The women of the party, plus the still-prostrate Hazrad, spend several hours in the lair of the Madaruans. They eat and drink, and rest. The warrior maidens open chests and take out sleeping rolls, and several of the party lie down or even sleep, especially after some of the maidens do as well. Fluffykitty moves happily among the maidens, letting them feed her and brush her hair. Morgan stays by the side of the leader, asking her questions through Hazrad.
Asked about the Magi and the Brotherhood, Hazrad translates that the Maidens are at war with them. Asked about the Zargonites, the leader says that they are especially at war with them and are desirous of the party’s help in attacking them. Apparently they have a stronghold on a lower level of the period which the Maidens want the party to destroy. That accomplished, they would like to lead the party to the Undercity to join with the main group of Maidens, which supplies this outpost on a rotating basis. Asked about the population of the Undercity, the leader says it has many, many hands of people – apparently a higher number than can be said in their language. Asked whether there is any possibility of uniting with the other factions against the Zargonites, the leader ushers the other maidens away, and says quite privately to Morgan that that is not her decision to make, but that the Maiden hierarchy in the Undercity might be open to the possibility.
The party as a whole feels quite optimistic. They are in a much better position now then when they rested in the ape room. They have food, and drink, and allies. Rather than being outmatched by the creatures they face, only two of the party members have not leveled once, and a few have leveled twice. They are confident that they have completely explored the third level of the pyramid, and Remmy has given them some more intelligence, albeit vague, on the fourth level. They feel ready to face the Zargonites and whatever else awaits them on the levels below. The only nagging concern is that of obtaining spells. Morgan feels ready to attempt learning another spell; Iris and Wolfbane will be able to soon, they are sure. The Usamigares men surely have spellbooks and scrolls, but by allying with the Maidens, the party has made it rather unlikely they can obtain anything from the men through peaceful exchange. A few voices in the party suggest a raid against the Magi, but there are just as many voices against that idea, with Odleif being particularly vociferous.
For the time being, the arcane spell casters decide to simply exchange spells. Ember offers ink and a few quills. They are good quality, but not nearly as fine as those typically used to scribe scrolls or spell books. Iris attempts to write Sleep in her book, but fails to copy the intricacies of the magical script. Morgan uses Iris’ book to copy Magic Missile. She thinks she has done an adequate job, but several hours of study later reveal that she is not able to commit the spell to memory. Both women work with the lantern as low as possible, for the Madaruans make it known, as soon as it is polite, that the light bothers them.
After resting, Morgan asks whether the Madarauns will join with the party in fighting the Zargonites. Through Hazrad, the Maidens leader explains that they are some sort of “watch post” here in the upper levels of the pyramid, and they won’t be able to leave until they are relieved from the Undercity below. However, she does agree to send two Maidens with the party as guides to find the Zargonites.
With the Maidens in the lead, the party passes through the rotating corridor and down the ramp of the defaced temple to the fourth level. The Maidens seem surprised at the giant jester head sprung out of the opened coffin. From there they pass through hallways familiar to the party, passing in front of the rat room, the boulder trap, and beyond down the hall where the party had not gone. Everyone is impressed by the length of the corridor, and by how large the fourth level is compared to the third. They pass one open corridor to the right that goes off into darkness and a closed stone door on the left. Finally the Maidens pause, perplexed. At a corner in the hallway, a huge boulder is wedged, lodged firmly. It has been hewn so as to be perfectly round. Of course the party (except for Remmy) knows its origin, but the Maidens explain that they have never seen it before, and that it blocks the only way they know forward. When questioned by Hazrad, they reveal that perhaps their leader (named Pandora) knows an alternate route, but that they have only been trained to travel from the Undercity to their quarters in the pyramid by a single path.
Remmy scales the side of the boulder, gaining leverage by wedging himself between it and the wall, and just manages to slip over top of it in the narrow gap between it and the ceiling. He suggests that if he lets down a rope the rest of the party can follow him over it, but Bhelgarn is dubious he could squeeze through.
Morgan shakes her head. “We passed a hallway back there,” she says. “It has to go somewhere. We double back and see if we can’t recover the trail.”
The party returns to the previously unexplored hallway. Now that the Maidens are on unfamiliar ground, they give way to Morgan. Ninety-some feet from the intersection, the corridor dead-ends.
It doesn’t take Morgan long to find the mechanism for opening the secret door. What lies in the room beyond, however, stops her in her tracks. The room is filled with skeletons. The bones lie in piles on the floor. They cover the floor so thickly that it is impossible to walk
across the room without walking on bones. The walls are unadorned; there is a normal stone pivot door on the same wall as the secret door, and another directly across from it on the far wall.
Looking over Morgan’s shoulder, Remmy says, “Oh, I’ve been here.”
“What?” she responds incredulously. “Did you cross? Were you attacked?”
“Oh no, the bones don’t move. Look, I even burnt one to test it.” Remmy points at a skull near the door, which is indeed blackened with soot.
“Which doors did you use?” Morgan demands.
“I came in through this secret door, and left through the far door…I think.”
Remmy shrugs. “I didn’t make a map. And it was my first day in from the desert. I was pretty thirsty, you know.”
Morgan shakes her head while the others mill about the doorway, trying to see in but not wanting to go in. Finally Bhelgarn strides forward. “No dwarf worth the name is afeared of some bones…” he declares, and takes several steps into the room. He pauses, looking back over his shoulder. “Of course, I would not mind if any o’ye wanted to come with…”
Iris goes in next, Pooches beside her, oblivious to the fear and dread of the party. He happily snuffs at the bones and selects a long femur to gnaw on. Iris stoops to retrieve a skull and holds it up to the lantern-light in the doorway. Examining it, she decides “Human,” and picks up another, and another. “Human,” and “human. All of them human, as far as I can tell.”
Bhelgarn grunts and shuffles through the piled bones. A faint dry dust swirls around his boots as the bones click and clack out of the way. Hazrad, his face as impassive as ever, follows the dwarf across the room and out the far door.
Remmy takes the lantern from Fluffykitty and proceeds as well. Once through the door the three go down a hall, past a door, and round a corner. The hallway then continues farther than they can see. But, somewhere up ahead in the darkness, is the faint but unmistakeable sound of scales sliding over stone – something large and serpentine.
Remmy immediately heads back to re-unite with the party, while Bhelgarn and Hazrad adopt a defensive position at the corridor corner. Eventually, the entire party crosses the bone room, though none with enthusiasm. The Maidens carry FluffyKitty rather than have her walk through the bones, which would be above her calves at least.
In the hallway, the party listens for quite some time, then Iris sends her cat down the hall. It returns a few minutes later, not agitated in the least. When she goes to the end of the hall, she can see the faintest trace of warmth on the stone floor from where the serpents past, but then the lantern arrives on the scene and spoils her vision.
The party coalesces in front of the door to one of the rooms. Hazrad, Remmy, and Bhelgarn push it open and enter.
The room contains several large tables. Around the walls on shelves are a number of large jars and casks. There is a bin in the northwest corner of the room. Hazrad nods and makes his way over to the shelves. The lantern light flickers and dances, creating shadows from the men and shadows from the tables. As the rest of the party watches from the door, some of the shadows detach themselves from the tables and begin gliding silently across the floor at Hazrad.
They shout a warning and the three men turn. The shadows are halfway across the room from them, but are gaining swiftly. They run for the door, arriving just before the shadows reach them and bolting into the hall. As the stone door pivots slowly back into place, they hear no sound but stone scraping against stone.
Morgan shudders. “Forget rooms, we are searching for a trail.” They continue to the intersection. The Maidens ask for the light to be turned down and spend a few minutes examining the hallway. They seem confident that they have recovered their way and can resume leading the party. Once they are in front, the lantern is turned back up and Ember takes out the map that was found in the noblewoman’s burial chamber. The shape of the hallways and locations of the doors seem to fit – the Maidens are now leading them down a hall that will, if Ember is correct, turn a corner and take them to the large “X” on the map. They pass a door, right where the map indicates one, and then turn that corner.
Halfway down another long corridor is where the “X” marks, but Ember doesn’t see anything. The Warrior Maidens stop and begin examining the lefthand wall. One of them finds a small stone and presses it – there is a grinding sound and a large section of the floor slides away. In a three foot square depression is a stone block with a large bronze handle bolted through the center and huge bronze hinges on one edge. One Warrior Maiden lifts the handle and the block angles open, revealing an iron ladder descending into a shaft of darkness. The second Maiden motions to the party to follow, and begins her descent of the ladder.
One by one the party members follow. While Iris works on a rope harness for Pooches, Ember uses her chalk to circle the trigger-stone on the wall. Eventually all the party are down, and the second Maiden lets the trap door close above her.
The ladder is only twenty feet high and the rest of the party are bumping elbows in a small square room at its base. After a moment’s search, the Maidens have located a secret door on the wall and opened it for the party. Ember chalks the outline of the door before she passes through.
The room beyond contains a bed, a table, a chair, a lantern, and a wooden holy symbol of two intertwined snakes. The furniture is made of wood. A hooded white robe is draped over the chair. Except for the furniture and the robe, the room appears to be empty.
Odleif manages to see that the main line of traffic in the rooms moves directly from the secret door to an obvious exit across the room before the party spreads out and obscures traces. Remmy and Wolfbane both make directly for the robe, but the mage arrives first and lifts it up to examine it. Those standing nearby wonder if they hear a “whooshing” noise, or whether it was just there imagination. Ember takes the lantern from the table. Wolfbane puts on the robe, adjusts it to her slim frame, points at the door, and immediately begins walking toward it. Hazrad barely has time to confirm with the Maidens that the door is indeed their destination before Wolfbane is pressing her slight frame against the stone to open it. As the rest of the party moves into file behind her, Iris asks, “You guys know there is another secret door in that corner, right?” but no one even looks over their shoulder.
The next room appears to be an abandoned kitchen and dining room combination. The cupboards, table, and chairs are covered with a thin layer of dust. Near the table, two large snakes with brown and yellow scales are coiled around the body of a woman wearing a rabbit mask.
Wolfbane moves cautiously to the wall and begins edging her way around the snakes. Morgan and the two maidens charge in, hoping to rescue the woman. Immediately the two snakes loosen their grips and assume defensive postures. They move with preternatural speed.
While one snake engages the women, Bhelgarn and Hazrad attack the other. The snake actually feints a strike, pulls back, and pounces on the unprepared Hazrad, wrapping him in its thick coils. His face goes blue and he passes out.
Ember rushes to the side of the woman, but it is obvious she is dead – with most of her rib cage broken. The next few minutes are frantic combat and trying to rescue Hazrad. The snake on him is killed, and the other turns to flee but is cut down. Wolfbane doesn’t pause to see about Hazrad before she is out the door, while Ember quickly applies her heart mending. Bhelgarn searches the body of the woman and recovers a necklace, a water bottle, and a small pouch. A few of the party poke their heads into the kitchen part of the room but no one has time to search before Morgan calls them back.
The Maidens are gesturing at the door and making running motions. “I think they are saying we need to get through the next room quickly. Hazrad, can you walk?”
The nomad is just sitting up, and looking about wearily. “Of course mistress, Al-Khalim be praised…” he mumbles.
When the party opens the door, they barely have time to see Wolfbane exiting through the next door. “So when did she get darkvision” Morgan wonders aloud as she leads the party forward.
The room they are moving through looks like a living room . It contains wall hangings and ornate divans. There are several pieces of sculpture in the room, as well as an iron statue of a warrior on each side of the doorway just inside the room . Everything is covered by a thin layer of dust except for a clear trail from one door to the next.
The Maidens point at the statues and encourage the party to move faster until they are through the next door. Wolfbane waits for them at the end of a short hall.
As Morgan draws up to her, she switches to Darokite. “OK mage, just what do you think you are…” but the woman turns her back on Morgan and enters the next room. Exasperated, Morgan beckons at the party to follow.
The room is paneled with wood, and a dusty carpet covers the floor. A large, heavy desk sits in the center of the room. Several wooden chairs are grouped north of the desk. Behind the desk is a large plush chair, while behind the chair on the south wall is a mounted lion’s head. Four large painted urns stand in the corners of the room. Finally, on both sides of the north doorway are stone pedestals with stone statues of winged beasts with claws, fangs, and horns.
Wolfbane is headed for the desk on one side of the room, but the Maidens, upon entry, begin heading for the door. The party splits, trying not to lose the Maidens or Wolfbane.
Wolfbane is attempting to open a cabinet in the desk, but finds it locked. Remmy steps up next to her and pulls out a curious set of small metal instruments, but he appears unable to open it as well. Iris, halfway across the room, attempts to identify the statues, but can come up with no name for them.
The statues begin to move, slowly and stiffly at first, but quickly becoming more fluid. The Maidens make motions to indicate that the party should try to draw them into the middle of the room and then make a run for it.
Thrud stares at the advancing statues as they hobble forward. Standing upright, they are taller than he is, and they spread their wings menacingly. “Knulle dette!” the barbarian swears, and shoves Remmy roughly out of the way. He brings his great axe up and over his head, and then down through the center of the desk, which explodes into fragments. A mix of splintered wood fragments atop a pile of strangely colored coins is all that remains.
The Maidens are acting like bear-baiters, egging the statues on with their spears, but falling back whenever they advance, while the rest of the party makes for the door. Wolfbane stoops and pulls a metal mace out of the shambles of the desk, while Remmy grabs a flask of some sort. Everyone else is in motion; he permits himself one rueful glance at the large pile of coins before he too flees.
Most of the party is at or through the door but Hazrad is moving slow, still disoriented from having his breath squeezed out from him by the snakes. A statue bears down on him, but Bhelgarn shoves him out of the way. In response, the statue savages the dwarf, ripping in to him with fangs, claws and horns. More than a few of the party are wounded by the time they make it through the door, but for some reason the statues do not pursue.
Wolfbane has paused in the corridor beyond just long enough to see that everyone has made it through, but is ignoring the questions and comments whispered at her. She turns and begins moving down the hallway, pausing only when she reaches a four way intersection. Gingerly she eases herself around the corner to the left without stepping on the floor of the intersection itself. The Maidens do the same without hesitation, so the rest of the party follows suit. Iris goes last, encouraging Pooches, next to last, to run and jump from one hallway to the next.
As the party reorganizes themselves in the hall, the sound of heavy boots marching in unison echoes toward them. The Maidens pull them back from the intersection and watch. A large group of men has come down the west hall opposite the party, but have turned at the intersection and are now headed south. The Maidens hold a hurried conversation with Hazrad, telling him that a Brotherhood contingent is coming from the Undercity to replace the ones in the pyramid. They must leave the party to warn Pandora before the Brotherhood men find that everyone in their watch above has been slain. The ask Madarua to protect the party. One Maiden kneels next to FluffyKtity. She lifts her mask for just long enough to kiss the halfling on the forehead, but in doing so reveals her strange features – the alabaster skin, the black eyes of entirely pupil set in an otherwise serene and feminine face.
The Maidens are not even around the corner on the trail of the Brotherhood men when Wolfbane sets off again. Down the hall, taking the left branch of a T-intersection, opening a secret door, taking the right branch of the hallway beyond, around a corner, down another hall…
“I don’t like this, I don’t like this…” mutters Morgan. “Our guides are gone and who knows what has happened to Wolfbane…Where is she taking us?”
“Trust in your kismit,” says Hazrad to her. “She is certainly taking us somewhere.” The desert nomad smiles enigmatically.
Just then Wolfbane stops. There is just a short section of corridor left before a door. Cautiously she eases her foot forward across the stone floor. Suddenly the walls of the hall begin to move, crashing together with alarming speed and force. Wolfbane darts back out of harms way; the shock of impact when the walls slam together is felt even in the back of the party. The walls then begin to slowly resume their open position, much more slowly than they closed. Wolfbane takes the opportunity to dart between them and reaches the far door. Half of the party is behind her, while the other half hang back. Hazrad, who saw where the mage stepped, holds back the others, most of whom were around the corner and did not even see. When Wolfbane opens the far door to proceed, Hazrad triggers the wall trap again, then waits for it to open as she did to lead the others through.
The room beyond is large and dark. Ten men wearing black robes and masks of fearsome,
imaginary (?) monsters sit in a circle on the floor in the center of the room. From their perspective, the walls and corners of the room are deep in shadow as if they were on a vast, featureless, dark plain. They are each staring straight ahead, but don ’t seem to be looking at anything in particular, or at one another. They are silent, and take as little notice of the party as Wolfbane does of them as she crosses the room to the far door. A second door is on the distant opposite wall.
When the party is about halfway across the room, one of the men gives a desperate, fearful cry, and falls over on his side. Everyone in the party jumps, even Wolfbane, but the other men seem not to notice. The man lays slumped on his side, knees drawn up to his chest, whining pitifully. Wolfbane gives him the briefest of glances before continuing on to the door.
As she strains to push open the pivoting stone, the sounds of conversation spill out from the next room. At first it sounds light, almost merry, but as the party follows her they realize there is a desperate, giddy edge to it.
A dozen brightly robed men and woman, masked as various animals are playing games of chance in the room beyond. Card games are being played at one table, dice games at an other. In the center of the room is a large wheel of fortune. Many silver and gold coins,
gems, and pieces of jewelry are changing hands as people win and lose. The people seem to be having fun, but there is an edge to their laughter that is not pleasant. They are not oblivious to the party, but mostly they react by gathering up their coins or looking quickly over their shoulder. No one attempts to engage the party in any way.
Wolfbane strides through the center of the crowd, ignoring them and proceeding directly to the south wall. There, she begins studying the stonework as if looking for something.
The wall opens and a man strides out, his mask of a horned, tentacled creature with gem eyes. Behind him well-armed hobgoblins surge forward, weapons drawn.
Wolfbane begins a spell as the party rushes forward to engage. Arrows fly, swords flash. The leader of the hobgoblins is paralyzed by a spell from Wolfbane and several hobgoblins are slain. Many in the party are wounded before the masked man falls to the ground, dead from Wolfbane’s mace. The remaining hobgoblins flee. The curious white robe spontaneously disintegrates and Wolfbane swoons, then falls. All the while the gamblers continue – not oblivious, but playing all the more so as not to react to the violence.
As the party binds wounds and searches bodies, a growing sense of dread comes over them. A distant “smash” indicates that the hobgoblins have made it past the crashing walls. There is a gasp from a card player, and a few shouts and accusations of cheating. Morgan surveys the party – they did alright, but are in no condition for another battle. They cannot wait here for the hobgoblins to return with reinforcements. “Grab the leader’s mask, and let’s go!” she commands.
Wolfbane is up and walking, but appears to have no memory of where they are or what is going on. The others shush her questions. She has left the mace lying on the ground, but Ember gathers it up as they retreat.
In the dark room there is a brief debate as to whether to try the far door or continue down the hall. The hall wins. They pass through the crashing walls – two more loud bangs echo through the pyramid. Poorly-bound wounds mean that some of the party are leaving a blood trail down the hall, mixing with that of the hobgoblins before them. “Keep going,” urges Morgan, “we need to hole up somewhere safer than the hallway.”
She is unprepared for what is beyond the next door, though. The room is huge, cavernous. It is safe to say just this one room is larger than the entire first level of the pyramid. It is obviously a place of worship. They are entering from the back, atop a large dais that fills the entire southern end of the room. Near a stone altar lie three large statues that look like the ones on top of the pyramid. The statues have been toppled from their bases and lie in huge sections and boulder-sized pieces of arms, legs, heads, and torsos. On each side of a broad center aisle are rows of high-backed wooden benches. Narrow aisles along the walls run past ornate mosaics to two small fountains set into the walls. The back of the room lies beyond the range of the lantern light.
Morgan sends scouts into the room while the wounded come forward. “Big enough to get lost in…” she murmurs. “This might do.” Nothing moving is within lantern light. She guides the party to a spot below the dais. Using the dais to shield their back, the rubble of the statues one flank and the fountain the other, they have only their front exposed. Iris’ cat seems fine with the water in the fountain, so she orders skins to be filled. “All watches have someone with infravision,” she orders, “but all lights are out for us. If we stay quiet, maybe we won’t be noticed. Everyone protect Ember – we need her rested to heal us up to get out of here.”
Hours go by. Sitting on the stone floor, surrounded by darkness. The gentle lapping of the fountain, the heavy breathing of the party. A few moments of relief, as Ember says her prayers and heals some of them. A few moments of terror, when they are attacked by giant tiger beetles. They kill one and drive the rest off, but now there are even more wounded than before. A few moments of trepidation, when the scouts report two figures walking down the center aisle, mounting the dais, and leaving through the door without noticing them.
Morgan turns the captured mask over in her hands, briefly considers putting it on, rejects the idea. ‘Success," right here in her hands. She has proof that they have defeated the Zargonites, just as requested by the Maidens. They can return as allies. Food, bed rolls, a safe place to rest. All of this is, as far as she can reckon, just sixty feet directly over her head. Only they can’t get there. Just Ember and Thrud are not wounded now. Half of them would not survive a single claw-swipe from the statues. They could try to race by, but odds are someone would get tagged. And then go down. And then be left behind to die, or be defended by the party – with the only result being more of them going down. And that is just the one statue room. The Maidens had them run through another room, as well. Who knows what is in that. No, they can’t go back. Not yet.
Of course, they can’t stay here. The Tiger Beetles showed that. Wandering monsters will get them wounded faster than Ember can heal them. One by one, they will succumb – and anyone unconscious means that the whole party is effectively immobile. No, they can’t stay here. Nor for that matter can they go elsewhere – exploring unknown rooms in their state? No way.
Morgan turns the mask over and thinks. She does not share her thoughts with the party. She reflects on how they started out – so confident they could beat some Zargonites and return as friends to the Maidens. It seemed like a good idea at the time.