that Voorgoor remained in the fortress, for their leader paid visits to the tribe on a weekly basis to check up on them and punish those who have strayed too far from his leadership, yet there was no more day-to-day leadership in the tribe
No tunnel entrances were obvious, but as the heroes moved toward the pile of rubble in the middle of the cavernous main hall they found themselves under attack by six abominable snowmen. The huge yetis were vicious fighters and their thick fur seemed to turn away the thrusts of bladed weapons, but being cold-based creatures found themselves susceptible to fire-based spells and the battle ended almost as quickly as it began.
The tribe itself dwelt in hollows and chambers within the central pile of rubble. A spacious cave near the top of the pile seemed to be the likely home for the yeti leader, but that cave currently stood empty. At the peak of the rubble pile, the snowmen built and maintained a 30-foot-tall altar to a yeti named Voorgoor in the form of hundreds of bones tied together with lengths of sinew to form a rough approximation of a humanoid shape.
Scattered among their lairs the abominable snowmen had collected several pieces of treasure – all of which have been left behind by those unfortunate enough to be caught by the snowmen and eaten: a mithral breastplate, a cobra-shaped platinum armband with rubies for eyes worth 2,000 GP, a Ring of the Ram with only 5 charges left, a +2 Vicious Kukri that bore the unholy symbol of Larnashtu etched on its blade, and a bronze Griffon Figurine of Wondrous Power.
The search for a tunnel entrance then resumed. The dome building was huge though, and a careful inspection for hidden doors or such would likely take weeks to accomplish. As they approached one of the great walls a shimmering appeared in front of them. Fearing magic the heroes were surprised to see that instead someone had merely been standing there all along, their appearance so blended with the wall behind them they were almost invisible.
He introduced himself as Morgiv and stated that he would explain more, but for now it was important that they all leave this place - who knew when the remaining snowmen would return, plus one never knew when a patrol might happen by. He then led around a corner and with a wave of his hand a hidden door slid open and he moved into the darkness beyond. Sensing the opportunity this might provide the heroes silently moved in behind him and started down a long dark tunnel.
Though the skulks of the Spared appeared doughy and blubbery (an evolutionary result of life in this cold, harsh environment), they were in fact quite quick on their feet and agile. Skulks could change the color of their skin with ease to match the environment around them - perhaps the single greatest reason their tribe has survived this long in a city inhabited by bickering groups of lamia-kin and giants.
At first the party thought that they were moving in a southeasterly direction, but after so many twists and turns they admitted they were lost and were completely dependent upon Morgiv. Most of the tunnels were dark, but occasionally streaks of light shown down from above. Every once in a while a movement caught their eye - were they being watched - but upon a second glance there was no one there.
Finally the skulk led the party into a large room that contained passable seating arrangements and after a command food and drink were brought forth. Morgiv explained the story of the snowmen, and added that in fact Voorgoor had been slain and fed to the dragon Ghlorofaex, and his periodic "visits" back were made by none other than Khalib (Karzoug's current apprentice), disguised as Voorgoor via spell. In this way the abominable snowmen were kept under control with a minimum of effort and fuss, ready for a time when their savagery might be needed.
Morgiv then continued on, relaying the history of the skulks. After Thassilon's collapse and the volcanic eruption that destroyed nearly a quarter of the city, many of Xin-Shalast's slaves found themselves suddenly freed, yet without the gear or experience to make escaping the city possible. Instead, they retreated to the deep caves below Xin-Shalast, where they found themselves safe within cysts that formed among the ruined buildings. Led by a woman named Mesmina, a powerful cleric of Lissala who had abandoned her loyalty to Karzoug with the empire's fall, they remained beneath the notice of the remaining inhabitants of the ruined city above, and over the course of hundreds of generations, they evolved into something beyond humanity - a race of chameleon-like humanoids called skulks.
Calling themselves the Spared, these survivors believed in a divine mandate handed down from Mesmina that they were meant to survive no matter the cost, and find freedom in the city that once oppressed them. Over the years the Spared had excavated a series of tunnels through the earth and grew to know the tangle of caverns connecting various cysts and partially intact buildings buried in the flow. They scavenged vermin and what plants and fungi were able to grow in their humid tunnels and only rarely made use of their hidden surface entrances.
After centuries of undisturbed isolation, trouble has come to the tunnels of the Spared. Recent diggings to expand their warrens broke through into the passages of the Hypogeum. Though the breach was quickly repaired and camouflaged to avoid the notice of the savage tribes occupying those subterranean quarters, it was not done quickly enough and something passed undetected into the tunnels of the Spared. With this creature, a hideous abnormality known as the Hidden Beast, the Spared find themselves once again enslaved. It was ensconced within the inner chambers of these tunnels, surrounded by dominated vampire skulks who did its bidding.
The ancient prophecies of Mesmina said that when the Spared become enslaved once more, strangers like their ancestors pictured in their tunnel murals will come to free them. These mural pictures had a faint resemblance to Kheo, Stike, Selinor, and Reynard, and though their appearance in Xin-Shalast was little more than a coincidence, Morgiv had become convinced the heroes were indeed the skulks' saviors as soon as he noticed them in a battle with the kuchrima's.
Morgiv fervently hoped the heroes might be able to save his tribe from the Hidden Beast's control. Many skulks have disappeared, and others clearly serve this unknown being - those who aren't enslaved call the entity the Hidden Beast because none of them have seen it. All who have sought it out disappear or end up as undead vampiric slaves.
Morgiv knew the tunnels under the Slave District well and was able to quickly lead the heroes to the very doorstep of the Hidden Beast's lair, bypassing its lax security with ease. The tunnel opened into a large room, a cyst in the earth under the weight of the buried city formed by some ancient basement gallery. A raised balcony to the northwest was accessed by two stairs and has a low stone balustrade. Pillars along the room's perimeter rose to a vaulted ceiling, while in the center of the room sat a dais holding an ornate throne. Seated upon the throne was a skeletal figure shrouded in musty robes bearing arcane symbols.
As soon as it noticed the heroes the desiccated and dead skeleton sat up and addressed them in Abyssal: "Which of you would offer your blood to me? Step forward and feel the embrace of your new lord!" Kheo answered with a quick arrow that passed right through the apparition. From out of the darkness appeared a monstrous form and along with four of its vampiric skulk servants and the fight was on.
The ancients of Xin-Shalast often explored other realms and realities, ever seeking new discoveries of magic and wealth to use to leverage more favor from Karzoug. One such sect of astral travelers came upon a strange leathery sphere floating inert in the void and brought it back here to investigate. Unfortunately for them, that sphere was a slumbering monstrosity – an undead tentacled sorcerer from a distant realm, cast into the Astral Plane by its enemies. When the travelers returned to the Material Plane with the sphere the monster awoke and slew all but one of them. This last Thassilonian escaped only by sealing the chamber with walls of force, then later by collapsing the tunnels that accessed the chamber. The creature itself, ever patient and potent, returned to its slumber after realizing it couldn't escape. It slept through the fall of Thassilon and the following millennia, only to be awakened again by the Spared.
The Spared had taken to calling this creature the Hidden Beast, but the monster was actually a vampiric Decapus - an undead octopoid creature with 10 tentacles protruding from its body surrounding a maw with large yellow fangs. Its cruel red eyes and slimy skin augment its monstrous visage, and its voice was a chilling whisper. The Hidden Beast had no real goals or desires beyond feasting on the blood of the living. Its mind worked in ways alien to most life on the Material Plane. It kept the Spared under its control by dominating them or by transforming their leaders into enslaved vampires who then, in turn, dominated the living for their master.
The Hidden Beast had no real desire to leave this area (feeding has been great over the past few decades), nor did it care that some of its flock escaped its dominion now and then. Karzoug's agents discovered the Hidden Beast not long after Mokmurian's visit and managed to establish peaceful contact with it, but hadn't quite managed to convince it to accept Karzoug as lord. The runelord himself plans to visit the Hidden Beast to make an offer it can't refuse after he emerges from the Eye of Avarice, but until then, the Hidden Beast was allowed to maintain its tiny empire under the Slave District.
The battle was brutal and intense. The heroes were able to resist most of the hidden beast's most potent spells, and once the vampiric skulks were dispatched with were able to solely focus on the ten-tentacled monster until it lay dead.
After searching the room the party fund the following items: On the Hidden Beast: Gear: Ring of Invisibility, Sihedron Ring, and on the vampiric skulks: Gear: Four each of +1 Vicious Dagger, +1 Composite Shortbow with 20 arrows, Ring of Protection +1
Once the heroes destroyed the Hidden Beast the remaining vampiric skulks that haunted the region become free-willed and were able to flee deep into the substructure of the district. The surviving Spared would eventually band together to hunt them down, yet for now, the skulks prefer to remain hidden as well. Yet their gratitude to the heroes for their deliverance from this latest overlord did not go unrewarded.
Morgiv had promised the heroes a reward once he and the other Spared were able to orchestrate it - Morgiv stated his brethren had already managed to reclaim one of their old shrines, and they had decided that the treasures they had hidden there (treasures warded by powerful magic that prevented vampires from looting them) should be given to the heroes. The skulks handed the heroes a leather Bag of Holding, but the true treasures lay within - a staff of healing, a scroll of greater restoration, two scrolls of heal, a scroll of true resurrection, and a silk pouch containing eight elixirs of the peaks.
Further, the skulks themselves promised follow and watch over the heroes from afar as they progressed through the Lower City. When this unseen but ever-present escort sensed danger they would give cry to a series of hoots and warning howls - as a result, the heroes would be able to react to danger much more quickly, and gain a +4 bonus on all Initiative checks made while in the Lower City.
During the feast after the defeat of the Hidden Beast Morgiv had some more news. The presence of the heroes in the city had been detected and an assassin had been dispatched.
And we’ll pick it up there next time. For tonight’s effort the party earned 60,250 XP, giving them (918,000 + 60,250) 978,250 XP earned so far, with 1,300,000 XP required to reach Level 17