The party set out southward again along the Mordent highway, rejoined by Atu-Sinda. Dismayed by the slow progress along the road, slogging through the ice and slush at a snail’s pace, the adventurers decided to purchase some means of transportation. They discussed at length the benefits and drawbacks of various modes of transport, and consulted with Arronax (who offered to sell them an M-1 Abrams tank for the low, low price of 30,000,000 gold pieces). They ended up purchasing a pair of mechanical steeds-horse-like constructs made of overlapping plates of bronze, clouds of real steam pouring forth from their nostrils. The party set out to the south, the bronze hooves of the steeds striking sparks from the tarmac, with Sergei loping along beside and keeping pace with the horses (thanks to a pair of boots he borrowed from Paeael that ignored movement penalties for terrain).
The adventurers had not traveled far before their progress was interrupted by a rustling in the vegetation off to the side of the road. Several antelope burst out from the crimson underbrush and sprinted across the road, followed closely by the long, low, heavily-muscled form of a lioness. Sergei and Terra observed that there was something not quite right about these animals-their hair was fallen away in patches to reveal bloodless holes in the animals’ hides, and their bellies were shrunken and stoven in, the skin clinging to the ribs. The animals bounded over the asphalt, leaping easily over the concrete divider in the center of the Mordent road, to vanish into the bushes on the other side of the road. This disturbance was followed closely by the another rustling in the bushes. This time, a female Mordent emerged from the bushes, clutching a clipboard. Her form-fitting full plate armor was covered in black dragon scales that shined in the starlight. She took little notice of the party, other than to ask them where the animals had gone. Perplexed by her non-aggressive manner, the heroes made no move to stop her as she crossed the road and vanished into the jungle on the other side.
The party proceeded southward along the road, riding through mile after mile of the red jungle. The adventurers were unaware that they had been spotted by a Mordent patrol until several dark, fist-sized objects came sailing out of the vegetation and fell at the feet of the party members before blossoming open into bursts of fire and twisted metal. The party scrambled to recover from the surprise attack and spread out, but the grenade assault was relentless (7 per round!!11). The first few salvos reduced Atu-Sinda’s new horse to scrap, and left the adventurers badly bleeding on the road. Sergei ran to intercept the assailant in the jungle, firing off a series of shots that went foul for the thick vegetative cover. After that, he was bogged down as a leopard leapt out of the underbrush and went straight for his throat, all rending claws and tearing teeth. Terra teleported into the jungle to take out the enemy, while Atu-Sinda and Paeael remained on the road and worked on keeping themselves alive. The grenader shifted his focus to his closest opponents, blasting away trees and vines and shrubs, leaving craters in the earth and leaving Sergei and Terra in critical condition. Now that they were closer, Sergei and Terra could see that this Mordent was-or rather, had been-a human native of the region, although his skin, once the color of rich earth, had bleached into the color of cold ashes with his transition into undeath. The Mordent called out about how his new masters would be quite pleased when he brought in their blasted corpses. Pulling himself together and pulling a fragment of shrapnel out of his cheek, Sergei ran forward-ignoring the leopard’s teeth-until he was close enough to see the whites of the grenader’s eyes…and then somewhat closer than that. He unloaded his rifle into the grenader from a range of six inches. At that distance, the jungle provided the grenader with no protection. Then Sergei gunned the leopard down in a single shot for good measure. He remained in the jungle as the rest of the party regrouped and regenerated, thanks to one of Paeael’s vestige abilities, and emerged some minutes later. By then, he had fully healed on account of the ambient negative energy that was rife within the toxic jungle, and he had also managed to extract the leopard’s claws and canine teeth and hang them on a leather thong around his neck. He had also smeared his cheeks with stripes of dark mud, and had begun to utilize a lot of dated military lingo.
After patching itself up and paying Arronax to fix the robo-horses, the party was readying to hump it through the boonies when two things happened nearly simultaneously: Rhyken materialized out of nowhere, and the Mordent naturalist materialized from the north, come to investigate the explosions. Satisfied that they were nothing out of the ordinary, the naturalist was ready to leave again, but this time the party stopped her and peppered her with questions. It turned out that she was a researcher who was observing the habits of the wildunlife of the region, studying the new ecosystems that had arisen from the ashes of the old. She said that the corpses of the beasts played out their ancient instincts even beyond the barrier of death-that the reanimated corpses of animals would act upon the patterns that had been familiar to them all of their lives, engaging in the timeless dance of predator and prey, even attempting sterile, fruitless matings. She had seen predators who no longer experienced real hunger chase down prey animals, savaging them with tooth and claw, only to have the victims regenerate the damage just as quickly as it was being done and ultimately escape again, in an infinite loop. She asked the heroes to let her know if they were to come across any interesting flora and fauna in their time in the jungle. Rhyken was eager to get on her good side and learn what he could from her; in the course of his interview, he learned that the red plants thrived on the antithesis of life, feeding upon the darkness of gaps between the stars where normal plants were once sustained by the light of the sun. He also learned that the Mordent had converted great numbers of evil dragons to their side. Satisfied for now, and having received the naturalist’s contact information, the party continued towards Hopetown.
Much of the journey was uneventful, and the heroes encountered little more than monkeys who sat strangely still among the branches and stared at the party as it passed. The jungle was alive with sounds, though-shrill screams, the strangely dissonant songs of birds, and deep reverberating growls that made the ground tremble. Eventually, the heroes broke to rest. After they had made camp, Rhyken approached Atu-Sinda and requested, somewhat shockingly, that Atu-Sinda pray with him. Rhyken had been feeling the effects of prolonged exposure to evil, and sought to cleanse his soul through prayer. Though somewhat surprised, Atu-Sinda readily consented, and the two of them went off to pray. They were joined in good order by Nar-Suta ( a.k.a. Utah Sinda), the ancient guardian spirit that resides in Atu-Sinda’s sword. After a few words of grizzled encouragement (and some audible coughing from the Mordent side of the camp), the three elves set about their prayers. Meanwhile, in a debate that would do Procrustes proud, Paeael was attempting to convince Terra that she should make herself shorter, perhaps by amputating her legs below the knees, while Terra was suggesting that Paeael make himself taller.
The next day saw more hours of travel through league after league of unbroken jungle. Only once did the heroes encounter a point of interest: a circular swathe of dead dirt by the side of the road where not even the unnatural red plants dared to grow. At the center of this ring stood a stele of black stone, incised with symbols that had been carved into the rock. Apparently a shrine to Skura, the party did not dare enter the area, and Sergei spoke of horrific curses that would descend upon those who violated one of Skura’s unholy sites. Terra lobbed a grenade at the stone column for good measure, but it did little more than chip the black onyx.
Proceeding southward through terrain that grew gradually more hilly, the party reached the end of the Mordent road, visible from afar as a great bonfire surrounded by dark figures. Sergei went ahead to reconnoiter the camp, and brought back a description of numerous workers, garbed from head to toe in black clothing. They were tearing up plants from in front of the road and throwing them onto the fire, apparently at the instruction of one central Mordent. Rhyken suggested that Sergei and Paeael come around from either side to skirmish the enemy, while Terra and Atu-Sinda charge up along the road. For his part, Rhyken would go on a bombing run, protecting himself with illusions and and flying over the director and dropping grenades right on top of her. It seemed like a sound enough plan, so the party set about putting itself into position. Rhyken soared over the director and descended into attack range. Inexplicably, though, the director looked up and pointed directly at Rhyken, who was overwhelmed by a surge of negative energy coupled with the assault of a weaponized dvirus with an instantaneous incubation period that left his muscles almost paralyzed. He did drop the grenades, though, which prompted the director to call out a single word in the Mordent language. Reinforcements came boiling out from the forest to surround the director; forty figures strong, clad in black, responding unquestioningly to her commands. One group of forty servitors raced forward to meet the riders on the road, crashing against them as waves against a rock. Another detachment of forty servitors stood in the nearby jungle, awaiting orders or the presence of a living creature; Paeael moved among them unseen thanks to an invisibility vs. undead spell.
The director and Rhyken swapped spells, the elf firing magic missiles at the Mordent, and she reaching out to swipe at him with a spectral hand that fairly crackled with lethal energies, and the mage escaping the touch by mere centimeters. Terra swatted at the nearby servitors with her sword and destroyed several of them-and also learned that, upon death, these creatures dissolved into a burst of black fire that eroded the life force of any living creature within ten feet. She could also see, upon slashing open their dark clothes, that the creatures beneath were no more than bones beneath a breastplate of boiled leather (leather armor: no armor check penalty means no penalty to attack for non-proficiency! Every monster must wear it!). Atu-Sinda spurred his horse forward through the morass of skeletal servitors, charging through their ranks, scattering skulls and bits of broken bones, negative energy washing over him and Terra. The desperate charge brought them short of the director, and they were enmired by the skeleton army again. Sergei attempted to get in a clear shot at the director, but was hampered by all of the dozens of moving creatures between him and his target and only managed to blast a few of the skeletons. Paeael, too, couldn’t get in a clear shot at the director with his called lightning, and contented himself with blasting some of the nearby undead thralls, who quickly swarmed him, although the negative energy of their death throes sustained Paeael even as their claws tore his flesh. Seeing his allies gravely beset by the grim grind of war, Sergei seized upon the opportunity for a clear line of sight to the director. He leaped directly into the enormous bonfire and clambered up the burning branches until he had a direct line of fire to the director; his first shots hit her in the back of her head, and her face exploded outward in a spray of bone and teeth.
The heroes had dispatched their primary foe, but there were still over a hundred skeletons remaining who fought on mindlessly, undeterred by the death of their master…