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         Copyright © Randy Bowers. All rights reserved.


Guardians of the Shrine and the Halls of Azrandar

At the time that this took place our adventuring party was about 14th level. Herein is the story of how they discovered the corruption that had infested the Shrine of Passion and the ensuing brave rescue of elfin villagers from the guardians of that shrine, including a brief visit to the fabled Halls of Azrandar.

Several thousand years ago there was a great artifact which resembled a kettle. When the blood of sacrifices were stirred within its depths it created a powerful scrying and summoning device by which one could peer into the nether realms and make contact with evil Outsiders. In those ancient times the use of this artifact brought about destruction and the downfall of a great civilization whose priests listened too closely to the whispers of evils heard from the great cauldron. Ultimately the evil nation was destroyed by the powers of its terrible kingpriest wizard, who completed a ritual that slew many hundreds of thousands and crystallized the essence of their worship and belief into three great stones.
    As a side effect of this terrible magic, the spirits of the land in that region were slain and a wasteland of death and dust filled the place where the Kingdom of Saulos once stood. The great negative energies of the region slowly drove one of the neighboring spirits of the land insane. Its raging caused many earthquakes, fires, and storms in the lands where it dwelt.
    Years later, but still in ancient times, a group of adventurers were transporting a powerful relic. This large urn carried within it the waters of life, whose power could even return life to the dead body and spirit of an Outsider. Thus this urn was sought out by Outsider agents of good and evil alike. These adventurers traveled into the lands of the insane spirit of the land and before they could reach their destination they were slain. In their death the relic they carried was spilled, causing its endlessly running waters to flow out from it without cease. The sensation of the holy waters soothed the spirit of the land and soon it slumbered.
    Over the centuries a series of lakes would form in the region, tainted with the holy energies of the waters of life. Visitors to the region would occasionally experience miraculous healings upon bathing in the waters; the wildlife of the region flourished and the stain of the nearby poisoned wasteland no longer spread into this land.
    It came to pass that priestesses of the goddess of fertility and culture, known in those times as Ly'ya and in present times as Illustree, built a temple to their godess in the center of the lake region. The temple was named the Shrine of Passion for it was to be a center of inspiration to artists and lovers, located in a setting where the very land seemed to be filled with exuberance for life and its pleasures.
    Worshipers of Ly'ya came and lived there, indulging daily in their hedonist ways. This lasted for some time, but then agents of evil discovered the reason for the bounding life that permeated the region and the secret of the ancient relic and the unending waters of life that it spilt. The evils razed the temple and made ready to steal away the font, but the spirit of the land awoke and in its wrath slew all of the intruders. Again, the land was made silent and the spirit of the land slowly returned to its slumber, lured to sleep by the soothing waters.
    Druids learned of the strange quakes that shook the earth and traveled into those lands to see what troubled the region so. There, they discovered the urn and the life giving waters that poured from it. Once they had chased away the lingering demon guardian spirits that had been left behind they built a great complex to guard the relic and ensure that it's waters did not cease to flow over the maddened spirit of the land until such a day came that they could cure it of its insanity. To doubly ensure that no one interfered with the font, to prevent agents of good and evil from trying to steal it away, they created forty powerful tree guardians to watch over the place and keep nosy mortals and Outsiders alike from disturbing the complex they had built.

12886AC, Our Adventurers
One afternoon, while in the Kingdom of Arend, as they relaxed in the woods near the metropolis of Bluewater, our adventurers encountered the senior druid Belar, mentor to Sasha. Belar brought news that a powerful treant was rumored to be wandering the forests nearby and attacking any it encountered. Since he was departing for lands far to the west on other business, he asked if Sasha would look into the matter before the treant ran afoul of a village.
    They set out and eventually found the roaming tree-being, but it was no minor threat, it was a guardian from the Shrine of Passion, though they did not know this at the time. They only knew that it was far more powerful than any treant they had ever encountered or heard tale of.
    The tree-creature was obviously diseased and enraged. They were able to briefly quell its insanity by employing powerful heal and cure disease spells upon it. In this moment of lucidity the treant told them that it was a guardian of a place called the Shrine of Passion and that a horrible plant had invaded the temple grounds. The thorns of this plant stung and burrowed into the temple guardians and were driving them mad. Even as they spoke to the guardian, the thorn buried within it began to recorrupt it. Thinking quickly they used a woodshape spell to remove the thorn. Once free from the treant the thorn twisted and tried to burrow into the flesh of Sasha, but before it could do so they trapped it between two stones and took it back to the college of wizardry in Bluewater for examination.
    Their research at the arcane college led them to believe that upon entering flesh, the thorn would enact a transmutation upon its host, corrupting it with fiendish energies. With this information in hand they realized that there were thirty nine other corrupted guardians that had been set loose upon the land. More investigation was needed, but someone should warn the villages in that region too. They also discovered that one of the original druids who created the guardian trees might still be alive and living somewhere in the region of the Shrine of Passion.
    So they traveled to the site of the Shrine of Passion where they discovered that a vast plant had grown and infested the entire temple grounds. Having fed upon the waters of life for many months the plant had become vast in size. Its infernal nature was apparent; the plant attacked any who came near it and its touch was filled with evil power.
    While they searched the area for clues about the terrible plant they encountered an elfin ranger named Mirannathor, who hailed from the nearby Lerether nation of Greentree. Seeing that he was a man of quality they quickly befriended him and listened to his reasons for being in this dangerous area. Mirannathor told them that many of the guardians had deserted their post at the Shrine of Passion and now roamed through the forest seeking to kill and, strangely, capture settlers of the woods.
    They parted ways, having decided to meet again at one of the elfin villages in a weeks time. Mirannathor left to take warning to the settlements while the adventurers began their search for the rumored druid that had helped to create the guardian treants centuries ago. While a couple party members searched through the woods, ahead of their companions, they came upon an odd village set high in the trees and inhabited by what appeared to be Galiadre elves. The elves warned them away, telling them to depart and not return.
    When the scouts returned to the rest of the adventuring party they were perplexed to learn of Galiadre living so close to the Lerether lands. Stranger still that they would live up in trees, since the Galiadre have an affinity for the earth and do not build in lofty woodland places. Sasha, the druid, performed a commune with nature divination and searched the land for other Galiadre settlements, but to her surprise there were no Galiadre within the many mile radius of her search, not even the Galiadre-looking elves which the scouts had seen earlier. Perplexed that a kin of her own race might live in the area, Ayoi decided to go and to meet them.
    Ayoi was tentatively welcomed amongst the strange elves, but the rest of the group was shunned and left below upon the ground. Ayoi was gone for a time, during which she encountered the leader of the village, an ancient woman of druidic power called Arinilu. Ayoi was surprised by the woman's name for it was the same name as one of the past leaders of her own faith, but from four-thousand years before. Arunilu confirmed that she was the same person; banished from her people and taken in by the fey, among whom she had enjoyed an extraordinarily long life. Arinilu asked Ayoi to stay with her for a time so that she might teach Ayoi of ancient history, of the Shrine of Passion, and other lost secrets. Ayoi, being a member of an order whose duty is to seek out ancient lore and artifacts, eagerly accepted and did not return to the rest of the adventuring party.
    A messenger was dispatched to the remaining adventurers, to tell them that Ayoi had decided to stay and that she would not be rejoining them in the coming days. So, the rest of the party traveled on to the nearest elfin village in hope that they could gather some lore about the Shrine of Passion and warn them of the corrupt guardians that were roaming the nearby woods.
    When they arrived in the first village they asked after Mirannathor and learned that he had never arrived. Curious as to his whereabouts, Sasha scryed with her magic for him and discovered that he has been captured by one of the guardian trees and a clutch of strange three-armed wooden creatures.
    Quickly they departed to rescue him and a terrible battle was fought against the guardian tree, the wooden bradels, and a powerful black demon (called a Skull Bearer) that could defile the forests about itself. Mirannathor hung fourty feet in the air, off the ground and entangled in the branches of a corrupted guardian. Evil vines cocooned his body and even pierced it through in places like some sort of parasite. Also present was a prison formed of fallen trees, which contained captive elves who seemed to be suffering from some parasitic plant that grew out from their bodies. The great battle was fought and Mirannathor was rescued, but Aramim, loyal henchman to Al-Rathis, was crushed underfoot by the guardian and slain. Unable to defeat the guardian, the party fled.
    Their stay at the village was brief, for soon local scouts returned and reported that the guardian-treant has pursued the adventurers and was headed directly towards the settlement. The village was evacuated just barely in time before the guardian arrived. They tried to hold it off for just a couple minutes longer while the rest of the villagers escaped. Once they had done so, they rejoined the refugees with the hope that they could outrun the rampaging guardian.
    The leader of the village was a Lerether called Gimalion. He told them his intentions to take the villagers to an ancient elfin stronghold built into the earth, called the Halls of Azrandar, where he hoped that the guardians could not go because of their great size. However, in the confusion of the guardian's attack, a map which could guide them to the stronghold was not taken from the village. Amineri and Al-Rathis returned to the village to rescue the chest which contained the map. While Amineri retrieved the map, Al-Rathis engaged the guardian in battle. Amineri transported the map back to safety, intending to return for Al-Rathis, but neglected to take the key to it as well. During his battle against the guardian, Al-Rathis heard a call for help and he spotted a villager being held by the guardian's branches, their body being pierced by fell vines. He rescued the villager and Amineri returned just in time to teleport them away to safety with the other refugees.
    They traveled through the night and all the next day to put distance between themselves and the guardian. The wounded girl that Al-Rathis rescued was placed in a tent for shelter. The following morning Sasha returned from a brief visit to her grove. With her magic she healed Al-Rathis, but when she used the same magic to heal the wounded girl, her diseased body sprouted wooden growths which tore open the girl's body, from which emerged a soon full-grown bradel! It was clear that the thorns were able to corrupt the bodies of people and change them into these terrible creatures. A brief battle was fought and the abomination was slain.
    A few hours later, elfin sentries alerted the refugee camp that the guardian had continued its pursuit and that it was nearly upon them, so they fled once more. Without the key to the chest, Al-Rathis decided to open it his way. He walked into the air by means of his magical boots and having ascended to a height of about five-hundred feet he dropped the chest. Predictably, the chest broke open when it struck the ground, destroying much of its contents: a ruined map from ink that has been spilt upon it, a broken bottle of ink, a tattered scroll, a prayer book, and some broken potions which further fouled the papers.
    Using a find the path spell, Sasha was able to gain a bearing on their destination, the Halls of Azrandar. So they traveled under a forced march until they arrived in a hilly region of the forest. Sensing that they must be near to their destination, Sasha used her power to again commune with nature. By her magic she learned that they were still being chased by the guardian tree and its minions, but she also learned that just in the next valley there were some artificial structures both above and below ground, the fabled Halls of Azrandar.
    Sasha decided to wildshape into the form of an eagle and explore the neighboring valley, but there was little she could learn as a strange fog obscured much of the ground. Only some odd stone towers pierced up from the mists. In her absence, Mirannathor told the other party members what little he knew about the Halls of Azrandar, how they were built by small civilization of Galiadre elves who were later attacked by Lerether militia because of an ancient feud. The Lerether massacred most of the city's residents while the Galiadre still slept and since then it has been said to be place haunted by spirits.
    Before the party entered the fog enshrouded valley, Sasha called upon her magic to clear the mists away with a steady rain. In the valley below they could see a small cluster of towers which appeared to have been grown from the stone of the earth. A larger tower marked the center of the ruins. Cautiously they then traveled down into the abandoned streets. Fortunately they were careful, for they noticed that a strange dark cloud was seeping from the earth and spreading out behind them to block their escape. A sensation of dread filled their mind and the entire advanced party panicked. The grim cloud flowed about them and enveloped one of the Lerether scouts who had come along, he soundlessly disappeared into the mists and was never seen again. Unable to flee, Al-Rathis desperately tried to fight against the mists, but it was a losing battle. Amineri fled by teleportation and Sasha likewise abandoned the fight with a transport via plants spell. Once clear of the mist, Amineri realized that she had left behind Al-Rathis to face the menece alone. She quickly teleported back and rescued him.
    Once in safety, Al-Rathis reported his seeing an inscription upon the center tower door which read, "By moonlight, the broken staff, or scroll of bidding, welcome to this sanctuary." Unfortunately, the weather had been fouled by the storm that Sasha summoned, the adventurers did not have the staff mentioned, and the remaining scroll of bidding was destroyed when Al-Rathis dropped the treasure chest. So another way would have to be found before they could be safely within the halls.
    Al-Rathis was terribly wounded, both physically and spiritually, from the attacking mist and so Amineri transported him back to the city of Bluewater where he could receive magical healing. While in Bluewater they sought out the cleric called Kail, who had once traveled with the adventurers. Kail agreed to assist them and after gathering his equipment he, Amineri, and Al-Rathis returned to the refugees and their fellow party members.
    Whilst Amineri and Al-Rathis were absent, Sasha also traveled to the Kingdom of Arend and searched out her friend Timerin, a druidess of similar power in the city of Great Tir. Timerin had been pretty busy there with the city's rapid construction. One of the larger problems that she was dealing with at the time was the result of several levees breaking which diverted a nearby river. When the levees collapsed some nearby ancient burial grounds had become flooded, causing corpses and undead to float through the swamped streets of the city. Sasha arrived just as this disaster was being cleaned up and Timerin was too busy to provide assistance, though Sasha did secure a promise to exchange knowledge of spells at a later date.
    While their companions were doing these errands, Cawanan, a hunter, Galiadre, and sworn protector of Ayoi, and Mirannathor stumbled across a secret back entrance into the Halls of Azrandar that was protected by magical wards. When Kail arrived he was able to dismantle the wards and then Ayoi and Cawanan sung and shaped a small tunnel through the stone slab that blocked the entrance.
    The adventurers entered into the ruins to ensure that it was safe and not haunted as they had heard it might be. Within, there was a short hallway with stairs leading downward. At the bottom of the stairs were the remains of many elfin warriors, their skeletons still clad in fine elfin steel armor and their weapons laying about the floor. Chalked faintly into a nearby wall was a hastily written account that described a vanguard of Galiadre who remained behind to slow Lerether pursuit and gave their lives so that the other surviving Galiadre of Azrandar could escape.
    At the end of the hallway was a small area and a large double door of iron. Two rings were set for pulling the doors open. There was no keyhole, yet the door was firmly shut and locked. Sasha used a detect magic spell and was surprised to see that the doors bore magical paintings of dragons upon them, which could only been seen with magical sight. The dragons claws clutched at the rings that held the doors closed. Even more surprising was when she observed one of the dragons claws flex about the ring as through they were alive.
    Sasha seized one of the rings and attempted to pull upon it when the painting relaxed its "claws," and she succeeded in wresting it partially away. Then the invisible forces, which she had observed with her arcane sight as dragons, attacked her. Though melee had broken out, Cawanan's sharp eyes still noted the keyhole hidden beneath the ring that Sasha had tried to snatch away. While the rest of the group battled against the invisible and magical creatures, Cawanan returned to the skeletons at the bottom of the stairs and after a moment of searching he found a small key. The rest of the party had meanwhile determined that the magical guardians would cease to attack if they but left the door alone. With key in hand, Cawanan was able to unlock the door and open it up. They surmised that it was because of his Galiadre ancestry that the dragons let him approach unmolested.
    Beyond the door was a very large cavern, thickly overgrown with lush plant life: vines, trees, moss, and so on. Some of it glowed faintly with bioluminessence, allowing those with elfin eyesight to see a distance. Sasha, being human, still had to light a torch. In the center of the large cavern was a vast ziggurat-like building of squat towers built upon each other, like a great many cake patties stacked atop each other, stairs allowing ascent from one level to the next and plants cascading down them. Those with more sensitive ears discerned a silvery voice faintly singing somewhere in the cavern.
    They explored about and found nothing hostile about the plants, so they invited the other elves to join them there and take shelter in the lowest level of the ziggurat. Al-Rathis and Sasha explored about the place to see if they could locate the source of the singing. At the top of the ziggurat was a beautiful garden of trees and in their center was a small clearing in which stood a short tower and a lovely and quite lifelike maiden crafted entirely of stone, except for the beautiful two-handed sword which she carried. Much to their surprise the statue suddenly spoke to them, exclaiming in the language of the Galiadre, Nalaoni, that it had been quite a long time since she had seen other beings. Sasha asked her about her origin and purpose, so the statue told them of how she had been created as a guard to this tower and was to slay any who attempted to enter therein. She was neither able to divulge the nature of her creator, nor the contents of the tower. However, she did reveal that there was a ring which could command her, yet it had been left within the tower that she guarded.
    She told them of how long ago the tower had seen occasional visitors, often spellcasters of some kind. Before her master departed he received a one strange visitor whose flesh was pale and gray, though not stone like her own. Shortly after this, her master departed and later that day she heard a terrible battle occuring in the cavern below. Sasha speculated that this battle was the Lerether invasion, but the statue could not confirm her suspicions. At the mention of the pale man, Sasha also recalled in her research that pale men had been seen shortly before the seeding of the infernal plant that now surrounded the Shrine of Passion.
    Later that night, Cawanan heard a ghostly moan and heard the front doors of the cavern open. He went to investigate, and closed the doorway, thinking it little more than a draft. Returning from the cavern doors he found that undead spirits of Galiadre warriors had entered among the sleeping Lerether encampment and had positioned their swords ready to kill them in their sleep. The leader of the ghosts, a mighty looking spirit, saw Cawanan, knew him for his Galiadre heritage, and demanded the reason for why he had allowed Lerether to desecrate their home and resting place. Cawanan was quick thinking as he tried to convince the ghosts that the need was dire and that they would soon leave. A terrible bargain was pronounced that the Lerether could stay the night, but that as payment the ghosts would claim one life. Someone would have to volunteer.
    In the end, Gimalion, heir to the house of Vasos and leader of the village, nobly volunteered. Before he could commit his life into the hands of the ghosts though he required that someone take up his vow of vengeance against Emperor Varana, who had led a civil war among the Lerether in recent years and deposed Gimalion's family of their ancient lands. Mirannathor hesitated, but it was clear that there was no one more suitable to take up Gimalion's vow. Since Mirannathor was also a supporter of the old Lerether dynasty, he accepted the vow. This done, Gimalion met a gruesome death beneath the swords of the ghosts. They shriveled his corpse and tore out from it his heart, then the ghosts faded away and left behind a promise that they would return on the next night.
    The following day was a busy one. Cawanan discovered a large, shallow lake with a small, sepulchral building in its center. Wading into the lake, Cawanan was surprised as a huge creature of water arose and chased him back to the outer shore before disappearing back into the waters. Later he returned with his companions and a great battle was engaged. They vanquished the elemental and proceeded to enter the building on the center island. Within they discovered a treasure of many books. Sasha and Amineri were naturally delighted, though unable to read any of it since it was written in Nalioni.
    They spoke with the stone maiden some more and explored the complex too. About mid-morning they discovered a set of temple doors which had been sealed and locked shut from outside. Despite the implications of the door having been locked from without, they opened it up anyway. Within was a single large chamber, round, and in its center was a strange wavering column of darkness that seemed to pulse and lap with tendrils into the room. Entering therein they found a part of a gong bearing the likeness of an ancient holy symbol to Ly'ya, resting upon the floor.
    After examining the strange black swirling energy, Amineri determined that it was a gate to some foreign realm, perhaps the Realm of Shadow. She also determined that magic was being sucked into the gate, and having done so promptly departed after warning them that to tarry in its vicinity was to risk their spellcasting powers and magical devices. Kail also went to wait outside, but the rest of the adventurers remained within.
    Three sets of double doors exited the chamber in cardinal directions from the entrance they had come through. Cawanan decided to explore some of these. Beyond the first door, which was unlocked, was a small chamber that contained temple sundries used for worship, cleaning, and so forth. The second door was locked and so Sasha wildshaped into a massive dire bear and battered the door down. The chamber beyond looked to be the quarters of temple priests. Several urns lay shattered on the floor from the door being smashed inward; from these urns were released two dao genies.
    One attacked Sasha right away while the other whispered promises of wishes to Al-Rathis if he would but slay the genie that battled Sasha. Al-Rathis refused the bargain and attacked the second genie. Soon, one was dispatched and the remaining dao fled, vowing to find the enemies of the adventurers and grant the wishes it had offered to them instead. They searched the priestly quarters and found some odd magical devices, including a strange amulet whose medallion seemed to be entirely composed of wisps of air and force.
    Over the final unexplored doorway was an inscription that read, "May Prayers of the Earth allow you safe entrance." Sasha didn't hesitate to cast a stone shape spell on the doors, which briefly illuminated with an earthen hue and then were easily opened. Beyond was a room in whose center lay a large pile of great boulders and rocks. Surrounding the pile was a double ring, carved into the solid sung-stone of the floor. Sasha suspected the circle to be some kind of magical containment, but before she could caution anyone Al-Rathis tossed a coin which rolled and came to rest across one of the circles.
    Sasha bonked him in the head with her staff for being foolish, then reached out to remove the coin from the boundary of the circle. As she reached forward the stones in the center of the circle animated and a huge earthen creature quickly formed and snatched her staff from her hands. The powerful elemental demanded to know why its chamber had been intruded upon by someone who had not spoken an earthen prayer, and swung its finger to point accusingly at Al-Rathis. Sasha employed her diplomatic skills, becalmed the giant elemental, sent Al-Rathis from the room, and in conversation she discovered that this being was a prince among its people. It offered to fulfill a wish to Sasha if she would free it from its imprisonment. She agreed, despite Kail's lengthy protestations, and stone shaped the floor so that the encircling engravings were destroyed.
    The elemental strode forth, then turned to Sasha and asked her for her wish. She replied, asking to have the ring which controlled the stone maiden at the top of the ziggurat. The elemental granted her wish and exited the place, passing through a nearby wall and out of sight.
    Sasha took the ring which she had claimed and returned to the statue that guarded the tower and tried to convince the statue to wear the ring and free itself of its creator's commands. The statue hesitated and in the end, Sasha donned the ring and commanded the maiden statue to accept it, wear it, and release herself from her vows.
    Still unable to enter the tower, for though they had won the guardian they still lacked the key, they decided to descend down to where the villagers awaited. Mirannathor had been thinking all morning of where to take them next, since they could obviously not remain in Azrandar. His final decision was to travel with the elves to the Silver Dwarves in the east. Though in normal circumstances the dwarves would never give shelter to the Lerether elves, for they had recently feuded over the borders of each other's kingdoms, but since these Lerether opposed the rule of Emperor Varana, perhaps they would find acceptance anyway.