The party shares fermented mushroom tea and large mushroom wafers with the maidens in a ceremonial feast before their departure. After they rest, they prepare to leave – with the spell-casters making sure they have a selection of spells appropriate for travel and a return to the pyramid, where they have not been for more than a week.
Wolfbane, upon memorizing her spells, especially the new ones recently traded for silver, feels a surge of understanding. She believes that she is ready to train. She inquires with Alyria of the Magi, and indeed they are willing to help her practice her craft. She asks the party to return for her, and moves her things to the Magi Complex.
Remmy speaks with Morgan, offering to stay to watch over Wolfbane, as the Magi would likely accept him in the Complex as well. Morgan is acutely aware that Remmy and Wolfbane together voted to leave the Pyramid, and does not want him trying to convince the young mage to take her chances alone with him in the desert. Plus, she trusts Remmy better where she can see him. She tells him that his services of trap-checking are greatly valued in the pyramid, and that he is an important member of the party.
Thus the eight remaining members of the party, plus Pooches, set out. Their agreed-upon goal is to search the tombs layer for more magic items. Once they are all equipped with magic weapons, perhaps they can indeed take on Zargon at the apex of the lower pyramid.
They leave to great fanfare and accolades from the Cyndiciean factions and cityfolk alike. FluffyKitten encourages the cheers, and exhorts the crowds to bid good luck to “their princess”. Bhelgarn marches sullenly, glad to be ridding themselves of the loopy, dreamy, humans. Only dwarves are fit to live underground, really. Humans are a strange lot and underground living has made these humans even stranger.
The brotherhood guards at the exit to the tunnels wish the party well, and tell them that a group of ogres passed through a long sleep ago. They were not stopped because first, the brotherhood patrol was small and could likely have taken casualties (they have since increased the strength here in case the ogres return), and second, the officer on duty made the decision that it was better for the ogres to be in the abandoned pyramid, where they could do less damage, than in the populated undercity. Perhaps they were even trying to escape into the light-void, which would be just fine.
Morgan leads the way through the tunnels, scouting ahead with her infravision and alert for signs of ogre. The main party follows her at a distance, with a lantern lit for those without infravision. Working up the tunnels is hard and laborious, but several hours later the party finds themselves on the landing just under the trapdoor that leads to the “room of the walls that tell stories” on the fifth pyramid level. The landing is not cold – at least, no colder than the tunnels themselves.
Lifting the trapdoor, Morgan looks around, and then calls the others out. There is more sand on the floor of the room than they remember, but it is otherwise unchanged for all the time they have been away. They proceed into the Great Temple.
While most of the party fill waterskins at the fountains, Iris and Odleif examine the tracks on the ground. No ogre tracks, or other humanoids for that matter. Mostly giant lizards and insects. Morgan calls for a brief meeting.
She explains to the party that she has been thinking on something for the entire trip through the tunnels. The possibility of a fight with three ogres was something she needed to be alert for, but not something she found she dreaded. Their time in the pyramid and city, she realized, particularly the battle and sack of the zargonite fortress, has brought out great skill and ability in all of them. A month ago, when they arrived from the desert, an encounter with three ogres would have meant the death of them all. Now, she is even looking forward to it, so long as it is a fair fight, as she is confident they will prevail. It is clear they are now a formidable force. While their initial goal was to make for the tomb level, Morgan was not looking forward to another desperate dash through the two statue rooms, hoping that none of them stumble. But she realizes that now, equipped with magic weapons, they might end that menace for good.
She reminds them that the Cyndicians have withdrawn from the pyramid (except for mad Auriga) and ceded it to them. She asks them how they would feel about cleaning it out, that is, a room-to-room exploration and extermination of monsters. It would make the city far safer to not have any monsters wander in, or any zargonite refugees on the loose. And it would be possible to consolidate all of the treasure in one or two places. Since it is obvious that they cannot carry out all of the treasure they have found, it would make it possible for any of them willing to return to easily access another load. Finally, it would give them that much more practice in fighting as a team before they face Zargon, if indeed that is what they plan on doing. There is a brief discussion, but everyone there is amenable. Remmy is the least so, as he sees little profit in what he calls “mopping up”, but he at least agrees to remain with the party and check for traps for them in return for a share of any treasure found.
Consulting Odleif’s sketch map, they realize that they have not been to the northeast section of the fifth level, through a door off the Great Temple that was searched and listened at but never opened. They decide that will be their first stop.
The hallway beyond the door splits, and they take the far branch. Past the intersection, the sand and dust on the floor grow heavier, and individual tracks grow more distinct. By the end of the hall, at a door, a single set of tracks is present, leading to the door itself. They are large and bipedal, two taloned feet as of a giant bird, but with a thick meaty tail drug behind. Morgan listens at the door.
northeast corner of pyramid level 5
At first the half-elf hears nothing. Then there is a loud crash, as of several glass bottles smashing and wood splintering. Slowly she peeks in the door. It is dark, but her infravision detects that the room is lined with shelves and racks of bottles. Along the west wall are large casks and barrels – several of them are smashed open. She hears sounds of a large creature, but it is behind shelves and unseen.
Morgan pulls back and allows the door to close. In a hushed conversation, the party decides to explore the other corridor first and then come back to this room. They have started down the hall but not yet reversed marching order when the door of the room crashes open behind them, and a hulking form stumbles out into the hall. It is as huge as a cave bear but has piercing yellow eyes and a large beak. It staggers down the hall toward them as if drunk.
An arrow from Odlief spins the creature around. Remmy falls back to allow others to surge forward, and after a brief combat the creature is slain. Morgan looks at its massive muscles and deadly claws, her belief in the ability of the party confirmed. That thing would have taken the party apart a month ago. She and Remmy enter the room while the rest of the party examines the body.
The numerous bottles, scores of them, were obviously meant for wine, though opening a few reveals that they have long since turned to vinegar. Still, vinegar has its uses and could be a boon for the undercity – and the bottles would work well to transport water in the desert. Remmy and Morgan do a quick search of the room but find nothing else of interest. When they re-emerge in the hall they find Bhelgharn removing the huge claws of the beast with his axe, and Odlief skinning it. “I’ve skinned plenty o’ owls, and my fair share o’ bear, too,” the woodsman says, “But I ain’t never skinned an owlbear. Queer creature.” The creature’s hide would make for a huge jacket or, for Fluffykitten, an entire bedroll. The outer surface is covered in long, stiff feathers but the undercoat is of a course brown hair. When they are done the skin is hung on a winerack in the room to dry and the corpse drug in to the room so as not to attract other monsters. Still, the hallway floor is slick with blood and it does not take long to mobilize the party.
They travel down the side-corridor, around a corner, and come to a door. Remmy does not find any traps on it, but in the process of examining it he notes an acrid smell. Iris urges Pooches forward – he sniffs at the door, snorts, and backs away.
Inside, the entire room is a large sunken pool filled with a bubbling liquid. The air is acrid and stings their eyes. In the center of the room is a box made of stone slabs. The lid of the box is about a foot above the surface of the liquid and is locked with a large iron padlock.
Given the size of the box and the depth of the sunken floor, Morgan judges the box to be floating. She tosses a grappling hook and neatly catches the far side. As she pulls at it, she encounters far more resistance than anticipated and determines that the box is actually resting on a pedestal. With a neat flick of her arm, she recovers the grappling hook without either it or the rope ever touching the liquid. As a test, she puts the end of the rope in the liquid by the door – the hemp rope quickly wicks up the liquid, turns black and disintegrates. Bhelgharn shoves Remmy aside and cuts the end off the rope before more is spoiled. The cut rope floats briefly on the surface of the liquid before turning black, dissolving into loose fibers, and disappearing.
The party resolves to return when they are once again with Wolfbane – and her levitation spell or potion.
Returning across the Great Temple, they move into the more familiar corridor. They briefly check the secret door leading to the underpyramid and find it operational, then continue on and around a corner they have not yet explored. Listening at the door, Remmy hears harsh, guttural voices – definitely humanoid, but very large. They decide to leave these where they are for the moment, and continue exploring.
They turn south down a long corridor they have passed through before, but this time pause at a recessed door.
northwest corner of pyramid level 5
Remmy hears nothing, so they cautiously open the door. The room itself is very large, but appears stripped and mostly bare. The sole remaining furniture is three sets of bunk beds. Morgan’s infravision detects a human-sized form on each bottom bunk – warm. Alive and presumably sleeping, as she does not see them stir. The party backs away from them as well, letting the door close silently.
Continuing down the long corridor, they turn the corner and approach the intersection with the pit trap. While the party is deciding crossing order, and Iris is rigging Pooches with rope in case he falls, Odleif has Bhelgarn push down on one side, so that the other side rises and he can see the thick beam beneath on which the floor pivots.
“Now, this don’t make no sense,” he says. “Iffn this is our p’armid now, I’ma gonna fix this.” The woodsman and Bhelgharn retreat down the corridor and pass through the Temple. They splinter one of the wooden pews into several wedge-shaped pieces with their hand axes, then emerge in the northern corridor. Taking turns alternately hammering wedges into the north and south sides, they pronounce that the pit is safe to cross. Still, the party only crosses one person at a time. But it does seem safe for now.
The party debates heading for the room with the stone statues, but decides to “finish off” all the unexplored parts of the fifth level, which would include a room south of the entrance to the “casino”.
southeast portion of pyramid level 5
Peering through the door, the room seems oddly damp. A strange moist odor fills the air. The room contains a low bed, some wooden shelves, and a small chest. The contents of the room seem to shimmer, as if seen through clear water or a thick pane of glass.
The party doesn’t like the look of that, so they turn and start retracing their steps down the hall. The counterweighted stone door only closes partially then slows, and those nearest can see some large mass of transparent matter squeezing out of the room. The heavy door pushes it forward as it closes, and a slurping noise can be heard.
the gel cube creature
The party retreats rapidly down the hall, quickly relieved that while the gel-creature is following them, it is doing so very slowly. They turn the corner and are halfway back to the wedged-pit intersection when they re-form. A few oil flasks are dumped out on the hallway floor and some torches lit and readied. Slowly the creature, which fills the passageway wall-to-wall and floor-to ceiling, glides forward to them, noiseless except for the faint slurping. The oil slick does not give it pause, and when it is halfway across the torches are tossed and the party retreats. Flames erupt and black smoke billows forth. The creature shudders, then falls back, its lower lip aflame for several dozen seconds after it leaves the oil-pool itself. The party breathes a sigh of relief and begins organizing themselves to enter the room of the stone statues.
They divide themselves into three teams – those with magic weapons into one team for each of the statues, and those without remaining in the hall outside. On a signal, they burst into the room, run past the statues, then turn to face them as they animate. Odleif has entered despite his lack of magic weapons, and though his arrows find their mark, they bounce off of the stone skin of the statues. Iris’ magic missile appears to damage them, and Morgan and Bhelgarn, the latter moving twice as fast as normal, do great damage with their longswords. Each statue needs only four hits before it lies, tangled and unmoving, on the floor.
the animated stone statues
As the party searches the room, Morgan again reflects contentedly on their increased competency. The thousands of electrum coins left in the wreckage of the smashed desk are obvious – these are gathered up into the empty urns for the moment (after an urn is tested that a coin can be dropped in it without disappearing). The dry-rotted lion’s head is unremarkable, as are most of the wooden chairs. The plush chair, however, when ripped apart, is found to contain a dozen and a half gemstones. Ember puts these in her pouch of party treasure.
The party then forms up in the hallway outside the room of iron statues. This time, the whole group enters, but a few hang back out of the fight. Remmy, in particular, remarks that his share of the treasure is coming from all the trap-detection and listening he is providing, not his martial skills. Bhelgarn again activates his boots, and the fight is going well until screams of “Help! Help us!” (in Cyndician) are heard from behind. Three Cyndician men, wearing bright yellow robes and the masks of a boar, a tiger, and a wolf, burst into the room and cower at the back of a party. Heavy tromping feet can be heard behind them. Party members try to hold the stone door closed, but a second later it bursts open, sending people sprawling. Three ogres rush the party, attacking indiscriminately in their rage. Eventually they too are brought down, though by now several of the party have wounds, though none too serious.
the animated iron statues
As the party recover their wind and bind their wounds, the Cyndicians fawn and scrape and thank them profusely. After the first two sentences Bhelgarn stops translating as it is all the same. The ogres carried rough leather sacks filled with, between the three together, more than a thousand gold coins but also a ring and a bronze scroll tube.
Morgan opens the scroll tube and finds a dry, yellowed parchment covered in magical symbols. She notes that it is ink-on-paper, not raised marks on a silver tablet. She traces her gloved finger idly over the runes as she ponders. She had thought to deposit the treasure (electrum from the stone statue room and now this gold) in the secret treasure room, just two rooms away, and perhaps rest there as well. Her experience in the pyramid so far has shown that there are fewer interruptions to their rest when they are in a secret room. But she certainly doesn’t want to share the knowledge of this room with these three Cyndicians.
Through Bhelgharn, Morgan begins a conversation with the men, telling them of the fall of the Zargonites and restoration of the Three True Gods to the undercity. The men are much relieved, but voice no hurry to return to the city. Rather, they say they want to stay with the party, who can protect them from the horrors of the pyramid. Morgan tries several times to assure them that the way back is safe, but they will have none of it – they insist they will only go if the party returns and they can accompany the party. Finally, through threats and cajoling, Morgan gets them to agree to return to the city if the party escorts them as far as the room where the walls tell stories. Gesturing to the party to leave the urns of electrum and sacks of gold behind, Morgan takes the scroll herself and gives the ring to Ember.
Morgan leads the party back through the stone statue room, over the wedged pit, and down the corridor that still smells of smoke and oil. She turns north at the intersection and locates the secret door. Just as she is stepping through the narrow passageway, she hears shouts from the rear of the party – the gel creature is advancing on them! Most of the party manages to make it through the secret door in time, but the last few have to turn and fight. A mighty axe blow from Thrud passes through the gel cube. Its structural integrity already compromised by the fire, the axe rends its semi-solid surface, creating a gaping wound through which the more liquid interior pours out. In a second the rear third of the party is calf-deep in liquid gel, with just the outer rind of the creature lying deflated behind them like some giant pudding skin.
The party hustles to the Great Temple, where all those covered by the gel first rub their legs and boots with gravel and stone dust, and then douse each other with skins of water taken from the fountains. While this is happening, Morgan asks for some of those not gelled to take the Cyndicians to the entrance to the tunnels. Bhelgarn, as translator, goes, and FluffyKitten, who is working on getting them to acknowledge her as their Princess. Odleif, bearing a lantern, brings up the rear, but pauses in the hallway between the Great Temple and the vaulted room of stories so that his light can be seen by both groups.
Bhelgarn opens the trap door in the floor and gestures to the men to enter. They try one more round of persuasion, attempting to convince him to let them stay, but he gruffly orders them to leave. Then, perhaps thinking better of it, he offers each of the men an owlbear claw, telling them it will bring them good luck and that they can use them to protect themselves if need be. FluffyKitten steps forward to bid them farewell, and the men bow down to their Princess. “Amira! Amira!” they call, then rush forward to embrace her. As Bhelgarn watches, stupefied, their bodies shrink and morph until they are perfect copies of Fluffy. The owlbear claws in their hands become daggers. There are now four distinct FluffyKittens before him, and he has no idea which one is real.
Bhelgarn rubs his eyes – could he be affected by mushrooms? One of the halflings turns to him. “Bhelgarn?” she asks, then the other three turn as well. “Bhelgarn? Bhelgarn? Bhelgarn?” they ask in chorus, then all of them begin stamping their feet in frustration.
One of them has a sly look appear in her eyes. “Stabby-stab…” she mumbles, then lunges at another with her dagger. Afraid to strike the “real” one, Bhelgharn activates his boots and pulls out his rope in desperation, hoping to ensnare one of them. Odlief shouts a warning to the party, then comes running, lantern in one hand and bow in the other.
One of the halflings collapses, blood spilling from her side onto the stone floor. The other three then morph again, two becoming copies of Bhelgarn and the third a duplicate of Odleif. Although Bhelgarn is fast, they still manage to hit him, and their blows are powerful, opening great wounds. He is barely conscious when the last one falls. When they are slain, their form changes again, to that of a large, black, rubbery humanoid with a disturbingly exposed brain. The bronze Cyndician masks slide off their faces.
Odleif stoops by the body of FluffyKitten. She is pallid and not breathing. He scoops her up, leaves his lantern on the floor, and turns and runs into the darkness, calling “Ayember!”
[DM’s note: Ember stops Fluffy’s hp loss at -9, one point away from permanent death. Fluffy and Bhelgarn both earn “challenge bonus” xp from the encounter. Ember applies all of her current healing, 4 orisons, to take Fluffy to -5hp.].
When FluffyKitten appears stable enough to transport, Morgan leads the party out of the Temple through the northwest door. Judging that the people they saw on the bunkbeds were the three shape-shifters, their former room seems to be the safest place to rest nearby. But when they enter the corridor leading there, they find their path blocked by a gigantic lizard.
a giant lizard
The beast appears not to have noticed them yet, so Morgan tells the party to withdraw and wait. She returns through the Temple and comes up from the south, drawing the lizard toward her so that the wounded party members are able to enter the room. With the still-able combatants in the hall, they work together to slay the lizard and then drag its huge body into the room with them. The bunkbeds are smashed for firewood and soon Odlief has lizard filet frying as the others settle in to rest.
Morgan leans against the wall and thinks. Yes, they are certainly more powerful and more competent now. But not immune to bad decisions. Much as she was, so many weeks ago in the camp outside of Selenica, she is still the reluctant leader of this odd group of adventurers.