The heroes set out from the Lost Sanctum towards Mount Gulag early in the morning, Gwendolen carrying Ryana who was still suffering from injuries and hypothermia. It was believed that if they could just reach the warm jungles around Gulag, she would be safe. To this end, they trekked through the snow with Gehenna taking point, and soon they reached a pass which would be a shortcut into the magical jungles, kept warm by the mountains’ burning heart. Evidently the Emperor had predicted that they would find this shortcut, for one of his Shadows was waiting for them on the other side.
A brief battle in the outskirts of the jungle ensued, in which Lisa watched over Ryana while the other three assaulted the Emperor, uprooting trees and setting fire to vines. It seems he had not expected them so soon, for he was taken by surprise and they defeated him without so much as a scratch from his black sword.
Knowing now that the Emperor was aware of their presence, they hurried their pace towards the village at Gulag’s foot, where the strange natives dwelt. In this time, the blizzard of Shiva completely surrounded Gulag, and so its natives were completely cut off from the world – the traveling heroes had no idea what to expect. Thus it came as a relief to them, that the natives paid respect to only two entities: Konsu, the Moon – and Ifrith. When Gehenna presented himself as a child of the Infernal Lion, the village elder knelt before him. Gwendolen also fell to her knees, but that was unrelated – it stemmed from a combination of deadly jungle fever and having eaten poisonous juju beans, which cause fearsome hallucinations. The sickness is instantly fatal to most humans; Gwendolen shook it off in a night.
They rested at the village for one night, and received vaccines against the jungle fever. Gehenna also spoke with the village elder, Gary, about their faith. He learned that Ifrith had visited the people around Gulag every hundred years ever since the Espers first came to Terra. Even before that time, the village had received the Eye of Konsu in a flaming meteor from the sky, and hence they were doubly blessed by the Espers. Gehenna convinced them to give him the Eye, as it could no longer be safe in this village. Gary agreed that it was better for a son of Ifrith to protect this ancient gemstone, even though without it, the village would be without protection.
The following day, they set off towards Mount Gulag, accompanied by a native guide called Ma-Ha-Sutra. They traveled through the jungle, and entered through an old hollow that led deep into the mountain. Someone – Ifrit, perhaps – had carved out tunnels that were safe for them to travel. Now, as they came closer and closer to the heart of the mountain, Gehenna seemed uncharacteristically nervous, and it wasn’t long before he told them he must leave. He had made a promise to his father, and now was the time for him to fulfill it. Lisa begged to come with him, but this was something he must do alone.
He took of his clothes, and left them with Lisa – revealing a body covered in scars. A child of the Espers, he explained, must be tempered and tested in order to reach their full potential. Now was the time for him to face his true test: A trial of adulthood, which he had been preparing for all his life. Without this trial, his powers would never grow strong enough for him to face the Emperor – but there was a real risk he might fail the trials, and die. Such is the way of Ifrit.
They said their farewells, some with sorrow, others – such as Gwendolen – claiming that he would return in no time. As it would turn out, she was correct.
When Gehenna entered the chamber of the trial, he found a strange, bronze-skinned man with features not unlike those of his father. It was his brother, Zochaan. Zochaan explained that he would be conducting the trials, as he had done numerous times before – and pointed to a pile of ashes on the floor, the remains of a brother who hadn’t made it.
First was the trial of Wisdom. Gehenna found himself surrounded by a wall of dancing flames, slowly closing in on him, burning too hot even for him. Thinking quickly, he created fires of his own, burning up the oxygen supply and turning the air in the chamber into bitter poison – depleted of fuel, his brothers’ fire weakened, and he could step through it unharmed.
Second was the trial of Strength. Zochaan drew his flaming sword, and attacked Gehenna; a fierce battle ensured, which Gehenna could only win by exploiting his brothers’ arrogance. Feigning weakness and fear, he made his brother careless – until an opening in his defense allowed Gehenna to strike him with his flaming staff, searing his hand and leaving a wound that would not heal for days. Thus, he had proven his worth as a warrior.
Zochaan told him that now, only the final trial remained: The Trial of Endurance. He struck the ground with his palm, and it opened up beneath Gehenna – dropping him dozens of feet into the raw, molten heart of Mount Gulag, immersing him in magma. The Son of Ifrith gave a horrifying scream of utter agony before the liquid stone swallowed him, and he was gone.
Meanwhile, Gwendolen and the others had come face to face with the guardian of the Heart of Fire: Zjaar. Zjaar was a creature made entirely out of molten magma, and he had been ordered by Ifrit to fight anyone who came in his presence – even an Esper. The creature, a simple construct, must obey its orders and so attacked them. Gwendolen, thinking fast, tried to tear out its heart; unfortunately, this did not kill it – it merely morphed, from a humanoid form into one like a great dragon. A drawn-out, fierce battle ensued, for the girls could only fight this beast with great difficulty, surrounded as it was by searing heat and armed with deadly lava. It looked as if all was lost when Lisa lost her footing, and was thrown by a backfiring spell into the magma under their feet.
Just then, however, Gehenna rose from the magma under their feet. Refined and reforged by the pain he had endured, his mastery of fire and flame had grown tenfold – he rescued the badly seared Lisa, and proceeded to tear the Heart of Flame from the dragon’s chest. This killed it instantly, and it collapsed, solidifying in a pile of obsidian immediately. Gwendolen, covered in burn wounds, congratulated him on his return, but said little else – for now, saving Lisa’s life must be the first priority.
They made their way through the tunnels back to Zochaan, and he reluctantly allowed them to stay there. As Gwendolen – with the aid of Ma-Ha-Sutra – tended to Lisa’s wounds, Zochaan and Gehenna spoke. He learned, that his older brother had been confined to this mountain for attempting to wield the Heart of Flame against their father, trying to usurp him and take his place. Now, Gehenna faced a choice – carry the Heart himself, or bestow it upon his older brother, who swore he had changed his ways. He decided to trust Zochaan, and gave him the stone – much like Gehenna’s power had grown tenfold, so did Zochaan, and he grew horns and a mane like his father. He promised Gehenna would not regret this decision, and left – eager to use the Heart of Flame once more. Hopefully, this time, he would turn it against the enemies of Terra rather than use it selfishly.
A tunnel from Zochaan chamber would take them back to Taribia. Gwendolen did what she could to treat Lisa’s wounds using herbs and simple bandages, but she would need more advanced medical supplies. Thus it was resolved they would return to Taribia and search for medicine there. Before they left, Gehenna performed one last feat of Esper-Magi; retrieving his clothes from Lisa, he unwove the Magi inherent in them, and absorbed their power into himself; clothing himself now in a cloak made from pure darkness.
They barely had time to arrive in Taribia before they came face-to-face with no less than four people: Juutila Dawnshire, Angela Tragent, and two assassins from the R-series calling themselves the Shadow Stalkers. Angela ordered the others to leave, and then addressed the heroes. She had a secret to tell them, one that could only be told safely here in the blizzard: She wanted them to save Alexius Bane.