Oz, Aldo, and I sat getting our fill of drink, trying to decide what we might do with our little party, ill-suited as it was for heavy combat. We settled on the idea of trying to line our pockets with some extra riches for ourselves, remembering that there was an Eternal Flame not yet discovered after the party’s previous encounter with a fire giant in the Burning Hills.
Aldo and Oz mentioned an enchantress, Aevan who might have the knowledge we sought. I sensed some amount of aversion to this path from Aldo, perhaps to spending coin or favor when we might find what we need in the library. We spent a day among the old dusty tomes, but ended up walking out with nothing more than we already knew when we entered: it was a flame and it was eternal. Aldo and Oz were more quick to acquiesce defeat to the tomes and seek out Aevan, while myself, like a stubborn animal, continued in the library. I caught up with them at Aevan’s, long after they had made far better use of their time.
She informed them that the flame was the cause of the burning hills infinite smoldering, but that it would also grant protection from flame to all those who might stand in it and survive until the flame felt cool. How exciting! We had initially sought riches of gold, but permanent resistance to fire could be priceless! She told us that it would likely be guarded by elementals, but the real trial would be to stand in the flame without magical protection in order for the ritual to work. Challenge: accepted.
We discussed at length what precautions we might take with us for spending an extended amount of time in the Burning Hills and how we might deal with elemental guardians. We settled on purchasing several scrolls to protect us from flame as well as wands of healing, and set off for the Torch and Campfire. Aldo informed us, despite the drinks he had imbibed, that he remembered elementals should have a stomach and so be vulnerable to nauseation. Oz was incredulous, but it was the best strategy we could hope for.
While our adventure might be for ourselves, figuring running some errands for the rest of the group wouldn’t go amiss, we delivered the Skymetal to the Dwarves so they could ply their trade. They told us what they might make with a lump of metal that size, and then turned to less cheerful matters. The dwarves told us a sad tale of a missing scouting party, and we conferred with them about the possible location of the Flame while vowing to keep an eye out for any signs of the lost dwarves.
With no new information, the road took us to the hot springs were the fire giant was slain, hoping that the giants frequented the location of the flame. Surprisingly, the massive corpse of the fire giant was no where to be found. Oz sent Horus to scout from the sky, and tracked the giant’s feet in the ground. Oz found two sets of footprints; one heading east and the other north. He determined that the tracks heading north were a bit deeper, probably due to one giant carrying the other.
While following the road traveled by whomever was carrying the fallen giant in hopes that he would be laid to rest at or near the Flame, Horus soon informed us that there was something up ahead. Aldo scouted to Horus’s mark, returning with news of a stone house with another Red Giant outside, sitting the base of a large crater. Interestingly, this giant had the distinct features of being female. After correctly surmising that this Giantess was the spouse of the previously slain, I confess that I felt sorrow for the widow. This unfortunately got us no close to determining where the flame might be. It crossed our minds that it may even be in this giant’s stone house! Because a direct confrontation was likely out of the question, we discussed other tactics.
Owing to a need to prove myself to my new companions, and a fairly large dash of foolishness and stupidity, I suggested that I might spin a tale in hopes of having this beast of a lady simply tell me where the Eternal Flame resides. My comrades took up hiding positions along the road in the event I needed to remove myself from the vicinity in a hurry, and I set my plan in motion. Taking care to disguise myself with burn scars and tattered clothes to help sell my story, I summoned my Steed and made my way up the road. I stopped atop the lip of crater hoping that in the event I needed to make a hasty retreat being at the high ground might afford me some protection. Now, I’m not a novice adventurer, but after putting myself in a situation this precarious, I’m sure that would have been what they put on my epitaph had my ploy ended poorly. Surely, the tale of woe would eventually include the line, “I got this. Hold my ale."
I took a deep breath and composed myself, controlling the steady flow of adrenaline before calling down to her, “Greetings, lady!” in as friendly and respectful a manner as possible. I pointed to Oz’s Horus still circling in the sky, “He told me someone was here!"
She responded, rather gruffly with a hint of melancholy, and in much deeper tones than one might expect of a female, “What do you want, Halfling?”
I chuckled a moment, thinking that if she thinks that I'm a halfling, what would she call Aldo, but I digress. “I am tracking some people. I thought you might want to help…”
That she might “want" rather than simply "be able" to help, piqued her interest for just a moment, and the tale weaving began.
I told her of a group of adventurers who we might both have an interest in finding. I explained that this group of people had burned down my village and killed my family. I had tracked them to the local town, but had just missed them. She took this information without question, and a fair bit of disinterest, but she started to hang on my every word when I told her that by using coin for information, the locals told me the group was heading into the Burning Hills to find the Eternal Flame, boasting that it would be easy since they had already slain the Fire Giant protecting it!
She was incredulous, “How do you expect to take them all on yourself if together they were able to kill my husband? Would you have been strong enough to take him on your own, tiny one?”
That caught me flatfooted. I stammered, “Certainly not. I am quite sure I would have not a chance against neither you nor your husband. While I am strong, I suppose I would have to try and find a way to separate them. First, I need to find them. Can you tell me where the flame is? It's my best bet.”
Surprisingly, she seemed to accept this explanation. What happened next, was far more surprising, and futhermore had not been predicted…
Rather than just telling me the location of the Flame, she decided to take me to it personally. Traveling with a fire giant was about as expected as finding mimic that looked like a boat… We had not discussed this possibility at all. Aldo, Oz, and I had planned for every possible outcome to the situation at hand, except this one.
I dared not refuse the offer, and could only hope that Aldo and Oz followed without alerting my new traveling companion. With distance between myself and the giant now at, literally, her arm’s length, any chance of running was miniscule. My skull would be crushed like a ripe melon before I could utter a single spell.
She led the way south east, eventually coming to huge, round basin, with a temple at the center. It was a simple domed structure with entrances at the cardinal directions, and sitting on the top of that temple, was a hydra as red as a blood moon. One, two, three, four… EIGHT?! Eight heads?! Then it dawned on me, and I assume to Aldo and Oz as well, that if we had simply gone east at the hot springs, we would have found this place. Granted, we would still have an eight-headed hydra to face, but now our destination was also being watched by giant. And, not any ordinary giant; one who was out for blood.
It was some amount of comfort that I noticed that Aldo and Oz had taken up hiding positions on the opposite side of the bowl, but began to fear that my disguise may not last much longer, and neither would my life. I told Fiorina that I was sorry my weak body couldn’t stand in the environment of the Burning Hills much longer and asked if west would take me to the hot springs so I could find my way home. She affirmed my direction, but before leaving I assured her if I ever killed any of them, that I would let her know her husband was avenged.
As my horse headed west, she seemed intent on keeping watch for a while, but Aldo and Oz were able to make there wait back to the hot springs soon after I did. What a relief to be out of the company of such an imposing creature. But, we were soon back in the frying pan as we concocted a plan to have the fire giant do some of the hard work for us. That pyrohydra was nearly as imposing as the Giantess. We prepared again, taking a path east-southeast so that we could loop around the basin to the south. With Oz and Aldo once again taking up hiding positions, I was once again about to hop into the frying pan.
As I came over the lip, she had already noticed me, but I had cast Ghost Sounds spell already, trying to make it sound as if a group of people had snuck into the temple. I quickly ran my mount around the edge to Fiorina, waving wildly for her to be quiet, pointing to the temple. I hopped off my mount, and in frantic whispers I told her I had tracked them back from the hot springs, and that they were in the temple right now. She could get in, but if I could get in then I could flush them out, but there was no way I could get in without provoking the hydra.
It was about as weak a lie as I had yet told her, considering she would be putting herself at risk. I was about ready to present her my head, but instead of taking it, she charged the Hydra! If ever I had seen such a fine display of swordsmanship, I couldn’t remember it. She was magnificent! There is no other way to put it. Oz, Aldo, and myself would have been never been heard from again had we tried to take her. She might be about as beautiful as a half-eaten, rotting bear carcass, but compared to her onslaught, I may as well have been throwing pebbles rather than spells.
The hydra didn’t stand a chance. For every blow she landed, she had also dodged three or four or five or more attacks from the hydra. She was as graceful as she was ugly, and as fierce as she was intimidating. After just two flurries, she had removed every head and it fell in a heap on the group, the heads rolling a short distance away. As she stood over her prey, I could only stare in awe and fear, hoping that I never end up on the receiving end of her aggression.
The fire spell used to attempt to cauterize the heads before they grew back was utterly futile. Fire wouldn’t work on this beast, but I didn’t have time to do more. She had already moved to the north entrance of the temple and was hurling questions about why the guardians weren’t alerted despite the sounds inside the temple? A deer caught in a fascination spell would have been better equipped to answer her question. This was it. The lies weren’t going to hold up anymore, and I would be minced in just a few more moments… I knew it was coming.
A clatter from the south entrance; Aldo, that amazing quarterling! Aldo stood on the southern ridge to give Fiorina a real target in place of my fake one. A perfect bait and switch! She charged after him as I got on my mount in preparation for a chase, but Aldo was quick to disappear from view before she got to the top of the southern side of the basin.
Oz was similarly hidden already, I suppose petting his hammer to keep it calm in Fiorina’s presence. As I rode to join her at the top of the ridge, Oz must have also been watching my bumbling signals meant for Horus and directed him south, giving chase to the fake group of adventurers. I followed Horus until Fiorina disappeared from view. After waiting for time, I returned with as sheepish a look possible, relaying my failure at tracking the group. "They must have cast an invisibility spell or something, because Horus wouldn’t have lost them otherwise!" That was the last lie needed, and I held my breath until she showed signs that she believed it. Her reaction thereafter nearly as scary as if she had attacked directly, cursing with the skill of a seasoned pirate. You didn’t need to understand Giant to guess exactly what she was saying.
After more profuse apologies, which were rather easy to fake because of how sorry I felt for having used her in such a way, I proclaimed that they would not slip through my fingers again. I turned to more neutral topics, complementing her on her prowess against the hydra, stating unequivocally that her swordsmanship was legendary. Rather belatedly, I finally asked for and learned her name.
As she returned on her way home, I made another vow that after all was done to her and how we had used her, that if there was any way possible, that she would be left alone. I felt that we owed her that at the very least, making a note to talk to the dwarves to determine if, while cooperation might be out of the question, if at least a pact of non-aggression might be possible.
Meanwhile, Aldo and Oz cleverly ran back to temple and poured a bottle of acid on the severed necks of the hydra, preventing it from ever coming back. One thing is sure though: Aldo can never be in the presence of Fiorina without provoking her fury. I joined them as they finished searched the corpse of the hydra. Finding very little left, I relieved one of the heads of a fang, placing it in my haversack as a trophy.
I moved quickly to scout inside, fearing that Fiorina may return to check the Eternal Flame. Whatever favor I may have accrued in the adventures with the Giantess was mostly lost as I provoked the attack of four flame elementals. It was only after this point that every word of warning about elemental guardians floated through my mind. The hydra wasn’t the guardian, just a beast basking in the magical glow and heat emanating from the Eternal Flame's brazier.
Aldo and Oz jumped into action, while all I could do was try to prevent myself from being burned alive. They shouted for to get on top of the temple again, using the hydra as a barrier against our back while casting flame resistance from scrolls we had purchased in town. After the initial onslaught, Oz had moved against the hydra, valiantly defending against two of the elementals. I prayed that Aldo’s drunken philosophic waxing wasn’t just babbling nonsense and loosed a Stinking Cloud. Success! One of the elementals near Aldo’s back seemed about ready to hurl up whatever it is a creature of that nature might, and there was a glimmer of hope that we all might yet escape with our lives.
Our party took some blows, dampened significantly by the resistance spells as we took control of the battlefield. Oz and Aldo continued to their assault on the guardians while I threw down more nauseating clouds, leaving but a small path for Aldo and I to retreat against the hydra. Despite their initial surprise attack, they soon succumbed to Aldo and Oz’s weapons, leaving us free to finally look into the Flames of Eternity.
The runes around the edge of the flame detailed the ritual and the effect. The ritual could only be done once per month, and, to our vast disappointment, would only last a month. It was something to hold in reserve should we ever knowingly need the protection, but since we were already here…
We readied ourselves, Oz and Aldo gripping wands of healing, and leapt into the flames. It was bordering on torturous to stand in the flames, melting flesh magically restored only to melt again. Aldo and Oz were more stalwart in the pyre than I was, several times it crossed my mind to jump out, but each time I was ready to give up, a wave of healing struck staving off the growing wave of panic building in my chest. How Oz and Aldo were able to concentrate enough to even use the wands while standing in the flame I do not know, but soon enough the flames felt more like warm bath water than the blistering tongues licking up our flesh that they had been the moment before. We stepped out of the fire, grinning to each other reaching back in to play with the flame as a child might had it been filled with water instead. I speak only for myself, but I would only stand in those flames again if I knew the resistance would be necessary in the coming adventures.
After all of this, as much as we wanted a flagon and a bed, our day was not yet over. As we made our way back to the Torch and Campfire, keeping a sharp eye out for the Fire Giant, we instead came across a pair of overly large insects, towing a pair of dwarves behind them. Aldo recognized them as Formians; nasty creatures who enslave the minds of others.
We tried speaking to them at first, hoping for an opening to free the enslaved dwarves, but they took the first attack. For the next few moments, what exactly happened, I can’t say for sure. It was like being in a dark room with a disembodied voice directing your actions as a puppeteer might command a marionette. When it commanded that I attack Oz, I pushed back against the voice and was conscious again.
When my senses returned, all I could feel was embarrassment as I realized that of the three of us, I was the one that had fallen prey to the Formian mental trickery. They would pay…
I yelled at Oz to let me go. I may as well have been trapped under a boulder for all I could move with him grappling me. Apparently, during the time I was out of my senses I had fallen into step with the mind-numbed dwarves. In a successful attempt to prevent my advancement with them, Oz had tackled me and was holding me down. He complied, and we all rained hell upon them.
Fiorina may be semi-evil and hideous to look at, but I’d sooner share a meal with her than any slaver. It made my stomach queasy to think about their encampment. Merely destroying them was too good a fate. The sooner they are all removed from this plane, the better I’ll sleep at night.
Thankfully, the rescued dwarves weren’t completely unaware of what had been happening. As we escorted them back to T&C, they revealed that the Formian camp was north of the lava tubes. Someday soon, I plan to see their camp in ruins, and a bonfire of their corpses burning on the horizon; but, for now, we all needed a rest.