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The Black Vessel - Review and Summary

by David Keyser

I have finally completed not only a detailed review but a full summary of the characters and events in the novel The Black Vessel. This first post will include a review, and later posts will detail characters and events. I already posted this all on the Let's Read Mystara thread over on RPGnet, but it deserves a place here too.

This is the best of any of the Mystara novels, and, also IMO, a good quality fantasy novel in general. It has some minor flaws, but I rate the characterization at 4 stars, plot 4 stars, style and prose 2.5 stars, and ideas 4.5 stars. Furthermore, the novel adds to the setting and what it adds are improvements with two remarkable innovations, without adding any dross. So I already gave it a +1 star bonus to ideas because of how it improves the setting. You can call one of the innovations a retcon, but what it does enhances the setting and inspired Bruce Heard to incorporate that development in 1997.

The Red Steel/Savage Coast setting makes it easier to let characters stand out by using their legacies, while giving the writer an opportunity to hang his or herself by wasting time detailing every minor character's legacy. With one exception, the author Morris Simon avoids that pitfall and legacies are brought up when they become relevant. In this novel, to ask a stranger about his or her legacy is considered rude and prying.

If I have any bias at all about this book, it would be because of how it handles the mystery of ancient Nithia. It nails it perfectly. It hits the grand-slam home run. It completes the Hail Mary touchdown pass. It sinks the three pointer through the hoop as time expires. And it scores a hat trick in ice hockey and soccer. After watching so many previous writers botch the mystery of Nithia in practice, to see it handled with this level of exquisite perfection is enough to bring a tear to my eye.'s beautiful.

So if you might be at all inclined to read this novel all these years later since it came out, I encourage you to go out and get a copy. And don't read any further posts I put up in this thread until you do.

The novel is set in the nation of Almarron. The first three chapters take place a few months before the rest of the novel, introducing us to some of the main characters. The major plot of the book takes up the rest of the novel and happens in Ambyrmont(September), 1010 AC.

A brief timeline and primer from the Savage Baronies box set...

977 AC Almarron conquers and absorbs Escudor.
978-980 AC Almarron wars result in Rivera merging with Gargona and General Cimarron leading his forces, including Cimarron pistoleers, to victory over Almarron and independence. The Baron of Almarron is overthrown and a Traladaran-style democracy is instituted.
994 AC A dictator seizes control of Almarron.
1008 AC Internal revolution throughout the baronies as peasants and tortles revolt, Yazak goblinoids invade all along the Savage Coast, the dictator in Almarron is overthrown and the son of the former Baron is installed in his place.

The baronies of Gargona, Almarron and Saragon are known as the Enlightened States for promoting learning, encouraging magic, and striving for justice and peace. All three are close geographically and face the threat of Narvaez. The first two are formed from territory once belonging to Narvaez. Wizards are more common here than elsewhere in the Savage Baronies.

The new baron seeks to transform Almarron and has succeeded in encouraging quality craftsmanship that is improving the barony's export business. Mostly human, there are a few families of demi-humans scattered across the state. There are no true peasants here, and only one noble family. Swashbucklers are common, Honorbound, Gauchos and Scouts are also present.

Almarron imports food from Saragon and cinnabryl from Vilaverde. It has only a small number of its own ships. It exports silver from its mines as well as tobacco and coffee. Much of the nation's coffee is sold to Hule and Yavdlom via Vilaverdan ships. Fine crafted goods like furniture, clothing and jewelry are opening new markets for Almarron to sell to. All of the five main Immortals of the Savage Baronies are honored here with the Ambassador venerated by a majority.

Baron Maximiliano is a Noble fighter who was a baby when his father was deposed almost 30 years ago. He grew up in Saragon with his pride tempered in exile before returning to Almarron a decade ago to try and overthrow the dictator. He rules with a firm hand but avoids over-taxation. He is friends with Dona Esperanza in Gargona and Don Luis de Manzanas, an important noble and Inheritor in Saragon.

Ciudad Tejillas is the capital and center of commerce, and has a fleet of mostly fishing ships. It sports a theater and museum and is considered a lively but safe place to visit. The barony also has two villages. The first is Costalla which supports farming and foresting and the nearby silver mines in Sierra del Plata. The second village is Paso Dorado, a trading, farming and fishing center. Castillo de Tordegena is a castle that guarded the western border until destroyed by Yazi gnolls, there is now a garrison of soldiers which camps nearby while the Baron decides if it is worth cleaning out and rebuilding.

Some of the main characters-

Tristan Medina is the commander of an Honorbound company that protects Baron Maximiliano just as it protected his father when Tristan established the company years ago, writing the Precepts and Protocols himself. Even before that, Tristan served as a bodyguard for Baron Maximiliano's grandfather. The book incorrectly states in a couple of places the dictator overthrew the old Baron, but also does later mention the Traladaran democracy which replaced the Baron. Tristan and his company were the biggest reason the son was able to regain his father's throne. Tristan is Baron Maximiliano's uncle, he was the brother-in-law of the previous baron.

Captain Hernan Costa was one of Tristan's officers until recently, when he resigned to become a Lone Honorbound. He still takes orders from Tristan, however, allowing Tristan to assign him to politically sensitive missions without the appearance of the Baron's direct involvement. Costa was known in the company as a rigid perfectionist before he left, and among Honorbound that is saying something.

Jorge Alvarez is an ex-gaucho from Guadalante who has the nickname "The Digger" because of his dig Legacy, which allows him to move more earth in an hour than most men can accomplish in a day. He is Afflicted, with one hand looking like a garden spade and his mind addled by the Red Curse. This is by choice, however, for Baron Maximiliano has a program of distributing shipments of cinnabryl to the poor. Jorge simply prefers to sell his cinnabryl, and his wife's share, for more drink at Pablo's catina in Paso Dorado. His wife doesn't know there is a cure for the Red Curse and suffers from her acidic touch.

Mazrooth al Yedom is a mystic, sage, wizard and scholar. He is also an Inheritor belonging to the Ruby Brotherhood. He lives alone in a citadel in the Sierra Borgosa highlands because of his frightening appearance due to multiple Afflictions. He also lives alone because he just prefers it that way. He is an expert on Oltec artifacts and the Red Curse, seeking links between the two. He is one of the few people to have studied the Barrier Mask, which is also called the mask of Ixion in this novel.

Miguel Prado works as a freelance procurement agent and is very good at his job. That clients pay him well is obvious from his clothes and the red steel saber that hangs from his hip. His career allows him to work a second job as a spy, and in this role he is well served by his near photographic memory, his ability to mimic facial expressions and tone of voice, and his Charm legacy. His diplomatic skills are highly refined to back up that legacy, allowing him to get along and befriend just about anyone. The only exception are lupins, he has a racial hatred for the species, stemming from events in his childhood. He has worked for Baron Maximiliano before in his capacity as a spy.

Don Esteban is the former dictator(he would say liberator) of Almarron. He was the common mayor of Ciudad Tejillas who took advantage and seized power in Almarron from the democratic government which had replaced the Baron. He currently resides in Ciudad Real, the capital of neighboring Gargona, hiding from Baron Maximiliano's agents. Some of his most loyal followers were the silver miners of the Sierra del Plata hills, he was able to appeal to the miners' resentment of the aristocracy. He has an armed force of fugitive guerrilla fighters hiding out in the swamps of Gargona, waiting for the right time to use them to seize back Almarron.

There are two more important characters but introducing them here is major spoilers, so they will need to wait for the next post.

You can review this map for locations in Almarron, the nation lies northeast of Cimarron County and east of El Grande Carrascal.

Baron Maximiliano distributes cinnabryl to the common populace through his nobles, and it is clear some of his relatives are selling it on the black market and pocketing the money. It is a thorny political problem as the Baron needs the support of his aristocracy, so his commander Tristan Medina does nothing...until Captain Costa finds it so dishonorable that he confronts Tristan. Tristan suggests Costa resign so that he can act while giving Tristan and the Baron a plausible way to deny involvement.

Costa zeroes in on Don Fuentes, a distant cousin of the Baron who has reported the theft of his monthly cinnabryl allotment four times in the past six months. Costa follows Fuentes when he picks up the next cinnabryl shipment in Ciudad Tejillas and follows him to the noble's hacienda on the outskirts of Paso Dorado. At night he observes Fuentes meet a rider outside the estate and sell the cinnabryl for gold. Costa identifies the rider as a native of Saragon, specifically Saragon's southern Montejo province, recognizing the accent from his time during the recent wars when he served with Saragoner Honorbound at the Battle of Morrion under Sir John of Cimarron. He follows and confronts the Saragoner attempting to confiscate the cinnabryl. The man refuses, and they duel, each wielding a red steel rapier. Costa manages to disarm his foe, but the man turns out to be an Inheritor, activating his armor legacy, covering his skin in thick scales, and pulling his second weapon, a red steel main gauche. Costa manages to wear the Inheritor down until the armor spell starts to expire, and then entangles the man in vines of the nearby forest. The man frantically tries to free himself before Costa can strike him, and as he slashes at vines choking him, he opens his own neck, having failed to realize his armor spell has expired.

Don Guido de los Ventes is a wealthy landowner whose hacienda stretches for three miles along the border with Gargona in the rolling Sierra Borgosa hills. He hires Jorge Alvarez the Digger to dig a new well on his property. While digging deep Alvarez does manage to find water, but he also finds bones. As Alvarez continues to excavate, he finds a skull, which is that of an athach giant. More importantly, Alvarez pockets an obsidian arrowhead embedded in the jawbone with a silver glyph embedded below the surface.

Soon, Alvarez is showing off his find at Pablo's Catina, and that draws some attention. He is approached by Miguel Prado who invites Alvarez to his room at the Hotel Castile. Prado has a natural way with befriending people before even using his Legacy, and soon Alvarez is relating everything about the arrowhead to his new best friend. Alvarez is happy to sell Prado the arrowhead for two gold.

Two days later, Prado is at the home of Mazrooth al Yedom to sell the arrowhead. Mazrooth listens to the tale and identifies the athach, mentioning they have been extinct on the Savage Coast for over 1000 years. The arrowhead is of much greater interest, and it is identified at this point as being of the "late Oltec" period. It isn't made by that culture, but I will get to that explanation later.

Months later the action begins in the Rio Mercurio silver mine, which has been worked since Traladarans first settled this land. Thought to have been largely played out, it was closed until recently. With the Baron needing more silver, many old mines have been reopened in the hopes of finding untapped veins of the metal. What appears to be such a vein is found deep in the mine, but something completely unexpected is discovered. A black obsidian statue embedded with silver glyphs is found inside a sealed cavern, sealed with silver on all sides. The two miners who first discover it are killed by a cave-in, and when the rescue team manages to make its way to their location, they find a faint red glow emanating from the statue.

This sets off a frenzy of rumors as well as galvanizing both Baron Maximiliano and Don Esteban to action. The dwarf and human miners are convinced the statue is cursed, while a mystic from Gargona tells her disciples that the statue must be the body of Ixion, the manikin part of the Oltec artifact which matches the Barrier Mask and must be reunited with it. Medina and the Baron discuss what to do, and agree to send it to Mazrooth and let him determine what it really is. Medina dispatches Costa to escort the statue to the wizard's citadel, while the Baron calls on Prado to convince Mazrooth to help and report directly to him on what Mazrooth discovers.

What we soon learn, however, is that not only did Esteban know of the statue as soon as the Baron did, but he also keeps Prado in his employ as well. Prado is summoned to a meeting with Esteban in an herbalist shop in Ciudad Real and learns details of the statue which remind him of the arrowhead. He is more than willing to serve as a double agent, reporting to both political rivals on Mazrooth's progress. He departs for the citadel.

Captain Costa arrives in a small lush valley near the silver mines that is home to the aristocracy who own mines in the Sierra del Plata hills. Don Galvez, owner of the mine where the statue was found, has a crowd of onlookers outside his gate, drawn by the rumors. Costa meets Galvez and the aristocrat offers to buy his red steel blade, which Costa politely declines, it having been a gift from Commander Medina. Costa departs with the statue covered in a cart and two of Galvez's sons and two of his miners(one human miner by the name of Bartolome Moreno and one dwarf miner) to help protect it on the first stage of their journey to the military camp near Castillo de Tordegena.

On the route through the mountains skirting the edge of El Grande Carrascal, Costa converses with Moreno and the subject turns to the gnolls that live in this wild land. Here would be a good time to review details on the gnolls found in the Red Steel and Savage Baronies box sets...

El Grande Carrascal, the region between Cimarron, Almarron, Saragon and Guadalante is full of gnolls and some bandits. Gnolls adapted quickly to horses brought by Ispans and today have spotted horses well adapted to the scrubland terrain. Many gnolls are Beast Riders with their mounts. The major tribes of gnolls are the Long Legs, Chiriquis, and Dead Yuccas. The latter two tribes are civilized and often trade and negotiate with humans. The Long Legs are more savage and were able to dominate and unite the tribes three years ago leading to the violent horde which attacked many of the baronies until defeated in Saragon. The alliance broke apart for good a year later at Red Creek Battle when they were defeated a second time by Cimarron troops led by Sir John. The ruin at Buenos Viente is the site of a town which may have Traladaran origins and is still relatively intact as the buildings were made of fired clay. It is said to be a ghost town as those who have visited there say they can hear eerie voices like echoes of half-heard conversations.

There is an informal company of Honorbound among the gnolls of El Grande Carrascal near the Savage Baronies.

Moreno mentions that he has seen the markings Costa wears on some of the gnolls, which Costa finds shocking. Medina had briefed him on the gnolls, but the fact that gnolls have Honorbound among them is either a recent development or not common knowledge. Costa soon sees for himself, as gnolls trap the cart on the narrow trail. The enmity of the miners causes them to open fire first, with the dwarf firing a flintlock musket. Hmm...that should have been an arquebus. There are casualties on both sides, with the dwarf miner killed and Moreno wounded, before Costa is able to parley with the Honorbound gnoll leader.

She identifies herself as Marshal Vupilor Watak of the Red Creek Honorbound Confederacy, and she demands to see the contents of the cart, believing it carries supplies for the fort and the soldiers there. When she sees the statue, she stares at if for a few minutes before she and the gnolls withdraw. Costa observes that the statue depicts one of Vupilor's race.

Costa and the statue arrive at the stockaded camp outside Castillo de Tordagena, where he meets the commander of the garrison, Colonel Gustavo Madras. After securing a promise from the Colonel for a platoon to finish escorting the statue to Mazrooth's citadel, Costa begins asking questions about the gnolls. Some of the information related we find later is incorrect due to the colonel's ignorance, but some of it is accurate. The Long Legs include the Watakan tribe, and legends are the gnolls lived on the coast all along the Gulf of Hule since before even the Traladarans arrived. They were forced off the coast and into the desert of El Grande Carrascal with the arrival of the Thyatians(specifically the Ispans) on the Claw Peninsula.

If you have already guessed where this is leading, congratulations. Vupilor Watak and her people aren't gnolls at all, they are hutakaans. Before this, hutaakans only exist in the Hollow World as a preserved race, and in the Lost Valley of Karameikos where they are likely doomed to die out. This novel, however, establishes this old race as a proud people still surviving, if not thriving, amidst the Savage Baronies. The hutakaans appear to be outnumbered by gnolls, but the gnolls we see are subservient and obey the hutakaans. The Chiriquis who are with Vupilor are clearly gnolls and there is mention of some interbreeding between the Chiriquis and the Watakans. The difference in appearance between the hyena-headed gnolls and the jackal-headed hutakaans is less obvious because the Watakans wear turbans.

The next day Costa rides with Lieutenant Vargas and the platoon to escort the cart. Passing the great castle, Vargas tells Costa how the castle fell to the gnolls during the recent wars. The Yazi confederacy, led by the Long Legs, besieged the castle until a small party of Yazi sappers scaled the eastern wall at night and hid the next day, observing the garrison's routines. That night they killed the guards near the arsenal and began throwing supplies and weapons over the wall. Next was the smokepowder, but the entire stockpile exploded, breaching the wall and allowing the Yazis to storm and capture the place.

Vargas soon points out to Costa that a Yazi scouting party is following them, although they stay far enough away to be barely visible. When they arrive at Mazrooth's citadel, Costa notes the even more reddish hue of the nearby terrain, and considers the possibility Mazrooth chose this place because it is considered one of the places where earliest reports of the Red Curse originated. The text is incorrect here, referring to this event happening eleven years ago, the correct reference would be that this citadel is close to the place of the event that started the Inheritors eleven years ago(as detailed in the Savage Baronies box set)...

The Red Curse has been studied here in Saragon more than anywhere else. Saragon's cinnabryl and red steel are obtained through the private networks of the Inheritor orders. An adventuring group of eleven members, led by Don Luis(at that time only the heir to Torre de Manzanas), uncovered a prophecy of power which could be derived from the Red Curse. With the help of an alchemist these Saragoners developed the first vials of crimson essence and became the first Inheritors. Some of this adventuring group belonged to the Brotherhood of Order, others to the Friends of Freedom, so Luis and the remaining unaffiliated joined the Neutral Alliance later in an attempt to preserve a balance of power.

Prado is there to meet them, and he and Costa take each others measure for the first time. Prado hands Costa a letter with Medina's seal to confirm he was hired by the Baron. The statue is brought through the outer double doors into a large courtyard lit by glass spheres filled with phospor. Mazrooth appears and orders Costa to dismiss the soldiers and miners, but Costa grows suspicious as Mazrooth does not appear to be afflicted and disfigured as Medina led him to believe he would be. To avoid a confrontation, Prado uses his Charm legacy and a beguiled Costa dismisses everyone else. A short time later this nearly leads to bloodshed, as Mazrooth becomes so engrossed in his examination of the statue that his Disguise legacy starts to waver and his appearance begins to take on that of an arachnid.

Prado knows of this Afflicted form and expects this, but Costa, still not thinking clearly under the charm effect, is shocked and attacks what he believes is a monster. Mazrooth narrowly avoids being stabbed, and when Prado intervenes Costa faces off against him. The charm is broken and the Honorbound is momentarily furious, realizing the magical effect. Fortunately, Costa is reminded of the Honorbound Protocols and stands down.

In Mazrooth's laboratory, they shutter the lights, and in the darkness all three men witness a rosy spark ignite deep within the ebony statue, billowing out into a red fog that fills the interior. Mazrooth's detect magic has it react and an ephemeral head and face coalesce from the red haze briefly. This is enough for Mazrooth to conclude the statue is not any counterpart of the Barrier Mask, but is instead a black vessel which holds some intelligent life-force that has survived for untold centuries.

Costa asks if it might be a djinni who is imprisoned in the statue. Prado is unfamiliar with the name, and Mazrooth asks where a soldier of Almarron had heard of such a creature. Costa relates how he served as a page for a Saragonan Honorbound, a Commander Haffi, during the gaucho wars and the Battle of Coresillas. Haffi traced his lineage to Ylaruam and told many tales of his ancestors' homeland. Mazrooth warms a bit to Costa and points out a section of his library dedicated to books written in Ylari, commenting that those sources have written more history about the Savage Coast before the Traladaran arrival (450 AC) than anyone else.

Costa and Prado converse for some time after Mazrooth retires, and when Prado attempts to politely inquire about Costa's legacy, he is rebuffed. In the morning, Costa is woken by an alarmed Mazrooth. A horde of Yazi are camped right outside the citadel. Observing them, Costa recognizes Chiriquis gnolls as well as Watakan(Hutakaan) Long Legs including Vupilor and three other Honorbound. Costa is confident he can negotiate with them, while Prado vehemently insists they must instead try to withstand a siege. Mazrooth allows Costa to try.

Costa and Vupilor come to terms. She has brought her uncle Joffik, the tribe archivist and priest of Tabak(Ixion), to study the statue, as he believes it may be sacred to their people. Mazrooth overrules Prado's objection, for he notes the Watakan resemblance to the statue and that Vupilor's Honorbound insignia is a symbol matching both the glyph on the enchanted obsidian arrowhead as well one of the many glyphs found on the black vessel.

That Mazrooth has come to respect Costa's judgement and is listening to his counsel injures Prado's pride, and the Watakans trigger his lupin prejudice. When he requests permission to depart for a few days to make a report to the Baron, Mazrooth grants it. Prado heads for the capital, but stops in Paso Dorado first to pass word to Esteban's contact there, a silversmith merchant, requesting a meeting. When Prado arrives at the capital, he meets with the Baron and Commander Medina. He spins a narrative which includes technically true details but portrays them in a light that makes it sound as if Costa is sharing the secrets of the artifact with the Yazi. (Costa clearly knew the gnoll Honorbound from before, invited her into the citadel to examine the statue, etc.) Medina is so angered he almost challenges Prado to a duel, which gets him kicked out of the meeting. Prado takes advantage of all his skills and Charm legacy and plays on his knowledge of the Baron to weave a conspiracy suggesting that Costa may be working with Medina to usurp the barony with the potent magic contained in the statue.

This almost doesn't work, but Medina's reaction when his nephew later confronts him with the Charm still in effect convinces the Baron he must be hiding something, and Medina is put under confinement. Medina is convinced the statue and Prado are a clear threat to the nation of Almarron, and decides this justifies disobeying the Baron. He manages to sneak out of the estate and departs. When the Charm effect begins to wear off, the Baron seeks out Medina to apologize, but when he finds his uncle missing this re-ignites his paranoia and he immediately calls on his militia troops to find his uncle and arrest the other leaders of the Honorbound company. Prado meets with the Baron the next morning, plays him further, and promises that he will ensure the statue does not fall into the wrong hands.

Prado then returns to Paso Dorado and clandestinely meets with Esteban undercover in Pablo's Catina. There he spins another narrative, stunning Esteban with the news that Medina is accused of treason in a failed coup against the Baron. He plays on his knowledge of Esteban and tells a story that Medina and Costa have joined with the Inheritors, led by Mazrooth, to use the magic of the statue to take over Almarron. As the two men prepare to depart, Alvarez the Digger notices Prado and greets the pair, not recognizing Esteban. On Esteban's order, Prado lures Alvarez into an alley with no witnesses and stabs him.

Medina arrives in town soon after, and is the first to find Alvarez as he lays dying. Alvarez manages to spit out the name of his murderer, but then a couple walking by spot Medina and begin to shout an alarm. Medina is forced to flee as more witnesses gather. Prado returns to the scene to see if he can further incriminate someone else, and when he hears witnesses describe the Honorbound markings, he recognizes only two men wear such a mark. Since he believes Medina is still under arrest(the Baron did not share the detail of the escape), he informs the crowd and militia that it must be Hernan Costa.

Speaking of which, let's return to events at Mazrooth's home. The wizard is excited that the Watakan priest may hold the key to understanding the glyphs he had been studying for years. Mazrooth reflects on his knowledge and different avenues of research in studying the Red Curse, giving the reader insights into some of the history of the Savage Coast. Most antiquarian sages on the Savage Coast refer to two ancient periods of one civilization, the Classical Oltec period and the Late Oltec period. Mazrooth's theory, which puts him in a tiny minority among sages, is that Late Oltec isn't Oltec civilization at all, but some other civilization. His interest in this civilization is peaked because its disappearance occurs at the same approximate time when the Red Curse first began to surface.

You probably already guessed this, so congratulations, Late Oltec is Nithian civilization. The black vessel was constructed by the Nithians and entombed deep within the earth. They also either brought the Hutakaans with them when they established their colony on the Savage Coast, or the Hutakaans came and established their own colonies on the Savage Coast that had some overlapping time period with the Nithian colony. I will note that Nithia never gets mentioned at all in this novel, and Mazrooth is never closer to establishing his theory that Late Oltec is a completely distinct civilization from the older Oltec civilization. In fact, for every point you can make about Late Oltec being different from Classical Oltec, there is a counter-point to argue. "Sure, recovered Late Oltec magical devices are more potent and powerful than recovered Classical Oltec magical devices. But you have to realize that Classical Oltec devices are much older and the magic has simply lost more of its potency. Even more likely the Late Oltecs improved their artificing skills, that was also why they switched to using obsidian, they advanced their technology as well."

What Morris Simon has done in this novel is what should have been done right after GAZ2 came out with a directive issued to all the writers. I will now take this bit of inspired genius and combine it with an unrelated movie to give you the three rules of Nithia that all Mystara campaigns and writers should follow...

The first rule of Nithia is: You do not talk about Nithia.
The second rule of Nithia is: You do not talk about Nithia. Talk about some other ancient civilization instead.
Third rule of Nithia: If a player, or the DM, yells stop, goes limp, taps out, the fight is over.

And on that note...

Where was I? Right, the glyphs. Every Ni-...Late Oltec artifact that Mazrooth had examined before this would have only one symbol, and he had concluded they were personal emblems or insignia rather than language. But the statue is covered in these symbols which are clearly being used as language. There is an aside that the Classical Oltec had a written language of hieroglyphics but this statue indicates the Late Oltec used standard orthographic characters. (Obviously that is contrary to ancient Egypt.)

In the conversation between Mazrooth and Joffik, with Vupilor translating, we learn that Buenos Viente, the Traladaran ruins in El Grande Carrascal, lies on top of another ruin with buildings and structures now underground. This underground ruin is Joffik's home, and according to Joffik, the people there also worshiped Tabak and his ancestors helped build the city. Mazrooth believes this underground ruin is likely late Oltec(probably a joint effort with the hutakaans). The Traladarans who arrived a little over 500 years ago invaded the underground city and ransacked its treasures.

When Vupilor told Joffik of the statue, he was convinced it might hold the spirit of one of their people's early rulers. Mazrooth leads the pair and Costa back to the laboratory to allow the priest to study the statue. Joffik is blind but uses his sense of touch to investigate the statue. When he casts detect evil and touches the statue, the red entity within surges as a red fog again and a tremendous flaring light knocks Joffik to the floor while blinding the other three.

A healing potion is enough to rouse Joffik enough to relate that the black vessel does not house an ancestral spirit, but some entity that is too powerful for his protection magic. The statue reminds him of figures he saw in his youth, when he traveled across the sea(Gulf of Hule) to study and take his vows to become a priest. Vupilor explains that her uncle has told her that more watakan(hutakaan) relatives live in Outer Yavdlom. The figures are there in a cave on a great plain. Mazrooth asks Vupilor if there was writing in the caves as well, Joffik confirms this, and Vupilor looks at her Honorbound symbol which matches one of the glyphs on the statue. Joffik chose that symbol for her, one he learned from the cave, it means guardian.

Mazrooth comes up with a plan. The two Honorbound warriors will travel and try to locate the cave in Yavdlom, assuming it still exists, since it is over sixty years ago when Joffik was there. The hope is that someone there will be able to translate the glyphs, so Mazrooth transcribes the symbols from the statue onto parchment. Vupilor is eager to travel and see for the first time the home of others of her kind.

Once they depart, Mazrooth waits as Joffik sleeps, concerned that the ethereal entity may have already escaped the statue and possessed the priest. Preparing for such an eventuality and otherwise alone, he shifts into his full arachnid form. Yes, Mazrooth al Yedom is indeed an aranea from Herath, who settled on the outskirts of Almarron and El Grande Carrascal to study the Red Curse as well as Oltec artifacts. He isn't Afflicted at all, that is just his cover to allay fears when he is spotted in demi-spider form.

When Joffik finally awakens, the hutakaan appears in control of his faculties. (There is an error in the text comparing this later chapter to earlier when the statue flared and knocked Joffik to the floor. Here it implies he stayed unconscious until now, rather than waking up immediately and conversing with Mazrooth and the Honorbound.) Mazrooth is caught off-guard, however, by Joffik's sense of smell. Joffik is able to detect the differences in Mazrooth's scent between arachnid and human form, and eventually recalls the one time before he encountered such a scent. He uses some ointment of true seeing and sees Mazrooth for what he truly is, noting that he had met one other wizardess in the past who came from Herath, also a giant spider. Mazrooth is able to convince Joffik that what he is seeing is the result of how the Red Curse affects people in Herath, and the matter is dropped. I will note that Herathian aranea can't actually be detected by true seeing according to the rules, but I partially forgive this specific breach due to the storytelling requirement. Having a major character in your novel be a giant spider demands an explanation for those readers who don't know the setting, so Simon uses this scene to provide the expected payoff and it works fine.

Meanwhile, Captain Costa and Marshal Vupilor embark on a direct off-road route to Ciudad Tejillas to book passage on a ship. I enjoy these sections both for the growing professional respect between these two Honorbound warriors that develops into genuine friendship, as well as the incidental bits and pieces of insight into Hutakaan life that Vupilor reveals organically. Vupilor's own family worked for generations on the hacienda of one Dos Cabezas and she attended the private school there with human children where she learned both Common(Thyatian) and Classical Traladaran. The Long Legs are made up of five clans, two of which are Watakan/Hutakaan and three of which are more closely related to gnolls like the Chiriquis and Dead Yuccas. She and the other Honorbound of her people call themselves the Red Creek Companions and modeled their Code and Protocols based on Tristan Medina's example, who is one of the few humans the Yazi hold in high esteem.

Costa observes as they ride that Vupilor is able to control her pinto pony without any verbal or physical commands. He thinks of her as one of the famed Beast Riders, although in this case we learn later it is the result of her Legacy, which is limited telepathy that mostly works on animals. They arrive at the Almarron capital in the early evening as a rainstorm hits the area. Vupilor is assumed to be an odd lupin by those few who see her. Costa visits the mariners' taverns near the Governor's House, and in the Rusty Sextant he books passage on a cog named the Francesca, based out of Porto Preto. The mob of people in the Rusty Sextant tavern is a microcosm of the Savage Coast, with humans, elves, halflings, rakasta, lupins represented at tables and even two tortle mariners paying cards in a corner with other sailors.

Costa tries to visit Medina at the Governor's House to make a report, and thanks to the lateness of the hour and the storm only a young militiaman is on duty. The rookie doesn't recognize Costa and blabs all about the supposed coup, leaving Costa bewildered. He returns to Vupilor at the stables and the two board the Francesca which departs before dawn.

Thirty hours later they pass the lighthouse on Berat Island and arrive in Slagovich. The ship goes into the cavern below the city and a lock system pumps water into the cavern to raise the ship up to the plateau on the cliffs where the city resides. It is mentioned that Stavro, uncle to the regent and commander of the Knights of Halav, is an old associate of Tristan Medina and modeled his knights after the commander's Honorbound Company. The harbormaster, who wears the gold tabard of the Knights, upon hearing Vupilor say she is Watakan, asks her if she is Hutakaan, "like the cave people in Yavdlom."

The Honorbound warriors retrieve their mounts and depart Slagovich through the eastern gate, reaching the flind bar as a backup weapon.

The pair make their way cross-country and see something is very wrong at Mazrooth's citadel with the outer doors left wide open. Joffik is located in the stables fading in and out of consciousness, with a Yazi gnoll who found him administering to him. They learn from the pair that Commander Medina is dead, and that Prado and many men came two days ago and took the statue, heading east, in the direction of Gargona. Costa is so torn by rage and grief that he renounces his Honorbound status so he can pursue revenge against Prado. This leaves Vupilor with the choice of going along with his renegade status or hunting him down like a criminal. She too decides to become a renegade. Examining the body of the poisoned Esteban man, they find muck from the delta on his boots.

They head for Gargona, Costa correctly guessing they might be hiding out in the swamps close to Paso Dorado. They are able to pick up the trail when the land becomes softer near the border, the tracks from the mine cart leading the way. When they get close, it is clear something is very wrong, as the swamp is completely silent. Finding Esteban's camp, everyone they see is dead, with men scattered like rag dolls on the ground and in trees. The scavenging animals are also dead, with the body of a massive alligator sprawled upside down. And everywhere floating in the water and scattered on land are dead birds, plucked from the air.

Mazrooth is alive and in the swamp, however, having been carefully observing everything from afar and preparing to stop the creature. With the arrival of Costa and Vupilor, he approaches them and avoids their attacks until he convinces them it truly is him in this Afflicted aranean form. The creature released from the black vessel is a giant/advanced version of a crimson death mist, although here is a better picture. Mazrooth needs the two warriors to fight and distract it long enough for him to cast the spells he hopes will stop it. He enchants Vupilor's sword so that it has magical enhancement, since Costa's rapier and main gauche are red steel, there is no need to do the same for his weapons.

Prado chooses this time to strike, having somehow escaped the release of the creature. He stuns Vupilor and he and Costa duel, rapier against saber. Prado has the initial advantage, making lightning strikes that force Costa back toward the muck and water of the swamp, slowing him down with each step. Costa takes a couple of wounds as Vupilor recovers, while Mazrooth merely watches. Vupilor yells and manages to distract Prado at the moment he cuts for Costa's neck, and Costa manages to roll out of the way just in time. Prado resumes the attack, but now he is a bit winded and fatigued and Costa was playing the long game. This time it is Costa who begins to press the attack, as Prado is forced to fall back. Vupilor stops a few feet away and stands ready to intervene.

But before Costa can win, all three warriors are surrounded by a red fog, and the crimson death mist appears. Prado separates from Costa and is about to attack Vupilor as she stares at the aberration. Costa sees this from a distance and his Legacy activates. He throws a huge ball of fire at Prado, which sets the man aflame. Maddened by pain, Prado races for the swamp to douse the fire, only to run into the crimson death which drains him dry. Mazrooth orders them to attack it, and both Vupilor and Costa strike at it from different directions.

The creature nearly drains Costa but at the last minute it realizes the real threat is Mazrooth. One of his spells dehydrates it, turning it into a large pile of red dust at their feet. Mazrooth collects some of it in a flask and then scatters the rest with a wind spell. He tells the two warriors that its ethereal essence is contained in the dust, and that to manifest again all of its essence must be gathered. Thus, as long as he keeps the vial safe, it can never return.

Just one question, Mazrooth," said Costa, as he nudged the residue of the dust pile with the toe of his boot. "Have you ever been wrong before?"

The final chapter has a restored Mazrooth sitting in his study with Costa writing down everything the man can remember about his visit to the Hutakaan underground chambers in Outer Yavdlom. After some discussion, Mazrooth concludes that the Hutakaans did not construct the underground chamber, carve the sculptures or enchant the black vessel or the larger statue Costa saw. Instead, the masters the Hutakaans served did all these things, those Ni...late Oltecs.

Costa asks why Mazrooth did not intervene when Prado attacked, Mazrooth admits that he needed someone with a magic weapon to distract the crimson death, and it would be more vulnerable after it fed. Costa asks how he could know that it would devour Prado first. Mazrooth admits he didn't, but if it is any consolation, he is glad Vupilor and Costa survived. Mazrooth has decided to trust the pair with the secret of the aranea.

Costa reflects on events since the battle in the swamp. Mazrooth used his Inheritor contacts to get Don Luis de Manzanas of Saragon to intercede with Baron Maximiliano. Costa is exonerated and Tristan Medina was given a burial with full honors. Vupilor has reclaimed her Honorbound status and she and Joffik have returned to Buenos Viente. Esteban's body was not recovered from the swamp, making it likely Prado was not the only one to initially escape. Esteban still plots to seize control of Almarron. Costa now must decide whether to resume his Honorbound career, or take Mazrooth up on the wizard's offer to become an Inheritor to master his Legacy, rather than fear it.

My last post deals with the two-page blurb that advertises Mystara which appears at the end of this book. Ironically, just as the setting is being brought to a publishing end, this marketing pitch actually does a good job of summarizing the setting. See for yourself, see if you can identify each thing it talks about from reading this thread, and see if you can spot any errors(I spotted one)...

Sprawling across the boundaries of the Known World like a great, serpentine dragon lies the bustling, ever-startling world of Mystara, a land where the only constant is change.

Mystara has managed to survive through three disasters of cataclysmic proportions. The first such disaster, The Great Rain of Fire, came about some four millennia ago. It was then that the ancient Blackmoors, masters of magic and technology, loosed their powerful weapons on the land in an Armageddon that forever changed the face of the world.

Although the people of Blackmoor failed to survive this self-inflicted calamity, they were nevertheless players in the second major disaster some thirteen hundred years later, when unsuspecting elves unwittingly detonated a powerful artifact left behind by the men of Blackmoor. The resulting explosion not only wiped out whole races but also brought about a change in climate that spawned a new ice age.

In more modern times, vengeful gods and goddesses brought about a series of cataclysmic events known as the Wrath of the Immortals. A great meteorite struck the land, an entire continent sank beneath the ocean, and a deadly plague began to spread.

Mystara is a world of constant surprises. Where else would you expect to find a flying city, a magical mountain, a floating continent, an invisible moon complete with inhabitants, and an entire region of the world with its population held under the sinister, body-altering influence of a mysterious magical substance? What other land possesses an entire separate world inside its hollow core, with neither world's population aware of the existence of the other?

In Mystara, you'll discover brave adventurers, powerful mages, evil villains, majestic dragons, lurking monsters. An entire civilization that has lived underground for hundreds of years, a nation of halflings, an island kingdom of pirates. Immortals who dabble in the affairs of mere mortals for their own amusement. An entire race that has migrated to Mystara from another world.

Fire and air magic...

A blighted, magically enchanted forest...

A sunken continent...

It's all here, and much, much more, when you dare to visit the magical, mystical world of Mystara!