“Hello, I would like to purchase a riding dog.”
The gnomish animal seller climbed down from his perch to regard this strange other gnome who had just approached him. “Do I know you?” he asked.
“Oh no,” said Zelcor, adjusting his fake mustache, “we have never met. My name is Belcor, and I have never been to this city in my life. Perhaps you are thinking of my cousin. He is known throughout Varisia for not taking care of his riding dogs. I, however, have never had one bloodily devoured by a hell beast in the Cinderlands, nor left behind in a collapsing nightmare demiplane, nor torn to shreds by faceless monstrosities in the shadow of the Lady’s Light. I take great care of my riding dogs!”
“Well, okay. Come this way and I’ll show you the finest riding dogs in Kaer Maga.”
The story of how the party found itself in Kaer Maga began several days before, as they woke up from their rest near Guiltspur.
“I have something to tell you,” Zelcor said to Theodora, who was no longer angry.
“I have something to tell you too,” Theodora replied, picking fleas out of her hair. The party had made the questionable decision to bed down on the ex-chieftain’s sleeping furs.
“You go first.”
“No, you go first!”
“Let’s go together!”
“I can finally cast a Teleport spell!” they said in unison.
The spell was important because it solved a problem they’d been discussing since the day before: What were they going to do about the curse on the next shard? The Shard of Wrath’s effects on Theodora had been inconvenient, but if they’d persisted for more than a day they would’ve been much worse. The next one was the Shard of Sloth, and the last thing they needed was whoever held it to be sleeping all day. Without the Teleport spell, it would take too long to travel back to civilization to get the ioun stone needed to neutralize the curse, but with it …
The decision was made to teleport back to Kaer Maga, not Magnimar, because that city was closer and teleportation to it would be more reliable. Theodora had spent enough time in the library of Heidmarch Manor and talking to the staff there that she knew what stone they needed, and if it wasn’t for sale somewhere she and Zelcor could synthesize one in about a week. The trip would also give them a chance to spend some of the treasure they had looted from the chieftain’s throne room. Scratchy was particularly interested in getting dragonbane arrows.
When everything was ready, Zelcor, Theodora, Helanda and Milacent all gathered together to teleport to Kaer Maga. The spell could only take four people at a time, so Scratchy and Togbad stayed behind to watch over the horses.
Wait a minute, thought Zelcor, those horses were tied up right next to my dog. Why did the hell beast take my dog and not them? And them the spell took effect and he was gone.
A week later, the four of them reappeared in Guiltspur, clean and laden with equipment. Milacent brought Scratchy his dragonbane arrows and various weapon blanches, but had questions about the other large bundle she had brought.
“How are you going to carry around a thousand normal arrows?” she asked.
“In my bag of holding,” Scratchy answered, and began placing them inside.
With their preparations complete, the party returned to the circular room that the giants had dubbed the Pit of Monsters. Unlike the giants, they had a plan for how they would kill the things below. In the absence of stairs, there was only one way to get everyone down the pit, and so Milacent and Helanda leapt off into the middle of the circular abyss, followed by Zelcor, Theodora, and Togbad. The gnomish sorcerer’s magic quickly slowed their fall, and they floated down safely through the fog that demarcated the room below.
Scratchy was already down there, having climbed stealthily down the wall. He nervously eyed the scorpion creatures he had seen on his last trip down here, and noted they had not moved at all since the week before. With more time to take in the details, it seemed to him they were not actual scorpions but some kind of construct made of bone, and all across their bodies were adorned dozens of skulls. Not skulls carved into their shells, but actual skulls of humanoids affixed to their bodies for some unknown purpose.
There was no time to wonder about the skulls, however, for the rest of the party had suddenly appeared through the fog and was descending into the room. Milacent landed in the center, directly between the two scorpion creatures, and everyone else landed at varying distances behind her. Scratchy began firing arrows, and the fight began.
The creatures ended their stillness as soon as the party landed, lunging forward to strike at the intruders. Milacent lashed out with her spine flail, hoping to trip the scorpion nearest her. She took out two of its legs, but it had four more and advanced unimpeded. It raised its enormous pincers and grabbed at Milacent: she dodged away from one, but the other one clamped shut around her right arm, and even her great strength was not enough to break away. In the meantime, its compatriot climbed over the one of the shelves and began stabbing at her with its tail.
Theodora saw this and knew that Milacent was not in a great situation, but she was tough; he could focus on killing the scorpions instead of rushing up to heal her right away. He began firing magic missiles into the nearest one while Zelcor showered it with acid. Togbad, upon seeing the scorpions, screamed and tried to run away, promptly smashing loudly into a shelf.
Milacent saw all this, plus Helanda wading into melee, and knew that these creatures were not long for this world. Still, they had her held tight and could attack her at will. Pincers slashed at her neck, causing deep gashes that fortunately didn’t cut her windpipe. She tried to dodge, then parry the blows, but she hoped that the party would finish the things quickly, because there was an alarming amount of blood flowing down over her breastplate.
And then it was over. The creature holding her released its grip as magic blew it apart, and the other one teetered backward as Helanda finished it off.
“It was trying … to take off my head,” Milacent gasped to Theodora as she started healing her, then glanced over at the skulls adorning the scorpions and realized how they’d gotten there.
After healing Milacent Theodora touched the body of one of the scorpion things. “These are called Skull Rippers!” she announced to no one in particular. Scratchy was already scouring the room for treasure. The shelves’ contents had mostly turned to dust, but there were various oddities remaining which might bring a respectable amount of coin if they were sold in a city.
Scratchy was examining a jar containing some sort of embalmed sea creature when he saw something out of the corner of his eye. When he turned to look, it was gone, but he’d been in enough dungeons to know not to ignore strange things you only might have seen. He pulled out a Rod of Enemy Detection, a useful item he’d bought the last time they were in Magnimar and scanned the area. It pulsed weakly and seemed to switch directions with astounding rapidity. Well, it’ll keep detecting for ten more minutes, he thought to himself, and tucked it in his pocket.
With the library cleared and looted it was time to check the exits from the room. There were four sets of doors, but three of them were blocked by rock walls, evidently the remains of long-cooled lava flows. The remaining door led to the south, so the party headed that way. The passage led to a hexagonal room, and as soon as the party entered it they heard a voice speaking in Thassilonian:
“Welcome to the Hall of Arcane Wonder. Please treat all exhibits with care and respect, and do not attempt unsanctioned interactions within. Enjoy your visit!”
“I sanction all our interactions!” Scratchy declared, “especially the taking of things!”
Theodora, meanwhile, was examining the statues that stood upon daises in each corner of the room. They didn’t radiate magic, thankfully, but they were strange ones nonetheless. Each was a six-foot-tall woman dressed in a short robe and wielding a silvery sword. They all had four short wings (the lower pair of each being small and atrophied), and most oddly, smooth surfaces where their faces should have been.
“Something about this,” Theodora muttered to herself, “I can’t quite remember …”
The rest of the party ignored her as they went off to view the exhibits the voice had mentioned. The entry room branched off into three other hexagonal rooms, each with an item of interest. In one there was a faceless sphinx, its hindquarters buried beneath a wall of hardened lava. In another there was what appeared to be a fireball frozen in time a moment after exploding; the party gave that one a wide berth. In the third room, sitting atop a fifteen-foot-wide circular dais, was what appeared to be a fragment of some colossal stone carriage. The piece on display, however, did not impress the party as much as the magic radiating from small alcoves sent in the side of the dais.
Mindful of traps, Zelcor proceeded to pull the items towards himself with magic. First he took a serpent mask of beaten gold with amethyst eyes, not magical but definitely valuable. Then he pulled a mummified snake. It crumbled upon being moved but in the dust left behind there was an incandescent blue sphere ioun stone, which Zelcor pulled into his hand.
“Isn’t this the same kind of stone we need for the Shard of Sloth?” Zelcor asked.
“Yes it is,” Theodora replied, “we spent a whole week in Kaer Maga for nothing.”
“Not for nothing – I got a new riding dog!”
The rest of the items were on the far side of the dais were they couldn’t be pulled, so Scratchy went off to retrieve them as sneakily as possible. He was about a third of the way there when the Rod of Enemy Detection he’d tucked in his belt began to pulse violently. He took it out and it pointed itself into a wall.
“Guys!” he shouted, “something’s coming! Get ready!”
Everyone pulled out their weapons, and a moment later the translucent form of a handsome, elderly man dressed in blue robes emerged from the wall.
“Thieves!” it cried, “Have you no respect? Return the exhibits at once!”
His entreaty was answered with weapons. Scratchy, in particular, had learned a new trick since the party had fought shadows and other incorporeal opponents beneath Windsong Abbey. Going through the storerooms of Heidmarch Manor, he’d found a supply of ghost salt, an alchemical concoction that, when applied to weapons, let them do full damage to creatures with no physical form like a ghost. Now he pulled out his supply of arrows coated with ghost salt and let them fly.
The ghost was at first indignant, then outraged at the party’s refusal to obey his commands. Dodging aside a strike from Helanda, he raised his hand and a mass of black tentacles emerged from the floor, grasping at everyone inside the room (but not Scratchy, who had gone forward a respectable distance from everyone else).
Milacent shoved her way through the mass of tentacles and struck at the ghost, the magic of her weapon harming it some, but not as much as it would have with ghost salt. Scratchy continued to fire away, and Helanda and Togbad tried to strike as well. Zelcor, on the other hand, was tied down by tentacles and increasingly feeling distressed. Theodora made her way to him and helped him get free of the tentacles, then the two of them turned and tried to get out of the slimy, grasping mass.
The ghost, meanwhile, was feeling the sting of Scratchy’s arrows plus the undeadbane sword that Helanda brandished. In a fit of desperation, it lunged toward Helanda, its form devolving into wispy strands that wrapped around her, then began to sink into her skin. Suddenly, the strands shuddered as they were repelled from Helanda’s body. The former Gray Maiden didn’t know it, but a cloak of protection they’d picked up Kaer Maga had just saved her from a possession attempt.
Its last gambit failed, the ghost was soon destroyed. The party regrouped and asked Theodora to heal the minor damage they’d suffered from fight.
“Wait, where’s Theodora?” Scratchy asked. A short search revealed she was in the room with the faceless sphinx, staring at it intently.
“I ran into here to get away from the tentacles,” Theodora said, noticing their curiosity. “I guess I got too close to the sphinx, because suddenly I found myself among the stars, in a vast inky darkness. And there was something there with me. Something dark and evil. And it called itself the Crawling Chaos.” A slight shiver ran down her spine as she finished the story.
“Oh, that’s weird,” Scratchy answered quietly, remembering his own vision from earlier. Then he decided to change the subject. “On the bright side, the curator’s dead. We can take anything we want!”