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Ka'Tarik'A (Prime / female thri-kreen / druid 10, psionicist 9 / Ciphers / N)
Most planar bashers are pretty blasé about the Prime Material Plane. Often, they've got a perfect right to be: After all, there's only so many times a body can be impressed by the somewhat limited sights and sounds of the Prime. As planewalkers say, "There ain't nothing so Grand as the Outer Planes."
However, real bloods know that exceptions exist. Maybe the Prime ain't got the horrors of the Abyss or the majesty of Mount Celestia, but it can get pretty close sometimes. One such place is a little known (and even less travelled) prime called Athas. It's been said before that the place reeks of destruction and at times it seems the land itself is on the verge of just giving up and dying. It's a daily struggle to survive there, as a basher can spend half his day looking for a mouthful of water in the parched deserts, only to spend the other half fighting off spivs who'd think nothing of murdering another body for a gulp.
It ain't really the sort of place you'd expect to find philosophers, is it?
Well, you'd be wrong. Ka'Tarik'A, a Cipher factor, loves the burning rays of Athas, though she spends much of her time in Sigil these days. If you think that sounds like the start of a story, then this time you're right, cutter.
Ka'Tarik'A is a thri-kreen. They ain't all that common as a race out here on the planes, so you'll forgive me if I take a few words to explain. Thri-kreen are mantis-like creatures, eight feet long and hard as nails. Diamond nails, at that. They're keen hunters, and work in packs with deadly efficiency. Don't take that to mean they're animals, though -- far from it, berk. The 'kreen have created a highly structured society, language and philosophy to go with it. Ka'Tarik'A is a 'Jeral' -- apparently they're the most civilised of the common 'kreen races. Anyway, that's enough insect biology for one day.
The chant goes that Athas used to be a lush, verdant world, teeming with life like most Primes. That is, until a twisted form of magic called 'defiling' was used to harm the land until it was virtually unrecognisable. The seas turned to dust, the plains to desert and the prime races were warped and changed (believe it or not, Athasian dwarves are completely hairless!) But I digress.
Ka'Tarik'A, like many thri-kreen, considered herself a protector of the land. Unlike most, she became a druid, electing to guard the length of a dried-up riverbed, and the surrounding badlands, from further harm. Using psionic powers (which seem so very common, for one reason or other, on Athas), she communed with the fading nature spirits which had once frolicked in the river's water, and were now slowly dying.
Ka'Tarik'A spoke with the spirits a great deal. She'd forsaken her pack to become a druid, and once her master had gone (he was pulled under the sands by some unseen horror) she had very little else to keep her company. The river spirit told her of the ancient times, before magic had ravaged the land, and Ka'Tarik'A, in turn, hunted for water which she poured on the riverbed to quench the spirits' centuries-old thirst. She protected her guardian lands from incursions of gith (the chant goes they've got more in common with the githyanki than name alone) and giants, using her magical and psionic talents.
She and the land spirits grew closer and closer, each living out their lives through the other. Ka'Tarik'A learned how to think and act like a true guardian of the land, while the spirits relished the taste of mortality they'd found. In a humble way, they were happy, though life was never easy.
All of this changed the day the templars came. Again, for those of you who're not clued-up on the strange societies under the Dark Sun, the templars are corrupt servant-priests of the Sorcerer-Kings -- the evil sods who're responsible for most of the desecration of Athas. This particular bunch of templars were determined to blaze a trade-trail along Ka'Tarik'A's riverbed, to connect one city to another. From what Ka'Tarik'A could make out, increasing gith activity was making the older routes less safe by the month. This new route was to be cleared of harmful predators -- which obviously included vehement thri-kreen druids.
Ka'Tarik'A wasn't about to let her lands be violated without a fight. As the templar caravan entered one end of the long stretch of riverbed, Ka'Tarik'A used her years of experience as a hunter to pick off stragglers one by one. When her presence was realised, she used magical might to smother the evil invaders, and drown them in dust. Many templars were slain, but Ka'Tarik'A had not reckoned on defilers.
Casting their spells of attack and mass-destruction, the defilers sucked the little-remaining life out of the riverbed. When that was reduced to little more than black ash, the tendrils of corruption leeched the life from the badlands too: Plants withered and turned to dust, the insects and small animals were slain, and the water deep beneath the soil was fouled. Ka'Tarik'A escaped barely with her life, but her guardian lands were not so lucky. While thri-kreen cannot weep, Ka'Tarik'A ground her mandibles together in sorrow and scuttled away, vowing to exact her deadly vengeance.
For many weeks, Ka'Tarik'A ambushed the Sorcerer-King's caravans, trying to destroy anything which dared pass through her desecrated guardian lands. The rest of the time she tried, in desperation, to contact the spirits which had been her only friends. Nothing. She did not know whether to believe they had all been destroyed, or whether they were so weak they could not respond to her psionic summons.
Fearing the worst, Ka'Tarik'A entered a deep trance, pushing her consciousness into the ground, searching for the spirits inside the oozing sore on the land that used to be her home. For many hours she remained in this state until finally she noticed a stirring. She coaxed the last spirit from its hiding place, and led it into a small rock that she had managed to grab from the riverbed moments before the defiling magic rendered it sterile. The spirit moved into its new home, humbled beyond belief, and so the riverbed was finally dead.
Closer to death than ever before, the spirit spoke to Ka'Tarik'A. "You are One with the Land. You understand the Spirits -- you hear us more clearly than any mortal ought. The heartbeat of the Planes is my final gift to you. Open your mind and you will feel it as does the Land." With these words, the spirit slipped from the stone, never to awaken again.
Ka'Tarik'A placed the stone somewhere safe (for on Athas one quickly learns that nothing should ever be wasted) and did as the spirit had instructed. She cleared away her psionic mental defences and opened her mind. She planted all her legs in the dust and listened, like she had never listened before.
The sound was little more than a murmur at first, so soft Ka'Tarik'A wondered if she had actually imagined it. With patience and practice, the murmur became a whisper, and the whisper grew to a hum. Everything around her was resounding with the noise -- the stones, the air, the plants. Ka'Tarik'A realised, with growing excitement, that she was listening to the pulse of Athas, beating steadily, if quietly, through all of Creation!
Now it was during Ka'Tarik'A's time of meditation that the Sorcerer-King first learned of her presence. Angry at the loss of his templars and goods, he used psionic powers to sweep the lands around the riverbed, looking for the thri-kreen. He must have been surprised to find her mind open to contact, but never one to miss an advantage, he slipped inside unnoticed.
Rather than waste energy killing the thri-kreen from such a great distance, the evil King placed a psionic suggestion deep within the druid's mind: "Leave Athas or you will die!"
When Ka'Tarik'A returned to a normal state of mind, she realised that she was in terrible danger, though she did not know why, just that she must go as far away as possible as fast as possible. During her meditation, she had noticed a strange disturbance in the planar flux of the rest of the land. It appeared that there was some sort of portal leading off the plane. With the psychic geas dominating her thoughts, Ka'Tarik'A sought the gate out and without a second thought, stepped through. She must've had the portal key somewhere upon her, because she was whisked off Athas without a blink and dumped into Sigil's Hive Ward.
Though the dank atmosphere and smoggy air of the Cage took a little getting used to, Ka'Tarik'A soon adapted to her new environment. Athasians have to, or they die. But what helped the kreen more was the overwhelming volume of the planar heartbeat. When she opened her mind, the thrumming sound was almost deafening. She found its rush through her body and insect veins exhilarating, and as she listened more closely, it was almost as if there was a wise voice whispering deep inside, but the harder she strained to hear its words, the more faint they became.
Purged of any desire to return to Athas, the kreen druid soon got her roots firmly planted in Sigil. She threw in with the faction-lifestyle, finding the Transcendent Order to her liking. The Ciphers in turn found her interesting. She could hear the heartbeat of the planes, called the Cadence by factioneers, stronger than any Cipher she spoke to. It seemed the trick was psionically opening the mind. Ka'Tarik'A taught the other Ciphers how to open their minds to allow them to hear the Cadence more clearly.
With time and practice, a band of Ciphers following her example formed, calling themselves the Open-Minded. They're more in tune with the Cadence than most other members of the faction, and can often be found lurking around the sensory deprivation rooms in the Great Gymnasium, eager for their next 'fix' of the Cadence. They're also practically the only cutters that make regular trips to the base of the Spire on the Outlands; it's said the Cadence is stronger still when a cutter's camped on the slopes of the Spire itself, almost like the heart was buried in there somewhere.
But as well as becoming one with the Cadence, the Open-Minded are trying to reach out and touch that elusive voice that's almost audible when everything else is silent. Ka'Tarik'A believes that the speaker is the collective Spirit of the Planes itself, the being who's heartbeat is the Cadence and body is the Great Ring. None of them have yet successfully contacted this creature using psionics, so they've resorted to more drastic measures.
Members of the Open-Minded are precisely that: they leave their minds open to psionic contact practically all the time, in the hope they might receive a message from the Spirit of the Planes.
They're taken advantage of all too often, however. Creatures that possess minds can tell when a cutter's left his mind open, and usually find the temptation of an unguarded mind too great to resist. So when one of the Open-Minded starts acting strangely, Ka'Tarik'A knows it's time to call in the exorcists again. Ghosts, fiends, necromancers, incarnates, psionicists, harrla; they've all been driven out of Ciphers' heads. But the factioneers reckon the chance of speaking with the Essence of the Planes is well worth the risk...
Ka'Tarik'A herself was possessed before long, and the psychic surgery she required removed the Sorcerer-King's charm, but by then the kreen was enjoying her new life in the planes too much to want to go back. Still, there's no place like home, as they say, and when she finds a portal leading to Athas, the kreen occasionally goes back the indulge inthe thrill of the hunt just one more time.
Copyright 1997 by Jon Winter