OUR HEROES: Tira Wolfsdaughter Hank Woodman Gilead Persia Khaz

62. Kraysh

he time has finally come for Khaz to return to his Kraysh. He bears payment for the last mission of his band, which he intends to give to the Kraysh, in accordance with custom. He has requested a personal entourage to travel with him, made up of the secret Celestial City strike team. In this way, they can have the rest of the heroes travel along on an ostensibly military mission. It is a bit unorthodox, but not remarkably so.

Lucaius has told them what they must do to meet their contact. The landmark they need to find is far up the Kazan River where it broadens into a large black lake. Upon this lake is an outpost that the resistance uses to pass information to and from the Celestial City. There is an island that unlike the others has a large rocky outcropping, as if a stone fell from the heavens upon the shore. There they will find their unnamed contact. More than this he will not say, lest they are compromised or captured. The Kraysh lies upon the Kazan River, so they should be able to get quite close before they need to leave the military transport.

During the two day trip to the Kraysh, they learn a bit more about the squad that has been assigned to Gilead's command. In some way or another, each and every one of them has a personal reason to hate the Celestial City. Either a family member was lost in a raid, or a buddy was killed in a battle, or a personal fortune was lost in a bombing run. It is a curious concentration of personnel.

The Kraysh is far enough off of the beaten track to keep it safe, yet not so remote as to forgo all trade and contact. As mentioned above, it lies aside the Kazan River, a broad tributary of the Theron, coming in from the untrodden eastern bank. The Kraysh itself is a fortress upon a promontory. The walls are made to look natural from the river below. There is a system of tunnel slug passages that are used to get to the top. These are normally guarded. There is a large cavern at the foot that can receive small boats.

When they arrive, Khaz hails the cavern in a loud and booming voice. To their immediate suspicion, there is no answer. They debate a while about what to do, but eventually decide to sail the transport in. The docking cavern is deserted. A scouting team is hastily assembled (consisting mostly of Khaz's "entourage"). They find evidence of fighting and death, and a number of Devil Merk skeletons. This is curious, since the bodies of any slain should not have had sufficient time to decompose to such a state.

What killed the inhabitants remains a mystery for the moment, but the cause of the de-fleshing of the bones is quickly revealed when the party is attacked by an odd team of symbiotic creatures. The spitbinder is an animal the size of a wild boar. It's curiously-shaped mouth spits a fast-hardening sticky resin that immobilizes any prey it covers. This it does to Khaz. Once the victim cannot move, small creatures leap from the spitbinders back and deliver a serious of deep bites. Then they retreat and wait for the helpless prey to bleed to death. After this, the small symbiotes return and begin to systematically remove the flesh from the bones in bloody gobbets. These pieces are ingested and shared with the spitbinder host.

Fortunately, Khaz is not alone, and his companions free him and make short work of the creature. Several others are discovered and slain before they reach the top of the Kraysh, where the devil Merks live and learn in the open air.

Or at least they used to. No one is there to greet them. The entire Kraysh has been slain. A quick but intense search turns up only one survivor. An aged and lamed female, whom Khaz identifies as Kalida Zemka, teacher of spear and stick. Zemka tells them the fate of the Kazan River Kraysh.

The Kraysh was attacked over a month ago. Invisible wraiths infiltrated it when the Celestial City learned that the Devil Merks were being paid to help soldiers infiltrate the valley where the city floats, and to act as lookouts for Tallon. After a particularly important vessel was sunk by Devil Merks, the Kraysh was destroyed in retaliation.

An unknown number of wraiths came in and cut many throats during the night, starting with Matrakka Halish, the leader of the Kraysh. The Merk colony was decimated. Many fled the fastness to be absorbed by other Krayshes, some died were they fought, others were perhaps captured. Zemka is not sure, there was much blood and confusion that night.

Zemka charges Khaz with the retribution and avenging of the slain. She tells him that those who attacked the Kraysh and killed even children must be made to pay. No one must believe that it is possible to commit such an affront to the Merks and survive. Khaz accepts the burden willingly. Zemka says she will remain at the Kraysh, in case any others return.

Once they have returned to the boat, Gilead convinces the crew and his squad that they must investigate further. It is a difficult sell, but they are soldiers trained to take orders and he directs the transport further up the river. Soon they have arrived at the large dark lake which they were told of. The landmark rock is unmistakable. A huge rough boulder upon which nothing grows. They carefully dock against it, since they were warned that the lake contains schools of carnivorous fish. Again a scouting party is made up of the civilians. By this time, the more astute among the soldiers realize that something unusual is going on, but the Lineman of the squad upholds Gilead's orders.

The band of heroes marches along a natural trail on the rock that leads toward land. They are no more than a few hundred yards out of sight from the boat when a Gator suddenly launches itself from a place of hiding. Immediately the party's weapons are brought to bear, but the gator evades them with unbelievable acrobatic skill. As if this isn't puzzling enough, this strange Beast in the middle of nowhere next addresses them by name:

"Gilead? Persia? Tira? What are you doing here???"

The party is momentarily struck dumb with surprise. Then Tira asks, "Who are you, and how do you know us?"

The gator pauses and then replies, "Of course you wouldn't recognize me. I'm—"

Note: Much sympathy must be given to the players at this point, when the game went on hiatus for the better part of a year. This was a cliffhanger that puzzled them for months.