Time passes, with nothing to mark its passage but the soft lapping of the fountain water in the dark.
Then Iris sees faint pulses of light. Approaching the camp are four large ants, each six feet long. Their bodies are dull, the same temperature as the cool air and nearly invisible to her infravision. But where their leg muscles move, their exoskeleton flexes and is warmed – Iris can see this as a faint orange and so notes their approach. They are scurrying back and forth across the room, searching – they have neither seen nor scented the party – yet. That will give them the time they need.
“Ants coming, pass it on,” whispers Iris to Odleif. Word travels down the line. Morgan begins a sleep spell, as does Wolfbane, although she has no targets in the dark.
Morgan completes her spell, and two of the ants collapse. The other two, hearing her voice the words of her spell, charge forward directly at her. The lead ant has just reached her feet when Odleif’s torch flares to life, illuminating the scene. With visible targets, Wolfbane utters the final words of her spell; both ants and Morgan fall asleep.
When the ants are slain and Morgan has awoken, she borrows a candle from Ember and a heavy blanket from Iris. She is able to re-learn her sleep spell “under the covers”, without giving off light into the room. After Morgan is done, Wolfbane takes a turn.
With no further interruptions, Ember is able to rest and pray for healing spells again. Another four hours then pass without incident, and this time rather than eight heart mendings, she chooses just four and some sort of enemy detection. Armed with this, she, Odleif, and Remmy set out to explore the rest of the cathedral-sized room while the others remain concealed in the rubble by the fountain.
No one on the exploratory team has infravision; they light the lantern and make their way along the east wall. Ember casts a spell, then tells them that she will be able to see hostile creatures even beyond the range of the lantern light. When they reach the far wall, they can see a 20’ wide corridor leading north, and two stone doors opposite one another on east and west walls near the corners.
Odleif studies the floor, but everywhere is a mix of dust, sand, and prints – the whole place is disturbed and well-traveled. Ember has Remmy check the doors and peer into the hallways beyond. They all look as far down the open northern corridor as they can see. Odleif believes that this open area is the source of the giant insects, doubting that they can manage the massive stone pivot doors themselves.
They work their way back along the west wall to the party. All the while their lantern light is tracked by Morgan, from a perch atop the broken base of the huge central statue. A brief conference is held upon their return. “We can’t stay here,” says Morgan, “We keep being attacked, and besides we are out of food. We have the Zargonite mask – let’s take it back to the Maidens.”
While there is general agreement from the party, Hazrad bows ingratiatingly until Morgan asks him to speak.
“We are now well enough to travel, mistress, "he begins, “and we should leave this place…but let us remember that we are not assured of returning to the Maidens. We have no idea what we are going back to. When that relief group of Gorm cultists we saw finds all of their companions dead, al-Kalim only knows what will happen. We could return to find the Maidens destroyed, or under seige…” He pauses, and everyone in the party feels the impact of his words. “Should we not search for our way down first, before returning? So that if we are forced to retreat from above, we at least know to what we are returning here?”
Most of the party finds this reasonable, so when they leave, it is with the goal of exploring a bit before the return to the Maidens. As they pack up and prepare to move out, Odleif wonders aloud, “I jess don’t unnerstand why we keep gettin’ attacked – we was hid well enough.”
Iris shrugs. “This is probably the only reliable water source in the whole pyramid. Certainly the only one we have seen. Everything must come here to drink.” Her tone makes it seem obvious, though no one else had even considered it before.
“So why didn’t you…” begins Morgan, but notices her raised voice echoing in the great temple. She thinks better of it and resumes packing.
The party leaves through the north-west door, and soon comes upon a branch in the passage. As they peer down each, both Morgan and Iris point out a secret door in the wall at the intersection. Past this door, Odleif confirms, the hallway is much less traveled. Down the passage and around a corner is a door. Through that, a chamber.
As the first of the party enter, four men wearing stylized rodent masks and red robes trimmed with fur leap to their feet. In the northeast corner of the room are stairs going down. Remmy immediately notices a large chest in one corner.
The party tries to act non-threatening as they enter, but the men are obviously agitated. They are also, everyone notices, reacting to the party itself, not some invisible world like the people of the casino or the nightmare hall outside it.
When Hazrad enters this room, he attempts to speak to the men. Through the desert nomad, the party learns that these men are traveling from the undercity to the top of the pyramid, and that they have chosen this secret place to rest. While Hazrad talks, Pooches growls lowly and stares at the men, fangs bared and hairs on end. It is all Iris can do to restrain him. When Hazrad asks them where the stairs lead, they respond with a question, “Where do you want to go?” Hazrad tells the party that the men are being evasive, and Ember gives the order to capture them, unharmed if possible.
Morgan moves to block the stairs while Remmy moves to secure the chest. (“What?” he later explains, when asked about this. “They weren’t wearing weapons – they could have had weapons inside the chest.”).
Odleif and Thrud attack, but using the back of the handaxe and the flat of the battleaxe. The men fall to the ground, robes and masks askew. Odleif begins to tie his up with a rope while the other two back cautiously away from the fray, hands open in surrender.
As Odleif works the knots of the man beneath him, he feels the body begin to ripple and shift. The exposed arms become covered in black, glossy hair. A long, hairless tail shoots out the bottom of the robes. Odleif looks to Ember for an explanation, and sees the same changes happening to the other men. In a few seconds, all of them are large, hairy, rat-men. Startled, Thrud turns his axe to the blade and swings at one. The edge of the great axe lands solidly in the rat-man’s shoulder, slicing his robe and knocking him back – but there is no blood, no wound: he is unharmed.
“This ain’t no good!” shouts Odleif. He rains blows down on the rat-man beneath him, who is even now thrusting out of the ropes, but the sharp, heavy hand axe has as much effect as if the woodsman were striking with a willow switch.
Their transformations complete, the rat-men fall upon the party, scratching and biting with huge, yellowed incisors. Wolfbane screams and retreats behind Morgan. When a rat advances on the half-elf, she swings at it and cuts a nasty gash across its chest. “Sorry, kid,” Morgan tells the mage, “my weapon works – I have to go in.” Ember, too has joined the fray, her new mace being used to great effect. A rat-man spots Wolfbane alone on the stairs and charges her. The mage screams again, turns and runs down the stairs into the darkness. The rat-man pursues, and Hazrad and Bhelgran follow him.
Iris shoots a magic missile and finishes off a wounded one, emboldening the party. Thrud grabs one from behind, attempting to bear-hug it into holding still long enough to receive a blow from Ember’s mace. The rat-man is both surprisingly strong and limber, able to turn its head completely around and bite viciously at Thrud’s shoulder. “Ah…Hit det, hit det!” the norseman cries.
Remmy has opened the chest and found a trove of silver coins. Silver? He tosses a handful to Fluffykitten, who finds they make fine ammunition for her sling. She begins to let fly a barrage of coins, though as many hit Thrud as hit the rat-man.
Wolfbane finds herself at the bottom of the stairs, enveloped in darkness. Behind her comes the scurrying steps of the rat-man, but ahead of her the clicking steps of something much larger echo in the chamber. This time, she doesn’t scream, but begins her sleep spell. Behind her, Hazrad and Bhelgarn have seized the tail of the rat-man and are restraining its pursuit of Wolfbane.
Above, a second rat-man falls, but the one remaining sinks his teeth deep into Thrud’s forearm. Below, a clacking crash can be heard as the creature in the chamber falls to Wolfbane’s sleep spell.
Finally the last rat-man above is slain. At that, the one below tears itself free of Hazrad and Bhelgarn and escapes through a door. They do not pursue.
When the lantern is brought below, a very different kind of room is seen then any before in the pyramid. The walls and floor are not made of massive limestone blocks like in the pyramid above; rather they are rough-hewn from bedrock and are slightly uneven. Indeed, Bhelgarn ascends the stairs and can show anyone interested the precise horizon where the pyramid ends and the rock begins – they are assuredly belowground. Only the four flat stone pivot-doors are the same as those above. There is also a giant scorpion asleep in the room. Remmy slays it and, after its death-throws have subsided, collects the venom from its tail-stinger.
With several of the party newly-wounded, but trusting that this level is more out of the way than the fountain room, the party proceeds through a door opposite the one through which the rat-man fled. Inside they find empty tool racks and little else. They spike the doors and wait eight hours, sleeping fitfully if at all on the rough, cold, stone floor, and with many keeping nervous eyes on Thrud.
After many healing spells, more than a few levels gained, and all on grumbling stomachs, everyone agrees that they are ready to make a rush past the statues. Odleif is able to retrieve one of his spikes but not the other. The party ascends to the pyramid and finds the bodies of the rat-men, now turned to just men, undisturbed. They exit the secret door back into the hallway, traverse a long corridor while ignoring side-rooms, and come to what they believe is the trapped intersection and then the door of the statue room.
Though they take quite a while in arranging themselves, in the end the door is opened and the party streams through. The first in line are through the next door before the statues animate, and the last in line are pursued but not caught. They catch their breath and prepare for another dash. This one will be more difficult, as the statues, if it is the statues, are on the far side of the room and will have more time to animate if that is indeed what will happen.
Indeed, the iron statues animate before half the party is through the door. Fortunately, they are slow at first and miss the last people through the door with swings of their massive iron fists.
Passing through the kitchen area, the party finds the body of the rabbit-masked woman, and the two slain snakes, have been removed. Thence into the bed-chamber where Wolfbane was possessed – they are careful not to touch anything more. There, a debate begins – some are in favor of proceeding directly to the Warrior Maidens. Others, concerned about the outcome of the fight with the rat-men, declare that before they can proceed, they need to make sure that everyone in the party is armed with some kind of magical weapon, and the best place to look would be the tombs of the fourth level. "But before we do any of that, declares Remmy, “we should check out the secret room that Iris found.”
Behind the door is a small chamber, in which is a large, padlocked, wooden chest. On the wall above the chest is a large tapestry showing a desert scene. “Jackpot!” exclaims Remmy, and enters the room. “Oh no,” say several others, “I’m not going in there.”
Remmy shrugs and gets to work on the padlock. Before he has it open, though, the tapestry, oddly thick, has peeled itself off of the wall and engulfed him! In a few seconds it is on the ground, completely wrapped around him – just one hand and part of a forearm stick out!
At this, the others begin to enter the room, led by Iris. As they strike at the tapestry, it launches pseudopods that strike back at them! After several rounds of combat, many of them are wounded and Iris and Remmy are unconscious. The tapestry-thing lies in a stange formless mass, oozing a pale green fluid from between layers of rubbery grey skin. Here and there bits of the desert scene are still visible but fading.
Ember ministers to the fallen and is able to revive Iris but not Remmy. He must have been unable to breathe for quite some time. Bhelgarn smashes the lock on the chest and gives a low whistle as he opens it. Inside are thousands upon thousands of gold, silver, and even electrum pieces, easily the largest hoard the party has found yet. Laying on top of the coins are a full potion flask, a set of human-sized chainmail, and an impressive-looking dagger in an ornate scabbard.