The compound is filled with Maidens, their men, and their children – more of them together than anyone has seen up to this point. There are gasps as Morgan enters with the maiden, and then she is surrounded by a throng. The High Priestess herself pushes through the knot of women, puts her arm around the maiden, and guides her gently to the tower.
The gormites are met by guards – allowed through the gate with the party, but then their way immediately blocked. The crowd below is torn – affronted by the unthinkable insult of having men of the Brotherhood in their Enclave, but not immune to the sympathy elicited from the obvious bruises and broken leg of one of them. Murmurs and protests sweep through the crowd, accompanied by shouts from along the wall. Voices are raised – it is getting heated and unruly. Invisible, Ember and Wolfbane are being pushed from all sides.
“ASKITAH!” bellows the Great Mother from atop the wall, where she has been watching the Zargonites without pause. Immediately the courtyard falls silent. Just a few children, too small to know any better, continue to whine or babble, and these are rapidly removed by their fathers and taken into their tents.
“Maidens,” begins the Great Mother in a voice loud and practiced from years of command. Iris, still holding the disk, translates for the party. “Mark these events well, for someday you will tell your daughters of them, and their daughters!”
“Already you have seen things undreamt of – strangers from the light void. A delegation of Magi, requesting admittance to our Enclave. Men from the Brotherhood, here to ask for our help.” Her arm gestures toward the two men below. Morgan and Ember note how skillfully, with a single phrase, she has neutralized the threat of these two men, subverted their power, and calmed the crowd.
“But stranger things are ahead! Look there! Even now, the Temple of Zargon is burning! Who did this? FOUR WOMEN AND A CHILD. How did they do it? With our help, and with the help of the Magi, working together. Our Mother teaches us to hold strong and secure in our beliefs, to stay true to the roots of our faith, but also to be open to change as we grow. Relationships are living things, and they grow and change as all living things.”
“And now it is time. It is time for us to join together the factions, to unite the Three True Gods. These strangers are here, sent by the Mother, to show us the way. Already they have vanquished a Patriarch of Zargon and his hobgoblin guards. Already they have journeyed to the Underworld and returned to us the cure for vision mushroom addiction. Already they have entered the very fortress of Zargon and returned our precious Nehelli to us, she who many of you had lost hope of ever seeing again. But now, it is our turn. The Maiden calls to you, calls to each of you, to rise up against the Zargonites. This is the time of War. Remember your faith! Remember your vows! Each one of you have pledged to defend the honor of the Maiden, with your own blood.”
“Blood of the Maiden!” she cries.
All those assembled shout back, “BLADES OF THE MAIDENS!”
“The Mother protects!” she cries.
“THE SISTERS DEFEND!” they answer.
“Let them hear you!” she shouts, gesturing over the wall.
The crowd takes up the chant, “BLADES OF THE MAIDENS! BLADES OF THE MAIDENS!”, repeating it louder each time, until the whole undercity echoes with their cry.
The Great Mother descends the staircase along the wall, gesturing to Morgan as she goes. Morgan gathers the party, including the gormites. The maiden guards are busy chanting, and offer no resistance to the men’s departure. The Great Mother leads them away from the wall, up to the very base of the tower, and halfway around, so that they can hear one another over the roar of the crowd. Seeing the disk in Iris’ hand, she holds out her own until the elf passes it to her.
Away from the crowd, the face and tone of the Great Mother change dramatically. “I don’t know whether you are the biggest fools I’ve ever met or too clever by half. You could have slipped in, grabbed a prisoner, and come out. Killed a few guards, sure, but nothing they couldn’t hide from the people. But you had to set fire to their temple?”
“Yeah, and that’s not all we set fire to!” says Remmy snidely. “We burned their torture room and their mushroom stores, too!”
“Fire pretty!” says FluffyKitten brightly.
“Indeed,” says the Great Mother. “Regardless, they cannot deny your assault – the whole city has seen it. You have forced them into responding. They will attack us, in force, and soon.” She turns to Morgan. “You said you wanted to see us save ourselves. Well, you have done a masterful job of ensuring that we have no choice other than to do that. I can only hope your negotiations with the Magi were as skilled. If you still plan on getting the Brotherhood into this alliance, I suggest you get these men back to their redoubt before the Zargonites attack.”
Her voice softens somewhat. “Some of you are wounded. I will ask the High Priestess to visit you as you prepare to leave, but don’t ask for more, or wait around. And if your own priestess ever shows up, have her reset that man’s leg – it’s poorly done and won’t heal well, but I doubt he wants one of us to do it.”
The Great Mother returns the disk and takes her leave, and she is not out of earshot before she begins shouting orders to the maidens in preparation for the attack.
“That went well,” says Morgan sarcastically. “If the Great Mother had been invisible, would that have counted as an aggressive act?” She takes the disk and moves over to where the two gormite men are on the ground, one sitting, one lying. “How much of that did you get?” she asks the one who wielded the scourge. The other looks to be delirious from the pain of being transported with his broken leg.
“It is all very confusing,” begins the gormite. “I understand that you rescued us. I believe you are not of this world. The Maiden general thinks the Zargonites will attack soon. You would like the help of the Brotherhood?”
“That’s pretty much it. Who’s higher rank, you or him?”
“He is – I am but a Brother, he is an officer.”
Morgan looks around for Ember out of reflex, but she is still invisible. Morgan says loudly, “You have healing left?” Ember answers in the affirmative, from right next to Morgan, making her start. “Can you get him lucid?”
Ember runs her hand over the man’s leg, checks his forehead, listens to his heart. She stabilizers his knee and has Thrud pull on his ankle with all his might. There is a squishy crack, as his poorly-healed shin separates into two pieces. He doesn’t even have time to scream before he passes out from the pain. Ember is now visible. Thrud moves to his shoulders, holds him down in case he regains consciousness before Ember is done. She carefully but firmly guides his lower leg back together at the correct angle, uses two torches as splints and wraps the leg tightly with cloth. Then she passes her hand over the leg, murmuring “Hjerte bedringens vei, Hjerte bedringens vei, Hjerte bedringens vei, Hjerte bedringens vei”.
The man’s eyes flutter and he gasps, then he looks about and tries to get up, but Thrud continues to hold him down. He was a strong man once, but Thrud has no difficulty in keeping him still. “Fill him in,” says Morgan to the other man. Several minutes of conversation follow.
At the end, the gormite officer looks at Morgan expectantly. “You are returning us to our Redoubt?” The other man’s cheeks are moist with tears.
“Yes,” Morgan answers, “and in return, we would like you to get us to speak with the highest officer you can.”
“Fair enough. I would suggest you leave us just outside the entrance, and then retire. I will do what I can.”
The party moves back to their tents. Wolfbane decides that she will begin her rest now, in order to more rapidly recover spells. The rest of them take off their zargonite disguises. The High Priestess emerges from the tower and joins them. “The blessings of the Mother be upon you. When I learned you were planning to rescue the magi, I did not mention our Nehelli out of fear of endangering your mission on a false hope. But you returning her to us has done more for the morale of the Maidens than you can know. We are ready for this war.”
The Priestess examines Iris, finds the bruises from when she fell down the stairs. She casts a cure light wounds and brings her to full. She looks at FluffyKitten, covered in more bruises, and uses a cure moderate wounds to restore her to full health. She finds Bhelgarn to be a mass of scratches, cuts, welts, and bite marks from the zombies, and uses a cure serious wounds on him, restoring all but a jagged cut across the back of his neck. Morgan is unwounded.
The Priestess inclines her head respectfully at Remmy and Odleif. “I honor your bravery, good men,” she says, “but I may use the power of the Goddess only on those who are members of the Maidens. I hope you understand.” She turns to Morgan, offers two small skins of liquid. “Here are two potions of healing. I trust your judgement in their use.”
Finally, she addresses the two gormite men. “We have our differences. But it is time to unite the Three True Gods. Commend me to Azerius. Tell him the Maidens are ready to fight alongside the Brotherhood.” Without waiting for a reply, she retreats in their stunned silence.
Morgan examines the “potions” – they look like small waterskins, with bone necks and wax seals. Not exactly a leaded glass potion bottle, and delicate to transport.
“How you both doing?” she asks Remmy and Odleif.
“Okay for now,” says Remmy. Nicks and cuts cover his forearms, but nothing too serious.
Odleif lifts his chain shirt, shows her the nasty stab wound in his abdomen. “I kin use some ’freshment.” Morgan looks around to be sure the High Priestess is out of sight, then lets Odleif drain one of the skins. The other she saves for later.
Leaving Wolfbane behind, the rest of the group takes to the rear wall of the cavern. The undercity is noisy, but it is a restless, tense noise, with none of the singing they heard when they first arrived. As they near the Magi Complex, they hear shouts ringing out along the road in front. Those with infravision can see a zargonite, most likely a priest, flanked by guards. Around them are a ring of cityfolk, following them and listening as he makes an announcement.
“People of Cyndicia! Strangers walk among you! They are not like us! They are here to destroy our world!
They have set fire to our stores of food, and of release! They want to rob you of your right to eat, and to dream!
They have desecrated the temple of Zargon the Great! Our Master stirs and is wroth! Soon he will prowl the streets of the city, and no one will be safe!
We urge you, for your own safety, to turn these people over to us! Anyone who has information that leads to their capture will be rewarded with a lifetime exemption from work duties! Anyone who captures and turns them in will receive a lifetime of release!
But until these people are found, we can give you NO release, and NO food. We must guard what supplies remain for the safety of the city. Stay away from the docks, stay away from the fields – anyone found there will be detained. Anyone found helping the strangers will be punished as a traitor to the city. Be alert! Protect yourselves from these murderous strangers and their traitorous accomplices!"
The longer he speaks, the more agitated the crowd becomes. Remmy takes out his blowgun, while Morgan helps him estimate the distance and direction. He is just about to dip a needle in poison when Ember places her hand on top of the tube. “Listen!” she whispers. “There are messengers all over the city, probably with the same speech. At best this is a distraction and we don’t have time. At worst, that crowd could turn on us, and then we would have to fight cityfolk. Focus on the mission – there will be time for fighting later.”
Remmy reluctantly puts away his weapon. “Morgan, you and Iris talk to the Magi,” says Ember. “We will drop off the gormites. Meet us outside their fortress.”
Morgan and Iris approach the Magi Complex. They knock, and Alyria bids them put their palms on the circle. They appear in the same room as before with the tables and lights. There are fewer people this time, and their conversations are more earnest. Alyria greets them.
“Thank you both. The Master is weak but recovering – mostly he was starved but not beaten. You can count on the Magi as allies. Have you heard what the zargonites are announcing in the streets?”
“Yes,” says Morgan, “we just came from that.”
“They will attack soon.”
Alyria looks over her shoulder, leans her head in, and whispers. “Although we are not as strong, we believe our intelligence gathering is superior to that of the other two factions. By our estimation, the zargonite high priest is eighth level, and therefore capable of casting fourth level spells. If he had already prayed for spells before your raid, and then needs to change them for an attack, he would need to rest at least six hours and then pray for maybe another hour or more. We estimate the attack will come any time after the next six hours, most likely between eight and twelve.”
When Morgan translates for Iris, the elf exclaims, “Wait, you know about hours?”
Alyria points to a wall-mounted sand hourglass. “We Magi have retained more abstract knowledge than the other two factions.”
Morgan wonders what else they know about that will be useful. “Those crystals – do you have a magic light source we can use?”
Alyria frowns. “Those are permanent magic items, and we have just a few. Everyone is preoccupied with the coming attack, and is unlikely to notice one is missing.” She looks about carefully, then slides the one on the table between them into Morgan’s waiting bag. “Make sure we get it back after the fight – along with the disk,” she says pointedly, then returns the two women to outside the Complex.
When the women rejoin the party, they are told that the gormites have already taken the two men inside, and now they are waiting for a response. Perhaps ten minutes later the gates open – massive twin interlocking iron-bound gates that are set into grooves in the ground and slide laterally. A single man comes forward. He is tall, nearly as tall as Thrud, powerfully built, and clad head to foot in plate armor. His sword is long, as long as Bhelgarn’s bastard sword. When he takes off his helm, he reveals two things – first, a long scar that crosses his forehead, the bridge of his nose, and and his opposite cheek, and second, that his left hand is limp and withered – it can barely hold his helm and certainly wielding a weapon would be impossible.
“I am Azerius, Commander of the Brotherhood of Gorm,” he announces. “I understand we have you to thank for the return of our two brothers.”
Bhelgarn steps forward. The party agreed that as a male, he should represent them to the gormites. “That is correct. We have come to ask you to join an alliance against the zargonites.”
“That is of potential interest to us. Please enter our Redoubt.”
The party enters through the narrow gate in the thick stone walls. Their way is flanked on each side by Brotherhood warriors standing at attention. More than one of them feels uneasy about seeing the familiar blue robes and gold masks.
The courtyard has numerous small stone buildings, but they are dwarfed by two massive stone towers. “That is the Tower of Might,” says Azerius, indicating the one on the left. “And this, the Tower of Justice. Gorm teaches us that both of these things are equally important.” Unlike the courtyard of the maidens, there is no one but soldiers about – no women, no children, and no tents. It seems very sparse and utilitarian.
Azerius continues, “If you are willing, I would like to invite your leader to a ceremony…” Bhelgarn steps forward. “…we call the Rite of Truth. For there can be no Justice without Truth.” Bhelgharn hesitates, looks over his shoulder at Morgan. She has no idea what is transpiring, but moves next to Bhelgarn, receives the disk from him, along with a quick summary.
“Meaning no disrespect, Commander,” she begins. “I am what we consider our leader, at least in situations of combat. If you will accept a woman, I will undergo your Rite of Truth.”
Azerius looks at her, then pointedly at the symbol of the Maiden on her wrist. “We recognize that our way is not for everyone. For your sake as leader, you may enter the Tower of Justice – but I would ask that the other females of your group remain outside, as well as any who are not warriors.”
While Iris and Fluffykitten loiter outside, Odleif, Thrud, Remmy, and Bhelgarn follow Morgan and Azerius into the tower. A number of guards bring up the rear. The entrance feels like a tunnel, due to the massive ten foot thick walls.
The entire first floor of the tower is an open temple – there does not appear to be a staircase, ladder, or any other way to proceed to the higher floors. It is lit with a dim light of no obvious source. The space resembles greatly the temple in the pyramid above – the walls have been painted a sky blue, the ceiling is blue but also has grey and white clouds. In the exact center of the room is a gleaming gold statue of a man with a bronze balance and a silver lightning bolt – the statue is larger than an actual person and is mounted on a base of marble so that the arms of the lowered balance are just within reach of a tall man but the raised bolt is above everyone’s head. Near the statue are two pillars of marble, with a crossbeam of bronze running between them. The tops of the pillars are chest high and they look like they might serve as some sort of altar. Crossed weapons are hung on the walls, but there are no chairs, pews, or benches in sight.
A robed man stands near the marble pillars. He bows his head at Azerius’ approach. Azerius reaches up to the statue, takes down the bronze balance, hangs it on the crossbeam. The robed man produces two handfuls of stones and gives one to Morgan and one to Azerius, who addresses her.
“Each of us may ask questions, in turn. This is our temple, so I will begin, but for every question you answer me, you have the right to ask a question of your own. When we have stated our answers, we will each place a stone on the balance, and the Sky Father will judge our words. Truth has weight; lies dissipate like air. If our replies are equally truthful, their weights will balance. If one of us lies, it will be shown as the more truthful words outweighing the lies.” Morgan nods her understanding and acceptance.
“Six long-sleeps ago, we sent a squadron of Brothers to the upper pyramid. They were supposed to relieve the squadron we had on duty. Neither group has returned to us – they are long overdue. Do you know what has happened to them?”
Morgan composes herself. Time for truth. “Many long-sleeps ago, we arrived from the light-void. We were starving and dying of thirst. When we entered the pyramid, my only thought was of survival. When we found your first squadron, I ordered my people to engage them in combat. We killed them all. Later, we were set upon by others I presume to be your second squadron, most likely in retaliation. We killed them as well. Do I regret the killings, now that I know what your people are like? Yes. Would I change it if I could? Yes. But we did what we did.”
Azerius’ face is somber, but he accepts her words without anger. “You may ask your question.”
Morgan says simply, “Are you interested in the overthrow and destruction of the Zargonites?”
Azerius smiles grimly. “That is something the Brotherhood has worked for since before the fall. It is always our goal and has been for generations immemorial.”
Azerius places a stone on the balance, and his end sinks down. Morgan places hers in the opposite pan and the two sides move up and down, coming to rest at the same level.
He leads again. “What have you done to oppose the Zargonites?”
“We have slain a priest and his guards – the Maidens say he was a Patriarch, but I do not know what that means. We have returned a flower from your underword that has the potential to cure anyone of their mushroom addiction. We have attacked the Zargonite fortress and rescued the two prisoners we returned to you just now. We seek the destruction of the zargonites as much as you do.”
Azerius nods with satisfaction. Morgan asks, “Are you sincerely interested in an alliance with the other two factions, to work together to overthrow the Zargonites?”
“If they are willing to respect our ways, to treat us as equals in the alliance and not pawns, we are prepared to join. If they show themselves worthy of our aid, we would help them. If YOU show yourselves worthy of our aid, we would join with you and them.”
Again stones are placed and found to be in balance. Azerius continues.
“You bear the mark of the Maidens, although you say you are from the light-void. Will you favor the Maidens? If we manage to overcome the Zargonites at last, will you take the side of their faction in any disputes which follow?”
“It is our only interest to help you defeat the zargonites, and restore the rule of the Three True Gods. We have no interest in one faction prevailing over another. If the zargonites are gone but you three continue to fight one another, than anything we have done here has been wasted. We wish that you can come to settle your differences peacefully, without our involvement.”
Morgan reflects for a moment. She has the right to a matching question, but has resolved what she had come to ask already. Then she hits upon something. “Do you have a prophecy regarding us, regarding the coming conflict?”
“A prophecy, no. The Brotherhood does not produce prophets. But we have carefully preserved all of the religious texts that we could recover after the fall. There are some that speak of such a time a this, of the time when strangers would arrive during the rule of the zargonites. The texts say that “the strangers from another world will lead us in victory over the forces of the false god.” There are many among us who believe that they refer to you."
Again the stones balance. Azerius looks at the robed man. “I have no further questions. The Rite of Truth is ended.” The man collects the stones, and Azerius re-hangs the great balance on the golden statue.
“The truth of your words pleases me, as I hope my words have done for you.” Morgan nods. “But there is still the matter of Justice. You have, by your own admission, proclaimed your guilt in the slaying of a score of Brothers. Do you accept my Judgement?”
Morgan swallows. “If it will allow you to enter into an alliance with the other two factions, I will accept your judgement. I ask only that your judgement fall on me, and no others. As their commander, I accept complete responsibility for their actions.”
Azerius squares his shoulders. “The men you killed were guarding the entrance to the light-void to fulfill what is written in the texts. They were all volunteers. Every one of them had pledged their lives to help you get here to the city. Their food and water sustained you. Their armor protected you. Their honey cured you. You would have died without their gifts to you, although neither you nor they knew it. They fulfilled their responsibilities honorably, and fulfilled the word of the texts.”
“Justice cannot ask the impossible. I cannot ask you to bring those brave men back. Justice can only demand that you do what you can. Return their masks to us, so that their spirits may aid the next generation of warriors. Return the helmet of their leader to us, for it is a powerful item, and will be important in our struggle. Return their bodies to us, any that are left, so that we may honor them with our rites. If you do that, you will have proven yourselves worthy and we will join your alliance against the Zargonites. If you do not, we will watch you and them destroy each other, and we will rebuild the city ourselves.”
“I accept your judgement.” Morgan bows, collects the men of the party, and leaves the tower.
“Well?” says Iris upon their exit.
“Do you remember the last time we went up to the pyramid?” says Morgan, then thinks to slip the disk into her belt so that her words will not be understood by any Brothers. “When I said we needed to get anything important so that the NEXT faction wouldn’t give us a quest to go up again?” She lets her tone serve as an answer to Iris’ question as she gathers the others.
Once they are out of the Redoubt, she whispers to the others. “We need to get to the pyramid and back BEFORE this war starts. Go to the Maidens, drop anything you can, take the bare minimum. No food, no gear, just water. This is a forced march – you carry your armor, not wear it. I know that stinks – but if you can’t keep up, don’t go. Who has gorm masks here, and who left them topside? Okay, gather the ones you have here and be prepared to move out. Iris and I need to see the Magi again.”
- * * *
The common room of the Magi is eerily empty. Just Alyria and the two women. “Everyone else is resting or preparing spells,” she explains.
Morgan gets right to the point. “There was a magic helmet. It was with the gormites in the pyramid, but we gave it to the magi. We need to get it back – it is the only way the Brotherhood will join the alliance. Can you help us?”
Alyria looks concerned, checks to make sure that indeed they are alone. “That will be difficult. Auriga is very interested in personal power. The other two factions rotate their watches in the pyramid – but Auriga has been up there since before I was the gatekeeper. If he thinks it helps him keep power, he won’t let it go.”
“So what do we do?”
Alyria sighs, then a hard edge comes in to her voice. “We will need every mage we have in this war. We were about to send a paper tablet up recalling them to us, and Auriga, too. I had been tasked with organizing that detail. Will you deliver the tablet for us?” When Morgan agrees, Alyria adds “Then I will add to the writing, tell him to turn the helmet over to you.”
“And if he doesn’t?”
“Auriga would be good to have here when the war comes. But if we have to choose between him and all the Brotherhood, it would be better to have the Brotherhood and not him. Do what you have to do to get the helmet back, just try not to hurt anyone you don’t have to.”
Morgan says she understands. Alyria produces a scroll, and Morgan recalls that Wolfbane told her the magi did not have a word for “scroll”. Just now she called it a “paper tablet”. By the light of an enchanted crystal, she adds a few lines at the end in the indecipherable Cyndician script.
“Good luck” she says, after handing it over to Morgan.
Back at the Enclave, the party readies their gear. After much reflection, Ember decides that she is not going. She has no healing spells at the moment, and would need to rest to have some. But resting defeats the purpose – she does not want the whole party to wait for her, leave late, and be away when the attack starts. Morgan accepts her decision.
“We know the way, with luck we won’t have to fight anything, it is better that you stay here and prepare for an attack,” Morgan says.
“You should take the potion at least,” says Ember.
“We will, and maybe another…” Morgan sees the Great Mother directing preparation for an assault and speaks with her. She requests another potion of healing, in return for delivering a message to the maidens in the pyramid about the impending attack. The Great Mother had not planned on alerting the maidens above, because she did not think she could spare messengers who likely would not be back in time anyway. She is very willing to trade a single potion for the chance that the entire squad could be recalled in time.
With Wolfbane, Ember, and Pooches staying behind, the seven remaining members of the party set out. There is a momentary stop at the Redoubt, as they leave off the few gold masks they had carried with them. Then they leave the cavern. Traveling light, it is a quick two hours up the tunnels. They don’t rest, and arrive at the pyramid winded, but in good shape. There were a few wrong turns in the tunnels, but between Bhelgarn and Odleif they quickly got back on track. They fill their skins in the Great Temple and catch their breath.
The stone statues and iron statues are easily passed, traveling as quickly as they are and with only seven in their group. None of them like the sensation of moving about with their armor in their packs, but it is quicker. They climb the ramp from the Tombs to the third level, and use the spinning room to arrive at the maidens. Morgan delivers the message – the war is coming, and all of the maidens are recalled to the undercity. Pandora says that it will take them a while to pack up and secure their base, and after that they will be traveling slowly in armor, so most likely the party will return before they do. But regardless, they will see them in the city before a long sleep. Pandora leans in close to Morgan and whispers, “I knew you were the ones we were sent to find. Thank you for making this happen.” They leave the wide-eyed maidens securing gear; preparing everything they will take for travel, and everything they will not to be moved to their locked temple – they will leave the dormitory room empty except for the table and chairs.
The party approaches the electrified entrance to the gorm temple, and Bhelgarn secures the key to his pole with practiced ease. Morgan realizes that Hazrad has the other key, and curses under her breath. As soon as they open the door to the temple, they smell the bodies. It is overwhelming, and they have to work to avoid retching. The sheets are stained and discolored.
Iris, looking green in the light of Bhelgarn’s sword, can barely speak. “I don’t think…(she gags, then controls herself)…I don’t think I can carry those…not without being sick…”
Odleif lights a torch, which he says will burn off some of the smell. He looks at Iris sympathetically. “‘Twill get better in t’a halls. It’s jess built up in t’is room, is all. Once we’re movin’ it’ll air out a fair bit.” Then he looks at Morgan. “‘Course, we’ll be smelt fer two levels away by any monsters hereabouts.”
Morgan grimaces. “Then let’s start airing them out. Me, Odleif, and Iris will move these into the hall – Bhelgarn, leave the pole and key please. You, Thrud, Remmy, and Fluffy use the ladder to check on our base. Bring all the gorm masks, plus as many of the candles as you can carry without slowing yourself down.”
After the others depart, the three remaining begin moving the sheet-wrapped corpses to the door. Even Odleif has to work to keep his stomach down as he lifts and drags the limp bundle.
“Ugh, shouldn’t these be stiff or something?” Morgan asks.
“Nae, t’at be only t’a seconn anna t’ird day dead,” responds Odleif. “T’ese ones been dead morrin a week, I reckon.”
The others find their base above undisturbed. They take the masks, and Bhelgarn distributes the “candles” from the box they are in to different sacks, breaking up the load between each of them. There are 19 small sacks full of powder, 23 “candles” of powder wrapped in waxed paper (like the ones taken previously), 16 candles that are longer, slimmer, and have a wooden holder or support stuck in them, and 45 strings set with little clusters of cylinders, somewhat like bunches of grapes. Many of these strange items are leaking powder, have their paper rotted through, are cracked, etc., but some are intact. Bhelgarn believes that he could sort through them and separate out the good from the bad, but he would need time to do so.
The party reunites in the spinning room, and Odleif selects the button for the magi’s corridor. At the statue in front of the false wall, Remmy struggles to remember which way he pulled the wand. He finally guesses more than remembers and tries to the left – the wall slides away and the party proceeds. They knock on the temple door and receive no answer. They knock on the dormitory door and are rewarded with a multitude of surprised voices.
Several minutes later, Auriga opens the door cautiously. Behind him are arranged a dozen mages, all with hands free and prepared to cast.
Morgan is in the front, with Iris, Remmy, and FluffyKitten behind her, and the others farther back in the hall. Morgan has the scroll from the Magi in one hand and the disk in the other, and her sword is sheathed.
“What is it?” demands Auriga. He is wearing the helmet.
“I have a message for you all, from the Magi of the undercity,” she says.
“Well then, give it over,” Auriga says imperiously, and holds forth his hand.
“My instructions were for it to be read to ALL of you,” Morgan insists.
“How DARE you…” begins the mage, but Morgan cuts him off.
“Will someone here read it out loud?” she asks.
Auriga moves away from the door, and does a half-turn so that he can keep track of Morgan but stare down the magi in the room. At first, they are silent. Then, hesitantly, a woman raises her hand. Auriga turns full on her in rage and Morgan seizes the opportunity to toss the scroll over his head. It is caught neatly by the woman and opened. Auriga glares at her, then says. “Fine, read the scroll.”
“By the hand of Skirtos, under the direction of the High Council of the Magi of Usamigares, in the year 1813 FC. The Council has strong reason to suspect an immanent attack on the Complex from the Zargonites. You are all hereby relieved of your mission in the pyramid and encouraged to return as soon as practical to the undercity to assist in the defense of the Complex. Choose your path well.”
“It’s a fake,” scoffs Auriga. “The council would never send a non-Magi to deliver us a sensitive message, much less ones such as these. We already know they have attacked us, then betrayed us to the Maidens.”
“There is more,” the woman continues. “It says that Auriga is ordered to return to them the helmet he took.”
Auriga’s eyes go wide, then narrow to slits. “Let me see that!” he demands, and wrests the scroll from the woman’s grasp. “This is a trick, written by them.”
Morgan shrugs. “I have no knowledge of your script; I can neither read nor write it. I am only delivering the message as Alyra the Gatekeeper asked me to.”
The mood in the room changes immediately. Morgan can tell that her namedropping has had some effect, and that many of the magi are now seriously considering the scroll. Auriga senses the change as well. He can no longer command – he will have to convince. His voice adopts an even tone.
“Brethren,” he says, “think about this. If there is to be an attack on the Complex, we need this helmet. It makes no sense to give it to the strangers. Look here,” he holds up the scroll, shows it to those nearby. “See how the hand changes? How the second part is not signed? Perhaps the first part is real. PERHAPS. But even so, the second part is obviously forged. The most reasonable explanation is that a messenger was sent to us, and the party waylaid him, took the message, and wrote their own end. We cannot go anywhere until we have a verified message.”
Morgan shrugs again. “The Magi need you all. War is coming.”
The magi present begin to murmur amongst themselves. With tentative steps, the room begins to re-arrange itself, with those supporting Auriga on one side, and those opposing him on the other. Seeing the doubt in many of their eyes, Auriga is enraged, and turns on Morgan.
“You have NO place here, stranger!” he shouts. “Incarcellus!” A brownish light shoots from his hands, strikes Morgan in the chest. Thick ropes spring about her, binding her head to toe. A gag appears across her mouth. She falls from the doorway back into the hall.
The room fills with the shouts and accusations of the magi. Iris and FluffyKitten rush forward to Morgan. Iris tries to cut away at the ropes, but it seems like the more she severs, the more appear. Fluffy looks perplexed, then shakes Morgan and tells her, “No rope! No rope!”
Some magi in the room begin casting. A light spell blinds Auriga, and he curses. “I will destroy you for this!” he shouts. A sleep spell from one of his supporters goes off in the hall, and Morgan loses consciousness. FluffyKitten says “Nappy time,” smiles sweetly, and sinks to the floor.
Thrud and Bhelgarn, hearing the shouts, come running up the hallway. Remembering Morgan’s orders, they do not draw their weapons, but are prepared to. They shake Fluffy and Morgan awake, but Morgan is still bound.
“Enough!” shouts a woman – the same woman who read the scroll? Over her head floats a glowing arrow. Her hand is up, held in front of her. Iris knows from experience that all she needs to do is point, and the magic missile will fly instantly and unerringly at her target. “You know this is capable of killing any of you. Don’t make me use it.” The mages fall silent, even Auriga. “Those who want to return to the Complex will pack up now and leave, with no interference. Those who want to stay are welcome to stay.” She lowers her voice to address the mage next to her. “Jannis, pack for me please.” The woman moves so that her back is to the wall, near the door, and she can watch the room. In the end, eight magi move out into the hallway, the woman with the arrow being the last of them. Four, plus Auriga, stay. As the woman and the man named Jannis pass Auriga, they turn suddenly and both grab at the helmet, ripping it from his head and bolting out the door. He is taken by surprise and hurls curses at them, but can do nothing as he is still blinded. His followers start forward, but are stopped by the sight of the magic missile.
By the time Auriga finishes his tirade, Morgan is free from the ropes. She addresses those remaining. “I just want you to know, you are making a big mistake. There are five of you now, alone against all the monsters in the pyramid. Meanwhile your brothers and sisters are being attacked by Zargonites. Bad decision.”
The party, along with the eight magi, retreat down the hall. As a precaution, Remmy pulls the statue wand back to ints central position to close off the wall behind them. The woman with the magic missile addresses Morgan.
“This spell won’t last much longer, and it is my only one. Most of us didn’t take combat spells for today. Do you suppose we could travel with you back to the Undercity?”
Morgan looks at her incredulously. “That one missile is your only spell today?” The woman nods. “Well played,” says Morgan, and chuckles. “Yes, you can come with us, as long as you can keep up, and don’t mind the smell.” The woman raises an eyebrow quizzically, but then the door of the spinning room opens and the wave of stench rolls over them.
Surprisingly, the party makes it down the ramp, through the Tombs, and on to the fifth level without encountering monsters. Odleif finds his “friend” and insists on walking with him, grinning all the while, though (fortunately?) they cannot communicate. The part of lowering the corpses down the ladder to the fifth level is grisly, and none of them care to remember it. Morgan calls for a pause outside the door with the iron statues.
“Okay,” she says, “I think the iron statues won’t be a problem this direction, but the stone statues will be. Anyone carrying a body is going to be slowed enough that they will not be able to make it through before they animate. We will separate into two groups, with those carrying bodies going in the second group, and a few more to defend them. Anyone who can’t take a few hits should be in the first group across.”
“Excuse me,” says the woman whose missile has long since vanished. “When we need to cross the gargoyle room, we usually have a few people take protection from evil. Since the gargoyles are enchanted constructs, they cannot physically attack the spellcaster, so the caster can shield the rest of the group.”
Morgan is dumbfounded. “Well, did anyone take that spell?” A single mage raises his hand.
The mages, all but that one, and FluffyKitten are sent first. All of them make it through before the gargoyles fully animate. While the statues are at the opposite door, the rest of the party enters the room, with one person at the head and one at the foot of each corpse. They pack as tightly as they can three abreast, and stay along the wall. The mage, his spell cast, walks beside them. When the gargoyles see them, they literally fly across the room, but come up short when the mage interposes himself. The next minutes are torture. As they walk, hands holding a week-dead rotting, stinking corpse, no armor on and no weapon in hand, the gargoyles claw and snap at them, often coming within inches or even briefly grabbing their shoulders before the mage can interpose himself, constantly dashing between the two gargoyles and the outermost bearers, Morgan and Odleif. By the time they have traversed the room and are waiting outside, Morgan decides that she has paid proper penance for the killings and has no more use for remorse.
Cornering the pit trap is hard, going down the ladder to the tunnels is grim, but they finally enter the tunnels. Odleif and Iris are sent back to collect water, since Morgan did not want the bodies in the fountain room for any longer than necessary. Then they begin the long, grueling descent. After she is asked for the third time, Morgan makes it clear to the magi that she will not answer why the bodies or the helmet are needed in the undercity, only that they are.
They have been traveling in the tunnels perhaps half an hour when Morgan hears the tramp of boots approaching, close at hand but around the corner of an intersection between the fissure they are in and another. Without speaking, Morgan lowers her end of the body to the ground, and motions for the others to do the same. She peers around the corner.
Morgan sees the forms of five or ten humanoids approaching, then hears a human voice shout “Charge them!” The boots break into a run.
Morgan dashes across the intersection and into another branch, then turns about to face Iris, just as a wave of hobgoblins crashes on the front of the party. Iris takes a nasty slash the length of her torso before Morgan can compete her sleep spell.
Five hobgoblins and Iris fall asleep. By the time Bhelgarn and Odleif pick their way over the corpses and the bodies of the hobgoblins, the Zargonite priest has assessed the situation and is running back down the tunnel from which he came. His chain mail hauberk deflects the blows of two thrown handaxes before he is out of sight.
FluffyKitten slits the throats of the hobgoblins while Morgan wakes Iris and Odleif retrieves the axes. Iris is bleeding lightly and has her shirt slit open, but says she can continue. Morgan debates for several minutes armoring up, even going so far as to unpack her mail from her backpack before stuffing it back in. Bhelgarn says “Let’s jess gae noo, or thar woon’t be nae more gobbo’s ta slay! Be a shame tae get thar after tha war’n all.”
Morgan laughs grimly, hefts her backpack, grabs the feet of the corpse, and continues down the tunnel.