Previously in our story...
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
- Midsummer Night's Dream, William Shakespeare
With the stairway revealed and looming blackly into the abyss, the party continued to rest for a short while, discussing options and next steps. KelLyn crafted a simple circle in the ground to aid Lan in her efforts to heal the party's injuries. With the aid of the additional power, Lan was successfully able to bring Fife back to total health. Sadly, Osman and KelLyn were still regulated to healing at a normal pace, but they did not have any additional injuries.
Once we had gathered our wits, and our supplies, we looked again at the black stairs. I recalled the riddle stating "...the stairs that cannot be climbed..." and guessing that every step could possibly be trapped, remarked quickly that we should check everything as thoroughly as we could before proceeding. I asked Tobias first to tell me what his night eyes could see, but his dark vision told him nothing else about the stairs. I also checked for traps, and finding none, was able to proceed slowly down to the first landing. Shalev, thinking quickly, turned around and grabbed the snake staff that he had taken from the dread paladin before following the rest of the party down. Once on the landing, we were able to see the stairway spiral down into darkness. We lit some torches and placed them in the sconces on the walls nearby to give me light to see by while I methodically and laboriously checked each step.
The steps were oddly dust-free and looked almost new or, at the very least, rarely used. Shalev insisted that I have a rope secured around me before I ventured down, and I agreed to the safety precaution and the concern. Taking long moments and exacting concentration, I checked over each inch of every step. The first four steps proved safe to stand on, and I moved down onto them to continue my labors. The second that I breathed on the fifth step, however, the trap activated and the stairs retracted into a long slick ramp. I grabbed quickly to the security rope, and noticed as I did that I now felt a massive wave of heat rising from the area below us. Shalev and Tobias pull me back up to the main landing, and I relay the information about the ramp and the heat. Ishmael stated calmly that for heat to be felt this far up, it would need to be intense at it's source, and we all took note of this bit of information warily.
We discussed options on how to traverse the now treacherous incline, and I offered to use the security rope to scout ahead along the ramp while KelLyn used her magic to create rudimentary stairs for the rest of the party to follow. Shalev's aptitude for being well prepared paid off once again, as he produced several extra lengths of rope to use. He and Tobias quickly tied together all of the rope until we had a coil that was about 500 feet in length, and Fife and Ishmael anchored pitons into the wall to use as anchor points. Before I made my descent into the unknown, Shalev handed me the ring he had acquired from the clerics we encountered earlier on, which KelLyn had said was enchanted to destroy fire. I noticed that wearing it did, indeed, help to mitigate the heat to a more bearable level.
KelLyn got to work creating rough stairs by destroying parts of the ramp to make footholds. I used these rough hewn steps and the ramp for balance, and the ropes to hold me steady, and managed to make it down 8 flights of the ramp until I ran out of rope. Each new section had a landing, so Shalev, KelLyn, and the rest of the party were also able to proceed only slightly behind me. I was looking for the best places to secure the ropes when I heard KelLyn begin cursing quite loudly. Cringing away from the sound, and as close to the wall as possible, I braced as much as I could against whatever spell misfire might have come my way, but thankfully nothing happened. I felt Shalev begin to pull on the rope, and I reluctantly allowed him to pull me up from the depths. When I made it up to the previous landing, I saw KelLyn still cursing, and the party's skeptical concern at her apparent inability to stop. Hearing her curse is nothing new, but I also made note of her frustrated scowl, and increasing diatribe, and mentioned that perhaps someone should just knock her out to stop it. I attempted it, but was not strong enough to do more than just irritate her. Ishmael took the advice to heart, and apologizing for what he was about to do, thumped her on the back of the skull solidly. He was not trying to injure her greatly, and apparently only managed to give her a headache. Her cursing grew more vehement, and I raised an eyebrow in curiosity at the length and scope of her more base vocabulary. We decided then to just let the curse run it's course, and since she was no longer able to cast spells, determined that I should continue scouting ahead with the ropes alone. Ishmael and Shalev brought the great coils of rope down to the 8th level of the stairway, and spent some time resecuring the pitons and anchor points into the walls.
Once again, down into the dark and the heat I climbed, and traversed another two entire levels before I saw at last the source of the great heat. A pit of fire, about eighteen feet across, with stairs that continued down either side to solid ground below. I easily made my way over to the stairs, and found it curious that the heat was not as overwhelming as I had thought it would be this close to the pit. Once on the stairs, it was little work to make it down to solid ground again, and I let the rope pool there at the base. I took a moment to observe my surroundings, and saw a plain stone wall off to the left, and a wide open plain of rock floor off to the right. Oddly enough, I heard water, as if there were a rushing river nearby. I closed my eyes in concentration and remembered the spell that the great oak tree had taught to me on how to locate sources of water. I knew that I did not yet have the ability to do that spell in full, but thought on it at length, and decided to use what I knew of the spell to try to perform a more basic version. I was successful in the attempt, but was not able to discern more information than my senses already told me. I climbed back up to tell the rest of the party about what I had seen and heard.
An argument broke out again on how to get Amit down using only the ropes, and KelLyn was still incapacitated by the cursing spell, so Ishmael offered to carve stairs. We quickly stopped his efforts though, when the force of his blows echoed through the chamber, threatening to bring the ceiling down on all of our heads. Ishmael then offered instead to just lower Amit down with a rope harness. We looked at the great cat, who was quite against the idea, and then back at Ishmael who simply shrugged his massive shoulders. I bribed the reluctant Amit with some leftover bacon pieces, and we managed to get him secured into the harness without a fight. I proceeded ahead to act as a guide, and Ishmael negligently shifted his weight and lowered Amit to the ground floor without even breaking a sweat. The rest of the party followed in short order and while they were gathering the ropes and settling back to flat ground, I returned the ring to Shalev, and continued to scout ahead a small distance.
There was a wall of complete and total darkness ahead to the right where I heard the sounds of the rushing water. I closed my eyes and trusted my other senses, moving through the darkness about 40 feet or so before coming straight to the edge of the vast river flowing from east to west. I made my way back to the rest of the party, and they joined me through the darkness at the river's edge. A raft suddenly appeared on the river, and Shalev said that something felt wrong about it all. I recalled, again, the riddle from the tomb "...past the river of nothing..." and asked KelLyn to look through her gem of true seeing to determine if it was an illusion.
She did so, but because she was still caught in the grip of the curse, was unable to tell us what she saw. She huffed in frustration before spouting still more obscenities, and stomped right out into the water as if it didn't exist at all. I trusted her observations, and followed her out into the water. The illusion affected me, however, and so I swam toward her instead of walking. Shalev walked up to the river's edge and, still paranoid from previous encounters, put the tip of his sword into the water to try to destroy the illusion. At the touch of the holy weapon, the illusion vanished, and KelLyn and I found ourselves in a dry river bed with pots full of a glowing green viscous liquid peppered across the area in a treacherous array.
Shalev, thinking the pots might also be illusion, made his way slowly down into the river bed, using his sword ahead of his step to test for solid ground. He accidentally poked at one of the pots, and it shattered, spilling a wave of acid all over him. I turned to go to him as he screamed, when suddenly he was no longer there. In his place loomed a great white dragon as it launched itself into the air with a booming cry of fury and pain. I stumbled back in awe and fear, not knowing what had happened to Shalev, and completely unprepared to deal with another dragon.
As I searched quickly to see if I could find where the curse that hit Shalev came from, arrows suddenly flew from the far sides of the cavern where the army of lizardmen who had been lying in wait revealed themselves as they focused all of their attacks on the dragon-that-was-Shalev now roaring above their heads. Tobias used his night vision to pinpoint the fortifications and campsites, spotting several glowing figures on the battlements, and began shouting instructions at Fife to aim for those figures. Fife threw a spear, but it passed harmlessly through the glowing image and clattered to the floor. The glowing figures turned toward us, and began slowly floating in our direction, passing over top of the illusory river as if it were really there for them.
The arrow fire from the lizardmen drew the dragon-that-was-Shalev's attention and ire, and he swooped down with a roar and a blast of frigid cold breath, freezing and destroying anything in his path. In the midst of the rampage, we saw a larger figure step out of a central tent and begin reading a scroll loudly. I saw the dragon-that-was-Shalev shudder, and guessed that the scroll was an attempt to gain some kind of control over the dragon. The dragon-that-was-Shalev shuddered again, and landed heavily in front of the larger figure, laying his head on the ground. The large figure stepped forward, drawing a flaming sword and raising it high to strike the dragon's head off. As the blade began it's deadly swing downward, the dragon abruptly turned, throwing off the effects of the control spell - if it had been affected at all - and with lethal cunning gleaming in his eyes, bit the large figure, grabbing him by the head and flinging the body skyward with a negligent twitch. The body flew into the air, and Tobias, Osman, Fife, and I all took aim and peppered the falling figure with arrows. I heard Tobias muffle a curse, and saw that his arrow had flown wide. I turned to look at him quizzically only to see, with some amusement, that he had been holding his bow upside down. I raised an eyebrow and muffled a chuckle, and he shot me a dirty look before making up some excuse about it being a while since he held it. I decided to let it lie, and laughed quietly to myself before turning to see what else faced us.
The dragon, now on the ground in the middle of the lizardmen's encampment, let loose a cry of absolute fury and began a savage rampage which destroyed everything in his path. Tents, fire pits, lizardmen, and whatever else may have been over there fell under the enraged dragon's onslaught as he raised up on hind legs and clapped his wings together in a buffet of wind. Spewing icy death and clawed vengance with each act, the dragon only stopped his attacks when nothing remained standing. Once he was satisfied thoroughly with the destruction wrought, the dragon-that-was-Shalev began nosing through the ruins and gathering what treasures he could find to begin hoarding.
Osman summoned a diminutive little fairy and asked it to create target lights over the enemies across the riverbed. It drew a shining sword and zipped away, agreeing to what he had been tasked to do. The three glowing ghost figures had finally made their way across the river, and were reaching out to attack us. Osman attempted a spell to destroy them, and one of the ghosts turned to flee, leaving the other two behind. Lan also made an attempt and succeeded in driving another of the ghosts away. The remaining ghost reached out toward KelLyn to attack, but she was able to dodge out of the way, still caught up in the throes of the curse and spewing obscenities. It attacked again, this time reaching toward Tobias, but misses again. Using my sword, I attempted to attack the ghost and was able to successfully hit it, though I did no damage. Lan stepped up and made another spell attempt, and this time was able to stop the ghost in it's tracks.
Across the riverbed, the dragon-that-was-Shalev shimmered briefly, and then the dragon was gone and Shalev remained standing where it once had been in the midst of the ruined encampment. He looked around, and nodded once before drinking a healing potion and then he wandered slowly down into the river bed to look for the flaming sword that the large figure had wielded. Once down in the riverbed, he saw the three ghost figures as well as eight more wraiths coming toward him. He moved around until they were all gathered together in one group, and then destroyed them all with an easy wave of his hand.
It was then that the little fairy that Osman summoned appeared over Shalev's head waving his shining sword and jumping up and down, acting like a signal beacon as he had promised to do. Fife made to throw a spear towards the potential enemy, but upon seeing that it was Shalev, deliberately threw short so that the spear landed at Shalev's feet. The fairy shouted out that Fife had missed, and Osman dismissed it with thanks, setting it free instead of banishing it. It looked at him with a quick tilt of his head, and then vanished through a hole in the wall where the non-existent river once flowed.
We made our way over to the demolished campsites on the opposite side of the riverbed, and began searching through the wreckage for additional treasures. We found:
* 2000 gold coins
* 1000 electrum coins (ancient pre-imperial currency worth about .5 gold)
* 1000 silver coins
* 500 platinum coins
* 500 copper coins
* a necklace worth about 400 gold
I managed to locate the flaming sword wedged into the far wall about 75 feet up. I pointed it out to Shalev, keeping a wary eye on my student, and he immediately set about trying to find a way to retrieve the weapon. Fife made a grumbling good-natured complaint about it and began trying to climb the wall to get the sword. He fell after about 10 feet, and after a few more attempts, threw his hands up in a huff. Tobias stepped forward then and also tried climbing the wall. After the first few failed attempts, Ishmael looked on with mild amusement and quipped that if a flaming sword was really what he wanted, that it might be easy enough to craft for him. Shalev took interested note of Ishmael's commentary, but still wanted to try to retrieve this one, as he was convinced that it was magical. Tobias grumbled something under his breath about epic weapons, godforsaken stone walls, and Shalev owing him a huge favor, and renewed his attempts to climb the wall for several more moments. After failing and falling again and again, he finally also gave up. Shalev, still determined, also tried, but also failed, and the sword remained buried solidly in the wall. Shalev finally asked Lan to see if she could sense if it were a magical weapon at all, but she sensed nothing special about it. Fife then threw a grappling hook up and successfully snagged the hilt of the weapon. Ishmael grabbed the rope and gave a solid yank, finally managing to free the ensconced weapon, but destroying both the sword and the grappling hook in the process. Both twisted pieces of metal fell to the ground with a clatter, and as Shalev picked up the mangled grapple, Fife grabbed the remains of the hilt of the sword and tossed them into one of the green acid pots with a satisfied sniff. Ishmael confirmed that he could repair the grappling hook by straightening the warped metal with his bare hands, and also confirmed from glancing at the hilt of the weapon as Fife carried it away, that the sword was one like those he knew how to craft.
Shalev shrugged and apologized to everyone for the time sink, but maintained that it had been worth it to find out, as the large figure had been trying to wield the weapon against a dragon. I looked again, warily, at Shalev, searching his eyes for any remaining evidence of the dragon that had possessed him. He seemed as nonplussed as I was about it, and both he and I reacted with similar alarm when the KelLyn and Tobias nonchalantly said that the armor had been known to do that in the past. That the spirit of the dragon lived on inside the armor, and that if the wearer were seriously injured, that there was a small chance that the will of the living spirit would overtake the wearer and turn them into a dragon for as long as the spirit's will held firm.
Shalev confirmed that he had felt the struggle against something, but had not been aware completely of his actions as the dragon. He also made a mildly irritated commentary about how that would have been useful information to know ahead of time. Tobias and KelLyn simply shrugged, and said that they weren't aware that it was a property of the armor itself until recently, and that they had only seen it happen once or twice before, so had no way of knowing if it would happen again.
Shalev made a comment about the earthen mounds that dotted the area near the fortifications, thinking they were burial mounds, and wanted to see what was in them. I cautioned that disturbing the mounds further would likely be a very bad idea, as we did not want to risk bringing the ghosts back again. He nodded in agreement, moving away from them and saying that his brooch was out of power temporarily anyway. While he was cursed in dragon form, he had done quite a lot to damage the existing mounds anyway, and whatever treasures that might have been in them had been dug out when he had begun hoarding.
The party rested here for a moment to regroup, and then we ventured into the triangular fortifications across the riverbed. The inner walls were covered in murals and depictions of scenes similar to those loathsome images from the temple above. There were a pair of massive bronze doors on the far wall, with no visible hinges or handles. Osman looked at the murals on the walls with great fascination, as this was apparently one of the sole reasons that he left the comforts of his home. As he studied the images, he began reciting the legends of the lizard men that matched the scenery depicted. Shalev remembering the way the doors under the Oasis of the White Palm opened, turned to the doors and said "Open in the name of Sacatha." but the doors remained tightly closed. We listened with interest and after Osman had completed his recitations, he mentioned that Sacatha considered "the Great King" to be a part of his name and a grave insult to leave off of any address to him. Shalev turned toward the doors once again, and this time commanded "Open in the name of Sacatha the Great King." This was apparently the correct passphrase to gain entrance, because as soon as he had finished the last syllable, the doors swung open silently inwards.
We crept into the revealed hallway carefully to see doors to the left, to the right, and straight ahead, down short hallways. Fife and I noticed odd holes in the ceilings, and we caution that there were likely to be traps, seeing what we had already encountered. We looked again, and saw that the place where we stood was out relatively sheltered, and so Shalev asked Fife to use a grappling hook to snag the door handles on the door straight ahead of us. He noted that the hinges allowed for the door to swing toward us, and he pulled it open from a distance with the grapple. As soon as they opened, spears fell from the odd holes in the ceiling falling in a rain of deadly, poison tipped points. We all remained safely in the archway of the entrance, so were unhurt and completely unsurprised by the revealed trap. Shalev handed Fife a scrap of tapestry, and they both set about clearing a pathway down the center aisle. Fife noted that the spears were very poor quality, but the poison might be useful.
Shalev strode down the short hallway and through the now opened doors without checking for further danger first. Luckily there did not appear to be any additional traps, and he entered the room unscathed to see it bedecked like a grand dining room. A large table stretched across the center of the room, piled high with food as if for a great feast. The utensils, plates, and goblets were all made of gold. The chair at the end of the table was a grand throne like seat, and the oddly-tiled mosaics along the walls depicted scenes of a meal time in a great hall. As Shalev stepped into the room, one of the lizard men in the mosaic suddenly stepped out into the room, greeting Shalev and welcoming him to the feast. Shalev politely declined, stating that he was waiting for the rest of his party to arrive, and the lizard man demurred and stepped back into the mosaic. Shalev stepped back into the room again, and the same Lizard man stepped out once again and offered him a goblet of wine. Shalev took the goblet, and pretended to drink though did not actually do so. He thanked the lizard man, and then seeing nothing of interest in the room, and no additional doors, retreated from the room closing the main doors behind him as he went.
The party decided to check the left hall next, and Fife and I carefully made our way down the passageway to check for traps. As soon as we neared the door, however, the pit trap that had been concealed there triggered. I managed to dodge out of the way, but Fife fell into the gaping hole toward the pointed spikes that covered the bottom of the trap. He twisted as he fell, and managed to bring the green dragon scale shield up underneath him to help protect him from the damage of the fall. The shield held well, and stopped the fall completely protecting Fife from any injury the wicked spikes would have done, though the spikes did not penetrate the shield material, it was stuck fast to them, and could not be removed. As soon as he fell, the ceiling over the trap also began to lower to flatten the trap and smash Fife into the spikes. Shalev threw a grapple into the pit, but missed his mark, and Fife attempted to grab the rope but also missed. The ceiling continued to lower ominously, and KelLyn stepped up then, gathered her will in a massive flex of magical energy, pushing through the curse to cast a spell which allowed her to physically punch the falling stone slab and turn it into sand. Fife was buried with the sand, but not crushed, and Amit moved over to help us drag him out of the pit. We were able to get him about half way uncovered and KelLyn grabbed him and yanked him out of the sand trap completely.
The rescue attempt exhausted all of us, and so we made a camp and rested here. Osman created goat haunches, and the watches all passed uneventfully. When we woke, Lan made an attempt to cast a spell on the still-sleeping KelLyn to try to remove the curse that had been affecting her. There was no visible effect, and as this place seemed secure for the moment, we allowed her to rest until she awoke on her own. When she finally did, the curse had lifted, and she was back to normal. I brewed a small portion of the Philospher's Tea that I had remaining from the visit with Matron and the elven city, and I offered her a mug which she accepted gratefully.
Sipping the tea brought to mind the tree and the quest that still lay before me to deal with the corrupted elves, and attempt to resurrect the tree in a safe place. There is so much to accomplish that I still feel adrift when I consider it too deeply. I will continue to pray, to study the book, and to study my own language in search of ways to complete my goal, but I can't help but wonder how long the tree can hold out without the Maker sustaining it.
After we had rested and regrouped, we continued through the doorway down the left path. As soon as we entered the room, we saw a similarly odd-tiled mosaic, this time depicting a giant lizard figure wearing a crown, leading men against a group of hill giants. We all started in alarm as a mouth opened on the ceiling and stated "Great King, live forever!" With that, the hill giants stepped out of that oddly tiled mosaic, and turned towards the party to throw rocks at us. We dodged back into the corridor, but one of the boulders bounced through and struck Osman. His armor protected him from further damage, thankfully, and Amit growled and pawed at the boulder, using his massive paws to swat the giant rock down the right hand corridor. When the rock hit the floor, it activated the pit trap there, and the ceiling crashed down like it had with Fife and I. Amit kicked dirt towards the rubble and then turned with another growl to face the hill giants with us once again.
Fife and KelLyn immediately began working together to cast a spelled spear, aiming the deadly projectile at the closest giant's knee. KelLyn said something in Fyrewerian, and Fife threw the spear which hit successfully, and the giant howled in pain. A second giant emerged holding a skeleton in plate mail armor, likely the remains of a previous adventurer who succumbed to the perils of this place. The giant tossed the corpse into the center of the party, and then a black circle opened directly above KelLyn's head. A rod poked through the hole and a blast of light struck KelLyn in the top of her head, burning all of her hair off. She shrieked in fury and reached up to grab the offending rod, trying to pull whom-or-whatever wielded it through the hole. She missed her mark, and the rod withdrew, closing the hole behind it without a trace.
A third giant came to the door then, and Lan and Osman worked together to begin summoning something from the fairy world. Fife and KelLyn began once again preparing another spear/spell combo to throw. Shalev stepped forward and, drawing his layan great sword, attacked all three of the giants at once. Tobias shot the giant who was throwing the skeleton at us, and hit it in the eye. I shot the giant with the wounded knee, and though I hit successfully, I did minimal damage. Shalev's attacks did a great deal of damage to the giants, and one of them fell backwards back into the room.
Lan and Osman completed their summon, and a swarthy figure stepped through their portal and said "Huh, well this is weird, the ceiling is back." At that point the skeleton that had been tossed towards us landed on the backpack that it wore. There was an explosion of magical energy as something in the backpack detonated in waves of fire, ice, lighting and... rabbits. Rabbits??
The explosions would have been enough to knock me unconscious, but I gathered my willpower to ignore the injuries long enough to drink a potion which negated any hurt I might have taken. I looked around in confusion as rabbits began to bound away in every direction, more and more and more of them until they nearly filled the room. Another black circle opened up over KelLyn's head, but she and Fife were prepared for it this time, and as soon as the wand tip emerged from the portal, Fife stabbed upwards, shattering the wand and causing another explosion of magical energy that blew up into the rapidly closing hole.
I saw Lan converse briefly with the swarthy figure, hearing her call him by name "Puck" and then he... Puck.. sank down to his haunches and called all of the rabbits over to him, talking to them in their own chittering language. Lan then moved over to Tobias to heal him of any residual injuries, and KelLyn and Fife worked to prepare a third spelled spear. Shalev continued to dodge and attack the giants, and catches a glimpse into the room beyond to see another ten lizardmen emerge from the mosaic.
Osman and I continued to fire arrows at the giants, and Osman was able to pinpoint his strikes to hit one of the giants in the eye. I heard that chittering language again, and turned to see the Puck-figure change into a giant brown rabbit, and all of the other rabbits also grow proportionally to the same size. The army of rabbits then sprang forward and mobbed around the corner, where we heard the sounds of a vicious fight begin.
KelLyn said something odd in Fyrewerian, and Fife's spear suddenly doubled, as did the giant he threw it at. The spear hit successfully again, and it was apparently enough to take out both the giant and it's new double. Both collapsed with a crash, and the other two giants also fell, mortally wounded. We ran around the corner to see a room full of carnage, the rabbits having battled with the lizard men to mutual extermination. We looked up at the mosaic then to see the large lizard figure wearing the crown step out of the mosaic and throw his trident, spearing the last remaining rabbit to the wall with a cry of triumph. We answered with a cry of horror, as the rabbit twitched, and then changed back into the swarthy Puck fairy that Lan and Osman had summoned before he died with a sigh.
.... to be continued