Having devastated the Empty Circle camp, we backed off and got some rest while waiting for the gorgons to get bored and either leave, or go to sleep. After about eight hours, we crept back to the camp with the hope of catching the malik necromancer alone, or at least with fewer troops to back him up.
Vadim went in first, making himself very tiny, Inside the camp he found piles of corpses--nohai, zombie, and gorgon--but nothing moving. He crept in, heading for the malik's tent, but had to climb over a one of the corpse piles to get to it. While climbing he stepped on a dead gorgon, which exploded, shrouding the area in a mix of petrifying gorgon breath and swamp gas from the decomposition.
The rest of us followed, at which point another of the big gorgon corpses stood up, because zombie nohai were not bad enough. I quickly shot the thing, and the rapid expulsion of noxious gasses blew it backwards nearly three paces. The familiar boiled-cabbage smell of the calcifying gorgon breath hung in the air, and I determined to keep my distance.
The zomborgon charged Khadagan, but somehow managed to encircle the hermit with its great horns, rather than goring him. What followed can be boiled down to lots and lots of bashing, every hack of an axe or poke of an arrow creating another expulsion of the poisonous gas. I climbed to the top of a tent pole to get above the vapors, everyone else just coughed and pressed on.
The undead bull kept trying, and failing, to gore Khadagan. Eventually, after much hacking, Barruk took the things right, front leg clean off. As his skin started to harden from the gasses, Khadagan went berserk, grabbed the thing's horns, and twisted it's head free from its neck, nearly decapitating it with his bare hands. Barruk, with a swing of his axe, finished the job of taking it's head off, cauterizing the wound in a flash of power... then froze, his victory forever captured in stone.
We looked around to make sure there were no more undead surprises, then looted the camp. I found LOTS of rope.
The malik was long gone, but his tent was there to be looted, complete with the frozen corpse of the zombie-nohai that had terrorized Sorqutani the day before. Vadim smelled fresh dirt, and found a strongbox buried in one corner. It had a surprisingly sophisticated lock, but nothing that a little prodding with an arrowhead couldn't fix. Inside we found a stash of gold, silver, and copper horn rings, commonly worn as a status symbol (and occasionally used in trade) by malik, a pair of gems, a delicately-woven and strangely-scented silk scarf, a trio of small containers made of clear blown glass, a gold spider-web head covering, like those worn by the Yaghüth, and a blank book with the first quire torn out.
Ado dove into the collected oddities, took one whiff of the scarf, and passed out. Vadim carefully stashed the cursed piece of silk in one of the bottles (the other two being full -- one with a strange, viscous liquid, the other with something that smelled like cut grass). I took the horn rings and went out and used them to decorate our statue of Barruk.
Sorq, meanwhile, looked at the book. While the first third or so of the pages had been ripped out, the first remaining page showed indentation from the author writing very heavily on the previous page. A little charcoal revealed the following (so much as I can remember from Sorq reading it aloud to us), "As with certain reptiles, external heat on the unhatched eggs of the thunderbird can produce dramatic changes ... hard-boiled warbler eggs are delicious".
Chinua pointed out to us that the Malik had shown considerable interest in the thunderbird and finding it's nest, even going so far as to order the nohai to search for recently dead and eaten gorgons. It then became clear as mud what the malik's plan was...something vaguely involving finding the thunderbird eggs and setting them on fire. And we had just given him a whole bunch of gorgons to use as thunderbird bait.
I did a scan of the perimeter of the camp and, sure enough, found the tracks of the malik and a quintet of nohai leading a gorgon cow and calf away in the general direction of the thunderbird nesting spire. We quickly built a travois to haul Barruk's stoned ass with us, and let the nohai give their slain fellows in the camp a "proper burial" (they apparently like that I remembered the necessary niceties, but really it saved us from having to feed them for now).
The malik and his group had several hours on us, and we were under-supplied. We pushed as fast as we could. Along the way Sorq and I rustled up a covey of Lickens (sort of your bog-standard chicken-lizard things, kindof like warblers but less smart) for lunch. We force-marching late into the night, past the point of exhaustion, then kept going another four hours. It didn't help that we were also hauling our petrified friend.
As dawn was breaking, the tracks split. The malik making a bee-line for the nest, with the nohai and the gorgons peeling off to the right, presumably to draw away the mama-bird. Figuring that stopping the malik from getting the eggs was the bigger concern, we rushed after him, running as fast as we could.
Vadim ran like a wolf (as a wolf?) and booked it to the nest. The nest itself was a huge bowl made of gorgon scales, sitting at the top of a plinth made of five white-marble megaliths leaning together to form a menhir. Our malik antagonist could be seen climbing up the side of one of the pillars, his hands splayed strangely, sticking to the side of the rock with only his fingertips.
With the rest of us still a ways off, Vadim lit up the malik with faerie fire, making him glow with a greenish miasma very similar to gorgon's breath, and painting a nice target. I drew my bow and pegged him from nearly a hundred paces away, hitting him in the arm and causing him to loose his grip on the wall. Unfortunately, the jerk called forth some dark arts to grab back onto the cliff-face with a lash of dark energy.
Vadim followed up by plastering the malik with some cabbage-smelling gorgon goop. Clearly the fake miasma and the smell had gotten mama's attention, because then, there was lightning. Lots of it. Coming our way.
The Malik vanished in a roiling cloud of darkness that hurled up the pillar to the nest. Vadim followed, hauling himself up the side and finding that what we thought were weathered hand-holds were, in fact, bas-reliefs of some kind of winged humanoid creatures, carved into and projecting from the rock, as if this were once some kind of structure.
The rest of us ran. Trying to get there to help Vadim and stop the Malik from getting the egg as quickly as possible. And we kept running.
Using the carvings' predictability, Vadim was able to rocket up the wall to the nest. Vadim crested the lip of the nest, with a lightning storm brewing overhead, to find the roiling black cloud in the center of the nest, a stream of smoke rising from the center of it.
Vadim rushed in, following the scent of the smoke, and tried to tackle the malik full-speed, almost running headlong into the fire. He missed the malik and jumped at the last minute, hurtling over the unseen flames. He landed hard, knocked a scale loose, and went right through the nest, just barely catching himself to hang beneath it.
The storm picked up in intensity. Then we heard, from the center of the cloud of darkness, the sound of a flute. The flute somehow mimicked what Ado informed us was a mating call--the sound of a male thunderbird threatening to smash the eggs in the nest to make room for his own brood. The bloody malik was full of all kinds of tricks.
Barruk reached the base of the menhir and struck it a thunderous blow, opening a wide crack in the pillar, while shouting disparaging epithets at the malik. Vadim, meanwhile continued to hang precariously beneath the nest, lashing at the enemy with his thorn whip while dodging the sorcerer's blasts of eldritch power, which tore even more holes in the nest.
And then, the lightning struck. A deafening clap of thunder. A crackling vibration through the metallic nest. The smell of frying feathers and smoking fur. When our eyes re-focused after the flash, we could see the angry, mother thunderbird hovering over the nest, electricity sparkling over her wings as she recharged for another strike.
Headless of the risks, I ran up the nearest pillar following Vadim's path up the carvings and tying off a rope for the others. Khadagan followed me up and charged into the darkness, body-checking the malik into the bonfire. Ado, riding on Khad's shoulder, unleashed a thunder-wave, knocking over something unseen in the darkness with a metallic ringing sound, pushing the malik towards the edge of the nest, and blowing out even more of the scales.
With the malik near the edge, Vadim anchored a rope to himself, and jumped. As he cleared the edge of the nest, he thorn-whipped the malik, pulling him off the lip, and sending the necromancer plummeting a hundred chǐ to his death.
The darkness dissipated, revealing six eggs, and a roaring bonfire. One egg lay apart from the others, apparently having fallen out of a heavily carved ceremonial iron pot which was suspended over the fire by a tripod. Most of the eggs were a mottled, metallic green, but the heated egg was a perfect azure-blue in color. The mother bird landed, snuffing out the fire with her bulk, and gathered the eggs under her wings.
Barruk quickly bowed and did some amazing pantomime, clearly trying to convey that we were not the ones who made the fire and that we meant no harm to the thunderbird or her eggs. Apparently understanding his interpretive dance, the thunderbird pulled a single, shield-sized, super-bright (but non-reflective) scale from over her heart and gave it to Vadim. She then gathered up the eggs in her claws and flew off to the west.
With the bird gone, we swapped places a bit. I swung down to make sure the malik was dead, while Sorq climbed up and snagged the carved iron pot, which was obviously witchy, and its tripod.
The malik was, in fact, very dead, but Khad came down and took his head off just in case. Then Barruk cut off his intricately carved horns as a keepsake. The rest of his heavily pierced body was dismembered and fed to our nohai. On his body we found a silver bracelet, silver pitcher, and several pages that were clearly torn from the book we'd found earlier.
Vadim, who had by this time climbed back up on the top of the nest, pointed to the east and shouted something. We scrambled up to see what the fuss was about and saw fire in the distance. Fire ... in the sky. Not on the ground. Not the grasslands burning. No, the motherfucking sky was on fire. Beneath them the ground seemed to move and shimmer, like heat rising off a hot rock. After a while, we realized that this was an army, more men than one could ever hope to count, wearing METAL armor. Then, breaking the clouds over the army, came one, two, three massive birds, like thunderbirds, but blazing with fire. Fire-birds. They lit up the plains, burning a path in advance of the army.
We scurried down, then noticed through the crack that Barruk had made in the pillar that it was at least partially hollow. Not wanting to leave anything unknown behind us, we widened the crack and crawled inside. From the inside it was clear that the pillars really had been structures in the past. A staircase ran up the center of the pillar, at a slant now. I went up, but was blocked by rubble after traveling about forty-feet on the slant.
Everyone else went down. At the bottom, they found a large room, filled with maggot-folk bones stacked to the ceiling. The bones were clearly ancient, moldering away into dust at the slightest breeze or touch (though that did not stop Ado from collecting the ancient dust for use as bone-meal). The bones showed no sign of intentional wounds, no cuts, gouges, or scratches, nor any signs of the corpses having been diseased. They were, however, stacked haphazardly and, in some-cases, irregularly broken, as if they had been thrown down into the room from above.
The walls showed the remains of ancient murals, faded to nothing more than outlines and vague suggestion of color. Exits leading off from the room suggested that the other four towers might connect to this one, as part of a larger structure, but were choked with rubble. Everywhere was the same winged-humanoid iconography, clearly some kind of ancient theistic witchery--the kind of things the shamans would probably smash on sight.
Unable to proceed further, we crawled out of the crack, and piled rubble around it, attempting to hide it from the prying eyes of any who might come here later. Then, completely exhausted, we slept -- some on the ground, some in the hollow under the menhir, and I hanging in a hammock from the underside of the nest.
I woke near dusk to see the light of the fires in the east to be much closer. We quickly broke camp, gathering up as many loose gorgon scales as we could manage for their metal in the process. As we did this, Ado's warbler scouts reported in, saying that they'd encountered probing parties of some kind of strange, four-legged, half-man/half-warbeast monsters, about a day's run to the east.
Obviously, we ran west.
We booked it for the Drowned River camp. As usual I took point, picking our trail through the hills and ravines of the steppes, and picking off whatever game I could find. And find game I did. I left a bloodbath in our wake, finding food for our whole party, nohai, warblers, and all, and then some. Finally, I spotted a nice, fat pteranadon, and brought it down with a single well-placed shot.
Ado, not wanting to lose our food to the spikebeak, cocked his head, puffed up, and darted in circles around the bird bird, demanding that it could have the organs but must give us the rest of the meat. It just took off, clutching the pteranadon in its talons. I didn't hesitate to shoot it.
Everyone else followed suit, hurling arrows, fire, and vicious mockery the bird's way. It dropped the carcass and dove at me. I sidestepped, then, as it passed over, shot a warbler curse arrow strait up in front of its face. It's eyes, then head, turned upwards, tracing the path of the warbler death-cry, then overbalanced, turning it into an unintentional back-flip and nose-diving into the ground, breaking its neck.
What's tastier than a really big bird? An even bigger bird! We grabbed the spikebeak carcass, and what was left of the pteranadon, and booked it back to camp with our piles of fresh meat.
Well stocked, and moving as fast as we could, we gained a solid day on the following army of man-beast-things. We reached Drowned River and tried to persuade the Caravan that they needed to run like hell. We split up. Vadim easily convinced Ma'Chek of the seriousness of the situation. I managed to piss of Semek (again). Ado got price-gouged on supplies by Altan. Sorq bought a non-conductive bone hilt to affix to a steel thunderbird feather from Hulagu to turn it into a dagger. Barruk made friends with Ganbaatar. Khadagan just walked into the middle of the square and roared, spouting crazy hermetic prophecies about "A tide of iron and fire" while holding aloft the thunderbird-scale shield and the head of a decapitated gorgon.
Between Khadagan's theatrics, and Ma'Chek's and Ganbaatar's leadership, we soon had everyone packed up and ready to leave...more or less.