Zelcor usually didn’t mind standing in line so much, but this was getting ridiculous. “Hey,” he said, “I learned the fly spell while we were preparing to come here. Why I don’t I just cast that and we’ll fly to the top!”
“Because we’re trying to be inconspicuous!” Scratchy hissed, “And be quiet!”
Though the party had officially reached Kaer Maga, there was still the matter of ascending the thousand-foot Storval Rise to get to the city itself. There was a circuitous overland route that followed a canyon until it was shallow enough to climb the walls, then turned around and led back to the city, but it took several days on foot; similarly, there were magical ways up the cliff for those who had the means, but they drew a great deal of undue attention. For most people, including the party, the best way up the rise was something called the Halflight Path.
The Halflight Path was a convenience spawned from yet another odd feature of the city of Kaer Maga: beneath it was a warren of catacombs stretching all the way down to the bottom of the Storval Rise, and by most accounts even further, eventually connecting to the vast and shadowy network of caverns known as the Darklands. As far as human scholarship was concerned, there were no complete maps of the catacombs, owing to the fact that those who entered tended to end up dead, or insane, or some horrible combination of the two. Nevertheless, over time many courageous and persistent individuals had managed to mark off a path through the catacombs from the bottom of the cliff to the city itself. Branching hallways were walled off, and a organization of guardians called the Duskwardens performed regular patrols to ensure the path stayed clear. This was the Halflight Path: the quickest non-magical way to reach Kaer Maga from the river, and one which was only a little likely to result in your being gruesomely dismembered by some alien abomination
“Quickest”, however, was a relative term. The Duskwardens only let one small group through at a time, each accompanied by a guide. When traders were coming through, as was the case that day, the wait could last for hours. Milacent, resigned to the situation, sat down in the shade and began oiling her various weapons. She and Helanda were just discussing the finer points of blade maintenance when they were noticed by a passing Duskwarden.
“You know how to use those?” he asked.
“Yes I do,” Milacent answered. “Need something killed?”
“Hopefully not, but if you’re interested in doing a little guard work I can let you in now.”
There was no need to ask twice. The Duskwarden introduced himself as Abra Lopati, and the party hustled behind him to the front of the line, where a fat merchant was complaining loudly about the lack of protection for his goods.
“… certainly worth much more than your sorry hide! And if you think I’m going to go into this dark tunnel with only you for protection, especially after the fee I’ve paid, you’ve got to …”
“Look, I’ve got some adventurers that can serve as your extra guards. Just pay their fee and we can be on our way.”
“What?? I pay them too? How much more blood do you plan on squeezing from me?”
“Do you want them or not? There are lots of people behind you who’d be more than happy to take your place if you don’t.”
The merchant looked Milacent and friends up and down, then grudgingly handed over the fee, an easily-afforded two gold pieces per person. He then motioned to his two sons to start pushing his cart full of goods, and angrily demanded they get under way.
“In a minute, but first you get the speech,” Abra replied. He cleared his throat and began, “The Halflight path is regularly patrolled, but the catacombs it passes through are still far from safe. When we are passing through, you will not leave the path for any reason. We have walled off all branching passageways; you will not attempt to breach these walls. You will speak as little as possible, and there will be absolute silence if I call for it. Does everyone agree to these terms?”
“Hey, is there treasure in the catacombs?” asked Scratchy.
“Not now,” advised Milacent.
Once everyone agreed to the terms, the Twisted Door opened. This was a huge set of bronze double doors embedded in the rock face that served as the entrance to the Halflight Path. Looking at it, its edges seemed to twist and warp, and it was embossed with strange runes in a language nobody knew. Even when Theodora cast a comprehend languages spell, their meaning remained opaque.
“Remember, quiet,” said Abra, and then he, the party, and the merchant and his two sons advanced into the gloom.
The Halflight Path was a riot of conflicting styles. In some places, it passed through a natural cave system. In others, it was a worked stone tunnel elaborately decorated with pillars and frescoes. At some points it emerged onto the rock face, giving spectacular views of the river below. At other points it passed through vast chambers whose walls were polished mirror-smooth. And there were noises. Not many, but every now and then there would be a groan coming from somewhere far off, beyond the barred doors and bricked-off passages. Sometimes it would be much, much closer, and Abra would order everyone to go completely silent.
About an hour into the ascent the little band was passing through a long, straight passage with elaborate carvings on its walls. The right wall, in particular, depicted a falling star wreaking havoc on a humanoid populace. In the center of the carving was an enormous archway carved with leering skulls partially obscured by vines. This archway was bricked up, but the work was shoddy; several bricks were broken or sticking out at right angles. When Abra saw this, he stopped the party immediately. “That’s not right,” he muttered, and everyone had a feeling of what was coming next.
An instant later, the wall of bricks exploded outward, and something large slithered out. Three large things, actually, and the adventurers saw with horror that they were seugathi, the giant wormlike mind-controlling creatures that they had met one of beneath the Lady’s Light.
“Get away!” shouted Scratchy, who was soon on his wolf and fleeing back down the tunnel. The others tried to follow, but the seugathi’s mind fog was already spreading around them. The merchant and his sons succumbed immediately, striking out at each other with their bare hands. Zelcor and Theodora emerged successfully, somewhat dazed but still in control of their faculties. Milacent felt her mind fill with rage and struck out at someone, she didn’t know who. Then, suddenly, she felt a calming influence come over her. The rage gone, she realized it was the effect of the Seducer’s Bane that she had bought in Magnimar, and with a thankful word she rushed out of the mind fog and the seugathi’s aura of madness.
That still left Abra and Helanda stumbling about within range of the monsters’ mind-controlling effects. Helanda found herself lucid for an instant, only to look up and see one of the seugathi almost upon her. She lashed out at it with her sword, and it backed off a bit, then responded by waving a wand it was holding it its tail. A magic missile shot out toward Helanda, bypassing the armor that she’d hoped would keep her alive. The other two seugathi began to lift similar wands, and Helanda felt a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.
Theodora, feeling desperate, pulled out one of the magical treasures they had looted from the Lady’s Light: an elemental gem, and hurled it at the seugathi. Where it smashed against the ground a large humanoid form emerged from the rock. It was an earth elemental, which Theodora figured would be a great addition to the fight against the seugathis. Until she realized it was just as vulnerable to mind control as everyone else, and with a curse she dismissed it.
Milacent looked around and saw an arrow fly out from Scratchy’s bow toward the monsters. At the same time she saw Abra crawling away from the seugathi, and Zelcor cast a web spell to ensnare them. For the first time, she felt a twinge of hope. The creatures wouldn’t be held long by the web, but it would slow them down enough for the party to get a significant number of arrows in them. Likewise, if Helanda stayed fighting them up front, she would buy everyone a little bit more time: if only she wasn’t defeated right away.
That last part, unfortunately, was not to be. Helanda collapsed under a barrage of magic missiles. Seeing this, Milacent and Scratchy, now joined by Abra, fired volley after volley of arrows into the seugathi. Milacent realized happily that the person she had stabbed at the beginning of the fight hadn’t been a person at all, but one of the creatures. It had a large gash in its side where Milacent had struck it, and it fell quickly to the rain of arrows. Its two friends extricated themselves from the web and began to move forward, but it was not so simple. Their large size meant they were blocked by the cart, and the fat merchant who still stood on top of it. They killed him, but the delay was enough time for another one of them to fall to the party’s arrows. The last one now realized it wouldn’t be able to get close enough to the party to subject them to its mind fog, and alone it didn’t have sufficient killing power to defeat them at a distance. It turned to flee, only to see Zelcor’s web blocking its escape. Unable to win and unable to escape, it resolved that the final moments of its life would be spent performing one final petty act of viciousness: killing Zelcor’s riding dog, which was still befuddled in the mind fog.
“No!” Zelcor yelled, “I just got that one!”
But it was too late. The dog died, and soon after the last seugathi did too. Theodora rushed forward to cast healing spells on Helanda, and managed to save her life. The merchant’s two sons had beaten each other senseless, but they could be healed, at least physically. The mind fog had also scrambled their minds, and it would be some time before they were mentally whole again, if ever. The dog and the merchant, on the other hand, were very much dead. While Zelcor moped about his lost pet, everyone was considerably less sad about the merchant.
“That guy was an asshole!” Scratchy proclaimed, then set about searching the dead seugathi for treasure.
They made it the rest of the way without incident, and when they reached the top of the rise Abra immediately informed the Duskwardens there of what had happened. They began a spirited discussion of the expedition that would have to be mounted to re-seal the passage, and how long the path would have to be closed before it could be certified safe again. Abra, however, broke off from it briefly to talk to the party.
“That was good work you did,” he told them, “I owe you my life, as do these two boys. Here, take this as a show of my gratitude.” He handed them a dark blue amulet suspended from a black cord. “It’s a Greater Halflight Charm. It’ll help you see in the dark, but more importantly once a year you can use it to call me to your aid. After that fight, it’s the least I can do. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to my duties.”
The party accepted the gift, then looked around. They had emerged from the path at a stone bunker just outside the city. Staring up at the obsidian walls, Theodora couldn’t help but be a little bit portentous. “Welcome to Kaer Maga,” she announced, “The Asylum Stone.”