With the growing darkness of the evening behind them and the yawning darkness of the cave before them, the party cautiously enters the mouth. Morgan’s infravision sees that the tunnel opens up into a larger chamber, but she does not note any sources of heat.
The cave mouth beckons
Odleif lights his lantern, opens the front shutter, and shines the beam into the space ahead. Somewhere inside the rough, natural walls of the cave have given way to smooth, worked stone. The circular room before them has a statue of the grotesque Cretia in its center. Two greenish gems glitter in the statue’s eye sockets. The entire floor of the room is covered with a foot high layer of grass.
From somewhere deep within the shrine comes a disquieting, throbbing, chanting – or so some in the party maintain. Others claim it is merely a trick of the wind in the cave mouth. The sound does not seem particularly louder down any of the three exits from the chamber, so Morgan elects to lead them north – but first, she takes an empty gear sack, crosses the grass, climbs the pedestal of the statue, and covers the head of the foreign god. Even she does not want the eyes of that god staring at their backs.
The first door they come to is of stout wood, and has an iron-plate lock set in it. Morgan ushers Poncherius to the front, and he examines the lock, then shrugs. “No…tools,” he says in halting Common, and Bhelgarn smiles with satisfaction. The next door is the same, and the next.
The corridor continues past the door, running deeper into the mountain than Odleif’s lantern light can penetrate. Morgan doesn’t want to go that deep into the shrine without first knowing what is behind them, so they head back to the entry chamber. This time Morgan watches their rear while Thrud and Odleif take the lead.
To the north, a series of doors are all locked
The next circular chamber (64) is the same size as the first, and also has a statue of Cretia. This statue, however, is cast from solid gold and two fist-sized emeralds glitter from its eyes. Instead of grass, a circular rug, 30 feet in diameter, surrounds the statue. The rug is made of bright silk, and has been woven with a mosaic pattern in reds, golds, and black. A ring of the stone floor, 10 feet wide, circles the outer wall of the room. Thrud and Odleif walk completely around the room, but do not approach the statue.
A second chamber…and a second statue of the god Cretia
Ember does not know anything about the god Cretia, or the religion of the Ethangari, but the motif of successively more holy sanctums as one goes deeper into the shrine seems clear and universal. The room has but one other exit, though, and it leads to the right, not further back into the mountain.
Following the corridor leaving the room, they round a corner and come back toward the mountain face. There is a door to their right, and the corridor continues beyond.
They try the door, and find this one unlocked. It goes down a short hallway, and then opens into a small chamber, heavy with the scent of wood smoke. There is a sack of grain, a quern, and a recently-used griddle, with a small stack of wood near-by. There is an oven and a stew cauldron, and a few assorted pots and pans hanging from iron spikes driven into the stone walls. The ceiling above the fire pit is black with soot, but a fissure in the rock hints at a possible natural flue. There is a barrel half-full of water and a ladle, but no obvious source of the water itself.
A kitchen, and a hallway with doors
There is little else of interest in the room (63), but on a wooden shelf there are several brown woolen robes. Morgan puts one on, slipping it over her armor, but Ember shakes her head and no one else in the party dares. Morgan tells them to mark the room well, as it seems a defensible spot should they need to retreat and rest at some point.
Emerging back into the hallway, they proceed. The corridor splits, with one branch returning to the entry chamber and the other ending, but having three wooden doors along its length. Listening at the first door, they hear the voices of men engaged in casual conversation, but when they try the door, they find it barred from the inside. Immediately the men’s voices rise in alarm, and they begin shouting. A few seconds later the other doors open, men’s heads dart out and assess the situation, and the doors are rapidly closed again. More shouting, room to room, ensues, but it is all in Ethengari. The unmistakable sounds of metal-on-metal, of men arming and armoring, are heard. The party withdraws to the end of the corridor. Wolfbane casts her shield spell, preparing for the inevitable combat.
After many tense minutes, there is a commanding shout, and all three doors open at once. Fifteen men pour into the corridor, screaming zealous cries. The first three, from the nearest room, are clad in plate and shield, while the dozen at their back are in chain. All of the men have swords. The men in the lead charge Morgan, ignoring the rest of the party, who are arranged along both branches of the forking corridor.
The guardians of the shrine pour into the hall. To the left wait Odleif, Thrud, Ember, and Pooches – to the right, Morgan, Bhelgarn, Wolfbane, Poncherius, and Fluffy
Morgan is knocked back by the charge and has taken a few blows when Wolfbane fills the hallway with webs. She manages to ensnare the first three temple guards, the ones in plate, but Morgan and Pooches are caught up in the sticky strands as well and held immobile. As the men struggle in their bindings, just inches from Morgan but unable to reach her, they hurl curses at her in Ethengari. The webs completely block the corridor, so that the dozen men behind their leaders can do nothing for the time being.
Wolfbane and Fluffy, in the northern branch, draw their daggers and begin to cut Morgan out of the webs. Bhelgarn, nearby, is stuffing rags and stray bits of web into the tops of his oil flasks. In the eastern branch, Odleif tosses his boot knife to Ember, and the priestess tries to free Pooches without cutting the dog, who is struggling desperately and barking incessantly.
Poncherius, on guard at the rear of those in the northern branch, calls out “Scary people!” Bhelgarn looks up from his work and sees two men in robes crossing the open chamber with the statue. The dwarf drops his flasks, activates his boots, draws his sword, and charges the men, with Fluffy right behind him.
Ember succeeds in freeing Pooches from the webs and now turns her attention to Morgan, who is hurling curses in elven back at the temple guards. Wolfbane seizes one of the flasks dropped by Bhelgarn and throws it into the webs, only belatedly realizing that there is no source of fire at the moment. Odleif has the same idea, and is just about to toss his unlit lantern underhand into the webs at the base of the still-bound men, when he trips over Pooches, who is now leaping about the hallway in his excitement at being free. Odleif’s lantern crashes to the floor, spilling a large pool of oil in a big slick.
Ember cuts the last of the webs away from Morgan, and pulls her into the northern corridor, touching her breastplate briefly while whispering “Hjerte bedringens vei.”
As Bhelgarn crosses the chamber to attack the robed men, he hears a rumble. From beside him the statue of Cretia animates and strides across the grass. As he turns to look he sees the statue surrounded by a fiery glow and realizes it is not the statue, it is the god Cretia incarnate – arrived from hell to smite him, and carry his soul back to the pits! As the tunnels collapse and all his friends are buried in the rubble, Bhelgarn screams in panic, turns and dashes out of the shrine into the darkness of the night.
From her perch standing high atop the statue’s shoulders, Fluffy sees the Cretian priest cast a spell on Bhelgarn, sees the dwarf’s face twist in terror before he bolts away. The priest laughs wickedly. Fuffy stamps her foot angrily. “Stabby staaaaaab!” she shouts, leaping through the air and coming down with both daggers on the man who just scared her dwarf. Wolfbane shoots a ray from Zenobia’s scepter, paralyzing the other priest.
Morgan is at the edge of the webs, readying her sword to strike at the struggling guards, but Ember tells her to back away. Touching her thumbs together, Ember spreads her hands open, and a flame shoots from each digit in a wide arc in front of her. The temple guards scream as the flames hit them, then again as the webs around them catch, and burning, sticky strands fall across their bodies. Finally the burning webs collapse, dropping them onto the oil-soaked and now flaming floor. A second later the oil flask thrown by Wolfbane drops to the ground and explodes, splashing both the men and Ember with burning oil. The dozen guards who, moments before, had been pressed up tight against their entangled brothers, now back away from the conflagration.
Poncherius sees Bhelgarn disappear out the mouth of the cave. He retreats and grabs at Ember. “Kahina,” he says urgently, “Bhelgarn!” Ember turns away from the flames and the screams of the dying men and sees Fluffy and Wolfbane fighting the two priests, with no sign of the dwarf. She takes off down the hall, with Thrud just behind her.
Morgan stands with her sword at guard, warily watching the men waiting for the flames to die down so they can charge her. “Really, people?” she says, mostly to herself. “It takes six of you to fight two priests, but I get a dozen swordsmen by myself?” Behind her, she hears the creak of Odlief’s bow being drawn. ‘At least I have the woodsman and the dog,’ she muses to herself. ‘Now I just need a scarecrow and a lion and I’ll be unstoppable.’ To buy herself some time, she quickly sheathes her sword, then shoots her own webs over the flames and farther down the corridor.
Bhelgarn runs at double speed down the trail, then trips and screams again as the chasm rises up to swallow him. Shaking and sweating, he crawls gingerly along. Pebbles disturbed by him skitter and bounce off the trail edge down the side of the cliff face. Poncherius runs after him, calling, but Bhelgharn hears only the sound of Cretia screaming for his soul. Ember stands at the mouth of the cave, eyes straining into the darkness. Stars are out, but there is no moon to light the trail.
Fluffy takes down the priest she is fighting with, and Wolfbane stares at the paralyzed man in front of her. From down the hall, Odleif is calling for back-up. Outside, Poncherius is calling after Bhelgarn, and Ember has disappeared. With the combat still raging, she doesn’t have time to tie this man up – but how long will his paralysis last? Should she kill him now and be done with it? She imagines if she were him – is he conscious? Can he see her? Will he feel the blade? Odleif calls again, and Wolfbane gasps, draws her dagger, and sinks it into the neck of the priest, above his metal collar. He makes no sound, but blood spurts from the wound, staining her dagger and hand.
As the flames reach her new web, Morgan casts another, this time capturing five of the guards. By the time the fire has burned through the webs and men, there are only a half-dozen guards remaining, against her, Odleif, and Thrud.
As the battle rages in the hall outside the guard quarters, Wolfbane and Fluffy stand over the body of the paralyzed priest
It seems the more-experienced men were in front, and they clear the back ranks quickly. Sweating, crouching in the hallway to avoid the thick smoke, it seems the battle is over.
Poncherius, on two legs, finally catches up to Bhelgarn on all fours. He dives on the dwarf, grabs and holds him tightly. Bhelgharn struggles feebly, but mostly screams. Eventually his screams fade into sobs, and then, a few minutes later, he tells Poncherius he is alright now, he can let go.
By the time everyone is back in the corridor, the bodies of the priests and guards have been searched. Wolfbane has taken a heavy ring of iron keys from the priest she killed. Morgan has gone through the gear of the guards. The arms and armor are of fair quality, not exceptional, and now much of it has been marred by fire. One shield, however, borne by one of the trio from the first room, feels light to her touch. She raps it against the floor to test its strength, and at once the blood and soot fly off it as if she had plunged it into water. It now shines bright as if just polished.
When Ember is done healing them, Morgan included, Morgan presents her with the shield.
The doors are no longer bolted from the inside. The first room (62c) contains three beds, a table, and three comfortable chairs. On the table are spread dice and a few hundred coins, in gold, electrum, and silver. Thrud sweeps all of these into a bag while the others search the room. There is little of interest; clothing in small footlockers, whetstones, rags, sand, and oil.
The other two rooms (62a, 62b) contain six bunkbeds each, six chairs, and a table. The furnishings are of lesser quality than the first room, but serviceable. There are coins and dice on those tables as well, and these go into Thrud’s sack. Several of the mattresses (of straw-stuffed cotton) are moved into the first room, and then the party takes some time to move the seventeen bodies of the guards and priests into the last room. They set up camp in the first room, resting both for the evening, and for Ember to recover her healing spells.
Bhelgarn is unwounded and has infravision – he takes first watch in the hallway outside the room, after Wolfbane has cast invisibility on him.
The party camps in the quarters of the temple guards
[DM’s note: At day’s end: 54 skins, 8 food rations.]
(ninth full day since the expulsion of the dwarves)
Ember’s sleep is troubled by disturbing dreams. When she wakes in what she takes to be, with no external references, the middle of the night, she feels physically rested but emotionally drained. There are candles aplenty in the room and she lights one to meditate on the flame, spending an hour and a half in prayer. She feels the presence of her goddess, even in this cursed place, and she receives the spells for which she petitions – but they come as if from a long way off, and arrive without the guidance and encouragement to which she is accustomed. When she is done, she spreads the resulting eight orisons and two remedies among the most needy of the party.
Some four or five hours later the party begins to stir. Ember’s second rest has been as troubled as her first. She has received spells, though with equal effort as before. Those on watch confirm that while the torches in the hallways have long since burnt out, the statue chamber is dimly lit with the natural light of a new day. As breakfast is prepared, they take stock of their supplies – enough water for a day and a half, but their food will be gone with the evening meal. Morgan is hopeful that they will find food stores as they press on in the shrine today. She takes it as a good sign that there were no encounters in the night – they may have eliminated all of the guards in the shrine, or those that remain may be holed up with the “real Xanathon”, preparing for the final confrontation. In any event, there are apparently none patrolling, for it has been ten hours or more since their last fight and no one has seen or heard anything.
After Ember has used her full complement of spells they set out.
Moving north, they stop at the first locked door, where Wolfbane tries the ring of keys she recovered from the priest, and quickly finds one that fits the lock. Inside, (57a) the walls of the room are lined with huge bins that take up most of the floor space, allowing only a small area on which they may walk between them. The bins are filled, floor to ceiling, with yellow grain – months, perhaps years, of food for a small group like theirs. They immediately feel better about their supply situation. It is dry and dusty in the storage room, and they leave after a cursory inspection, before anyone can start sneezing.
The grain room
The next room (57b) opens to the same key. It is much the same, but only a third of the bins have grain in them, and even these are but half full. The party spends even less time here.
A second grain room, this one not full
The third room requires a different key, but Wolfbane does locate it on the ring. In this room (58), several dozen small casks are stored on a series of racks around the walls. They count 48 casks in all. Thrud hefts a cask down from the rack and sets it on the floor – Morgan removes the stopper from the bunghole. She sniffs at it and says that it is wine. A rather common grade, but, as she says, “any port in a storm.” The casks are small enough that Thrud can heft one on his shoulder, so after Morgan has replaced the stopper he takes it with them when they leave. He is slow carrying it, but no slower than Morgan in her plate armor.
The wine cask room
They set off down the unexplored corridor, using Bhelgarn’s sword to light their way. They soon arrive at a four way intersection. Their light shows that the northern branch turns a corner – while the other two branches disappear into darkness. They go down the short corridor, which turns into a locked door. As Wolfbane tries various keys, a fruity scent becomes noticeable. Inside the room (59) are several large tubs, two huge, tightly lidded vats, and a cluttered workbench. A sickly sweet odor fills the air. The tubs hold squashed grapes, and are the source of the odor; while the vats contain liquid in more advanced stages of fermentation. On the bench are a number of piles of herbs and some large bottles of liquids, ranging from a thick, blue syrup, to a watery reddish brew. The party is uninterested and retreats to the intersection.
They next try the long corridor to the south. A branch to the left leads to two doors. Although these have locks, they are not locked at the moment. In fact, their doors both stand open. The rooms are furnished simply and identically – each with two beds, a desk, a table, two chairs, and a small, stone statue of Cretia on the desk. The desks hold a few pieces of blank parchment, some old quills, and nearly empty bottles of ink. Under the mattress of one of the beds, Morgan does find a bone scroll tube, but the scroll inside is written in Ethengari.
Bedchambers of the priests
“Four beds,” says Morgan. “And we killed just two priests.”
“They may be away from the shrine at the moment,” suggests Ember.
“They may. Or they may be waiting with Xanathon deeper within. Let’s keep going.”
They round the corner, which ends in an unlocked door. When the door is opened, there is a moment of confusion, for behind it is a bare stone wall, as if the door frame was simply set into a small recess in the stone designed to hold it, and nothing more. But before this can register, there is a resounding clang as an iron portcullis crashes to the ground behind them. A few in the back ranks are able to leap out of the way, but poor Pooches is pinned to the stone floor under the portcullis, and commences to whine piteously. It takes Morgan, Thrud, and Odleif, working both sides of the portcullis together, to be able to lift it and free the dog.
A false door and a portcullis trap!
Once the portcullis is lifted, it takes only one of them to hold it up. Morgan remains in the hallway, taking the weight of the heavy iron gate on her shoulders. She tells Oldeif and Poncherius to investigate the false door for any winch or locking mechanism, while she sends the others back to the bedrooms for a bed frame with which to brace it. While she is waiting, Morgan notices something odd about the wall next to her. When the others return, and the portcullis is propped up with a heavy wooden bed frame and two chairs, she explores the wall by feel, and eventually finds the mechanism to trigger a secret door.
The narrow chamber beyond is completely bare. Morgan does not understand its purpose until she sees tiny holes in the wall. Not even as wide as arrow slits, they are just large enough to act as peep holes on to the corridor. So that, she concludes, whoever was in this chamber could spy on those trapped by the portcullis? Spy…and, she realizes, cast spells. But how would they get here to begin with? Some more searching reveals a second secret door – this one opening into the bedchamber.
The clever extent of the trap is revealed
With only one way deeper into the shrine, the party lines up at the intersection, but Morgan hesitates. “We may have cleared out the active defenders,” she muses, “but who knows how many more traps they have?” She organizes them along the hallway. The lead pair searches for traps as they go – probing with poles, and checking the walls, floor, and ceiling. Once they have advanced far enough so that they are spaced along an 80 foot section of the hall (including having just turned a corner (69a)), with ten feet or so between them, they each spend ten minutes checking their area for secret doors. Finding nothing, they advance another 80 feet and try again. By the time they have advanced a third 80 feet and turned a second corner, a four-way intersection and deeper recesses of the shrine lie ahead and Morgan calls them back into marching order.
What follows next begins as odd, progresses through eerie, and ends with some of them in dread. Taking the north branch, they find two bedrooms, similarly furnished to those of the priests, but one with no chairs and just a mattress on the floor in place of one bed. Rounding the corner beyond, they find a portcullis propped up with a bed frame and two chairs.
The cornered corridor leads to a parallel world?
At this point it is obvious that they are in some sort of reverse-image of where they were before. To test this, they go to the wine room and find that it is, indeed, missing one cask. Cooler heads think that they have just been turned around or disoriented. Fluffy seems more bored than concerned. Ember grins, tight-lipped, when anyone looks her way, but to herself mumbles “magic mirror…we are trapped in a magic mirror…”
When there is no doubt but that they are still in the shrine they were before, Morgan leads them back, back around the cornered corridor…and into the same hallways as before. Trying to calm the increasingly spooked group, she tells them that they will rest for a bit in the bedrooms of the priests. This is merely a work of magical trickery, and they will have to think their way past it. She will prepare Read Languages, in case the scroll she found offers some clue to defeat the trap, or perhaps they can find some glyphs or runes on the walls of the enchanted corridor, and Ember will pray for Sense Magic, in the hope that she can find the source of the effect or a way around it.
Midway through their four-hour rest, grumbling stomachs call for their mid-day meal, and they even get to eat it “at table”. They all note their dwindling supplies of food and water. Thrud shares his wine cask liberally with his companions, but Morgan is not in the mood to partake. Fluffy tries to feel her forehead for fever until Morgan swats the halfling away.
Morgan is still pouring over her spellbook when Ember announces that she is ready. She removes a long-unseen and carefully-guarded piece of chalk from her pack, and takes Pooches and Poncherius with her – one for his eyes, and one for his nose, she says. Once out of the bedrooms and away from the lantern light, Ember calls forth the a flame from her essence in her palm. She hopes that by the light of her goddess she may be able to see something that was hidden before.
Ember burns her own essence to light the way
Ember chants her orison of sense magic and starts off down the hallway, Pooches and Poncherius following her closely. As she approaches the corner, she can definitely feel the tingling of an enchantment. The feeling mounts and mounts until she turns the corner, then begins to lessen. She turns back to mark a note on the wall with her chalk – and sees that Pooches and Poncherius are no longer behind her – in fact, they are nowhere to be seen in the hallway!
Poncherius and Pooches follow the priestess a few steps behind, the flickering light from her palm just enough to keep Poncherius’ eyes from truly adjusting to the dark. She rounds the corner in front of them – and her light goes out! Poncherius dashes around the corner, but she is not there. Pooches, feeling the anxiety of his companion, sniffs the ground, circles a few times, then begins to bark in alarm.
Ember moves back and forth in the area of the corner, still sensing the magic but unsure of its source. Down the hallway in front of her, she can hear Pooches barking. Behind her, she finds the hallway she came from is gone. In its place is a stone stairway descending into darkness. She advances to the first stair and increases the intensity of her light. The darkness below seems impenetrable, but it smells dank. She shudders.
In the bedroom, Thrud hears Pooches barking. Cursing himself for letting Ember explore while he guarded the party, he dashes his wine cup to the floor and bolts into the hallway. Reaching Poncherius and Pooches, he demands answers, but the dog only barks and Poncherius is so flustered he has lost his Common. Thrud curses again and bellows Ember’s name at the top of his lungs. When he pauses, he can barely hear her calling back over the sound of Pooches’ barking.
Ember retreats from the stairwell. She begins using her chalk to draw on the floor. She goes around the corner again, toward the sound of the barking, and then answers Thrud’s shout when she hears it. She continues down the hall, going slowly, sensing for magic, drawing an unbroken line of chalk, and holding her flame aloft. Eventually she makes it back to the corner, where the party is gathering. She pulls up her chalk and they return to the bedroom to discuss.
Ember begins with the magic that she sensed at the corner – at both corners. Once Poncherius has his command of Common back, he explains that Ember disappeared in the moment she went around the corner. There is talk about the staircase, and the corridor. Morgan explores the corridor by the light of Bhelgarn’s sword, but finds no runes to read. She does note that no matter how many times she advances down the corridor, she always returns to where the party is waiting.
Slowly a hypothesis is developed, a map sketched out in chalk on the stone of the bedroom floor. What if, when someone turns the near corner (65a), they are instantly transported without knowing, to the far corner (65b)? Then, should they continue, they would eventually return to where they started from. But, if as soon as they turned the corner, they immediately turned around – would they then be able to find the staircase, as Ember did?
With people spread out along the hallway, this approach is tried – and, one by one, they each find themselves in front of the stairway leading down into darkness…
If the secret of the corridor is known, a stairway down can be accessed…