As the party rests in the ape room, they discuss their plans. The toughness of the apes, and the presence of undead skeletons, has sobered them. They know that ultimately they must go down to find the Undercity and accumulate enough food and water to leave the pyramid – but what if these tombs do not lead to the Undercity? The deeper they go, the tougher the monsters they face. Should they perhaps return to the third level of the pyramid to see what they missed? Points are made on each side.
The debate does not rage – rather it takes place in innumerable hushed conversations between pairs while the spell casters rest. It has been nearly 24 hours since they fought the apes. It is now the 25th day since they left Selenica, and their 6th day in the pyramid, if they have kept good track of time. It has been several days since they have seen sunlight, so their margin of error is growing, but Bhelgarn assures them he could be underground a month and not be off an hour. The party has adopted the practice of having two people on watch – someone with infravision just outside the door, and someone without infravision inside, caring for the lantern.
It is during the watch of Bhelgarn and Wolfbane that a lone figure, bearing a torch, appears at the end of the hallway. Bhelgarn cracks the door and whispers to Wolfbane to prepare her spell. The figure advances cautiously and near-silently, but does not seem to have noticed the dwarf waiting in the dark. Just as it slows, then gives a start of recognition, Wolfbane slips out into the hall and casts her spell. The figure slumps to the floor.
Bhelgarn bears down on the figure and recognizes it as a human male – he quickly binds the man with rope, slings him over his shoulder (jostling him awake in the process), and carries him into the room. Wolfbane turns up the light of the lantern while the others gather around. The man is dressed in the clothes worn by the caravan guards but his face is hideously disfigured, scarred over by a terrible fire. Hazrad recoils, seemingly in fear or shock. The man claims to be a guard who was separated from the caravan during a bandit attack which followed the sandstorm. Bhelgarn remains suspicious and refuses to untie him until Morgan rouses and recognizes the man as a guard who signed on in Selenica.
Morgan and the others press him for information – he reveals that he has seen areas of the third level the party has not, and that there is a group of robed cultists who he says attacked him. He also has explored much of the fourth level and says that some of the coffins are empty so they should be wary of undead. (“You opened the coffins!” exclaims half of the party, incredulous).
News of another group of cultists on the third level seems to unify the group – surely these people have a store of food and water. They resolve to work their way back upstairs.
Leaving the ape room, the party retraces their steps to the room with the ramp, passing the barely burned body of Jon in the hall. The air is still heavy with the scent of smoke and burned flesh. The ramp room has been disturbed – the lid of the coffin has been thrown halfway across the room. A crudely painted wooden jester’s head, on a brass spring, rocks gently over the coffin. The rope, used by Odleif to secure access to the ramp, is nowhere to be seen. Asked about it, Remmy the caravan guard says there was no rope when he descended by the ramp. Odleif looks in the brass jars but finds nothing. The coffin has ashes and nothing more.
Morgan examines the faded painting on the walls, explaining that if people routinely come up from this level to the next, there must be some mechanism of gaining entry. She does not find anything, but Iris takes up her idea and locates a door in the painting that looks somewhat offset from the wall itself. Iris borrows a 10’ pole and presses firmly on the “door” stone – there is a click, and the ramp slowly lowers about half way before rising again. It is caught by party members and lowered completely to the floor.
The group ascends to the second level and proceeds immediately to the button door. In front of it are a few hobgoblin bodies – one that looks like its head has been crushed and dragged along the wall. “I did that,” says Remmy nonchalantly.
Bhelgarn takes a look at the door and nearby wall. “We already suspected that this corridor moves, or spins, somehow,” he says. “I am thinking that these are the hobgoblins we killed and stacked in front of the door, but that when the hallway spins they are dragged along…” A closer look at the door reveals that it is spiked closed. They can push it open easily enough, but Odleif doesn’t fancy being trapped on the other side. He tries to pry out his spike, but it doesn’t budge. He settles for breaking off the head so that it no longer blocks the door.
Down the corridor the party goes, passing through the other button door at the end. They are now in a part of level three that they have not seen before, though Remmy says he has been here. Given his pronouncement about the hobgoblins, his words are taken with a grain of salt.
The corridor turns right, and then right again. Morgan goes slowly, drawing on her elven ancestry to see the faintest of cracks in the stone walls. She stops about three-quarters of the way down the hall, her fingers tracing a fine line on the north wall. She puts her shoulder to the stone, leans and tests, and finds that it does, indeed, move. “Ok,” she says, facing the party, “who’s going in?”
To everyone’s surprise, FluffyKitty comes forward, holding her hand out to Odleif for his lantern like a child asking for a sweet. He shrugs and hands it to her, then pushes on the wall just enough for her to slip inside. Remmy slips in after her.
After a few minutes, the halfling squeezes back out. Smiling at the group, she sets down the lantern and spreads her arms wide. “Boxes, many, yes! Crawlies, BIG crawlies! Crunch boxes, crunch crunch crunch!”
Odleif motions to FluffyKitty to pick back up the lantern while he nocks an arrow. Morgan draws her sword. They charge the door with FluffyKitty behind them providing light.
The 30’ square room is filled with crates and barrels. Four large brown beetles, each about 3’ long, are breaking into the containers. As FluffyKitty shines her light, illuminating each of the beetles, they ignore her and keep working at the crates. Morgan nods at Odleif and runs forward while he shoots. The fight is brief as, two by two, the party enters the room and engages. The beetles are quickly slain, but not before Odleif is sprayed directly in the face by a searing oil from a strange gland atop the beetle’s head. As he brings his hand up to protect his eyes, another beetle sprays him with the blistering fluid.
The fight is over before all of the party have even entered the room; Bhelgarn and Hazrad remain in the hall, guarding the party’s rear (and trusting to Bhelgharn’s infravision, for they are without light). Inside, Iris has a look at Odleif’s blistered skin. She nods sagely. “Oil beetles, for sure. Those blisters will be on there for a day or so, but you should recover without any serious damage. Don’t pick at the scabs, though.”
Suddenly Hazrad hears padding footfalls and low whoops. “Bhelgarn?” he whispers. Bhelgarn attempts to push the man toward the secret door, but the corridor erupts with hoots and howls. The noise of the beetle fight has attracted a wandering troop of baboons.
The rock baboons swarm over the dwarf and the man, biting, scratching, clubbing with fists. Hazrad makes it to the secret door and is trying to pull himself through, but a baboon is on his back, biting his neck. More are in the hall. He and Bhelgarn stumble into the lit storeroom, with Hazrad yelling, “Sleep! Sleep!” to Wolfbane.
Once inside, Bhelgarn leans back against the door, trying to hold it against the press of apes. In a second, Iris joins him. The dwarf slips and falls and the door comes open – baboons start to invade the room. Wolfbane aims her spell at the hall beyond the opening, but completes it just as Iris heaves backwards to shut the swinging door. The spell fills the room, putting two baboons to sleep, but also Morgan, Remmy, Bhelgarn, and even Wolfbane herself!
Hazrad has used the brief respite to fix the blade on his lance. He and Thrud surge forward to the door, with Pooches at their heels. In the hall are four more baboons but two of these have been put to sleep as well, so the three warriors make short work of them.
In the end they pause, panting and straining their ears. There is the distant sound of leathery bat-wings, but no more monsters approach. The party turns their attention to examining the barrels and crates.
The crates are full of water; the boxes, food. It is of the same type as the Gormites had; mostly dried mushrooms, but also dried meat and some sort of ground meal. The room is full – it is more food than the party can carry, even if they don’t take the mushrooms, and certainly enough to leave the pyramid and make it to the nearest desert city! They begin packing food and filling waterskins.
However, a feeling of creeping unease comes over them. One at a time they start to look around – the shadows seem menacing; a growing sense of dread is mounting. Hurriedly stuffing a few more food items into their packs, they leave the room through the other door, which appears normal. Once free of the room, their unease retreats.
The short corridor beyond ends in a T-intersection, with the right branch having a button door and the left a large statue. Eight feet tall and bronze, it is of a winged child with two snakes twined around its body. It holds a wand in one hand and a handful of coins in the other. The statue appears firmly connected to the floor. Remmy tries to take the coins but they are cast bronzework. Morgan looks for secret doors – she is reasonably sure the wall behind it slides, but cannot find the mechanism. Remmy discovers that the wand of the statue is movable. He starts to move it, but the whole of the party yells "No! and retreats down the hall. Shrugging, he pulls it to the left – and the wall behind silently glides out of the way, revealing a corridor beyond.
The party notes that the corridor is well kept – clean and freshly swept, not like the outer corridor which is generally littered with debris, dried blood, and lizard dung. There is a near door to the right and a far door to the left. Remmy cracks the near door enough to see inside.
Along the north and west walls of the room hang large tapestries showing the major constellations of the night sky. Thirteen figures in rainbow-colored robes and silver masks stand or sit in front of a stone, star-shaped altar. The masks match the face of the middle statue on the pyramid, or the statue in the hall; the winged child. The center-most figure of the group wears a silver crown, and he walks among the others talking softly. The whole room is illuminated by the glowing alter, but there are deep shadows in the corners still.
Meanwhile, Morgan looks in the other door. Unlit, she sees beds and trunks and little else, though a few of the beds are warm as if recently slept in.
“These are the cultists who attacked me!” hisses Remmy. “It is time for revenge!”
“No,” warns Ember, “we do not need more enemies – let us go in talking.”
“Oh, we’ll talk, says Morgan, returning, “after I put them to sleep.” She and Remmy slip into the room while the others remain in the hall outside, quietly but vehemently debating the merits of talking versus attacking.
Morgan and Remmy keep to the shadows at the edge of the room. Remmy gets a bead on the leader with his blowgun and fires – but at this range the dart is simply lost in the crowd. Morgan begins casting, keeping the words of power as low as she can. By the time she is heard and heads begin to turn their way she is nearly finished. The leader points at her and people rise to their feet – and then collapse. Eleven of the men are on the ground, just one man and the leader remain on their feet.
Hoping to prevent a throat-slitting massacre, the rest of the party begins to enter the room, bringing with them the lantern. Wolfbane gestures to the leader hoping to reassure him, but he assumes she is beginning a spell. FluffyKitty is awestruck by the rainbow robes – “Pretty, pretty! I want!” she squeals. Remmy fires again, and this time the dart pierces the chest of the leader, who winces but does not fall.
The leader completes his own spell, and a streak of flame shoots from his finger to the middle of the party before exploding in a blast of light. Iris, Hazrad, Pooches, Bhelgarn, and Thrud fall to the ground, hair and clothes on fire. They desperately roll before passing out. Morgan and Wolfbane are non-plussed. They have seen fireball spells before – where is the wave of heat, the blast of concussive force? This must be an illusion. Morgan shouts at her fallen comrades, “You’re not on fire!” but they do not respond.
The second cultist is shaking and slapping the sleeping men. One staggers to his feet, completes his own sleep spell. Morgan, Wolfbane, Remmy, and FluffyKitty pass out.
As two more men are roused, Ember and Odleif, who had been guarding the rear, come in to the room. A few seconds ago they had been hoping to prevent a slaughter of the cultists, but now they are desperate to save their own people. With a flash of light, Ember is magically blinded. A second later, realizing himself alone, Odleif lays down his bow and surrenders.
The men who are awake take Odleif’s weapons, then begin tying up the party members. The knots are firm, but do not evidence much familiarity with trussing prisoners. Soon everyone is awake, cultist and party member alike, though of all the party only Odleif is free. Those of the party who thought they had been burned alive are now aware that they are unharmed save for a bruise or two from falling and rolling on the stone floor. The party’s weapons are taken, and their bags searched – all of the food and water is removed. The leader spies Thrud’s helmet, and that is confiscated as well. Morgan notes with satisfaction that, inexperienced as these men are, the knife inside her boot has been missed.
A few men guard the party, daggers drawn, while the leader and another man withdraw with Odleif. Odleif hears the leader’s words in his mind, as if he was speaking Darokite, and the rough rural Darokite of the woodsmen at that. Odleif returns soon after, and addresses the bound party in Common.
“These’r the magi of Usamagares. They kin that we are from the outside world, and are not followers of Zargon, whoever th’ devil that be. They asked me why we were attackin’ them, and I said we warn’t, which I reckon is mostly true. They said that since we didn’t kill nobody, no harm was done, an’ they’r willin’ t’ let us go, unner some conditions.” He pauses to let his words sink in. Morgan nods at him to continue.
“They say we must need food an’ water bad, else we wouldna stole it from their storehouse. They’r willin to give us a day’s worth a food an’ water iff’n we go talk with the “warrior maidens” n’ git them ta leave this level of tha pyrmid. They say that’ll prove they can trust us. Then we can attack the Zargonites. Iff’n we do that, they’ll give us as much food an’ water as we can carry. They want to know iff’n we agree to these terms."
There is a conversation among the party, but it is brief. Those who had hoped to talk with the mages are satisfied with the outcome, and those who wished to attack them do not have much choice but to accept. “We agree,” says Morgan.
Odleif again hears the voice of the leader in his head. “They’r gonna leave our weapons an’ such near the maidens. I am allowed to untie one of you at a time, an’ you hafta leave through that door. Once we have our stuff, we are to go to the maidens. Iff’n we can get ‘em ta leave, great. If they attack us, we can bring back their masks. Either way, they don’t want us coming back for at least half a day. Oh, an’ they’r keeping the helmet. Sorry, Thrud.”
Some of the men carry the party’s gear out the door. They are gone several minutes before returning.
Morgan nods. “Me first,” she says, and Odleif unties her. She walks out the door indicated. For a second she can see by the light from the altar through the open door – she is in a short hallway, which has been painted black, floor, walls, and ceiling, with small points of light that look like stars in a night sky. Then the door closes and she has only her infravision. In the darkness, she draws the knife from her boot. Several moments pass and she is joined by Thrud, then the others, one at a time (except for the pair of Pooches and Iris who enter together).
Odleif is the last one out, and he comes bearing his lantern in one hand and a scrap of papyrus in the other. On the papyrus are drawn three symbols, which he says are the ones needed to open this door, and the two doors that lead to the warrior maidens. This button door doesn’t open until he presses the symbol indicated by the magi, and then it grinds into place.
At the other end of the revolving hall is the party’s gear, dumped in a pile unceremoniously.
Once the party is equipped, they talk. Wolfbane and Morgan are out of spells, and many of them are wounded from the fights with the oil beetles and the baboons. They are in no condition to face the maidens. They agree they need to hole up for a few hours at least. Morgan remembers the button used to get them to the draco lizard room, and to her satisfaction it does just that.
During their rest, Hazrad asks to address the group. He pauses thoughtfully between each sentence, choosing the words in Common carefully. “We go now to face the followers of Madarua,” he says. “I believe this is a local name for Isiris, the pagan goddess of love and fertility. If the magi did not truly want to harm us, I think these maidens will even less, so long as we approach them correctly. If Gorm was the god of the Father, and Usamagares the Child, Madarua must be the Mother. I propose that we approach them with only the women of the party. May it please al-Kalim, they should be more inclined to speak to us then.” No one in the party is eager for a fight, so they agree to adopt his plan.
Morgan, FluffyKitty, Wolfbane, Iris, and Ember are placed first in the marching order, though Hazrad accompanies them as the only one with a chance of communicating. They first choose the button leading to the northeast.
The door opens on a pair of 10’ tall statues flanking both sides of the hallway. They wear masks with the faces of the goddess from the top of the pyramid. Their spears are outstretched, forming an arch. It appears that the only way down the corridor is in single file under the spears.
FluffyKitty shrugs and skips under the spears. Hazrad winces but lets her go – and nothing happens. He and the remaining females proceed down the hall, while Bhelgarn is stationed at the statues to watch, and the other males are around the corner near the door.
Arriving at the far door, Hazrad finds it of iron and locked. Bhelgarn produces the key from the temple of Gorm, but it does not fit the lock. Remmy offers to pick the lock, but the party agrees they will try the other door first and return only if they must.
Adopting the same order, the party approaches the eastern door. This is stone like the other doors of the pyramid. Pushing it open, they find a large chamber. Ten women are in the chamber. Chairs are placed around a large table, but the women are standing and facing the door as if expecting the party. Their weapons are drawn, but they do not advance. They wear bronze chain armor over green tunics, and bronze masks of Madarua. All of them have swords, but a few also have spears – the first wooden weapons the party has seen on pyramid natives.
Hazrad takes half a step forward. In one hand, held up so as not to threaten, he holds his flail, in the other, his throwing knife. Slowly he kneels and lays these on the floor to either side of him. He takes out the blade of his lance and lays it in front of himself, then bows low and touches his forehead to the floor.
One woman, half a head taller than the others, strides forward confidently to the party. She regards Morgan with a level gaze, then says something in an unfamiliar tongue. Hazrad responds, haltingly, his voice muffled by the stone floor. The woman does not turn, does not acknowledge him, but continues to speak to Morgan. Hazrad’s voice comes in Common, “I need you to nod.” Morgan does so.
After a few more words, Hazrad says, “Now I need you to say ‘Gorm,’ and ‘Zargon’, and make it clear they are bad.”
Morgan says “Gorm” with distaste, and then “Zargon” and spits on the floor. The woman’s body betrays no reaction, but several of the other women visibly relax and lower their weapons.
Hazrad whispers hurriedly, “They are glad we have defeated the Gormites but ask for proof. They are asking to see the helmet of the leader, and I told them that the mages stole it.”
The woman turns from Morgan and moves to FluffyKitten’s side, bends down and tousles her hair as she speaks. Hazrad continues, “She is glad to see so healthy a child.” FluffyKitty beams and curtsies (as well as one can curtsey in chain armor). The woman lays her spear down on the floor in front of Morgan.
“Am I supposed to lay down my sword, or pick the spear up?” Morgan asks.
“She didn’t say…” Hazrad hesitates. “I think pick it up…”
Morgan obliges, and the woman turns to the others, still at the table. They sheathe their swords. She walks to the table, speaking over her shoulder.
Hazrad says, “Morgan and Fluffy are invited to the table – the others should wait in the hall… You need to follow her, but first point to me and ask a question.”
Morgan grins, “Are you having as much fun as I am?” she asks in Common, gesturing to Hazrad, and then walking forward. At a word from the warrior woman, Hazrad crawls forward on his hands and knees to the side of the table.
Morgan and FluffyKitty sit. They accept food and drink. Hazrad continues to ‘translate’, though he does not always have a chance to inform Morgan of what he is saying, and she makes up inanities about the food they are eating as her supposed end of the conversation. Finally, he concludes; "They would like to ally with us against the Zargonites. They offer us food and drink and a safe place to stay. The women may stay in this room, the men in the hall outside, until we are ready. They have asked to have the “child” stay here under their protection, but you have persuaded them that she is looked after by all the women of our group."
Morgan smiles. “We accept.”