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The Empire of the Firelordby Ville Lähde from Threshold Magazine issue 3
I wrote this campaign in the early 1990´s, and our group played it in 1994–95, if I remember correctly. The events take place in the Thanegioth Archipelago circa 1000 AC, but the campaign can be adapted to other time periods, as it is only loosely connected to canon material. It should be noted however, that this is not a ready-to-run adventure. The editors of Threshold have courteously provided island maps based on my originals, but any building maps are long since gone. Also in keeping with the spirit of this publication, I have kept the text rules-light. On the other hand, the prospective GMs would have to tailor the campaign to suit the abilities of the PCs anyway. I provide only approximations of monster and NPC numbers and abilities. In any case the campaign will be a demanding one for the PCs, so it is definitely meant for the higher Expert-level range in ye olde D&D parlance.
This campaign assumes that the Thanegioth Archipelago is unknown and unexplored, much like the assumptions made in X1 Isle of Dread. That module is definitely useful for anyone running this campaign. The mystery of the archipelago is central to the campaign.
The campaign revolves around the ambitions of the renegade magic-user Daricus, who harbours a bitter hatred for the two empires, Alphatia and Thyatia. He is the leader of the ancient Cult of Starfire Sphere, a sub-cult within the larger cult of Rathanos, the Immortal of fire and energy. Daricus has built a small empire in the Thanegioth Archipelago, led by himself as the “Firelord” and other members of the cult, fire mages and clerics of Rathanos. His ambitions are many: 1) to finalize his control of the whole Archipelago and to decimate the remaining opposition, 2) to exact revenge on Thyatis and Alphatia and 3) to complete the mystical Ritual of Ascension that will assist him in all his other goals and make him one of the most powerful beings in the world. If he succeeds, a powerful Reign of Fire will begin on these parts of Mystara.
The assumption of this campaign is that the PCs oppose the Firelord. They have been sent to investigate the disappearance of many Thyatian vessels in the Sea of Dread – they were captured or scuttled by the Firelord’s raiders. The quest to punish these strange pirates pits them against a dangerous foe, reveals ancient secrets, offers the possibility of new friends and allies, and may decide the fate of the two empires.
Historical Background and Timeline
The backdrop for the whole campaign and much of its historical background is the Cult of Rathanos and one of its sub-cults, the Cult of the Starfire Sphere. I’ll explore that first and then move on to describe first the history of the original Firelord and then the history of the modern Firelord Daricus. In the end of this section I’ll offer a schematic timeline.
Rathanos and the Cult of the Starfire Sphere
Rathanos is an Immortal consumed by an interest in Fire and energy transformations, especially transforming biological beings into beings of pure energy. He is symbolised by a burning brand, often in the shape of a fiery Ankh, as he was worshipped in the lost Empire of Nithia. In the early years of the Nithian Empire, worship of Rathanos was widespread but mostly constrained to elite circles of scholars, priests, mages, alchemists and people attracted by the dream of transformation into “Beings of Fire” (or Light). The mysterious Magian Fire Worshippers, who forged alliances with beings in the Elemental Plane of Fire, were always in close albeit a bit uneasy contact with followers of Rathanos. Only the more militant branches had more cooperation.
After the destruction of Nithia, a mystical branch of the cult of Rathanos was spared on the Isle of Dawn, but other more energetic and aggressive tendencies remained as undercurrents. The most important of these branches had its origins in the Thanegioth Archipelago during the Nithian era. It emerged around the mysterious figure of the Firelord in 1600–1500 BC. Those events are described in the next section. This section describes briefly the canons of this sect.
After the fall of Nithia, the cult of Rathanos around the area of former Nithia was linked to many nationalistic or even anti-colonialist concerns. Initially the Thothian followers of Rathanos harboured a bitter hatred towards the Alphatian Empire due to its colonial overlordship. Later on, when Thyatis emerged, the (literal) flames of this hatred were fanned by many Alphatian-Thyatian struggles that ravaged the homelands of the Thothians. In the Alasiyan basin of the present-day Ylaruam, the centuries of colonial wars between Alphatia and Thyatia would feed this anti-colonial attitude among the few persecuted followers of Rathanos and the dangerous Magian Fire Worshippers. Although most of the knowledge regarding the Nithian-era Firelord had been lost, scattered remarks in their scriptures about “the Fiery Pharaoh” would eventually spark ideas about re-establishing a power base for more militant worship of Rathanos. This is the general religious basis for this campaign scheme.
According to two important and ancient books, The Fiery Scriptures and The Dogmas of Ouroboros, Rathanos is aided in this world by an important ally the Starfire Sphere, who is said to reside among the stars with its strange breed of fire vampires. (Inspired by the entity Cthugha created by August Derleth.) The Starfire Sphere is Rathanos’s “right arm” in Mystara, his tool for influencing developments in this world. But the Starfire Sphere holds also a greater promise. Every 2500 years or so “the Stars are Right”, and the Starfire Sphere has a rare chance of channelling a vast amount of power to a single follower of Rathanos in this world. This would make the follower into the Nexus, a being who has powers over the Element of Fire equalling those of the highest elemental rulers. Such an individual could create a lasting Reign of Fire where Rathanos would be the most important deity. The previous time of ascension was during the rule of the Nithian-era Firelord; the next is circa 1000 AC.
Starfire Sphere is a very powerful entity that appears in this world very rarely, only during the successful Ritual of Ascension, as a multilayered, semi-transparent sphere of flames. It is an ally of sorts for Rathanos, but only indirectly, by being able to channel power for powerful cultists. Those cultists are the concrete tools for Rathanos's works. In itself the Starfire Sphere is a chaotic, unpredictable entity with little concern for matters in this world. It may even be that the whole Ritual of Ascension is little more than a lure for the unfathomable Sphere, and becoming a Nexus is more a side-effect than a conscious act by the Sphere. Or perhaps the Sphere is even connected to the Outer Beings in some way, and the gathering of the Nexus candidates has a deeper purpose that Rathanos cannot grasp from his “merely” Immortal perspective.
In the scriptures of the Cult of the Starfire Sphere, this event is called the Ascension of Nexus. It is said that during the Ascension, the Starfire Sphere will descend from the heavens, warping the very fabric of reality and bringing its stellar home with it to touch the mortal lands. A new star will be born in its home constellation to mark the birth of a new Nexus. It is thought that every star in the constellation represents Nexuses that have Ascended in other worlds. But until now, nobody has succeeded to Ascend in Mystara1.
Essentially, the Cult of the Starfire Sphere is a millenarian (2 ½ millenarian, to be exact) cult. During the long years between the times that “the Stars are Right”, the cult is virtually non-existent, if one doesn’t count the occasional mad prophet or a crazed follower who tries desperately to extend his/her life in order to be alive during the next Ascension. During the final century before the time of Ascension the cult is revitalised, as powerful individuals within the main cult of Rathanos start gathering followers and try to find a good area for the Ascension Ritual. One major requirement for the Ritual is that the area where it is performed has some powerful links to the Plane of Fire – volcanic areas are often preferred. The constant volcanic activity in the largest island of the Thanegioth Archipelago must have been what originally drew the first Firelord there.
In order to complete the ritual, the Nexus candidate has to be an accomplished cleric of Rathanos or a Fire Mage. Also, summoning the Starfire Sphere and its constellation down from the heavens requires a lot of power, inaccessible to any single individual. Thus the candidate has to gather a large amount of followers, both mages and clerics. This gathering of power is at the core of the Cult of the Starfire Sphere.
The Ritual of Ascension will take place in a carefully prepared location, where both natural and artificial fire-related power points are needed. The cultists will gather in concentric circular formations described by the Fiery Scriptures, channelling power for the Nexus candidate. Each of them has to undergo strict rituals of purification for weeks or months on end before attending. If some cultists cannot be present, they must be replaced with magical power beacons crafted for just this purpose. Only a certain (small) percentage of the cultists may be replaced thus, so killing enough of them beforehand will stop the Ritual. Another chance to stop the ritual is to kill enough cultists during their incantations, which will disturb the channelling of power.
In accordance with the nature of the Ritual of Ascension, the Cult will organise itself in hierarchical Spheres of Influence – the Nexus candidate being at the centre of several co-centric circles of cultists. One’s place in these spheres dictates both political power and access to the secrets of the cult. During its history, the cult has developed secret crafts similar to those of the Glantrian Fire Elementalists.
Use the ones in the Glantri Gazetteer, but substitute the highest craft with the ability of the Nexus candidate to attempt the Ascension. Optional: If you don’t like the idea that both clerics and mages can learn these crafts, you can make the Fire-Mages the most influential group. The mages form the Spheres of Influence, being the only ones able to attempt the Ascension. The Clerics of Rathanos function as a support structure, preferring ”direct” worship of Rathanos. This might even cause schisms within the cult. This is just a matter of taste and doesn’t affect the scenario significantly.
The Cult often forms alliances with various fire-based creatures like efreeti, fire salamanders, red dragons and fire giants. Through these alliances they can gain protection and important resources required in the Ritual (rare ingredients and such). The allied fire-creatures are promised a better future within the coming Reign of Fire. But there are some beings that are bitter enemies of these traditional allies, like the Sollux and the Helions who hate the efreeti. Anyone opposing the Cult will find willing allies there.
Notes on important enemy NPCs: In order to set the power-level of the campaign, the DM should prepare the Spheres of Influence within the cult of the Firelord beforehand. The leader is of course the Firelord Daricus himself. In my campaign he was a level 18 Mage, with two high-level subordinates on the next sphere, four on the next, eight on the next et cetera. The amount and the respective levels and classes of the cultists is important in setting the right level of challenge for the whole campaign. However, 6th level mages and priests are important battle specialists, and the Firelord should have a large amount of them at his disposal. An example of the organisational structure of a very powerful Cult might be:
1st Circle (14th) x2: High Priest of Rathanos, Director of the School of Magic
2nd Circle (12th) x4: Leader of the Navy, Leader of the Home Army, Leader of Expeditionary Forces, and Spymaster
3rd Circle (10th) x 8: Commanders of large military units, Head teachers, Senior Priests
4th Circle (8th) x16: Local Commanders, Spies, Teachers, and Elite Battle Mages
5th Circle (6th) x 32: Battle Mages and Priests
Lower Circles: Uninitiated (1st to 5th level)
NOTE: Because especially the inner-circle cultists are needed in the Ritual, they will always have some resources for escape and will not willingly fight to the death. This will make things a lot easier for the PCs, as otherwise the presence of fairly high-level spellcasters might be too much for them.
Ancient History of the Thanegioth Archipelago
There are scattered legends about the origin of the Thanegioth Archipelago in the oral traditions of the Nuari people and the people inhabiting the Serpent peninsula to the west. Mostly these are, of course, just metaphoric stories. Some tribes tell the story of the Father of All Dragons, who reached the end of his days and crashed down. The fall created the Sea of Dread, and the Thanegioth Archipelago is said to be the remnants of his gargantuan body. It may well be that these legends are transformed memories of the Great Rain of Fire, the destruction of Blackmoor, and the time Brun and Davania were violently ripped apart, forming the Sea of Dread. However, the islands have always been the home for a host of Red Dragons and Sea Dragons.
These beliefs are reflected in the languages of some Nuari tribes of the Serpent peninsula. The southern island chain of the peninsula, the one “reaching” towards Thanegioth Archipelago, is called in some of their languages “Than-e-gia” (the tongue of the serpent). The southern large island is “Than-e-gil” (the head of the serpent), and Thanegioth could be “Than-e-gia-othi” (the flame tongue/fiery spit of the serpent). Thus, the Serpent peninsula is mythically pictured as a large fire-breathing dragon.
The dragon peoples inhabiting the Archipelago hold similar legends. Just to the north of the Archipelago there’s a large reef called the Dragon Reef due to its peculiar shape. The Sea Dragons are convinced that the reef was born from the body of their ancient predecessor, who fought the Father of All Reds. The Reds, in turn, see the middle group of islands in the Archipelago as the bones of their forefather (although the term might also be ”Mother”). In both versions, the dragons killed each other.
In any case, these various mythic histories of the Thanegioth Archipelago picture cataclysmic encounters with the elements of Fire and Water, and this can’t be coincidental. Especially the eastern islands have strong connections to the Plane of Fire, and in the waters surrounding the Archipelago there are various powerful wormholes. One of them manifests as a large whirlpool, which travels to and fro in the waters south of the Isle of Dread. The Sea Dragons refer to it as “the Home-Song Fountain”; seafaring humans call it “the Whirlpool of Lost Hope”. The dragons live within or close to the whirlpool and can direct its movements to some extent.
Some notes on the various migrations to Thanegioth: The red dragons and the sea dragons are the earliest inhabitants of the islands and the surrounding waters. The elves of the western island, The Children of the Swan, were the next to arrive. Stories of their history suggest that they were a splinter group originating in the great divide between the elves of Grunland and Vulcania, and that they took to the seas after reaching the southern shore of the Sea of Dread. The arrival of the rakasta on the Island of Dread is shrouded in the mist of history: they believe that their patron the Great Lion brought them to live here in peace. The final waves of migration were by the Nuari.
The Era of the First Firelord, or the Fiery Pharaoh
The first Firelord was originally a member of a ruling family in Nithia. He was also an accomplished mage and obsessed with Fire magic of all kinds. Around 1600–1500 BC, amongst a wave of radicalising Rathanos-worship, he stumbled upon the secret of the Nexus. Perhaps he learned this from the various elemental beings he summoned and bound, or during his travels in the Elemental Plane of Fire. During this time he also understood that he didn’t have a chance of becoming a pharaoh and that his life might even be in danger. The Ritual of Ascension might offer a way of overcoming these obstacles.
Later on, with a group of trusted followers from the Magian Fire Worshippers, clerics of Rathanos and some obscure fire elementalist sects, he retreated to the Thanegioth Archipelago. In his studies he had found out about the powerful presence of the Element of Fire in some of the islands and decided to construct the Ascension platform there. Essentially, this signalled the birth of the Cult of the Starfire Sphere on Mystara.
Arriving in the Thanegioth Archipelago, the Nithian mage assumed the title of the Firelord, or the Fiery Pharaoh. He started building his own little empire in the middle of the Sea of Dread. His seat of power was on the easternmost, largest island. He forged alliances with the efreeti and the fire giants living in the volcanic western region of the island, and befriended the red dragons of the central Archipelago. Together they completed a wonderful construction, the Plateau of Fire. It is an artificial plateau raised by diverting magma to the bottom of the island. Permanent wormholes were created there and were made controllable by complex rituals and incantations described by the sacred texts mentioned above – the Firelord himself wrote these. In the centre of the plateau is a dome-shaped temple of the Starfire Sphere, specially crafted for the ritual of Ascension.
Rise and Fall of the Firelord´s Empire and the Lion King Rak’Asta
When the Fiery Pharaoh started expanding his hatchling empire to the western islands, his forces met with opposition. The ancestors of the present-day rakastae lived on the Isle of Dread. At that time they resembled weretigers and lived in a highly advanced society that centred on the worship of their patron the Lion. The cultural centre was on the plateau in the northern part of the island, where their king Rak’Asta led them. (For the purposes of this campaign, there isn’t the society of koprus from X1, and the plateau is very different in any case.) When the minions of the Fiery Pharaoh invaded the island, Rak’Asta managed to make alliances with the Children of the Swan and the remaining Sea Dragons, who had been beaten to submission by the Reds in several draconic wars. It is told that some groups of Sollux warriors and Helions joined them also, as their main enemies the efreeti were on the side of the Fiery Pharaoh.
The armies of Rak’Asta defeated the invasion force, and with great cunning he made a spike assault on the isle of the Fiery Pharaoh. Rak’Asta stopped the Ritual of Ascension and killed the Firelord in a duel. Later on he took the battle to the islands of the red dragons and killed their leader, an ancient red, but was also slain. The duel decimated an entire island, the Farthest Shore (a reference to Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea books). Since then the scorched island has been a taboo to the Nuari, a sacred place for the Reds, and forgotten by the other inhabitants of the Archipelago.
After the war the Sea Dragons withdrew beneath the waves, where they still live, in the great whirlpool, waiting for the rise of the next Firelord. The proud ancestors of the rakastae fell from grace of their patron and “diminished”, transformed into the feline creatures we know. The Children of the Swan withdrew to their island, limiting their shipping to short fishing expeditions, centring instead on nursing their Relic, an ancient figurine of a swan. (They can’t have a Tree of Life, as Ilsundal created them much later.) The local Nuari slowly assimilated the followers of the first Firelord. The creatures of fire remained but kept close to the volcanoes of the easternmost island, and thrived on the deserted Plateau of Fire.
The Artifacts of Rak’Asta: The great king Rak’Asta succeeded in his efforts not only due to his own cunning, but also because he had two very powerful artifacts in his possession. His sword ”the Dragon-tooth” was crafted from the tooth of an ancient Sea Dragon and enchanted with powers against red dragons. (For example: Sword +3, +5 Against dragons, Triple damage against red dragons. Add other powers if you like.) ”The Lion Helmet” was a helmet crafted to the likeness of a majestic lion, giving protection against the Element of Fire and enhancing the wearer’s abilities of leadership and warfare. (For example: Extra -1 to AC, +2 to Fire Saves, Deduct 2d10 from Fire breath damage, Skill bonuses to leadership and tactics/strategy.)
When the king Rak’Asta went to battle the ancient red dragon, he left his helmet, the symbol of the king, for his followers. They brought it back to the Isle of Dread, where it was left in the palace on the plateau, waiting for the Future king. (Nobody knows it, but Rak’Asta was allowed by his patron to leave a small portion of his soul in the helmet. If someone gains it, the next wearer’s soul will meld with Rak’Asta’s, permanently transforming him.) The sword is still in the decimated island, beneath the bones of the king and the dragon.
The Rise of the Second Firelord
The Isle of Dawn has been a skirmishing ground of the Alphatian and Thyatian Empires for many generations. Years ago a man of Thothian origins called Daricus lost his whole family in one of the most intensive conflicts in recent history. Daricus developed a strong hatred towards both Empires and their colonial policies, and began dreaming of revenge. He had also embarked on a path of magical learning and proved to be a talented student, albeit a bit prone to hasty and rash decisions and dangerous experiments. He was sure that magical learning could give him the tools to strike back at his enemies.
Travelling repeatedly across the shifting borderlands of the Isle of Dawn, he contacted various groups and individuals that held similar views. He offered his (still humble) magical abilities to local resistance groups, which brought him respect and friendship among those people. During this time he met various Followers of Fire, magic-users of the underground Alphatian sect, and found their trust in the Element of Fire appealing. In time he rose among their ranks and gathered a small following of trusted henchmen whom he convinced to join him in his search for power and revenge.
Together they travelled to the mainland, to Ylaruam, where Daricus learned of outlawed and persecuted sect of Magian Fire Worshippers. He set out to find them and succeeded, and after some years of adventuring he had also gained contacts and friends in the Cult of Rathanos. Their learnings persuaded him to join the followers of the Fiery Ankh as a layman follower – but his knowledge and skill with fire magic gave him an exalted position, one of a religious scholar. In this role he stumbled upon fragmented remarks about the previous Firelord, the Starfire Sphere, and the mystical Ascension. Elements of them were found in the writings of all groups that he has contacted, as the nearing time of Ascension rejuvenated old memories. These were however merely hints, and Daricus set out on a quest to find the way to become the new Firelord and the Nexus of Starfire Sphere. Little is known about these travels among Nithian ruins, in the strange Plane of Fire and even among the circles of the Fire Elementalists in Glantri.
By 975 Daricus had found enough information to start serious studies on the Ascension. He formed the Cult of the Starfire Sphere again, gathered his allies and set out looking for the lands of the first Firelord in the Sea of Dread. His initial following consisted of a few Glantrian Followers of Fire, members of the Alphatian underground, some Magian Fire Worshippers, and most of all, a great number of Rathanos cultists. Together they started the perilous journey to find the mysterious Thanegioth Archipelago, hinted at only in the tales of deranged seamen. The arduous voyage claimed the lives of some of them, but in the end they made landfall in the easternmost and the largest island of the Archipelago, which they named The Isle of the Firelord.
Initially Daricus and his followers were friendly with the local Nuari villagers, joining their communities and gaining respect by their use of magic. But over the next few years, in total secrecy, the cultists travelled to various lands seeking new recruits to their anti-colonial army. These voyages were disguised as expeditions, merchant voyages and such to avoid suspicion. It is perhaps the best proof of Daricus’s immense talent that the intelligence forces of the two empires never learned about this. Daricus gathered a sizable force of people who had good reasons to hate one of the empires, or both of them: Ylari militants (although few of them would join a Fire-mage), mercenaries from Helskir, Heldanners, Hinterlanders, members of various opposition groups of Thyatian and Alphatian colonies, and people from the Isle of Dawn.
The next step was to subjugate the Nuari tribes. They were reduced to the status of slaves and were forced to start building the infrastructure of the new Empire of the Firelord. Daricus also made contact with the fire giants and the efreeti living of the western parts of the island, as his predecessor had done. Having thus consolidated his power on the main island of the Archipelago, Daricus could now focus on unearthing the lost lore of the Starfire Sphere. With the help of the efreeti he found the ruins of the ritual site on the Plain of Fire and the founding tracts of the cult (see above). Rebuilding work was started immediately, as was the research and education to recreate the Spheres of Influence of the cult that are necessary for a successful ritual of Ascension.
To do all this, Daricus would need much more resources, however. Also he was eager to start striking at his enemies. A fleet of raiding ships was built, and it was sent to raid Thyatian shipping lines to gather supplies and much-needed slaves. His other ships smuggled zzonga-plant to Alphatia in order to gather vital magical supplies and to disrupt that empire too. This allowed Daricus to begin further projects: plantations, fortresses, barracks, irrigation systems, a small town, and most of all, a school of wizards on the main island. He established the laws of his Empire of Fire and created efficient chains of command with the members of the Cult functioning as the secret police and as the supreme commanders.
Following the example of the Fiery Pharaoh, Daricus started expanding his empire to the rest of the archipelago. He befriended the red dragons of the central archipelago, and then conquered the Nuari territory on the southern tip of the Isle of Dread. He also managed to contact the witch Darwa living on the westernmost islands. This is the situation when the PCs arrive on the scene.
3000: Birth of Thanegioth Archipelago and the strong connection to the Planes of Fire and Water. The arrival of the Red and Sea Dragons.
Unknown: Arrival of the elves of the Children of the Swan Clan
Unknown: Arrival of the ancestors of the rakastae
Unknown: Arrival of the Nuari
c. 1600–1500: Nithian colonists arrive and found the realm of the Fiery Pharaoh, the First Firelord.
1500: The King Rak’Asta kills the First Firelord and stops the Ritual of Ascension
1499: Rak’Asta dies in combat with the Ancient Red Dragon
1000: Alphatian Landfall. The few members of the Fire sect learn about the Cult of Rathanos.
Unknown: The people of Rak’Asta fall from grace.
500: Fall of Nithia
900: Knowledge of the Cult of Starfire Sphere is slowly rejuvenated among the Magian Fire Worshippers, the cult of Rathanos, the Fire Elementalists and the underground Alphatian Fire Sect.
950: Daricus is born.
960: Daricus loses his family.
965: Daricus begins learning magic and becomes involved in resistance movements.
970: Daricus travels to Brun (Ylaruam and eventually Glantri) and into the Plane of Fire.
975: Daricus gathers his followers and travels to the Thanegioth Archipelago.
995: Pirating and zzonga-smuggling begins. Slowly the Thyatian authorities are alerted, but the identity of the raiders remains unknown.
997–1000: Pirating attacks increase in frequency and severity. Problems with zzonga grow worse in Alphatia.
The assumption is that the PCs are sent to disrupt or to stop the Firelord’s plans – initially without the knowledge about him and with the assumption that there is just a base of pirates somewhere in the Sea of Dread. There are other ways to use this campaign material, but this text has been ordered into a sequence of “Acts” that allows a prospective DM to use it more readily. It should be noted that any such ordering into pre-set sequences by necessity involves some clumsy railroading, and I encourage DMs to tailor this campaign to suit their needs and more free play.
The Ascension Ritual is of course the main plan of Daricus the Firelord. The DM should determine a set time for the ritual beforehand to give the PCs a sense or urgency and a real possibility of failure. It should be noted, however, that failing to stop the Firelord is pretty much a campaign-stopper, unless the DM wants to take things to a whole new level. To complete the ritual Daricus will have to meet the following requirements: 1) A sufficient amount of educated and purified cultists must be arranged in the circular formation mentioned earlier. 3) The Ritual Dome must be completed on the Plain of Fire. 3) The research into the key elements of the ritual, mainly the obligations of the Nexus candidate, has to be finished. (Note: Again, it is up to the DM to decide this, as the amount and power of spell-casters will largely determine the difficulty of the campaign. See above the section on the Cult.)
The second primary part of Daricus’s plans consists of exacting revenge on the two Empires. Because Daricus is rash and impatient, he has started this part before ascending to Nexushood. He wasn’t content with the few raids and smuggling operations necessary to fund his enterprises. He has ordered the construction of a powerful navy, augmented with ingenious fire-based war machines and other resources, which will make it possible to strike at Thyatian navy harder. Such devices may be mundane, such as fire ships, catapults and ballistae shooting fiery missiles, flaming oil on waves etc. They may also be magical or ”scientific”: fireball-shooting battle mages, lenses and mirrors that can use sunlight to ignite sails, exploding ballista missiles, etc. The ships sail under banners depicting concentric circles of fire on dark green background.
Daricus’s fleet strikes against the Thyatians on various fronts. They disrupt operations on the Hinterland front by sinking supply ships and giving weapons to rebels. They raid Ochalean shipping lines, leaving behind clues of Alphatian pirates and atrocities. They also sink supply and merchant vessels close to the mainland Thyatis. Against Alphatia the plans are subtler: Daricus has constructed various magical greenhouses, where zzonga is cultivated, and then it is shipped to Alphatian waters and sold very cheap. This has created serious problems. (Note: Use of zzonga in the Empire of Firelord is punished by immolation in a lava stream.)
Although Daricus has managed to cause a lot of damage, his premature attacks have drawn the attention of the two empires. It would have been wiser to wait until the Ascension – as the Nexus Daricus could have commanded enough power to take on the Empires more directly and forcefully.
The armies of the Firelord also continue their conquest of the Thanegioth Archipelago. On Isle of Dread they make alliances with the local lizard men and the aranea as a preparation for an impending assault on the local rakasta population. Crack troops will also make landfall on the western island of the sea elves, starting their operation by building a palisade fortress on the northern beaches. The landing force is augmented by the battle mages to keep the elves at bay. The elven operation is advancing on another front, too. The Sea Witch, who has been promised a large part of the elven island, uses her powers to curse and darken the westernmost elven jungles, spawning “vegetation monsters” and dark imps.
Also, the small island north of the island of the sea elves has been fortified, in order to secure Thanegioth from a possible northern assault: the chain of small islands northwards to the mainland make it a more likely direction of attack than the empty reaches of the Sea of Dread.
Act 1: Discovering the Empire of the Firelord
The PCs are contacted either by the Thyatian or the Alphatian authorities, which want to stop the pirating raids or the zzonga trade. Both sides have strong reasons to believe that the culprits are hiding somewhere in the Sea of Dread. “The First Tower” is the first and the most likely point of contact.
Act 2: Saving the Elves and battling the Sea Witch
The elves living on Kulan-Gath (Isle of the King) are attacked by the forces of the Firelord and the evil being summoned by the seawitch Darwa. If the PCs save the elves, they gain allies and learn about the Isle of Dread.
Act 3: Legacy of Rak’Asta
The forces of the Firelord and their allies are threatening the rakastae of the Isle of Dread. If the PCs help the rakastae, they can learn about the legend of Rak’Asta and gain a powerful artifact, the Lion Helmet. The Nuari villages may have to be liberated.
Act 4: There Be Dragons
In order to reach the Isle of Firelord, the PCs will have to cross the realm of the Red Dragons. They are not yet under the Firelord’s sway, but they have promised to protect the Isle of Firelord against intruders. However, there are also the Sea Dragons, thought to be lost long ago. They will contact the PCs and help them to find Rak’Asta’s sword “the Dragon’s Tooth” in exchange for help against the Reds.
Act 5: Arriving on the Isle of the Firelord
The Sea Dragons help the PCs get to the western shore of the Isle of the Firelord. They perhaps fight the Fire Giants and need to breach the mountain fortress to gain access to the rest of the island.
Act 6: Disrupting the Ritual of Ascension
This is the highpoint of the whole campaign and the most dangerous task for the PCs. Killing Daricus is hard and may be impossible, surrounded as he is by all his most important followers. However, killing enough of them will break the ritual and make it impossible to try it again until 2,500 years.
Act 7: Getting home?
It would be hopeless for the PCs to take on the Firelord’s armies themselves, so the next task is to get home and alert the authorities. This is an open-ended part of the campaign. The cities, camps, harbours and other locales of the Isle of Firelord are not fleshed out, as the PCs may very well still have their own ship and won’t need to bother with them.
There are of course many other ways that this campaign scheme can be used. An important feature of the campaign in any case is the moral ambiguity of Daricus. He is not your run-of-the-mill evil villain: he has a cause, and in some ways a just one, but his methods are vicious and he is willing to kill and enslave others to achieve his goals. One possibility is an insurrection among the slaves or the Nuari locals and the quest to find allies for an all-out rebellion. The PCs might even be allies or minions of the Firelord in their fight against the Evil Empires. Of course in the latter case the Ritual of Ascension is harder to tie into the story.
Act 1: Discovering the Empire of the Firelord
The PCs are hired to investigate the latest series of pirate attacks by agents of Thyatia or Alphatia. There should be enough hints available to point to the Sea of Dread, perhaps an inkling of the fire-related attacks, but nothing leading directly to the Thanegioth Archipelago. The PCs are furnished with a ship and a crew, and their first task is to scourge the seaside nations for clues. The DM can furnish them with legends, hints, partial maps, logs etc. Eventually they are led towards the Archipelago via the Dragon’s Teeth Reef, so the first contact with the forces of the Firelord will be on the island called ”the First Tower” (”Eth-Salar” by the southern elves).
OPTIONAL: The DM can include an agent of the Firelord who tries to infiltrate the ship’s crew. The agent would definitely try to lure the PCs deep into the Archipelago and then try to betray them. IMC I had a similar mole among the crew, but he was an agent of the Iron Ring trying to get back at the PCs for destroying the organisation. The mole lured the ship of the PCs to the enemy while they were gone, which spiced up the events on the Isle of Dread. (I was inspired in this by Jules Verne’s Captain Grant book and the character Ayrton.)
“The First tower” is an island about 180 miles north from the northernmost tip of the elven island. Firelord had a strong fortress built here to guard the secret sea routes to the north. The fortress is a simple tall keep that houses ballistae and catapults that are able to fire fiery ammo. The cliffs of the island are steep, allowing only one landfall that can be defended easily. This is the only freshwater island in these parts, so most likely the PCs cannot simply bypass it. The commander is a 4th Circle Commander aided by two 5th Circle battle-spellcasters. There is a garrison of elite troops (3rd level at least) and a host of trained Hellhounds.
If the PCs defeat the garrison, they find evidence of the Empire of the Firelord, and from the diaries of the cultists they find notes about the coming Ritual. The Cultists at the fort won’t be able to attend (they are replaced by power-beacons), and they complain about this in their notes. This should create the much-needed sense of urgency. The PCs will also find local sea charts that lead them to the island of the elves.
Act 2: Saving the Elves and battling the Sea Witch
The elves call their island “Kulan-Gath”, the Island of the King. The vegetation is more diverse than on the other islands due to the influence of the elves. There are some plains, some thick jungle, and some more elvish forest. The eastern part of the island is dominated by the Elven Trees. There is one large sweet water lake, The Swan Lake, and a river leads from it to the gulf on the northern shores of the island. The shores of the gulf are sandy beaches, which have a golden tint. Thus the name, The Golden Beach. South of the gulf, after some stretches of forest, is the large Hoof Plain, the home of centaurs and chevalls. Towards the west the forests grow more dense and dark, until at the western cape they are sinister indeed. Some treants live in the slightly brighter areas. The elven clan the Children of the Swan lives in the eastern part of the island. There is also a community of flitterlings in the northern cape.
Lately darkness has been spreading over the island. The dark western forests have been spawning terrible plant monsters that eat anything that moves. Good trees are dying, and bad ones stretch their roots over large areas. A violent and large tribe of Wood Imps has been taking over the forest, creeping eastward. Currently it is threatening the flitterlings and the treants.
The Children of the Swan haven’t been able to intervene, since they have their own problems. A while ago, Firelord’s troops landed on the Golden Beach, began cutting down the trees and built a stockade. Now they are building a naval shipyard. Elves can’t match the fiery magic of the Firelord’s servants and the power of Rathanos’s clerics, since the tribe isn’t very large. The situation has worsened even more as the Sea Witch Darwa, an ally of the Firelord, has been sending her minions to harry the elves.
The Sea Witch Darwa lives on the westernmost island of the Archipelago. The island is mostly barren, and she subsists on seaweed, gull eggs and mussels, living in a ramshackle hut. However, she is very powerful and should be a very dangerous opponent for the PCs. I suggest giving her most of the Witchcraft powers in the Glantri Gazetteer, and perhaps some more. She uses her summoned creatures as commandos, through which she can channel her powers. Red Imps are her favourites.
Most likely the PCs will contact the elves to get help against the troops of the Firelord. Those should include a commander or the 4th Circle, if not 3rd, and several 5th level Cultists, and a ship or three full of experienced marines. The PCs should definitely not be able to defeat them by themselves. The PCs can get help from the elves and the centaurs, but in order to get help from the treants and flitterlings they will have to defeat the Wood Imps and Darwa.
The elves know about the Isle of Dread and know about a landing beach on the western shores of the island. The invasion force has some logs and charts that can give the PCs some idea about the extent of the Empire of the Firelord. They also learn that the Nuari villages in the Isle of Dread have been occupied. The elves know that in the distant past they used to be allied with the people of Rak’Asta and suggest the PCs contact them. They can also send one of their tribe, a skillful warrior named Cymoril Stargazer, to accompany the PCs. She is willing to take the fight to the lands of the Firelord. The clan can perhaps also offer some magic furnished by their Relic.
Act 3: Legacy of Rak’Asta
The classic module X1 offers a ready-made map of the Island of Dread, and it can be used here with very few alterations. Some of the material in the module regarding the inhabitants of the island is also usable, with the exception of the plateau of the kopru. It has been replaced with the ruins of the civilization of Rak’Asta.
The rakasta that now inhabit the island are of the standard rulebook breed, a “degenerated” version of the elder race. They live in primitive matriarchal tribes, where the female population lives in the villages, ruled by a strict caste system. The males wander the jungle, hunting and gathering food and other materials for the females. The latter are mainly engaged in crafts and rituals. One significant part of their culture is a religious program of breeding that casts out “deformed” children – much like the culture of the Shadow elves. Only, whereas Rafiel wishes to offset the effects of Radiance, in this case the children who show signs of their elder heritage are removed from the gene pool, speeding up the process that “animalises” the former were-like species. The ones cast out live in remote communities.
The western jungles of the southern part of the island belong to the rakasta. The main village is ruled by a matriarch priest, who worships a distorted version of “the Lion god” (she still gets spells, though). The four male tribes, the Panthers, the Lions, the Tigers and the Sabretooths, have divided the jungle between themselves – although during the mating season the fights for the privilege get fierce, but seldom lethal.
The lizard men live in the swamps and near the tar pits. The Firelord’s local commander is currently trying to get them to attack the rakasta.
To the west and to the north from the swamp is a region of forested hills, and the aranea live in the northernmost parts. They are already allies of the Firelord and have begun harassing the rakastae, especially by driving the more dangerous monsters into their lands.
Other inhabitants of the island include phanatons and bugbears, who fight each other sporadically, and the green dragon Abode. If the DM wishes, she or he can include more alliances and plans to the mix, but the ones described above should suffice.
Tribes of Nuari, subjugated by the Firelord, live in the southern part of the island and the nearby islands. The easternmost village on the main island is the HQ of the occupation, with the harbour of the Fiery Navy and the largest garrison. Firelord’s troops man the Great Wall.
There is a sizable contingent of the Firelord’s troops on the island. They are led by a high-ranking cultist of the 3rd Circle, a couple of 4th Circle envoys for contacting the other races and many 5th Circle combat specialists. The PCs definitely need the help of the rakasta to defeat them. In order to get their help they will first have to defeat the lizard men and the aranea, and perhaps they can incite a rebellion among the Nuari, who knows. But an important part of this Act is discovering the inheritance of Rak’Asta. Among the ruins on the plateau there is an ancient temple-palace. It is guarded by ferocious were-tigers, and many traps protect the treasure, Rak’Asta’s Lion Helmet. Only fighters and similar classes can use it. If a PC wears the helmet, his or her soul merges with the soul of the king Rak’Asta, giving the ability to impress and command the present-day rakasta. The Helmet also gives its wearer awareness of the lost sword Dragon Tooth and its location, and the danger that the Red Dragons would pose it the Firelord manages to ally with them fully.
If the PCs defeat the Firelord’s forces, they learn more about the impending Ritual of Ascension and know that time is running short.
Act 4: There Be Dragons
The central archipelago consists of the four islands of the Red Dragons, the waters of the Sea Dragons and the barren island “the Farthest Shore”, where Rak’Asta and the ancient Red Dragon killed each other and where the sword of Rak’Asta awaits.
The islands of the Red Dragons are of course very dangerous. The current leader of the dragons lives on “Death’s Head” island. She is engaged in negotiations with the Firelord. Until now she hasn’t agreed to place her kin under the Firelord’s command, but the dragons allow his ships to move in this area unmolested. The dragons have also agreed to stop any foreign vessels, which will make these waters very dangerous for the PCs. They will be very soon chased or even attacked by dragons.
However, the Sea Dragons can sense the approaching soul of Rak’Asta and will protect the PCs against their ancient enemies. This can be very frightening, as they can direct the Whirlpool to snatch their ship (the dragons can of course keep it safe). The Sea Dragons can take the PCs to a safe secret cove on the Island of the Firelord, if they agree to help them against the Red Dragons.
The main part of this Act is the battle against the leader of the Red Dragons. The Sea Dragons can take the PCs to the Farthest Shore, where the PC wearing the Lion Helmet can wield the Dragon Tooth safely. The DM may wish to include some dangerous opposition, even the ghost of the dead dragon, to stand in their way. With the whole array or Rak’Asta’s artifacts the PCs can take on the leader of dragons. This should be a very dangerous and deadly conflict.
Act 5: Arriving on the Isle of the Firelord
Most likely the PCs will arrive on the western shores of the island, in the secret cove known by the Sea Dragons. The western part of the island is mountainous and mostly barren land, with the exception of some forested hills. In the rugged hills at the southern tip lives a tribe of Fire Giants, allies and friends of the Firelord, who patrol the roads south of the mountains.
The mountain range blocks passages to the rest of the island except via a narrow pass that is blocked by a northern fortress. Fierce fire salamanders who survive here due to the presence of volcanoes inhabit the mountains. A few isolationist Red Dragons live here also. However, the PCs have also the chance of contacting a group of Sollux, who hide in this area. They are more than willing to aid them in the fight against the Firelord. They may also know a way to contact some Helions on the Plateau of Fire.
A strong garrison, but not that many Cultists, mans the fortress as most of them are already engaged in purification in preparation for the Ritual. The PCs should still be opposed by some spell-casters also. The fortress is also a school for the cultist initiates, so a host of low-level cultists can offer dangerous opposition – the initiates will not be needed in the Ritual. In the school the PCs can find more info on the Ritual.
There is a lava basin to the north. The initiates travel there to meditate and study the secrets of the Starfire Sphere.
Note that there is a military training camp fairly close to the east, so things will become harder for the PCs if word gets out of their attack.
Act 6: Disrupting the Ritual of Ascension
The Plateau of Fire dominates the northern part of the island. It is a high artificial plateau with steep and razor-sharp cliffs of volcanic glass. A great dome-shaped temple has been built in the middle of the plateau. The only accessible path up is guarded by a huge bronze golem, which lets only members of the Cult to pass, if they utter the right incantations and make the right gestures. Many creatures of Fire prowl the Plain of Fire. Some of them are wild, some protect the temple, some may be allies against the Firelord (the Helions).
How hard disrupting the Ritual of Ascension will be depends on the performance of the PCs this far: 1) what allies they have gathered to aid them and 2) how many high-level cultists they have managed to slay. If cultists have been replaced by ”power-beacons”, those will be easy to destroy during the Ritual. Killing the participants of the Ritual will also be fairly easy, as they have to focus on their incantations. Of course efreeti and other elemental allies of the Firelord protect the Ritual.
The trouble is to get out alive after disrupting the Ritual and angering a host of experienced spell-casters. Let’s hope the PCs have made plans. Getting into a fight with the Firelord would be deadly. However, Daricus will very likely just flee if the Ritual is disturbed. He knows his plans are finished: without the powers of the Nexus he will never prevail against the Empires. So maybe he will return some day with new plans. Of course the DM can also have him fight to the death, if preferable.
Act 7: Getting home?
After the Ritual has been disrupted, it would be wise for the PCs to head home. It can be easy, if they still have a ship and a crew, and very hard otherwise. The best plan is to steal a ship and liberate some slaves as a crew, if their own ship is lost. In any case, the other locations of the Island of the Firelord are left for the DM to flesh out in case the adventure continues there.
The eastern half of the island is dominated by jungle. However, the southernmost parts are grassy plains, where most of the grain for the Empire is being grown. The road that leads to the western fortress cuts through the jungle, and it is heavily guarded. In the jungle, near the northeastern shore, are the Temple of Rathanos and the centre of the Cult of the Starfire Sphere. Woe those foolish adventurers who decide to storm its gates.
The only real city of the archipelago, the City of Fire, lies in the middle of the southern plains. It is a relatively large city, with a population consisting of enslaved Nuari and slaves captured in the pirate raids, and the “cosmopolitan” mix of Daricus’s followers. Four roads lead out from the city. The northern one leads to the jungle and the western parts of the island. The northeastern road leads to heavily guarded zzonga plantations. The eastern one leads to the shore, and the harbour of the Fiery Navy, the shipyards and a small town. The western road leads to the main barracks and training grounds of the Firelord’s army. Also, a smaller path leads to the south, ending in the southern tip. There is an isolate lighthouse, which is used to lead back the ships that sail for the Hinterland route, and for ships returning from pirate missions (they always take a detour).
1 In the Cthugha stories the constellation is Piscis Austrinus, and the home of Cthugha is the star Fomalhaut.