The Dead Lands of Athas
The Caravan Master’s Third Night’s Tale
Many years ago, when I was just a caravan guard, our caravan had been traveling for several months following leads on a distant city reported to be devoted to knowledge and discovery. Our excavators in Celik had uncovered a number of artifacts which had made reference to this city being far to the south, and we had been sent to investigate. None expected the city to still stand, but perhaps they would be able to find something of worth within its ruins for our House.
One day of this journey I will never forget. Our scouts had not returned from their advance, and divinations to locate them were not making sense. So our party began forward in hopes of locating them. What we found was a large oasis encircled by half a dozen small wooden buildings. It was a veritable paradise deep in the desert.
Our scouts’ crodlu were reined to a copse of trees and grazing peacefully near the inviting pool. We called out for the scouts by name, but they did not answer. Instead, a woman more beautiful than I had ever seen emerged from one of the huts. She seemed to glow in the radiant light of the midday sun. She greeted us, and told us that our friends had been attacked by desert beasts, but managed to find her settlement. She had been nursing them back to health. When we saw them, they stared out with glassy eyes, muttering and groaning incomprehensibly.
“The beasts have poisoned them. They are delirious.” The woman told us.
She was sure pretty….
She asked if our company would like to stay for the evening and replenish our supplies, to which we graciously accepted. During our stay, we began to notice something strange about the oasis. Save for their unconscious scouts, there appeared to be no one else in the settlement besides the woman, even though there was enough lodging for our entire group. Where had the rest of the settlement gone to, and why haven’t they been mentioned to us by its only apparent inhabitant?
A wizard we had working with us at the time was troubled by this, and confronted her, which greatly seemed to upset her. As he spoke, our vision began to waver. For a brief moment, the paradise before us disappeared, before resuming its splendorous appearance. The woman appeared to melt as she let out an inhuman scream of rage, leaping at the wizard with flailing limbs. By reflex, he cast a baleful spell against the creature, to which he had determined its true nature.
It was a sand bride. An incorporeal spirit of the Gray trapped on Athas. It took form from the very sand of Athas to wreak havoc on the living, feeding off their life energy, and luring prey through powerful illusions. Before the beast could take hold of our wizard, his spell hit it, spraying sand everywhere. Instantly, the glamour of the oasis fell.
What we all stood within was still an oasis, but had long ago been blackened by defiler magics. Burnt and weathered ruins sat all around, and piles of skeletons jutted out of the dust. Our scouts were still alive, but barely held on to life. What remained of the crodlu were desiccated corpses. At the feet of our master rested the unconscious form of a young woman marred by the ash and black sludge of the corrupted oasis. The spell our wizard had cast was intended to send the creature back to its realm. He said that the spell was miscast, possibly misworded in the confusion of the conflict. Somehow, it appeared as if the botched spell had instead trapped the Bride in the form of its illusion —a helpless human body.
When he discovered that the malevolent spirit could no longer harm them, we were unsure of what to do with her. The woman could barely speak much less put up a fight, and after a number of questions and divinations we determined that she was as harmless as she appeared. It seemed that the change of form had also wiped away all of its memories as well, as it had no idea of what or whom it was, or even why it was here in the desert.
The girl was frightened of us. Terrified. I guess I could understand that, with her being bound as she was and having no recollection of how she got into the situation, or even who she might have been. We took her along with us, to the south, while we looked for that ancient city. On our way their, we were attacked for several nights by a race of serpent-men. It was she who first noticed them sneaking into our camp the first night, and alerted us of the incoming attack. On one such raid, the girl leapt at me, taking an envenomed arrow to the shoulder that was meant for my face. She saved my life that day. After that night, we knew we could trust her, and released her from her bonds. Thank the wind that our healers were able to purge the poison from her system.
From then on, she became an eager and productive member of our party. I hear that our wizard later sent her into the care of a druid friend of his, hoping that he could teach her the Path of preservation and restoration.