After a good rest, and innumerable heartmending and remedy spells from Ember, the party is ready to go. They decide to scout a bit on this level before descending. Ignoring the hacked and shattered remnants of the former guardians, they pass through the far door of the wood statue room rather than using the floor trapdoor. They find a long corridor which eventually curves around and meets up with part of the level they have already explored. Six doors in total come off the hall; five have sigils on them.
The three doors clustered together at the end are immediately recognizable as bearing the symbols of Gorm (a lightning bolt), Madarua (a sheaf of wheat) and Usamigares (a snake coiled about a staff). These sigils are carved into the rock itself and look dull and old. But two of these doors also have red symbols, which do not seem to be carved into the rock as much as traced into the air in front of the door – their forms producing an unsettling glow and seeming to twist and shimmer. Wolfbane recalls for the party that the tiger-women said that some of these rooms were magical prisons, and suggests that the sigils are somehow warding the doors.
Of the three doors not clustered together, only the two westernmost ones have the red symbols, but no carvings. The middle door feels strangely cold to the touch, the eastern door is blank, and when opened leads only to an empty chamber with a few remains of a bunkroom.
Satisfied that there are no lurking surprises or alternate accesses to the level below, Morgan leads the party back to the room with the trapdoor in the floor and they again open it. By the light of Odleif’s lantern, they can see that the ladder descends some twenty feet to another chamber, but continues through a hole in the floor, going deeper even than the next tier down.
However, as the lantern light penetrates the room below, shapes are seen moving. Two large dogs, as big as mastiffs, slink about the room, passing in and out of the light. They have copper-colored fur and red eyes and seem not at all surprised at the party’s appearance. One of them pads quietly over to the base of the ladder and sits, looking up expectantly.
After a bit of discussion, FluffyKitten volunteers to contact the “pretty doggies!” She sets her foot on the first rung of the iron ladder, but it groans and flakes of rusted metal slide off. Instead of using the ladder, she has a rope tied about her waist. With one hand on the lantern, she is carefully lowered through the trapdoor.
From her new vantage point, FluffyKitten can see that the room is octagonal, but the walls are very rough. There appear to be paintings on them, but they are so faded that she would have to examine them closely to discern their content. What is more obvious is that the room, in addition to the pit in the floor, has three door exits. These are wooden doors with regular door frames – the first she can recall seeing in the temple. Finally, there is a large pile of thousands of coins near the center of the room. The second dog sits by the pile, while both eye FluffyKitten.
Fluffy thinks for a bit, then uses her free hand to pry a gold coin from her pocket. She tosses this over to the pile, missing but landing on the stone floor nearby. At this, the two dogs relax considerably, even, she thinks, grinning at her. With a few words to her companions, she is pulled back up.
If the Zargonites are guarding access to their god, the party reasons, it would make sense to have creatures stationed at each level. They fought the wood-carved statues in this room, but perhaps they can pass the guard dogs below by simply offering a coin. The party decides on the order they will descend, and remind one another not to have more than one person on the ladder at a time, and to have coins ready.
One by one the party members climb down the ladder, with it creaking and complaining at every step. Each tosses a coin on or at the pile, and the dogs make no hostile moves, as if everything is completely natural. Finally only three of the party remain in the room above – Iris, Pooches, and Bhelgarn. Bhelgarn by now has a basic design he favors for making a rope harness for Pooches, and he has been working at this as the others descend, then, with the help of Iris, he slips it into place over the dog. Lowering his center and bracing his legs, he squats and feeds out the rope, while Iris talks to her dog to keep him calm.
For the first ten feet, when Pooches is in a blind shaft, everything goes well. But at his entrance to the room below, the other dogs sit up and take notice. Their hackles rise and they begin a low growl. Pooches, hearing them, begins barking, jerking his body so that the rope swings crazily and slaps against the side of the ladder. Iris calls down to Pooches, desperately trying to calm him, but his barks grow in intensity and the growls of the guard dogs below deepen.
“Bring him up, bring him up!” cries Iris, and Bhelgarn struggles to raise the rope.
“Let ‘im doon, bring ‘im oop, mak up yer mind, elf”, he mumbles under his breath in Dwarven.
With Pooches back by her side, both Iris and her companion calm themselves. Morgan calls up to her, “Iris, it’s the only way down – we looked through the whole level!”
“I’m not leaving Pooches!” Iris calls down. There is a brief pause before Morgan responds.
“If we are fighting Zargon, we are going to need everyone.”
Still muttering to himself, Bhelgarn eases his bulk onto the ladder and shimmies down, then tosses a coin on the pile.
Morgan calls back up, “Iris?”
Iris holds Pooches’ head in her arms. She is on the verge of tears. “I promise I will come back, and I won’t be long,” she whispers to him. “But you have to stay here, do you hear me? Stay here.” When she lets go, Pooches whines, but circles a few times and lays down on the dusty stone floor. Morgan is about to call again when she hears the light step of Iris’ booted foot on the first ladder rung.
With everyone but Pooches in the room below (79), their toll paid and the dogs relaxed, the party begins to take stock of the room. Remmy notes that the coins guarded by the dogs are all copper – all except the gold ones thrown by the party. “Figures,” he says and spits. He takes a step forward to switch his coin for a copper, but the dogs begin growling again so he backs off.
Odleif and Bhelgarn are examining the doors of the room. They are indeed wooden, and ancient – rotten and ready to fall at any time, and the wooden door frames with them.
Ember and Morgan are looking at the wall frescos with the light of Odleif’s lantern. They show people dieing. Concerned at first, Ember slowly comes to realize that they are all scenes of natural death – disease, old age, accidents. In none of them is anyone being intentionally killed, much less sacrificed. The setting appears to be Cyndicia during the time of the kings, when people lived above ground.
Although the ladder is the obvious way down, the party is rested and at full health, and agree to explore this level a bit. They move out into the hallway, Odleif checking for tracks, Remmy for traps. This level appears to conform to the motif of the level above – empty corridors separating rooms carved from bedrock. From where the party emerges, there is a branching corridor to the north with two doors, a turning corridor to the south with one. The door behind them is plain, but the ones to the south and immediate north have the glowing red symbols on them. The far northern door is blank, however, and this they enter.
The room (81) is large but empty. The dust is thick on the floor and there are no tracks. The air is stale and here, away from the dogs, very silent. The party is conscious that every noise they make, every footstep, every clink of their armor, is foreign to this place. The fresco shows two humans standing together in some sort of field or garden – eventually Ember realizes that it is a burial grounds. One man is passing a purse or pouch to the other – could he be selecting or buying a gravesite?
They pass through the door into the T-shaped corridor beyond. Oleif estimates that the southern branch would take them to the room they passed on the way here, if it is of comparable size to the other two. In any event, the door is marked with the glowing sigil, so they avoid it and head to the other door. In this one, the entire lower half of the door has fallen and splintered on the floor. Odleif does not believe the upper part will stay on the hinge if touched, so they take turns crouching and passing into the room beyond.
The room (75) has another door exit, the far door also with its lower portion missing. As they enter, one at a time, someone notices a large hole in the rock wall, where a natural fissure has been worn away. Even as it is pointed out, already creatures are emerging from it.
They seem to be some sort of emaciated giant weasel, but with drab, dirty, disheveled coats. They attack fearlessly, desperately, even as the front ranks of the party hack away at them. In a few minutes all three are dead, their blood pooling on the stone floor.
The party surveys the crack in the wall from which they emerged, wondering where it leads. FluffyKitten, the only one with any real chance of entering it, volunteers on the condition that she gets to take Odleif’s lantern with her. It is wide enough that she does not have to squeeze, but she is on all fours and at one point even on her belly, trying to push the lantern ahead at an angle without spilling it. Then the passage turns abruptly and enters a small chamber.
The chamber is lined with hair and full of bones, and here and there the glint of coins. Fluffy takes a few gold pieces but without any great gusto. Then she sees what looks like a femur until she realizes that it is far too uniform, actually a perfect cylinder. She grabs it, turns around, and crawls out.
In the meantime, Odleif has been prodding the weasels with his boot. “Funny,” he says.
“What’s that?” asks Morgan.
“A month ago, I woulda bin skinnin’ these an’ happy about the pelts. Now I gots more gold then I kin carry. I otta be at least takin’ the meat, but it’s easier ta jess eat the food we brought then try to make a fire outta five hunnerd year old doors.”
“Yes, the adventuring life is strange,” Morgan admits.
Odleif whistles. “Skinnin!” he exclaims. “I almos’ fergot me owlbear suit. We lef’ it dryin’ in the wine cellar, ‘member? I gots to get that afore we kin leave – them feathers’ll keep me warm onna cold desert night.”
FluffyKitten emerges from the fissure in the rock, and hands the lathed bone tube to Morgan, who finds and twists off the stopper. A single brittle piece of parchment emerges – and it is written in magic glyphs. “That’s not Cyndycian,” Morgan says, “at least not modern Cyndician. Those are standard magic runes.”
Morgan and Iris crowd around. The consensus is that it is a spell scroll, with a single intact spell, and the start of a second one, spoiled by the flaking away of the ancient paper. “Did either of you take read magic?” Morgan asks.
Wolfbane has it prepared – she casts the spell, and uses it to decipher the runes. Finally, she says, Dispel Magic.
Morgan nods appreciatively. “That’s third level, I think – more than any of can cast for now. That’s going into someone’s spellbook as soon as we have time, calm, light, and ink.” She carefully re-inserts the scroll into the tube, screws in the grooved stopper, and hands it back to Wolfbane. “Keep it safe.”
Now that the lantern has been returned, Ember uses it to study the frescos. Numerous people are gathered around a site marked with a stone monument. Those closest to the stone are dressed in fine robes. She thinks the painting depicts a funeral service.
The party passes out into the far corridor, which is oddly Y-shaped. One branch runs back the way they came, to the south-east, so they take the west fork. This soon splits into two hallways. The south branch door has a glowing sigil, but the north branch one is bare. “We can open these and bash imprisoned monsters after we tackle Zargon,” says Morgan. “We want to stay fresh until then, so let’s stick to doors that don’t scream trouble.”
Passing into the chamber beyond the unmarked door (73), the party finds it empty. The frescos depict the various stages in preparing a body for burial. The party is aided in their interpretation by their memory of the implements they saw in the embalming room on the tomb level, for they would otherwise be unfamiliar with many of the devices depicted.
They backtrack to the third leg of the Y, running diagonally. As Odleif suspected, the unmarked door gives way to the room with the dogs. They have done a long loop, but have one more door to check if they want to search the level.
The corridor beyond has many different branches, eventually leading to four different doors besides the one they came through, all but one with the glowing sigils. “It’s a blasted menagerie doon here,” grumbles Belgharn, “didn’t those Zargonite priests have nae better things t’ do asides making magical prisons?”
“You mean when they weren’t busy sacrificin’ people and oppressin’ the oontercity, ya?” says Ember grimly. She is growing increasingly nervous about this idea of facing a god in battle, her loyalty to Thrud notwithstanding.
They try the one unmarked door, which leads to a somewhat smaller room than the others (76). It is deserted, but has frescos showing some sort of large burden being hand-carried by several people and followed by many others through crowded city streets. Given the context of the other frescos, most likely it is a funeral procession.
Having now exhausted all unmarked doors on this level, they return to the ladder room with the guard dogs, and arrange themselves in preparation for their descent. One at a time they climb down the ancient iron ladder.
They emerge in a room (90) with no apparent guardians, but two doors, also of wood. The west door is reasonably intact, but the east one is missing its handle, and in fact there are actually smooth-edged holes going all the way through it in the region of where the handle would be. Centuries of contact with hands and skin have worn through the ancient wood. The frescos here do not show specific figures – rather, the entire room – walls, floor and ceiling, have been painted a dull mustard color. The floor has been subsequently worn down to unpainted stone in all but the corners, however.
“Ugh,” says Morgan, “bad decoration choice.”
“No,” rebuts Ember. “You haf to remember this is faded, ya? I tink the original color would be much brighter…a yellow.more like..sunlight.” She smiles despite herself.
“Well, that’s certainly cheerier than all the death cult images above.”
“No, no,” again Ember shakes her head. “This whole pyramid, aboof and below, is a temple. These paintings are a meditation, ya? They tell stoories, like tapestries or colored glass windows for us. This is from before the Zargonites. Aboof we saw the process of death in the world – but now we get to see what happen after death – and for the original Cyndiceans – that meant sunlight.”
Morgan shrugs. She would prefer actual sunlight to thousand-year-old sunlight-colored paint. Best to keep moving. “I don’t need Odlief’s tracking skills to know that’s the door the priests use,” she says, gesturing at the pitted east door. “Let’s get a quick check of the wrong one first, though.”
The branching corridor beyond the western door provides access to three other wooden doors, two with sigils. The one without is to the northwest.
The room beyond has another door, and the frescos depict a narrow bridge passing over an abyss.
“You see,” Ember says confidently, “We are seeing the journey of the souls.”
The door out of the room leads to a short corridor, but the door at the end of that is warded with a sigil. “Okay people,” says Morgan. “Back to the right door – the door the Zargonites actually use.”
Leaving the ladder room to the east, the hallways run to a single door in the south, but a four-way intersection with three doors in the north. Tracks in the corridor show the obvious passage is to the closest door in the north – and it is also the only one that is not warded.
The party enters. In the center of the small room is a stone staircase going down. The frescos here, curiously unfaded, show a woman in a white robe kneeling next to a pool of fire. As they approach the stair, the woman moves!
Stepping out of the wall itself, the woman now stands before them in the room. The wall painting still shows the pool, but not her. “Hold,” she says in a melodious voice, not in Cyndicean, but heard as the native language of each of them. “If you wish to descend, payment must be made.”
“Payment?” queries Morgan. “Of what sort?”
“Something valuable. Preferably magic.”
The party confers briefly, until FluffyKitten offers up her magical shield. The woman in white accepts it with a graceful smile, gestures at the staircase, and fades back into her wall painting. They proceed down the stairs.
The first of them are not even off the stairs and into the room before they are attacked by a monstrosity. A huge skeleton, or an assembly of several skeletons, surges forward slashing at them with four different swords! It is as if someone has taken a giant skeletal frame and attached many different arms on it before animating it with malevolent intent.
It is a pitched battle, and many in the party are wounded, mostly because the majority of them are still trapped on the narrow stairs and can’t assist. By the time Ember arrives to attempt to turn the creature it is slain, or perhaps dismantled? The swords are checked – they are hefty iron weapons and strangely preserved, but not better than anything the party already carries. The frescos depict a woman dressed in white who is washing the spirits of the dead in a pool of fire. She is obviously the same woman as in the room above, but these frescos are faded and she shows no sign of moving.
The party confers briefly, and decides to continue despite their wounds. They are operating under the assumption that the under-pyramid is a reverse image of the upper pyramid, and so will have five layers, with Zargon at the bottom. That means they are just one tier away and are thus too close to stop now. They do decide to follow the Zargonite tracks though, going straight to Zargon rather than exploring this level first.
Of the three doors in the room, the western one is obviously the more used, so they open it and start down the hallway. The first door they come to is warded, and the tracks do not lead that way, so they continue. Rounding a corner, they see that the tracks lead to an unwarded door.
Entering, there is a short hallway and then a room where the frescos show glowing spirits boarding a winged boat made of golden light.
Just as the first of them are entering the room, the entire corridor shifts and drops, turning into a slide down to the level below! Even as those in the front scramble to keep from falling, their senses are assaulted by a terrible odor of offal.
Morgan, in the lead, is able to jump clear of the trap slide into the room ahead, but Thrud and Odleif tumble down and drop into the pit below, landing with a sickening squelch. The rest of the party is still in the hallway, staring through the open door down the slide.
Odleif has managed to keep his lantern lit, despite the slide and fall into the thick layer of black slime. He raises it to assess their surroundings. The floor is littered with bones, most unseen under the slime, some floating on top. The room is forty feet on a side, with no other exits than the slide.
Suddenly, he hears a rustling noise from the north wall. There, a huge humanoid figure rises from the slime, standing 15’ tall. Its head is that of a giant lizard. A black, 2’- long horn curves upward above its single red eye, and sharp teeth fill its mouth. Instead of arms, the creature has six tentacles, three on each side of its body. These end in razor-sharp talons. Instead of legs, the creature slithers toward Odlief and Thrud on six more powerful tentacles.
It moves sluggishly, as if just awoken from a sleep or torpor. There is a wheezing cough, and Odleif realizes that there is a figure wrapped tightly and held in one of the tentacles – a human body – it is Hazrad! The nomads’ legs hang at a crazy angle, as if broken and mis-healed. And then he laughs, an excited, erratic laugh.
He begins speaking in Alaysian, then thinks better of it and switches to the accented Common the party is familiar with. “Fools!” he cries, “Only now at the end do you understand! It was I – it was always I! I led you to the Pyramid, I scared you ever deeper and frustrated your efforts to leave, I attacked FluffyKitten, I discovered this ancient offspring of Set! Now, Zargon will eat your bodies, but I will feed your souls to Thanatos!” Hazrad begins laughing hysterically.
In the hallway above, Morgan has carefully made her way back to the party, who are listening horror-struck to Hazrad’s taunts.
As the extent of Hazrad’s betrayal dawns on Thrud, the barbarian is filled with rage. Yelling a war-cry, he hefts his axe and charges forward at Zargon, connecting solidly. The axe glances off with a resounding clang, the scales feeling as hard as stone. Odleif aims an arrow at the creature’s single large eye, but it lurches forward and the arrow breaks when it strikes the huge head.
Hazrad shouts at the creature, and it raises five taloned tentacles to engage Odleif and Thrud. Then, looking at the party clustered at the top of the ramp, Hazrad screams “Terror of Set!” Ember’s face goes ashen and she collapses, unresponsive, on the floor.
The party is in disarray, everyone shouting at one another. Wolfbane is firing paralyzation rays from her wand (Zenobia’s sceptre) but they seem to have no effect on Zargon. Morgan is yelling, “Hazrad, we have to take out Hazrad!” but neither she nor Iris can seem to get a clear shot.
Thrud is slashed by talons from Zargon, each backed by a terrible strength and opening deep wounds as though from a sword. Odleif is backing up, trying to reach the ramp overhead. “Hazrad!” calls out Morgan again. Bhelgran has tied a rope so that the party can safely descend the ramp without falling. Now, pulling a hand axe from his belt, he hurls it at the nomad, and it sinks into his leg. Blood flows freely, but the man does not even wince.
“Dread of Set!” Hazrad cries, and Morgan screams in fright. Knocking party members out of her way, she flees down the hall. A barrage of talons rains upon Thrud, and he falls unconscious into the slime. Odlief continues to shoot arrows, but now at Hazrad, and lands one in his chest, causing him to scream in pain. This is followed by a flash of light, as Iris sends a magic missile at him, and he slumps forward and ceases his cries.
Iris descends the rope and, with Odleif’s help, manages to heft the huge bulk of Thrud on to the ramp. Blood flows freely from his wounds and his body is cold and pale. Iris is now joined by Wolfbane, and the two of them drag the barbarian up the ramp and into the hallway. With no weight on it, the ramp slowly rises into its position as the “floor” of the hallway. Wolfbane works desperately, pressing rags against Thrud’s wounds to stop the flow of blood. From beneath them comes muffled but revolting crunches and gurgles as Zargon consumes the body of Hazrad.
[DM’s note – Thrud stabilized at -9hp, one round away from permanent death]
Despite attempts to shake and slap Ember, she is unresponsive. Thrud is near death, and the party remaining fears that moving him could prove fatal. “Didn’t Ember have a potion?” someone asks. “Yes, but we don’t know what it does.” “I think Morgan had a healing potion.”
Bhelgarn, moving supernaturally fast, takes off, in the direction Morgan fled. He finds her shaking and wailing in the corner by the door to the room with the stairwell, trembling and unable to open the door. A quick search of her pack reveals the potion flask.
Bhelgarn returns to the group. Iris holds Thrud’s head and pours the potion down his throat. The blood seeping limply from his wounds stops, his ragged breathing evens. He is still unconscious, but appears stable, to the point that they deem him safe to move.
Carrying Thrud and Ember both, the party retreats to where Morgan trembles in the corner, As the minutes go by her trembling quiets, then ceases. Finally she speaks, sounding more irritated than afraid. “Well, that was a fiasco, but we are all alive. Hazrad?”
“Dead,” says Bhelgarn. “Eaten, I think,” he adds.
Morgan nods in grim satisfaction. “Well, let’s find somewhere safe to wait and hope Ember recovers.”
They open the door and go up the stairs to the eighth level, then down the hall and into the “sunrise” room at the base of the ladder. “Can you get them up?” she asks Bhelgarn.
The dwarf surveys the bulk of the two humans. “Ember, aye, no worries. Thrud? Maybe, if Odleif steadies the rope, but who’s ta say ‘e doesn’t open oop inside – I mean, start bleedin’ or summit.”
Morgan nods, then leads the group through the other door, down the hall, and into the room with the picture of the abyss (83). “And here we are,” she says, “make yourselves comfortable – who knows how long we’ll be here.”
[DM’s note: Bhelgarn has leveled to fifth.]